Mike Portnoy of The Winery Dogs | Full Transcript
I interviewed Mike Portnoy of The Winery Dogs. We discussed:
The new Winery Dogs album "III"
Playing with bassist Billy Sheehan
"Everybody in this band has chops for days, but it is not about flexing them at all times."
How his Winery Dogs drum kit is WAY scaled back compared to the ones he used with Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment
The Winery Dogs website: http://www.thewinerydogs.com/
You can also watch the video of the interview.
(This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.)
The New Song “Breakthrough”
Cris Cohen: Besides the two singles that you guys have already released for this new Winery Dogs album, which I love, what really caught my ear from this new album is “Breakthrough.” I just love the drumming on it. And I would call it kind of surprising, in that, those early verses on “Breakthrough,” there's a point where you just really pull back. It's mellow, but it's busy. You're doing a lot of kind of percussion work underneath the vocals and it's this cool Stewart Copeland-esque kind of thing going on. I know it's always difficult to describe where ideas come from in the creative process, but I'm curious what led you to that, because it seems very different for you.
Mike Portnoy: Well, I'm always about playing for the song. It doesn't matter what band I'm doing it with. If it's a really progressive thing, with some of the other things I do, it's still about the song. But more than ever and more than any other thing I'm a part of, with The Winery Dogs, it's about the vocals. It's about the hooks and the melodies. That is the most important thing with anything we do in The Winery Dogs. So that specific example, the song “Breakthrough,” which is one of my favorites – and it's going to be the next single I believe – when you have a song like that, where the vocals are so important and so strong and hooky, you have got to pull back and give space to it. You know, everybody in this band has chops for days <laugh>, but it's really not about flexing them at all times.
Let's make sure the vocals are in the foreground and the focus, and then you could sprinkle these little things underneath. So yeah, in that particular case, the first verse is only guitar and vocals. So, when it came time for the second verse, I still want it to pull it back and keep that kind of dynamic it had in the first verse, but give it a little bit of a pulse and some interesting nuances. Like you said, a Stuart Copeland kind of splash and hi-hat work underneath. And Neil Peart would do that kind of stuff as well. So yeah, that's kind of just playing for the song.
Cris Cohen: I was going through some other recent interviews you did, and you were talking about the priority for this band is first, it's the song, and then second, it's musicianship. And I think I know what you're talking about in the sense that I've heard times where people go a little overboard on musicianship and the song kind of gets buried. I am wondering if you could elaborate on that a little further, how you guys are able to keep that. Because as you said, you have chops for days and yet you don't step on each other. The song, the groove is still there. What's the best way to accomplish that?
Mike Portnoy: I think that kind of sensibility just comes with age and experience. If I was writing drums to a song like “Breakthrough” 30 / 35 years ago, when I was in my twenties, I probably would've been doing a lot more busy stuff and trying to be a little more intricate. I guess, as you get older, as you mature, as you write more and more songs throughout your career, you learn the importance of a time and a place for everything.
Cris Cohen: And then, you talked about the importance of the vocals and keeping that at the forefront. But it's interesting because, from what I've read, as these songs evolve, Richie (Kotzen) kind of improvises the vocals, sometimes even uttering just basic sounds. How does one wrap a drum part around vocals that are just kind of being made up on the spot?
Mike Portnoy: Well, the melodies are coming pretty early on. When we're in the room, the three of us are bouncing ideas off of each other musically, putting an arrangement together, and I'm prepping to lay down a drum track, usually Richie is doing some sort of scatting on top with melodies. The words may not be there and the exact phrasings may not be there, but the melodies and the possible phrasings are there. And you could kind of work around that.
In the case of “Breakthrough,” being you brought it up, I remember Richie was scatting some melodies and different weird words on the chorus. He kept singing, “I'm falling and breaking / Falling and breaking.” And so we knew that was going to be kind of the rhythmic pattern of the vocals.
And this particular song, when we were at that stage, I kept telling him, “I keep hearing in that phrasing ‘Cause I'm having a breakthrough.’” I kept hearing those words. “I'm having a breakthrough.” So, when it came time for him to start really writing lyrics, I remember even suggesting, “Hey, I kept hearing ‘breakthrough’ instead of ‘falling and breaking,’” which is what he was singing. And he was open to it, ended up embracing that suggestion, and writing around it.
