INTERVIEW: Dream Theater’s John Petrucci

IK Multimedia's MODO BASS

When Mike Portnoy quit Dream Theater a year ago, it could have been a disaster for the band. Instead they went into audition mode, recruiting former Extreme/Steve Vai drummer Mike Mangini to record A Dramatic Turn Of Events. The new album is classic Dream Theater, with odd time signatures, clever arrangements, genre-hopping, long instrumental sections and plenty of shred. Mangini proves he’s the perfect man for the job, and the entire band sounds energised and inspired by the new, more democratic approach to composition. It’s their most varied and creative work since 1999’s Scenes From A Memory.

The first impression I had of this album was “This reminds me of something. What is it? Oh! Dream Theater!” It really brings back the things I really loved about the Images & Words era.

Cool! We were definitely conscious to look at our goals for the new album and really talk to each other beforehand. I had a lot of conversations with Jordan (Rudess, keys) about the compositional direction, and trying to hone in on the elements that make the band special in our eyes. We had a conversation with James (LaBrie) about where we wanted to take the vocals melodically, and conversations with John Myung (bass) not only about the album but each song. We had a very focused general outlook of the entire writing process. And not only that but as a producer what it was going to sound like when it was all said and done. So that probably helped keep it in that direction.

It’s a very colourful album. As a producer, how did you approach it?

It’s the first time I produced by myself. I had an idea in my head of all the elements coming into play and working together. Having Paul Northfield engineer it and having Andy Wallace mix it, those all contributed greatly to that goal. I wanted this album to be big and have a powerful sonic impact but to be really hi-fi and polished, and with a lot fidelity where you can hear all of the instruments, but have a lot of balance where you can hear not only each player but the songs, the songwriting too. The songs need to be strong. The writing, the riffs, the motifs, the melodic passages, the choruses, the chord progressions, everything needs to be thought out and honed in to the best they can be. That was my mindset as a producer going in.

One thing that really struck me about the album was that there were a few particular melodies that really stuck in my head after the very first listen.

Oh cool! That’s great! I mean, I’m a big fan of melody and meaning in songwriting and lyrics. Obviously that’s something I’m striving for as a songwriter, and by the time we’re done, we’re listening to it and going “Wow!” If you can be objective and step back and say “This is really cool, I really like the way that came out,” or “There’s something about this melody that I can’t get out of my head,” you have to trust your instincts. And when people give you feedback, like the way you just did, for example, it kinda reassures you that we made the right decision and it was working. It’s a matter of being focused and also having a lot of confidence to know when it’s right.

Well, you wouldn’t have got to where you are if what you do naturally wasn’t what people wanted to hear. 

It’s a really great thing to be a musician and to be able to play and write the kind of music that you want to, which is certainly not the commercial norm, and have it be appreciated and accepted on such a worldwide level that we are. We’re in a very unique position as a band and we all really value that very, very highly. We’re very aware of how fortunate we are.

I understand that this time around you had a big role in composing the drum parts. How did you go about that?

Well what I did was, when we were writing the music we were all set up in the studio and we’d write a section of music, whether it be a riff or a chord sequence or whatever it was, and I wanted to be able to present it in such a way – Mike Mangini wasn’t available when we were writing – and I wanted to be able to present ideas in a way that, instead of just giving him a click with guitars and keyboards, I thought it would be better to give him more of a blueprint of what we were thinking as far as the feel and groove of the sections. I didn’t go crazy programming the drums. I did it on a basic level. I didn’t want to waste a lot of time being very nerdy with the drums. It’d be a waste of time! Y’know, I’m not a drummer, I’m a guitar player! But when all is said and done, the songs existed as full demos with full drums. I used the Superior drumming program, which sounded great. So we were able to send that to Mangini, and he was able to get a really good feeling as to what we were going for. And of course, him being really creative and a master drummer he was able to take care of that in his own way and add incredible fills and segues and turnarounds. He would catch things that people were playing and make it a hell of a lot more interesting than my little drum programming! It’s important that people realise how creative he is.

I like how you were able to keep a lid on Mangini’s hiring for so long. People were speculating, but nobody actually knew until the moment it was revealed on the online documentary.

Yeah. It was really hard to do! We had a plan all along that we wanted to announce our new drummer through this documentary, and in order to do that the documentary had to be filmed, it had to be produced, edited, it took a lot of time, and fast-forward four or five months later and people were getting really itchy, like, “What’s the big deal? Just tell us who the drummer is!” But I’m glad that we held out. I’m glad we waited. It was a nice way to make it a big event, to include our listeners, and I think it really helps people get an idea of the kind of person and drummer that Mike is. It ends up being a very positive thing.

Well there seems to be a really positive feeling to the whole album. It doesn’t feel like you were bogged down by Mike Portnoy’s departure.

Well, y’know, the thing that may be important for people to realise is that we are a band. We’re not a band that’s focused on or about one particular person. It’s the collective thing, it’s the synergy, it’s us together that makes it special. Of course, having a member leave or changing members is definitely a big deal, but this is something that from my perspective I started from the beginning and have been doing for 26 years or so, so there’s no question in my mind. This is what I want to do, what I love doing, and it’s the kind of music I was born to write and play. So if there’s no question about that, then you can move on and react in a positive way. It certainly doesn’t mean it was hard for us, it certainly doesn’t mean that it wasn’t emotional and heartbreaking, which it was, but it hits that point where you realise that things change in life, you embrace that change and move on, and make sure you focus on your strength, and have that self-confidence that I talked about earlier.

