Mike Portnoy was with Dream Theater from their inception in 1985 until September 9, 2010, when he announced his departure from the group, who wrote in a press release: "Mike's stature in the band has meant the world to all of us professionally, musically, and personally over the years. There is no dispute: Mike has been a major force within this band. All of us in Dream Theater wholeheartedly wish Mike the best on his musical journey."
At the time of the announcement, Mike was on tour with Avenged Sevenfold, whose drummer, Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan, died on December 28, 2009. We spoke with Mike on June 22, 2010, one of his last interviews as a member of Dream Theater.
Portnoy proved to be quite the good sport, having rescheduled an afternoon interview to later that evening because of a change in publicists. Yes, even cloudy interviews can have silver linings.
Mike Portnoy: How you doing, man?
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I'm doing really good. I'm sorry about all the confusion. Apparently there were some changes at the publicity firm and things got mixed up a bit.
Mike: Luckily they just keep me out of that. They just hand me a telephone, so… I'm sorry about any confusion. I'm completely unaware of it.
SF: Oh, good. There's a lot of really heavy stuff on this new album. Is that out of the ordinary?
Mike: We always have a couple of songs that deal with heavy topics, but not necessarily an entire album. This particular album, because there was only 6 songs, because the lengths were very long, it meant that there were only going to be 6 subject matters. Normally if we have more songs on the album, we're able to cover more lyrical ground. But with only six songs, inevitably the topics are heavy. And the two songs that I love the lyrics to, "The Best of Times" and "The Shattered Fortress" were both serious personal subject matter and heavy subject matter. And, you know, that's one of the reasons the album title came about, Black Clouds & Silver Linings. It kind of sums up what the lyrics were about: heavy, dark, personal subject matter, but every cloud has a silver lining, and you can look at any situation and find some optimism and something to learn from and grow from.
SF: Did you write the lyrics to these songs?
Mike: I wrote "Best of Times" and "The Shattered Fortress," and John Petrucci wrote the lyrics to the other four.
SF: Is "The Best of Times" about your father, Howard?
Mike: Yeah, my dad was battling cancer throughout the making of this whole record. So it was something that was a big part of my life, and I was going through it throughout the making of this record. And sadly, he passed away before the record was finished. But I wanted to write a song that was a tribute to our life together. I didn't want to focus on the six months of struggling with cancer and dying, I wanted to focus on the 41 years of great times that we had before that. And I wrote this song as a tribute to him, and luckily I was able to play it for him before he passed away. I had a version with me singing, and I played it for him at his bedside, and we held hands and we cried. One of the most emotional experiences of my life, but something I'll be eternally grateful for. You know, a lot of times people write songs for their loved ones after the fact. But it was a great gift to be able to do this before he passed away, and share it with him.
SF: How wonderful. Was your father musical?
Mike: He was a huge music fan. He was the reason I became a musician myself. When I was born, he was a rock DJ on the radio and surrounded me with the Beatles and the Who and the Stones and Led Zeppelin and stuff like that, from Day One. And he was a huge Dream Theater fan, he was the one that came up with the name Dream Theater, and was always supportive of us for 25 years, since the beginning.
SF: How cool. You didn't have to be embarrassed of the music that your dad listened to.
Mike: Oh, no, no, no. He was the whole reason I listened to cool music. The one that introduced me to Pink Floyd and Zeppelin and everything. And he loved Dream Theater because he was able to have an appreciation for the type of music we play.
Dream Theater's "The Shattered Fortress" is part of a song-series which dates back to their 2002 album Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. This series is known as either the Twelve-step Suite or Twelve-step Saga. Each song's lyrics were written by Mike, and address his personal experiences with alcoholism. More specifically, each track focuses on one particular step in the familiar twelve-step recovery process.
SF: That's really great. "The Shattered Fortress" is dedicated to Bill W., and all of his friends. Who is that?
Mike: Bill W. is the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and "The Shattered Fortress" is the fifth and final chapter in a series of five songs that I've been writing over the past 5 Dream Theater albums. I've been clean and sober with the help of AA now for over 10 years, and the 12 steps of recovery has been a huge, huge part of my life. When I got sober 10 years ago, I decided I wanted to start writing songs about the 12 steps. And rather than just writing one song about everything, I had this idea of writing one song that was steps 1, 2 and 3, then the next album continue with the song that was step 4 and 5, and so on and so forth. And "The Shattered Fortress" off the latest album is the final chapter, which is steps 10, 11 and 12, and ultimately these five songs that have taken 5 albums to complete ultimately will fit together and they all have running common themes and melodies and riffs and lyrics, and it all ties together like one giant puzzle that hopefully we'll be playing live someday.
SF: There's some really great lyrics about being responsible for your actions: "I am responsible when anyone anywhere reaches out for help, I want my hand to be there."
