A Certain Limitlessness
an interview with Mike Portnoy
date: 8th April 2000
place: interview room, Philipshalle, Düsseldorf, Germany
interviewers: Jerry van Kooten and Hans van der Meer
photos: Antoon Evers
[go to Part 2] [go to DPRP Specials]
With no gigs in Holland during this tour, we found ourselves heading for Düsseldorf to catch Dream Theater performing Metropolis Part 2 in its entirety. You can read more about the show itself in the concert review. Thanks to my fellow team member Bart-Jan testing his luck, it was possible for us to conduct an interview. Mike Portnoy's enthusiastic reaction to our request certainly added to the anticipation!
After arriving way too early for the interview, we had to wait for an hour or so, but then we were shown in by tour manager Bill Barclay. After we got our passes, the interviewers were introduced to their interviewee, who seemed a bit tired, but very capable of a pleasant conversation, especially after receiving some presents.
Before we got the chance to start the interview, Mike put on his cap, and told us about what he thought of DPRP.
Dutch Progressive Rock Page
I know about your site. I was turned onto it when you did the Counting Out Time feature. I thought that was amazing. It was very comprehensive - it was great. I printed it out, the whole thing. Well, actually my printer is pretty horrible, so I sent the pages to my sister, and she printed them all out for me. It took a long time to do it.
You're joking now?
I'm not joking! It is great reading and rather than staying on-line for all that time reading it, I figured I could print it out and read it at my convenience.
And you can't afford a better printer because they're... too expensive?
No, just because I'm not smart enough with computers. I don't know how to fix it. But er... the four-part thing on The Wall was really great. Great job.
The Birth Of Metropolis - Part 2
When Metropolis - Part 1 was written, you didn't have an idea for a Part 2. When was this idea for a sequel actually born?
Well, when we released Part 1, we only sort of tagged the "Part 1" just like a joke, just trying to be pompous. And the minute we released it, suddenly we were faced with the inevitable question that we got asked every single day: "when is there going to be a Part 2?". The minute Images And Words was released, we were plagued with that question.
Finally in 1996, when we were writing for Falling Into Infinity, we said "you know what, let's do it". We wrote a version in 1996, which ended up being around twenty minutes long. We never got around to writing lyrics, we just wrote the music for it. And being twenty minutes long, it did not make Falling Into Infinity. And once the word got out about that, we were continued to be plagued with "we heard you wrote it, where is it now?". So when time came to make this record, we had to. To make a long story short, this time around we decided "take it off the shelf, we definitely have to include it on the new record". And then we said, "well, why don't we expand it into a full-length album?". We wanted to do a concept album as well, so we figured we could kill two birds with one stone by doing a concept album and making it the entire Metropolis - Part 2.
Writing The Story
The lyrics were written by four of you. How did you do that? Was the story written beforehand? Did you discuss the story first?
Well, we wrote all the music first. That's the way every Dream Theater album has always been. We'd all write the music and then somebody will write the lyrics. But that was one of our big concerns: how do you make a concept album with multiple lyricists? All of my favourite concept albums were generally written by one lyricist. Roger Waters did The Wall, Fish did Misplaced Childhood, Pete Townshend generally did Tommy. So the question was how do we have all these lyricists and have a complete, focused story line? It was a big concern of ours.
We spent a lot of time discussing it, making sure we were all completely on the same page before we went off and did the lyrics. Basically, John Petrucci, James, and I spent a lot of time making the story line and discussing it. We eventually broke the story into separate chapters, and then we assigned each of those chapters to different songs, and then we assigned those different songs to different lyricists. When we were starting to write the words, everybody went away with a list of things that needed to be completely covered in their chapter, in order to tell the story. Everybody had to follow the guidelines. It was very important for the story to be on the same page. So, there were a lot of discussions.
Once we got back together, we did a lot of editing of everybody else's lyrics, to make sure it all fit and worked.
You definitely wanted to have four different lyricists?
No, actually I was more than willing to step back and not write lyrics for this album. To me, it's not one of my biggest passions. I am more concerned with the control over the music and the production and all that stuff. To me, the lyrics are the least important to be completely honest, so I was more than willing to step back and just deal with the music and everything.
The original idea was to let John Petrucci write the lyrics. But then, as we got into it, especially when I got really involved with the shaping of the story and the production, once we got too deep into it, I got inevitably sucked back into writing lyrics.
And you started to like it.
Yeah, I became very passionate about the subject and the story line. I definitely had things that I wanted to say about the story. I think that if we'd be doing an album with just individual songs, I probably would have continued to take that step back.
You wanted the story to go into a certain direction?
Absolutely. I'm just a control freak, in general. When we got back that deep into it, I couldn't relinquish that control!
When did Jordan join the writing process?
