Mike Portnoy, along with bassist Billy Sheehan and vocalist/guitarist Richie Kotzen have formed a power trio with roots in classic rock called The Winery Dogs. We discussed Mike’s connection with Billy and Richie prior to forming a band together, he explained how easy the writing process was and how his approach to drumming drastically changed from anything he had worked on in the past. We also discussed his favorite songs, touring plans, bands he listens to and what inspires him plus he divulged the band that he feels is the greatest band on earth.
Listen to the entire Mike Portnoy interview below:
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Alright. So thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
I will jump right in here. Most know the name Mike Portnoy due to your history with Dream Theater, not to mention the various other bands you’ve either been in or worked with. How did you first connect with Billy Sheehan and Richie Kotzen to form The Winery Dogs? Had you worked with either of them before?
Yeah, I guess my connection to both of those guys is two different stories. I’ll start with Billy. I’ve been a fan of Billy’s for almost 30 years now. I used to go sneak into the Long Island clubs as a teenager to go see him play with Talas and I was a huge fan of his. I’d just never seen anybody play bass like that before. He was just mind blowing. So I had been a fan and follower of his since then and he and I began working together probably around the mid-90’s and we’ve done a bunch of things together. We did a Rush tribute album and then we did a Who Tribute band with Paul Gilbert a few years later after that and then he and I also worked together in an instrumental band with Tony MacAlpine and Derek Sherinian. So Billy and I now have a long history of working together but this is the first time we’ve actually done an all original new band together which is very exciting. And then my history with Richie was, I had never worked with him until The Winery Dogs and I had never even met him until about a year ago. Our mutual friend Eddie Trunk introduced us and at that point I wasn’t totally aware of Richie’s, you know, the depth of his musicality. I had kind of only known him as being the replacement guitar player in Poison and in Mr. Big. I didn’t realize he had this deep catalog of unbelievable solo material where he’s this incredible vocalist that I was unaware of. So once I heard Richie’s unbelievable abilities on his solo material, that’s when I knew I would love to work with him at some point. So that’s where it began. That’s my relationship with both of those guys.
Well cool. So how did the band name come about?
It was something that Richie suggested. Obviously the three of us spent a long time kicking around a million different band names and that’s always the biggest obstacle in a new band, just trying to find the band name. But Richie suggested it. He really liked the vibe of it. To him it conjured up like a real old school vibe the way The Rolling Stones or The Black Crowes do, so it had that kind of vibe. After some convincing, we all agreed that it was a pretty cool and unique name. So we were on board and The Winery Dogs were born.
Awesome. Between the three of you, your individual talents are off the charts. Did you find the creative process with writing was easier or harder than you expected?
Oh my God. So easy. I mean, it was so unbelievably natural and organic it just flowed out of us. I mean, literally within the first 10 minutes of playing together in the room on the very first day, literally within the first 10 minutes, we were already writing the first song and by the end of the day we had written three songs and laid down the ground work for several others. All, you know, so prickly and so naturally. We just had an instant chemistry.
Now was everything created from scratch or did any of you guys bring something that you had been maybe messing around with previously and you wanted to try it with this new band or anything like that?
We started from scratch. I would say the first six or seven songs we wrote were from scratch just sitting in a room with the three of us. Then once we had a good chunk of material written, then we started exploring some riffs and ideas that Richie had that were sitting on the shelf but were never really expanded or explored. Even in those cases, once there was a riff or idea on the table we collaborated on that together and shaped it and arranged it as a band.
How different was your approach to drumming on this album vs previous music you’ve created?
Totally different. It’s a whole other world. Everything I’ve done over the last 20 or 30 years has been rooted in either progressive elements or metal elements and The Winery Dogs is really, neither of those. It’s really a straight up rock band. So for me, I’m tapping into my earliest roots and influences which are bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, you know, those drummers for me, John Bonham, Keith Moon and Ringo Star, those are three of my biggest heroes of all time. But I was never able to really truly tap into those influences in Dream Theater or any of the other bands or projects I’ve been a part of. So this is the first truly organic classic rock band that I’ve been in. So for me it’s a completely new element to explore.
