Been there, done that
Rust Never Sleeps, declared Neil Young. Apparently neither does Mike Portnoy. The busiest drummer in rock talks about the Metal Allegiance super-group, his pachyderm-like total recall, and riding a Hot Streak with The Winery Dogs.
“As you look back at any of my interviews over the last few years, I had been saying that I was really itching for a true metal outlet,” says drum legend Mike Portnoy. From Dream Theater to Flying Colors, Transatlantic to The Neal Morse Band, Twisted Sister to The Winery Dogs, Portnoy has been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, cut its sleeves off and worn until it it’s faded and grey.
Now with the all-star Metal Allegiance, he finally has the chance to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of metal. “I grew up with Sabbath, Maiden and Metallica and I’ve always been friends with the guys in Pantera, Machine Head and Anthrax, so I was really longing to get something in my post-Dream Theater career in this vein,” he says. “I really could not have asked for a better outlet.”
Metal Allegiance grew out of jam sessions on the Motorboat Cruise when a bunch of metal’s finest got together to play their favourite songs. Then they decided to take the concept to the next level and cut an album.
“There were two stages of making this record,” says Portnoy. “The first stage was all completely collaborative. It was the core band which is myself, Dave Ellefson on bass, Alex Skolnick on guitar and Mark Menghi who is the mastermind behind the whole project.
"The four of us wrote everything together at my house in my studio, but then the next stage was getting all the special guests and we have this list of twenty or so guest vocalists and guitar players.”
The Guest List From Hell
The guest list is a roll call of the good and the great in metal, with performances from heavyweights like Randy Blythe, Alissa White-Gluz, and Chuck Billy, and guest musicians including Rex Brown, Bumblefoot, Gary Holt and Misha Mansoor.
Asked who surprised him with their contribution, Portnoy replies, “I think Phil Anselmo’s vocals on Dying Song are some of the best vocals he’s done in the last twenty years. He really nailed it. His song was one of the few cases where we let the singer have total freedom and write their own lyrics and melodies.
"In most of the other cases we had vocals or melodies guidelines that we sent to the singers but for Phil we gave him an open palette to work with and I think he absolutely killed it.
"I should also point out it’s really great to hear Alex Skolnick and David Ellefson have so much input as writers because in their respective bands they are not the main writers.
"In Megadeth obviously Dave Mustaine pretty much writes everything and in Testament Eric Peterson and Chuck Billy write most of the stuff. It was really great to hear Alex and Dave have their own voices after almost thirty years in their respective bands. So that was also a nice surprise to see how much they had creatively built up inside waiting to come out.”
The Brotherhood Of Metal
While touring the album would be tricky due to the fact that everybody is busy with their day job bands and the sheer number of people who appear on the record, that doesn’t mean there won’t be any Metal Allegiance appearances. “I think the way it will work is that Metal Allegiance will probably just do certain events, festivals or cruises or one-off shows,” says Portnoy.
“That’s the way it always was in the past; we did the Motorboat, we did ShipRocked, we did NAMM appearances in California every January so I think that’s the way it’s going to have to continue.
"Festivals would be an obvious route. If you have festivals where The Winery Dogs, Testament and Megadeth are playing, well it would make sense to have Metal Allegiance do a set because we’re all there with different bands.
"The line-up is like a revolving door. I don’t think you’ll ever see a show where we’re all there. You just have to come and go based on availability. For instance there is already a Metal Allegiance show in Japan in October that I’m not going to be available for so Charlie [Benante, another founding member] will be the sole drummer.
"It will be this rotating cast of characters that come and go, like a Brotherhood of Metal, and whoever is available to come out and play, they will.”
Elephants And Drummers Never Forget
Given the sheer number of ongoing projects he juggles, it’s not easy to decide which is the more impressive – Portnoy’s tireless work ethic, or his ability to remember such a sprawling and diverse range of material.
“I’ve been I don’t know if it’s blessed or cursed with this ridiculous elephant memory,” he says. “I have it all stored in there. It is crazy when you think about it. There was a weekend this past July where basically within four days I played with three different bands in three different parts of the world.
"I had a gig with the Neal Morse Band in Finland, then the next day I was with Twisted Sister in Spain and the next day The Winery Dogs in New York. I don’t think I would be able to manage this music if I thought about it too far in advance.
"I take it one gig at a time, just focus on whatever is next on my schedule and then when that’s done, focus on the next thing. That’s how I roll.
"I’m leaving to play with Twisted Sister in a couple of days in Canada and from there I fly to Nashville to do a weekend with the Neal Morse Band where we’re doing five hours’ worth of music. I’ll listen to it on the plane ride over and that’s when I’ll gather my bearings and switch channels in the memory brain.”
Riding A Hot Streak
Following fast on the heels of the Metal Allegiance album, Portnoy will indulge his classic rock side on Hot Streak, the new album from The Winery Dogs, due on 2nd October. It’s been two years since the power trio – Portnoy, Billy Sheehan and Richie Kotzen – took the rock world by storm with their self-titled debut.
“When we made our first album it was more of an experiment,” says the drummer. “We didn’t go in with any expectations, we didn’t know what was going to come out of the session. We ended up spending a year on the road and played over 100 shows, and really gelled together personally and musically, so I think inevitably that ended up translating to the new album’s chemistry.
"Suddenly it was no longer just this experiment, it’s a real band with real experiences under our belt, real chemistry between us and it just made it that much more cohesive.”
While all three members of the band are musical titans who can shred like demons, Portnoy says that was never the intention behind The Winery Dogs.
“First and foremost it’s always about the song with us,” he says. “We don’t ever want the playing to overpower that. With The Winery Dogs the song is really the foundation and then all of the instrumentation is the icing on top of the cake.”