Dream Theater's John Petrucci: 'You Don't Have to Be Afraid'
Legendary progressive metal axeman had a chat with UG about the Dream Theater's sound improvement, making the music and his gear.
Posted on Aug 12, 2013 02:49 pm
The new self-titled Dream Theater record is the 12th in a long career dating back over 24 years. Produced by John Petrucci and mixed by Richard Chycki (Rush, Aerosmith), "Dream Theater" is the first album to fully integrate drummer Mike Mangini from the very earliest writing sessions. Mangini replaced Mike Portnoy back in 2012 and his performance on the new album brings a startling fire and sense of purpose. Says Petrucci about the new drummer, "I can't say enough about him. He's just a phenomenal drummer. You have no idea."
The guitarist began writing the record during the promotional tour for "A Dramatic Turn of Events" back in April 2012. Though the writing process began there, the music on Dream Theater sounds bigger and richer. Petrucci's guitar sounds run the range from clean tones on a song like "The Big Picture" to huge and aggressive textures on tracks like "Enigma Machine" (the first instrumental the five-piece has recorded in 10 years) and "The Enemy Inside." The guitarist's main axe was his new Music Man JP13 Signature guitar. "The signature of that guitar is written all over this album," he explains.
Here he talks about the importance of his new guitar and what it took to put together the Dream Theater album.
UG: For the "A Dramatic Turn of Events" album you talked about wanting to do something on a grand scale that was musically interested. Did you continue with that approach on the Dream Theater album?JP: I think it's building on it but taking it to the next level. One of the things I really wanted to do on "A Dramatic Turn of Events" was to create something that was sonically very rich and high-def and powerful and I think we accomplished that. But on this album I wanted to take that even further.
In what ways?
Get more cinematic with it and more earthy and aggressive and bigger. I wanted a bigger, more forward in-your-face kind of sound. I think that kind of dictated the sounds we went for while we were writing and recording and then ultimately how it was mixed. So yeah, it was kind of building on that but taking it to the next level. You always need to progress and to try and do something different and kind of have a little bit different take on it and a different perspective. But hopefully make it better as you go.
You talked about how you wanted the album to sound in the mix and for this album you brought in Richard Chycki. What did he bring to the final sound of the album?
From the beginning and the way we set up and started writing and recording this, the concept was to have all of the sounds that would ultimately be contributing to the mix. To have them filed in from day one so while we were writing and building the album we could really hear what it was gonna sound like and how it was shaping up realistically.
In a rock band or a metal band whatever, the guitar sounds kind of dictates the way the album is gonna sound.
That's a very interesting approach.
Yeah, so when the songs were in their early stages, they already sounded like kinda what you hear today. So it was like Rich is so intimately a part of what's going on here from day one and it already sounds the way we want it, so it made sense to move forward with him doing that. 'Cause he was kind of already there.
You actually played the songs with the same guitars, amps and effects that you'd be using on the final recording?
Yeah, and not only the guitars but the whole band. Everybody's instrument was miked and captured while we were writing with the idea that if there were any performances that were great at that point that we'd be able to use them.
Did that happen?
We did end up doing that. So it was kind of twofold: one was to not have to say, "Oh, in the mix it'll come together." We wanted to hear what it was gonna sound like ahead of time so it'll sort of dictate the way the songs shape up and the kind of the direction of the album we're making. So it was that and it was also so we could capture performances as they happened and were inspired.
You had sort of a music map in your head of what kinds of guitar sounds you wanted to use?
Yes, the guitars were set up and the Boogies were all set up and miked from day one exactly the way they were when I was doing overdubs or writing or rhythm tracks or whatever. It's all the same and it was just a seamless process and the same with the drums, bass and everything. It was really cool to work that way. It was really, really interesting because you didn't have to wait to hear what it would ultimately sound like. You knew already.
Was the new JP13 Music Man Signature guitar an important piece in that process?
Definitely. The nature of the new guitar - the 13 with the preamp in it and the new DiMarzio Eliminator pickups - has a broader and more open sound. It has more highs and overtones to it. It's just richer and more forward. I was able to dial that in from the beginning and choose the correct Boogie that would be appropriate for whatever section of the song.
How would you determine what Boogie amp would sound best in a certain section?
For example, if it was something that needed to be real big and tight and ballsy, I would go to the Mark V for something like that. If I needed a liquid sort of soloing thing, I'd go to the Mark II.
