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 1] [go to DPRP Specials]
The Whole Musical World
Where do you think this album stands, compared to other bands in the whole musical world?
Well, in the whole world, we're incredibly insignificant. When you look at the Ricky Martins, the Backstreet Boys, the Britney Spears - just turn on MTV... What we do is a whole other world from what the commercial world is, if you look at the top ten of the charts and stuff like that, which is unfortunate. It seems you don't even have rock music that exists anymore, with the exception of bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn, and maybe, occasionally, you get an Aerosmith hit or whatever. With the exception of stuff like that, there's no bands even. Yeah, Metallica. But it's kind of scary in this day and age, that it's all become pop music or rap or whatever. In the big picture of the whole world, what we're doing is completely irrelevant to what's out there, and we have our own little world that exists here.
I think we're really able to function within that world. We sell a lot of records and concert tickets, and the fan base is just incredibly devoted and fanatical. But this world is so far removed that when we're trying to conduct business with the record company, promoters and booking agents, they don't understand that there is this whole world that we exist in and that we do very well in, because they're so caught up in what's commercial. When it comes to MTV, radio and television, they don't acknowledge this world, which is unfortunate.
They don't know the word "quality"?!
They're not concerned about it. They're concerned about quantity, not quality. It's unfortunate, but we've been around for fifteen years, and we'll probably be around for another fifteen years, whereas the Limp Bizkit and the Ricky Martins or whatever, will have a nice five years run and that'll be the end of it.
And then there's the next one...
Yeah, you just move on to the next trumpet. So I guess it's probably more rewarding for us to have a real career out of it.
It may be a small portion of the international music scene, but it's you and guys like Vai, who I saw a few weeks ago, that make me want to live.
Why, thank you... Well, I guess you can look at the other side of the coin. If you would focus in on this world, we're very fortunate we have got onto the level that we have.
How do you mean fortunate? You are the ones who are good!
Yeah, well... quality doesn't necessarily equate to quantity, or talent doesn't necessarily equate to success. You guys know better than anybody else that the progressive scene is out there and how many amazing bands there are out there. Spock's Beard is my favourite band. I think they write just incredible music. They're incredibly talented players and writers, but they only will sell very small amounts of records and concert tickets. So I feel fortunate that Dream Theater has the level of success and exposure that we've had. I mean the exposure that we can sell half a million records this time or that we can play to five thousand people, that's quite an achievement within this world, which I'm very grateful for.
So there's two ways - you can either magnify it and look at it, or look at the big picture where we start to feel really insignificant.
The Progressive Musical World
What do you think of the progressive scene of today?
I've always been totally supportive of it, and I follow it more than the other guys in the band, although Jordan is also very much into progressive music, so he's interested in a lot of the new bands and stuff that I have been turning him on to. The other guys - they don't follow it that closely, but I've always been very supportive of the scene. Whenever possible, I try to talk about bands and get them as much exposure as possible. We always try to have quality opening bands to tour with us, to open up the exposure to them and to our fan base.
Like the tour in America we did with the Dixie Dregs, who are one of our biggest influences. It was kind of strange to have them opening for us, but it was amazing how many Dream Theater fans in the audience didn't know who they were! And so, by taking them out with us, it really exposes the whole new generation of kids to this style of music, which is very important. Let people know about this stuff.
I think the Transatlantic album is going to do that as well. It's a very prog record or retro kind of classic rock type of progressive rock. There's going to be a lot of Dream Theater fans that are going to be curious to hear this, but it's not at all a metal record. They're going to hear the Genesis, the Pink Floyd, and the Yes influences that maybe they didn't grow up with. It's amazing how many people in the Dream Theater audience are people that are interested in the metal side of us. They listen to Metallica, Black Sabbath, or Iron Maiden. They don't know the stuff that we grew up with. You know, Pink Floyd and Yes.
That's amazing... Those people exist?!
You'll see it tonight. It's shocking!
I love metal, but it doesn't have to be metal. There's more music than that. But metal fans have a tendency to be a bit focused...
When they think of progressive music, they think of the new generation. They think of Dream Theater or Queensrÿche. They don't know what we grew up listening to. So something like this might really open up the exposure to the younger generation.
You had fun making the Transatlantic album?
I had a tremendous time making it, just because of my respect for the other guys involved. I really, really wanted to work with Neil, 'cause I have a lot of respect for him. Pete and Roine are both incredible talents - Pete Trewavas is the best bass player around, when talking melodies. There was a really great creative energy.
How do you write your lines? Do you actually write them, because you're drumming such complex patterns, or is it all in your head?
It's all in my head, really. But to be honest, when we're writing, Dream Theater or any other project I've done, the drumming is the least of my concern. I'm not even thinking about the drums. I'm thinking more about the other music, the parts that the other guys are playing, the melody lines, the way that it's going to be produced and recorded and mixed. It's the big picture that I concern myself with, more as a musician and a composer, and less as a drummer. My drum parts kind of come easily, naturally. Even if there's a complex pattern, it's just the way my mind works. So that's the least of my concerns when making music.
How do you write? Are there any other instruments you play?
I can play guitar, piano, and bass, but I'm not a good player at all. I know enough music theory and harmony and ear training to be able to get around and compose. More importantly than me physically playing those instruments is the vocabulary to communicate with the other guys when we're making music, when having a lot of creative ideas in terms of arrangements and things like that.
All the guys are doing outside projects. Your latest is Transatlantic, but with Liquid Tension Experiment you did a second album. Is there going to be more?
