Hit The Lights: John Petrucci: New Album Has 'Mixture Of Old School Dream Theater'

artist: Dream Theater date: 07/31/2009 category: interviews
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Hit The Lights: John Petrucci: New Album Has 'Mixture Of Old School Dream Theater'
Hit The Lights has featured many great guitarists in its brief existence thus far, including G3 alumni Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan. Now, another name can be added to that list. John Petrucci has been a part of Dream Theater for nearly twenty-five years, an act that has been a flag-bearer for progressive metal in recent years, aiming to further expose the genre via its "Progressive Nation" tour package. The group's songs generally defy commercial conventions, though "Black Clouds & Silver Linings" nonetheless cracked the top ten of the Billboard 200. For that, Dream Theater deserve recognition. "Black Clouds & Silver Linings" marks Dream Theater's tenth full length studio album, and second full length to be issued through Roadrunner Records. Work began during October 2008 at Avatar Studios in New York City, and concluded during March 2009. Produced by drummer Mike Portnoy and guitarist John Petrucci, mixing was handled by Paul Northfield. As part of special issues of the album, six recorded covers were available, comprising; "Stargazer" by Rainbow, "Tenement Funster" / "Flick Of The Wrist" / "Lily Of The Valley" by Queen, "Odyssey" by Dixie Dregs, "Take Your Fingers From My Hair" by Zebra, "Larks' Tongues In Aspic" by King Crimson, and "To Tame A Land" by Iron Maiden. Portnoy and Petrucci handled lyrics, lyrics that touch upon a wide array of topics. "A Nightmare To Remember" was about a car accident Petrucci was involved in as a child, whereas "The Count Of Tuscany" concerned an encounter he had in Tuscany. "Wither", meanwhile, comments upon the creative process, whereas "A Rite Of Passage" delves into Freemasonry. "The Best Of Times" was written by Portnoy about his father, who succumbed to cancer, whereas "The Shattered Fortress" marks the conclusion of Portnoy's Twelve-step suite which began upon 2002's "Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence". In late March, a music video was shot for "A Rite Of Passage". In its first week of release, "Black Clouds & Silver Linings" shifted forty-thousand copies in the United States, and went to number six upon the Billboard 200, their highest position upon that chart. The "Progressive Nation" 2009 North American tour pairs Dream Theater with Zappa Plays Zappa, Bigelf and Scale The Summit. On July 28th at 21:00 GMT, Hit The Lights' Robert Gray telephoned an individual in production through his mobile, who subsequently handed the phone to John Petrucci. Discussing "Black Clouds & Silver Linings", the act were due to perform that night in Atlanta, Georgia at The Tabernacle. John Petrucci: Hello? UG: Hello. This is Robert Gray from Ultimate-Guitar.com. How are you John? How are you? I'm ok. Thus far, how has the 'Progressive Nation' 2009 North American tour progressed? So far, so good. As part of the North American 'Progressive Nation' tour, we've performed three shows thus far. Also, we performed a whole European leg back in June, and that was totally awesome. It's going great. How does Dream Theater approach composing a set list? Actually, we leave all that up to Mike. Years ago, when we didn't have too many songs, we used to all talk about it together, and compose set lists. As we recorded more and more albums, we had more songs, and so it was more difficult to select songs. We became involved in a lot of arguments about songs, so eventually, we just let Mike compose set lists. He just selects our set lists, and these set lists are based on a lot of factors, including what we played last time in the area and whatever. Mike is really good at composing set lists. Will 'Progressive Nation' become a regular tour package? Every time we tour, it's something we'd like to do. We won't have this occur on every leg, but will just have this happen several times as a part of each tour. Sometimes the concert will be 'Progressive Nation', and then sometimes the concert will be just Dream Theater. We'll try to include 'Progressive Nation' with every touring cycle, though, and will attempt to include at least one run. For the first time this year, we'll bring 'Progressive Nation' to Europe as well, which'll be interesting.

"We know our audience so well, and know which songs will really have an impact live."