I mostly play electric. I use acoustic guitars kind of like a flavor and it's a spice in my spice rack.
Is it conceivable you couldn't have made this record without the JP13 guitar?
Oh definitely. Absolutely. In a rock band or a metal band whatever, the guitar sounds kind of dictates the way the album is gonna sound. Because it's a featured instrument and it takes up so much and it will sort of shape the direction and overall sound of the song. If it's really heavy, percussive and aggressive, that's the way the song is gonna sound. It's a very powerful instrument because it dictates the landscape you're setting up. So that guitar and especially the 7-string version of it. I used on a lot of songs on the album. You can hear it on the instrumental "Enigma Machine" and when that 7-string comes in it's just so heavy and huge. That couldn't have been done with another instrument - it had to sound like that.
The 7-string guitar has been an important addition to what you do as a guitarist?
Yeah. The range of that instrument and just where it goes below standard tuning, there's nothing that sounds like that. That's the other thing about the 13 and the pickups because I'm using a percussive, distorted sound with the Boogies you need clarity. You need to hear the overtones, the pick attack and you need the low end to be really, really tight. Especially with something like "The Enemy Inside" where it's moving really fast and that opening riff has a lot of notes going on. That would just all sound like mush and mud if the guitar didn't have the right highs and the right tightness in the low end and all that stuff. So it's really, really essential and again it dictates kind of like the mood and the sound of a particular song.
Did you use any other amps besides the Mark V and Mark II?
This time around I used the Royal Atlantic on a couple of songs when I was looking for something a little less aggressive and kind of more rock and grinding and that type of thing. Again even when we were writing sometimes I would just be like, "Hey guys, just hold on a minute and let me track my part right now." I would just track it, double it and do it. They would go get a coffee or whatever but we just did it right when we were writing. It was kind of interesting to do it that way.
It was like having a preview of the album before it was finished.
As the producer, I was able to get a really clear picture as to what things sounded like from very early on. So it was very helpful.
All the songs serve different purposes and satisfy whatever musical yearnings we have. You don't have to stick to one style in a box.
In the past you've co-produced the albums with Mike Portnoy. What was it like overseeing this album on your own?
I love it. On "A Dramatic Turn of Events" it was the same thing and I totally produced that one as well. You find things in your life you love to do - you're a guitar player and you love to play guitar and I love to write lyrics and I have certain passions. When I started producing with Mike back in '99 it was something I kind of eased into and found that I really liked it and really enjoyed the process. So doing it on my own was kinda like, "Alright, here we go. Bring it on." It's a ton of work and a big undertaking to take on a Dream Theater album and it's a pretty vast project with a lot of different stages and steps and many hours and many months. But at the end of the day I can sort of pat myself on the back and say, "Alright, I did it (laughs). You got the cooperation of the band and nobody hated me." It feels pretty good.
You've worked with very cool producers in the past: Terry Date, David Prater, John Purdell and Kevin Shirely. Did you learn from them along the way?
Yeah, absolutely. All those guys are amazing and they all have their talents and you can see the way the people work. A lot of it is kinda how you are with people and how you can bring out the best in certain performers. Whether it's vocalists or a drummer, you kinda have to know how people work and what their psyche is. To me with producing - and this goes to the song "The Bigger Picture" - it's being able to step back and really see what you're trying to do from the beginning. Then to put all the pieces in place so that you follow that road to where when you're done you can say, "OK, this is what I expected it to be. I did all the things that made it happen." That's really, really important to me to keep that focus and to have a really good grasp of the bigger picture. And that's kind of like what that song is actually about.
Dream Theater is the first album drummer Mike Mangini has been involved in from the writing stages. Did he bring a different dynamic to the music than Mike Portnoy?
Yeah, I mean it's definitely different. Obviously they're two different people so they're gonna bring a different atmosphere and different things to the table. It's like I wish everybody could kind of see what he did. You're hearing it and when you're listening to it some of the stuff he's doing is absolutely mindblowing.
Mike Mangini's performance on the album was remarkable.
And a lot of that stuff was done off the cuff, which freaks me out. I'd just be writing and say, "Yeah, Mike, try something to this part." He'll just play and we're standing there and we start laughing. We laugh at him. We're like, "That's just illegal. You shouldn't be able to do that." And he's like, "What?" Plus writing with him was really great because he gets it. He's really in tune with what we're trying to do. If I have a certain idea for a song or if I come up with a riff or a direction, there's nothing worse than working with somebody who's pulled from that and they don't get it.
