Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Mike Portnoy while he has a short break from recording and touring. We talked about Sons of Apollo, his writing process, and a little bit on his experience with fan engagement and toxicity online.
Both an audio version and a lightly edited transcript are available below.
Stephen: So are you doing a lot of promotion for the Sons of Apollo right now?
Mike: Yeah, I’m home for about a week or so. Doing a lot of press, and a lot of press for the Australian tour I have coming up next week. Keeping busy – trying to get a break at home, but can’t get off the phone.
Stephen: What’s the Australian tour?
Mike: That’s the last run with the Shattered Fortress.
Stephen: Awesome, I was hoping to get to see you guys in New York, but scheduling didn’t work out for me. Speaking of which, how did going from Shattered Fortress, where you were going back to some of the material you wrote with Dream Theater. How did that segue into Sons of Apollo? You haven’t done much in the way of progressive metal in the last few years…
Mike: Yeah, I guess it was the Shattered Fortress shows that whet my appetite again. The love and enthusiasm that I saw from the fans with the Shattered Fortress made me realize that people miss me playing this kind of stuff. It just seemed like the time was right to get Sons of Apollo off the ground and venture into that territory.
Stephen: So how did that all come together? Was Derek Sherinian on you list [to call up] with the rest of these guys? What it more organic?
Mike: You mean in terms of the lineup?
Stephen: Yeah, the lineup for Sons of Apollo. You said, “I’m ready to do some progressive metal.” Did you just call everyone and see who was around?
Mike: Actually, it stemmed from a project that me and Derek did about five years ago, along with Billy Sheehan and Tony MacAlpine. We did some touring with that lineup, playing instrumental music and songs from each of our pasts. After we did that tour, Derek had been trying to convince me to try to turn that into a full time band, but the time was never right – I just had too many things on my plate. Now that the time felt right, I went back and revisited the idea with Derek, kept Billy on board, and had Bumblefoot and Jeff Scott Soto join up. But basically it was my lineup that I had in my head, like my fantasy lineup. I knew that this would be the strongest group of guys to put together – to make this new band out of.
Stephen: I think I remember catching a video of when you guys were with Tony MacAlpine and being really excited about that. So that’s cool. So have you ever worked with Jeff Scott Soto or Bumblefoot before?
Mike: I’ve done a lot of stuff with Bumblefoot through the years. He toured with me in Metal Allegiance, so I spent time with him on the road with that. And myself, Bumblefoot, and Billy had done various things through the years. I guess one of the most notable ones was when I was the musical director for Eddie Trunk’s 30th Anniversary Concert. So basically the house band that I put together for that was Billy, Bumblefoot, and myself. So, yeah, I’ve worked with Ron in various capacities through the years. And Jeff, I hadn’t written or performed with, but I toured with him when his solo band was the opening band for Winery Dogs down in South America. So I would watch him every night, so I knew was a great fun man, and a great vocalist, and I knew that he’d be the right guy for this.
Stephen: Awesome. So you got your dream band together, I guess, and so how did the writing process work for that? You and Derek and Sherinian had the production credit as the “Del Fuvio Brothers.” So how did the writing in general work? Did everyone come with their own ideas? Did you guys have a lot of it written already?
Mike: The music began with myself Derek and Bumblefoot getting together in the studio and within a couple of days we wrote most of the music on the album. A lot of the ideas were existing riffs or ideas that Bumblefoot and Derek brought in, and the three of us worked on them together and expanded them, and collaborated on them. Then Billy joined us for the end of that process of music. Then once all the music was done, Derek and I got together with Jeff, and Jeff would come to the plate with words and melodies and then we would shape them together – the three of us. There were kind of two different stages: one was the music and one was the vocals.
Stephen: Okay, cool. Is that a bit different – so you’ve worked with Billy on Winery Dogs and obviously Derek with Dream Theater – is that writing process different or was it pretty familiar?
Mike: This is pretty much my writing process for almost everything I’m involved in. Sons of Apollo, Winery Dogs, Transatlantic, Flying Colors, even Dream Theater. I’ve always been a collaborator and all of these bands, and all of the albums from these bands have pretty much been collaborated upon: getting together in a room, working on the stuff, and then recording it right there and then. Honestly, it’s a process that I’m very familiar with and most comfortable with.
