Dream Theater are currently burrowed in at the recording studio, preparing the follow-up to 2011's A Dramatic Turn of Events. We got guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess on the phone (separately) last week, and asked them about how they prepare to enter the studio, whether they've gotten any new gear lately, their songwriting methods, and much more.
Did you get any new gear over the holidays?
JORDAN: Oh, I’ve been accumulating keyboards and stuff just to have fun and get inspired. Actually, besides my usual amazing gear like the Korg Kronos, things like that that I use on the road, I got my hands on an Access Virus synthesizer, and then I got an instrument called the Sledge, which is this bright yellow synth with a Waldorf sound engine in it. So what I try to do for sessions, unlike my live show, is I try to surround myself with a lot of different keyboards, so I can put my hands on a lot of things really quickly, so it ends up looking like a Rick Wakeman setup or something like that in the studio. And when I go out live I scale it back, usually with just the Korg Kronos, and I figure out a way to do whatever it is I did in the studio with my computers and all my synthesizers – basically streamline it into one very powerful instrument. But those are a couple of things I got in the keyboard world for the new record that are pretty cool.
JOHN: Yeah, the latest thing guitar-wise is the new [MusicMan] JP13, I’ll be using that on the new album, and also from Boogie, I have such a big Boogie collection, but the latest is this amp called the Royal Atlantic. I just got one in the studio yesterday, and we started experimenting with that. So that’s gonna be a change as well. There’s always toys.
Has a new piece of gear ever inspired a musical idea that’s made it onto a DT record?
JORDAN: Oh, totally. As a matter of fact, before I left the studio the other week, I was talking to John Petrucci, and I said “You know, we should sit and go through some of these sounds on my new synthesizers.” Because for me, as an improviser, the sounds can be extremely inspiring, and they can lead to compositional ideas. That’s a very common thing for a musician, to get a new toy and have it be so inspiring that it leads to a new composition.
JOHN: Oh yeah. 100 percent. Whether it’s a new guitar, or the sound of an amp, or an effects patch you found, or whatever, as soon as you start playing with it, if it’s something you identify with, it takes you down a certain creative path. I always look forward to that type of thing – you start playing, and next thing you know, you’re writing something that maybe you wouldn’t have if you didn’t hear that sound.
What’s the most narrow-purpose item of gear that you own – do you have something that literally makes only one noise, or something like that?
JORDAN: That’s an interesting question. Well, I have a theremin; it’s a really cool instrument, but it basically has one sound. It’s an old electronic instrument that you play by waving your hands in the air.
JOHN: [laughs] Let’s see…like, I need this for this one thing that it does…that’s a funny question. I suppose I zone in on certain pedals. Guitar amps and Boogies and my guitars are so versatile, but every once in a while you’ll find a pedal that just does one thing really amazingly, but what would that pedal be? That’s a tough one. I used to – I guess TC is a good story, because for a long time, when I wanted to do chorusing, I would use this one TC pedal, a stereo chorus flanger, and I’d have to use it for that one sound, but that became the basis for my Dreamscape pedal from TC Electronic, but it also does a whole bunch of other things, so I’m not locked into one thing. I used to set up crazy sounds in Eventide – I think it was the solo in “Misunderstood,” I had some weird effect on and it was harmonized and backward and every time we played that song, I was like “Oh shit, I need to use that effect to get that.”
How prepared are you going into sessions? Are songs fully plotted out, or are there just vague ideas that get shaped in the studio?
JORDAN: Well, with Dream Theater, we really like to write together, but that’s not to say we have no ideas going in. We’ll have seed ideas, things to get us started. Riffs, motifs, eight bars, maybe 16 bars. For the most part, that’s how Dream Theater works. Occasionally, John will bring in a ballad he wants to put on the album, but we enjoy having these seeds that whoever came up with them did, and then we all work on them together.