When the songs [from the album] were in their early stages, they already sounded like kinda what you hear today.
He was always on the same page with you musically?
There's never an instant where he didn't get it. He gets it and he knew right away that this groove in this section needs to be really heavy and this section needs to be technical and this section needs to be more sensitive. He really, really is in tune with what is required at the right moment musically. That says a lot about him not only as a drummer but as a musician. That's a great, great quality to have. Even when I listen back to the album myself, I hear certain things and I'm like, "Wow, that was really, really intuitive for Mike to do what he did there." It's like I didn't think about it at the time but whatever he did to set up a certain section or whatever was just so musical. It was a really amazing experience.
The album opens with the dramatic instrumental, "False Awakening Suite." This is the first instrumental you've recorded since "Stream of Consciousness" on the 2003 record, "Train of Thought." Were you trying to set a mood with an all music-track?
Yeah, absolutely. It's kinda like the idea was when we play live and before we hit the stage, we like to have some sort of like you said dramatic piece of music and something cinematic to bring us onstage. We've used the music from "Psycho" before and Hans Zimmer. The last tour was a piece from the movie "Inception" and just stuff that really sets the mood and you know the band's coming onstage. It was kinda like, "Well, let's write our own. We can do this. How hard could it be?" So we wrote our own cinematic opening and the cool thing is it has real strings on it and it has that cinematic vibe but it's in the style of metal and it's kind of a progressive version of it. It's our spin on that type of opening.
Those are real strings?
Yeah, it's a real string section.
Back in 1986 before the band was even known as Dream Theater you recorded the Majesty Demos, which included vocal tracks. You always knew that the band would be mainly based around vocal songs?
Yeah, absolutely. We knew that playing instrumental music would be a big part of what we do whether it was standalone instrumentals or instrumental departures within a song like in "Metropolis" or "Outcry" or something like that. But we always intended to have vocals. We grew up and were big fans of Yes, Rush, Iron Maiden and Metallica and there were vocals in all those bands. But we loved the instrumental side of music as well so we kinda tried to walk that line between doing both.
We're writing it creatively but we can step back and say, "How does it sound?"
One of the great vocal tracks on the album was "The Enemy Inside," which had some remarkable guitar tones. If you had to define the kind of guitar sound you were going for, how would you describe it?
I describe it as a piece of chocolate cake and that was my goal in the studio. It's like I had a nice picture of a layered chocolate cake. Why chocolate cake? Well, chocolate cake is rich, creamy and it has layers. It's sweet but it has a lot of substance and has just the right amount of icing on the top. If you get this nice piece of chocolate cake there's nothing more satisfying than that. So I wanted that in a guitar sound - a chunky, rich, delicious sound (laughs).
Your solo on "The Enemy Inside" was intense while the solo on "The Looking Glass" had a more lyrical quality to it. Did you specifically dial in different tones on those solos - and the other solos on the album - to match the emotion of a song?
Yeah, absolutely. Every step is conscious. "The Enemy Inside" is a very aggressive song and it's fast-moving and that solo guitar solo needed to poke out of the mix. There's a lot of rhythm behind it and it needed to just be percussive and creamy at the same time. It moves quickly and it's not very lyrical. It's just more snake-like and technical. But "The Looking Glass" is a whole nother story. That song I used the Royal Atlantic, which is again more like a British-sounding Boogie but it's more of a grinding, rock compressed sound. I used an Axis guitar and that's not a 13 on there. That's a Music Man Axis and again a different-sounding guitar. That solo section we put a Roland Dimension D on it and I was going for more of a free, improvised kind of slinky sound. I think that different guitar and that different amp 100 percent contributed to me getting into that headspace. If I were to play that solo section with a Mark 5:50+ and a JP13, it would totally be different. I would have 100 percent come up with something completely different. So the equipment could definitely inspire you to play a certain way. Absolutely.
When you played the solo on the instrumental track "Enigma Machine," did that require a different approach from you? There are a lot of figured lines you play along with John Myung and Jordan Rudess and the song is far more complex and orchestrated than a piece like "The Looking Glass."
Yeah, definitely. Like you said "The Looking Glass" has a lot of room there and it sort of has a repetitive kind of vibe so you have space to let it grow and breathe. When something is more figured and there's specific time signatures going on and it's more angular, you have to kind of adjust your headspace and maybe work with it a little more. Maybe it's not as improvised and maybe you go in and determine where things turn around and where they land and how you're gonna shape some of the lines.
