An interview with Mike Portnoy
of Transatlantic

interview by: Jerry van Kooten
and Hans van der Meer
photos by: Hans van der Meer
date: 2001-11-12
place: 013, Tilburg, Netherlands

It took a while, but finally Transatlantic were able to plan a tour through Europe, where they do sell most of their albums. I got another chance to talk to Mike Portnoy. Last time it was in April 2000 in Dusseldorf, with Dream Theater. But now the subject is Transatlantic, of course. Partly due to a longer soundcheck than usually, for reasons explained in the interview, and the number of people wanting to interview the band, it's a lot shorter than the first time, but still we're pleased to hear from the drumming musician, or Mr. Carpe Diem, or Mr. Epic, or Beatles Fan As Big As They Come. A nice conversation about a lot of differences, and for the first time I really had to use some smileys to let you know how conversation went...

Different Show

So, what's up?!

You're on tour!

Tonight will be the third show, and then we had one warm-up show as well, in Oxford. Yeah, it's going good. I think we're finally learning the songs. Hopefully we'll know them by tonight, because we're filming as well.

Just tonight, or are you filming the whole tour?

Tonight, just tonight. Inside Out is going to do a DVD. I think they want to take advantage of the opportunity now they have it.

Just like the live album right after the first studio album?

I think that the general feeling is that who knows if and when something like this will happen again. So everyone wants to take the opportunity to record it, document it, and release it for those who are interested. It's just a good opportunity to capture it.

What do you think of the new album yourself?

I absolutely love it! It's everything I could have wanted to or hoped to accomplish with a follow-up. I think the two big songs, Stranger In Your Soul and Duel With The Devil, are epic classics. I am very proud of those.

Charlotte was a lot of fun to get our Beatles side out. I'm a huge, huge, huge Beatles fan, as big as they come. The other guys obviously are fans as well. Last time around, with Mystery Train, we got to touch a little bit of that sound, and this time around I suggested that rather to do one little poppy tune, why don't we take a lot of those little poppy ones that everybody has been fiddling with, and make a big kind of Abbey Road thing. That song for me is satisfying in that respect.

Bridge, the song, is obviously just Neal, but I think it shows his beautiful songwriting abilities, even though that song is not at all a collaboration. It's just a nice break from all the epics, a nice breather.

And a great title...


Different Album

If you'd compare it to the first album, what do you think are the biggest differences?

Stylistically it's in the same vein. You have your epics, you have your Beatles influence, and then you have your ballad. So the formula is similar. You even have your cover song if you have the limited edition. The first time we did Procol Harum and this time we did Pink Floyd. So the formula is kind of the same. But I think the composition is a little bit more developed, because we had more time to work together.

With the first album, we went directly into the studio and recorded as we wrote. This time, we had about a week's worth of rehearsal beforehand, to work out the arrangement and develop them a little bit more. I think that's the main difference.

We also broke up the vocals a little bit more. It was a conscious decision to spread the vocals out a little bit more, so it wouldn't be like Neal was singing everything. Once you put Neal's voice on everything, it's going to end up being compared to Spock's Beard. We wanted to have a little more variety in the vocal department.

I think that are the differences. Well, the album cover is different, the album title is different, and even the song titles are different! :-)

You saved us a lot of confusion by doing that! :-)

Peter Gabriel did that, didn't he? Haha!

He did, yes! I believe he saw them as magazine issues, so he didn't think it necessary to give them a title.

Did you expect you would be making a second studio album, when you recorded the first one?

We figured that if we were happy with the results creatively, which we were, and the label would be happy with the results commercially, which they were, then there would be no reason to not do it again. I think we knew that if we all enjoyed it then we would probably end up doing it again.

Different Band

For you personally, is working with a band like Transatlantic the same as with Liquid Tension Experiment? Did you need something new since the LTE project stopped when Jordan joined Dream Theater?

Yes, this kind of filled my void of having something outside of Dream Theater. But there are also two other main reasons behind this for me. One was that I really wanted to work with Neal. That was how this project came about. Once I started thinking of another project, I wanted to collaborate with Neal. I really respect him as a writer and a player with Spock's Beard. When I hear somebody that talented, I think of what it would be like to work with him. I decided to put this together.

