Interview with Mike Portnoy & John Petrucci
December 28, 1998
Interview by Steph and John Perry for Rocknotes, Roger Lotring for Prime Choice, and Wayne Petroskey for Koffin
We met up with Dream Theater’s John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy after their sound check for the Toad’s Place show on December 28th. The band was in New Haven to perform it’s third show of a five night mini-tour dubbed “Home for the Holidays”. Word on the internet, alt.music.dream-theater in particular, was that the first show wasn’t up to the expectations of many in attendance. Apparently they didn’t appreciate the fact that DT wanted to do something different, and that DT was willing to play a concert the very day after Christmas. The band wanted to be more up close and personal and play in a more relaxed atmosphere. This gave DT a chance to let loose and play some rarities as well as their favorite cover tunes from influential bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Rush. They’d been on the road for well over a year in support of the album Falling Into Infinity, and wanted to stir things up a bit.
Rocknotes shared the interview with two other Connecticut publications, Prime Choice and Koffin. We chatted about the shows, the new video (5 Years In A LIVEtime), and their side projects.
Prime Choice - Well, I guess I’ll start things off. Obviously tonight is going to be a kinda, sorta, almost semi-unplugged type thing. What does a situation like tonight allow you guys to do musically that you normally don’t get to do?
Petrucci – Talk between songs [laughs].
Portnoy – Be close up, a lot. These guys always get to be close up. I get to be close up the whole show now.
Petrucci – It’s getting less unplugged as the shows are going.
Pornoy – Every night is getting more and more plugged [laughs].
Petrucci – In fact, I’m not even playing my acoustic anymore.
Portnoy – You’re not?! [group laughter]. Basically it’s an excuse for me to come up close and for us to play obscure songs and covers. And not have to play “Metropolis” and “Pull Me Under” [Petrucci laughs].
Petrucci – It’s also a lot more loose, there’s not the big concert vibe where everything’s right on the money, you know, and kind of relax in between songs.
Portnoy – A lot more casual.
Petrucci – We don’t have to warm up.
Rocknotes - How did the first two shows go?
Portnoy – The first one was a disaster [Birch Hill in Old Bridge, NJ]. The second one was good [Electric Factory in Philadelphia, PA]. The first one was a rehearsal for the second one. The last time we played together was in September in Brazil and because usually we’ll have a day before as rehearsal before a tour begins but the day before this tour began was Christmas day. So we didn’t have any rehearsal time. So basically, at Birch Hill we were playing a lot of songs that we haven’t played in a very long time and some of them were actually being performed for the very first time at the show, so, you know there was a lot of fine tuning at that show. And then last night was excellent.
Koffin - So you’re doing a total of five on this tour?
Portnoy – Yes.
Prime Choice - Would these actually be considered “Home for the Holidays” shows?
Petrucci – Definitely. This is like the third year we’ve done it. So, it’s become a tradition.
Portnoy – The other two times we did it was because we weren’t on tour for a while so it sort of filled the void but we were on tour this whole past year so the reason for doing it this time was to offer something different. We wouldn’t have done them if we were just going to go out and do what we’ve been doing all year long. It had to be something different to make it special for us and for the audience.
Prime Choice - So would you actually consider these shows as promotion for the live album and video?
Portnoy – Well, not necessarily but you can look at it that way because what we’re doing is a big part of what’s in the home video. So, it’s giving the people a chance to see in person what was on the video–that unplugged show.
Prime Choice - When I say that, I mean it in the sense that I don’t think you’re going out on a full-fledged tour in support of a live album and video.
Portnoy – No. The live album is an excuse for us to have time off.
Koffin - Is this going to be a tune up for the studio?
Petrucci – What’s that, these shows?
Koffin - Yes, these five shows.
Petrucci – No. Because we’re not playing anything new. These are all songs that were written a while back. Once we get in there and write some stuff, and if we play some shows before the album is out–which we probably will, then those will be tune ups.
Rocknotes - So when do you think you’re going back into the studio?
Petrucci – Probably February.
Koffin - Is this the legendary Metropolis Part 2?
Portnoy – We hope to have that involved with the next record.
Prime Choice - One of the things that I’m really excited about with what you may be doing next studio-wise, is…that you guys are kind of loosening up a little bit. Everything isn’t so tight and stringent and musically it’s got to be accurate–this number of beats and these notes have to be here–it seems like it’s a little more natural.
