In a recent edition of Music Discovery Monday, legendary drummer Mike Portnoy shared the story behind The Winery Dogs’ latest single (“Oblivion”) and the stories behind the Dream Theater songs that he wrote for each of his departed parents.
The rest of the interview features a discussion about The Winery Dogs latest album, tour and more…
Hot Streak is an incredible album (see Hard Rock Daddy review). What was the writing process like this time around?
“Thank you! The formula was the same as the first album. We kind of just get together in a room and the three of us bounce musical ideas off of each other. We can pretty much bang out a song (musically) in an hour. For Hot Streak, we wrote around 15 songs in 5 days. We just really have a very quick working chemistry.
The music comes first, and that’s the aspect that is completely collaborated on. And then, once we have the music, Richie (Kotzen) goes off on his own and takes care of the painstaking process of writing the words, which obviously takes a little longer.
The next stage is getting back together to properly record the songs. But you know, the process is the same as it was when we first recorded together. The style of the music is very similar also. We kind of just do what we do. The only thing that was very different this time around was the internal chemistry. When we made the first record, there was no history to the band. It was more of an experiment, and we had no idea if anybody would be listening, or what it would become. This time around, we had a real band history between the three of us. That was the only real difference.”
You guys have cultivated a sound that transcends genres. There is no real natural radio format fit, and yet everybody loves the band. How do you explain peoples’ reaction to The Winery Dogs?
“I think that’s a sign of a great band. You can say the same thing about Van Halen. I mean, what is Van Halen? Are they metal? Are they rock?
You know, we’re just one of those bands that somehow speaks to, and connects with, everybody…metal fans, prog fans, rock fans. Even people that aren’t necessarily rock fans seem to just embrace this band, which is awesome.”
Having seen The Winery Dogs in a live setting (see concert review), I have to say that you have an incredible chemistry that is unlike any other band that I’ve ever seen…
“I think that we’re like a three-headed beast on stage, and no matter who you’re watching, you’re going to be entertained.
It’s kind of strange in a way. In most bands, the rhythm section would be the anchor, and then you’d have the singer and the guitar player going around them. In our case, it’s the opposite. Richie is actually the anchor, and Billy (Sheehan) and I are running circles around him. You have Richie – who is such a soulful entity – holding down the song as the singer and the guitar player. He does his thing, and then Billy and I are like the rhythm section from hell. We love playing off of each other and being very spontaneous. I don’t think that either one of us has ever played the same fills two nights in a row. We’re also both animated and entertaining on stage, and are the sort of players that enjoy being up there. So, it’s definitely like a three-ring circus when you see us.”
Often times, seeing a group of virtuosos together can result in a lack of warmth, and go over the heads of the average fan, but The Winery Dogs have a way of creating a sound that is accessible to the masses…
“The Winery Dogs are about simplistic songs and catchy melodies. What each of us does have is an extended background in musicality, and we all spend a lot of time on our instruments to get as good as we can. It’s straight-ahead rock, but I think that you have this musicianship that’s sprinkled on top which is what maybe sets it apart.”
What is different about touring together the second time around?
“The first time around, we didn’t know what to expect, so we were playing small clubs and feeling it out. We did really well, so this time around, we’re taking the next logical step, playing some bigger clubs and small theaters. But, the reality is that we’re still a new band. Even though the three of us have 30+ years of experience under our individual belts, the reality is that this is a brand new band that is only on our second album, so we’ve got to take baby steps. I think that a band like this kind of works in the clubs anyway. We’re all about sweating it out on stage and having a good time, so I think that it works for us.”
This tour is covering a lot of ground with a number of international dates included. Are your touring plans this time around less focused on the United States?
“Well, you know, the earth is a big place to cover, and it takes time. After spending the first month-and-a-half in the states, we’ll be taking a break for the holidays and then head out to Europe in February. We have South America in March and Asia in April. At that point, we will have pretty much covered all of the major markets, and then we can come back around and do a repeat throughout the spring and summer of next year in the United States. We’re the kind of band that wants to spread ourselves all across the world, and give everybody a taste of what we’re all about.”
Especially with all of your busy schedules…
“Yeah, well, all of our busy schedules aside, when it comes time for The Winery Dogs, that’s our focus. I’m in five other bands, and over the past year, have been jumping from band to band and tour to tour. Now that The Winery Dogs are back, that’s the focus for all three of us. It’s what we’re going to be doing pretty much exclusively for the next year.”
It’s great to see that The Winery Dogs are moving ahead as a real band, and not just a one-off project…
“The Winery Dogs is definitely a full-time thing for all three of us.”
Long before The Winery Dogs, you spent the majority of 25 years with Dream Theater. Nowadays, you’re known for not only being one of the best drummers in rock, but also one of the busiest. What was the thought process in deciding to play with multiple projects after leaving Dream Theater?
“To me, it’s natural. I see a lot of commentary online with people questioning why I jump from band to band, and how they can’t keep track of what I’m up to today. In the rock and metal world, maybe it’s not a normal thing, but I don’t play by the rules; I just follow my heart.
