Max Portnoy: The 10 albums that influenced my drumming style

"Growing-up, I didn’t really think anything different. It was just my dad doing whatever his job was!" Max Portnoy tells us. "I don’t think it was until I was maybe 12 or 13 where I was like ‘Oh! My dad plays some pretty crazy parts!’"

When your father is one of the most influential drummers of the last three decades, drumming is either going to be a career choice, or the thing that makes you want to become a lawyer. Thankfully for us, Max chose the former, and as we'll find out, drumming has been a major part of his life since he was a toddler.

With his band Tallah set to release its a groove-heavy, nu-metal-inspired debut album, Matriphagy (Oct 2), we sat down with Max to find out about the albums that have influenced his playing. 

Where was the album recorded?

"We recorded the album in Michigan with Josh Schroeder. He’s recorded albums from Burials, King 810 and In Hearts Wake. He’s based in Michigan and we recorded at his studio, we were there for about a month I’d say."

"The label originally asked us if we had any ideas for producers or mixers and we always loved the way his albums come out so he was at the top of our list. So he was at the top of our list, and the label was able to contact him and hook us up. It was a ton of fun, but cold as shit! It was snowing the whole time."

"I think the drum sounds turned out great on the album, Josh did an amazing job with them. We tried to keep it as raw as possible because we didn’t want to go overboard with samples and for it to end up sounding like MIDI. I think it sounds better when it’s raw, the actual drummer and the actual kit."

What gear did you use?

"I used my Tama Starclassic Maple - 10” 12” toms, then 16” and 18” floor toms - so I went with the bigger deeper drums for this. My snare was sort of a custom drum that Tama hooked me up with because they don’t really have a piccolo snare in their line-up so I hit them up and said ‘Is there any chance we can somehow make a piccolo snare for this?” So they made this 13”x4” and it sounds amazing, I’m really happy with how that came out." 

"Then I had my Sabian cymbals. My hi-hats were my 15” Artisan hats that I’ve used since we started Tallah. I just love how deep and trashy they sound."

"I went a little bit overboard with the cymbals - I was originally planning on doing two or three crashes, china, ride and hi-hats but then I ended up just bringing all of my cymbals and setting them all up."

"I had my 20” Artisan crash which is my favourite, a 21” Holy China. Then I had two different rides that I swapped back and forth between for certain songs. One was this 23” ride called the Override, which I think was a prototype. It has this massive bell on it and some songs were sort of calling for that sound."

"I have another sort of custom ride that I worked on with Sabian. It’s more along the lines of an HH Rock Ride, but it’s 24” so I kind of went bigger with it."    

"Then I had an Ice Bell, some other crashes and two more HH Chinas. We were like ‘Screw it, let’s just put all of the cymbals up!”. I also had my ProMark sticks and Remo heads."

Obviously your father is a hugely influential drummer, how has that influenced you? 

"I do take a lot of influence from my dad, because obviously I grew up hearing Dream Theater and watching him play. So a lot of his playing does inspire what I do, but I’d say my two biggest metal influences are Joey Jordison and Chris Adler. They’ve been my go-to inspiration for my entire life! I’ve got to meet them both, Chris and Joey are both super-nice."

"But it was cool, I got to tour and go to recording studios. That was really influential to me, I got to be ‘That looks fun as hell, I want to do that when I’m older!’ "

"Being able to see how the industry worked and what it was like to be a touring musician in a band was really cool, I kind of got the inside scoop on it!"

Did you ever sit down for lessons with Mike?

"He showed me a couple of tricks here and there, but he doesn’t really teach me much! I got taught by this guy called Todd Schied. There’s this place in Bethlehem near me here called the Californian Drum Shop and I got lessons from him." 

"He’s pretty much taught me everything I know! My dad sort of shows me some of his signature fills that he does and stuff, but I got lessons from Todd ever since I was a little kid." 

"He’s amazing, he’s taught me everything from metal to jazz to Latin. He’s showed me everything and it’s been really useful for me to understand more than just one style of drumming."

Have you ever taught Mike anything?

"As of recently, yes! There’s a song on the latest Sons Of Apollo album that he had to call me up about when he was in the studio - because he couldn’t figure out the beat or whatever. He was telling me what it was that he was trying to do, and I had to record a video and sort of explain it to him! So as of recently, yeah, he’s been coming to me for advice on a couple of things!"

Slipknot - Slipknot

"The first Slipknot album. I absolutely love it. The first song I heard was Spit It out. I was driving around with my dad and it came on and I was like ‘I’ve gotta get this album!’."