Portnoy – Actually, what we’re going to do with this record is something we’ve never done before. John and I had such a great experience with Liquid Tension, and Derek and John [Myung] had a similar experience with Platypus, with writing and recording simultaneously, we’re going to do that with the next Dream Theater record. We’re not going to have like a year-long writing process and demo-ing, and then go into the studio to do a proper record. We’re going to actually bypass the whole demo process, and go right to tape for the album, and construct the album on the spot. So it’ll be different.
Koffin - Some of the Liquid Tension stuff, you could almost hear James [LaBrie] singing over it, like on “Kindred Spirits”.
Petrucci – Yeh, there’s definitely a vibe. Even on the new one that we just finished, there’s some songs on it that sound like Dream Theater without vocals.
Rocknotes - The new LTE is already finished?
Petrucci – Almost, it’s going to be next week.
Prime Choice - Did this one take only a week?
Portnoy – No, it took a little longer. It’s going to be a double CD.
Prime Choice - I think I speak for everybody in this room and the people upstairs in saying thank you for coming out during the holidays. I mean, when I saw that you guys were starting the day after Christmas, it’s like wow, I don’t think there’s a lot of bands that would do that.
Portnoy – Actually next year we won’t [group laughter]. I mean, we don’t mind the Christmas shows but I think we’ll start on the 27th. We were saying how it was Christmas night and John’s like learning tunes and I’m putting together the opening video and the break tapes and it’s like fuck, we start tomorrow! We could’ve used at least one more day to recover before getting into this.
Prime Choice - It’s interesting, in preparing for talking to you guys I’ve been watching the video tape and I’m curious, as most of it is your doing, Mike, why you didn’t decide just to take one of the two shows that was highly featured, you know the fan club show or the Ronnie Scott’s show, why did you decide to mix everything up as opposed to just releasing one complete show.
Portnoy – I thought that’s what made the last video. I don’t know, we had a lot of footage to work with. We had the Ronnie Scott’s show which everyone wanted to see, we had the Rotterdam footage which I thought was great footage, and we had the Paris footage but almost all of that turned into an album. We had footage from Germany, Toronto, Japan…there was so much footage to choose from it would’ve been stupid to limit it to one or two gigs. I think it’s telling a story about what we’ve done over the past 5 years, and we’ve done lot’s of different things, so it was important to show those different things. A good third of it is from the Rotterdam show but it was real important to get the other stuff in there as well. It showed the stuff in the studio. It seemed the obvious move to do. Actually the video that we’re showing now, the opening act, is the home video but all of the Rotterdam acoustic stuff was taken out because we’re about to do that live, so I replaced it with outtakes and stuff that didn’t make the home video. So that’s what you’re missing right now, additional footage from Paris, Japan, Toronto and the Deep Purple tour, so when you’re finished with this [interview] and you can go up there you can see stuff that didn’t make the home video.
Koffin - How’d you like playing in Europe? Are the audiences a little wilder?
Petrucci – Definitely
Koffin - Are they more demanding?
Petrucci – It depends on what country. In general, I think that, two things: one is that they’re more, like, crazy and rowdy like in Germany and Italy but also that I think that they’re a little more receptive to things that are different. Like the Rotterdam show went over really well, and also we’ve done festivals with these combinations of bands you would never see in America.
Portnoy – We’ve done festivals where the lineups were as obscure as us and Slayer and Pantera, and us and Elton John and Rod Stewart. There’s lot’s of diversity in their tastes over there. They’re a lot more open to that sort of thing. I don’t think you could ever get away with bills like that in America.
Prime Choice - But as far as Dream Theater, that makes sense. I mean as far as where your influences are.
Portnoy – That’s been kind of interesting that we can play on the same show with Slayer and Megadeth and Pantera, and then at the same time also do a show with Elton John and Page/Plant or Marillion. And for some reason we seem to fit into both worlds. We sort of gear the sets in specific directions–a heavier set or a lighter set or a more progressive set but I think that’s one of the great things about this band, that we can sort of mold ourselves into different styles.
Prime Choice - It’s interesting. How do you feel about somehow being pigeon-holed into the label of “progressive”. Especially after watching the video that just came out. I mean, there’s all kinds of stuff on there…you would not normally associate the singer of Napalm Death as progressive. There’s so much stuff that you guys do that that’s more in a metal vain and yet you always seem to get lumped as progressive.