So, there's an example where sometimes he's scatting something in the writing process and it will inspire maybe where the words or the phrasing should go. Sometimes it gets changed. Sometimes it gets kept. I think some of the things he was phrasing early on with “Xanadu” ended up sticking and became the final vocals. So, you never know. When you're in that early stage, you're still experimenting with a lot of different things.
Cris Cohen: Have you guys ever wished that you could really road test these songs before you record them? Or do you like the fact that you just kind of come up with them and then immediately lay them down?
Mike Portnoy: I personally like being in the moment when we're inspired and we're putting it together and we're really feeling the energy. I like hitting the red button and we're getting my tracks right there. I don't like overthinking my parts and having days or weeks or months to sit on it. Also, there's been times, like with the second Winery Dogs album, we wrote all the songs, got all the blueprints together, then went home for a while, while Richie demoed all the lyrics and everything. And then we went into the studio and tracked all 14 songs. And there's something to be said for having that time to let it simmer. But there's also something to be said… I'm not necessarily crazy about that process, because then you have to go into the studio and concentrate on like 14 songs at once. Whereas the way we did this album, you could concentrate on one at a time, as they're being written.
And the other thing, you can't really road test material in this day and age, in 2023. Because any show you play is going to be on YouTube by the time you get back to the bus. So, anybody that's premiering new material or unrecorded material live, it gets ruined by everybody filming everything and uploading it onto YouTube immediately. So, it is kind of dangerous these days to premiere new material live on stage. It's harder and harder to achieve that without it being ruined by a horrible recording. And that's the official premiere of a brand-new song, you know?
Cris Cohen: Yeah, that's a good point. I've seen interviews with comedians where… there are a lot of comedy clubs now where they make you put your phone in this case that gets locked. And they have had to educate the audience. People say, “Oh, you know, I saw him and this bit wasn't that good.” And he explained, “Look, I'm just working this out. This is in its very raw form. It takes some time before it becomes the finished, polished piece.” And so, that is a good point. It's sad that's been lost to advancements in technology.
Mike Portnoy: Yes.
Cris Cohen: Although, as we were talking just before we hit record, your experience with Liquid Tension Experiment was all about…
Mike Portnoy: Spontaneity.
Cris Cohen: Exactly. (Years ago) I asked you what the difference was between album one and album two and you said, “We took twice as long to record that… a whole two weeks.”
Mike Portnoy: <laugh> Well, those LTE sessions I did in the late nineties was really the first experience of writing and recording simultaneously. Because up until that point, I only had Dream Theater in the 80s and 90s, before those LTE albums. And all of those early Dream Theater albums, especially, “When Dream And Day Unite,” “Images And Words,” and “Falling Into Infinity,” — the first, second, and fourth albums — we had years to compile that material. The only exception was “Awake,” which we were thrown off the road, back into the studio, had to write and record. But the first, second, and fourth album, we were in holding patterns where we would spend months, even years, writing that material. So, by the time we got together after those first four Dream Theater albums – John Petrucci and myself, along with Jordan Rudess and Tony Levin – we had this Liquid Tension Experiment… experiment <laugh>. Literally. That was why the word was in there.
Those first two albums were the first times we ever went into a studio with a blank canvas, jammed… either spontaneously jammed and that made the record or jammed and wrote, in a jamming sense, and arranging on the spot and then recording. So those first two albums were the first time I had ever done that. And I've done it dozens and dozens of times since. It's kind of become the way that I work with most of the bands I'm a part of. Dream Theater embraced that style of writing and recording after the LTE albums and the albums that followed. And all the other things I've done through the years, whether it be Transatlantic or Flying Colors or Winery Dogs or Metal Allegiance, most of those cases are kind of… get in the studio, jam, bounce ideas off of each other, create the music, and then hit record and go. I like that way of working. It keeps you on your toes, keeps it fresh, keeps it spontaneous. The inspiration is right there in the moment. So, it's a style of writing and recording that I started with LTE in the 90s, but I've embraced ever since.
