Dream Theater sounds like something Jim Henson created in the 1980s, but as we all know, it’s actually the name of a pretty killer prog-metal band from, well, the 1980s (and 90’s and today damn it!).

Altogether, the band’s sold over two million albums in the United States, a boatload more overseas, and they have absolutely no intention of stopping the pyrotechnics anytime soon. As they hit the road for their tenth album, I had an irreverent (and irrelevant) chat with drummer Mike Portnoy recently on the state of the band and rock as we know it.

How is this album different than all other Dream Theater albums?
This album has songs called “A Nightmare To Remember,” “A Rite Of Passage,” “Wither,” “The Shattered Fortress,” “The Best Of Times” and “The Count Of Tuscany.” None of our previous albums have songs with those names.

Why is this night different than all other nights?
(Ma-neesh-tana-halila-hazed?) Because tonight we eat unleavened bread (or something like that…)

Speaking of Passover only not really, how has your fan base changed over the years?
Well, the core of our fans have always been a combination of musicians, metal fans and prog fans. I don’t think that’s ever changed for us. We’ve never been the “flavor of the month” (or year or decade for that matter), so our fans tend to stick with us for the long haul. We still see a lot of the same faces that have been following us on tour for almost 20 years except now they are starting to bring their kids. On that note, we do see a lot of young kids just now only discovering DT, which is refreshing as wel.

What do you think of the state of rock?
Well the state of the “music industry” is at its most fragile that it’s ever been since rock music became corporate business 50 years ago and in that respect, I’m happy to see a lot of artists are finally “getting their music back” (by default) after been getting it stuck to them by unfair record company deals for all these years.

As far as the state of “rock,” it’s actually pretty sad actually. When the new Dream Theater CD entered the Billboard Top 10 this summer, we were the only “rock” act in the top 10. We were surrounded by pop acts (Jonas Brothers, Hannah Montana), hip hop acts (Black Eyed Peas, Eminem) and soundtracks (Transformers). We were the only thing slightly resembling a rock “band” on the chart. That’s pretty lame actually.

To take it one step further, I do think the state of “progressive rock” is stronger and more vital than it has been since its heyday in the early 70’s. In addition to what DT has been doing now for over 20 years, there are bands as diverse as The Mars Volta, Muse, Mastodon, Opeth, Radiohead, Coheed & Cambria and Tool that are pushing the envelope with long songs, instrumental passages and daring, experimental arrangements and production that critics are finally actually applauding rather than criticizing.

Amen. How do you guys determine a set list on any given night?
That is something that I personally spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy determining. I will send out a master song list to the band and crew to learn/program at the start of the tour with a few songs I’ve picked from each album…I then change up the sets each night depending on the city. I do a tremendous amount of research for every single show….looking at what was played in that particular city the last two or three times through the years and I will write a set that hopefully doesn’t repeat anything to make each time a fan sees a show a unique experience. I also take into account if we are playing two or three shows within driving distance of each other, to make those shows different from each other as well.

It’s a ridiculous, obsessive compulsive process that I don’t think anybody else in this business does for their fans, but somehow I make myself insane doing it. It’s like trying to solve the ultimate puzzle each and every day!

Speaking of which, how bad was that Oliver Stone movie Any Given Sunday?
Jeez. It wasn’t that bad. In fact, it’s probably the last film of his that I liked or cared about. He lost me with Alexander and W., World Trade Center was OK…but he hasn’t done anything recently that equals the period of Platoon, Talk Radio, Natural Born Killers, The Doors and JFK.

Stone aside, what do you make of the American Idol phenomenon? Should there be a genre-bending night on the show that incorporates you guys?
I hate to admit it, but I watched every episode of the last two seasons! I think America got it right with David Cook and I was very happy to see his great talent recognized and appreciated, but this last season was very disappointing. Although Kris Allen has a great voice, he was just too “safe” (like last season’s David Archuleta, who I thought would win, but was pleasantly surprised to see America give it up to D.C. instead). I was really hoping for Adam Lambert to pull it off as D.C. did. Adam’s voice is just incredible. He is a true star and deserves every bit of fame I hope he gets-he is a truly gifted vocalist — the likes of which we don’t often see in this business (ala Freddie Mercury, Jeff Buckley, Matthew Bellamy, etc.).

Who is the best act you’ve ever seen live?
From a production standpoint, maybe Roger Waters. From a musical standpoint, I’d say Frank Zappa — or even Dweezil’s Zappa Plays Zappa (OK — self-serving Progressive Nation tour plug!) Both Frank and Dweezil surrounded themselves with musicians of the utmost highest caliber, playing some of the most complex and diverse music ever written….and to have Zappa Plays Zappa currently opening for Dream Theater this summer is an absolute honor and personal dream for me.

Getting back to DT, because that’s why you’re talking to me, do you guys still all get along with each other after all these years?
Well, as much as I’d like to give a clever answer, the truth is we get along way better now than we did throughout any period during the 90’s. Maybe we’re mellowing with age. Maybe we just understand and accept each other’s quirks and personalities better. Maybe we all know each other’s roles in the band and let it flow rather than fight it. Whatever the case, the last decade has been pretty smooth for the most part.

“The Best of Times” for Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy

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