JOHN: We always talk about the concept for the album, so we always come in with a plan, the direction of the album, the type of album we want to make, and we get everyone literally on the same page, so that we’re all focused in a general sense and even in some specific senses. But as far as actual ideas, throughout the touring year, as we’re playing live, if someone has an idea and they bring it into soundcheck and we start jamming on it, we always record it, and so those little recordings, whether they’re jams or chord progressions or whatever, we’ll archive them and have them ready to go. And then, ideas that I come up with by myself at home, in the hotel room or whatever, I archive them in a special folder, New Album Ideas, whether they’re completed demos or just little seeds or riffs or whatever, but those are good starting points. We’ll go through all that stuff and use what we want, and at the same time we come up with fresh stuff in the studio, just having nothing to do with previous ideas. So it’s a combination.
That seems like it’s only possible in the era of portable digital recording. In the tape era…
JOHN: Oh, totally. It’s so easy. As long as I have a guitar, with the iPhone, I use voice notes all the time. I just play a riff into the thing, or sing an idea, or type lyrics into my notes, it’s infinitely easier than it once was. And all that stuff is easily shared, emailed, whatever.
How much writing do you guys do on the road? Do you practice together or separately, and does it ever bleed into a writing session?
JORDAN: Sometimes. We don’t generally write on the road, but on this last tour there were a lot of times when we’d be inspired, partly because we had this amazing new drummer and we’d just sit there and go “Wow,” and come up with some cool musical ideas, or [Mike] Mangini and I would walk onstage a little bit earlier to do the soundcheck because we knew we could just go have some fun, so we’d start playing and record it and review that at some time during our stay in the studio. So there’s definitely stuff that happens in soundcheck, but we’re not formally trying to write on the road. As long as I’ve been in this band, it’s been the kind of thing where we know we’re going to block out a certain amount of time, and it’s going to be our job to go in over the course of these months and write an album. And it’s really great for us, because all of us are family guys, we’ve got kids and families and responsibilities, but we love our music and we want to be able to focus on it, so to be able to put aside a block of time where we know that’s what we’re going to do, that’s what really seems to work best for all of us.
When you’re in writing mode, do you listen to less outside music, to avoid “idea pollution”?
JORDAN: That’s an interesting question. I know everybody has different feelings about it. I generally like to hear different music, but I like to mix it up. One second I’ll be listening to the Deftones, the next I’ll be listening to Aphex Twin, and the next moment I’ll be listening to Gentle Giant. And I feel like, if I listen to these things that inspire me, that trigger my imagination, and if I mix them up, then they’re going to go into a stew of musical ideas. I’ve always been a natural at putting together all the different influences that come into play and creating an original recipe out of it. I’ve never been someone who likes to necessarily go, “I’m gonna learn this tune, and play a cover song.” I’m more interested in figuring out the elements of a sound. Like, I’ll listen to the Deftones and say, what is it that makes this sound? Why does it have this effect? What’s going on melodically, harmonically? Same thing holds true with anybody. When I listen to Coldplay, I’ll say, Well, that’s a very smooth sound – what makes it so smooth? And I’ll sit at the piano and figure out the nature of the chords they’re using and how the melody interacts with the chords and kind of roll all that into my mindset, so I can call upon a certain kind of sound if I want to mix it in.
JOHN: I do. I’m really paranoid about that type of thing. One of the most important things, when writing music, for me, is identity. I think there has to be an identity, and the identity has to stay true to the band and to the players and musicians writing the music. Even though it’s great to listen to new music, and stuff you like certainly seeps in and you might get influenced, I find that – and I’ve had this experience both ways, so I find for me it’s better if I have a little less musical exposure before an intense writing session. And that helps to alleviate the risk of getting into using some newer things that maybe you wouldn’t have otherwise, that are outside of your style. And the other side of that is, if I’m purposely trying to pick up a style because I want to incorporate it. Let’s say there’s a certain composer that I happen to like, and I want to find out where they’re coming from, as far as their chord voicings or their movement or whatever, then I’ll study that composer, like research, trying to get more knowledgeable in musical styles more than it is being directly influenced by something that just came out. Because I think that’s dangerous. I think it can possibly infringe on the originality of your work, you know?
When you were younger, who was the player it took the longest to work out of your system?