The other reason was to do something in a more old, classic progressive vein, because I am a big fan of all that stuff. I do get to touch a lot of progressive elements within Dream Theater, but they're utilized in a much more metal or technical approach. So this project was an opportunity for me to do progressive music in a retro vein. You know, getting to play more like Ringo Starr and Nick Mason, which is something I don't get to do normally in Dream Theater.

I love the fact that it's so obvious that you enjoy it.

I totally love it! We're doing this Beatles thing, and there's a Ringo solo. All the guys in the bus last night said "Come on man, you should do this crazy solo!" And I said "No! This project for me is to not do the crazy solo! I am enjoying doing the Ringo solo!" And that's what the fun of this is for me. The fun of it is to play on a small kit, and not do all the fills and everything.

That's why you're such an inspiration not only to drummers, but to musicians in general. I'm a guitarist myself, not a drummer, but your musicianship is inspiring me.

Thank you. Well, that's what it's all about for me. People ask me about drums this and drums that. Drums are interesting, it's what I play, but I am more concerned about the music, the production, the structure, the arrangements, and the writing. That's the stuff I concern myself with, not the drums.

Believe me, I appreciate the claim that I have as a drummer. It's nice and it is satisfying, but at the end of the day, the big picture is way more important to me.

Different Big Picture

And you wanted to have a different "big picture" than the one you create with Dream Theater...

Yeah, it's different. It's a different band, a different project, a different way of writing. Oh, it's not that I'm not satisfied with Dream Theater, because I have full control over that band. In fact, I have more control over Dream Theater than I have over Transatlantic. We're all kind of being used to being leaders. So we're all doing a bit of compromising in this band.

Doesn't that lead to problems now and then?

Yes. Transatlantic could never exist on a fulltime basis. We would explode after a week! :-)

So do an album, do a tour, and hope everybody survives!

Exactly! :-)

And finally a real tour through Europe!

I think this is it. This is the only time we could actually bring all of our schedules together. The new Dream Theater tour will begin in January, and it will go all year long, so basically this will be it. That's why we wanted to record it, because we don't know if it will happen again. Maybe, but definitely maybe not, as well.

Well, you're pleasing us!

I am also glad we're doing it this time around in Europe. We did the American shows last time. I love touring in America, but I knew it would make more sense, and the audience would be bigger here, so we knew we definitely had to, at one point, do some European shows with Transatlantic. So I am glad we finally did.

Different Audiences

So audiences are bigger here than in America?

Oh, definitely. The American progressive scene is much smaller than it is here. Even Dream Theater, here in Europe we play to two, three, four, five thousand people. In America it's more like one thousand, two thousand. And that's the same with every one of our bands. And also the distribution here! Inside Out is a much stronger label for this type of music. They seem to be doing really well for all of their acts.

The fans that are there, they love it. They are fully devoted and they are fully behind the whole scene. It's just harder to survive in the mainstream in America.

Is this a way to reach more people?

The purpose of this project has nothing to do with survival or sales for me. When I put this project together, I could care less if it sold a single copy. For me it was a selfish idea to work with Neal and Pete and Roine. I could care less who would listen to it. It was completely about music only.

You see differences in the audiences, between Dream Theater and Transatlantic?

No, it feels like a Dream Theater audience. Smaller, just a little more selective. The Transatlantic audience obviously is a big part of the Dream Theater crowd, I think. And then you have the Flower Kings fans, Marillion fans, and Spock's Beard fans. But there are so many cross-over fans between all of our bands anyway. It feels similar in terms of who is in the audience.

But I do think the reaction is different. With Dream Theater, it's a lot more metal. It's a lot rougher, louder singing and clapping. I think with Transatlantic, because the music is a little mellower, the audience is more like watching and listening. Maybe it's also because people are more trying to take it in, adapt to this new formula that they're watching on stage. The people that are in the audience are very similar to what I'm used to, but the reaction is more subdued. That's good, I think, for this type of music. It's actually more satisfying to have them really quiet and enjoying the dynamics of it all.

If you talk to the other musicians, do they compare Transatlantic to their own bands?

