Dream Theater's Mike Portnoy answers your questions

Did Mike Portnoy answer your question? Read on and find out!
Did Mike Portnoy answer your question? Read on and find out! (Image credit: Scott D. Smith/Retna ./Retna Ltd./Corbis)

Dream Theater's Mike Portnoy is undoubtedly a popular guy. When we asked MusicRadar readers what question they wanted to pose to the drum master, songwriter, producer and all-around overseer behind the progressive rock behemoth, we knew the response would be huge.

But we were knocked flat-out by the staggering amount of questions that flooded our Facebook page, website, e-mail accounts and the like. To paraphrase actress Sally Field, "You like him! You really like him!"

Needless to say, combing through such an overwhelming batch of queries took some doing. However, we did manage to pick the best cross-section of questions that we could, making sure to cover all the bases. Topics ranged from drumming techniques to Portnoy's involvement with Avenged Sevenfold, plans for the next Dream Theater album, lyrical concepts - oh, and someone even wanted to know what was up with his beard (which is dyed an attractive hue of blue).

We spoke to Portnoy, a man who seems to need little time for rest - this year alone he's playing in four different groups - while he chilled in his hotel room in Portland, Oregon. Dream Theater is a few weeks into their stint as 'special guest' openers for the hotter-than-ever Iron Maiden on the British band's Final Frontier Tour. The drummer is pleased as punch at the response Dream Theater are receiving from what could very well be a most-hard-to-please Maiden audience.

"We're having a super time," Portnoy said. "Iron Maiden have been great to us, and the fans have been very cool. I'd say they're definitely becoming Dream Theater fans.

"Being an opening band is a bit of an adjustment for us," he continued. "We have 50 minutes and limited stage space, but we're making the most of it. The setlist I wrote for this tour is full-on metal, specifically aimed at the Maiden fans. Normally, when I write the setlist for a Dream Theater show, I'll change it up every night and we can basically play whatever we want. This time, the goal is to give the Iron Maiden fans a crash course in the metal side of Dream Theater, and that's the kind of setlist I wrote. It's all about grabbing them, not letting go and hoping that they get it - and it seems as though they are."

Ahhh, so what about your questions? OK, we won't keep you waiting. Without further ado, here we go:

Roberto Campos asks, Have you or the rest of Dream Theater come up with ideas for the next record? Any musical directions, or even a concept?

"Nothing, nothing, nothing. We never work on ideas separately or on tour. It's always done once we convene in the studio. So, until it's time to work on a new record, we're concentrating on touring right now. Once it's time to really get down to working on a new album, that's when we'll start letting the ideas flow."

Olivia Nogal asks, Would Dream Theater ever consider a residency stand at one venue similar to what The Allman Brothers Band do? Perhaps you could play all of Dream Theater's albums in their entirety.

"It's an interesting concept. I like pursuing different approaches and ideas when it comes to the setlist. Marillion does something similar to that; in fact, I saw some people talking about it on my forum, wondering if we would ever consider doing a Dream Theater Weekend, which is what Marillion does. They'll basically set up in one place and play two or three different nights, do special setlists and complete albums.

"Yeah, I like that idea. I like utilizing different approaches, whether it's doing complete albums or covering things. I'd be open to it. It's just a little difficult for us to be stuck in one place for three to five different days, or three to five different shows. There's so many places we can play, and positioning ourselves in any one city could be tough. But you never know."

Ray The Big Man asks, Would you ever consider filling in for Steve Moore, the Drummer At The Wrong Gig dude, and play with Rick K and The Allnighters? Also, do you think they're truly 'America's Most Exciting Show Band'?

[laughs] "I am Steve Moore's biggest new fan. I Tweeted about him and posted about him on my Facebook weeks ago, before he was the viral sensation that he is now. What's funny is, I heard back from him in about 12 hours. As it turns out, he's a big fan of mine. We've been talking and trading e-mails.

"I think the guy is absolutely incredible. But back to the question: Would I ever fill in for him? No way! I'd look like Charlie Watts compared to him. I've never seen anybody do what he does - he's a cross between Keith Moon and Chris Farley. Even if I wore his gold jacket, I could never live up to what he's established.

"Believe it or not, however, his real love is metal and progressive music, and I guess that's why he's a fan of mine. He's expressed wanting to get back into those genres, especially now that he's getting such exposure.

"Whether or not they're 'America's Most Exciting Show Band,' I couldn't say. All I know is that I could watch those YouTube clips for hours. There's another video of them doing Brown Eyed Girl that's just as hilarious as the Sharp Dressed Man clip. I hope to catch one of their shows one day. I'm sure they don't disappoint."

