Drummer extraordinaire Mike Portnoy is no slouch. A former member of progressive rock super group Dream Theater, and percussionist with prog rock journeymen Transatlantic, the self-confessed “workaholic” has found a new lease of life, with power trio The Winery Dogs. Comprised of Portnoy, guitarist and lead vocalist Richie Kotzen and bassist Billy Sheehan, the band have just wrapped up a U.K. tour in support of second album ‘Hot Streak’. We caught up with Mike to discuss the album, the band’s history and the impact of David Bowie’s death.
Hi Mike, How are you today?
I’m doing good. Tonight is the third show in England, and so far every show has been awesome.
You’re latest album ‘Hot Streak’ was released last year. Have you been pleased with the reaction to it?
Yeah, it’s been great. It’s the same answer that I would give with the first album, which is that everybody’s really taken to this band. The reaction to this band has just been so overwhelmingly positive. The fans are awesome and the critics have been kind to us, so we couldn’t be happier with the results.
Going into ‘Hot Streak’, did you feel a little more pressure given the success of the first album?
Well the first time, there was no pressure at all because there was no expectation at all. We were just three guys like; “let’s just come together and see what happens”. We didn’t know how it would do, or if anybody would even listen to it. This time around, yeah, there were expectations, but I think we were more prepared this time around because we are a real band now, with all those years behind us. The three of us at this stage of our career, none of us have to do The Winery Dogs; we do this because we enjoy playing together, and luckily there’s an audience for it.
Were you surprised by the incredibly positive reaction that The Winery Dogs first album received?
I was, because after I left Dream Theater I started up lots of things; Flying Colors, Adrenalin Mob, The Winery Dogs – there was all these things I was doing. I started up a lot of, quote unquote ‘new bands’, and The Winery Dogs was the one that was universally embraced. Adrenalin Mob wasn’t for everyone, and Flying Colors isn’t for everyone, but Winery Dogs really resonated across the board. Not everything I do is universally accepted; some people like the prog side, some people like the metal side, so their taste is a little more geared towards one thing or another, whereas The Winery Dogs I think kind of pleased everybody. So I was surprised, out of the gates how well it did.
Were you surprised by the chemistry that the three of you had?
I wasn’t surprised. I knew the three of us would come up with some good stuff together. I’ve done enough collaborations at this point in my career, and I knew with these two guys we would certainly be able to cook up something really good.
The musicianship in The Winery Dogs is obviously of a very high calibre, but the band seems to be more about the songs.
In this band the song comes first. When we got together there wasn’t much discussion about the direction - we kind of just let it naturally happen, but I think all three of us instinctively know that we wanted it to be a song-oriented band. All three of us were at the point in our careers where we’d been there done that with all the shredding and technical stuff. All three of us are fans of good songs and good singing, and we wanted to embrace the three-part harmonies and things like that, so that was always the goal.
Do you remember what the first song the three of you worked on was?
Yeah, I have a good memory for that stuff. The very, very first thing we ever jammed on was ‘One More Time’. The very first day we wrote at least the skeletons and the music for ‘One More Time’, ‘Criminal’, and one other. Right from the get go there was three songs, and each day we would write another two or three, and that’s the way the first album session was. It was the same thing with the ‘Hot Streak’ session. It was just very, very quick and easy.
Was it important for you quickly to follow-up and capitalise on the success of your debut?
Well we wanted to establish that this is a quote unquote ‘real band’. Each of us have so many other things in the melting pot that it’s easy for people to lose sight of what is a full-time band, what is a part-time band, and what is a project. So we wanted to follow-up with this album as quickly as we could so people realise that this is a priority for the three of us. Of all the things I’m doing - and I currently have five or six different things that are all currently active - The Winery Dogs is the home base for me.
The Winery Dogs recently released a cover of David Bowie’s ‘Moonage Daydream’, as a tribute. Did his death come as a big shock to you?
Yes. For some reason, it hit me really hard. I remember I was on stage in San Francisco with Metal Allegiance when the news came. It was during the middle of the show, and my drum tech showed me the news on his phone. It was shocking, but it was the next day when I was flying home, when it really hit home. I remember being on the plane and the song ‘Lady Stardust’ came on, and I just broke down crying. I had to literally get up and go into the bathroom, I was just crying so hard. I hadn’t cried openly for an artist passing away – I can’t think of the last time, maybe John Lennon. So it really, really for some reason, struck a nerve with me.
Why do you think that was?
I think for me it was just a personal attachment because I was introduced to his music when I was born. I was about two years old when ‘Space Oddity’ came out, and my dad turned me on to that and a song from that same album called ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’. So him passing just brought about a lot of childhood memories for me.
So his passing was a big deal for you.
It was, and at the time when Bowie passed, I did a whole Facebook post about it; how we’re entering this unprecedented era now where they’re dropping like flies just because of the age bracket. I posted that and then later that day Glenn Fry died, and then a few days later [Jefferson Airplane founder] Paul Kantner passed away. It’s just incredible, and it’s not going to slow down, which is the sad thing.
Does that not make you think that perhaps you’d like to play with Dream Theater again at some point?
Look, I’m a very sentimental guy, I’m a very nostalgic guy; I was the guy in Dream Theater that opened up the door to [former keyboard player] Derek Sherinian and [original vocalist] Charlie Dominichi to come back and join us on stage [at a concert in Los Angeles in 2004]. I also extended that invite to [keyboardist] Kevin Moore, so I’ve always been that type of person. I look at my past with a fond memory, and I probably shouldn’t even say this – I’m not trying to publicly state this, but around Christmas time I sent all the guys in Dream Theater a nice email, just reaching out to say how much I love and miss them, because that’s just the way I am.
You’re friendly still with some of the Dream Theater guys, aren’t you?
Jordan [Rudess] and John Petrucci, we’ve stayed in touch, so in answer to your question, I’ve never closed the door on doing something with them. It’s not like I’m waiting for it; it’s not like I’m planning it, it’s not like it’s in my career plan, but certainly if the invitation or if the opportunity arose, I would surely welcome it. It’s just because, you know, I don’t hold grudges and I like to have an open heart and always cherish the people in my life and in my past. That was twenty-five years of my life.
Finally, back to the present day; what’s next for Mike Portnoy?
Well the remainder of 2016 is pretty dedicated to The Winery Dogs. We have stuff on the calendar from now through to October, so that will be my focus for the year. I do have about a dozen or so Twisted Sister shows, and I’m committed to finishing that up with them. There’s also stuff with Metal Allegiance, and there’s also the making of another Neal Morse Band album as well. So that’s pretty much it; those four bands will be my activity for 2016. And you know, who knows? You never know what’s around the corner, and if I can squeeze things in, I’m a workaholic so you never know what might pop up.
By Eamon O'Neill.
First published on gigsandfestivals.com, 9 February 2016.