There won't be any more Liquid Tension albums. [Interviewers' lower jaws dropping...] To me, the whole reason why I formed that project was to have something outside of Dream Theater. But now it's too close to Dream Theater, now having Jordan in the band, which is three quarters of Liquid Tension. And basically, that was the nucleus of the writing of Liquid Tension. Tony contributed more improv sort of stuff, but when it came to the compositions, it was a lot to do with Jordan, John and me. We can have that writing chemistry now full-time in Dream Theater, so it's kind of pointless to make a record when we already have that writing chemistry here. We rather put that chemistry to work for Dream Theater.
We're open to do live dates in the future. That would serve a purpose, 'cause that would be different and exciting, but to make further records, I think it's pointless as long as we have this for Dream Theater.
There's this one LTE song title I would like to ask you about: Chris And Kevin's Excellent Adventure. Is this a reference to Chris Collins and Kevin Moore, two former Dream Theater members?
Oh, that's by coincidence! I never even made that connection. No, that has nothing to do with what it is. When we were doing the photo sessions for the first LTE album, for some reason the photographer kept calling me Chris and kept calling Tony Kevin. He kept making that mistake by calling us by those names. We have no idea where he got that from, but he kept doing it. So when we needed a title for our duet, we figured it to be Chris And Kevin's Excellent Adventure.
And actually, there was going to be a Chris And Kevin's Bogus Journey too! We had a duet that was going to be on the second album that was going to be called like that, but we didn't have the room for it, so it was left off the album.
Why no shows in Holland, this year?
Well, there will be a show in Holland this year. This is only one leg. We were here in November, and we did a show in Holland, even though that was part of the Scenes From A Memory Tour. We're going to be back over in the summer. I think the promoters knew all along that we were going to be back in the summer, and they wanted not to book a concert for this leg, so there would be enough anticipation for it. But we'll be back, this isn't the only leg in Europe.
Well, we won't bother you with more interviews then. We have a long story to tell this time!
I guess you'll be having lots more.
Do you still like giving interviews?
I like them, if they're for a magazine or a web page that I know is relevant. Like you guys, I actually wanted to do an interview with you guys, just because I like the page.
But then you get to do a lot of interviews for the fanzines and stuff like that. I used to love doing them - I used to love being able to speak on behalf of the band. But I guess after so many years you start getting burnt out with the same old questions and the redundancy of it all.
Do you want to hear the same questions over and over again so you can reply as a routine?
When I do an interview I'd rather talk about my favourite movies or my favourite bands, about Spock's Beard or whatever. That's the stuff that's fun for me.
Fine by me.
I really follow film directors. Last year, I loved Magnolia. I love Paul Thomas Anderson, the guy who did that - he's brilliant. And I loved American Beauty, that was great too.
What did you think of the sound track of Magnolia?
Oh, that's one of my favourite albums of last year! It's great.
(All the time, there was a computer on a table, switched on.)
You're on-line all the time?
All the time! That's my computer right there.
Yeah, you kept replying to e-mail messages, even while you're on tour.
I wouldn't be able to just leave my computer at home in order to go on tour for a month. There's too much communication in this day and age that's completely done on-line.
I was amazed that you replied. I thought, doesn't this guy sleep?
Well, I don't answer all e-mails. I get a lot of fan-mail, because my address is public. But I can't touch it. So I read it and then delete it. I can't possibly deal with it. But if there's anything that has to do with business on behalf of the band, I have to deal with it. It's my job.
But even we band members, that's how we communicate. Even on days off, we'll all be in the hotel together, and rather than picking up the phone or getting together and discuss things, when there's this bit of information that I have and have to pass on to everybody, I just e-mail it. And they'll be in the hotel room next door! But that's how we communicate to each other.
Is that the way you like it or is it just convenience?
I prefer it over the telephone, because you can bypass all the small talk. When you're on the telephone, you have to "oh how are you, how you're doing, how's the wife and kids, blah blah blah". I don't like dealing with that shit, I just want to get right to the information and move on. So with e-mail you just get to the information, but also you can do it at your convenience. When I'm at home - my wife and I have two kids - I can't get to my computer till 2 in the morning, once everybody's sleeping. So at least I can deal with my stuff at my own time.
But... do you sleep?!
Ha ha ha! Well, I don't go to sleep until 4 or 5 in the morning, and then when I sleep, I can't get up. I can never fall asleep, but when I do I can never wake up!
Even with kids?
Yeah! Although my wife would love for me to change my sleeping habits...
Problems falling asleep. Maybe it's all the energy inside of you?
It is! I have way too many things on my mind. I'm too obsessive, compulsive with controlling everything.
I wondered, when I hear you playing, there must be so much energy inside of you. Where does it all come from and do you keep it there?
I don't know. I think, coffee all day and alcohol all night!
So that's your recipe? You must be a healthy guy...
Oh, not at all! You don't get a more unhealthy person than me. I'm a complete junk food addict / alcoholic! But as I'm getting older, I'm trying to take care of my body better, 'cause I'm beating the hell out of it. Especially when on tour, it kills you. Sometimes I try to drink less and eat better.
As far as getting the energy on stage... It's weird, 'cause there's a lot of shows where it's two minutes till show time and I'm just like falling asleep, but the minute I get behind the drum set, there's that adrenaline the audience gives to you, it kicks you in the ass and wakes you up, no matter how tired I am.
Your job is so hard, physically. For two, two and a half hours, you keep beating, battering them drums. You make it into a martial art!
Ha ha! It's funny, if I had to jog around the block once, I couldn't even do it! I can play a four hour show, no problem, but if I do anything else besides being behind the drum set, it's impossible for me...
Well, we like what Mike is doing when being behind the drum set, so we won't ask him to do anything else and just let him continue doing what he does best. Thanks, Mike, for the pleasant conversation and the great concert that followed.