INTERVIEW: Dream Theater’s John Petrucci
Dream Theater’s new, self-titled album is their twelfth, and it amounts to something of a resetting of the idea of what Dream Theater can be. 2010’s A Dramatic Turn Of Events was a big test for the band: could they survive without co-founder Mike Portnoy behind the drum kit? The answer to this question was a resounding “Yes!” ADTOE played up the band’s many strengths – epic melodies, virtuosic interludes, intricate solos, odd-but-natural time signature shifts – and it did so in a way that was clearly Dream Theater, even with new drummer Mike Mangini in the engine room. But it was a very safe interpretation of what Dream Theater could be. Parallels were drawn between the album and 1992’s Images & Words, for instance. And now with Dream Theater [Roadrunner], the band doesn’t have anything to prove. They don’t need to show you that they can continue to make albums that sound like Dream Theater. Instead they’re free once more to make albums that are Dream Theater, that present the band as an evolving entity exploring what it can do. Dream Theater is perhaps the most naturally representative example of what the band can do since 1999’s Scenes From A Memory, in that nothing seems forced.
John Petrucci has taken on an especially weighty role in this latest era of Dream Theater. Portnoy was always big on pushing the creative aspect of the band in different directions. Now Petrucci is the band’s sole producer and has taken on more of a mouthpiece role than he’d previously assumed. And Petrucci’s take on where Dream Theater needs to go seems to be a little more progressive, a little more reaching and intuitive and colourful than the progressive metal that seemed to dominate much of the band’s output in the 2000s. I Heart Guitar caught up with Petrucci to discuss the new album’s creative flashpoint and musical landmarks.
The previous album seemed like you were trying to make the definitive Dream Theater album, whereas this one seems a little more relaxed, more exploratory. Is that an accurate assessment?
We definitely approached A Dramatic Turn Of Events like we had something to prove as we were writing it, and we wanted to make sure we created something that was going to really assure our fans that we were here to stay and that everything was okay and that we were moving forward in a positive way. Definitely the tone of that album comes across that way, for sure. Now, this one: after that album came out and thankfully was received so well, we had a successful tour where we were able to learn more about Mike Mangini as a person and as a drummer, and we were able to, as you said, go into this album and let our hair down and forge ahead with a new sound, a new approach, maybe more experimental. I think that the music on this album comes across as having a more gusty rock thing. When we were doing some of the solo sections we wanted to capture the vibe of playing live and improvising and playing with that kind of real fire that happens when you’re playing together as a band. That’s how we wrote it and that’s how we think it’s coming across. With the last one there wasn’t a drummer in the room as we were writing it, so it’s probably more controlled-sounding, and this one is – and I’ve used this term before to describe Mangini – unleashed. Freer-sounding.
Did you do anything in particular as a producer to facilitate that way of working?
Yeah, absolutely. From the beginning, in order to capture that, what we did totally differently was not only did we set up in the studio where everyone’s playing live, but we made sure that the sounds that we were capturing at that very early stage were usable sounds that could be performances on the album. So we took some extra time in the beginning to get all the drum sounds, the guitar sounds, bass and everything, so as we were writing, if we captured that moment of fire and passion when it was written we were able to actually keep that and integrate it along with whatever we had overdubbed as well. And that was really, really helpful. As a producer I was able to hear what the album was sounding like right from the beginning. I didn’t have to wait for the mix to hear how the guitar would sound once it was hyped up. Everything was already sounding that way. When you’re hearing on the album is what it sounded like from day one, pretty much!
A few of these songs, particularly “The Bigger Picture” and “Behind The Veil” are very strong melodically. Those choruses are really powerful.