JOHN: [laughs] I’m still working players out of my system. It’s a funny thing, because a more recent version of that phenomenon was when I was first on tour with G3, and every night I was onstage jamming with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, and at the end of the show we’d trade solos, and every time I played, in my mind, I was like “Oh shit, that was a Steve Vai lick” or “That was a Joe Satriani lick” – I was thinking I was exposed, because I was so influenced by those guys. But I don’t know – sometimes when I was younger and still to this day I was a huge Rush fan, so that sound, Alex [Lifeson]’s sound and that compositional approach, has always been part of my sound, and I don’t think it’s something I’ve never shook off and don’t think I want to, because it’s something I love, but some of those early big influences remain part of your identity. The challenge, throughout the years, is to make it your own.
John, you’re one of only two founding bandmembers left; how has your role changed over the years?
You know, in some ways it hasn’t changed, in that my role as a guitar player is a prime compositional instrument and it always has been, and just playing the kind of music we play – you call it prog, but it’s a metal version, so the guitar sound and the presence of a metal-sounding guitar is really important, so those two roles haven’t changed. Starting in 1999, before Scenes From a Memory, we’d used outside producers, and from then on Mike [Portnoy] and I were co-producers until he left, and then on A Dramatic Turn of Events and now the current album, I’m the sole producer, so I’ve become fully responsible for that, and that’s something that I love. And I’ve always been the main lyricist, but even more so over the years and especially on the last album. So more responsibility as it goes on, I guess.
Jordan, you’ve been in the band since 1999; how has your role changed over the years?
Well, when I first got in the band, I had just come from working with the guys on the Liquid Tension Experiment. And that started out as a very open book, where everybody’s ideas were accepted – you throw ’em in, you mix ’em around, and the next thing you know, we have a song. When I started in Dream Theater, I didn’t really know what to expect, though I had been working with two of the guys in LTE. So it started out where I prepared like 60 different ideas, brought them all into the studio and kind of bombarded them with a whole bunch of stuff. And I learned very quickly that that was not the best thing to do, because they were a little intimidated by that, it wasn’t the way they worked. But it was a really strong lesson. I would say the things that have changed mostly [would just be] a comfort level with understanding the parameters of what has made Dream Theater who they are for all these years. There’s certain elements of our musical lives and personalities that created what we have, and there’s a respect on both sides for what that is, and there’s a real knowledge, musically, of what Dream Theater means. So that makes it a lot more fun these days, and flowing, just really knowing how things work, and what works best for the band.
What’s Mike Mangini’s role in the writing process this time around? Are you looking forward to having him be a participant in the creative process?
JORDAN: Well, we just got started, so it’s hard to answer that. I will say that Mike comes into this being very respectful of all of us, understanding that we’ve been a functioning organization without him for all these years. So Mangini comes into this knowing that the compositional forces are alive and well in the band [laughs]. And yes of course he’s somebody we want there, because we think he’s fabulous, but he’s coming in with some care and understanding. That’s first of all. But Mike Mangini is one of the biggest rhythm experts on the planet Earth right now. He can do things with rhythm no one else can do. He’s inspired; for him, math and music is totally one thing in his brain, and it’s an incredible thing for us to have that mixed into the writing process. It’s exciting. Because somebody like myself, I’m really terrible at math, but somehow when it comes to rhythm, I’m really good. Not as good as Mike Mangini – I don’t think anybody is. But having that skill, as part of a band that already has a fairly high skill set when it comes to different aspects of writing music and making music, is pretty cool. It’s major for us. I feel like it brings in this element that will put us even more on top of our game. So that’s what I’m looking forward to in the writing, and so far, even though we’re just getting started, I can tell that’s the way it’s going to go.
JOHN: First of all, it’s been going great with him, and as much as we’ve been a band together for about 15 years, we haven’t really experienced that process together. We’ve been in the studio for a few weeks now, and he’s been amazing. Amazing chemistry is great, the writing process and the whole vibe is great, and his role is to let his personality shine as a drummer, creatively and to have his input and his musical personality really come through. And I gotta tell you, it’s happening. When people hear the drumming on this album, they’re gonna be pretty freaked out. On the last album, he did a great job, but he wasn’t there for the writing process and he was interpreting drum parts that I had programmed. Even though he used his creativity, of course, to change them up and do his thing, I feel like now he’s just Mike Mangini unleashed. It’s all him. It’s all his creativity, all his decisions and ideas and man, the guy’s an animal.