Now did you set out to achieve that when you hooked up with Billy and then Richie, did you know that’s what you were getting into or it just worked out that way?
Well, we didn’t have a premeditated sound or style in mind. We just knew we wanted to be a power trio and I think because of our collective backgrounds, you know, those guys aren’t really metal guys or prog guys like I am, so I knew I was going to shift and be able to revert back to my classic rock influences because I think it suited their personalities and their backgrounds. So we kind of just, naturally just fell into what we did. We didn’t premeditate a sound or a style. We just started playing together and this is kind of what came out of us.
Well, I’ll say I had a chance to preview the new material and it’s freakin’ fantastic.
I mean, it really sounds like it’s every bit of each one of you in every song.
A whole cohesive type of vibe and style with the songs, so I think it’s going to go over really well.
Thank you. Thank you. I hope so I’m real proud of it.
So, do you have a favorite song?
I don’t. Like any album I ever do the favorite song changes from day to day. I don’t know, some of the ones that immediately come to mind, I love Elevate. I think Elevate has got a little bit of everything that this band is about wrapped into one. I really like The Other Side. It’s more of a sleeper track for me, it’s not one of the real obvious ones, but as time goes on I really like that one. You Saved Me has a real personal attachment to me because it was the one track on the album that I wrote the lyrics and melodies to and written out of something out of my personal life. So, for me, that’s a real special one as well.
Awesome. Now are you guys going to release any songs to radio or are you just going to get out there and promote it by playing?
Well we’re going to promote it by playing, first and foremost, I mean that’s really, that’s what we’re about and that’s really the way to do it for a band like ours. What happens at radio and what the record company does and how media portrays it and takes to it, that’s out of our control. I know the record company will service songs to radio, but whatever happens there is out of our control. With that being said, I think this is an incredibly radio friendly band. I think at least, three or four, five songs on this album, in a perfect world, could be total hits on the radio. But once again, that’s not something we control. We just do the best we can and we’ll get out there and play.
Now the new album is self-titled, The Winery Dogs, and it will be released later this month on the 23rd and then you start touring, actually, I believe next week. I noticed the majority of your dates are overseas and just some here and there in the U.S. After October, do you plan to do a full blown U.S. tour?
Yeah, I mean, right now we’re starting with Japan and South America. We’re going to do four one-off American shows in August on the East Coast. Then we go to Europe for September but then when we return from Europe then we’re going to do a full U.S. tour at the beginning of October. So, that’s all getting put together now and should probably unravel in the coming weeks.
Now, other than songs from the new album, are you going to play anything else, like maybe covers, or is it strictly going to be songs from the album?
We’ll do the entire album and then we’ll pad up the set with some other things as well. When you’re a new band and touring off of your first album, that’s all you have to choose from. But yeah, we’ll do a couple other things in the set as well.
Do you think you’re vary your sets from show to show or country to country to change it up for yourself?
To be honest, there’s no room for that when you have only one album. Obviously I’m a big, big fan of that because all my years in Dream Theater I wrote a completely different set for every single show. That was something I kind of was known for, but in that case I had a 20 year catalog to choose from. In this case, there’s one album and basically we want to play it all. So this first time around, it is what it is. But as time goes on and as we have more and more material, I love switching set lists around.
So do you think you’ll do a second album with the same guys?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. Unless the world explodes in the coming months of course, you never know. But yeah, we fully intend on it. We plan on just being a full long term band.
Well awesome. So you always seem to be involved with music in one way or another. Are you one of those people that constantly has to be creating and playing or do doors just keep opening and you keep walking through them to see what’s on the other side?
Wait, what was the last thing you said at the very end there?
I said, or do doors just keep opening and you keep walking through them to see what’s on the other side?
Oh, right, right. Well, I am a complete workaholic and I am somebody that has to be in constant motion and if doors aren’t opening and invitations aren’t coming their way, I’m not one to sit around waiting for things to happen. I’m definitely a proactive artist and constantly make things happen. That being said, the last three years or so I haven’t had to put many things together. These opportunities have all kind of come my way and there hasn’t really been a dull moment over the last three years since I left Dream Theater. I’ve literally been a part of five or six or seven different bands and done ten different albums and tours. You know, there’s been a few that I initiated, but for the most part all these opportunities just seem to kind of present themselves.