Y’know what? It’s not that I did this differently but maybe I focused on it a lot more this time: there were three phases to the melodic and lyrical process. Phase one was me and Jordan and James getting together to listen to the tracks as instrumentals then map out all the vocal parts and lay down some very rough vocal melodies as guides as I was writing lyrics. Then of course, once your’e writing you start to really figure out how that’s gonna shape up, so it might not exactly follow with that guide. It might stray. And I always had an acoustic with me and I always stripped down the track to just the chord progression, and made it so I was almost doing like a campfire sort of thing where I was playing the acoustic and strumming, and if the melody at that point felt right and strong, then I knew it was write. If not, then I went back in. And then the third stage was I presented all that to James before he went in, just me, him and an acoustic. I’d say “What do you think of this?” and he’d say “Well, maybe I’d take it here and change this a little bit,” and I made sure it was really comfortable for him and his range. So I think those three stages of development – and if you want you can even add a fourth once he was actually singing – basically a lot of focus was put on the melodic structure and content in order to make the songs really reach people, because I think at the end of the day that’s the goal. It’s fun to play technical and come up with cool riffs and have a heavy guitar sound and all that fun, cool stuff, but at the end of the day if you really want to reach people with your music the vocals are generally what pulls people in.
Well that’s what sticks with you after you become familiar with the songs. Once your head has been blown off by a fast syncopated lick enough times that it’s not a surprise any more, the melody is what you come back to in the long term.
Yeah. It all has to be hand-in-hand. There can’t be a disconnect. Everything has to have a musical purpose to achieve what you’re trying to achieve with the song, which is you’re trying to in very basic terms express something and then have people relate to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s folk music or progressive music or metal. People need to relate to it on some level.
There are moments on this album where the bass is way more upfront than ever before.
Absolutely. It’s difficult in our band because the guitar takes up a lot of room, the drums are busy, keyboards are just so wide and varied in tone and range, and it’s sometimes hard for the bass. And a lot of time the bass is doubling the guitar, and especially with the seven-string it can be hard to differentiate. So this time we really, really wanted to say “Let’s get John Myung out there. Let’s really distinguish the bass.” There were two ways we did that. The main way is just the talent of Richard Chycki in the way he recorded John’s bass, because I’ve never heard it sound like that. Rich worked with Rush a lot so he knew exactly how to get that Geddy Lee, out-front sound. And he did it magically. The bass has never sounded this good. And then the second way was to leave room in the arrangements. You’ll notice a few times where the bass is on its own or the rhythm guitars drop out or there’s no keyboards and it’s just guitar, bass and drums. By doing that arrangement-wise we left more room for the bass to fill out. And I love it. Some of my favourite moments on the album to listen to are those bass moments, and it’s great to hear John out front like that. When we were really young and going to Berklee that’s the way he used to sound! He used to be almost a lead bass player. And if you listen to our really early demos the bass was crankin’. It was so loud! And it hasn’t been that way in a long time, so it’s kinda fun!
It must be a strange moment before the album comes out, when you’re sitting on it and hearing feedback from people who have heard it but the general public hasn’t got their hands on it yet.
Absolutely! I’m dyin’! it’s like you have something you’re so proud of and you just want to say “Check this out! Listen to this!” There’s this feeling of excitement and anticipation and a little bit of anxiety, but generally it’s pride. You feel like you worked really hard on something and you just can’t wait to share it. That’s what it’s all about: sharing it and having that experience with our listeners that we’re really lucky to have.
Well just looking at the reactions to “The Enemy Inside” when it was released…
I don’t think I saw any negative comments!
Y’know what? Yeah! That was so awesome! That was so incredible to see. And it just puts a smile on my face. I love our listeners because they’re very discerning but they’re very passionate and really supportive of what we do, so when I saw that kind of reaction I was like, “Y’know what? That’s freaking awesome.” Because to put out something you’re proud of and to have people react in the way that you would hope means that you’re all on the same page, and it’s just a great beginning to this whole process.
What’s going on with that wild, off-the-cuff solo in “Surrender To Reason”?
Ha! That was a fun moment. I pictured us in a smoky bar at 2am just going for it. It was fun to keep the guitar dry like that.
What were you using guitar-wise on the album?
