The Satisfaction of Coming Full Circle: A Mike Portnoy Interview

MIKE PORTNOY of SHATTERED FORTRESS: The Satisfaction of Coming Full Circle
An interview by Sarah Kidd.

Mike Portnoy's Shattered Fortress.

Mike Portnoy is one of a kind. Co-founder and drummer for Dream Theater for twenty-five years his proficiencies when it comes to the skins are second to none. Of course when a musician is just that good, they often feel the need to spread their wings in several different directions – which is exactly what Portnoy has done creating several side projects and tribute bands such as Liquid Tension Experiment, Adrenaline Mob, The Winery Dogs and of course his latest project which is primed to set the world on fire, Sons of Apollo.

Celebrating his fiftieth birthday this year, it seemed like the perfect time for Portnoy to complete one of his desired goals; to finally play the Twelve-step Suite, written during his time with Dream Theater, live and loud. However, make no mistake; Shattered Fortress is not another band or side project – it is an unparalleled event, one that at the end of this year will no longer be able to be witnessed as Portnoy forever puts it to rest. Luckily for New Zealand, Portnoy has decided to bring this once in a lifetime event to Auckland!

Featuring the members of Haken along with Neal Morse Band guitar master Eric Gillette, this is one night of legendary prog metal that you do not want to miss. With this in mind, I recently spoke with Mike Portnoy about the ideas behind Shattered Fortress and just how he keeps everything on the go…

The 12 Step Suite is pretty infamous amongst fans, however in your own words can you please explain what these five songs that make up the 12 Step Suite encompass?

“Well back in 2001 I was newly sober and I wanted to start writing about the 12 Steps and how they were changing my life. We had written a song called ‘The Glass Prison’ – although it wasn’t called ‘The Glass Prison’ at the time it was just a thirteen minute song with no lyrics – and I decided that that would be a good starting point. But I knew wouldn’t be able to get all 12 steps in one song, so I decided to just start with the first three steps for that song.

Then I had this idea that over the course of the next couple of albums writing about the next steps on each album, and ultimately it ended up taking five albums over the course of eight years for me to finish the project and going through all twelve [steps]. At that point I sadly left Dream Theater and never had the chance to put the five songs together in their entirety which was always my intention. So long story short here we are! It’s this year that I turn fifty and there was a big 50th concert for me on Cruise to the Edge and that was the time I decided to finally put these songs together and get some closure; not only for myself but for the fans as well and do some select shows throughout the world. You know we went to Europe to South America and now we will finish off in Australia/ New Zealand”

When you originally finished the piece were you relieved, as I can imagine it would have begun to feel like a bit of a cross around your neck after a while?

“Yeah absolutely – by the time I got around to parts 10, 11 and 12 you know it was seven or eight years later and it definitely felt like homework at that point [laughs]. I just wanted to be done with it, so yeah there was an incredible feeling of relief to finally complete it and finish it. But there was still that feeling of unfinished business having never played it live, so finally I am getting that satisfaction with these shows!”

Now out of the five songs, which in particular did you find the most difficult because the whole piece is a very personal journey?

“Well I will say that the first two songs ‘The Glass Prison’ and ‘This Dying Soul’ – you put them together and that’s twenty-five minutes of music right there between the two songs! They are both incredibly heavy and intense, so performance wise playing those two back to back is definitely difficult physically but then you have a song like ‘Repentance’ which is very, very moody and mellow and a very fitful song but filled with emotion. I actually sing lead vocals on it when we play it live so for me that is probably the most personal one because I’m singing it on this tour. So yeah there are different emotions, some of them are more physically demanding, some of them are more emotionally demanding”

Which would you say is the piece that you are most proud of either musically or lyrically?

“Well I would say the completion of the entire thing with the song ‘The Shattered Fortress’ is very satisfying because basically the whole song is made up of riffs, or lyrics or melodies from the preceding four and it was a way to really wrap things up. You know there is such a great feeling when we come around at the end of the song – sixty minutes later in the concept piece – to the opening riff of ‘The Glass Prison’. There’s an incredible feeling of satisfaction to finally wrap it all up!”

Along with the 12 Step Suite you will also be playing a selection of Dream Theater songs – how do you choose from such an array and do you adjust them according to the country or place that you are in?

“No the set list is static, only because this is not an ongoing band or each time we come through we can offer a different show – this is a one time only experience so I want the set list to be consistent for everybody who gets to see it. But basically I started by narrowing it down to songs that I wrote the lyrics to, so there is maybe thirty songs or so in the Dream Theater catalogue that are mine.

I started with just picking from those and I initially wanted to do ‘A Change of Seasons’ as the encore and then I found out that Dream Theater are currently doing it so I didn’t want to be doing it at that point if they were. So I had to pick some other things, but without giving away the set list for people that don’t like spoilers I kinda knew how I wanted to open the show and I knew what I wanted for the encore so between the start of the show and the encore – putting the 12 Step Suite in the middle – it kinda wrote itself so when you see the show you’re getting a very complete experience from start to finish. It’s a very satisfying set list when you see the show!”

I understand how you arrived at the musicians that you play with on this tour – but when looking at the 12 Step Suite – do they themselves have a personal connection with the songs?

