Mike Portnoy talks Transatlantic, cover tunes and Progressive Nation At Sea

9th Jan 2014 | 01:10

Mike Portnoy talks Transatlantic, cover tunes and Progressive Nation At Sea
Mike Portnoy talks Transatlantic, cover tunes and Progressive Nation At Sea

For a drummer, Mike Portnoy doesn't believe in sitting still for very long. He spent much of last year touring the world with his brand-new power trio, The Winery Dogs, played dates across the globe with the Neal Morse Band, and after a few weeks at home for the holidays, he's itching to get back on the road again.

He'll get his chance soon enough: On January 31st, Portnoy and Morse join their Transatlantic bandmates Roine Stolt and Peter Trewavas for a six-week trek that will see the progressive-rock powerhouse performing cuts from their staggering new album, Kaleidoscope (due out January 27th).

Only this time the road isn't enough for Portnoy, and in the middle of the tour he's setting sail – literally – with over two dozen prog-rock bands that he personally handpicked for Progressive Nation At Sea, a five-day Caribbean excursion that the celebrated sticksman calls "the ultimate prog event." The lineup of groups is a veritable who's who of the genre, and if fans want all-Mike-Portnoy-all-the-time, they'll get it: He's performing with Transatlantic (including a special set with Jon Anderson), Bigelf, Portnoy Sheehan MacAlpine Sherinian, and we're guessing that if an impromptu barbershop quartet breaks out on deck, he'll be leading the chorus.

Portnoy sat down with MusicRadar the other day to talk about Kaleidoscope, his love of playing cover tunes (there's a bonus disc of surprises on the album) and what people can expect on the big cruise.

Is there a plan to how Transatlantic band operates, or do you guys get together when the stars and schedules align?

“It’s been different each time around. This is now our fourth album – we started in ’99, and so we’re into our 15th year. I think we’ve been promoted from side project to part-time band. In the beginning, it was this concept of mine to put together a quote-unquote supergroup of modern prog players. That was the initial thing from the get-go – it was a project.

“The second album was kind of an immediate response to how successful the first one was; we wanted to do it again. Then we had a big eight or nine-year hiatus. When we got back together for The Whirlwind, it was like a big secret reunion. People didn’t know about it, so when we finally announced it, it was kind of a big deal.

“Now, here we are with the fourth album, and after the reunion and the success of The Whirlwind, we feel like this can be a real part-time band, because our circumstances have changed. When we started this in the late ‘90s, I was obviously still in Dream Theater, and Neal was in Spock’s Beard. Those were our main things, and Transatlantic was definitely a side band.

“But here we are in 2014: I’m no longer in Dream Theater – I’m a free agent, doing lots of different things; Neal’s a free agent and is doing lots of different things. So it gives Transatlantic as an entity a little bit more flexibility. I think that’s what’s promoted us from side project to more part-time band.

The Whirlwind was one song that ran for 78 minutes. This one has two that clock in at over 25 minutes apiece. How do you remember all the parts to songs that long?

[Laughs] “It’s easy. It’s very natural for us, especially for Neal, Roine and me. We’ve made a career out of long songs, even in our bands outside of Transatlantic. With this band, you have three of the four members who are very comfortable with epic pieces. Because of that, when we write, it just comes out that way.

“At this point, the Transatlantic catalogue has maybe five or six or seven songs that are at the half-hour mark. It’s funny: If you look at our setlist from The Whirlwind tour back in 2010, it was literally six songs, but the show lasted three hours! [Laughs] Four of the songs were past the 30-minute mark, and one of them was over 75 minutes. We’ve made this career out of the longest, most epic, bombastic and over-the-top songs that any prog band could hope to write. It’s our signature style.”

Mike Portnoy talks Transatlantic, cover tunes and Progressive Nation At Sea
Mike Portnoy talks Transatlantic, cover tunes and Progressive Nation At Sea
Transatlantic, 2014 (left to right): Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, Roine Stolt and Peter Trewavas

You’ve worked with Neal Morse on a variety of projects. Why do you like playing with him so much?

“Man, I can’t say enough about my relationship with Neal. First of all, on a musical level, he’s one of my favorite songwriters in the world. I put him up there with John Lennon, Roger Waters and Pete Townshend. His music just really moves me and touches me.

“There’s the side of me that’s a fan, but there’s also the side of me that’s a musical collaborator. We’ve now done, I think, 15 studio albums together between Flying Colors, Transatlantic and his solo catalogue. He and I have a tremendous musical relationship and a chemistry that works so easily. There’s so much respect between the two of us and mutual admiration.

