Interview with Mike Portnoy of Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress
Drummer extraordinaire Mike Portnoy is certainly not one to be seen resting on his laurels. Having established himself as one of the most technically dynamic and proficient musicians throughout his 25 year career with progressive metal band Dream Theater – a group he co founded with John Petrucci and John Myung in 1985 – his musical reach and influence are unparalleled and have not only spawned an entire new generation of prog percussionists but also ensured that his services have remained in high demand ever since he parted ways with the prog giants in 2010. He’s collaborated with, toured with, and produced for some of the most talented musicians on the planet including Tony Levin, Neal Morse, Stone Sour, Avenged Sevenfold and Ritchie Kotzen, has won numerous awards and – along with Rush drummer/lyricist Neil Peart – one of the youngest to be inducted into the Modern Drummers Hall Of Fame.
Now Portnoy is returning to Australia with his new – and exclusively short lived – band Shattered Fortress to perform Dream Theater’s 12 Step Suite, and it’s an undertaking that holds a deep personal significance for the drummer. A narrative consisting of five songs spanning several albums, the suite documents Portnoy’s own struggles with alcoholism and were conceived as a conceptual whole to be performed by the band in its entirety. Having never had the chance before leaving the band, Portnoy is now ready to return to our shores to perform the work, and it’s plain to see he couldn’t be happier.
So lets get right down to it, you’ve assembled a pretty impressive line up of musicians for Shattered Fortress, when was the idea for this project born?
Well to be honest I didn’t really have any intentions of ever doing this, it kind of came out of nowhere. I put on a 50th birthday concert aboard Cruise to The Edge in February and it was a concert that spanned my whole career as a retrospective, and part of that was playing some of the Dream Theater material that I’d never played before. And that was supposed to be the end of it; it was meant to be a one time thing. And once word got out about it I started getting offers from different festivals in Europe asking me to come do it this summer, and that extended into a couple of weeks of touring over there, and then South America and then next thing you know I got offers from Australia. So I figured that if the demand is there I may as well do this because it’s only going to happen now. This isn’t an ongoing project or band for me it’s really only a one time event and you know what? If there’s people who want to see it then let’s do it and get it out of my system before the clock strikes 2018 because at that point I’m done.
Shattered Fortress is basically comprised of most of the members of Haken, who are an incredible group, but who’s handling vocals on this Australian tour?
Basically I’ve bought all of Haken on board as my backing band except their drummer. Sadly he’s getting left behind in England. Basically I think Haken is one of the best new progressive metal bands on the scene. I played a Dream Theater song with them a few years ago at one of their shows and at that point I knew that if I was ever going to revisit this material that they were going to be the perfect band for it. So it’s going going to be Ross Jennings on vocals as well as myself because I sang a lot of the lead parts as well and also Eric Gillette, who’s the additional guitarist on the tour and who’s my guitarist in the Neil Morse band. So we’ll split up the lead vocals between the three of us and basically it’s an amazing band of musicians who were all fans of this material before this, so they are playing it with perfect execution and with a passion for where it came from.
The five songs that make up the 12 Step Suite were written over the course of several years and tackle some very personal subject matter for you, was it always your intention for Dream Theater to perform the piece in its entirety?
Absolutely. It was a concept I’d had from Day One when I started writing the lyrics to The Glass Prison and came up with the whole concept of an ongoing series of songs that would eventually connect. So it was always my intention from the beginning. And even when we were writing the songs they were interwoven with musical themes and lyrics and melodies and even the way that one song ends and another begins, even though they were recorded for different albums. So my intention was to always piece the five together to make one continuous conceptual piece to be performed live. And sadly when I wrote the last piece of the puzzle with The Shattered Fortress I left the band shortly afterwards. So it was always unfinished business that I never got to perform this in its entirety as was always my intention.
Is it a confronting thing to be playing these songs to people or is it a cathartic experience for you?
When I wrote the lyrics I was very deep in my new found sobriety. When I wrote them between 2001 and 2008 I was still newly sober and writing these songs was kind of part of my step work, going through the 12 Steps. So in addition to becoming songs that I shared with the world they ended up being very therapeutic lyrics for me. So now to be finally performing it, to be honest, I’m so far removed from the lyrics and the process of writing them that it’s more like an emotional thing to be revisiting the Dream Theater material at all. You know just playing that music is what’s going to be even more emotional for me than the lyrical content itself.
You’ve stated very clearly in social media posts that Shattered Fortress is not a new band but an event. Was this a clear plan you had when you put the group together?
Yeah absolutely. Especially because my backing band is already an existing band. Once we’re done with this they’re gong to go back to being Haken and get on with their career and I’ll get on with all the other things I’ve got going on in my life. So yeah it was pretty much made clear form the get go that this was kind of a one shot deal. We’ll do a couple of dozen shows throughout the world in exclusive markets and then that’s it.
You’ve said that you’ll also be including some additional Dream Theater songs as well. Will we be hearing anything from some of your other bands like Liquid Tension Experiment or Transatlantic?
No these Shattered Fortress shows are going to be all the Dream Theater material that I personally penned. My 50th birthday bash was kind of something that was celebrating my entire career and all that other music but these shows are going to just be Dream Theater material.
Can you name drop a few DT songs you’ll be doing or are you keeping that a surprise?
Haha yeah I like to keep that a surprise. Obviously once the shows begin in Europe the word will get out for people that want spoilers, but it’s safe to say it will be all the sings that I penned the lyrics to.
You obviously had a lot of input when it came to songwriting within Dream Theater, can I ask how you approach songwriting as a drummer? Do you follow a technical/analytical approach or is it much more of a feel thing?
Believe it or not I’m a feel guy. I have the musical knowledge, I went to Berkeley and I know all of that musical theory and harmony and musical arranging, I took all of that because it’s good to have that knowledge in the back of your head. But my particular approach to music is always about the feel and the character and the personality. There are a lot of prog bands and prog drummers who I won’t name and you watch them live and they’re absolutely boring to watch. They’re just incredibly mechanical and they’re more concerned with perfection and honestly that could not be further from the truth for me. When I get on stage I come from the Keith Moon school of drumming. It’s about putting on a show and interacting with the audience. So yes I have all that technical knowledge and I can play in 19/16 time just like anybody else that’s into progressive music but for me it’s way more about the interaction than the personality.
So given that Shattered Fortress seems to have a finite lifespan, what’s next on the cards for you after this?
Well I pretty much have 2018 already under way. The way my career works I’m usually in three or four different bands all the time so I usually have to kind of look ahead to kind of plant the seeds. So I’m currently working on three different albums right now that will surface later this year or early next year that will keep me busy. I’m working on a new Metal Allegiance album and a new Flying Colours album as well as a new album from a new band that I’m going to be launching this year and then premiering next year. So yeah I have so many things that keep me busy and I just have to try and keep up and keep juggling this stuff on the calendar.
You’ve certainly made no secret of your praise for Haken as a band you love, are there any other new bands you’re listening to right now?
Well I hate to show a sense of nepotism, but my son’s band Next To None are just getting ready to put out their next album and they’ll be the opening act on the Shattered Fortress tour in Europe. And I’ve just been listening to their new album non stop and it’s just incredible. My son Max is now 18 years old and he’s an incredible drummer in his own right. So right now along with Haken they are the best of the new generation and the new breed of prog. In fact they just finished a European tour with Haken last month. So I’m incredibly proud to have watched him grow up into the amazing musician he is.