Road, or rather sea-tested, in February on the Cruise To The Edge festival, ‘Shattered Fortress’ is Mike Portnoy’s transatlantic band assembled from members of Haken in the UK and the Neal Morse Band in the US. The headline intent of the band is to perform a suite of songs for which Portnoy wrote the lyrics about his battle with the bottle.
Interview: Andy Rawll, News: Ian Sutherland
The five constituent songs that are collectively known as the ‘Twelve-Step Suite’ were written, recorded and released by Dream Theater between 2002 to 2009, with one song from the suite featured on each album from ‘Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence’ to ‘Black Clouds And Silver Linings’.
Portnoy is known for not been a moss-gathering type of guy and since his departure from the New York Prog Metal titans in 2010, has lent his peerless percussive skills to a multitude of bands, projects and guest spots including Big Elf, Avenged Sevenfold, Twister Sister, OSI, Neal Morse, Adrenaline Mob, Winery Dogs, Transatlantic and Flying Colors.
Indeed, on mikeportnoy.com he asserts:
“Keep in mind, I have no plans (or interest) in revisiting DT material in any of my other bands… this is not an ongoing ‘project’ or career move… this is merely a unique event that I am doing in select markets in 2017 to share with fans around the world… so catch it while you can!”
Better still, the setlist at these shows will be comprised of the Mike Portnoy’s ‘Twelve-Step Suite’ and select other Dream Theater songs, with an emphasis on those where he contributed the lyrics, so could also include great tracks like ‘Constant Motion’, ‘War Inside My Head’, ‘Finally Free, ‘Strange Déjà vu’ and ‘Best Of Times’.
Also notable is that support band for the entire tour is impressive upcoming prog Metal band, Next To None, notable given that its eighteen-year-old drummer is Mike’s son Max and the band have their second studio album ready for release on 7th July, coinciding nicely with the tour dates.
Here, Mike reveals alls about the tour, his plans for next year, his love of ‘Twin Peaks’, the Pokemonster as well as why he so heartbroken about ‘A Change Of Seasons’.
Mike also teases details of a new project with fellow Dream Theater almnus Derek Sherinian as well as revealing the dramatic turn of events that saw ‘A Change Of Seasons’ dropped from the setlist for the hugely anticipated Shattered Fortress ‘Twelve-Step Suite’ tour and much more.
What was the spark that ignited the idea for this tour?
“It goes back to my 50th birthday bash and a pair of concerts that I did on Yes’ Cruise To The Edge back in February that covered my whole career, including Flying Colors, Transatlantic and inevitably also Dream Theater. For these shows, I had decided to do the ‘Twelve-Step Suite’ for the first time ever. Initiially, it was going to be a one-time thing for my birthday, but once word got out, I started to get offers from festivals in Europe, an American prog festival in September and then after that there were more offers from local promoters to play in other places. It’s now blossomed into a full European tour, dates in Australia and a run down in South America. It’s way beyond what I had ever anticipated.”
The nice thing about is that you’ve got a kind of transatlantic band with the guys from Haken (as in Kevin Bacon) from the UK and Eric Gilette from the Neal Morse Band in the US. Tell me about the Haken connection?
“I’ve known Haken for many years now, as I’m a fan of what they do. [Note: it’s pronounced like Bacon not Barking] I think they probably are the best band of their type for this generation. They’re doing what I used to do in Dream Theater and taking it to the next level, in terms of musicianship and composition. I’ve always had a lot of respect for them since I first heard their music and we’ve become very good friends. The icing on the cake was when they were out on an American tour a few years ago and they had my son’s band, Next To None, as support and at the last show they invited me up to play ‘The Mirror’, which is one of my old Dream Theater songs and they just nailed it and played it flawlessly. So I knew at that exact moment that if I was ever to do the ‘Twelve-Step Suite’ that Haken was going to be the perfect backing band, because not only do they have the chops to perform this music and execute it perfectly, they also grew up listening to these songs and are fans of what I used to do with Dream Theater. So it’s in their blood and in their hearts and they’ll not only perform it perfectly but also with a lot of passion and love as well.”
Reflecting on the ‘Twelve-Step Suite’ itself, you completed it over eight years ago and have now been alcohol free for seventeen years. How do reflect upon that journey and the lyrics now?
“It’s more about the music and that fact that’s unfinished business for me and for Dream Theater fans around the world that had been waiting to hear this in its entirety as it had never got to happen. When I wrote all those lyrics from 2001 to 2008. I was deep in my early sobriety and writing about the twelve steps was a huge therapeutic thing for me so the lyrics were the utmost focus for me. But now at this point, all these years later, it’s more about the whole idea of finally doing it and having unfinished business for myself and my fans and getting some closure for once and for all.”