Martin Nemeth asks, What do you suggest to young, unknown bands that take music seriously? In your opinion, what is the best way to start career in the music industry?

"First and foremost, play what you love to play. Don't try to jump on a bandwagon or a trend or a popular musical craze. Do what you want to do. Because if you plan to spend your whole life playing music, you have to be happy, and the only way to be happy is by doing what you love. Trite as it sounds, follow your heart. Persevere. And if you follow your heart and persevere, it will pay off.

"Dream Theater is the perfect example of this. We've never been part of a popular sound or style. We followed our hearts and always did what we wanted to do and waited for the rest of the world to catch up to us. I truly believe that if you persevere and follow your heart, people will eventually come to you."

Kieran O'Dea asks, What is the most insane thing you have done on stage? I'm thinking of something similar to the legendary 'Myung Tackle.' [This is a reference to the time that normally reserved bassist John Myung tackled singer James LaBrie on stage after he was bet a few hundred dollars that he wouldn't.]

"Yes, John did tackle James on stage on a bet. Would I do the same thing for a few hundred dollars? Hey, I'd do it for ten! [laughs]

"As far as the most insane thing I've ever done on stage…Well, most of the crazy things that have happened to me during shows weren't voluntary. The most bizarre occurrence has to be when I dislocated my wrist during a show in Germany in 1997. Basically, I played this giant fill and suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my wrist. I thought I pulled a muscle or something. But then I looked at my hand and saw that my wrist was completely backwards, with my palm facing up."

"I turned blue and froze in fear for a second, then did the only thing I could do, which was finish the song Rick Allen-style. Right afterwards, I went to the hospital. I had to complete the rest of the tour wearing a brace."

Sami Jaber wants to know how you and the other guys feel about file-sharing. He says he's from Saudi Arabia, and although it's not impossible to get his hands on your music, it's very difficult.

"I can't speak on behalf of the other guys. We're five different personalities with five different opinions. Speaking for myself, however, I don't mind it, much to the fear of record companies around the world that are panicking. For me, I want the music to be heard, and if hearing the music via file-sharing is what gets people interested in our band and gets them to come to our concerts, then so be it.

"Ultimately, it's not about money, at least for us it isn't. Dream Theater doesn't make money off of record sales. The label does, but we don't. File-sharing affects multi-platinum artists who sell millions and millions of CDs around the world. That's not us. We sell in the hundreds of thousands of records area, so the reality is much different. People who share files and download things from wherever, they're not taking money out of our pockets; they're only taking money from the record company.

"The only time when I do take issue with file-sharing, and maybe I'm contradicting myself here, is when we're talking about a brand-new release. I'm very protective of a new album, and I do get upset if something leaks before it's supposed to be out there.

"When you put a new record out, it's a big deal, or at least it should be. You want the whole world to share in it at the same time and be in on the experience. Also, I want to make sure that the sound quality isn't compromised, which does happen. So it's not a money thing, it's a creative thing. I want people to experience the album together, with the lyrics, the artwork, the full fidelity, the whole deal. Once an album's out, there's only so much you can control, and I get that."

Ray Simmon wants to know how you came up with the lyrical idea for Full Circle [movement #3 of the song Octavarium]. He asks, Did you just think it up or were there literary or poetic influences to it?

"Basically, it was a silly idea I had of using a giant run-on sentence of phrases and words and names that interconnected. It was a silly experiment that made no sense, but it was fun lyrical idea that I never saw anybody else do. It tied in with the Full Circle concept - the whole Octavarium album is about coming full circle, and that song specifically is about that. If ever I was going to give that lyrical concept a whirl, that was the song to do it in. I tried it, and it worked. It was a lot of fun."

Maarten Van Schel wants to know about the difference in sound between your maple drum set and your bubinga kit.

"I have no clue. Honest. I am not one of those drummers who knows about, you know, '9-ply this and 5-ply that,' and different kinds of wood. I don't know about shells and dimensions and the specifications in heads. I'm not a tech head. To me, I just want a drum set to look good and sound good, and I want to hit it. That's it.

"The reality is, if you took drums by Tama and Pearl and DW and you lined 'em up side by side, they're all going to sound good. They're all well-made drums. I play Tama because I've loved them ever since I was a kid. All of my favorite drummers played Tama. Once you're an artist like myself who has a bit of a reputation, as important as the product itself is the relationship you're going to have with the company. I have great relationship with all of my endorsement companies on a personal level, and that matters tremendously to me."