"That was actually a big influence on the drum sounds in general on the Tallah album. I just love how raw and natural they sound, and the kick drums just sound gnarly on that album. So that was a big influence for us when we were in the studio. Joey’s playing is just so awesome, he’s such a good metal drummer but he’s got so much feel too. His parts are really memorable and they always feel like that’s exactly what should be being played."

"I like messing around with extra percussion stuff too. We’re not trying to copy Slipknot, but in terms of just drums and percussion in general they really nail it. Hearing Slipknot with all the double bass, I was like ‘I need to start doing this!’. Obviously my dad does a lot of it too, but joey got me into crazy-fast shit."

Dream Theater - Metropolis, Pt.2: Scenes from a Memory

"As a whole, this is my favourite Dream Theater album, start to finish listening to it it’s definitely my favourite. But the drumming, obviously. I grew up with everyone online telling me ‘Make a cover of The Dance Of Eternity!”. I always heard that growing up and I still get it today." 

"So eventually, a couple of years ago I thought ‘I’m going to try learning it, everyone keeps telling me to’. My dad was away touring or recording or something so I didn’t really get to ask him for help or anything." 

"I just had to learn it section by section and try and figure it out. It was hard! But it’s fun to mess around with all those different time signatures and the drum parts are really cool. I grew up hearing those drum parts and seeing it live, so it’s just impacted my playing from day one." 

"I remember texting him or something saying ‘I’m trying to learn Dance of Eternity right now.’ and he was like ‘Alright, good luck!’. I played it for him when he got back and I think he was pretty impressed." 

"It’s really challenging, you’ve just got to get familiar with all the time signatures and changes. Because there’s a shit ton! It changes all the time. They went all-out with that one!"

Lamb of God - Sacrament 

"That was the first LoG album that I heard, and I was instantly drawn to the drumming. When I first heard it I was like ‘This guy is just insane’. Plus his drum tones. His snare drum is amazing, I just love how tight and pingy it is with all the sustain." 

"And whereas the Slipknot stuff - Joey was doing really fast extreme double bass stuff - Chris Adler does more intricate sort of patterns with the double bass. Like gallop-y sort of stuff." 

"So he definitely got me to experiment and see a different side to playing double-bass that I wasn’t really doing originally. Bands like Meshuggah do it all the time too, but for me Chris Adler was the first drummer I heard doing that sort of stuff." 

"He’s got a really good groove. I love it when metal drummers have groove and feel rather than just blast beats for the entire song."

Gojira - L'Enfant Sauvage

"Mario Duplantier is just awesome. He’s another one who’s just really creative with what he does. I know I picked L'Enfant Sauvage, but there’s a song called The Art Of Dying on another album and it’s some of the most insane playing just because of how intricate and fast it is." 

"But what got me into Gojira in general was L'Enfant Sauvage. I heard Explosia first, and his fills…it’s sort of the same thing that draws me to all of these other drummers. There’s feel and groove and creativity with what they’re doing." 

"The end of that song when it’s a little bit mellow, the fills are so creative and extremely memorable. They’re not just the sort of traditional metal fills, he really thinks outside the box with them." 

"That’s really what drew me in, and once I heard the full album I got to hear all of that shit. He’’s got crazy endurance too, with his feet and blast beats and stuff. His ride bell is pretty iconic too, he’s got one of those big bell rides in nearly all of his grooves!"

"I saw them live last summer when they were opening for Slipknot and he was crazy tight live too, he plays live just as well as he does on the albums. So that was awesome to see too."

Slipknot - Iowa

"The same sort of vibe with Joey Jordison. This extreme metal but with a ton of feel and creativity with the fills and parts that he chooses to do. But the snare on this album was gnarly as well! There’s a part in the second verse of Everything Ends where the snare is just really loud and ringing for whatever reason and it just sounds brutal. This album changed the way I looked at heavy music. It’s darker than the first Slipknot album for sure and the drumming is just nuts."

Tool - 10,000 Days

"Danny Carey! He’s crazy. The first thing that drew me to his drumming is that he has his snares off for almost all the songs! That definitely caught my attention because it’s just so bizarre, but at the same time it doesn’t sound off or out of place. It really makes sense though, it fits with their sound." 

"Especially with all of the tribal type stuff that he does, it blends in with that really nicely. But he’s got me into all of the polyrhythmic type of drumming. I follow his playing and try to figure that stuff out, it’s kind of a mindfuck but it’s fun to do!"

