Mike Portnoy; the man of many bands, awards and experiences, has conjured the magic of old songs up to create a phenomenal tour of musical celebration; The Shattered Fortress. For those not familiar with what this means, the ex-Dream Theater drummer is featuring, amongst others, 5 songs written over 5 albums that aided and expressed a battle against himself with alcoholism. This is known as The 12 Step Suite. Mike speaks of the tour and other events within his active and creative life…
Hey Mike, so great to have you talk with Wall of Sound!
“My pleasure man, thanks for having me.”
Where are you at the moment? Relaxing a little bit before the Australian tour starts?
“Yeah I’m back at home in Pennsylvania. Just got home from South America about a week ago. A little bit more time before I leave for Australia so I’m just enjoying being home with the family.”
That’s really nice to hear. We’re definitely excited for you! In terms of perspective for you, is ‘The 12 Step Suite‘ an emotional expression for alcoholism or has it just turned into fun music now?
“When I wrote it back in, I guess between 2001 to 2008, it was all about the message and the lyrics and my battle with sobriety and working the steps, so I was fully immersed in that mind set. But now here we are, it’s almost 15 years later since I started it.”
“When I’m playing this stuff now on tour I’m not even thinking about the lyrics; I’ve been thinking more about the emotion of just performing this Dream Theater material. Not only The 12 Step Suite but the other songs that are in the set. To me when doing these shows it’s more about the emotion of visiting a musical piece of my past and sharing the experience with the fans.”
When you started writing the songs, was it intentional to write them over 5 albums or was it something you decided to do after the first song?
“When I started writing ‘The Glass Prison,’ (Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence) which is the first piece to the puzzle, even though it’s a 13-minute song, I still knew it wasn’t big enough to cover all 12 steps. I looked at the music and it was composed in three movements for that song. So, I figured you know what? Why not break up the steps over the course of several songs.”
“I’ll start with the first 3 steps in ‘The Glass Prison’ and then I had this idea of creating an ongoing concept piece over the course of the next 4 albums, 5 albums in total. 5 songs over the course of maybe 8 years or so. 60 minutes of music, so it’s almost like a concept album within itself.”
The lyrical content has very interesting themes and features. There’s a section in ‘The Shattered Fortress’ (Black Clouds and Silver Linings) close to the end of the song; you’ve got an adaption of The Prayer of Saint Francis. I think that was a really awesome thing to add but where did that adaption come from?
“Help me be a channel of Thy peace
That where there is hatred, I may bring love;
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
That where there is error, I may bring truth;
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith
That where there is despair, I may bring hope;
That where there are shadows, I may bring light
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy
That I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.
That I may seek to understand than to be understood
That I may seek to love, rather than to be loved,
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds,
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven”
“The main thing that really helped fuel me throughout writing all of these lyrics is what we call in the program The Big Book; the big book of alcoholics anonymous. That was really important for me to get all the step work done the right way. When you work the steps and realise you have to do it with a sponsor, it’s recommended to do it right out of The Big Book.”
“I kind of had to work the steps lyrically right out of The Big Book as well. So there’s a lot of prayers all throughout these songs, a lot of sayings that come out of the runes of alcoholics anonymous. The opening of the entire thing is “cutting, baffling, powerful,” which is straight out of the program and then the closing of the entire thing is ‘I am responsible and anyone anywhere reaches out for help I want my hand to be there.’ That’s right out of the program as well. I really had to utilise a lot of those tools, phrases and words to help do the step work on paper.”
Most of the projects you do these days seem to be collaborations from different bands; you’ll take a drummer from X band and a guitarist from Y band. On this tour, you’ve taken predominantly guys from just the Haken band. Why have you done that?
“I think the main reason is, maybe 2015, Haken was touring in America and my son’s band Next To None was touring with them as the opening band. I was on the road with them and they asked at the last show if I would come up and play ‘The Mirror’ (Awake) with them, which is one of my old Dream Theater songs.”
“So I went up and we played ‘The Mirror’ as the last song of the tour and they just nailed it so perfectly that right there and then, I said to myself, if I ever do The 12 Step Suite, this is my band. The only other addition is we added Eric Gillette on guitar as well because Eric plays with me in The Neal Morse Band and Eric really reminds me so much of John Petrucci in terms of his technique and the way he plays that I knew he’d nail all of the lead parts. It was as simple as that. I couldn’t have asked for a better unit.”
Everything on The Shattered Fortress setlist is from, besides The 12 Step Suite obviously and ‘The Mirror’, Scenes From A Memory. Why have you picked all of the songs from this album?
“The first thing I did was decide I was only going to play songs that I wrote the lyrics to. I didn’t want to be performing any of the other guys’ lyrics. That narrowed the set-list down to about maybe thirty choices or so. Originally I wanted to do ‘A Change of Seasons’, which was a song that I wrote for my Mum when she died in a plane crash. Sadly, then I found out that Dream Theater were doing it on their current tour. I didn’t want to be doing it if they were doing it. Then basically I started looking at what would be a great opener and I knew that the opening from ‘Scenes From a Memory’ is a great opener and I knew that the closing of ‘Scenes From A Memory’ would be a great encore. I knew that I wanted to include ‘The Mirror,’ because like I mentioned earlier I played it with Haken and it is also thematically very similar to The 12 Step Suite so that kind of wrote the set-list there.”