Marc-Antoine Joly asks, Do you play to a click during live shows?

"I never have live, no. But I'm going to be doing it real soon when I go out and tour with Avenged Sevenfold. In their case, it's necessary because they have some pre-recorded strings and some choir and keyboard stuff that, in order for it to be reproduced live, you need a click. So that'll my first experience playing to a click live. I do use a click in the studio, though."

August Moon629 says that he's a guitarist who is interested in learning to play the drums. He wants to know some good ways to practice fast double bass patterns without trigger pedals.

"I don't know. You know, the fast double bass drumming has gone to new extremes that are just crazy. Nowadays I see some of these death metal drummers who can do things with their feet that I can't even do with my hands. In the past 10 years, the speed of double bass drumming has gone to all new levels.

"When I was learning to play double bass years ago, I would play to a metronome or a click. Also, I concentrated on keeping my feet even. I was all about single strokes - that's just the way I was brought up and learned double bass.

"When I was younger, the fastest things on double bass were songs like Fast As A Shark by Accept or Overkill by Motorhead. Now double bass drumming is twice that speed! I don't know. Some of the speed metal drumming that's going on out there, it's crazy...and intimidating."

Vortex Drummer asks, Being that you're a heel-up drummer, when playing double bass, how do you get your feet to move so fast to play parts like the intro to A Nightmare To Remember or the ending of Panic Attack? Do you use your ankles or your legs to achieve such speeds? Also, do you use ankle weights in your practice routines?

"No, I don't use ankle weights. How do I do it? That's a good question. I wonder every night before going on stage, How the hell am I going to do it? [laughs] When those parts come up, I just have to close my eyes and go for it.

"I do play heel-up, so the bulk of my power or speed comes from my toes, I guess, or perhaps my calf muscles. I'm not one of those drummers who analyzes his technique. There's a lot of great drummers out there who think about that stuff; who practice a certain way to work on specific muscles; developing a set ritual and all that. I'm not one of those guys. I just always liked to sit down and play.

"Nobody told me what was right or wrong, and I guess that's how I developed my own style, just by never being told how to play. But I do play heels-up. It's not by design, it just felt natural to me."

XDRUMMINGxMANx says his father insists that rudiments are the fundamentals of becoming a great drummer; that the right hand, left hand, right foot and left foot should all be able to play all things equally. Are these just old-school myths?

"They're not myths, they're opinions. Everybody's got different goals and priorities. Some people can play without rudiments, can play single strokes and it doesn't matter; other people swear by knowing the rudiments. Whether one way is right or wrong is just an opinion."

"Everybody playing differently is ultimately what creates unique styles. That being said, I feel that rudiments are important if you want to be a well-rounded drummer and be able to be ambidextrous. I wish I would've learned rudiments when I was younger. When I first started playing, I just wanted to rock; I didn't want to sit there and study. I was more interested in playing like Keith Moon or Peter Criss - I didn't want to become this military-like snare drummer who was doing triple paradiddles. [laughs]

"But now that I've been playing for over 30 years and can see my limitations, I wish I did study some of those things a bit more. So my advice would be, if you really want to be a well-rounded player, learn the rudiments. Be open to them. They'll only make you better in the long run."

LandsMan asks, How does it feel playing for such a great band as Avenged Sevenfold? Also, what's it like knowing that the guys in the band are relying on you to do what The Rev did and keep his drumming legacy alive? [Jimmy 'The Rev' Sullivan died in 2009.]

Avenged Sevenfold's new song Nightmare, featuring Mike Portnoy on drums. Warning: lyrics NSFW!

"It feels great to be playing with those guys. On a personal level, they're amazing people, absolutely super-nice. They have a fantastic family camaraderie and wonderful spirit. To be part of that is an honor and something that's real exciting to me. I can't wait to hit the road with them. Their music is really cool and I'm looking forward to playing it.

"As far as my responsibility to keeping The Rev's spirit alive, I'm totally down with that. I do enough projects where I feel that my style and personality comes through, so I don't feel the need to incorporate that into Avenged Sevenfold. If they want a little bit of 'me' in Avenged Sevenfold, I'd be glad to give it to them. The purpose of me playing with them, both in the studio and live, is to carry on the legacy of The Rev. The fans loved him, and they always will. I'm going to do the best I can to carry on that legacy for him and the fans…and the band."

Chandlerfyfe wants to know if you've chosen a badass stage name for when you hit the road with Avenged Sevenfold.

