For all the prog fans out there, Mike Portnoy needs no introduction. As one of the original members of Dream Theater who eventually moved on to other things including The Winery Dogs, Flying Colors and currently touring with The Neal Morse Band, the drum god now has a new project titled The Shattered Fortress which is the culmination of his epic 12 step suite concept featuring the 5 songs written for Dream Theater over the course of 8 years and 5 albums. He will be bringing those songs together down to Australia for the first time in November so I caught up with Mike to discuss The Shattered Fortress, revisiting those songs again as well as a few other things he is working on right now.
Andrew: It’s an absolute pleasure to be speaking to you today! I just got the news that Shattered Fortress are coming down to Australia which is exciting news for us.
Mike: Yeah for me as well! I’ve been waiting a long time to get back, I’m excited.
Andrew: Yeah I think the last time we saw you was about 2009 when you were still with Dream Theater so it’s been a while.
Mike: Exactly, so it’s been 8 years. I almost made it I think it was last year for Soundwave and then it got cancelled so it was a last minute disappointment that we never made it down so have been waiting anxiously for another invitation.
Andrew: Yeah that’s right, we were keen to see you but obviously the whole thing got cancelled. What were you planning to do for that particular tour?
Mike: I was supposed to be coming out with that for Metal Allegiance which is my project with all the guys from Anthrax and Megadeth and Testament and Slayer and Pantera. Yeah it was a disappointment to not be making it down.
Andrew: Oh yeah that’s right! So now you have this new project The Shattered Fortress which is obviously the songs that you wrote with Dream Theater which was part of that 12 step suite which was a very cool concept. Going back to these songs now, how do you feel about revisiting these songs again?
Mike: Well it’s kind of bitter sweet. On the one hand I’m excited to finally be doing it, I started writing these songs in 2001 so here we are 16 years later so it’s taken a long time to go from page to stage. So on one hand it’s exciting and I’m looking forward to doing it and visiting it but on the other hand it’s sad that I’m not doing it with Dream Theater which was always the intention but this is the way the cards have been dealt and I’m trying to do whatever I can to bring this to life for the fans that never thought they would have a chance to hear these songs performed together as always was my intention.
Andrew: So you’ve never played these songs together like this but have these songs been played individually played live before?
Mike: Yeah most of them. When I was still with Dream Theater we did “The Glass Prison” on the Six Degrees tour and we did “This Dying Soul” on the Train Of Thought tour and “The Root Of All Evil on the Octavarium tour so the first 3 pieces of the puzzle were done individually when they were released on their respective albums. But “Repentance” was only performed by Dream Theater once or twice and then “The Shattered Fortress” I never got to do with the band while I was still with them. So yeah some of these are new to be played for the very first time at all by me and the others will be the first time that they will be plugged in to the big picture.
Andrew: You had just played these for the first time at some cruise ship recently right?
Mike: Yeah it was on Yes’s Cruise To The Edge and they were nice enough to throw me a 50th birthday bash. I did 2 sets onboard which were pretty much a retrospective of my whole career and half those shows I performed live with Flying Colors and with Trans-Atlantic and then I also did a Liquid Tension set with Tony Levin, and then I did the Dream Theater portion which was the first time I had ever done these songs together live on stage.
Andrew: So was that where the idea to do this come from then? Was that the spark that you wanted to bring these songs together on a touring schedule kind of thing?
Mike: Well I never intended on doing a tour with this to be honest. It was only ever supposed to be just this one performance for my 50th birthday and that was all I really intended on doing and then once word got out about that, I got some offers from some festivals in Europe and at that point I decided, ‘OK well I’ll do it a few more times being it’s up and running’ and it would be nice to do it for a few different markets around the world and then at that point the flood gates opened and I started getting offers from Mexico and South America and now Australia. So I figured OK I guess if there’s a demand for this, I’ll go and bring it to the fans but it was never really my intention to even really go his far. But I’m capping it off at the end of the year, I won’t be doing this beyond 2017. It’s a one time only thing and once I’ve done it, I’m over and done with it and I will close this chapter and move on to the next.
Andrew: Yeah it’s a pretty exclusive thing to be witnessing because I don’t think there would be many people who would have thought you would ever play these songs live, especially now that you haven’t been in Dream Theater for a number of years. I did ask before about how you felt about playing these songs live and revisiting these songs again, it obviously has a special connection to your past with how these songs came together. Do you ever think about the time you spent writing these songs and how you have gotten from that point to where you are now?
Mike: Well from the time I started the 12 step suite to now is 16 years and I’ve done probably about 30 to 40 albums since then with at least a dozen different bands at this point. But to be honest I’ve moved on beyond Dream Theater many years ago at this point and I have so many other things in my life and in my career with The Winery Dogs to Flying Colors to Metal Allegiance to playing with Twisted Sister and Avenged Sevenfold. I mean it’s been an incredible ride since I began these songs because to be honest I feel a little far removed from them because it’s such a piece of my past at this point, but that being said I embrace my past and I cherish my history and everything I’ve done is a part of who I am. So I’m not the sort of artist that’s so intent on moving forward that I don’t embrace my past, I think it’s all important and it’s all part of the big picture of who I am. So honestly I never intended on revisting Dream Theater material because I’ve gone on to do so many things since leaving the band but it seems like my 50th birthday was a good time and place to finally do this and even though it was only supposed to have been only on my 50th birthday but once I got the offers to do more and take it around the world, I figured you know what? It’s the 50th birthday celebration for not only me but for the fans as well so I want to share it with them and embrace it and share it.
Andrew: Looking at these songs individually, I’m quite familiar with all of them and are some of my favorite Dream Theater songs of all time, especially “The Glass Prison”. Musically speaking which one out of these particular songs do you find the most fun to actually play live?