Mike: That's actually a line taken right out of AA meetings and the 12 steps. And if you listen to all five of these songs, there's so much stuff that I wrote about that's taken directly out of AA meetings, or taken directly out of the Big Book (the Alcoholics Anonymous guidebook). That was a big part of what was behind the songs, and what's behind me still being alive today.
SF: Sounds like the AA concept is not just good advice for people that have addictions, but good advice for anyone as far as how to be a good citizen.
Mike: That's absolutely true. I mean, the 12 steps of recovery, you don't even see the word "alcohol" or "drugs" mentioned anywhere in that. It's all about bettering yourself and it's not only a program of learning to be sober, it's a program of learning to live to be a better human being. That's why it's been a huge, huge help and a big part of my life for the last 10 years.
SF: Well, congratulations on a decade of being sober. We've lost a few great people in recent times. In fact, my understanding is that you're going to be filling in on drums for Avenged Sevenfold, is that right?
Mike: Yeah. I recorded their newest album back in February, and it comes out next month (July, 2010). And then the tour beings next month and I'll be joining them on the road for the rest of the year.
SF: Their drummer, The Rev, he died of an accidental overdose, right?
SF: Is it hard for you when you see how you've been able to overcome it, yet many of your fellow musicians continue to struggle with the same things that rock musicians have struggled with for years.
Mike: Well, when I see what happened to The Rev, or Paul Gray from Slipknot who just passed away, I feel horrible, because I understand the disease and how dangerous it is, and if you're an addict or an alcoholic, like I am, the writing's on the wall. You can't live that kind of lifestyle and live a long, happy life. You know, that lifestyle and that disease, which I have, is going to take you out. You have two choices when you're that deep: you either have to get sober, or inevitably end up in hospitals, institutions, death, or jail. There's only two roads when you're that bad of an alcoholic or an addict. And I saw the writing on the wall for myself ten years ago. I have a son and a daughter who were just born back then, in the late '90s, and I saw that my alcoholism was killing me, physically, emotionally, and mentally. And I saw what it did to some of my heroes, people like Keith Moon and John Bonham, and it scared the hell out of me. I had to make a decision. I wanted to live. I wanted to be a father and a husband and be alive for my family, friends, and my band. And that's when I decided to get help and get sober.
SF: Have you found these songs that you're writing, are they helping people? I imagine you get letters and emails from fans.
Mike: I do. I get it all the time from people that thank me and telling me that these songs have helped them with their struggles. And that's awesome. I want to stress that I never wrote these songs to preach sobriety. I'm not one of those Bible thumpers that preaches my beliefs. I was just writing about my experiences and my struggles. And if anybody can relate to them and possibly get something out of it that can help themselves, if they're struggling, then that's truly awesome.
SF: They say you have to do it for yourself first, so really the idea of doing it for someone else, that's just an added benefit, right?
Mike: Well, that's what the 12 step is, and that's what I wrote about in "The Shattered Fortress." I need to be there, reach out for help, if anybody needs help. And me writing these songs is kind of like doing the 12 step.
SF: Are you going to head back out on the road with Avenged Sevenfold after finishing up with Iron Maiden?
Mike: The Dream Theatre/Iron Maiden tour ends on July 20th, and Avenged Sevenfold rehearsals begin July 21st. (laughs) So I literally fly from the last show with Dream Theater to Avenged Sevenfold. And once I begin with Avenged Sevenfold, somewhere in the midst of that schedule I have a one-off show in London with my side project TransAtlantic, and then I also have two one-off shows with Dream Theater in Japan. And there's going to be a period there at the end of July where I'm playing with three different bands in three different countries over the course of like 6 days.
SF: Well, you might need a 12 step program for being a workaholic. Have you considered that?
Mike: (laughs) Well, yeah. I mean, that's what it's all about with me. I don't know how to do anything in moderation. And that applies to everything. So everything in my life is in excess.
SF: Dream Theater is often described as progressive metal. Is that a valid term? And is that something you're happy with as far as describing what Dream Theater does?
Mike: That's exactly what we are. We're a cross between progressive rock and heavy metal. We have the progressive side, which grew up with Rush, Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis, and then there's the metal side which grew up with Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Metallica and Black Sabbath. And if you put it all in a blender, that's exactly what Dream Theater is. Oh yeah, we're not afraid of that term.
SF: To me it's like a thinking man's hard rock. It reaches for some deeper emotions than just that primal sound. So I think you have the best of both worlds, but I imagine that's a tough tightrope to walk sometimes.
Mike: Well, we don't worry about a tightrope. We do what we do, and that's what we've done for 25 years. We've never worried about what's fashionable, what's cool, we just do what we do and we write music that we would want to listen to ourselves. And the music is deep. We're not afraid to write 15- 20-minute songs if that's what it takes to fully express the idea. And, you know, there's people that are filmmakers that make Hollywood popcorn films, and then there's filmmakers that make true pieces of art. So it's like that in any arts, whether it's film, music, books or whatever. And we just happened to take the deeper route.