I haven't discussed this with them. I have seen Spock's Beard and Marillion many times, so I know what their audiences are like for me being in the audience at their shows. They're probably more used to this reaction, I think, because they're less metal than Dream Theater.

Different Projects

Do you have any other projects in mind for the future? The next Transatlantic or something completely different?

No, when this is done, I'll go home and take a much needed break from Thanksgiving to New Year Eve, which I haven't had all year. And then the Dream Theater madness will begin, which will keep me busy all year. I don't think I have time for anything else.

You're looking forward to that?

Yeah, for sure! I mean, I am enjoying this, I love touring. Although I miss my family, I do love playing in front of audiences. That's one of my favourite things about playing. Having spent most of this year in the studio with Dream Theater, it is very nice to be back on tour. I did do a tour with John, we did the G3 tour. So I did get a bit of the tour adrenaline out from doing that.

I did get only a little bit mad...

That we didn't come to Europe?


That's not my fault, it's Joe's fault! He makes the calls for G3.

He made a mistake! But I forgive him. I saw him last year on the same open air festival where you played, and he was amazing. I remember you were pissed at that show...

I remember the open air festival, but I don't remember being pissed. That's an everyday occurance for me! It's just a matter of whether you get to see it or not! :-)

Haha! No, I meant pissed in the way of "mad", not "drunk". Things were not going very well with the sound.

Festivals are always impossible! You're not carrying your own sound system, you don't get a proper soundcheck, so that's always a nightmare!

It was fun to see how you handled a show that didn't go too well. All the Dream Theater shows I have attended were going smooth like oiled machines where nothing goes wrong. And that time you couldn't control some aspects and it was great to see you handled it so well.

Well, I am glad you enjoyed my mysery... ;-) Hahaha!

Hahaha! But I really mean you performed very well, playing Scenes From A Memory.

Yeah, we had done that a million times at that point...

Different Writing

So the next one is going to be very different?

Yeah, I think so. More of the same but also many many different things as well. On every one of our albums we want to stick to the progressive, metal, technical, and diverse formula. But of course on every one of our albums we want to go to new places as well. So this album is not different from that formula. There's definitely some things on there, that are a new ground for us to be exploring.

In comes the tour manager to give us a two-minute warning. We knew we didn't have much time, but why do twenty minutes go so fast?

Writing is always about compromises. Is the compromise of Transatlantic different than the compromise in Dream Theater?

It's different, because in Transatlantic Neal or Roine or even Pete in some cases will have an existing piece of music or a song that they bring in. Then we arrange is as a band. That's the way Transatlantic works. Whereas Dream Theater, we come in and start from scratch. Nobody has fully developed ideas. Basically me, John, and Jordan will shape the song primarily.

You just sit down and start with... nothing?

Yes, and we work together. It's a true collaboration and it's not so pre-conceived. With Transatlantic it's more individual ideas that are shaped as a band, with Dream Theater it's band ideas that are shaped as a band. Once we get the machine rolling, obviously one person will deliver a riff or an idea, and then we work at it together. But those ideas are formulated together.

That probably works so well because you know each other very well, musically. That's obviously a lot less with Transatlantic. How do you feel about that?

For instance, John Petrucci and John Myung and I have been working together for sixteen years now, so we have a great chemistry between each other. Jordan has been writing with me and John now for four albums. There's definitely a chemistry. With Transatlantic it's new and fresh for all of us. It's also different because Neal is used to write all of his music, Roine is used to writing all of his music. So those guys have learnt how to bend a little bit more in Transatlantic.

The other obvious difference is the time factor and the budget factor. With Transatlantic, we make a record in two weeks. With Dream Theater, the latest album took us eight months or something. With Transatlantic, two weeks of writing and basic tracks; the guitar and vocals were overdubbed afterwards.

The two minutes are over. No time left for more questions, so it's a "good luck with the show" from us to Mike, "thanks for the support" from Mike to us, and then some waiting for us for the show to start.

For more information:

© Jerry van Kooten / Hans van der Meer / DPRP, 2001

autohorized translation:
Russian: Lines In The Web by Sergey Shilov