Mike: Oh god it’s very intense music even though the lyrics are so personal for me. The music is very intense and when we wrote the first 2 pieces of the puzzle, particularly “The Glass Prison” and “This Dying Soul”, those 2 when you play them back to back it’s about 25 minutes right there of full blown riffing intensity. You know those songs are very heavy and fast and dark and intense, so I don’t know if those are the most fun to play because they are very demanding but they are certaintly the most intense. That’s a quick 1-2 punch and then when we moved on to the next pieces “The Root Of All Evil” and “Repentance”, we consciously kind of made those kind of breathing points after the 1-2 punch of the first 2 songs.
Andrew: And the last song “The Shattered Fortress” I guess is a mixed bag of all the stuff that’s in there, was that also intended to be the final culmination of all those songs put together?
Mike: Yeah all along I had the concept and the idea of the themes constantly being interwoven in and out of each song and one beginning with where the last one left off and revisiting themes and motifs and lyrics. All along that was the big concept I had in my head so I knew when we finally got around to steps 10, 11 and 12 with the song “The Shattered Fortress”, that was supposed to wrap things up and kind of have a little mixed bag of everything. There’s pretty much themes from all 4 of the proceeding songs in that one and all along I looked at these 5 songs almost like writing a concept album, it was always supposed to be like a 1 hour piece of music that could be treated almost like an album within itself and when you’re writing a concept album, you constantly want to be forshadowing themes and revisiting themes. I’ve done many concept albums now through the years, “Scenes From A Memory” and “The Whirlwind” and “The Similitude of a Dream” and whenever you are writing a concept album you want to have all of those interwoven and reccuring themes. So when we were writing these 5 songs, I was very conscious of treating it that way like as if it was a concept album within it’s own.
Andrew: And the interesting thing about it is that it was written over a number of years so was there any point at all where you thought you couldn’t really finish the whole story with all the songs put together?
Mike: Well the lyrics are based on the 12 steps so I had a very specific blue print to work with, “The Glass Prison” was steps 1, 2 and 3, “This Dying Soul” was steps 4, 5 etc etc all down the line. So I knew the content was already there, I already knew which steps were going to be devoted to which songs so I never ran out of ideas, it was already laid out in front of me from the very beginning. But I will say after a while when I started the whole idea in 2001, I was very inspired and excited by it and then we moved on to the next chapter in 2003 and then moved on to the next chapter in 2005, I will say by the time we got to the end around 2008-2009, at this point it was more of a relief than anything to be just be done with it! 8 years later you’re finally finishing it, there was a certain relief finally being finished with it because it was kind of hanging over my head all that time. And now here we are 15-16 years later and I’m finally getting to play it live so there’s definitely a feeling of closure all these years later.
Andrew: We are looking forward to hearing these songs live, I’m definitely looking forward to it especially with those heavier ones like “The Glass Prison” and “This Dying Soul”. Before I let you go I do want to ask you about The Winery Dogs, is there any update on the band? Has that been put on hiatus?
Mike: Yeah if you want to use the word ‘hiatus’ or if you want to just say we’re between albums. We did 2 back to back albums and tours and they were very well received through-out the whole world so all three of us really love the band but I think Richie (Kotzen) in particular kind of wanted a breather. He’s always been a solo artist for the last 20 years or so, so being in a full time band is something that’s kind of new to him and a bit overwhelming so I think he wanted a breather to go do his solo thing for a while and in the meantime there’s no shortage of things for me and Billy (Sheehan) to do so we’re kind of just on break at the moment and once everybody has caught their breathe we will get back to work on another album at some point.
Andrew: OK cool. So aside from The Shattered Fortess stuff, what else have you been doing at the moment or what’s coming up?
Mike: Currently I’m still touring with the Neal Morse band in support of our latest album “The Similitude of a Dream” which is a double concept album and frankly one of my favorite things I’ve ever been a part of. But anyway we’re still in the middle of touring that, we’re about to go to South America in June and then we have another American tour in August so wrapping up that tour cycle and then go do The Shattered Fortress shows. I have a few other things, I started work on a new Metal Allegiance album and started work on a new Flying Colors album and also completing work on an album with a brand new band that I’m going to be announcing later in the year and debuting next year. So that’s probably going to be a big focus of my next chapter.
Andrew: Cool looking forward to that and definitely looking forward to the next Metal Allegiance album as the first one was really killer and so I wasn’t sure if that was just a one-off or if you were continuing on with that.
Mike: Yeah actually we’re about halfway through the writing process. Myself and Alex Skolnick and David Ellefson and Mark Menghi are pretty much the core 4 of the project and currently we have about 7 songs written and Alex and Dave are coming back to my place in the beginning of June to finish the writing and then start the tracking. So yeah it’s well underway at this point for the next one.
Andrew: Oh nice! And will it be the same concept as well where you will have different guests coming in to do vocal parts and stuff like that?
Mike: Yeah exactly, it will be the core 4 doing all the writing and the basic tracks and we will have different singers and lead players. Same kind of ideas as the first album.
Andrew: Well it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking to you and really looking forward to seeing you in Australia after all thse years and hearing these great epic songs, so thanks for your time today, really appreciate it!
Mike: My pleasure man, I look forward to it.
MIKE PORTNOY’S SHATTERED FORTRESS TOUR DATES
Thursday 16th November – Auckland – The Studio
Saturday 18th November – Brisbane – The Tivoli
Monday 20th November – Perth – Astor Theatre
Wednesday 22nd November – Adelaide – The Gov
Friday 24th November – Sydney – Metro Theatre
Saturday 25th November – Melbourne – The Croxton
Pre-Sale Tuesday 9th May 9am (local)
On-Sale Thursday 11th May 9am (local)