[On "Dream Theater" album] I wanted a bigger, more forward in-your-face kind of sound.
A solo like this is less spontaneous and more structured?
It might be a little bit more thought out. It's certainly easier on a song like "Surrender to Reason" that has another bombastic, improvised solo feel in the middle. So something like that where there's an ostinato part that's just going around, you don't have to think too hard and just kinda let it freeform. But if the background has a definite shape to it, you might have to put on your thinking cap a little more. A different picture.
"The Bigger Picture" is one of the tracks that sports acoustic guitar. That's been part of your approach for many years.
Yeah, the way I use acoustic in my approach is certainly not as abundant as my electric playing. I mostly play electric. I use acoustic guitars kind of like a flavor and it's a spice in my spice rack. I use it as an orchestrational tool in the same way a keyboard player would switch to a piano to have a more personal, organic sound. I'll do that. I use the acoustic to support electric clean sounds. Nine times out of ten I have an acoustic doubling the clean sounds just to give it some thickness and percussive quality behind it. And every so often I just do acoustic only to carry a song.
Where did you do that?
"Surrender to Reason" has 12-string throughout the verse for example. "Along for the Ride" has acoustic throughout the intro and the verse. So it depends on the song but I'm primarily an electric player. I would say definitely the majority of the time I'm playing electric.
Does a ballad track like "The Bigger Picture" satisfy you in the same way a big rocker like "The Enemy Inside" does?
Yeah, and that's the whole thing about playing in Dream Theater and playing progressive music is that you can really explore so many different sides. You don't have to be afraid. "The Enemy Inside" and "Enigma Machine" are real heavy songs and they're dark and there's a little bit of like a sinister twist to them. But it doesn't mean everything has to be that way. You can switch gears and just play something really beautiful with a simple melody. Or maybe something that's really pretty on the keyboards that's reminiscent of the Dregs or Genesis or Yes or something like that. And go in that direction. They all fulfill a certain musical desire. I picture "The Enemy Inside" as a live show opener because it boosts the energy of the audience and it just grips the audience. "The Bigger Picture" is like a show closer where it's so poignant and the melody is really strong and you want to sing along to it and it's very open and simpler in a lot of ways. All the songs serve different purposes and again they satisfy whatever different musical yearnings we have as songwriters. So it's a lot of fun to be able to do that. You don't have to stick to one style in a box.
When we play live and before we hit the stage, we like to have some sort of dramatic piece of music and something cinematic to bring us onstage.
You mentioned that crazy solo in "Surrender to Reason" that's full of string scratching noises and insane whammy bar stuff. Do you like doing that type of freak out solo from time to time?
Absolutely. That's just a reckless solo. That's the type of thing where I transport myself into a small, smoky club with a trio. It's late at night and you're just going for it. I wanted to make that solo right in your face. With the exception of during the pick scratches, the whole solo is just dry. It's just my Dreamscape TC Electronics flanger on it and just really obnoxious and dry and right in your face. That's what I was looking for. It's just guitar, bass and drums there and there's no keys and vocals. A trio going for it with a lot of vinegar and a lot of improv. I would have went on longer if I could but that's it.
At 22:17, "Elimination Theory" is the epic track on the record with the multiple movements. How do you write a multi-part song like this?
The first thing you start with is that you know you're gonna do that kind of piece. You go in knowing, "OK, this is gonna be an epic piece. It's gonna be 20 minutes long." You know you have room for parts to develop and grow. Once you do that you can get a good idea of the type of shape of it that you want.
What do you mean?
For example in this case, I knew I wanted us to do an atmospheric breakdown in the center with almost like a ballet-sounding string thing just to be totally, totally different in the middle. If you kinda know that thing you have a little bit of a blueprint.
Did you have some melodic ideas before you started to work on "Elimination Theory" in earnest?
The main theme of it is something I had. It was, "OK, this is going to be the theme. This is happening at the start." Similarly with the ending progression that's repeating, that's something we had worked on at a soundcheck in Asia at one point. As soon as we did that, I'm like, "This will be used for the ending of a song somewhere on our next album." So you have an idea and you have these little pins like on a map. It's a matter of shaping what happens in-between those moments.
How do you keep a piece like "Elimination Theory" from becoming overlong? Have you learned how to write these extended tracks over the course of your career and not make them boring?