“I stayed away from any of the Derek Sherinian era music because inevitably we’ll be doing some of that with Sons of Apollo. You could think of all the songs that aren’t there, but when you witness the concert, start to finish, it really feels incredible and complete.”
With Haken performing with you, have they added any flavours to the music or has it generally just been a replica of the albums?
“No, they are being true to what was written as they should be in this particular case. I’m trying to deliver this music to the fans that never got to hear it so it needs to be as perfect as possible and they honestly really deliver with such incredible, not only precision but passion as well. They grew up with these songs as well as fans so they really love his music just as much as anybody in the audience does.”
“I will say one difference is that we have a wall of guitars because we have three guitars. We’re able to have Charlie Griffiths and Richard Henshall from Haken panned left and right to create this solid, solid stereo rhythm guitar track and then Eric doing all the leads up the middle. It really brings the album guitar mix to life on stage which of course we were never able to do in Dream Theater with one guitar player. In this case you’re getting an even closer replica to what’s on the record live than ever before.”
‘The 12 Step Suite’ and the other songs coming with The Shattered Fortress Tour are fantastic, but I’m just as focused on Sons of Apollo. What gave you the urge to write more slippery prog grooves again as opposed to the other rock music you’ve been doing?
“I think it was The Shattered Fortress shows. It kind of wet my appetite to get back into the world of what I used to do with Dream Theater and I think it wet the fans’ appetite as well. Anyone who has seen The Shattered Fortress show in America, Europe or South America; they’re loving seeing me play this type of music again.”
“I think it was the right time for Sons of Apollo and for me and Derek to re-unite and finally get this new band off the ground. Even though we formed the band trying to do something very progressive metal, once we started writing together it ended up going many, many different places. There’s just as many hard rock or classic rock elements in Son of Apollo. It ended up becoming a band that really covers a lot more ground than just the prog metal stereotype.”
You’ve given some flags for Flying Colours, Metal Allegiance and The Neal Morse Band doing new material soon. How close are we to seeing new material released from these bands?
“The Metal Allegiance album is almost finished. We have 10 songs and 5 of them are completely finished with the guest vocalists. Now we’re just waiting for the other remaining guest vocalists. That album will be out, I guess, probably spring or summer (March -September) 2018.”
“The Neal Morse Band; we’re going to get together in January, right before I leave with Sons of Apollo. We’re going to get to work on a new album which I assume will see the light of day at the end of 2018.”
“Then Flying Colours, we started writing for last year. We wrote 7 songs and we’ve been patiently waiting to reconvene to write a few more then get that album started. So that one, of the three, is the least planned in terms of having a timeline. I wouldn’t expect that in 2018 but hopefully the year after.”
With all of these bands, you really do get to work with so many amazing musicians and that’s something that most of us can’t really relate to. There’s definitely nothing wrong with that, but it’s a little unclear what drives you these days. I guess my question is, what is your career aspiration at the moment?
“The first part of your question I just want to quickly address. People have trouble grasping how and why I play with so many bands. To me it’s not unusual; it’s a natural thing. If I was an actor or an actress, I wouldn’t want to play in one role for the rest of my life or have the same director for the rest of my life, I would want to work with many different people and many different directors, playing many different roles. I see being a musician no different from that. I want to work with many different people in many different styles.”
“To answer your main question: what are my aspirations? At this point, to be honest, I feel incredibly fulfilled in my career. I’ve worked with everybody that I wanted to work with, played every venue I wanted to play, toured with every band I’ve wanted to tour with and I’ve won every drum award I could have wanted to win. I’m just grateful to continue doing it.”
“My main aspirations at this point are more personal ones. Right now, I live to watch my kids grow up and maybe eventually have kids of their own and see them get married. Those are the kinds of aspirations that I have in my life now; more personal than what they are career or music orientated.”
It’s really humbling to hear you speaking like that. I’ve got one more question that I would love to ask: what artists are you interested in at the moment. New artists more in particular?
“Oh man, well my tastes are very broad. I love everything from hardcore metal stuff; I love the new Code Orange album and Deadcross with Dave Lombardo and Mike Patton, so for heavier stuff, I dig what they do. I love a lot of the younger prog bands. I really like Caligula’s Horse from Australia and The Contortionist from here in America. There’s this band called Greta Van Fleet that sound a lot like early Led Zeppelin, I dig them. It’s everything from prog to metal to classic rock but off the top of my head, those are a few right there.”
I love hearing guys at your age and experience still keeping an ear out for the new music that is being created. Anyway Mike, thanks for the chat. I’m really looking forward to seeing you guys coming down!
“Yeah me too man!”
Interview by Kurt Boldy
Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress Tour
Saturday 18th November – Brisbane – The Tivoli
Monday 20th November – Perth – Astor Theatre
Wednesday 22nd November – Adelaide – The Gov
Friday 24th November – Sydney – Metro Theatre
Saturday 25th November – Melbourne – The Croxton