Mike Portnoy: The Best Bar Band Ever!

By Jeb Wright

Mike Portnoy is one of the busiest men in Rock and Roll.  After spending a lifetime in Prog icon Dream Theater, he walked away and has been playing non-stop in numerous projects ever since. One of the most successful, and hardest rocking, of these projects is Adrenaline Mob, which consists of Portnoy on drums, guitarist Mike Orlando, vocalist Russell Allen, from the band Symphony X, and Disturbed bassist John Moyer.  

The band released their debut album Omerta last year, which featured a Heavy Metal cover of the Duran Duran tune “Come Undone.”  For their sophomore effort, the band went back in the studio and cranked out eight more cover tunes.  The songs range from the Ronnie James Dio legacy of Rainbow’s “Kill the King” to DIO’s “Stand Up and Shout”” and Black Sabbath’s Dio era “Mob Rules” to cover tunes from Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Heart and Badlands. 

Most cover albums lack originality—for obvious reasons.  This one, however, is the perfect mix of keeping the originals intact enough to show musical chops and adding new flavor and personality.  The only complaint is that the album is not long enough at only eight songs.  This one should have been a 4-CD box set!

In the interview that follows, Portnoy tells how the album came to be, why they chose the songs they did and why he loves doing cover versions of songs.  We also discuss what Adrenaline Mob’s future may consist of and the various other projects he is currently involved in. 

Jeb:  I love Coverta.  Why do a covers album now?

Mike: Our first full length album, Omearta, is about a year old now and we are out on the road.  The record company wanted to have something new to get behind these dates.  We didn’t want to do a new full length album yet because we felt that Omerta still had some life to it.  It was a creative way to get something new to the fans and keep them going through 2013, and to hold them over until we do a new full length record, which will be probably be next year.  

Jeb: In my review of Coverta I said that these eight songs make you the best bar band EVER.  

Mike: Well, it’s not that far removed, because we are playing bars right now.  It is my first time doing this in over twenty years.  So, yes, we are the best bar band out there; thank you!  

Jeb: This album shows that you are all great musicians, but you are also great fans of music.  You have Badlands on the album for fucksake! 

Mike: We’ve been covering “High Wire” since this band started playing live.  They are such an under appreciated band.  Russell [Allen] is a great fan of Ray Gillen.  Michael Orlando is a fan of Jake E. Lee, so this was a natural.  They are a great, yet underappreciated band that kind of got forgotten about.  It is one of the more obscure tracks that we pulled out to cover.  We have a lot of legendary bands on the album too, like Black Sabbath and Van Halen.  It really is a nice combination.  

Jeb: Why only eight songs?  I want 30 of them! 

Mike: It was only going to be a couple of them at first.  We were going to reissue the album and add on a couple of bonus tracks.  Once we started, it was so much fun that we banged out eight of them and we did a full EP.  You’re right, we could have done another ten of them and we would have still been having fun.  

Jeb: I was playing this and going, “Where is the Maiden track?  Where is the Robin Trower track?”

Mike: I have done so many covers albums—I’ve done hundreds of covers.  I’ve done the Maiden and Trower covers, so this was about picking the right covers for Adrenaline Mob.  We had to pick the ones that are right for this band. 

Jeb: You represented Ronnie James Dio in all three of his most famous incarnations.  You have Rainbow, Black Sabbath and DIO all on this one.  Was that a conscious decision, or did it just happen? 

Mike: Obviously, Ronnie James Dio is a huge influence of Russell Allen, as well as all of us.  We all love Dio.  He is one of Russell’s heroes.  We had already been covering “Stand Up and Shout” and “Mob Rules” in our live set, so those were no brainers to include.  We had also been doing “Stargazer” from Rainbow. I had already covered that song in a studio version when I was in Dream Theater and I didn’t want to do another one, so we did another track, which was “Kill the King.”  

Jeb: You guys should do a tribute album to DIO from all of his bands and get with Wendy Dio to raise money for his cancer charity.  

Mike: I know. I think Russell would do it in a heartbeat, no question about it.  I think his voice is very much this generations Dio, concerning his power and range.  He has that same type of voice that Ronnie had.  

Jeb: You took a dark song by a dark band and made it darker.  I am talking about the Doors cover “Break On Through.”  

Mike: That is one of the only ones on the CD that was a full on reworking.  Michael had the idea of doing a heavy, modern version of it.  It was like we did with “Come Undone” on the Omerta album.  We took it and we totally reshaped it into a Metal version.  

Jeb:  Was this a fun and relaxed project? How long did it take?

Mike: From the moment we had the idea, to the moment we delivered it to the record company, the entire cycle was about two weeks.  From conception to delivery it was really quick.  We had the idea and we went into the studio and we literally banged it out.  My drums are all one take.  It was pretty much in real time.  We got everything tracked and Michael did a great job mixing.  It was really only a couple of weeks from start to finish.  

Jeb: It is wild hearing Russell sing a Heart song! 

