The Winery Dogs' Mike Portnoy on Songwriting, Sobriety, and Being a Proud Father
Mike Portnoy has had an extremely productive career after leaving the band he co-founded, Dream Theater, a few years ago. With stints in Adrenaline Mob and Avenged Sevenfold, he's found success with bluesy pop-rock trio the Winery Dogs. Matched with vocalist/guitarist Richie Kotzen and bassist Billy Sheehan, the band's self-titled debut record was a surprise hit last year.
Courtesy the artist
Coming to town on Saturday to play the Granada, Portnoy took time out after soundcheck to talk with DC9 at Night. He had plenty to say about his current band, what it was like to curate a cruise featuring all kinds of prog bands, and what he has coming up next.
DC9 at Night: Prior to the Winery Dogs' album release, you said you had been spending time planting seeds for a new full-time band. Does it feel like that seed has fully sprouted?
Mike Portnoy: Yeah, it's pretty safe to say that, of everything I've done over the past few years, the Winery Dogs has to be the one that has picked up steam and been widely accepted more than anything at this point. The reception to the band has been really amazing straight out of the gates. The album was embraced by the fans and the critics and the shows were all selling out when we started touring last year. I think all three of us definitely view the Winery Dogs as our main home and focus. Obviously all three of us have other projects, different things on the side, but the Winery Dogs is the one that's gonna be home for us.
You've quipped in the past that you were better at writing "hate" songs than love songs. Was "You Saved Me" an easy song to write about your wife?
[laughs] Well, I'm not usually very good at writing mushy love songs, but in the case of "You Saved Me," I felt I really owed my wife and my family a sincere thank you for standing by me for the last few years and being so incredibly supportive. I wasn't even planning on writing lyrics anymore in my career and that subject matter kind of sprung me back into action.
Would you ever want to write more lyrics with the Winery Dogs again, or for another project?
Well, with Dream Theater, I wrote a lot of lyrics because I felt like that was one of the hats I wore and it was kind of my responsibility. But now, I kind of don't ever want to have to lyrics. I want to write lyrics because I want to write lyrics. I think that's where I stand. If I'm in a situation where I'm inspired by some subject matter or I'm really hearing some vocal melodies in a song that I want to write, then I'll pick up the pen and do it like I did with "You Saved Me." Richie is more than capable of writing all of the lyrics in the band and there's no need for me to do it. But if it doesn't happen in the future, I won't really mind not doing it either.
Since you've been very involved with live videos and documentaries about the bands you've been in, do you hope to do a full-on documentary for the Winery Dogs?
There's no plans to do a documentary. Now, in this day and age, everything is documented anyway, you know? When I started Dream Theater in the mid-to-late '80s, there was no internet, no YouTube, no Facebook or Twitter. You basically shot your home videos and that was it, and maybe one day it got released. In this day and age, filming clips from the road and doing interviews are all over the internet.
Has there been much recorded about this group so far?
I think the beginning of this band has already been well-documented and out there for anybody who wants to read about it or watch it. We did release a DVD of the second show we ever did, which was in Japan and it came out in Japan. We're carrying it on this tour so if people want to pick it up, they can as well. That's an interesting document of the very start of this band. I don't think any band in their right mind would ever put out a DVD of their second show ever. For some reason, we chose to do it.
This summer, you're doing Dog Camp. Is this like Rock N Roll Fantasy Camp?
Yeah, I think there's a chance it will be very similar. It's a very similar curriculum, where it's gonna be more about getting musicians on all different levels to play together, to play with us, and all three of us will be there to talk with them, walk through things with them. That's the whole idea.
What was it like to curate a music-themed cruise, the Progressive Nation at Sea cruise? As a side note, thank you for booking Jolly because I don't think I would have heard of them any other way, and I think that band is amazing.
Yeah, they're awesome! Every band on Progressive Nation was awesome. I hand-picked every one of them as a fan. I'm still the biggest fan there is in the business and that's never gonna change. Luckily I'm able to utilize some of my power in the industry to help young and up-and-coming bands. When I put together the cruise, I was able to put bands like Jolly and Mark Mikel and bands that are not big, household names and put them on the cruise to give them rightfully-deserved exposure.
Including Next to None. I wanted to ask, what was it like to produce your son's band and their EP?
I'm really proud watching my son develop. His band is getting better and better. Watching their development has been incredible. They've opened for the Winery Dogs a few times. There's no prouder feeling for a father to watch your son following in your footsteps and be so good at it. I mean, he's already way beyond where I was at, at his age.
Have you always encouraged your children to do what they want to do? Not necessarily follow in your footsteps, just have them do what they want to do?
Yeah! I've never pushed drumming down Max's throat. He took to it himself and he even goes to another teacher. It's not like I'm his teacher. He goes to someone else. But yeah, I've always encouraged both of my kids to do what they want to do. My daughter isn't a musician, but she's a music lover as well. Whatever they want to do, I'll support them. People should be happy with what they do for a living.
Have you ever considered writing an autobiography?
I have, actually. Right after I left Dream Theater, I was approached by several different people about doing that. I passed on the idea because everything was so sensitive still. Those first couple months, whatever I would say would turn into a Blabbermouth headline and blow up into this big, dramatic thing. So, I was really gun-shy at that stage to do a book. But now that the smoke has cleared, it's coming up on four years since I left the band, maybe the time is right. The co-author that I'm friends with, who has done many other books with musicians, keeps pestering me to do one. So, we'll see.
The forums on MikePortnoy.com are thorough and you've been generous with sharing your upbringing.
Well, I'm a stickler for details being accurate. That's why I spend so much time documenting things and staying in touch with my fans.
You've been very open about your sobriety in the past. Do you find it hard to find AA meetings when you're on the road?
I just celebrated 14 years. I had to make meetings every day in the first year of my sobriety, just because I was so fragile. You gotta look at it like, when you're out there and you're active in your drinking and your drugging, you found your drinks and drugs every night. You have to pursue it that way as well. You have to find a meeting every day. If you want to make a meeting, it's just a phone call away. I've been in meetings all over the world, from Japan to Australia to Cincinnati and everything in between. All you have to do is reach out and somebody will be there to help you.