Nearly a quarter century after the release of their debut album, Dream Theater remain progressive metal standard bearers, while guitarist John Petrucci continues to awe six-string aficionados with his intricate and emotional performances. Their newest, self-titled studio album continues the tradition they created while returning to the more melodic nature of their earlier music. In this exclusive interview with A.D.D., Petrucci talks about the new album, what keeps him energized after all these years and why his wife is the most important musical collaborator in his life.
Your wife Rena Sands plays guitar in the Judas Priestess tribute band. Is there ever a chance that you two might do a musical project together?
We would love to. We talk about doing that. It just depends on what the style would be and just finding the time to do that. She’s such a great guitar player. We’re celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. We just got from back from Vegas actually.
Thank you. When we first met, music is the thing that we really connected with and has always been a big part of our lives. We now have three kids, all teenagers who play music, and this is something that we’re all really connected to. That would be unbelievable to do something together.
Artists often have a hard time handling relationships because of our crazy schedules. How have you two managed to make things work for 20 years?
It takes a lot of understanding. I think [due to] the fact that my wife is a musician and is in the same career, she completely knows what’s involved and is the type of person who is just unbelievably supportive. When you think about how much time I have to be away because of touring…as you said it’s an unconventional kind industry situation, and I’m in the studio for 10 to 12 hours a day. Meanwhile we had three kids, twins first, so she spent all that time raising them. I’m 100,000,000% convinced that I wouldn’t be where I am today in my life and my career without her and that level of understanding, support and strength. It’s unbelievable. It really is. The fact that she’s able to give me feedback and that we can talk about things creatively and share ideas as I’m writing is just amazing. It’s really, really cool.
It’s definitely something that we wanted to focus on a lot. As far as the style of the band and the way that we come across, it’s important to us that that always stays intact. We’re a progressive band with a metal sound, and the musical style is very powerful. We try to push the boundaries, but having said that, the most important thing is the songwriting. At the end of the day, it’s the compositions, it’s whether or not your music reaches people. It’s communication. It’s always been an important element of our music — the melodic side that you said, the catchy chorus side but also the overall melodic content — how the vocals hit you, how the song message hits you — I think that separates the men from the boys in a lot of aspects as far as writing in a progressive style. The songs need to be catchy, they need to be relatable, they need to be strong, and we did focus more on that this time, there’s no doubt about it. We did go in saying we’re going to make a strong and bold album. It’s going to be everything that we love to do, but we’re going to take extra special attention on the compositional songwriting elements so that within that structure the songs are even that much more powerful emotionally.
“I’m 100,000,000% convinced that I wouldn’t be where I am today in my life and my career without her and that level of understanding, support and strength.
It’s unbelievable. It really is.”
“Looking Glass” and “Surrender To Reason” have a strong Rush vibe to them, wouldn’t you say?
There’s a little bit of Metallica in other spots. What’s interesting to me about the epic closing tune “Illumination Theory” is that it has many memorable sections to it. I love that middle neo-classical section.
Right before we have the atmospheric section we do a Baroque-ish section. Are you talking about the actual breakdown?
I like that string breakdown, but the Baroque section is also cool.
The breakdown in the middle is actually a live string section. That was one of the cool things on this album that we did not only on that song but on the “False Awakening Suite” too. We had live strings arranged and conducted in the studio. Those moments in “Illumination Theory” where it’s just all strings, the fact that it’s authentic really just takes it more in that direction. For me, when I listen to it, it enables me to get more lost in it because I’m not distracted by anything else. It just sounds more organic.
It’s funny because back in the ’80s people would use synth strings, but you could generally tell that by listening to it. These days you often can’t, and I wasn’t sure if this is organic or not.
It’s amazing, Jordan has the top of the line sample libraries for strings and brass and everything. We use it all the time. Most of the time, when you hear the kind of cinematic sound in Dream Theater that’s the synth. But in this case, where it was going to be stripped down and by itself, we wanted it to be authentic. And in the opening track “False Awakening Suite” where it has that kind of cinematic vibe, we thought that the real strings would also help push in that direction even further.
Radio cuts have ideally been 3 1/2 to 4 minutes long, and obviously a lot of prog songs really don’t fit that parameter. I remember when “Pull Me Under” came out, you guys had to do an edited version of that to get on the radio. Now you have all this music that gets out there by Internet radio and YouTube that does not fit that formula. Do you think that perhaps now we have two different music industries? Not just the mainstream that caters to what people expect, like all the generic rock and American Idol crap, but this other world that continues to thrive without getting mainstream radio airplay?
We exist and are able to do things because there’s an audience out there that likes this kind of music that is bigger than people even realize. We believe in it, and we’ve been able to exist all this time because we’ve gone out there. Our strength has been on getting out and touring and playing for the people on an international level, and we discovered that this audience exists in a big way all around the world. What the Internet has done is made that world so much smaller and brought it together for us, and now where there was maybe only one outlet, where radio was the only way to gain mass exposure, now it’s not the only place that people go to. For a band like ours — because of satellite, because of YouTube and all of these different ways you can hear and access music — we’ve benefited unbelievably. Now that audience that we always knew was out there is actually coming to the table because they actually have the ability to do it. It’s really eye-opening and has benefited us in a big way.
You wrote most of the lyrics on this album. There is a line that I really like in “Surrender To Reason” about how the sacrifices in life give more than they take. What was the inspiration for that?
That’s actually the one lyric that I didn’t write! [laughs] I wrote all the lyrics except for one song, which John Myung wrote. It’s a great line. John and I must’ve been in a similar headset because a lot of my lyrics on this album have that kind of mentality. It’s really stated in “Illumination Theory” that in order to feel the true joy in life you have to suffer through the pain. You need that contrast. The things that you work hard for and that you strive for and that you come up against some adversity while striving for mean the most to you. They have the most value to you in so many different ways.
“There is this genuine attitude and conviction that happens early on in a band’s career. It is difficult to maintain that because life changes and the things that were challenges at the time aren’t anymore. You might have different challenges, but life has changed.”
There is the irony that in order to make great art you often have to go through tough times. Obviously a lot of angry or simply hungry young bands get really big and then lose that edge because they become successful and are making a lot of money. It’s a lot harder once you’ve sold millions of records to stay angry and rebellious.
It’s true, when bands first start off they usually go through this whole process where it’s something you really want to do and fight to get to that point. A lot of times, you do it against all odds because it’s such a difficult industry to get into. There are so many bands and so many guitar players, but if you play with the right people and are playing the kind of music you believe in, there is this genuine attitude and conviction that happens early on in a band’s career. It is difficult to maintain that because life changes and the things that were challenges at the time aren’t anymore. You might have different challenges, but life has changed. With every album that we do, and even this album talking about going through it, is that we need to try to tap into that spirit. Even self-titling the album, it says that right off the bat without hearing any of the music. It’s called Dream Theater. It’s a confident, bold, pushing forward statement that is looking back to the reasons why we started playing this music, that spirit and that attitude 28 years later, and really tapping into that.