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Mike Portnoy of The Winery Dogs talks ‘III’ and more

Left to right: Mike Portnoy, Richie Kotzen, Billy Sheehan
Travis Shinn
Mike Portnoy, Richie Kotzen, Billy Sheehan of The Winery Dogs

III is the latest release from The Winery Dogs, the melodically-driven, musical powerhouse featuring veterans Richie Kotzen (vocals/guitar; solo, Poison, VSOP, Mr. Big), Mike Portnoy (drums; Dream Theater, Transatlantic, Liquid Tension Experiment) and Billy Sheehan (bass; David Lee Roth, Mr. Big, Niacin). It’s the band’s most concise and perhaps most cohesive statement to date, filled with memorable vocal hooks (“Breakthrough,” “Mad World”) seamlessly blended with tasteful, virtuosic musicianship.

It’s the kind of thing that led Frank Zappa, producing the similarly soulful band Grand Funk Railroad, to suggest that the group name its overlooked 1976 LP Good Singin’, Good Playin’. Kotzen’s soulful, R&B influenced singing takes the lead on material such as the aforementioned “Mad World,” the ballad “Lorelai” and the celebratory closer “The Red Wine.” Though some have been quick to categorize him as having graduated from the Ian Gillan/Chris Cornell school of singers, his influences can more accurately be traced to the likes of Sam Cooke and Al Green.

Meanwhile, Sheehan, a powerful innovator on the four-string who stands in a class of his own, growls and gallops throughout, adding vocal harmonies and an equally soul-inspired depth to the proceedings while Portnoy’s solid, thoughtful drumming drives material such as “Xanadu,” “Rise,” and “Pharaoh” to some of the greatest musical heights The Winery Dogs have yet to achieve on record.

The trio will spend much of the coming year on the road with dates in North America, Japan and, later in the year, Europe. This is no small feat given that all three musicians busy themselves with other projects during downtime from The Dogs: In addition to his solo career, Kotzen has of late formed Smith/Kotzen with Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith; Sheehan and Portnoy perform with the chops-intensive Sons of Apollo, and the latter musician often finds time to book sessions and live dates with Neal Morse and, until recently, with the group Transatlantic.

Speaking from his home in Pennsylvania, Portnoy was generous with his time and answers about the past and future of The Winery Dogs.

Winery Dogs c. Travis Shinn.jpg
Travis Shinn
Mike Portnoy, Richie Kotzen, Billy Sheehan of The Winery Dogs

Interview Highlights

Winery Dogs had a good year in 2019 with gigs and then, presumably, you were going to make an album in 2020. Had you started working on any of the material from III at that point? 

We started this around the summer of 2021. We would have started it sooner but with everything that went down we were in a holding pattern until the smoke cleared. But, actually, I think flying to L.A. to get started on this album that summer might have been my first time on an airplane after being locked down for so long. It was refreshing to finally get the hell out of the house and be working with other humans again! [Laughs.]

What is the writing process like for this band? Do you work on things individually or do you very much get together in a room and start from scratch? 

It’s the three of us in a room, in-person, from scratch. In this case, we went in with a completely clean slate, no ideas, no riffs, no songs or demos. Somebody will start playing something and it triggers a snowball effect. We all get involved in making suggestions and trying different things out: Different riffs, different parts, different keys and melodies. It’s built from the bottom up.

Obviously you’ve all made lots of records over the years but is there ever any anxiety about going into a room like that with a blank slate? 

I don’t think so. Maybe when you’re making a first record together. When we did the first Winery Dogs album, almost 10 years ago at this point, I think Richie had a couple of demos in his back pocket just in case. You never know what the chemistry’s going to be like. So, for the first album there were moments when we leaned on some stuff that Richie already had. Just to get the ball rolling. Once you get to know each other, by the time you get to a third record together, you know that the chemistry is there and you know that the three of us are really capable of creating pretty easily and quickly together.

When you made that first album, by the way, did you think it would continue or was it really a matter of waiting to see what the chemistry was and if there was an audience for the music? 

We hoped it would be and we wanted it to be but we said, “Let’s see what happens.” Luckily, people really took to the band and the first record did really well and the tour did really well. Everywhere we went, every market around the world, it did well. So we knew that it was working and we immediately went in and made the second record and started touring off of that as well. Two albums back-to-back, two tours back-to-back, we knew it was working. Then, I think at that point, we just wanted to catch our breath and do some of the other things we do but we always knew we’d come back together at some point.

Each of the studio albums has its own character. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s different about this one. Sometimes I think it’s the darkest Winery Dogs record, sometimes I think it’s the most straightforward. What do you see as being the thing that makes this one different from the last two? 

I think it’s really strong because we decided to cap it at 10 songs around 50-55 minutes. The first two albums had 13 or 14 songs. I think once you get past 10 songs you might lose peoples’ attention. I think we wanted to make an album where every single song was strong, there was no filler, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It leaves you wanting more. I think that was the intent and I think we achieved it.

Tell me about sequencing this album. It starts with “Xanadu,” which is really strong. Was that always the front-runner?

Courtesy of the artist
Album cover art for III by The Winery Dogs

No! I’m the one that sequences pretty much every album that I’m a part of in every band that I’m a part of. In this band, Richie and Bill trust me with that but if I’m being honest, I was met with some resistance from Richie on the song I wanted to open the album with. I really wanted to open the album with “Gaslight” because it comes out of the gates fully swinging. Full-on double bass, shredding. Kind of similar to how “Oblivion” opened the second album.

Richie said, “You can have the whole rest of the sequence on the album, I won’t [mess] with it, but I really don’t dig opening with that track.” I think he thought that there were other songs that were stronger melodically and vocally. I was thinking more from just a musical point of view, where it’s really fast and aggressive and steamrolls you. But, at the end of the day, after a lot of that back-and-forth discussion, we ended up going with “Xanadu” as the opener, which I always thought was the best first track to release as a video or single anyway. Even if it wasn’t my first choice to open the album, I thought that it should be the first taste after this hiatus. Ultimately, we went with that as the first single and the album opener as well.

One thing I love is that you didn’t release the singles too far out from the album. Sometimes, the third single is out there months before you hear the album and you forget about it once it’s released. 

Totally. We had to be strategic with the timing. The album has been done since last year. We could have put the album out six months ago at this point but we all had other things going. Richie was doing stuff with Adrian Smith [of Iron Maiden] and then he had his own solo tour. I was out with some of my other bands, so we knew we wouldn’t be able to tour with Winery Dogs until February 2023, so we kind of had to sit on the album for a while and schedule the release of the album to coordinate with when the tour was able to start and then, from there, you go back and schedule the singles and the videos. We had to do it based on when we would be able to start touring.

I wanted to ask you about “Breakthrough” because I understand you had a hand in the lyrics of that one. 

I wouldn’t say the lyrics. It was just the title. When we were working on the song, instrumentally, and Richie was singing scatty words, he kept singing, “Falling and breaking.” I kept hearing, “Having a breakthrough.” [Sings.] So, I said, “Would you be open to using that as the catch phrase of the chorus or the title?” And he was open to it.

There are some bands where everyone has their domain and aren’t open to suggestions like that.  

Make no mistake about it, Richie is the lyricist in the band. He’s writing the words and usually comes up with the songs titles. I wrote one set of lyrics on the first album, “You Saved Me,” but other than that, it’s Richie. But, to your point: I think all three of us have a lot of mutual respect for each other and therefore we’re all very open to anything that anyone might have to suggest because all three of us have been doing this for a long time individually. I think we all have good track records that each of us can respect. With that comes this level of trust.

If somebody makes a suggestion to someone else, whether it be about their instrument or a lyric, or a word, or a note or a riff, I think each of us have enough mutual respect and trust for each other that we don’t put our guards up. We’re open to it.

Richie Kotzen, Mike Portnoy, Billy Sheehan of The Winery Dogs
Travis Shinn
Richie Kotzen, Mike Portnoy, Billy Sheehan of The Winery Dogs

I love the track “Lorelai,” which is the second-to-last track. 

It’s the slow song on the record. I think it’s suitable to Richie’s voice to have a song like that. We had “Damaged” and “Regret” on the first album and the second album had “Fire.” It’s important to have one or two tracks like that per album and on this album this is that track. It’s slow, ballad-esque and showing that bluesy, soulful side of Richie’s voice.

How heavily will you lean on the new album in the live show? 

It’s pretty equal. The set list I wrote pretty much balances all three albums, which is important, I think. We’re not like a legacy band where people only want to hear the old stuff. We’re still a new band, so I think the music we’re making with each album is just as important as the previous ones. It’s a good balance between the three.

I would always go see Rush when they were on tour and they always worked in about four songs from whatever the current album happened to be. It was very cool as a fan to hear the new material in a live context when the album was new. Those songs didn’t have the reputation yet of the other songs. 

But a band like Rush is 40 years in and they had 20 albums. That’s kind of the way it was with me in Dream Theater at a certain point. When I was still with the band we were up to I think 10 studio albums and we were together for 25 years at that point. So, once you’re at that point, you have this massive body of work to play with when creating a setlist. In the case of a band like Rush people need to hear the classics but, of course, as an artist, you want to play stuff that’s current and part of what you’ve just created. I think that luckily we’re still young enough as a band that the new album is just as vital as the previous ones.

Tell me about the band’s relationship with radio. These are songs that fit very well on radio but radio is in such a place that getting new music on the airwaves is next to impossible for some acts. 

You’d probably know better than me. Personally, I don’t listen to the radio so I don’t know about that. I can’t really comment on what the relationship has been but I can say that of all the things I do, all the bands I’m a part of, The Winery Dogs are hands-down the most accessible and the most potentially commercial of them all. I think most of the other bands that I’m a part of, maybe the songs are too long, or the music is too complex. Maybe it’s too heavy or too complicated. There’s always something in all of my other bands that may be something where somebody will say, “Ah, that part just isn’t for me.”

But all across the board, it seems that whoever I run into, anybody who is a fan of what I do, The Winery Dogs has something for everyone. It’s one of those bands where the songs are really memorable and hooky. Of anything that I’m a part of, I think it’s the band that could easily be on the radio or get recognized for a Grammy or what have you. But I don’t put a lot of weight in those areas. To me, I just want to make the best music I can with the band I’m playing and recording with at the time. Hopefully the fans enjoy it as well.

You’re about to spend a lot of 2023 on the road with this band. How do you take care of yourself out there? 

You’re asking the wrong guy!


[Laughs.] I’m the worst at that. I’m the most out-of-shape, unhealthy eater. My body takes a beating. If you find out that answer, let me know!

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.