This time around I used my Music Man JP13. And the use of that guitar from the beginning really dictated the sound of the record. Because in a metal band the guitar sound is everything. I find the guitar and the drum sound really dictate the type of impact that album’s going to have. And the JP13 has a preamp in it – it’s the first time I’ve used a guitar that has a preamp – and it has new pickups in it, DiMarzio Illuminator pickups. And the whole sound of the guitar is a lot more alive. It breathes and it’s very open. It has an attack and a growl to it, and you can hear that on “Enigma Machine” and “Behind The Veil.” Those big guitar riffs just sound monstrous. So that guitar dictated the sound of the album. The main rhythm sound for most of the songs is a Mesa Boogie Mark V in Mark IV mode. A couple of songs I used in Mark IIC+, like “Behind The Veil” for example. The solo sounds are the Mark IIC+. And on a couple of songs I used the Mesa Boogie Royal Atlantic, which I’ve never used before, where I was going for less of a percussive metal sound and more of a compressed rock sound. “Looking Glass” and “Along For The Ride” are the Royal, for example.
I tested out the JP13 at NAMM this year and I loved that boost.
The boost is great and I used that for the solos, which is awesome because as much gain as a lot of amps have, sometimes you just feel like you wanna kick in that extra step, and I generally would do that with a pedal, maybe a Tube Screamer or something like that. But I really don’t need that any more because I just do it on the guitar now. Just tap that volume control and it boosts …I forget what exact amount dB it boosts by but you can set it inside the guitar. It’s at least +12dB of just volume, which pushes the front of the Boogie and then turns into more sustain. It’s great.
How do you go into developing a pickup? Do you describe it abstract terms or something more technical?
This pickup set is building upon the Crunch Lab and the LiquiFire, so we’re starting there, and most of it – really all of it – is the work of Steve Blucher at DiMarzio. I might describe something like “I want the low end to be tighter” and he’ll do his magic. But in the case of this one, knowing that the guitar was going to have a preamp in it and everything, he was able to predict what would be necessary to make the guitar be more open-sounding and able to breathe more. He did a fantastic job, and I’ve been working with him so long that I barely have to say much. He just instinctively knows. It’s wonderful.
How are you using the Fractal Audio Axe-FX?
I use the Axe-FX in my rig for all my effects. On the last tour I had two Mark Vs and I had the Axe-FX in there basically doing everything. I had some pedals that we had put on a little pedalboard to go in front but generally the Axe-FX was all the delays, choruses and things like that, with the exception of the pedals – my TC Electronic Dreamscape chorus and stuff like that. And also, we go in there and tone-match everything, so I have all those sounds on file to be able to use in different circumstances where it’s more convenient to plug that in. I just did a Young Guitar video where I just brought that thing in and turned it on and there were the Boogie sounds – it was wonderful for that as well.
That’s the thing about guitar – there’s always some great new toy to try out, the minute you think you’re happy with your tone.
Yeah, that’s the joy of being a guitar player: “That sounds great …let’s change it!”
One question that came up on Facebook when I was preparing for this interview was, do you have any plans to play “Space Dye Vest” live? [Mike Portnoy had gone on record as saying "Space Dye Vest" was so identified with former Dream Theater keyboard player Kevin Moore that he didn't think ever be played without him]
Um… I don’t really have plans on doing that. I mean, you never know. I’m not sure how great of a live song that’d be. It’s obviously very mellow and spacey and atmospheric. I mean, it could be a cool moment in the set. It’d certainly be rewarding to people that have wanted to hear that. It’s not the first song I’d go to when thinking of what to play in a live show.
You’d need to follow it with something that’s really up!
Yeah definitely! It might depress the audience! But it’s a cool song. I’m sure eventually we will but I haven’t thought too much about that at this moment.
Any Australian tour plans?
Not right now but I’m hoping we will get to Australia, because we haven’t in a few years. We had a great time when we last went. It’s been a while. And not only was it great playing there but it’s such a beautiful country and I just remember all of it – the sights, the weather, everything was amazing and I would love to get back there. Hopefully we’ll get back there.
We want to see you guys with Mangini, c’mon!
I know! Yeah! That’s a funny thing to think about too, that we had experienced on the last tour was “Oh hey, nobody’s seen Mike play with the band.” So it was exciting the whole way through.
Dream Theater is released September 20 in Australia and September 24 in the USA.