Unless you've been living under a rock for the last couple of months, you know that Mike Portnoy is back in Dream Theater and prog-metal fans understandably lost their minds. But after 13 years apart, the question on everyone's minds is: can they recapture the magic of their golden years?
In a one-hour-long interview with Drumeo host Brandon Toews, Portnoy delved into details about the story of how his return came to happen. Time, it seems, heals all wounds. Portnoy's return wasn't a calculated business move, but a gradual rekindling of friendships, starting with guitarist John Petrucci. Years of family gatherings, collaborations – and even shared apartments for their kids – laid the groundwork for a musical reunion. The final piece? A tearful reconciliation with vocalist James LaBrie, washing away a decade of estrangement.
"It's been 13 years, and I think time heals all wounds, as the expression goes. It's been many, many years now of kind of rekindling my relationships with the guys, starting with John Petrucci… Maybe five, six, seven years ago or so, we just reconnected. Our families — his wife and my wife were in a band together even before we knew our wives. Our kids have grown up together. My daughter and John Petrucci's daughter shared an apartment together in New York for the last five years. So, the families were still close.
"So, John and I inevitably reconnected on a personal level. And I guess it really started to gain some traction during the COVID lockdown because I couldn't tour and Dream Theater couldn't tour, so John decided he wanted to do a solo album and he asked me to play on it. So that was the first step, I guess, in this direction. So I played on John's solo album. And then a few months later, we did a Liquid Tension Experiment album with John and Jordan. So that brought the three of us back together.
"And then the following year I ended up doing John's solo tour, and our wives' band were opening for us. So, we had the wives out with us. So, it just seemed like it was all starting to come together on a personal level and then the musical level as well. And then I think the final piece was me reconnecting with James LaBrie 'cause James and I hadn't spoken for over a decade."
He continued, touching on seeing his first Dream Theater show after leaving the band: "I went to see Dream Theater play in New York, I guess around 2022, and that was my first time seeing James in over a decade. And literally, I'm not exaggerating, within five seconds of seeing each other, it was hugs, kisses and it was like any of the drama and bullshit that happened during all of those years of the split, it just melted away immediately.
"And with James and I buddying up again, it kind of just… it began to seem like an inevitability. It wasn't ever, I don't think, in either of our plans to eventually reunite. In fact, if you would have asked me this five years ago, I probably wouldn't have put money on it. But with the developments of everything I just laid out for you, then it started to really feel like, well, maybe this is inevitable. It just seems like we're in the right place and the right time at this stages of our lives. All those years of Dream Theater, we were in our twenties and thirties and forties. And now here we are, most of us in our fifties and some of the members in their sixties, and it just seems like life is too short to not be with the people you love and play the music that is part of your life and your heart and soul. So, yeah, here we are."
A key question, of course, is how Portnoy feels about Mike Mangini, his replacement during his absence. Portnoy admits initial concerns but praises Mangini's grace and professionalism. They were friends before Dream Theater, and Portnoy understands the allure of such a prestigious gig.
"It was nice to see something like this happen with taking the high road and class and grace and dignity and not a war of words and drama and B.S. This was really handled so well, and I have to give Mike Mangini all the credit in the world for that, 'cause it's not easy being replaced. I can't imagine. He handled it really well, and I guess the things he said were so classy. So, yeah, I was really glad to see how well he took it. 'Cause I was a little concerned about that. But it couldn't have come off any better."
“He and I were friends in the '90s when he was still playing in Extreme and stuff like that and we would do clinics together and stuff," Portnoy added. "So, yeah, he's an old friend. And I could never get mad at the guy for taking the gig. I mean, how could you not? It was a great opportunity and a great gig. So, yeah, it was nice when all those resentments and all that stuff melted away because it was a tough couple of years at the start of the split."
How will the "new old" Dream Theater function? Portnoy, once a prevailing force, is now open to letting go of some control, focusing on areas like setlists while leaving others, like lyrics, to his bandmates. Finding a new balance – where he contributes but doesn't dominate – seems to be where his heart is.
"When I left the band 13 years ago, I was a control freak — absolutely. I'll be the first to admit it. And I think as time has gone on, I've loosened up on all that. All the bands I've done over the last 13 years, I've had to learn how to compromise, how to collaborate, how to let go of things. I've even had these hired-gun gigs with Twisted Sister and Avenged Sevenfold where I just play drums. So, we're just gonna have to find our feet in the new dynamic.
"I think there will be many areas that I hope I could regain some control, like writing the setlists, it was always a big one for me. But then there's other areas that I'm more than happy to step away and not even be involved with. I'd be happy to not write any lyrics again, which is what I used to always write a lot of lyrics back in the day. But I'd be fine with not doing that. It's a lot of things — designing the artwork or the merchandise. You've gotta pick your battles, and I guess we'll find our feet and see where everybody kind of fits into the structure of the new dynamic."
One thing's clear: excitement is electric about the Dream Theater future. A new album is on the horizon, and Portnoy can't wait to get back on stage with Dream Theater's legendary fanbase. He's dreamt of this moment for years, and the anticipation is palpable in his words.
"We're gonna start work on a new album right after the new year. I have some remaining commitments, I have a gig with Metal Allegiance in January, and I have some gigs with Flying Colors in March. So, these are things that have been on the calendar for a while. So I'm gonna finish out those commitments, but pretty much after the new year, the focus for me is gonna be Dream Theater, and we're gonna move into the studio and start working on a new album.
"And it remains to be seen where and when the first gig or gigs will be. But that's what I'm most excited about. I cannot wait to be on the stage again in front of the most devoted fanbase in the world. I mean, the energy and the excitement that that first gig is… I'm getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it. I've dreamt about it. I'm telling you, the last 13 years or so, I can't tell you, I've probably dreamt about 100 times about what it would be like to be back in Dream Theater or to play that first show back. So it's gonna be amazing to finally actually do it."