Portnoy – And you’ll see tonight that it transcends metal and it transcends progressive. When you hear the amount of songs that can be played in an unplugged environment from our catalog that are more pop-ish, or whatever, that’s just as relevant in our sound and in our style as well. To call us just progressive is very limiting and I don’t mind it because I also think it’s a very large part of our sound and style and I love progressive music, but, it’s only one side of the picture.
Koffin - Since we have you both here we have some Liquid Tension questions for you. The second project, is it the same lineup as the first Liquid Tension? How different do you think it would have turned out if you had your original bass player choice and your original keyboard choice?
Portnoy – I think Jens [Johansson] would’ve been into the total progressive stuff like Jordan [Rudess] and John and myself, although he would’ve taken it more into a fusion thing because that’s what he’s into these days. And Billy [Sheehan], well he’s just a ridiculous player. If he was playing with me, John and Jordan, it would’ve been total chaos. It would be amazing but it wouldn’t be as diverse as what it is with Tony [Levin]. But this is the band now. It’s no longer a project I assembled and the players can vary. I mean, Liquid Tension Experiment is the four of us. There wouldn’t be a second album if it wasn’t the four of us.
Koffin - Any plans to tour behind it?
Petrucci – We do have plans. In fact we were planning on doing it in January but we’re having some trouble getting shows booked. Tony’s about to embark on a two-year tour with Seal so he’s totally busy and this was his only time to do it and I don’t think it’s going to be too good.
Portnoy – Well we are doing one show at the NAMM show in January in LA and hopefully we can squeeze one or two shows before or after that but it’s only a few weeks away so who knows if it will actually happen. But then the window of opportunity will close once Tony goes out with Seal and we get to work on the new Dream Theater album. So who knows.
Petrucci – We really want to do it.
Rocknotes - Can you bring that band here? I know Tony Levin played here with Bill Bruford last spring and that went pretty well for this area.
Portnoy – There’s probably many many places we could play. It’s just a matter of our booking agent getting the promoters, you know all that business politics. It’s an unknown entity. It’s not Dream Theater and it’s not King Crimson. It’s members of these bands so a promoter doesn’t know exactly what he can bank on.
Prime Choice - Looking at all the people that came in upstairs and after watching you guys sound check for quite a while and get everything ready, especially you John, and also seeing the first few minutes of the video, I have to ask you, are you in the fucking mood tonight?!
Petrucci – [Laughs] Oh, I was just joking then! I’m actually really excited about these shows for all the reasons we’ve been discussing. There’s songs we don’t usually play, there’s a lot of cool moments, improv moments in it which I love, and there’s not a lot of stress involved.
Prime Choice - It’s almost like — a show like tonight, you get to step away from the industry and business side of being a musician and get back to being a musician.
Petrucci – Yeh, I mean all the shows are like that. You don’t worry about that when you’re playing. It’s kinda like, you can have a beer and not worry about it.
Portnoy – John even had a shot on stage at Birch Hill [group laughter].
Petrucci – What I mean to say is that usually our material is so complicated. You know there’s a warm-up before, we do a lot of segues, you’ve got to be right on the money, you’re running around the stage. And this is just like–you’re standing in one spot, you’re chilling, you don’t even break a sweat.
Portnoy – It’s definitely a lot more casual. Last night there was a false start, we stopped and started over. If we make a mistake we laugh at it and have fun with it.
Rocknotes - Did you hear the new nickname for Birch Hill?
Portnoy – Birch Hell?
Rocknotes - No, Bitch Hell [group laughter]. We read that this morning on the news groups.
Rocknotes - John, did you enjoy working with the Explorer’s Club last year?
Petrucci – That was fun. But I didn’t meet any of the guys. It was one of those projects that it was done and you just sent in your tapes and put your parts on it. But the way I did that was right at the end of the Liquid Tension sessions. I just stayed an extra day and a half and just did all the solos.
Rocknotes - It’s real interesting music.
Petrucci – It was interesting putting parts to the sections. I didn’t really have a lot of guidance. I kind of had start times and end times and no preconceived idea of what the writer wanted. I just had to make things up. It was like odd times and weird things. So it took a little digging but it was fun.