Mike Portnoy is one of rock’s most prolific musicians. Having spent the best part of two decades in Dream Theatre, the respected skinsman is now firmly established in power trio The Winery Dogs. With The Dogs on downtime following an extended bout of touring, Mike is about to get to work with some of his close friends, as well as his idols. Stepping out onto the stage at August’s Bloodstock Open Air with super group Metal Allegiance, Portnoy will also be living out a childhood dream when he performs with legendary New York rockers Twisted Sister, who’ll be playing their last ever British date at the festival. We caught up with Mike to chat about the shows, and find out if there’s anyone left that he has yet to work with. On a hot streak: Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Mike, How are you today?
I’m doing good.
Metal Allegiance; tell me how that come about?
About 2011 when they were doing the ‘Big Four’ shows, the Big Four [Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth & Anthrax] was playing in California, and this guy named Mark Menghi, he was one of the artist relation guys at Samsung electronics, Hartke amps, he put together a four-man clinic around the Big 4 shows. It was myself and Charlie Benante and Frankie Bello from Anthrax, and David Ellefson from Megadeth. Those three were already together for the Big Four show, and then I was brought on board as well and we did this four-man clinic the day before the Big 4, and it was a huge success. And then when the Big 4 played about six months later in September we did another one and at that point we added on Scott Ian from Anthrax, Kerry King from Slayer, and Phil Anselmo.
That was the ‘Metal Master’s event, wasn’t it?
Yeah, they were called ‘Metal Masters’ at the time, and then they kept growing, and it went from four people to seven people, and then the next year we did it again with maybe ten people, and it just kept growing and growing and growing. Long story short; we changed the name to Metal Allegiance last year, and at that point we decided that these things are so much fun but rather than just always playing covers, why don’t we write an album together? At that point we broke it down to a core band of myself, David Ellefson, Alex Skolnick, [Testament guitarist] and Mark Menghi, and the four of us wrote this album and then at that point got twenty other guest singers and guitar players, and it turned into this really cool metal album. It’s weird as it’s one of the few projects I’ve been involved that started live and evolved into a studio thing; it’s usually the other way around.
It sounds like it’s a lot of fun. Is it about that more so than anything else?
Yeah, I mean it was always about a bunch of friends getting together and jamming and playing covers and paying tribute to our metal heroes. We all grew up with the same record collection, we all grew up listening to Maiden and Priest and Kiss and Motörhead and AC/DC and Sabbath, so we just all happened to grow up creating bands of our own, but at the end of the day, we were fans and when we do Metal Allegiance it’s about us being on stage as fans just as much as the people on the other side of the stage.
You’re performing at Bloodstock here in the U.K. later this year.
Yeah, it’s going to be awesome. Originally this only was in New York and then L.A, and then we eventually did a couple of cruises; we did the Motörboat and then Shiprocked, and it’s nice now that we have the album out that we can actually have opportunities to go other places. We did Japan and we’re really looking forward to doing Bloodstock and making our U.K. debut with this fun project.
I see Charlie Benante is playing. Will you be trading the drum stool, or will Charlie play guitar?
Usually when we do it Charlie and I both play drums together; most of the time together, and then sometimes swapping over. On the album Charlie only played guitar. I was the sole drummer on the album, but live he plays drums with us.
Only one Metal Allegiance show been announced so far. Is there a chance of adding other shows around it?
We’re hoping to do more festivals. I mean, it’s hard for Metal Allegiance to do any proper tours because of the nature of what it is - where everybody’s in other bands and the line-up is constantly changing. Every Metal Allegiance show is a different line-up, so really the best opportunity for us to play live is when it’s a festival situation. We’re certainly open to doing more and we hope to do more, but time will tell.
You’re also performing with Twisted Sister at Bloodstock. That must be quite an honour for you.
I’m playing with Twisted two nights earlier; it’s the same weekend, but I think it’s different days. It’s a total honour for me. I did about a dozen shows with them last year. I grew up in Long Island where they were the ultimate club band, back in the late seventies’ and early eighties’ before anybody else around the world knew about them. They were New York heroes and I was in the age bracket that was going to see them in the clubs. I grew up with them and they were local heroes and I became friends with them through the years, and especially with A.J. [Pero, drummer]. When he passed away it was very sad on a personal level, because we were friends. When they asked me to come on board and help close out the remaining chapters, for me it was, and is a huge honour.
Were you shocked to receive that call? I seem to remember you volunteered by posting on social media.
Well we had a weird connection because when I left Adrenaline Mob, A.J. took my place, and the day after A.J. passed away, I actually did a show with Adrenaline Mob. They were already booked to play a show in New Jersey the next day and they asked if I would come and do the show. So there I was, literally twenty-four hours after A.J. passed away, playing his drum set, and his show with Adrenaline Mob. That night [Twisted Sister guitarist] Jay Jay French came out to join us on stage as well, and that was the night that Jay Jay asked me if I would be interested and if I was available to help them out with the remaining shows. So it was a weird connection already, you know, with A.J. helping out my former band and with me helping out A.J.’s band.
Finally, you’ve worked with so many people at this stage; Is there anyone left that you haven’t played with that you’d love to - Van Halen, Iron Maiden, or Rush perhaps?
They’re all great examples, so yeah. To me there’s the dream collaborations and there’s the realistic ones, and I’ve been able to make most of my realistic collaborations come to life. If you look at the list of guitar players I’ve played with in the last five years; everybody from Richie Kotzen to Paul Gilbert to John Sykes to Zakk Wylde, Steve Morse, I mean, it’s really an incredible list. So I’ve been able to have all these dream collaborations, but I would say the one outstanding one would be Michael Åkerfeldt form Opeth. He and I are really good friends and for so many years, and we’ve talked about doing something together, so I still would love to. And then there of course are the imaginary dream things, you know? You mentioned jamming with Maiden or Van Halen or Rush, obviously any of those would be completely surreal and I would do any of those in a heartbeat. Or you know, working with Paul McCartney or Roger Waters or Pete Townshend – those are some of my biggest living heroes, so yeah, you know, a boy can still dream!
Have you ever jammed with anybody from any of those bands?
I’ve jammed with Wolfgang Van Halen. Metal Allegiance did the entire Van Halen I album from start to finish last year and Wolfgang sat in with us on that. I’ve had the honour of hanging out and meeting [Van Halen brothers] Alex and Eddie, and spending time with those guys, but I haven’t played with them. Sure, yeah I’m a fan first and foremost, and secondly I’m a musician that just loves to play, so I always have an open invitation.
If they come calling you’ll be ready!
Yeah, I love playing!
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Twisted Sister and Metal Allegiance play Bloodstock Open Air, which takes place in Catton Park, Derbyshire from 11 - 14 August 2016. Twisted Sister's 'Metal Meltdown Live At The Hard Rock Casino - A Concert To Honor AJ Pero' which features Mike, is out on 5th August.