Exclusive Interview: John Petrucci of Dream Theater
Dream Theater’s new self-titled album, their twelfth, came out last week, so it seemed like the perfect time for MS Mansion resident DT Superfan Vince Neilstein to catch up with a member of Dream Theater for, miraculously, the first time ever.
In our brief chat, the Dream Theater guitarist talks the band’s new album, what it was like working with Mike Mangini for the first time as a writer, the grind (or lack thereof) of John’s career, recording techniques for guitars, his plans for a new solo album and more.
I’ve got to ask you, since you’ve been doing this for 25 years. Every time you come to writing and recording, getting ready for the whole press machine, touring – how do you find the energy to keep going and repeat this process after doing it for so long?
Lots of coffee helps.
It all really starts with the music — it sounds cliché but it really drives everything. First of all, we love playing, we love writing music and getting together as a band and jamming and playing. The whole process starts, we’re leading up to getting into the studio, and then we’re in the studio and we’re writing together and we’re excited about the music. Then five or six months later we have this collection of works of music that we’re really excited and pumped about and proud of – it kind of makes everything else fall in line and makes it easy because we have something new that we’re passionate about and proud of. We can’t wait for people to hear it, and we can’t wait to play this new music live. All of the promotion leading up to the release and the tour and everything becomes something that we look forward to. The very first thing is the music. The music has to be something that we believe in and that we feel strongly about and are proud of. Everything stems from there.
Does it ever feel like a chore or a job? “Oh it’s time to go back to work, got to leave the family for a year and a half”. Does that ever wear on you?
No, it never feels like a chore at all. It feels like it’s the greatest job to have, the greatest career, because you’re constantly doing what you love to do – not only as a creative person in writing the music, but as a musician and a performer you love playing live. I still love playing guitar and practicing and all that stuff. It’s something that kind of drives me all the time.
Having said all of that, definitely the hardest thing is the amount of time that it takes to dedicate to this career – having to leave my family for extended periods and the different things that you miss out on. Life kind of whisks by very quickly. As far as the actual job and career of music, it definitely never feels at all like it’s a labor or a chore. It’s a joy. It’s the total opposite.
Do you still play every day? Do you practice when you’re not on the road?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s the type of thing where . . . again, I love playing guitar, and it’s just a part of who I am. It’s also the type of thing that you develop over a period of time from all of the hours that you put in practicing. If you don’t practice, it’s like being an athlete and not working out, you get on the field and everything hurts. [Laughs] You’ve got to maintain it. Sure, there are certain days that will go by or certain periods where I don’t play as much or I won’t play at all. It’s all a lifetime relationship with music and guitar, and it’s something that I absolutely love to do.
I know you’ve done your solo albums and you’ve done some other projects, but it seems like it’s been awhile. Do you ever feel like branching out again and delving into some more of that stuff? To borrow from the athlete analogy, to use some different muscles?
Sure. It’s the type of thing where, first off, with Dream Theater, the scope of the things we do really takes up most of my time in the way that we do things. Being in the studio half the year working on the album, and as we talked about, the lead up and the promotion and the world tour – the last world tour was about 15 months (from a total of beginning to end, certainly with breaks) — as you can see, it takes up a lot of your life. Not only is there not much time to branch off and do new things, but it’s also very fulfilling and satisfying musically for me. I don’t have that feeling of where I feel like I’m in a cage and have to get out and spread my wings. I feel like I am spreading my wings. It’s very musically satisfying.
Having said that, it is fun to do something a little different every so often, and I loved doing the G3 Tour with Joe Satriani and all the different guitar players that we’ve toured with and played with. That’s fun, that’s a little bit different. I would like to do another solo album. It’s something that I’m working on now. It does, I guess, satisfy another side – that instrumental guitar side, which is cool. It’s a funny thing, I get so much of that in the music of Dream Theater as well. We play so much that it’s not always an itch that needs scratching.
Yeah, absolutely. So you mentioned a minute ago “spreading your wings with Dream Theater”. How would you say you’ve done that on this new release?
The fun thing for me is that I get to wear a lot of hats. Obviously I’m the guitar player, that’s first and foremost of what I do – I’m the guitar player. I love the craft of the instrument, writing the riffs and challenging myself in the studio as far as the solos and everything. I’m a songwriter, so the creative process is fun for me. I love the whole thing of going in there with nothing and then walking out five months later with all this music. I produce the band, so I love wearing that hat and getting to step back and look at things from a wider angle and really manage the whole project and oversee it from end to end, shaping it and guiding it as it goes. Also, as a lyricist, to explore that part . . . I love creative writing. I love writing lyrics. I love the connection between lyrics, music and melody and how that ultimately creates something that people can relate to. So in all those areas, they are all different things that I love to do. At the end of the day, I have a feeling that this is a very rewarding and satisfying thing to do as a member of Dream Theater with covering all those different aspects that I do.
Are there any ways you would say in which Dream Theater or you personally have branched out on this new album?
Yeah, I think we’ve all branched out. First of all, this is the first album where Mangini came in to the studio on day one and we wrote with him. Just having a new member in that process, in that creative process, provides an opportunity for all of us to branch out. Now you have somebody else’s input who has a bunch of different sources of influences and ideas and creative opinions and things like that, and that, in turn, pushes everybody else. Being in the room when we’re writing is like being in the middle of a pinball game. The ball is bouncing around all over the place with so many different ideas. It’s really inspiring that there’s such a great chemistry. It just causes everybody to branch out sonically to try something new.