When I left Dream Theater (which was my baby for 25 years), I wanted to spread my wings and play with as many different people and do as many different styles as possible. I’m just a passionate, workaholic, music lover. After being tied down to one band for 25 years, I’m enjoying spreading myself around to all of these things, and it confuses a lot of people. They just can’t understand it.
If you look at actors in films, they want to work with different directors and screenwriters, and make different kinds of films. That’s the way that I treat being a drummer and a musician. As long as I’m willing to put in the work, fill up my schedule and devote myself to all of these different bands and projects, then, why not? Life is too short not to take these opportunities.”
I marvel at the energy that you have to be able to keep going at this pace…
“I’ve always had it, even during all of those years in Dream Theater. I was the one that was overseeing every aspect of the band. I oversaw the music, melodies, lyrics, video production, fan club, websites and merchandise. So, I always have had this abundance of energy. Now, I’m just utilizing it in a different way, in many different bands.”
You’ve talked about Metal Allegiance being a brotherhood of metal with kind of a revolving door policy. Now that you’re out with The Winery Dogs for the next year or so, does that revolving door include bringing in other drummers as well?
“Yeah, well, Metal Allegiance is bigger than any of its parts. It started with me, Charlie Benante (Anthrax), Frankie Bello (Anthrax) and David Ellefson (Megadeth). From the four of us, it’s now grown into something that includes over 20 different people within the roster. Any of us can come and go, and Metal Allegiance is something that kind of just revolves around the availability of this brotherhood. For instance, we did a gig in New York City with around 12 of us on stage (2 drummers, 3 bass players, 4 guitar players, and 3 or 4 different singers). A couple of nights later, we played a version of Metal Allegiance in Mexico City where it was just five of us, so it’s a constantly rotating lineup. When I can’t be there because I’m on tour with The Winery Dogs, like the show at Loud Park in Japan, it’s just Charlie Benante on drums. Metal Allegiance is like a box of chocolates (like Forest Gump once said), you never know what you’re going to get.”
So every show is really a unique experience. It’s kind of like Grateful Dead (only with music that I would actually listen to)….
“I think Metal Allegiance has probably done about a dozen shows through the years, and I don’t think that we’ve ever once had the same lineup or set list. That is what makes it pretty cool, unique and exciting.”
Earlier in the year, you did dates with Twisted Sister and filled in with your old band (Adrenaline Mob) after AJ Pero’s untimely passing. What was your relationship with AJ like?
“Well, AJ was just one of the sweetest guys in the business; he really was. I had known him just from the drummer-to-drummer connection for the last 20 years or so. Most drummers kind of get to know each other and become friendly. AJ and I became friends many years ago. When I left Adrenaline Mob, he stepped in and took over, and sadly, when he passed, I stepped in to help out his band. So, we kind of both helped each other out in different ways. He was such a kind soul, and such a great, underrated drummer. It was such a loss to see him go. It was a huge honor for me to step in and play with Twisted because I grew up seeing them in the clubs when I was a teenager on Long Island. I have a deep history with those guys that goes way beyond just the MTV videos of the ‘80s.”
What was it like playing with Adrenaline Mob again after leaving the band a few years earlier?
“Believe it or not, I really love that band. It was hard for me to leave them, but I just couldn’t do that and The Winery Dogs at the same time because our album was just coming out. I had to make a choice, but it was sad for me to leave those guys. They’re still my friends, so when AJ passed away, and they asked if I could help out with the gig, (literally the night after AJ passed), I didn’t even think twice about stepping in to help them. Those guys are my brothers, and I wanted to do whatever I could to help them.
The first gig was literally 24 hours later, so the emotions were unbelievably strong and sad. We were waiting to hit the stage in the RV where AJ had just passed away not even 24 hours earlier, so you can imagine that it was incredibly emotional. I’m just glad that I was able to help them, and be there to help get them back on their feet after such a devastating blow.”
What was it like getting acclimated with Twisted Sister to play those shows?
“Well, I’m in six bands now, and at this point, I think that my master list of bands that I’ve played with is over 25. I’m a professional, so it’s easy for me to step in and play with anybody on an hour’s notice. But beyond being a professional, I’m also a Twisted fan. I can jump in easily because I know the music; it’s embedded in my brain, and in my heart and soul. When I stepped in to play with Twisted, it was easy for me. I think that it was harder for those guys. I’m used to playing with different bands, and jumping in and doing gigs. I think for Jay Jay, Mark, Eddie and Dee, it was harder because they had only played with AJ for all those years. We had a couple of rehearsals for them to get comfortable. Within the first hour, it was already comfortable, and we were ready to get on stage and do it.
Thanks for taking the time to talk about everything Mike. Best of luck with Hot Streak and the rest of the tour.
***Be sure to check Hard Rock Daddy on Friday, November 13th for the launch of a new feature called “Generations Of Rock.” The first installment features Mike Portnoy and his son, Max.***