Coming back to the present and your songwriting, the ‘Twelve Steps’ define and articulate your journey through recovery. Have you thought about a corresponding ‘destination’ song about who Mike is today, having gone through that journey, or is that yet to be written?
“This is an ongoing process that will be with me for the rest of my life, as it’s not like you do the twelve steps and you’re cured. Honestly, addiction and alcohol is something that’s with you for ever and I will always be an addict in alcohol, whether I’m drinking or not drinking. It’s a struggle that’s with me every day of my life, no matter how much sobriety I have. So, there is no kind of end point for the lyrics.
“As far as the music goes, this is closure for me. I don’t ever plan on revisiting Dream Theater material beyond this tour. This is the finite ending of the Dream Theater journey for me. I’ve been doing so many other things during the last six years, without touching the Dream Theater material after I do it on this tour, I have no plans of ever revisiting it. I have so many other things in my life and career. This is the end of that career musically, but lyrically the twelve steps are something I have to have in my life for the rest of my life.”
With Shattered Fortress, you’re now back in the role of band leader, whereas for most of your other post Dream Theater projects you appear to be more of an equal-part collaborator. Which type of role do you prefer?
“I would say that there are three different types of roles that I play. The band leader role is something that I definitely had in Dream Theater and I’m definitely getting to enjoy that again with the Shattered Fortress shows. There’s something to be said about having full creative control and not having to deal with a hundred emails back and forth with people on every single decision. It actually makes for a much smoother band process.
“The other roles are one as a collaborator and one as a hired gun and I’ve done plenty of each of those as well. I’ve done the hired gun thing with Avenged Sevenfold and Twisted Sister and really enjoyed just coming to play drums for those guys and not have to worry about a single creative decision.
“As for the collaborator type of role, which is what I have with Flying Colors, Metal Allegiance, Neal Morse Band and the Winery Dogs, that has its pros and cons. The pros are that you get a little bit of everybody’s personality on the material. It’s a real melting pot of personalities when you get to do that. But the downside, as I had mentioned earlier, is that it’s incredibly frustrating to go through a hundred emails on every single decision. And when you’re like what I am, in four or five different bands at a time, it can mean that I wake up every day to multiple emails from multiple bands fighting about multiple decisions, so it can get a little frustrating at times.
“In fact, I have a new band with Derek Sherinian that I’m going to be announcing at the end of this year with a release coming out next year. In this case, I pretty much had to establish from the get-go with this new band that I needed to be the leader like the way I was with Dream Theater. I couldn’t handle another collaboration. So, before I move forward with this new upcoming band, I need to establish that I become the de facto leader in order for it to move smoothly.”
Of the Dream Theater songs for which you wrote the lyrics, it would be great to hear the two songs about fatherhood, ‘Best of Times’ and ‘Honor Thy Father’, as part of the setlist.
“Those two songs are very important to me on a personal level as well as ‘A Change Of Seasons’ which I wrote for my Mom when she died in a plane crash over thirty years ago. So, there are three songs right there that have deep personal meaning for me. But, to be honest, I’m not going to do any of those three songs for three different reasons.
“I intended to do ‘A Change Of Seasons’ as the encore for the Shattered Fortress shows, but I recently found out that Dream Theater was doing it on their current tour, which breaks my heart because it’s a song that I wrote about my mother’s death that’s such a very personal song for me. In any case, once I found out that they were doing it, I pretty much dropped it from my set, because it just felt weird for both of us to be doing it at the same time.
“As for those other two songs, I’m not going to perform those either because they both bring back very heavy emotions to me. ‘The Best Of Times’ is something that I wrote for my father and played it for him on his deathbed while we held hands and both cried. After he passed away, a few days later, I played it again at his funeral and to be honest, I’ve not listened to it again since then. It just breaks my heart and it’s so difficult for me to hear that song now.
“‘Honor Thy Father’ is the opposite. It’s a brutal hate song that I wrote for a family member and even though those feelings were genuine at the time, since then we’ve reconciled and I don’t want to be exploiting that hate any more; now that I have a good relationship with that person.
“That being said, there’s plenty of other songs that I wrote lyrics to in the Dream Theater catalogue to work with. There’s literally twenty – thirty songs of mine to choose from for the Shattered Fortress set, for example ‘Constant Motion’, ‘Finally Free’, ‘New Millennium’, ‘The Test That Stumped Them All’.”