"I’ll listen to their songs and it all just sounds nice to sit down and listen to, but once you start focussing on the drums you realise that it’s sort of in its own world doing its own thing." 

"Even within itself, he’s doing multiple patterns on top of each other. But it fits with the guitar somehow, even though it’s doing its own thing. With polyrhythms you can get real weird, and it can just sound like noise sometimes." 

"But he does it in a way that works with everything to make a listenable song. Vicarious was the song that sold me on Tool. I’d heard Sober and a bunch of their popular ones, but when I heard Vicarious, that’s what sold me on them. Rosetta Stoned is also badass. I love that album, but I love all their stuff, they’re one of my favourite bands."

Slipknot - Vol 3: The Subliminal Verses

"Some people might be shocked to hear this, but this is actually my favourite Slipknot album. I think as a whole the songwriting was probably the best they’ve ever done. I love all the songs on that one, and I like how they experimented with some lighter stuff too like Circle and Vermillion Pt. 2." 

"But yeah, the drumming - which is what I’m supposed to be talking about! My favourite drumming song out of any Slipknot album is Welcome from that album. That whole intro part is just crazy."

"I remember trying to learn that part back in middle school. It’s so cool because it’s borderline prog on that part. He’s doing all these crazy fills and rhythms. Prelude 3.0 too, the first song on the album, there’s so much feel and all the cool little accents and stuff are so perfect and sort of what I want to hear."

"I think his drumming showed more diversity on that album, which I really like. I know some people weren’t fans of that, but I think it was a really good move because they made some amazing songs by being able to experiment and do different things."

Lamb of God - Resolution

"I think my all-time favourite drum part - I don’t know if it’s considered a fill, or a solo - but the end of Straight For The Sun/intro to Desolation. He’s doing that drum intro sort of thing." 

"When I first heard that I was like ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard!’ And I instantly tried learning it, but it’s really fucking difficult! Because there’s these little tiny changes." 

"There’s obviously the super-fast fills, but in between there’s these little things he does that changes it up. The first time around the China is on the down-beat then the second time around it’s the same part but the China is on the up-beat. There’s lots of little things like that where you don’t hear it until you sit down to try and play it you realise how creative the parts are."

"After I heard that I started really digging into more of his drum parts and really focussing. He’s just got really cool, creative parts for all the songs. Little things like that, that you don’t pick up on right away." 

"It’s kind of sad that all of my favourite drummers aren’t in their original bands anymore! He’s been keeping busy though, which is good. I definitely want to see him still playing drums and hear what he does."

Jojo Mayer & Nerve - Prohibited Beats

"I found out about Jojo Mayer a long time ago when I was younger. I was browsing the Sabian website and I found his signature Fierce cymbals. That’s when I started looking up his drumming and he blew me away." 

"He’s crazy, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play anything like he does. So I was watching a bunch of his videos and then I found the song Jabon as a live performance with Nerve." 

"I think I watched it 10 times in a row because I couldn’t follow half the shit he was doing it was so awesome! I don’t even know what it was about it because it’s obviously so different from Chris Adler or Joey Jordison, but it just clicked with me."

"He’s just totally badass. There’s so many techniques and things that he does - every measure he’ll do something new that I didn’t even know you could do! He’s so tight too, he does so many ghost notes and little accents and it’s always so perfect and tight. I don’t know how he has so much control over what he’s doing."

Dream Theater - Train Of Thought

"This is one of my favourite albums of theirs. It’s the heaviest album they’ve done and since I’m a metal type of guy, it resonated with me very well. I always think it’s kind of like if Dream Theater tried to be nu-metal! It came out around that time too." 

"But the drumming on that is awesome and I love the drum tones my dad got on that one. The snare sounds wicked. I actually haven’t really ever asked him about that sort of stuff. I know he uses his [Tama] Melody Master snare and I know his go-to cymbals and stuff just because he has them up on his kits all of the time. Maybe I’ll ask him how he got it!"

"There’s not many songs on that album so it’s hard to pick out a favourite. Obviously the drum intro from Honor Thy Father is a big one. But This Dying Soul is probably my favourite. There’s so many changes, and it starts with the whole double-bass thing. It’s just badass."

Stuart Williams

I'm a freelance member of the MusicRadar team, specialising in drum news, interviews and reviews. I formerly edited Rhythm and Total Guitar here in the UK and have been playing drums for more than 25 years (my arms are very tired). When I'm not working on the site, I can be found on my electronic kit at home, or gigging and depping in function bands and the odd original project.