Stephen: So with that process – you guys have all had these huge, influential, prolific careers – how do you keep from sort of stealing from yourself in that process? Do you have some kind of filter or anything that you use to say like, “Oh man, that riff was totally out of Shattered Fortress!” or something like that?
Mike: Well, honestly, I’m kind of like a musical encyclopedia, so any time I’m writing with other guys, any riff or melody or rhythm that ends up on the table, I could pretty much pinpoint it to something else that already exists. We’re up to fifty years of rock at this point – fifty plus years – so I don’t think that there’s a single melody or progression or rhythmic pattern that hasn’t been used at this point. But because I have this encyclopedia of music in the back of my head at all times, I usually can pinpoint it, and we can look at it, and do whatever we can to make it unique or different original. But, you know, in all of these cases I’m writing with different people. Winery Dogs is with Billy and Richie, Sons of Apollo is with Jeff and Derek and Bumblefoot, Flying Colors is Steve Morse and Neal Morse, Metal Allegiance is with David Ellefson and Alex Skolnick, and in all these cases it’s different people that I’m collaborating with and you’re going to get different styles and influence thrown into the melting pot. So in each one of these cases the music is going to have a very different flavor. Even if I’m a common element in all these situations and bands. The people I’m working with are all bringing very different things to the table and to the chemistry.
Stephen: Like Neal Morse is not going to come up with the same melodies as Ritchie Kotzen or something like that. They’re going to be something totally different.
Mike: Everyone of these people are bringing very different things to the chemistry with all the bands I work with them in.
Stephen: Now, when you were talking about different groups you work with in the collaborative process, I get the impression that, at least up until this last album, that it was a little bit different with Neal Morse. Would he typically have the whole thing pretty much written – that’s the impression that I got – and then he brings everyone else in later? Or not so much?
Mike: It depends on the band. I’m in three different bands with Neal, and each one of them has very different dynamics. Transatlantic, Flying Colors, and now the Neal Morse Band, plus I worked with Neal on all of his solo albums before it was the Neal Morse band. Different situations.
Stephen: I was thinking more of the solo albums. I’m guessing that was less collaborative?
Mike: All of his solo albums that I did, from Testimony through Momentum, basically he was writing everything, and Randy and I would work with him on an arrangement idea here and there. But for the most part, it was 98% done, and I was just being hired to be the drummer on those albums. But after Momentum, we shifted over to a full time band, and you know The Grand Experiment and Similitude of a Dream, where collaborative albums. So Neal would bring in a lot of ideas, and maybe once in awhile a completed section, but also we were working together. There was stuff that Bill brought in, and Eric brought in, and I was very much hands on with the arrangement. So, yeah, it really depends on the scenario and the band.
Stephen: I think I remember a story about a fill on Neal’s first solo album – on Testimony – where you paid Neal money to leave the fill on the album?
Mike: Yeah, that was the first Testimony album, that was, what was it? The song “Oh Lord, My God” I believe. The fill going into the bridge. I had this fill that I really, really loved and wanted to keep, but at that point that was his album, that was the Neal Morse solo album. So he made me pay him fifty bucks for the fill.
Stephen: That’s coming out of your cut.
Mike: Exactly. [laughter]
Stephen: So, I’m sure, from watching some of the sort of Behind the Music you guys put together, that you had a lot of fun working on Sons of Apollo. Do you have any good stories about that? Anybody have to pay fifty bucks to get something on the album or anything like that?
Mike: I don’t know. I don’t have any specific stories off the top of my head. It was a fun group of guys, especially with Derek. Derek is a character and a half, he’s a shitstirrer and has a really funny sarcastic sense of humor. So there’s never a shortage of fun moments when the Del Fuvio brothers are together.
Stephen: Nice. So what’s the origin – I kind of vaguely familiar with it, but I’m sure some of readers won’t be – of the Del Fuvio brothers? That goes back to Nightmare Cinema, is that right?
Mike: No, it goes back to when we were making “Falling into Infinity.” Myself and Derek, we were always the shitstirrers and the sarcastic guys in the band, and Kevin Shirley also had a lot of that sense of humor to him. So somehow, any time there was any mocking of somebody or some sarcastic sense of humor, that was the Del Fuvio brothers coming out. I don’t remember who came up with it, if it Kevin Shirley or whatever, but that nickname dates back to then – twenty years now.