As part of the 'Progressive Nation' 2009 North American tour, how many of 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings'' tracks is Dream Theater currently performing each night? Right now, we're performing three songs from 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings', and they're going down really great with the audience. With our experience, as we write and produce new music, we can almost tell how new music will come across. We know our audience so well, and know which songs will really have an impact live. Our prediction was correct, yeah. We're performing those songs live, and are just receiving a fantastic response. Are there plans to incorporate 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings'' other three tracks into future set lists? Yeah, definitely. As the tour progresses, we will. It's early, still. In June, we performed at mostly festivals. Now, we're performing as part of 'Progressive Nation', and are only performing for an hour and a half since the package has four bands altogether. When we're able to play longer though, then we'll perform more songs. Could you provide some background information regarding 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings'? In October 2008, we went back into Avatar studio in New York City with Paul Northfield, who engineered and mixed 'Systematic Chaos'. From October through to March 2009, we worked on the album, so it took us several months. We recorded not only 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings', but also a whole CD of covers as well. We had a lot of work cut out for us, but it was a lot of fun. Why did Dream Theater choose the album title 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings'? 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings'' title has to do with the lyrics, and the subject matter. In general, from song to song, there's something dark about the story which transpires, yet at the same time, there's a silver lining at the end of each song. Once the song has finished, you can take a positive angle. Do you find it important to be positive then? Yeah, absolutely. Definitely. Drummer Mike Portnoy described 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings' as "a Dream Theater album with "A Change of Seasons", "Octavarium", "Learning to Live", "Pull Me Under" and "The Glass Prison" all on one album". Would you agree with that statement? Yeah. It's a pretty good statement, you know? Definitely. Do you feel that 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings' lives up to that statement though, since those songs Mike named are strong tracks from Dream Theater's catalogue? Every time we record a new album, we try to make that album our best, try to make the songs our strongest, and try to learn from our previous albums. Yeah, I think 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings' is very, very strong. Since we began touring this album, all of its songs have been received extremely well by the audience. It's really been fun. Generally speaking, 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings'' songs are longer than 'Systematic Chaos'' songs. Why did Dream Theater opt to pen longer tracks for 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings'? It just worked out that way for some reason, really, but that wasn't predetermined. We just wrote epic songs for 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings'. When Dream Theater writes five-minute plus tracks, does it become difficult to select a single from a given album? Yeah, it becomes really difficult. Even with "A Rite of Passage", we had to really edit that down for the single. It's very, very difficult to do. Yeah, it does make it very difficult. Absolutely. How would you compare 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings' to 'Systematic Chaos'? We grew from 'Systematic Chaos', I think. 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings'' overall sound is better, including the production value and the mix. We learnt. 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings' has more of a mixture; it has some of the same elements as far as the heaviness and so on is concerned, but also has a mixture of more of the old school Dream Theater - 'Images and Words' (1992), and 'Awake' (1994) - where the song structures were a bit more eclectic, and more varied. As you mentioned, Dream Theater recorded several covers to accompany 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings'' release. How were these covers selected? Once again, the master song selector Mike Portnoy selected the covers, and brought them in. He said "Guys, I have this idea. These are the songs I'd like to cover". Everyone looked at him, and said "Cool. Sounds great". That was pretty much that. Are you happy with the reception these specific covers have received, particularly the Queen medley ("Tenement Funster" / "Flick of the Wrist" / "Lily of the Valley")? Yeah, definitely. The fact that Brian (May, Queen guitarist) heard our Queen medley cover, and commented on it, is just unbelievable. That's how he got turned onto Dream Theater. So yeah, couldn't be more happy. Would it be ok if we discussed the lyrics you personally wrote for tracks upon 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings'? Sure. First of all, could you touch upon the lyrics to "A Nightmare to Remember"? It reportedly concerns a car accident. Yeah. It's a recollection of a car accident me and my family was in when I was a pretty young kid, and that was a pretty nasty car accident. It's a story which remembers that night, remembering what happened, how everyone felt, and just being really scared, and being in the hospital, not knowing where I was, and wondering if everyone was ok. It just recalls that. The music was very dark and Halloween sounding, I felt, so I thought it was an appropriate subject for that song.

"From song to song, there's something dark about the story which transpires."

