Guitarist John Petrucci is one of only two founding members of Dream Theater still with the group. He’s also recorded and performed with Liquid Tension Experiment and as a solo artist, but Dream Theater is his primary artistic outlet. On the band’s brand-new album A Dramatic Turn of Events, Petrucci and his bandmates delve deep, attempting eleven studio releases into their career to make the most Dream Theater-ish Dream Theater album possible. The epic songs, filled with tricky tempo changes and wild solos, prove that they’ve succeeded. Below, John Petrucci talks about the creative process, collective goals, and technology that went into making A Dramatic Turn of Events the powerful musical statement it is.
Interview by Jeff Treppel
Did you guys have any goals going into A Dramatic Turn of Events?
We did; we had several conversations before we went into the album, a few months before, and wanted to make sure we were all on the same page as to the kind of album we were going to make and the direction of the album. In general, we really wanted to focus in on the compositional elements, the originality factor, and honing in on all the qualities that make Dream Theater a special and unique band. We wanted to do something that was going to be on a grand scale, we wanted to take things to extremes and really explore deeply whatever element it was. We knew if we were going to do something in a progressive sort of tone, we would take that to an extreme. If we were going to do something that was sort of cinematic and broader, we would take that as far as we could take it. We wanted this album to be sonically interesting. I knew from the beginning, I had a dream of having Andy Wallace mix it, and that dream came true. We wanted it to be a real hi-fi, epic, cinematic experience. So when we went in to write, we had it in mind that we were going to take our time with chord progressions and melodic elements and vocal range and the general sound of the instruments and things like that. It was definitely a concerted and focused effort to keep the compositional qualities as high as we possibly could.
How did you guys go about writing the music for this particular record?
It kind of starts at home, at my leisure I like to start a collection of riffs and ideas that I do on a portable recorder, just kind of get an idea or riff library going, and a lot of the guys do that. You kind of organize that and have it ready on your laptop to bring in. For example, the intro to "On the Backs of Angels," that was something I had written at home and brought in. I had demoed "This Is the Life" and brought that in. I had riffs that would become things like "Bridges in the Sky" and "Lost Not Forgotten," things like that. So the least you have these seeds to come in with. And then we set up in the studio, James [LaBrie, vocals], John [Myung, bass], Jordan [Rudess, keyboards] and me, everything in kind of ready-to-record mode, and we just sat there and wrote. As far as documenting stuff, it's all recorded. Jordan writes pretty much everything down on paper, we'll chart everything as we see we need it, and we have all different types of recorders going – in case we're improvising on something and it captures what we need, we can go back. We did that for about 2 1/2 months, and got everything not only written but fully demoed, fully mapped out, all of the tempos and markers and everything. It's like a masters preproduction at the same time that we're writing. That enables us to start the recording process really smoothly. When Mike Mangini [drums] came in, he was able to really just play along to the demo tracks that we had recorded, and we didn't have to go through a whole process of laying out tempos and maps and markers, that stuff was already done at the same time.
Did you use any new gear this album?
Well, as a guitar player, one of my goals was to look into whatever advances in technology are out there in terms of preamps, microphones, things like that. We did do some experimenting right at the beginning and demoed out a bunch of my preamps and came upon a couple that were really cool, one by Shadow Hills and one by Universal Audio, and in addition to an SM57, which is standard, a new Shure ribbon mic. We did some additional experimenting with the guitar to capture the best tone possible. We did demo out, and end up using, the new digital gear towards recording our digital in-outs and our plots, so we kind of upped our game regarding the equipment and the system we were using.
Do you think the advances in recording technology have helped streamline the process of putting together your complex music?
I definitely think the advances in technology help me organize things really well. It helps us to be able to quickly reference and edit things. Things we couldn't do 10 years ago, we can do so easily now. And as far as the gear again, it ups the overall quality and openness and sound of the album. Obviously as recording gear gets better and technology progresses, we are able to do things a lot easier, a lot more efficiently, and most of the time in a lot better-sounding way. Which is great. You think about even the last album we did, or the album before that, and we've definitely made great advances as far as the sonic impact. It's really cool to go down that road, top the last thing you did.
How else do you keep yourself creatively challenged this far down the road in your career as a guitarist?
As far as creativity and writing music and coming up with new ideas, in this band there is no shortage of ideas. Everybody is super creative, we always have ideas flowing. If anything, we have too many ideas that we have to kind of sift through and work through. So part of the answer is, playing with guys that I have great chemistry with and are incredibly creative and prolific as writers. And the other part is, to always be analytical about what you're doing. You know, as a guitar player, I'm always trying to listen to what I'm recording objectively, and I'm always asking myself questions about tone and the playing and the phrasing of the riffs and ideas – are these things exciting to me, is it original, is it interesting, is it piquing my interest or am I getting bored listening to it? So you have to kind of stay very objective and ask questions, and as a producer I do that throughout the whole process. So as the songs are being written, as the instruments are being recorded, as the lyrics are being written, as the vocals are being recorded, as the mix is being done, I'm trying to constantly step back with an objective, analytical ear, as if I'm someone listening to this for the first time. What is this doing for me – is it reaching me emotionally? Is it driving, is it passionate? And if the answer to any of those questions is "no," you have to go in and try to get it to the point that it is.
Dream Theater's A Dramatic Turn of Events is in stores now; get it from Best Buy or iTunes.
New York-area fans, head to Guitar Center at 25 West 14th Street to purchase your copy and receive a wristband to meet the band for a signing session on Friday, September 16 at 6 PM. Only 200 wristbands will be handed out, so get there early!