Interview with Mike Portnoy

I had a long chat with Mike Portnoy about his latest Liquid Tension Experiment project with John Petrucci, Tony Levin, and Jordan Rudess. Here are the highlights.

Is there anything beyond the liner notes [which includes comprehensive information about how the project evolved] that you'd like to add about your selection of the musicians, especially John Petrucci for a guitar player?

Yeah, I was thinking that I'd never have to do another interview again after writing those liner notes. When the project started, I wanted to keep it completely separate from Dream Theater. It became really hard to find a guitar player who also was a team player. No one came through and the idea of working with John [Petrucci] came up. Now I am glad we did work together. Working with John provided a good chemistry and it would have harder to compose the way we did if we had a different guitarist since John and I had been writing together for a long time [in Dream Theater]. The direction of the project was dictated by the four of us, and the sound would've been completely different if we had another guitarist.

How was it working with Tony Levin and Jordan Rudess?

I had worked with Jordan in the past. He did a show with Dream Theatre after Kevin [Moore, former keyboardist] left the band and that's when I discovered how utterly terrific he is. He is the most incredible keyboard player I've ever seen and I knew I'd want to work with him. Working with Tony was really cool. It was an honour for me that we worked together. He's worked with everyone from Paul Simon to Pink Floyd to King Crimson to Yes. I knew he would be able to do anything we threw at him.

The release appears to be more oriented towards heavy metal than progressive rock?

That's probably because of me and John. I think the sound is a mix of Dream Theater, Dixie Dregs, and King Crimson, which is obvious when you think of the band members. The heavier side came from John and me. The moody stuff is from Tony.

Are there any plans for a tour of the U.S.?

We'd love to do it. All four of us have talked about it and obviously there's a demand for it. It's all going to come down to our schedules. Finding a couple of weeks or a month to tour will be hard, but not out of the question. My dream is to do a tour along with side projects other members of Dream Theater have done.

Is this an ongoing project, i.e., will we see more albums, or is it just a one-time deal?

It started out as a one-time deal. Depending on our schedules we'd love to do it again, though our priority is to do a tour first.

With Dream Theatre, you were one of the few progressive rock bands to break it into the mainstream. Why do you think it's difficult for progressive rock to become popular in the mainstream?

It's due to the fact that most record companies don't want to put the effort to develop a band like ours. This kind of music takes nurturing and the record labels put out what's going to be the easy sell. That's the biggest reason. I really appreciate a label like Magna Carta. Even though it is much smaller, it is giving opportunity to less known bands. Magna Carta was the one that asked me to do the Liquid Tension Experiment project and I'm very grateful to them for it. I'm very supportive of what they do.

I do however feel very good to be on a major label [Dream Theater is on EastWest], because we can break through on a level that we couldn't on a smaller label, but there are always ups and downs.

So what are the ups and downs?

Ups: We have greater exposure that a lot of other progressive bands haven't had. Fates Warning, for example, have had more albums than us, and have been around a lot longer, but sell a lot less than we do because of label exposure.

Downs: The corporate people we deal with also have to deal with bands ranging from En Vogue to Metallica. It's very easy for a band like us to get brushed under the carpet.

What is your view on the other supergroup project by Magna Carta, Black Light Syndrome featuring Tony Levin, Terry Bozzio, and Steve Stevens?

It's great. When we did Liquid Tension Experiment, we used that as a reference point. Black Light Syndrome was less song oriented than what we did. We thought of making an whole album of Three minute Warning type of songs, but we decided to take a more song-oriented approach.

Are there any plans to release the songs that didn't make it into Dream Theatre's latest, Falling into Infinity?

Speak to Me was on the Japanese release of the album. The other songs will get released someday in one way or another. We will either release the demos as B-sides or re-record them for the next album.

Dream Theatre is a band with hundreds of bootlegs. What's your view on bootlegs, especially since I've heard you yourself are a collector?

I'm the kind of a person where if I see a red light from a video camera in the audience I'll give them duct tape to cover it up. The other guys in the band are probably more likely to notify security.

I am for bootlegs, because I know what the fans want and what their intentions are. They're doing it because they want to get as much material as possible. I myself collect Beatles bootlegs and Zeppelin bootlegs. I'd get into the car and drive six hours to see Roger Waters so I understand the fan mentality. The other members look at it as if somebody is making money off of the band. They get concerned with the inability to quality control, afraid that people might hear the bootlegs and think it's a real Dream Theatre album.

But aren't those valid claims (making money and lack of quality control)?

Well, the record companies make money off of us. I think the only people that are going to buy the bootlegs are the real fans. If we were making those products, then I'd probably object to the bootlegs. I don't object to bootlegs of live recordings or sound check recordings that fans can't otherwise get and will never be officially released.

Regarding the quality, some of them are great and some of them are horrible. But I think if we make mistakes during a live show, that should be open for the public to hear.

Is there any chance the Majesty demos will ever be produced?

Not by us. Everybody would rather look towards the future. The demos are heavily bootlegged and people who want the demos can try that avenue.

What's your favourite music? That is, what music does the band listen to and currently like? Who would you cite as influences, particularly for your drum work?

I love lots of different music, particularly heavier stuff such as Machine Head Pantera, Slayer. I also like bands like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Queen, Jelly Fish and US. Radiohead is one of my favourite contemporary bands.

As far as influences, I have been influenced by John Bonham, Keith Moon, Ringo Starr, and progressive drummers such as Terry Bozzio, Bill Bruford, and Neil Peart.

So what's coming in the future?

We're doing a gig tonight at Fort Worth, Texas which is one of our last shows. Then we take a break and we're off to Europe where we'll play some cool festivals. We'll do a U.S. tour with Deep Purple later in the fall. In the long run, we hope to continue to make records and create more, while fans holding on to the old ones as well.

Music ram-blings || Ram Samudrala || || May 29, 1998