Playing With Billy Sheehan
Cris Cohen: And then, there's always that special connection between the drummer and the bass player. And you mentioned Tony Levin. You've played with some amazing bass players. Billy Sheehan is certainly up at the top of that list. And I'm curious, how is he different <laugh> in his greatness as far as your interaction?
Mike Portnoy: Are you talking about Billy?
Cris Cohen: You and Billy Sheehan.
Mike Portnoy: Billy and I have a tremendous connection as a rhythm section. And honestly, all those years in Dream Theater, I was more connected to the guitar. John Petrucci and myself were always a very strong guitar / drum team. Very similar to Eddie and Alex Van Halen, or Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield. That's kind of the way I came up in my early years of writing and recording.
But Billy and I have a true drum / bass rhythm section connection. It's probably the strongest rhythm section connection I have with a bass player than anything else I am a part of.
Billy and I are just very similar players in that sense. We like being in the moment. We like not overthinking things. Billy has an expression I heard him cite 20 years ago when we first started working together. He said, “If you're thinking, you're stinking.” <laugh> And I like that. You do want to put a lot of thought and care into what you do, but also, if you overthink things, you're no longer feeling it. I would rather feel music than have to overthink it. If somebody suggests, “Hey, try a kick pattern that's going boom, b-boom boom, b-boom boom.” Suddenly, if I'm thinking about my foot, I'm going to fuck up big time <laugh>. I never think about what my feet are doing. For instance, when I'm creating patterns and parts, I'm not overthinking what my foot is doing. And immediately, if I have to start thinking about it, it throws me off and it no longer feels like it is natural or has a groove.
And Billy is that type of player as well. So, Billy and I, especially live on stage, any fills going from verse to chorus or from chorus to bridge, those moments and those fills are 90% of the time completely spontaneous and unspoken. And a lot of times, Billy and I will just completely lock on a fill without even thinking about it or talking about it or looking at it. It just happens. So yeah, he and I have this really tremendous rhythm section connection. It reminds me a lot of the way Keith Moon and John Entwistle had that kind of synergy in those early live Who albums. Listen to The Who “Live At Leeds.” The way that Keith Moon and Johns Entwistle play, that's definitely the blueprint for Billy and I.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. And actually I got to interview Billy a couple of months ago. It was regarding the Talas release, not The Winery Dogs, but he was commenting on that and I thought the example he gave for the rest of us mortals… he said, “You ever talk to someone and you could tell they're just thinking about the next thing they're going to say without really listening to you?”
Mike Portnoy: Yeah, that's a great point.
Cris Cohen: And I encourage people to look up some of the… there's a lot of great footage you guys playing live. And there's a great conversation going on between the two of you.
His New Winery Dogs Kit
Now, I was checking out these videos and checking out your Winery Dogs kit. There are a few things going on. Although, you're one of the few people in the world where I would say you scaled WAY back <laugh> from what you used to play. So first off, regarding that, what I found interesting is you kept a couple of octobans as part of this stripped-down kit. Why have those rather than some rack toms?
Mike Portnoy: Well, this is the third Winery Dogs album and tour cycle. And for all three albums and cycles, I've used different kits. So, the first album I was coming out of all those years with Dream Theater and the massive, hundred-piece drum kit. So, with The Winery Dogs, it's like, “All right, here I am with a new band and it's all about the groove and it's all about that old school 60s and 70s power trio feel.” So, I was like, I am stripping down to a Bonzo kit. That first album cycle it was a total John Bonham kit. Just kick, snare, one rack, two floors, old school, and that was it. And that was fun for that first cycle. Then the second album and cycle for “Hot Streak,” I was like, “You know what, I want to go with more of the single head concert tom approach. That old school Phil Collins, Alex Van Halen, Peter Criss. It was a bigger kit. It was a double bass kit, but it was all single head concert toms. Roger Taylor. That kind of sound and style.
And before we started this album, The Winery Dogs did a fun tour in 2019 in the summer, just for the fun of it. No new album, nothing to promote. And for that tour, I used this set up that I'm now using for the third album cycle. It was just a kit I put together for the fun of it, utilizing two octobans in the front as my main racks. It's two octobans and a small 10-inch tom.