He came in from day one, in the music. In fact, to take it back a step, Jordan and I came up with the idea and directions for this album, while we were doing the second Liquid Tension album. There was one night, after one of the LTE sessions, where John, Jordan, and I were just sitting around. John and I were having this lengthy discussion where we wanted to take the next Dream Theater record. We wanted to make it a concept album, we wanted to go back and make it really progressive. We just wanted to write whatever comes out with no pressure from the outsiders. So we had this lengthy conversation about what we wanted this next Dream Theater record to be, and Jordan was sitting right there. At that time, none of us knew that Jordan was going to end up being in the band. It's kind of interesting, I have that whole discussion on tape, because we were putting ideas down on tape, talking about the concept and even playing some different ideas. Like John was playing some of Regression. So we had those initial discussions with Jordan right there. And it was also during that sessions where John and I presented the question to Jordan. We said, "if you ever have the opportunity to join the band again, would you have ever re-considered?". It was just a hypothetical thing one night, when you're drunk or whatever. And the result of that question turned us into deciding to make the change.
But to go back to your question which I think I still haven't answered yet...
From day one, you said...
Yes, when we went to start this record, Jordan was with us from the beginning. We did some Liquid Tension shows in January, and the studio time was booked for February 1st, and we went in, and Jordan was with us from day one.
We did look back to the 1996 version. We pulled a couple of musical elements out of the one that we had written in 1996. For example, the Overture, the music for One Last Time, as well as a couple of bits and pieces in Dance Of Eternity came from that. But otherwise, everything else was completely written fresh with Jordan.
He doesn't like writing lyrics?
I think that he felt that he had to take a step back for two reasons. The first is that he was so new to the situation, he had enough to establish, in terms of sounds and the music. I think he didn't want to step in too deep.
He felt that he had enough on his plate already?
Exactly. The other thing was out of respect for what we do. I think he wanted us to just let us do our thing. He didn't want to come in and start suddenly taking over. It was kind of the same feeling with Derek. That's why Derek never contributed lyrics as well. I think he felt something like we all do it, and he just let us do our thing. He didn't want to fuck with the chemistry of it all.
I think Jordan also was great, musically. There were a lot of things, a lot of times that he was suggesting a music passage, and he was very conscious to not change the Dream Theater sound. I think with Liquid Tension, the keyboards are way more up front, and we were also a lot more accepting to his ideas, because it was such a free-form style of writing. It was "anything goes".
So with Liquid Tension, he was even able to contribute so much more. But when writing this record, we knew we had an established sound and identity that we needed to maintain. We didn't want anything to be too drastic of a change, and Jordan was very considerate to that. He didn't want to change the Dream Theater blueprint. He let us get on with decisions that he didn't need to be involved with. At the same time, I am not short-changing his contributions, because they were immense in the musical department!
He's doing lovely. I don't want to interfere with your business, but don't lose him, please, whatever you do!
Ha ha! Well, we couldn't be happier with the line-up the way it is. It's the line-up that we wanted back in 1994.
So this is your opinion, too?
Yeah, this was right after Kevin left. Jordan was our first choice to join the band. At the time, the stars weren't aligned that way. Our lives were very different. He had just had his first child and wasn't ready to jump into a band situation that was going to put him on the road for a year. At that point, none of us had kids. We were touring non-stop. So at the time, our lives were in different places. Through the years, they became a lot more similar, so this time around it made it work, in terms of making that commitment to us.
You guys are away from home a long time...
Yeah, we'll be on the road a year straight, with this record. But because we all have kids, we do it in portions.
You come back every now and then?
Yeah, we'll be touring for three or four weeks, then go back for two weeks, and then go back out. It's not like we're doing three months straight and then go home. Also, we're very considerate to each other in terms of bringing family on the road.
Is it working or is it also fun?
Well, it's both. It's work, it's definitely a job. There's a lot of business involved with the day to day functioning on the road. But at the same time, you want it to be fun. You don't want ever to lose the passion of the reason why you're out there. On the other hand, it is very tiring and there's a lot of shit that always has to be done.
Like giving interviews...
It's OK. I can't think of a better way to do business.
Where Are You Now
If you compare this album to the other Dream Theater albums, where do you think this album has brought the band?
Well, musically, because of Jordan being in the band, I think we have a certain limitlessness to the music. It's like we can do anything, because Jordan is capable of anything. He's inspired us to go to new heights, musically and technically, just because he can do it, he can pull it off. So it inspired us to do a lot of things technically, that we hadn't done in the past. But then I think this album being a concept album, gave us a new formula to work in that we have never had before. We always wanted to do a concept album, but we never did it. This time around, writing in that fashion, moulding the story line and all the pieces of the puzzle together was a new challenge that we had never had before.
Where Will You Be
It sounds like guys having lots of fun writing it, and having the time of day to do a lot of fun stuff. And because of that, there's one thing I am dying to ask you, what is going to be a next album? Twelve-tone music? I hear Jordan do some little things like that...
In a lot of sense, in a lot of ways I think we've reached a certain plateau with this record, creatively, that I don't know if we can necessarily top. I just feel very proud of the job we did. I feel that we made the best record we could possibly make, in every department. So next time out, it's just going to be important to try not to top it and just do our thing and do what happens naturally. I definitely know that I don't want to do another concept album, because I think we've done it with this one. So I think the challenge for the next record, or the thing that will make it interesting for us, is to see what it's like with this new line-up to make individual songs. That will be fun, that will present a new approach for us. We can try hard and top this or whatever, but we're just trying to make the best record that we can, and we do that every time out. We're just trying to make ourselves happy and do something that we hope the fans are going to like, too.
And it notices...