“And then there’s the personal side. He’s one of my dearest friends and is one of the most positive spirits I’ve ever known. Beyond the musical side, I think that’s one of the reasons I like working with him so much. He’s been a huge positive influence on me, as a person and as a father and as a husband. My sobriety and his Christianity – there’s a lot in common there. And he helps me with that; he helps me to be a better person.”

You sing on the album, as you have on other records and in other bands. Are you surprised that some people might still say, “I didn’t know he could sing”?

[Laughs] “It is amazing. You’d think, at this point, anybody who’s been following my career would have noticed. In Dream Theater I did most of my singing. In Transatlantic I sing lead as well as lot of background vocals – same with Flying Colors, and the same with Yellow Matter Custard, my Beatles tribute. And like I said, I did a tremendous amount within Dream Theater. I did a tremendous amount of secondary lead vocals and harmonies, and I wrote a huge amount of lyrics and melodies within the band. You’d think a lot of people would know by now, but I guess not everybody pays attention.

“For me, this is one of the great things about Transatlantic, that you’ve got four people singing, four distinct voices contributing to the music. All of my favorite bands have had all four members singing. Obviously, The Beatles are a great example; maybe a lesser example is KISS. In Pink Floyd, you had three of the guys singing; Queen had three of the guys singing. I’ve always appreciated the variety in those bands."

Mike Portnoy talks Transatlantic, cover tunes and Progressive Nation At Sea
Mike Portnoy talks Transatlantic, cover tunes and Progressive Nation At Sea
Of Neal Morse, Portnoy says, "I put him up there with John Lennon, Roger Waters and Pete Townshend."

Who are your top three singing drummers? The three that pop into your head.

“Uh… Roger Taylor… Andy Sturmer from Jellyfish... Phil Collins. Those are the three that come to mind. Dave Grohl – I can’t forget Dave Grohl.”

Drum-wise, you pull out the flash chops on Into The Blue and Kaleidoscope, but a song like Shine calls for a straight-ahead approach. Is one way more fun than the other?

“I wouldn’t say the straight-ahead stuff is as much fun, but it’s equally satisfying musically. Obviously, those types of part aren’t as challenging, so they’re not as much quote-unquote fun as the more exciting parts. But it’s not always about the drums; it’s about the song, and that’s always been my focus.

“You know, if a song calls for crazy double-bass or crazy odd-time signatures, I love to do it, but I’m also not afraid to pull out my best Ringo or Nick Mason impersonations. Those guys are heroes of mine, as well. In Transatlantic, I get to do that a lot, and that’s an important part of it. All the best prog bands had that yin and yang. Yes could do Heart Of The Sunrise, and they could do I’ve Seen All Good People. ELP could do Tarkus and could also do Lucky Man.”

In pretty much every band you’ve been in, you’ve always done cover tunes. Why do you like to perform other people’s music so much?

“There are two sides to it. First and foremost, there’s my enjoyment of doing it as a fan. Just because I’m such a fan of everything from Radiohead to Slayer to Badfinger to everything in-between, I have this instant jukebox in my head. I even carry around a list of songs that would be great to cover. Anytime I hear something on the radio or if something comes up on my iPod shuffle – I’ll hear an obscure Sweet song or an obscure David Bowie song, and I’ll be like, ‘I gotta cover that someday.’

“The other side to this is that I love exposing today’s audience to songs they might not have heard. The bonus disc on Kaleidoscope has some obscure tunes, things like a prog instrumental by Focus or the Small Faces tune, as well as the classics like And You And I and Nights In White Satin. I love thinking that there’s a 13-year-old kid somewhere who loves Transatlanic but never heard of Procol Harum. This is a chance to expose people to some music history.”

Have you ever heard from any of the artists you’ve covered?

“Yeah, occasionally. One of the coolest things was when Neal and I covered Starless by King Crimson, and Bill Bruford sent me an amazing e-mail saying how much he loved it; he thought we did a great job with it. That was tremendously cool. On Kaleidoscope, we do a cover of Indiscipline by King Crimson, and it’s going to be great to have Adrian Belew on the Progressive Nation Cruise. And, of course, there's Jon Anderson –

I was just going to mention him – he's going to be on the cruise.

“He's on the cruise. We’re going to be playing a set of Yes classics with Jon, which will be so much fun. It’s nice when you can pay tribute but you also have a relationship with these artists, as well. That’s one of the greatest perks of this music business.”