Mike: There are very few male singers that would have the balls to tackle Ann Wilson’s vocals.  The challenge with that one was to make a reinterpretation with Russell’s singing.  It is a slamming tune.  It was so heavy for its time—back in the ‘70’s.  It was a natural for us to do it. 

Jeb: The Led Zeppelin remake is out of this world.  

Mike: “The Lemon Song” is the best example, on this CD, to show everyone’s ability and chops.  If you listen to everything else on this CD, it is all straight ahead Metal and it is slamming.  You have Eddie Van Halen, Tony Iommi, Jake E. Lee and Ronnie James Dio and they are all Metal chops.  

When you listen to “The Lemon Song” then you really get everyone’s ability to stretch.  You hear Michael playing all the bluesy Page stuff.  You hear Russell Allen’s unbelievable range that he never gets to do in a lot of other songs.  I think the star of that track is John Moyer on bass.  The bass lines on that particular song are so incredibly deep.  The fact that he was able to pull that off shows a new side of him.  

Jeb: You did “Romeo Delight” by Van Halen.  That is a more obscure track by that band.  Why that one? 

Mike: We are all huge Van Halen fans, but I think Russell and I are really big time Van Halen fans.  The list was long.  We were like, “We should do ‘Hang ‘Em High” or “Outta Love Again” or Light Up the Sky.”  We thought about “Unchained” or “Mean Street.”  There are so many classic songs from those first few albums.  I suggested “Romeo Delight” because it is upbeat and it’s heavy.  There was a list of at least a half a dozen songs that we kicked around before we tried “Romeo Delight” but that one ended up being the one.  

Jeb: I love how you snuck in a few other songs in there as well.  

Mike: We stuck in a little bit of the drum break of “Light Up the Sky” and we stuck in a bit of “Whole Lotta Love” in the middle of it, too.  We had some fun with it.  We absolutely could have done a whole CD of Van Halen.  

Jeb: You are one of the premier drummers in the business today.  You can be humble about it but it is the fucking truth.  

Mike: [laughter] Thank you, man.  

Jeb: How cool is it to play songs that Alex Van Halen and John Bonham played? 

Mike: First and foremost, I am just a music fan like everybody else, and I think that’s why I’ve done so many covers CDs.  I am such a fan…the musical library that is in my head at all times is massive.  I am a fan of the whole history of Rock, Metal, Classic Rock, Prog Rock and every genre that has been in the Rock genre over the last 50 years—I’m a fan of all it.  I go from Kiss to Nirvana to Pantera.  

For me, whenever I do covers, it is just for the fun of it.  I have been lucky enough to be able to do a lot of them.  I have this album with Adrenaline Mob; I did two with Neal Morse.  I did four with Paul Gilbert. I have covered four albums in their entirety with Dream Theater. We did a Pink Floyd album, a Metallica album, an Iron Maiden album and a Deep Purple album.  In each case, it is just me being a fan.  We are not making money off of it, or showing off our musical chops.  It is just all for the utter fun of it.  

Jeb: How many remakes end up in your current set? 

Mike: This current tour we are doing “Mob Rules” as we close with that every night and it has always been a staple of this band.  We are doing “Come Undone” as it is the latest single from our first album.  

We have two other spots in the set where we play rotating tracks from Coverta.  We are putting it up on our Facebook and asking the fans to pick what they want to hear during that particular show.  Whatever songs the fans vote on we will put in those two spots.  

Jeb: What is on the agenda after this tour? 

Mike: For Adrenaline Mob, we finish this US tour in a couple of weeks.  We will go down to South America with Hailstorm for some shows down there.  From there, I am not sure what our next move will be.  

For me personally, I have a lot of things brewing.  I will do some shows with Neal Morse.  I have the Winery Dogs album coming out in May with Richie Kotzen and Billy Sheenan.  We will tour on the heels of that.  We will start recording a Transatlantic album in May, as well.  I have a live DVD with Flying Colors and a live DVD with PSMS, which is myself, Billy Sheehan, Tony MacAlpine and Derek Sherinian.  There is a lot going on. 
Jeb: So a new Adrenaline Mob album may be a ways away.  

Mike: We haven’t discussed that yet.  We are going to see if we are going to do more touring, or make a new album. We are still debating that, but hopefully it won’t be too long.  

Jeb: Last one:  I am from Kansas and love that band.  I want you all to see what you can do with “Point of Know Return.”  

Mike: There are very few bands that I haven’t covered.  I have covered Kansas with Dream Theater.  When we used to roll through a particular town, I would pick a cover we could do.  If we played in Boston, then we would do a Boston cover, or if we were in London, we would play a Cream cover, or if we were in San Francisco, then we would play a Journey cover.  One of the last times we played in Kansas, when I was with Dream Theater, we played “Paradox” and we released a live version of that.  I have touched on Kansas.  

On the Flying Colors tour we just did, we all did a song from each of our bands.  I was trying to twist Steve Morse’s arm to play a song from the time he was in Kansas.  I couldn’t twist his arm long enough and we ended up doing a Dixie Dregs tune instead.  The Kansas albums Steve was on are great albums.