I mean I hope so. That's part of being objective and it goes back to "The Bigger Picture" thing. It's standing back and listening to it with the guys or by myself or whatever and just saying, "Is this doing it? Does this part go on too long? Is this exciting enough here? Is this part not long enough?" At this point in our career we can ask those questions and make pretty good judgments based on that.
Obviously [Mangini and Portnoy] are two different people so they're gonna bring a different atmosphere and different things to the table.
That's a very difficult thing for any band to be honest about the music they're making.
The first thing is it needs to not be boring for us. We're writing it creatively but we can step back and say, "How does it sound?" In other words we're not detached from it and we're very much in it. We can say from our perspective as listeners, "Is this keeping my attention? Is this interesting enough? Or is it dragging on for too long? Do we need to change?" Once we make those decisions then hopefully those will be reflective of what the general public might think. I mean we could be wrong at points. Who knows? But I think we're able to do that.
Along the same lines of knowing when a piece might be stagnating, do you know when you've captured the perfect solo?
I think it depends if something is more improvised and let's say it wasn't something I had to think about too much. Maybe it was more like a feeling section like in "The Bigger Picture" there's a section where the guitar carries the melody and that's sort or the solo. Something like that doesn't take much but you know musically, "OK, that's it. For whatever reason the stars aligned and that's perfect."What about solos that are more intricate?
In other circumstances with some of the more complex solos like in "Behind in the Veil" or at the end of "Illumination Theory" that's something I tend to compose just the way I'm composing the song. I build it and you make those same kind of judgments. Like, "Alright, is this interesting enough? Am I doing something different? Does this musically carry the song to the next level and is it doing what it's supposed to do?"
So the solo occupies an important place in a song in the same way that the vocal or a keyboard part does?
Yeah. If it's at the end of the song, I'm supposed to be the guy on top of the mountain with my hair blowing and making this song climax. Am I doing that? Or is it like boring? You know what I mean? If it's in the middle of the song and it's carrying the song to the last chorus, well then my job is to pull the song up from the bridge, bring the listener to a frenzy and then somehow segue into the chorus. I have these jobs I have to do. Again you can stand back and say, "Did I accomplish that?" Sometimes it takes more work than others. Sometimes it naturally happens and sometimes you have to think about it. But generally it happens while I'm cutting the solo. I don't really go back the next day and say, "Nah, let me do that again." I kind of do it as I'm doing it.
The outro of "Illumination Theory" had that feeling of a man standing on a mountaintop with those guitars swelling.
Are you talking about after all the silence at the very end?
Yeah, that's like a little Easter egg we stuck in there. Yeah, that's volume swells with delay on it. But yeah, it has a very string kind of sound to it.
We've had a long career and we're very fortunate to have been doing this as long as we have.
By calling this album "Dream Theater," are you trying to define who the band is in 2013?
Absolutely. Yeah, 100 percent. You nailed it. We've had a long career and we're very fortunate to have been doing this as long as we have. Every time we go into a new album, we put everything into it. We're so into what we do. It's hard when a band has this many albums to convey that to the listener. Because a lot of times as the listener it's very easy to say, "Oh, I like the old stuff. Who cares about the new album?"It is difficult bring along old fans to new music.
But I think we have the kind of listeners and fans that really look forward to the new music and so do we. So it's kinda like we want to always put our best foot forward and we want to always say were moving forward and we're progressing. We're trying to make things better and build upon what we did. We haven't done a self-titled album ever so this is kind of a good point to do it. To say there's an album in our career that somebody could point to now and say, "Where is at the band at? What does Dream Theater sound like now? This is it." So self-titling it was the best way to do that.
You have had a lot of success as this prog rock band. Do you in any way feel like the flag bearer for this kind of music?
We think about that. First of all there's so much incredible music out there and there's so many young bands that have built upon the style of progressive metal and they're doing amazing things. So it's inspiring in itself. When we go in the studio we all love playing together. The guys in the band have this amazing chemistry and relationship musically and we would have it no other way. When we go in we always go in with that mindset. It's like we have a responsibility to ourselves and our listeners that we need to put out the best thing we can. There's no complacency or there's nothing half-assedit has to kick ass (laughs). It's like we wanna be proud of it. When we tell somebody, "Check this out. Sit down and listen to my new song," it's like you want them to be smiling and be blown away. It's like there's no other way to do it.
Interview by Steven Rosen