Mike Portnoy talks Transatlantic, cover tunes and Progressive Nation At Sea
Mike Portnoy talks Transatlantic, cover tunes and Progressive Nation At Sea

So let’s get into the cruise. Can you walk me through what it entails?

“Progressive Nation At Sea is, I guess, the next logical step from my Progressive Nation concept that I started in 2008. I assembled three Progressive Nation tours while in Dream Theater, with Dream Theater headlining. At the time, those were six-week tours with a four-band lineup. This whole thing is something I’ve always wanted to do as an ambassador for progressive music. I’ve always carried the flag for this kind of music and always wanted to do whatever I could to help younger progressive bands.

“In Dream Theater, I handpicked various bands to go out with us – Spock’s Beard, Fate’s Warning, Porcupine Tree, Pain Of Salvation. I took all those bands out with Dream Theater, and Progressive Nation was the next step to doing a full package. Now, here we are in 2014 with the next step from those tours. I’m taking that concept and extending it to a five-day cruise with 26 bands and then some. So that’s over two dozen bands that I handpicked, groups that I love and admire them. It’s a lot of fun creating the ultimate prog experience.”

There have been a couple of rock band cruises – Weezer, KISS. Have you ever gone on one?

“I’ve never been on one as a player or a fan, so I’m totally jumping into the deep end, putting one together and spearheading it without ever having gone on one. It’s going to be very interesting for me. And I’m playing with of the three bands on board – Transatlantic, PSMS [Portnoy Sheehan MacAlpine Sherinian] and Bigelf. Not only is it going to be incredible busy for me on the planning end, but it’ll be busy for me as a drummer, as well.”

Besides the bands, what else goes on during the cruise?

“Well, the music is certainly the focal point. There’s going to be four stages on the ship, with every band performing multiple times. All throughout the day and night, there’s going to be music happening at any given moment. There’s going to be a lot of cross-pollination with all the bands, too, different people performing with different groups.

“And there are other things: There’ll be a trivia contest, Q&As, meet and greets, signings with different artists and even clinics with a few of them. Of course, while we’re docked, it’s like you’re on vacation. In the afternoons on the third and fourth days, you can go on the islands and just be on vacation. It’s both sides of R&R – you’re getting the rest and relaxation, and you’re getting the rock ‘n’ roll.” [Laughs]

Mike Portnoy talks Transatlantic, cover tunes and Progressive Nation At Sea
Mike Portnoy talks Transatlantic, cover tunes and Progressive Nation At Sea

Is planning something so extensive as much work as booking a whole tour?

“I think even more so. On a tour, you basically put together your bill and it stays consistent for four to six weeks or whatever. With this, it’s a very concentrated thing with over two dozen bands. For me, the scheduling has been a nightmare – I’m the one working out who’s gonna play when and on what stage. And because of the cross-pollination, I have to be careful that nobody’s getting double-booked. Then I had to try to accommodate every band so that fans can have a chance to see them all. It’s a lot to work out; I feel like I’m trying to figure out the ultimate Sudoku. [Laughs] But I’m like a kid in a candy store. I’m putting together my ultimate prog event.”

There’s so much attention to detail – you’re going to need a cruise to recuperate from the cruise!

“Actually, I joked about that to my wife. I said, ‘This is gonna be a vacation for you and everybody else on board, but this isn’t a vacation for me. It’s like I’m running Woodstock on a boat.”

I’m curious – did you approach any bands who wanted to do it, but one of the members said, “Hey, man, I’m not good on boats.” Anybody afraid of seasickness?

“Nobody admitted it, no, but I do have a feeling about that. Out of my wish list of about 30 bands, I was able to get most of them – 23 or so. Of the handful that had to decline, some of them had legitimate scheduling conflicts. There were a couple that didn’t, so I started to wonder, ‘Hmm… maybe they’re just scared.’ [Laughs] You never know.”

Well, as you said, it sounds like the ultimate prog experience.

“It’s going to be amazing. Even if these bands were just playing normal sets, it would be incredible. But we have a lot of special things planned – lots of special guests. I know that Spock’s Beard and Neal Morse have talked about maybe reuniting for a song or two – we’ll see what happens. It’s really going to be a historic prog event. Let’s just hope there’s no icebergs in the middle of the sea – we’ll blow the entire genre in one shot!” [Laughs]

For more information on Progressive Nation At Sea, visit the event's official website.

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