Obviously, that car accident affected you at the time, though did that accident affect you in later life at all? No, not really. I was pretty little, so I didn't have much trauma from it or anything. "The Count of Tuscany" concerns a meeting you had with a Count. Yeah. "The Count of Tuscany" is about a trip that we took in the hills of Tuscany to a vineyard, and a castle that was run by a Count and his family. It just talks about the strange events that transpired over the course of the day. It's always been an interesting story that I've told to a lot of people, and I thought it would be perfect to put that into lyrics. Sounds somewhat like 'Dracula', in that you met a Count, and became scared. Yeah, definitely (laughs). It definitely has that vibe. "Wither" discusses your fear of writer's block. Not exactly. "Wither" is more about the process of starting something creative, and starting from nothing, whether you're writing a song, or a lyric, or a book, or a story, or whatever. When you're staring down at a piece of paper, or at a computer screen, or if you're painting, there's always that point where you're facing a blank palette, and the process that your brain and your emotions go through to get something creative out of you was always an interesting topic I thought. Do you ever get scared that you might not be able to fully realise any great song ideas you have? I've been playing guitar for thirty years now, and have been a part of Dream Theater for twenty-five years. You learn how to do things, and how to get those ideas across, so I don't really have a fear that I'm not going to be able to write. However, you definitely have to go through the process of getting there, which might not be easy. I'm pretty confident that I'll get there in the end, though. 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings' is Dream Theater's tenth album. In light of that, do members of the group create good song ideas, but ones that are too similar to past Dream Theater songs? Sometimes, you have to watch that. When we write songs, if something sounds too similar, then we have to make sure it doesn't sound like this, or doesn't sound like a previous song. Yeah, sometimes that happens. There's five guys though, and fortunately, if someone doesn't hear it, then someone else will. They'll say "Hey, wait a minute. That sounds familiar". Does Dream Theater always hear new albums which eventually become an influence then? Fresh influences? Yeah, sometimes. Sure. Everyone in Dream Theater gets turned onto new music, and new bands, but some guys more than others. Some members of the band pursue new music, and are more interested in discovering new music. Some guys just let new music come to them. It depends on the guy, though if you hear something that's interesting and different, sometimes you can't help but have it seep in, and become an influence in some way. "A Rite of Passage" concerns Freemasonry. Yeah. Freemasonry has always been a topic of mystery, and intrigue. It's always shrouded in conspiracy, and is very similar to the Dan Brown novels - 'The Da Vinci Code' and all that. Freemasonry, and secret societies, are things that when you talk about them, not a lot of people know what they really are, and what it is. It's a very interesting topic. Anything that's kind of surrounded by conspiracy, and is a little bit dark, is very interesting, I think. There've been so many shows, documentaries and books written about it, so I always found that a very interesting topic. Finally, I worked that into a song. Have you ever had any personal encounters with Freemasons? Probably. I don't really know, but there's a lot of Freemasons. Also, Dream Theater filmed a music video for "A Rite of Passage". Could you shed light on the track's music video? Yeah. "A Rite of Passage"' music video is really cool, I think. The director did an amazing job, and there's some footage of the band playing. We had wind, snow, and things blowing. He had some conceptual footage which I think looks really incredible, with the cinematography and everything. To me, "A Rite of Passage" is our best video that we've made to date. It came out really, really great - I loved the way it looks. Is Dream Theater happy to film music videos? There was a time when the group didn't really film any. Yeah. We put a stop to videoing for awhile, though since we signed with Roadrunner, we began again. It's refreshing to get back into recording videos. Is it good to be signed to a label that gets behind Dream Theater? Yeah. Roadrunner have been great. They've been fantastic; they've been really pushing us, and they understand us, our music and what we're all about. They're wonderful. From 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings', will future music videos be recorded? I hope so. I'm not sure yet, though I certainly hope so.

"'Black Clouds & Silver Linings'' title has to do with the lyrics, and the subject matter."

Dream Theater has been in existence for almost twenty-five years, though 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings' is the group's highest charting album in the United States. Does achieving such a feat after so many years feel odd? Yeah, it definitely feels weird. 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings' is our highest charting album, and like you said, we've been together for nearly twenty-five years. It's our tenth album, so that position is just a testament to the band, where we've gone, the power of our fans, and the power of the worldwide effect that we've had. Thankfully, it didn't happen overnight. It's something that we grew through a lot of hard work, and a lot of concerts all around the world, and staying true to our music, and to our fans. It's unbelievably rewarding to have that chart position. Does Dream Theater have any plans to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2010? I'm not sure if we really have anything planned right now, though I'm sure we'll plan something. For its twenty-fifth anniversary, would Dream Theater possibly tour and perform one of its older albums live in its entirety, or something of that nature? Maybe, yeah. Who knows? We haven't really discussed it, though I'm sure it'd be fun to do something like that, and do something special, yeah. What are Dream Theater's current touring plans? We'll finish 'Progressive Nation''s 2009 North American tour which goes through the US and Canada, which'll conclude at the end of August. At the end of September, we travel to Europe with Opeth, and then conduct another 'Progressive Nation' run in Europe. Beginning of December, we travel to New Zealand and Australia, and that will conclude 2009. I'm not sure what will happen in 2010, but I'm sure we'll do more touring at that point. What do you feel the future holds for Dream Theater? We're quickly on the rise. With a new record label in Roadrunner, a new album, its high chart position, 'Progressive Nation' and the great attendance we've received all over the world, we'll just continue to take the upward climb that we've taken. We'll just continue to work hard. For the fans who've remained faithful to Dream Theater over the years, do you have a message? Thank you, thank you, thank you. I meet fans all the time that say they've been fans since 1989, or the early nineties, or whatever it is, and they've been to twenty, thirty shows. I can't thank them enough. They're the reason we make music, obviously, that isn't very commercially acceptable. It's progressive music, and our songs are twenty minutes long, but it's the fans that stick with Dream Theater who enable us to grow. I'm nothing more than grateful. Before we conclude the interview, is there anything else you wish to say? I'm just looking forward to playing live. It's always fun to record an album, and to go through the creative process, record, produce, and mix. Now that that's done though, it's the next best thing, which is playing live. Just getting to play my guitar every night, and be a part of this great tour, makes me just look forward to every night. Ok. All the best with Dream Theater John. Thank you so much. Ok, take care. You too. Bye. Bye. Interview by Robert Gray Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2009
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