Dream Theater Drummer Mike Portnoy on Creating Music Inspired by the 12 Steps

By David Konow 06/27/17

For 'Repentance,' Portnoy contacted musician friends like guitar wizard Joe Satriani, Yes singer Jon Anderson, and Corey Taylor of Slipknot, and got them to speak about their personal regrets, as well as who they would make amends to.

Mike Portnoy, drummer of Dream Theater, playing drums
An interview with Mike Portnoy, the drummer of Dream Theater, on music, addiction, and recovery.

Formed at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, Dream Theater are a progressive metal powerhouse that still enjoys a strong and loyal following worldwide. Each member of the band is a top-notch musician and Mike Portnoy became a star drummer is his own right.

Portnoy has also been sober for 17 years, and has written extensively about his sobriety in the band’s music, including a series of songs that eventually became known as the Twelve Step Suite. After leaving Dream Theater in 2010, Portnoy has played with a wide variety of musicians, and to celebrate 17 years of sobriety, he performed the entire Twelve Step Suite live early this year.

As Portnoy tells The Fix, “I had my last drink on April 20, 2000, which was my 33rd birthday. It’s just by coincidence that I quit on my birthday. I immediately, the next day, attended my first 12-step meeting, and from that point on I was completely determined to follow a new lifestyle, work the 12 steps, go through the program, and it became a huge part of my daily life.”

Portnoy decided to clean up his act after he was told by two separate doctors that at the rate he was going, he wouldn’t make it to 40. Unlike a lot of rock stars who have had embarrassing meltdowns in public, for the most part Portnoy managed to keep his drinking and drug use private. 

“I was probably as much of a quote-unquote responsible alcoholic as you’ll find,” he says. “It was always, at least in the early days, something that I kept concealed, and I tried to delegate it to an end of the night kind of thing. I was never a day drinker or drugger because I could never function responsibly that way. At the end of the show, that’s when I would crack open my first drink, and I would go until I’d pass out at four in the morning each night, usually in the privacy of my home or my tour bus.”

Towards the end, however, the cracks began to show. At first, Portnoy would keep his partying confined to after the show. “Then it went from not drinking until after the show to not drinking until the encore, to not drinking until the keyboard solo, to not drinking until the opening band went on…it kept getting earlier and earlier.”

Dream Theater then played a gig in Texas where Portnoy was completely drunk onstage. When playing simpler forms of rock and roll, you can often get away with playing wasted, but with the demanding intricacies of progressive music, it’s usually pretty obvious when you’re not playing up to snuff.

As Portnoy recalls, at the gig, “I went on a rant on the microphone, and I remember I even stumbled on a drum part on our song 'Pull Me Under,' which I’d played a thousand times. That was a song I could do in my sleep. My wife carried me out to the bus after the show, and it was one of those moments of clarity where I realized it started to seep into my personal and professional life. I never used to play fucked up. Towards the end I did, and that’s when I knew I’d crossed the line.”

A confessed control freak, Portnoy dove into the program with the same intensity and discipline he devoted to becoming a great musician. The first Dream Theater album that Portnoy did with the band sober was 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.

“I’ve always written lyrics out of events and situations in my life, and being that sobriety and the steps were such a huge part of what I was going through I was inevitably going to write about it,” Portnoy says. “It was very therapeutic to write about the steps in such a public forum. It was kind of how I did my step work. Of course I properly did my steps with my sponsor, but this was another way of therapeutically digging in, looking at myself, and looking at each step. I was going to meetings every day, but writing about it really cemented it into my being.”

The Six Degrees album begins with "The Glass Prison," and it had three distinct movements. “So I decided that would be a good one to write lyrics to, and I wrote about the first three steps for the separate movements of the song. The lyrics of 'The Glass Prison' are about coming out of the dark and surrendering. The opening line to 'The Glass Prison' is, 'Cunning, baffling, powerful.’ It starts with something that anyone in the program will immediately identity with and relate to.”

Then Portnoy came up with the idea of creating a larger piece that would eventually stretch into five songs. “I was able to take the concept very deep, and I had ideas of how the songs could link together. There was no way in hell I could have possibly written about the 12-step process in one song, it just would have been impossible. It’s such a massive process. I thought it would be a good idea to start with the first three steps, then make it an ongoing process over the next several albums and turn it into a big concept piece.”

After "The Glass Prison" came "This Dying Soul," which was on the 2003 album Train of Thought. Then came "The Root of All Evil," which was on the 2005 Octavarium album, followed by "Repentance," which appeared on Systematic Chaos in 2007, then finally "The Shattered Fortress," which was on the Black Clouds and Silver Linings album in 2009.

“'This Dying Soul' is about steps four and five,” Portnoy says. “Looking at yourself, and those were probably the darkest lyrics. Then the next group of songs start to lighten up. 'The Root of All Evil,' which is about steps six and seven, is about turning yourself over and letting go. Then you get to 'Repentance,' which is about steps eight and nine, and those are very reflective.”

In fact, with 'Repentance,' Portnoy contacted a number of musicians he was friends with, including guitar wizard Joe Satriani, Yes lead singer Jon Anderson, and Corey Taylor from Slipknot, to name a few, and got them to speak about their personal regrets, as well as who they would make amends to. “It was an amazing sound collage of all these people giving their take on regret, and it ended up being one of the coolest parts of the Twelve Step Suite.”

Finally, the suite concludes with "The Shattered Fortress," dealing with steps 10, 11 and 12, “and that’s the ultimate release at this point,” Portnoy says.

Once Portnoy started writing about the steps in Dream Theater’s lyrics, his band mates were very supportive. “Everybody thought it was a great idea, and the general rule in the band was whoever wrote the lyrics to a particular song had the artistic freedom to write about whatever they wanted. The lyrical process was always something very personal in the band, and whoever was writing the words could have their own vision, it didn’t need to be discussed or agreed upon like a committee.”

Over the years, Portnoy has met many fans who were inspired by his lyrics to get clean. “My intent with these lyrics was never to be preachy with them,” he says. “It was really merely to help myself, but it’s great that I could help other people in the process. With any good lyric on any good topic, if you can help somebody in a similar situation, that’s the beauty of art. I’ve met fans who have told me they were struggling, and (these songs) lead them to the program. They’ve gotten sober and gotten their life on track as a result, and that’s pretty amazing.”

Having recently celebrated his 50th birthday, Portnoy is grateful he got sober and didn’t wind up a rock n' roll casualty like two of his idols, Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, and The Who’s Keith Moon, who both died of substance misuse at the same age, 32.

“The first thing that comes to mind is thank God I was able to turn my life around and be here for my kids and family, as well as my friends and fans. I look at John Bonham and Keith Moon, two of my heroes who died at such a tragically young age because of this disease, and I’m grateful I was able to make it out of the glass prison and be here today.”

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.