The LTE kit that I used actually was similar as well. So, it was kind of modeled off of that. And I had just done the LTE sessions with a set like that. I used that setup on the latest John Petrucci tour that I did. And this is now the setup I'm using for The Winery Dogs album and cycle. But I try to mix it up from album to album, band to band, tour to tour. Keep it interesting. The different set ups kind of inspire me.
Cris Cohen: Another thing that I noticed going through your drumming videos, it seems to me the fluidity of your movements has become much more efficient. If you compare like 10 years ago to how you play now, there's the same force, but it's like you're not having to move your arms quite as much. And I was wondering if that's a conscious decision or something that just evolved.
Mike Portnoy: <laugh> It's evolved as a result of age <laugh>. You know, I'm 55 years old now, and my body aches <laugh>. I'm not the spring chicken I was 30 years ago.
Once again, I don't think about these things. If I think about them, I'll probably screw things up. But it's probably just a natural evolution. For instance, I now choose to play with a drum throne that has a back support on it. As we get older, our body gets older, and we take a beating a little easier than we used to.
About the songs “Pharaoh” and “Red Wine”
Cris Cohen: What was the most fun track on this new album to put together for you?
Mike Portnoy: I like just jamming. And there are a few songs on this album (where) the backend of the song is very open-ended. The song “Pharaoh” and the song “Red Wine.” Both of those tracks, when you get to a certain point after the last chorus, they kind of open up into this little jam section. And in both cases, when I was tracking my drums for those two particular songs, I just went wherever and the three of us just followed each other. There was no discussion, “Hey, let's do this and we're going to go there.” So, in both of those cases, what you're hearing on the final album was just a spontaneous jam, the way we try to like to have that live as well. We wanted to try it with a few tracks in the studio. I like those moments where you're flying on the seat of your pants. You don't know where you're necessarily going to go. The drums could kind of direct the ups and the downs and the twists and turns. We just listen to each other and follow each other. And that's a lot of fun working that way.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. I don't know what your plan is, but I do hope that “Red Wine” becomes part of the live set just because…
Mike Portnoy: It's such an anthem.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. You know, it's this quasi-autobiographical tune, where it's just singing about yourselves really. But it's just so fun. I could see that as really having a great reaction live.
Mike Portnoy: Yeah. That's why it closes the album too. It happens to be one of the longer songs, but it's not long like a prog song. It's long just in terms of it being a jam at the end, but it's also kind of an anthem. You could picture the whole room just raising their glasses. It's a party song.
Cris Cohen: You also do backing vocals. Did you record those at the same time you recorded your drums?
Mike Portnoy: Vocals? No, much later. Because at the point I'm recording my drums in the process, no lyrics are written practically. There are just scatty melodies. The process is we write the arrangement of the music, track the drums, and then go away. And then Billy and Richie will track their proper guitar and bass. And then Richie will start to develop the lyrics and the melodies and record his vocals. And obviously his vocals have to come first. So once his vocals are done, months and months later, that's when Billy and I will then add our harmonies to whatever he had done.
Cris Cohen: Have you ever gotten into a situation where, “It's going to be a little bit difficult to sing this particular backing vocal over this drum piece that I crafted for this section of the song?”
Mike Portnoy: It happens occasionally. But honestly, it's not that hard for me. When I track my vocals, I'm usually sitting and tracking them… right there on that couch behind me in my home studio. I track my vocals sitting down because that's the way I'm ultimately going to have to sing them live. Usually by the time I sing them and lay them in, and then by the time we get into rehearsals, and I get used to singing and playing at the same time, it's usually not that difficult. I've been doing it for, for a long time. So, it's pretty comfortable for me.
Inspiration Comes From Listening To Other Drummers.
Cris Cohen: And then, going through some of your other interviews, you had this great line where you said, “Anybody that's serious about their instrument will never stop learning, never stop trying to grow and get better.” So that makes me wonder, what have you learned? How have you grown, let's say, in recent years as a drummer?
