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Dream Theater: Mike Portnoy

By: Christa Titus

To read our feature with John Petrucci, click here.

In the second of this two-part series related to Dream Theater's new album "Systematic Chaos," drummer Mike Portnoy discusses working with Roadrunner Records and reveals the thinking behind "Repentance," the next installment to his song series that focuses on the 12 Steps.

Blistering: What made you decide to go with Roadrunner?

Mike Portnoy:
After spending 15 years with the Atlantic Group and Elektra, we had gotten a taste of the ups and downs of what the corporate major label has to offer. At this point in our career, we've really built up our audience very well on our own and have a great, great, great fan base that has sustained us through all these years and enables us to really continue what we're doing without any kind of mainstream exposure. So we wanted to get away from that whole kind of corporate major-label approach, and Roadrunner is really I think the best label out there right now in terms of their roster.

I really respect the bands on the label. They range from more commercial stuff like Nickelback to the extreme stuff like Slipknot and everything in between, so musically, they're a great label. But also they have the muscle of the major labels out there, but they really have a very independent spirit, which really helps [for] the whole camaraderie when it comes to working with a label and being hands-on with their bands. A perfect balance, really.

Blistering: I was surprised that once the Atlantic Group absorbed Elektra that it didn't let you out of your contract because it didn't actively promote you guys for the longest time.

No. Oh, no.

Blistering: What was behind that?

Album after album they kept renewing our contract, and [laughing] we kept hoping they would let us go, you know? But I think the reason they kept picking up the option is because our fan base is so strong that they're gonna sell half a million records worldwide every single time with absolutely need to market or promote us. Basically for the last several albums cruised on the strength of the fan base and basically just funded the record and put it in stores, but from there, we did all the work for a year at a time on the road, through the strength of the Internet and our fans, so, for them, it was an easy money-making situation.

We would have loved to have been let go, really; we would have loved to. We were trying to get out of there many years ago and get with a label that really could further this career rather than just simply maintain it . . . Another problem with the labels every time around is they would shift personnel and staff. We started the contract with Atco Records, then it turned into EastWest, then it turned into Elektra, then it turned into Atlantic, and each and every time something like that would happen there was never time to re-establish relationships with any of these people because it was always constantly changing.

Blistering: Is there an overall theme to this album, or how would you say "Systematic Chaos" is different from your other albums?

I think it's different because there is no overlying theme or concept. [Our] last album [2005's "Octavarium"] and several of our last albums were kind of all tied together by these grand concepts, and this time around we made a conscious decision to not have a grand concept, to just have a group of individual songs, which was the way we used to write when we were younger . . . we weren't thinking of writing albums, because at that point we were just writing songs. So this album is very much in that kind of old spirit of just bangin' it out, and each song is a whole individual journey.

Blistering: With the song lengths you guys work in, how are you able to tell, "OK, this is long enough"?

Obviously, we don't have a very good gauge of that [laughs] because all the songs are in excess of 10 minutes. You know what, every once in a while we'll purposely go out of our way to try to write a short song, and those are the experiments for us, to write a short song. But the times when we [let] ourselves write without any limitations, you know, they end up being long songs.

But we go until we feel that the journey is complete and the ideas that are all on the table have been fully realized and worked on. So we don't really limit ourselves. We try to just let the song go naturally where it wants to go, and for us writing long songs is totally natural. The struggle has never been to play, the struggle has always been to not play. And those are the challenges. Once in a while we'll purposely try to write a [shorter] song, and that's when we'll write something like "Forsaken" or "I'll Walk Beside You." But for the most part we let the music naturally run its course, you know, that's when we end up with the typical Dream Theater songs.

Blistering: Your product manager at Roadrunner says the label is going to give radio a shot with one of the album's songs. Since you've built a career on not having radio since "Images And Words," do you think you could break through to an extent?

I think every one of our albums have had songs with radio potential. If you walk back to the last few, "Octavarium" had several tracks that totally could have been on the radio. Same with "Train Of Thought"; we've always had that. Whether or not the label chooses to pursue it or radio chooses to play it, it's out of our hands. We write what we write, and we don't write singles and radio songs. But I think if you look at our catalog, they're there if people want to pursue that. I think it's a natural. This album, a song like "Forsaken," I think is a natural song and can easily sit beside any of the stuff that's on the radio today.

But we don't over-concern ourselves with that aspect. We're not in the business of writing singles. We're in the business of writing albums, and if radio or mainstream media chooses to play any of 'em, then that's a bonus. But I think the reason that our band has sustained this far is because we haven't relied on that.

Blistering: What is it about "Images And Words" that you think brought you guys to the mainstream, but then subsequent albums you guys were separated from it?

That's a good question. I think it was it was the right album at the right time, and you think it would have been the wrong time, because that was when grunge was breaking through, but maybe we were kind of that response to grunge . . . I guess maybe a lot of musicians felt frustrated because bands weren't playing anymore, so maybe they reacted to that album because of that time. It was also our first album on a major label, so I guess there was an inevitable first push into the mainstream, which opened a lot of doors. But I don't know. I don't think it's a formula, because the way we wrote then is the same way we write now, so I don't think there was a formula or an equation.

Blistering: The song "Repentance" is related to your writing a song on each album about the 12 Steps. How was that song put together? I thought it was neat how on the song there are voices confessing things at the end. I also understand that you have been in recovery for some time. Were some of those confessions things you had heard at meetings; were any of them out of your own life?

I guess there's three levels to that question. One is the personal side, which for me, the 12 Steps is something that has saved my life and helped me grow as an individual. I've been sober for seven years now, so the personal side of it, for me, it's very therapeutic to write about each one of these steps, and I've been doing this now four albums in a row as part of this big ongoing series of songs that are going to ultimately connect together. So on the personal level it's been very therapeutic, because the 12 Steps are practiced in my life, and to write about them kind of cements them into my being, and to share them with other people that may get it or understand it or possibly be interested in pursuing it on their own, then that's great.

Then there's the musical side of it. It was part of this big picture that I kind of conjured up many years ago with this idea of writing these interconnecting songs that would spread across four or five albums, and when it came time for this latest chapter, we knew we wanted something that was a bit more of a breather because the previous three chapters were so aggressive and bombastic, and so we wanted to write something that was more kind of hypnotic and that also goes along with the lyrics, which are about regret and being sorry and making amends. So the musical side called for this kind of hypnotic, trancey song.

And then the third element would be with the guest voices . . . When I was writing the second half of the song, the ninth step, which is all about making amends to people you've harmed, I didn't wanna write about things out of my own personal life because it would have been too specific to me. When I've been writing all these lyrics I wanted it to be general, that people can relate to. So I had an idea to give it more of that spacey, Pink Floyd feel to maybe get some spoken-word contributions, and I invited a whole bunch of guest artists. [There are 11; they include Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson.] I thought it'd be good to have each one of them to have an open forum to talk about whatever they want, things from their own life that they regret or that they wanted to make amends to certain people, and they all contributed these different spoken-word things and I pieced them together.

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