Talking of family and parenthood, you must be very proud to have your son Max and his band Next To None on tour, with their new album ‘Phases’ due for release on 7th July?
“First of all, I’m so proud of him and the band, they just continue to grow and get better and better and more impressive each and every day. I always love it when I can include them with anything that I’m doing. The timing is going to be really great as well as these shows fall a few weeks before their new album comes out. The setlist that they’re doing on the Shattered Fortress shows is pretty much all new material which is amazing.
“They’ve got a lot of really heavy, progressive songs on this album and they have a twenty minute song that they’ll be playing. It’ll be exciting for people to hear the new material and the Shattered Fortress audience is the perfect audience for them to be playing this music to.”
Following the tremendous popularity of your ‘Name That Tune’ videos on YouTube, will you be bringing the full Hello Kitty or Pokemon kit on tour?
“Ha-ha! I think I’m going to be bringing the Pokemon Monster, the Pokemonster kit, which will be a three bass drum version on the Pokemon kit.”
Any place that you’re looking forward to playing?
“I’ve been doing this now for over twenty-five years, touring the world and I’ve been to each one of these places dozens and dozens of times each so at this point in my life I look forward more to sitting in a hotel room with room service and a movie. I’m looking forward to all these shows. Each one is going to be special because this will only be happening so few times this year, so I can’t say if there’ll be any one particular one that I’m looking forward to than another.”
Speaking of catching up on things in the hotel room, I know that you’re a big fan of David Lynch’s work. How are you enjoying the new ‘Twin Peaks’?
“I’m in heaven, I’ve been talking about almost nothing else for the past month on social media. I’ve been waiting twenty-five years for the return of ‘Twin Peaks’, which I thought would never happen. So far, like the rest of the world, I’ve only seen the first four episodes and I cannot wait for the remaining fourteen. It’s just a dream come true to finally be getting to revisit this world, which is such a big part of my life.”
Do you think your renewed immersion in the world of Lynch is going to inspire some interesting, dark and left-field lyrics?
“It could; I’ve thought about writing about this world and there are so many key words that are great to be song titles or lyrical content. Everything from the ‘Dwellers On The Threshold’ to ‘Garmonbozia’. Anyway, there are so many great aspects to the ‘Twin Peaks’ world that could be utilised for lyrics, I don’t know if I ever would. I’m kind or burnt out on lyrics at this point and I know so many people that have already written about it. Everybody from Marilyn Manson to Anthrax have written ‘Twin Peaks’ songs. I’m just full immersed in it now and it’s truly amazing.”
So maybe you’ll get a new tattoo to go with the famous peaks tattoo that had done, just like [Twin Peaks character] the Log Lady?
“Maybe. I got that tattoo back in 1991 or 1992, the one that she came back with on the back of her leg, I have exactly the same.”
Once the Shattered Fortress tour is completed, I’m curious to know what you already have planned next for 2018 and beyond?
“First of all with Flying Colors, we’ve started working on album number three. We’ve written about seven songs at this point and we’re just waiting to reconvene to continue writing to complete the album. It’s hard with that band to get all of our schedules aligned, especially with Steve and Deep Purple.
“For Metal Allegiance, Alex Skolnick and Dave Ellefson are actually going to be here in my studio starting next week and we’re going to wrap-up work on the second album. We already have half of that written as well. And then me Alex and Dave will finish the writing and record the album next month.
“Finally, the big one is my new band with Derek Sherinian. That album is pretty much finished at this point and will be coming out later this year. We haven’t made any formal announcements yet because we’re waiting until we get closer to the release date, but by the end of the summer we should be ready to make a big announcement and unveil the band. We look to pretty much foucs all of 2018 on that.”
Now that Billy’s back with Mr Big, is the Winery Dogs on a hiatus right now?
“That’s right. We hope to do more in the future as soon as we can, but in the meantime, Billy’s got Mr Big and Ritchie’s got his solo band and I’ve got my forty-eight bands too. We’re all busy doing other things in the meantime, but we will have our live DVD/BlueRay ready, coming out at the end of the summer as well. So at least that will tide the Winery Dogs’ fans over until we reconvene for another album.”
The previously announced summer festival appearances have now been rounded out with a full set of dates across Europe with London taking the flying colours as the opening show.
June 28th: London, England – Koko
June 30th: Barcelona, Spain – Be Prog My Friend
July 1st: Paris, France – Trianon
July 2nd: Malmo, Sweden – Slagthuset
July 3rd: Esch Sur Alzette, Luxemburg – Kulturfabrick
July 4th: Milan, Italy – Teatro Della Luna
July 5th: Pratteln, Switzerland – Z7
July 6th: Tilburg, Holland – 013
July 8th: Tel Aviv, Israel – Teatre Club
July 11th: Moscow, Russia – Yotaspace
July 12th: St Petersburg, Russia – Aurora
July 14th: Loreley, Germany – Night Of The Prog
September 8th: Atlanta, GA – Prog Power USA
ONE PROG PORTNOY IS NOT ENOUGH AS NEXT TO NONE CONFIRM DETAILS OF NEW ALBUM AND A TOUR WITH SHATTERED FORTRESS
Rising young progressive Metallers Next To None have announced the release of their forthcoming second album, ‘Phases’, through InsideOutMusic in Europe on 7th July 2017. This comes off the back of the band’s first ever European tour alongside labelmates Haken, as well as forthcoming dates supporting Mike Portnoy’s much anticipated Shattered Fortress show.
The band comments:
“We’re so excited to finally be releasing our new album. We feel it’s a huge step forward for the band and shows a much heavier and much more technical side.
“This album is very special to us because it’s the first time we recorded and self-produced our entire album. We were able to create music that it completely our own. Every note, every sound, every word, came from us and we can’t wait for you all to hear it.
“Working with Adam Nolly Getgood on the mix has been one of the highlights of this recording for us. He captured the exact sound we wanted right from the start.
“Doing this upcoming tour with The Shattered Fortress will be a great opportunity to premiere this new material to an audience that will surely get where we’re coming from.”
The full list of upcoming tour dates alongside Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress are as follows:
28th June: Koko, London, UK
1st July: Trianon, Paris, France
2nd July: Slagthuset, Malmo, Sweden
3rd July: Kulturfabrik, Esch Sur Alzette, Sweden
4th July: Teatro Della Luna, Milan, Italy
5th July: Z7, Pratteln, Switzerland
6th July: 013, Tilburg, Holland
8th September: Prog Power USA, Atlanta GA, USA
10th September: El Plaza Condesa, Mexico City, Mexico
24th September: Irving Plaza, New York City NY, USA
Formed in 2012, and based in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania, the foursome released their well-received debut ‘A Light In The Dark’ during 2015 on InsideOut. But if this set a template for the band’s style, then this has now been excitingly stretched.
“We actually began to write songs for the new record as soon as we finished the first one,” explains Max Portnoy. As previously, this involved the duo of Portnoy and vocalist/keyboard player Thomas Cuce collaborating in this part of the process. And, also to some extent mirroring ‘A Light In The Dark’, there’s a partial concept here.
“On the previous album we had six tracks which were lyrically linked. But it did not stretch throughout all the songs. This time, we have four tracks which deal with the idea of grief. However, that isn’t reflected on the entire record.”
The new twelve-track album (including two short instrumental passages) marks the recording debut of new guitarist Derrick Schneider who replaced Ryland Holland last year. The line-up is completed by bassist Kris Rank.
“Ryland wanted to go to college, and is now going to Berklee College Of Music, whereas the rest of us wanted to be in the band full-time. So, there was no way that he could carry on with us. And we were very lucky to find someone immediately to take over.
“He was recommended to us by Bumblefoot [the ex-Guns N Roses guitarist who guested on the first record] and he was the only guy we tried out that fit perfectly. Musically and personally he fit straight in with us. One of the things he does so well is shred on guitar but he also has great voice and plays very heavy which has made a difference to our style and sound.”
Although the album was mixed by the Grammy nominated Adam ‘Nolly’ Getgood [Periphery], the band have produced themselves this time, a decision Portnoy insists has been of immeasurable help.
“It’s a collective production, with all of the band having their say. We had strong ideas as to how we wanted this album to turn out, and if we’d brought in an outside producer, then this could have changed. So, it was best for us to stick together and follow our own vision.”
The recording process started early last October, with the drum parts being recorded at Neal Morse’s Radiant Studios in Nashville; these sessions were engineered by Jerry Guidroz.
“We then spent about four months at Thomas’ home studio, Battery Powered Studios, doing the rest of the work; Thomas was the engineer for those sessions. We were in there every day until 3.00am. I don’t know how Kris coped, because he was going to school after we’d finished in the studio and getting just a couple of hours’ sleep.”
Portnoy believes Next To None have become a sharper and more challenging band with ‘Phases’.
“I suppose you could say that we’ve done here is do more of everything we did before, but the greater experience we now have has helped us become better at what we want to do. This time around, there are no guests featured, as was the case on ‘A Light In The Dark’, and as it’s just the four of us you are getting more of what we want to express to everyone, musically and lyrically.”