Mike Portnoy: To me, it's all about just having broad listening habits. I love music. I love all kinds of music. Everything from pop to thrash metal. I'm constantly listening to new bands and new albums and new drummers and gaining inspiration from that. I spend so much time on the road or in the studio that I'm not like one of those traditional drummers where I'm sitting home practicing and working on technique. I just don't have the time or motivation to do that, because I spend so much time behind the kit as it is. So for me, the inspiration comes from listening to other drummers. There are so many great drummers you could see online now, whether it be on YouTube or Instagram. There are these young players with this incredible technique that's just always inspiring to watch.
You watch drummers like that. You listen to them. You pick up ideas. There are so many ways to now learn about your instrument that we didn't have when we were kids. When I was a kid, we didn't even have VHS, much less Blu-rays and DVD players or streaming stuff on the internet. We had TV and whatever was being shown on TV. So, I didn't have the opportunity to watch Keith Moon or John Bonham unless “The Song Remains The Same” was playing at the local movie theater. That was the only way, when I was a kid, that I could watch and learn from my favorite drummers. Drummers today have everything at their fingertips. It's so easy to learn now and be inspired now. So even though I didn't learn about drums when I was younger that way, I could still be inspired at 55 years old and pick up things that way now and try to somehow utilize them into what I do.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. Although, it is interesting because I've talked to a bunch of other musicians who talk about growing up in the pre-digital age and the lengths that they would go to to try and learn parts of their favorite players.
Mike Portnoy: You couldn't really watch. It was all about listening. I would listen with headphones to my favorite records and put on (Jimi) Hendrix or Cream or (Led) Zeppelin or The Who or Kiss. And just play along. That's how I had to learn.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. One of the bands I work with is Huey Lewis & The News. Huey's always talking about, “How I learned harmonica. I put the needle down on the record and then I would pick it up and move it back and then pick it up and move it back and…”
Just For Fun
And then just a couple of fun things to end with. Number one, watching the most recent video, “Mad World,” did Richie ever drop that microphone?
Mike Portnoy: No, he’s very good. That was a new trick he had come up with for the video. And he nailed it every time.
Cris Cohen: Wow. Okay. Because I kept thinking, “This time it's going.” But no. He had it.
And then, you had a recent post of you on a tour bus watching the episode of “What's Happening?” with the Doobie Brothers on.
Mike Portnoy: Yeah. <laugh>
Cris Cohen: This past year, I interviewed them and Pat talks about… they released a fun autobiography. Pat says, “We've done this, we've done that, we've played here, we've played there. The one thing I get asked about everywhere is that one episode of ‘What's Happening?’”
Mike Portnoy: <laugh>. That's funny. I mean, first time I saw Kiss in ‘77 at the Garden, I snuck in a tape recorder just like Rerun did <laugh>. And I recorded it. That's what we would have to do back then. I used to record the concerts and I used to record movies because, like I said, you couldn't rewatch them. I remember sneaking in a tape recorder to see “A Clockwork Orange” or “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School” or any of my favorite movies. I would record them, take them home, and listen to them at home in my bedroom. I recorded some early concerts just like Rerun did on “What's Happening?” with the Doobie Brothers. But I didn't get busted. I got out. <laugh>
Cris Cohen: Also, the difference was I don't think you were looking to make money off of this.
Mike Portnoy: Oh, no. It was just for personal enjoyment because we didn't have those options back then.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. My thing a few years later was figuring out how to rig up the VHS player into a cassette deck so I could record the audio from some of those things. And be able to listen to it in the car.
Then finally, this has no relation to anything except… one of the better bio lines I've seen goes to your wife's Instagram page, where she lists for her bio, “Wife, mother, this, that… No, I will not give you one of my husband's drum sets.”
Mike Portnoy: That's funny.
Cris Cohen: I thought that was awesome. I thought that was hilarious.
We've covered all of my stuff. Is there anything we didn't talk about that you don't get asked about?
Mike Portnoy: We're just excited to hit the road. We love playing live together, the three of us, and we can't wait to start touring again. So, we're going to be very focused on The Winery Dogs all year. 2023 is The Year of The Dog.
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