[laughs] "I heard [Avenged Sevenfold singer] M Shadows say in an interview, 'Mike Portnoy doesn't need a badass stage name because he's Mike Portnoy. He's a legendary drummer and his own name is cool enough.' I never would've said such a thing, but to hear M Shadows say it was pretty great.

"That being said, there's a couple of cool names. I've heard some fans suggest The Rabbi - you know, in reference to The Rev. I don't like that one, so we can dismiss that nickname right off the bat. I don't know… I like the name Kenny Powers from [the HBO series] Eastbound And Down. So instead of Kenny Fucking Powers, I could be Mikey Fucking Powers! [laughs] Oh! How about Captain Bluebeard? [laughs] Let's throw Captain Bluebeard into the mix!"

Interesting you say that because Matt Cowan asks, Dude, what's with the beard?

[laughs] "My dad always said, 'It's better to have a blue beard than blue balls!' So there you go."

Akhil Pa asks, Is there any drummer whose style you feel but just can't emulate?

"Hmmm. That's a good one. I don't know. Any drummer who's been a big influence on me, I've always been able to replicate what they do and work up a mock version of their style - to a certain degree. John Bonham, Keith Moon, Ringo, Neil Peart - I've played their music in all of my tribute bands. I feel them, I know their style, and when I played their parts in those tribute bands I was able to replicate them respectfully and somewhat authentically.

"There's other drummers: Terry Bozzio is one of my favorites, and I feel a strong presence of his style within me. As much as people love to bash on him and hate him, Lars Ulrich is great - there's a lot of him in what I do. Stewart Copeland, too - I love to emulate what he does."

"Anybody I can't replicate? I don't know. Maybe some of the super, super-technical guys like Thomas Lang and Virgil Donati and Mike Mangini - they do things that I physically can't do. But the drummers who really influenced me, they're all in me and they come out, whether I like it or not."

Pete Williams says, I'm a pretty solid drummer but my band just can't get a break. If Dream Theater never 'made it,' would you still be playing - gigging out, playing with local bands - or would you have gotten a regular job? At what point should one give up the dream?

"Mmmm. That's a tough question. Like I said earlier, you have to persevere and follow your heart. But I do understand, you know, that you might not be able to do that for 20 or 30 years, especially if you want to make a living and raise a family. It's a tough call.

"At what point would I have given up on Dream Theater if we never made it? I don't know. It's an interesting question. I do know, however, that the minute you give yourself something to fall back on, you're doomed. [laughs] Really. With Dream Theater, we never had anything to fall back on. We went to music college and pursued the band and never looked back. We went through so many ups and downs: personnel changes, problems with record companies, all kinds of things. But we stuck with it and things turned out OK.

"I'd never want to tell anybody to give up hope. If Dream Theater never made it, I'd still be playing music because it's all I know. I'd still be doing something creative. If it wasn't drumming, I'd be producing or directing videos or something. That's just how my mind and body are wired. There's no way I could not be involved creatively in the media somehow."

Roger Koles asks, Besides Dream Theater, what would be your dream gig? If you got a call to join another band, which group would make you actually consider jumping ship?

"Oh God…You know, I love so many kinds of music, and I'm happy to play them all. When I went to Berklee and met John [Petrucci] and John [Myung] and we formed Dream Theater, we did so out of our love of progressive music. But because my tastes are so broad, if I hadn't met them, I could've been very happy playing in a band like Jellyfish, doing really weird, eclectic pop music, because I love that kind of stuff. Or I could've played in a thrash metal band like Testament or Exodus or Overkill - I love that kind of music, as well.

My love of music is so wide-ranging. I mean, look at what I do now: This year alone I'm playing in four different bands, and they're all very different. Dream Theater does what it does. I just did two months of touring with Transatlantic, which is full-on, old-school prog in the vein of Genesis, Floyd and Yes. Before that, I did Hail!, which is full-on thrash and classic metal in the vein of Motorhead and Priest and Sabbath and KISS. And then, after Dream Theater finish touring with Iron Maiden, I'm going out with Avenged Sevenfold, who are more of a modern power-pop meets metal and shredding kind of band.

"As far as a band making me jump ship from Dream Theater…I don't think I could ever leave Dream Theater permanently. I could see Dream Theater taking a break. I'll be very happy to play with Avenged Sevenfold, but I couldn't do it instead of Dream Theater. The fulfillment I get in Dream Theater…I've spent 25 years building the band and quote-unquote 'leading' this band, so I could never really leave it. It's my baby. Even if Rush or Metallica offered me the gig, I couldn't leave Dream Theater. It's a home I always need to return to."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.