Stephen: It just kind of stuck around, that’s really cool. Now I had a really important question that came in on request. So obviously, you’re a showman when you play live – you don’t sit behind the drums and keep the beat – so have you ever hit yourself in the eye during a drumstick throw?
Mike: [laughter] I’ve hit myself in the eye, I’ve hit myself in the balls. Yeah, I mean, I’ve hit myself everywhere – multiple times through the years. I’ve had drumstick chips end up in my eye. It’s just one of the dangers of the job, especially if you’re an active performer on stage, with the jumping around and all that. I’ve had muscle cramps and dislocations, and my back go out, and all kinds of stuff like that. When I play drums, it’s more like a warzone up there.
Stephen: Yeah, I think I remember one show with Transatlantic, where you had a microphone on a swivel, and the tech or the stage hand who was swiveling it for you whacked you in the head with the mic. I’m sure that wasn’t an unusual occurrence?
Mike: No, that stuff happens every show. [laughter]
Stephen: Cool, so I’m almost done here. I’ll let you get back to relaxing at home.
Mike: I wish that was the case. I have more interviews.
Stephen: I can just keep the line open for fifteen minutes or something and you can hang out, pretend we’re still on the call. So one of the things that’s stood out about you – going back years now – is your community engagement. Online, everywhere, you’re available and out there, answering questions and talking to random people on the phone, talking about your album, and everything else, answering all my dumb questions. How has that changed over the years? I feel like social media has gotten really toxic in the past few years. How has that affected your engagement with the community? Have you felt that? Or has it always been toxic?
Mike: No, it’s gotten worse for sure. The problem for me is that I’ve always been engaged with the fans, even back before there were computers and internet. Back in the 80s when Dream Theater was starting, I was the one who was always answering the fan mail and mailing out the demo tapes and doing that kind of stuff. Interacting. And then when we hit the road with our first tour, I was always the one who was hanging out back at the bus with the fans, drinking with them, engaging with them, giving them my phone number. That was always my nature. I’ve always been that type of person. The other guys in the band really weren’t, so it was kind of like my role.
But in any case, then the internet came around in the mid to late 90s and at that point I was always engaged on my message board, my forum on my website, and then social media came around. And now between Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Instagram, you can have a constant line to the fans. It’s a good thing, if you’re somebody likes me who cares about the fans and wants to engage to them, but it’s also really dangerous because you have all of these horrible negative trolls that just love to stir up shit and start fights and bully people around – cyberbullying. You have these certain websites – you know who they are – that just like to make controversial headlines out of every interview you do. And, I just talked about this in another interview a few days ago, to be honest with you, I wouldn’t be surprised if this horrible, horrible trend of suicides – depression and suicides – that you’ve been reading about with other musicians and entertainers, whether it be Robin Williams or Keith Emerson or Chris Cornell or Chester Bennington. I’m not saying that any of their tragedies are at all a result of cyberbullying, but personally I wouldn’t be surprised if it plays a factor. And it’s horrible. It’s really scary and discouraging. I know personally, I have a much better day when I don’t read some of those websites, with all that negativity. I just try to stay away from that, because it constantly puts me in a bad mood when I do read it, and I know my day is much better when I don’t.
Stephen: I hadn’t really thought about it, but I can imagine where even if you’ve got a thousand comments saying “I love this song, I love your band, I love you!” and then you’ve got a couple dozen saying “I hate you, your music sucks!” I can see those weighing so heavily on you – you know, you put your heart and soul into these projects, and these songs, and that has to weigh so heavy on your guys.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely.
Stephen: I appreciate you putting yourself out there. I’ve been a Mike Portnoy fan since about 1995 or 96 when I heard Dream Theater’s Awake for the first time, and it blew my mind. I’d never heard drumming like that, rhythms like that, any of that before.
Mike: Thank you, man, thank you.
Stephen: It was good talking to you. I’m really enjoying the new Sons of Apollo. Good luck promoting the album!
Mike: Thanks. Bye!
Find Sons of Apollo online: