The Oxford English Dictionary defines prodigy as "A person, especially a young one, endowed with exceptional qualities or abilities." If Next to None doesn't fit that bill to a T, I don't know another band out there that would. A four piece outfit based out of Pennsylvania, no band member is over the age of 18 and yet their sound is incredibly mature and well-thought out for such a group of young gentlemen. Featuring an influence that blends progressive metal, Slipknot, Lamb of God and elements of metalcore, "A Light In The Dark" is an incredible debut from a band that will have people's jaws dropping in astonishment at the musicality and the atmosphere captured on the album. I recently talked with Max Portnoy, drummer from Next to None about the band, the album, touring and a few other topics. I found Max to be incredibly down to earth, very friendly and honest.
Max Portnoy of Next To None
The guys have grown up together for the most part since they were kids. "Ryland, Kris and I have known each other since first grade and, while there were other kids that played music in our group, they were the only ones that liked Metallica and metal. So, I stuck with them and jammed along with them, though we weren't that great back in first grade." Max says. About five years later, the band "met Thomas Cuce, vocalist, in sixth grade and he was the only singer around and was great. It was lucky that we got to start jamming with him and plus he loved Metallica, Dream Theater and all the other bands we were listening to." Max said, "there is a video you can find somewhere on YouTube of me, Ryland and Thomas playing 'Hey Bulldog', which was the only the second time we'd ever jammed together. After that, we decided to go to my house, ‘cause we were jamming at Ryland's house, and that was where we started writing our own songs." At this time, the lads in Next to None were between the ages of 12 and 14. Given that they were so young when they wrote the EP, "it is so different from the normal album because we were 12, so it was kind of like what little kids would write, you could say. But it's still some cool stuff to us."
Let that sink in for a minute people. These 12 year old kids wrote and then recorded an EP a few months later!! I don't know about you, fellow readers, but at 12 I damn sure wasn't writing songs or thinking about recording an EP. I'm pretty sure I was getting cracked out on sugar and playing video games like a beast. Recording anything at the age of 13 had to have been nuts and Max confirmed that by saying that "It was pretty crazy, you know. We got to go to Mike Orlando's studio but it was crazy. We went in and recorded it in four days and it was the first time any of us had been around a studio like that. We were having a blast and enjoying it but because we had everything so well-rehearsed, we were able to bang it out and be able to sit back and be picky about the songs." One of the tracks off that EP, "Fortune Cookie" had a really great video with it that showed the band just being themselves with a slew of cameos in the video--Chris Jericho, Russell Allen of Symphony X, Mike Portnoy and Jim Florentine, Don Jamieson and Eddie Trunk from That Metal Show to name a few. Getting those cameos "was a surprise that my Dad set up for us. It was just a fun song and something we enjoyed playing, but we didn't know until the end of the video that those celebrities were in there."
Before we started talking about the new album, I asked Max about playing on a couple shows that they did, the Vans Warped Tour and the ProgNation Cruise. Max said that though he can't remember what year they played Warped it "was a blast to play. We were on a pretty big stage for us, it wasn't the main stage or a side stage. But we were just sitting out there playing while people were walking around and people would come over and check us out. That was a really great way to just get our name out there."
Hearing him talk about the ProgNation Cruise, you can just feel the respect and excitement in his voice. "The ProgNation Cruise was last year (2014) and that was one of our biggest shows we've ever played. It was so incredible to hang out on the cruise with a bunch of great musicians, play the show and then get off the stage and hang out with the fans and go get ice cream with my friends. There were so many bands on the cruise that I can't remember them all. It was 4 days and we played 2 days of the cruise." Being in an environment like that, I wondered what sort of reception they got and Max said that "at first more than half of the people didn't know who we were. But again, doing something of that size really helped get our name out there and a ton of people ended up coming to check us out because they weren't sure what to expect. We were playing 'Blood On My Hands' and 'Control' at the time to give people an idea of what our sound was going to be." It sounds like a boatload of fun was had by all. Let the groans and eye rolls commence at my horrible joke. Haha
"Social media is definitely a huge, helpful tool that everyone should be using. --Max Portnoy"
The band's debut album, "A Light In The Dark", marks the first full-length recording for the guys and it has some pretty incredible pieces to it. It is a far departure from the EP and Max explains that "The album is the style we're going to be sticking with and the EP was more of us just goofing around when we were little and getting a feel for the industry. But 'A Light In The Dark' is what people should really be checking out to get an idea of our sound." The songs on the album are well constructed, well played and well written. Max played the part of psychic and basically plucked the question about the concept running through the album out of my head before I had even asked it. In regards to the concept its "6 tracks from the album and is about someone who is just crazy and is dealing with Multiple Personality Disorder and they're trying to fight with their bad side but it ends up taking over and bad stuff happens." Listening to the album, you can hear the polish and the perfection that the band put into it and "having been writing this album for like 3 years, we had a lot of time to go over stuff and perfect it just the way we want it and we're just super proud of it." One of the things that really struck me while listening to "ALITD" was the musicianship these kids exhibit. And before I go on, let me just clarify that I'm not meaning kids in a derogatory or insulting manner, because the bottom line is that most of the band still are kids and that just lends itself to the incredible sound and effort that they show with this album.
Back on track though, there are just some jaw-dropping musical moments on the album, be it some of Kris' bass work, Max's drumming, Ryland's shredding, Thomas' keys or what have you. In response to asking about how the band was able to get the music so tight, Max told me that "since we've been playing together since first grade, we've had a lot of time to grow and practice. By the time we were done writing this thing and went to the studio, we were well-rehearsed and I think it really helped us to be able to perform it well on the album." I don't mean to sound like a homer or gush but honestly, every time I go back and listen to this album, the musical quality and level of musicianship is just staggering. You feel like you're listening to seasoned veterans and then you remember that these guys are in their mid to late teens.
The writing process had me intrigued and given the history they have had with knowing each other for so long, I wondered if the whole band contributed or if it was just one or two of the band members handling those duties. Max told me that "everyone kind of brought things to the table but Thomas and I did the bulk of it. Though that's not to say that nobody else didn't have opinions or anything. Ryland wrote all of his solos and stuff but for the most part Thomas and I wrote most of it. He or I would bring an idea we had in and share it with the rest of the band and try to build on that. Then usually, Thomas would go and lay down vocals and write lyrics." Going forward, Max "hopes to write one or two songs on the next album" but stated that, "on this album, Thomas did all the lyrics."
Getting to the point that I wanted to tread lightly on was the fact that Max's dad, Mike of so many bands fame, produced the album. I was curious about what it was like working with him on the album. "It was really great. We get along great and it was just awesome riding from our house to the studio and then after we were done recording, we'd listen to the roughs on the ride back home and say what we think should be changed and just how the tracks came out. And also, Kris and Ryland basically grew up with me since we've been friends for so long, so he was like a Dad to them too." I asked him if he and his Dad got into any disputes over tracks or anything and he said "No, we really didn't. We occasionally would have to vote on some parts because we like to do things as a democracy where everyone gets a say so no one's opinion gets excluded or someone gets disappointed. But we're all very happy how the album came out and we all had such a great time."
Being the offspring of a famous musician can be a double-edged sword. In some ways it's great to have that name familiar to many people but in others, it is almost a target for people to just say things like "Oh this is Mike's kid's band. They got a deal cause of who his Dad is." or "These guys probably had everything handed to them because of Mike Portnoy." Well first off, I'm here to tell you that these kids are legit. They did everything on their own and you can read Mike's statement on the Next To None website as to what his involvement was with the band. That being said, I asked Max if they were concerned about or paid any attention to people that made statements like the ones I used above to illustrate this point. "We don't really care. Obviously there are people that are going to do that. And as much good that comes from getting our name out there doing tours and such, there are people out there that won't listen to us specifically because of that same reason too." Max added that "Honestly though, I don't think people should be looking at it as Mike Portnoy's son's band. They should be looking at it as Next to None and enjoying the music for how it is. My Dad had nothing to do with the writing of the album or anything that went on the album. He just produced the album and I just happen to be his son." Well said Max, well said.
Sliding away from that a little, Max added that "We've gotten 90% positive feedback and comments and for the most part, everyone has been super supportive. It's been so amazing and we're so grateful for it. There's only been a small percentage that has been mean but for some reason, everyone tends to focus on that more. That's something we all kind of do. We try to ignore that because we're more supportive and like to focus on the positive and let the negative go."
Asked if NTN had seen or noticed any youthful trends in metal, after some thought, Max said that "the use of social media has really been something that bands are using to get their name out there." In this technological age, bands are utilizing YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and countless other social media outlets to promote and advertise their brand. Next To None are no exceptions with this as Max states that, "Social media is definitely a huge, helpful tool that everyone should be using. It's an amazing way to get in touch with other people and it's at your fingertips either on your phone or your computer." Along with social media, lots of bands will stream their albums exclusively through various sites or sometimes the album will be streamed without their permission. Max kind of sits in the middle of the spectrum as "I don't really support Spotify or that sort of stuff ‘cause it's honestly stealing in my opinion. It actually happened to us. The day our album was released it was taken by Spotify and put up. They didn't pay for it or ask us to use it. I don't care about that side of it though because the good side is that it gives people a chance to listen to the album who might not be able to buy it or just want to check us out and can still listen to the record."
Moving to the locale of the band in PA, I wanted to know what the music scene was like and found out that "It's really hard to get shows around here. They all want bands that will play covers. They don't want people to come in and play original material. We do have a pretty decent fanbase up here that comes out to see us but also, there are people that just aren't in to metal and don't even come out to support local music. But if you go out to Philly or New York City, then tons of people come out and it's just awesome. But being in a small town, it is pretty difficult."
"We occasionally would have to vote on some parts because we like to do things as a democracy where everyone gets a say so no one's opinion gets excluded or someone gets disappointed. " --Max Portnoy
Stepping away from music for a second, I asked Max if the band were still in school and he said that "Yes, we're all still in school. Thomas is home schooled, Ryland and I go to a Performing Arts school where half of the day is academic and then the other half is focusing on your major, which mine is drumming and Ryland's is piano and guitar. Kris used to go to the Performing Arts school with us but moved up to Lehigh High School."
When asked about other studies he said, "Drumming is my major but that film is definitely something that I'm interested in doing. I've taken summer courses on filming and if I have time to do drumming and something else, I'd love to make movies." When asked about what kind of movies he liked and would like to make "I watch a lot of stuff. You know like, Jurassic Park. Which I guess would be suspense or something. But I watch all kinds of stuff so it just really depends on what I'm in the mood for."
When they aren't causing jaws to hit the floor or are jamming around, "Thomas, Kris, and I are always playing video games when we aren't playing music or doing schoolwork. We just hang out and all chill out and will Skype and will play League of Legends, Arc Survival, that sort of thing." Showing my age, I asked if they did console gaming and "We did Xbox a few years ago but switched over to PC Gaming a few years ago and I personally think it's so much better and faster. Plus you can get the games for cheaper playing on PC. We all love playing PC Games."
Asking the staple question of what is in your music playlist, Max said that "I'm a huge Slipknot fan and listen to the new album as well as the old stuff. The new Lamb of God is awesome. Chris Adler's drumming is just insane, I love it so much. They're the two main bands I've been listening to recently but I also listen to Rammstein and Metallica, of course." Being a fan of those first two bands as well, I asked if Max had seen them on their Summer tour and he "got to see Slipknot three different times and then I got to see them together on the Summer's Last Stand Tour. I actually got to stand behind Chris Adler's drum kit and watch him play. He's one of my drum models or idols if you will. It was just awesome!"
Wrapping things up, Max added that "People should definitely check out 'A Light In The Dark', our new album. I'm incredibly proud of it and so is the band. It's been getting great reviews and if you haven't heard of us, or even if you have, please go check out the album. We've also been writing some new stuff for the next album that we tentatively hope to record sometime next year. It's going good for us. Hopefully we'll have some good shows starting to come up soon." With that, I bid Max goodbye.
My lasting impression from this interview is the balance of maturity and innocence that Max conveys. Listening to him speak about music, the industry and the band, you can hear that he is so mature for his age and very well versed in those subjects. But you get him talking about PC Games and Lamb of God and Slipknot and you can hear the youthful exuberance and that unbounded enthusiasm that young people have in surplus. And that to me is really what lends to the band's sound. These guys are so young, yet so mature and those elements combine to give you something that is truly incredible. Next To None are a band on a slow and steady rise. If they continue their ascent and people discover just how great they are, this ride could turn in to something pretty special. So, go out and download or buy a copy of "A Light In The Dark" and as you listen to it, you will find out how these guys truly are Next To None.
Max Portnoy- Drums
Ryland Holland- Guitar
Kris Rank- Bass Guitar
Thomas Cuce- Keyboards and Lead Vocals