I used a new model of my Music Man guitar. It’s the latest model called the JP13. The whole sound of that instrument really gave the album a significant trademark as far as the guitar sound and the way that the sounds on the album shaped up. I think the vocals on the album were really taken to another level. I think James delivered in a really big way. I think the way that the album was engineered — the way Richard Chycki got the sounds that he did and ultimately mixed it — make it just different and make it jump out a bit more. I have this sense of confidence and pride in the album sonically. It’s something that you can crank up past 10 and it sounds unbelievable.
You mentioned the presence of Mangini changing the writing dynamic. Is there anything specific that Mangini brought to the table as a writer?
It’s the way that he interprets things. Ultimately, as we’re writing, there are a couple of things that happen. First. we’re playing together and we’re jamming, so it’s very interactive. As a drummer, where he takes things when you’re in that process of just feeding off of each other and improvising, that’s unique to him. All of his drumming knowledge and his general knowledge of different rhythms and different technical approaches on the drums, and his technical ability, that all comes out during those improvisational moments. From there the stems and seeds of songs develop, and that’s directly influenced by where his headspace is and where he’s coming from as a drummer. It’s different with every musician you play with.
The second thing is that as we’re getting further into the crafting of the songs, let’s say I’m working on a guitar riff or working on a specific chord progression or musical passage and Mike is listening, it comes to how he’s going to interpret it and approach it on the drums. Again, that’s totally unique to him. He might sit there in the room while we’re working on something for 45 minutes or an hour and we’ll say, “Alright, Mike, what do you got? Play something to this idea.” Then it’s like a door into his mind to where he’s thinking musically and rhythmically, and he takes it to another level. You get somebody else’s interpretation, and he’s really great at doing that. He’s really musical and has so many ideas.
I’ve seen some chatter online, so take it for what that is. People are saying this is the heaviest record since Train of Thought. Was that an intentional decision to go a little heavier this time or was that something that happened organically?
It’s kind of something that happened organically. First of all, there are a few different things contributing to that: the way that it was engineered and the sounds that we got [being one of those things]. Rich is a great engineer and can record everything from drums to strings beautifully. The approach that he takes as far as getting the sounds makes them sound heavy. They’re ballsy, they’re live, and they’re in your face.
The drums, Mike tuned them a certain way, like tuning down the snare to get more weight and heaviness, and took a more metal approach to the overall drum sound. The guitar sound, because of the new guitar, is more open and more alive. It has more of a growl and we went for a more aggressive type of sound. I used a 7-string on most of the album, so you hear the lower key de-tuned type of stuff, and that automatically sounds heavy. A couple of songs I tuned below standard and that makes it sound heavier.
It also kind of stemmed from the composition – what we were writing and how we were doing it and the sounds that we got. Once you put all that together, the impact of it is heavier. Even the way that Rich mixed it, it’s just very in your face. Everything is loud.
It’s really close. It’s close and up front.
Yeah, it’s very upfront and the sounds kind of jump out of the speakers at you. A lot of that perception won’t make it sound heavy. It’s not so much that the material is dark all the time; it’s the way that it comes across. I think a lot of that has to do with sonics.
When you record guitars, do you stick a mic in front of a cab and do it that way or do you re-amp like a lot of guys are doing these days?
What we do is we have the mics and cabinets set up and we have a main guitar amp that I’m writing with and getting the sound with. As I’m recording that guitar amp, I’m playing through something from a company called Radial that’s called the JD7 which is something that you plug into first and it has a DI, so as I’m recording the actual miked sound of the Boogies the DI is being recorded as well.
Let’s say we finish the song, I record the guitars and I’m like “you know what? I think this amp would sound better” we would take that direct signal and we can re-amp into another amplifier. All the while, whatever the performance is – whether it’s my live performance at that time or it was my performance re-amped or through the Boogie, it is going through a guitar amplifier through a speaker cabinet miked with microphones into an SSL and into ProTools, so it’s the real deal. We have the best of both worlds and have a lot of flexibility to do it that way.
Right on. I definitely hear the snarl of the Boogie. That top end bite.
Oh man, yeah. If you listen to “Behind the Veil” there’s a guitar break where the guitar is just by itself on the left side for a couple of chords, it just sounds like a Boogie cranking in the room. It’s one of my favorite moments. [Editor’s note: at 2:10]
Yeah. Last line of questioning here because I know you have other shit to do. I was lucky to be invited to attend your listening party in New York a few weeks back, which was really cool. What inspired you to put on an event like that and what was the experience like for you?
Cool. You know what? It’s something that we had talked about with Roadrunner in order to introduce the album to press at an initial stage, early on, to show people what we were doing and start to get people excited about it. We talked about wanting to do it in a setting where it would sound the best – in the studio. Germano Studios is where we mixed the album. It was great. The album process starts well before we get into the studio, with discussions and collecting riffs and things like that . . . it could be months before, and then we’re in the studio for five months with writing and putting it together. Then we mix it and then it’s a few more months before it comes out, so you just want to play it for people because you want them to hear it. It was really a great experience. It was the first instance where we brought people in for this album, cranked it up and said “check it out”. It’s kind of like pushing the bird out of the nest.
Yeah. No one invited would say no to free beer.
Yeah right. [Laughs] It was really cool.
It’s kind of baiting people in.
Yeah, exactly. What’s not to like? We even got these gigantic speakers that the rep brought in for us. They were massive and we cranked it. We might have played it too loud, I think.
I was going to say that it was a little too loud. It was breaking up a little bit, but it was still cool. Thanks for taking the time today, dude.
Absolutely. Thank you. Nice talking to you.