Well the musical results really validate your decision to keep going. The album is kickass!

Oh good, thank you! Like I said, we love to do it. I’ve been writing this kind of music from the beginning, so there’s no reason to stop.

“Lost Not Forgotten” is an incredible track. What’s going on there?

Well that one is the only song where the guitar is tuned a whole step down to D. It’s probably one of the more techy songs on the album. It’s heavy and aggressive but it’s definitely very technical. So it’s a good blend of those two styles. Sometimes with this kind of music it gets tricky: when you write things that are heavy they get less progressive and when you write things that are progressive they get less heavy. To try to find that marriage and to blend it is the tricky thing. It’s what makes it unique and original. So this is that blend. So the goal behind it was we wanted to write something that was driving and heavy and very thematic but that also had really cool twists and turns and technical elements to it. And the whole while, the purpose of it was to keep it musical, to make sure it’s always contributing to what you’re trying to say with the song. That’s so important and you never want to lose sight of that.

Well it’s interesting – a lot of your work over the last decade has been pretty heavy, and James LaBrie’s most recent solo album was really heavy…

Yeah it was! Yeah!

I love that album. But it’s great that there’s a lot of the lighter side of Dream Theater on this album as well. It’s something we haven’t heard much of for a while.

I think that setting really makes the most sense. I think that balancing those elements is the type of thing that creates a new sound. Those things on their own have been done before, but if you can get that blanace and make it your own, then you have something that people identify only with your group and your music. And I think that’s really important. And it also makes it more interesting as a songwriter and a player, because you change faces as a player throughout the song. And it’s fun! It’s a challenge and it’s fun, and it leaves a lot of opportunities for expression open. That song [“Lost Not Forgotten”] is heavy and technical but it also has some beautiful and soaring parts, but it also has a tango moment, it has a Zappa-esque section, and it keeps you on your toes as a player. It makes it interesting, and I think the result is that as a listener, you don’t know what’s going to happen next, what’s going to hit you, and that makes it fun to listen to and more enjoyable, and of course the whole thing needs to be tied in by theme and melody and lyrical content. That’s what makes it special in the end.

What did you use guitar-wise this time around? I’ve always wondered if you have a particular main guitar that you use more than the others, or if you spread the love out across a range of different ones. 

Well on this record I did use one guitar, my JPXI model, which is the latest in the series of my Ernie Ball Music Man signature models. And that guitar is the entire album. I used the six string and the seven-string, and that was it. There are some acoustic moments where I used a Taylor acoustic, but it’s the Music Man JPXI on the whole record. And it’s also the same amp on the whole record, a Mesa Boogie Mark V. All the cleans, all the leads, all the rhythms, it’s the one amp. I am a person who has a lot of gear – I’m a gear geek and I love it – but my setup in the studio was really simple: my guitar, a cable, my amp and a cabinet.

I read recently that you’ve just got the Axe-FX II – how’s that working out for you?

I did! Actually I haven’t hooked that up yet! I’ve been so busy. I finally opened the box and got it open. I didn’t get home [from tour] too long ago, so I’m still getting settled. And not only that, but the new Mesa Boogie Royal Atlantic just came, so I’m going to check that out as well. Too many toys, too little time! But there are bigger problems though, right!

So any chance of an Australian tour? 

Yeah! I don’t have a specific date, but it’s definitely on board as one of our stops on this tour. We’ve just finished the European open-air festivals, and when the album comes out in September we’re following that up with a North American tour. We’ll be in the US and Canada, and some shows in Mexico as well. We’ll hit Europe up in late January and February, and we certainly plan on coming to Australia, Asia and South America as well. It’s just a matter of how 2012 lines up. So I don’t have a specific date, but that’s the order of things.

Well watching YouTube videos of the Europe gigs, Mangini fits in so well that I can’t wait to hear it first-hand. 

Yeah, he really does. It’s tricky when a band member leaves. It’s like, anything can happen. There are so bands in the world and so many musicians trying to get together and make things work, and chemistry is such a big part of it. The fact that we found Mike Mangini after this and he fit in so well, not only as a person but as a player on the record and as a band member that’s touring, it kinda boggles my mind. I’m really, really thankful for that. I feel like I’ve been playing with the guy for 20 years. Again, anything could have happened, and when you bring somebody new in there are so many variables. We’re very, very fortunate to have him as a member of Dream Theater. He’s very happy to be here and the band sounds great with him. I’m really, really looking forward to the album coming out, but playing live want people to see him and hear him and to hear the band with him. It’s a lot of fun.

A Dramatic Turn Of Events is released on September 9 in Australia and September 13 in the USA via Roadrunner. Read my review here.

CLICK HERE to buy A Dramatic Turn of Events (Special Edition CD+DVD) from Amazon.com
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Music Man John Petrucci JPXI-6 (6-string)

Music Man John Petrucci JPXI-7 (7-String)