Well good. So I always like to ask if there’s any new bands that you’re listening to?
Yeah, I love listening to new bands and new music and spend a lot of time keeping track of what’s going on out there. Some of the bands I like right now, there’s a band called Kyng. K, y, n, g. I love their last album. I love this band called The Ocean, which is like a progressive death metal band from Europe. There is a band from New York called Jolly, which I really like and my favorite band at the moment isn’t even a new band, they’re a band from the 90’s and the 2000’s that are now broken up. They’re a band called The Pillbugs and they’re very much like a power pop Beatles type band and they’re very old school psychedelic, but they’re not together anymore. But that happens to be what I’m listening to nonstop these days.
Well cool. Do you find that either new bands or old bands help inspire you and keep you motivated?
Oh my God. Totally. Of course. I’m the biggest music fan you’re ever going to met. I have like four iPods that I carry around with me. I’m constantly inspired by new bands and old bands. All of the new bands I just mentioned are huge influences and inspirations to me and I still to this day listen to everything I grew up, from the past 46 years of my life. It’s all a big giant melting pot in my brain and it makes me who I am.
Well cool. So I’d like to ask a non-music related question. I’m always fascinated by people’s tattoos. Do you have a favorite tattoo and have you gotten any new ones recently?
I have a few favorites. I’ve really gotten into collecting tattoos from artists that I really like. I’ve been very fortunate. I have some of my favorite tattoo artists do work on me. Everybody from Kat Von D to Corey Miller to Chris Garver and I’ve been able to, I guess when you’re a touring musician, touring as much as you do, you can kind of hook up with these people all around the world. But some of my favorite pieces, I love, Kat Von D did portraits of my three dogs on my leg and I love that. Obviously she did such an amazing job on all three of them. It’s kind of great when I’m away from home, I can look down and still have my puppies with me.
It’s interesting that you said you collect tattoos. (laughter)
(laughter) It’s true.
Alright, so here at Unsung Melody we like to end with a random question. So how is Joey Nicols doing these days?
(Laughter) Wow, that’s pretty, that’s pretty obscure, dude. (laughter) How do you know that?
Joey Nicols was my, what is it pseudonym, or alias…
…when I sat in with Beatallica, who to me are the greatest band on earth.
Yes, Im very familiar…
Beatallica has… Say it again.
I said, I’m very familiar with Beatallica.
That’s cool. Yeah, I love those guys. When I introduced them on stage, I introduced them as a musical Reese’s Pieces cup. They’re two great bands that sound great together when you mash together The Beatles and Metallica.
I know, right?
Those guys are hilarious.
Do you have their new album?
I do. Of course. Here’s my question for you.
Do you know how I got the name Joey Nicols? Do you know where that alias came from?
A little birdie told me. So I do know. Umm…
Well I’ll let you answer it.
I believe it was Jimmie Nicol, right?
Jimmie Nicols filled in with The Beatles…
…and then Joey Jordison who filled in for Lars.
And then Joey Jordison filled in with Metallica. Exactly. Very good. You know your shit.
I try. If not, I have good sources. (laughter)
(Laughter) Yeah. Very cool.
So when’s the last time you saw Beatallica?
When’s the last time I what with them?
Well, saw them.
Saw them. I haven’t seen them since they opened for Dream Theater in 2010, I guess it was, I think or 2009. I forgot what year it was, 2010. That’s the last time I saw them, but I stay in touch with Jaymz, as we call him.
(Laughter) Right. Well awesome. Well I just want to say thanks again for taking the time to speak with me and best of luck with everything and I’m planning to be at the Chicago show.
Awesome. Well introduce yourself to me and come say hello.
I will. Alright, take care.
Purchase or preview The Winery Dogs on iTunes below:
Check out the video for Elevate below:
Check out the video for I’m No Angel below: