“Life is too short to not be with the people you love and play the music that is part of your life and your heart and soul.”Mike Portnoy on coming home to Dream Theater
Five years ago, Mike Portnoy “wouldn’t have put money” on ever rejoining Dream Theater, the band he co-founded almost 40 years ago. His departure in 2010 may have been outlined by tension and discontent, but the five members have rekindled their friendships and the band is feeling more confident than ever.
In his first full on-camera interview since rejoining DT, Portnoy talks about the emotions and process behind coming back into the fold, his sentiments toward Mike Mangini, and if there’s a new album in the works.
(Bonus: He also plays through some Dream Theater classics that he hasn’t touched since he left the band!)
“It’s been thirteen years and I think time heals all wounds, as the expression goes. It’s been many years now of rekindling my relationships with the guys, starting with John Petrucci.
His wife and my wife were in a band together even before we knew our wives, our kids have grown up together, my daughter and John Petrucci’s daughter shared an apartment together in New York for the last 5 years…the families were still close, so John and I inevitably reconnected on a personal level.
I guess it really started to gain some traction during COVID lockdown because I couldn’t tour and Dream Theater couldn’t tour, so John decided he wanted to do a solo album and he asked me to play on it. A few months later, I did a [Liquid Tension Experiment] album with John and Jordan [Rudess], so that brought three of us back together. And then the following year, I ended up doing John’s solo tour and our wives’ bands were opening for us…so it just seemed like it was all starting to come together on a personal level and then the musical level as well.
I think the final piece was me reconnecting with James LaBrie, because James and I hadn’t spoken in over a decade. I went to see Dream Theater play in New York around 2022 and that was my first time seeing James in over a decade…within five seconds of seeing each other it was huge, kisses…and it was like any of the drama and bullshit that happened during all of those years of the split, it just melted away immediately.
With James and I buddying up again, it kind of just began to seem like an inevitability. It wasn’t ever in either of our plans to eventually reunite. In fact, if you would’ve asked me this five years ago, I probably wouldn’t have put money on it. But with the developments of everything…it just seems like we’re in the right place and the right time at this stage of our lives.
All those years of Dream Theater…we were in our 20s and 30s and 40s. And here we are – most of us in our 50s and some of the members in their 60s – and it just seems like life is too short to not be with the people you love and play the music that is part of your life and your heart and soul.”
On how the news was announced to the public:
“It was nice to see something like this happen…taking the high road and class and grace and dignity and not, you know, a war of words and drama and BS. This was really handled so well and I have to give Mike Mangini all the credit in the world for that, because it’s not easy being replaced…he handled it really well and the things he said were so classy…it couldn’t have come off any better.”
On comments from fans speculating on a 2022 photo of Portnoy and Mangini together:
“I was friends with [Mike Mangini] before he knew any of the guys in Dream Theater. He and I were friends in the ’90s when he was still playing in Extreme…we would do clinics together and stuff. He’s an old friend and I could never get mad at the guy for taking the gig. I mean, how could you not? It was a great opportunity and a great gig, so…it was nice when all those resentments and all that stuff melted away because it was a tough couple of years in the start of the split.
On his previous role in the band vs. his role now:
“I think it was the one discussion that John Petrucci and I had. We still to this point haven’t talked about business or money or finances or any of that. It was all about “okay, we know we love each other, we know we want to play together again, but what is the ‘new dynamic’ gonna be?
Because for all those first 25 years, John and I produced the albums together, we kind of led the band together – I was handling the bulk of the responsibilities and decision-making and things like that – so when I left the band I was very much a control freak. And [after leaving] obviously they’ve had to redesign their inner structure and how they function and how they work – I think John produces the albums himself now – so it remains to be seen how the ‘new old’ Dream Theater will function, but I think we’re all older and wiser.
When I left the band 13 years ago, I was a control freak. Absolutely. I’ll be the first to admit it. And I think as time has gone on I’ve loosened up on all that. All the bands [he’s played with since leaving Dream Theater] I’ve had to learn how to compromise, how to collaborate, how to let go of things. I’ve even had these hired gun gigs with Twisted [Sister] and Avenged [Sevenfold] where I just played drums, so we’re just going to have to find our feet in the new dynamic.
I think there will be many areas that I hope I could regain some control – like writing the setlists was always a big one for me – but then there’s other areas that I’m more than happy to step away and not even be involved with. Designing the artwork or the merchandise. I’d be happy to not write any lyrics again. You gotta pick your battles and I guess we’ll find our feet and see where everybody kind of fits into the structure.”
“I have some remaining commitments this year…but [soon] the focus for me is going to be Dream Theater and we’re gonna move into the studio and start work on the new album. And it remains to be seen where and when the first gig or gigs will be, but that’s what I’m most excited for.
I cannot wait to be on the stage again in front of the most devoted fan base in the world. The energy and the excitement at that first gig–I’m getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it–I’ve dreamt about it. The last 13 years or so…I’ve probably dreamt 100 times about what it would be like to be back in Dream Theater or to play that first show back, so it’s gonna be amazing to finally actually do it.”
On playing Dream Theater songs again:
“It’s weird ’cause I haven’t played them in forever. And to be honest, I haven’t listened to them in forever because for those 13 years, listening to Dream Theater was a little difficult for me. To be honest, it kind of broke my heart…so now it’s nice I can actually listen to it again and enjoy it again. It’s like riding a bicycle – it’s in there for life.”
On his playing style and the “Portnoy cliche”:
“I’m the one that’s played [the hand-to-foot quads] out for sure, but I would say I probably got it from Terry Bozzio. I was a big fan of Terry, starting with his stuff with Zappa, which really took me to another level of musical knowledge and appreciation. Zappa’s diversity and the polyrhythms and all that stuff…
But I still loved everything Terry did beyond that. For instance, the UK album Danger Money was a huge influence for me. Also the first Missing Persons album, Spring Session M. There’s a lot of [hand-to-foot quads]. It’s become kind of the ‘Mike Portnoy cliche’ at this point, but I think I copped it from Terry first.”
On what he’s been up to the last 13 years:
“Before coming back to Dream Theater, I think the list of bands that I was currently in as of a few months ago was around 6 or 7. The busiest would’ve been The Winery Dogs – that really consumed all of my 2023 and I’m still wrapping up the cycle with them.
I have three different bands with Neal Morse. We started Transatlantic back in ’99, then we started Flying Colors around 2011, so we have those two ‘bands’, but I have been working with Neal as a solo artist since [the Dream Theater days]. Neal and I have made [approximately] 50 albums together. The albums I made with the Neal Morse band are some of the best things I have done over the last 13 years.
Then there’s Sons Of Apollo – we did two albums. I played with Twisted Sister for their last two years of touring before they retired, which was a lot of fun. There was a picture in my high school yearbook wearing a Twisted Sister shirt, so to be playing drums with them for their farewell tour was an amazing experience.
Metal Allegiance is more of a part-time thing ’cause it’s made up of guys from other bands. That’s kind of my thrash metal outlet, with David Ellefson and Alex Skolnick and Mark Menghi; the four of us are kind of the core writers. But through the years and the shows and the albums, we’ve had everybody from Anthrax, Pantera, Testament, Megadeth, Exodus, Overkill, Sepultura…it’s like a who’s who of the thrash metal world. So for me that’s always been a fun thing and a great outlet for my metal side.”
“The Rev [Avenged Sevenfold’s drummer] passed in December of 2009, and it was only a few weeks after the funeral that they secretly met with me and asked me to do the album. And then it was only a few weeks after that that we actually started work on it. The wounds were very fresh at that point so it was a very emotional record to make.
Those guys were still very much in mourning, but they wanted to make this record because the Rev had written and demoed the whole thing with them – so it was unfinished business and they really wanted to do it for him, to finish up his vision. And my job was to come in there and bring his vision to life.
I had all of the demos for all of those songs with the Rev playing on an electronic kit, in some cases even singing the melodies and things like that. But my job for that album was to be as faithful as possible to Rev’s drum parts on the demos (which were kind of undeveloped because I think he planned on really developing the parts in the studio) so it was more of just the blueprint, so I had to follow that blueprint as closely as possible.
But then they gave me some free rein to sprinkle my own personality on top as well. Great experience doing that album with those guys – it was an honor.”
“You know with Dream Theater, more is more! I famously had those giant monster drum kits with Dream Theater so there’s no way I’m not gonna have that.
After all those years of the massive Siamese Monster and Albino Monster and Purple Monster, it was refreshing to go to The Winery Dogs and just play a Bonham setup. All the stuff I do with Neal Morse, that’s more of a traditional 8-piece kit, one kick, three rack, two floors.
One of the fun things playing in all these bands over the last 13 years is every one of them had different setups and different kits so it kept me on my toes and kept it refreshing and inspiring to be surrounded by different kits for each different band.
But going back to Dream Theater I gotta go bigger. TAMA is shaking in their boots right now. ‘We’re gonna have to hire more people to build more drums!'”
If you’re a fan of Mike Portnoy’s drumming, check out all the drumless tracks and transcriptions in the Drumeo members area with a 7-day free trial – there’s tons of Dream Theater and Winery Dogs!
Edited by Sam Landa, Content Marketing Manager at Drumeo
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