“Honestly I don’t think anybody in the band are looking at the lyrics so much as they are really concentrating on the music, I mean other than Ross – obviously Ross is singing all the lyrics along with me – but otherwise I think the rest of the band are more focused on delivering this music as close to possible as the original and nailing the parts playing it with precision, playing it with passion.

And it’s the same for me to be honest at this stage, I’m not so much thinking about the lyrics either or the message or the concept! I’m thinking more about ‘Oh wow, this is really weird to be playing Dream Theater music again’. I’m getting swept up in the emotion of revisiting the material to begin with so for me it’s about revisiting the material. I think for the rest of the band it’s about executing it as perfectly as possible for the fans and the audiences experience and luckily everyone in the band grew up with this music and are fans of it so their able to really pull it together with a lot of conviction and passion”

Mike Portnoy

Originally Shattered Fortress was only supposed to be a couple of special events and now you have taken it on the road with quite an extensive tour schedule! Has that taken away in any shape or form from what it was originally supposed to be or do you feel with multiple performances it’s actually added to it?

“Yeah I think it’s added to it to be honest because I think there’s a lot of fans in Australia or Brazil or Germany or whatever that couldn’t make the 50th birthday party on the cruise – it’s either too expensive or too far away. So the 50th Birthday thing was special in its own way because we not only did the 12 Step Suite, but I played with Flying Colors and I played with Transatlantic … and I played the Liquid Tension music!

So that show was unique enough in its own way that anybody that was there was really part of something special but now being able to do these Shattered Fortress shows in select cities around the world I think it’s a great thing to be able to share. It’s been great to able to go to South America and go all throughout Europe and to be able to come back to New York City where Dream Theater is from; so I’m ultimately glad that I’ve been able to squeeze in these extra shows. I think it’s been a neat thing for everybody to be able to experience”

Well New Zealand is as about as far away as you can get so Mike Portnoy and Dream Theater fans are certainly pleased that you are coming all the way down here!

“Well I’m glad that I was offered! You know I pretty much went where I was made an offer so I’m glad that we’re finally able to return down there”

Does it feel like you are celebrating a yearlong birthday?

[laughs] “Absolutely! It totally does!”

As co-founder of Dream Theater do you still see them as one of the most important progressive metal bands of all time?

“I see my time in the band as important [mutual laughter] I will only comment on my twenty-five years in the band; you know I think what we were doing when we came around was definitely out of fashion and we spent many, many, many, many many years working our asses off to help make it in fashion!

I spent twenty-five years, that’s a quarter of a century, half of my lifetime working my ass off every single day for that band and it wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always where the band is now. It was always a rollercoaster ride but yeah I look back at my legacy with Dream Theater as being something that I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for. We were able to pave the way not only for ourselves but for the genre in general, so yeah I have a lot of gratitude for that and when it’s appreciated – especially my time in the band – when it goes noticed and appreciated it really means a lot to me.”

Looking to the future – what can you tell us about your latest band?

“The newest thing in my life is Sons of Apollo and we just put out our debut album a few weeks ago. It’s an album that I’m really excited about and really proud of and I think this band has the potential to really make its mark over the next few years! You know we’re going to pretty much be focusing all of 2018 with that, so yeah that’s definitely what’s on the agenda for me.”

So what about the new Metal Allegiance and Flying Colors albums will you still be working on those as well?

“Yeah the new Metal Allegiance album is almost finished so that will be out sometime probably by spring of next year; we’re also going to start a new Neil Morse Band album in January before the Sons of Apollo tour begins so that will be underway for sometime late in 2018. And then there is also the Flying Colors album which we began but haven’t been able to continue work on so we’re kinda waiting to reconvene on that as well! So even though Sons of Apollo will be my focus there’s still always other things in the works you know? There is always something on the horizon for me…”

So … do you sleep?

[laughs] “You’d be surprised how much I sleep! I’m a world class sleeper actually – I just do it at very strange hours …”

But in all honesty you really do have a massive collection of musical projects simultaneously on the go – how do you find the time?

“Well I’m a workaholic you know I pretty much go from band, to band, from tour to tour from album to album, but I love it you know? I’m a workaholic, I’ve a hard time saying no, so these opportunities keep arising in addition to all the bands that I play with and put together. And then I’ve had these great opportunities with bands like Twisted Sister or Avenged Sevenfold where I’ve been able to go out and help those guys out as well – so I’m just very grateful to have all the work I have and like I said I have a hard time saying no!”

Finally, have you got any messages for your New Zealand fans?

“If I’m thinking off the top of my head I think I have only been there once, I think I was there with Dream Theater around 2009 or 2010 I believe and I’ve been waiting to return; it’s kinda strange that I’m coming back and then playing Dream Theater material again but I’m grateful that I’m making it back at all! So I look forward to this and I look forward to hopefully coming back another time with one of my full time bands as well. But I’m really glad to be coming back!”

Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress is performing live at Auckland’s Studio The Venue this Thursday (16th November). There are tickets still available from Ticketmaster, but get in quick as they’re selling fast and will sell out!

Shattered Fortress Tour Poster

Image Credits: Feature Image courtesy of Mike Portnoy Facebook. Aerial Image courtesy of Robert Smith.

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