Interview: Dream Theater
Fri, 28 Aug 2009 11:53:28
Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy just wants to see Inglourious Basterds.
"I've been so cooped up on tour that I'm dying for a day off to go see it," he laughs from a hotel in San Jose.
However, it's a good thing that he's been "cooped up on tour," because Portnoy and his band have been dazzling audiences across the nation all summer. They're supporting their most epic and personal offering yet, Black Clouds & Silver Linings. It's a painful, poignant and powerful journey to the depths of darkness and back. Truly, it's Dream Theater's most progressive disc yet.
Portnoy spoke to ARTISTdirect.com in this exclusive interview about what went into Black Clouds, his favorite independent filmmakers and the heart-wrenching album's tribute to his late father.
Hopefully Portnoy gets to see Basterds soon. He deserves it!
Did you approach this album similar to other records? Where did everything gestate from?
In terms of approach, it really was the same as the other albums. For us, the process has been pretty similar for the last five or six albums. We basically move into a studio empty-handed and see where the music takes us. Black Clouds happens to be where the music took us.
This record conjures a lot of imagery. Was there one story behind it?
No, not at all…they're six individual songs that have nothing to do with each other. I guess there is a common thread or "feel" lyrically throughout the songs, but it's unintentional. They each have nothing to do with each other specifically. It's not a concept album at all.
So there are six stories this time around?
Yeah, I wrote two, and John [Petrucci, guitar] wrote four. Each of them deals with different subject matter. Negative situations sit at the core of each song—death, near-death experiences, alcoholism, recovery, writer's block and all of these dark situations. In each case, they all have an optimistic twist. That's where I came up with the album title to sum it all up.
What's the story behind "Shattered Fortress?"
That is the final piece of a puzzle that's been brewing over the course of the last five albums. We've had these interconnecting songs, and it's taken about eight years to complete the puzzle they're a part of. About nine years ago, I had this idea that I wanted to write about the 12 steps of recovery because it's something that I've gone through in my life. Rather than trying to tackle the whole thing in one song, I had this idea of utilizing one song for a couple of steps at a time and having it continue from album to album. "Shattered Fortress" is steps 10, 11 and 12, and it finally completes the big conceptual piece that has taken five albums to finish.
How does it feel to have that done?
It's a major release! It feels like my college thesis has finally been handed in. It's a big relief to finally have it off my chest. That's for sure.
In that aspect, does this record feel more personal to you guys?
Well, in the sense that all of mine and John's lyrics—five out of six songs—are coming directly out of our own personal experiences, I guess you could say that.
It's lyrically your most tangible album.
We've always had different types of lyrics because there are three guys in the band that write the lyrics. Inevitably, you're going to have three different styles and types of subject matter. In this case, we only had two writers. We've previously had three and even four different writers if you go way back. Because there were only two lyricists this time, it might feel more interconnected.
Do you watch a lot of movies or read a lot when you write?
The former and not the latter…I watch a lot of movies! That's one of my biggest passions in the world, but I don't read books at all. A big, big yes on movies and a big no on books.
What movies were you watching during the recording of this album?
God, I don't know. I watch 200 movies per year, so it's impossible to pinpoint it down [Laughs]. I try to watch a movie every couple of nights.
Were you a big fan of the'70s film renaissance—Scorsese, Coppola, etc?
I did that early on. I saw all of those films in the '70s and the '80s. Now, I'm more of a fan of independent films and foreign films. There's a whole wave of really great independent directors these days. I'm really into that. Chan-Wook Park from Korea is awesome. Gaspar Noe from France is great and so is Michael Haneke from Austria. Man, there are so many filmmakers I love. The American guys are a little more well-known. P.T. Anderson is one of my favorite directors of the last ten or fifteen years. Of course, Quentin Tarantino is a great, daring director.
Magnolia is one of the best films of the past decade.
Absolutely, some of my favorites from the last ten years are Magnolia, Memento, Mulholland Drive, City of God, Children of Men, Old Boy—those are some of my top ten from the last decade. I think there have been some truly great films from that time period.
What was the story behind "The Best of Times?"
I wrote those lyrics for my dad who passed away during the making of this record. It was a real difficult period for me personally. My dad was somebody who was incredibly close to me, not just as a father, but as a friend. Not only just me—the rest of the guys in the band were very close to him as well. My dad was the guy that came up with the name "Dream Theater." He was incredibly supportive throughout the last 25 years of the band, and he was with us every step of the way. It had a huge effect on all of us, but obviously for me it was personally devastating. I wanted to write a song that paid tribute to the 41 years we spent together.
Did he get you your first drum kit?
He was the one that surely got me into music literally from the day I was born. I was born on the day that The Beatles completed Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was like my life was very much aligned with music. I grew up listening to The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Procol Harem—this is the stuff that my dad introduced me to. I was totally immersed in it because of his influence on me. He was a big music fan and a film fan. His influence on me was tremendous.
Out of all this darkness, there is a silver lining. It's ultimately an uplifting record.
The title sums it all up. Every black cloud has a silver lining. Every negative situation has something you can learn from it. It's an old expression, but it definitely made sense with this album. Not only lyrically but musically. Our music is very dark and heavy. The metal side of the band can be very heavy and dark. At the same time, we have this progressive melodic element that's like the silver lining. It applies to both the music and the lyrics.
Do you feel like you've progressed as a drummer?
I'm always learning. I'm always trying to get better and do different things on the drums. It's flattering that I've won all thes awards over the years and gotten all of the recognition that I've gotten, on a personal level. It's great but, if anything, it makes my job harder because I feel like I have a reputation to uphold and I have a standard that I have to reach on each album. It keeps me on my toes trying to be best that I can be.