It’s been 2 years since we last spoke to guitar virtuoso John Petrucci. Since then John has reunited with Liquid Tension Experiment to complete a highly celebrated tour and has delivered a new album with Dream Theater: Black Clouds & Silver Linings – their heaviest and most diverse album in years, which debuted at #6 on Billboards’ Top 200 album chart.
I had the opportunity to speak with John on the opening date of Dream Theater’s second annual Progressive Nation world tour in Miami, Florida:
IC: Opening night of Progressive Nation 2009 – what are your thoughts going into this tour?
JP: My thoughts are, first of all, that I think that the three bands are going to be fantastic that are playing before us, and I think the audience is gonna get a really great show of awesome music. My thoughts tonight are hoping that everything goes smooth. This is the first night, and there are a lot of logistics involved.
IC: You guys have been performing some of the material from the new album already in previous tours, but this is the first one in the US, right?
JP: Yeah, the first one in the US. We actually only played two of the tracks from the album on the past run in Europe, so we’re going to edge another one in. We only have an hour and a half set, and a lot of the songs are very long, so it’s hard to squeeze them in.
IC: Right. It’s not the usual ‘Night With Dream Theater’ three hours.
IC: The new album has some of the darkest and heaviest material you guys have written since Train Of Thought. What was the mindset going into the studio and writing this album?
JP: The mindset was to make the songs arrangement-wise more eclectic and varied within the song, more in the style of ‘In The Presence Of Enemies’ or some of the more epic songs we’ve had in the past, whether it be ‘Learning To Live’ or ‘Metropolis’ or ‘The Dance Of Eternity,’ where within the song there’s a lot going on style-wise. There’s a lot of changes, mood changes and things like that, as opposed to just being one mood throughout the whole song. ‘Constant Motion’ is like that throughout the whole song, whereas ‘A Nightmare To Remember’ switches gears – it’s like watching a movie.
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So we wanted to make the record like that – not only the individual songs, but as a whole. That’s why you’ll hear ‘Wither’ in there – it breaks up the epicness.
IC: ‘Wither’ seems to be the other potential single off the album. Are you guys planning to put out a video for that song?
JP: Yeah, definitely.
IC: While we’re on the topic of ‘Wither’ – I was reading through the lyrics and had my thoughts on what it might be about, and Mike Portnoy actually confirmed in another interview that the song is about writer’s block. Is that right?
JP: Yeah, it’s hard to just say that it’s about a block. It’s more like the writer’s process, and it could be writers or it could be any creative process where there is that moment where you’re staring down at a piece of paper, or a computer screen, or a canvas or whatever, and you have to be creative and you’re almost not sure where to start, and it feels a little like ‘How am I gonna do this?’ and you get a little overwhelmed, and maybe have some doubts and some things don’t work, so you throw them out.
And then I use the term wither, because it’s like you let that all go, and then it starts to come out, and then when it starts to come out you’re like ‘Whoa! That’s really cool!’ and you’re writing and writing. So it’s not so much the block, where you don’t have an idea – it’s more the process that you go through when you’re being creative in any situation.
IC: Was that something that was inspired just now in writing this album and going through that process?
JP: It happens every time – that’s something that always happens to me. Writing the music is different, because we get together and we jam and everybody has a million ideas – we could write for days and days and days. But when you’re writing a lyric, which is what I was relating that song about, it’s just you. You’re just sitting there and it’s like ‘Ok, what do I write about?’ It’s kind of a weird thing. The other part is that you write a lot of times about something very personal, and then all of a sudden it gets released and all of a sudden everybody’s reading about it, so that’s kind of a weird experience, as well.
IC: Are you referring to ‘The Count Of Tuscany?’
JP: Well, that’s a good example, sure.
IC: Would you mind sharing more about that? What we know is that it’s based on an experience that you had in Italy.
JP: It is. Funny enough, I told that story many times, and it’s kind of like ‘Well, why don’t you write a song about it?’ My friend Mark [Snyder], who builds my racks and everything, and Mike’s drum tech at the time and John Myung – we all went to a winery in Tuscany. My friend Mark actually imports wine and was interested in this winery, and the count of the family, this young guy, took us through the castle. The setting was kind of a combination of Old World hills and stone quarters for the servants, animals walking around and old-time castle, but then also a modern winery with stainless steel vats and things.
So it’s about the whole experience that we went through, and it was so bizarre, that every time we would encounter something, we would look at each other and say ‘Okay, nice knowing you!’ We’d walk down into a dark cellar, and John’d be like ‘Oh, look in that corner. Put your head in that corner.’ And you’re like ‘Okay.’ Everything was innocent, but it was just funny.
I think the whole thing that got us going was that the count had told us that the movie Hannibal with Anthony Hopkins, that character that he plays in Hannibal where he’s the curator of the family library, that’s based on his brother and that was the house where they grew up. So I was like ‘Oh, that’s really great. We’re going to see Hannibal.’ [laughs]
So that kind of set the mood for things being strange, but that’s pretty much it. We tasted some really old, old wines that were so old that it was ridiculous, and in this one room there were these giant floor-to-ceiling oak barrels, and he would tell us how the brother would smoke on his pipe and everything ‘Oh, yeah, during the war the soldiers would come to hide from the Germans, but some of them never escaped and they’re still in the barrels.’ And we’re thinking ‘Alright, we’re gonna be in a barrel, that’s how we’re gonna die!’ So it was my creative license take on that experience.
IC: One of the big topics right now is that you guys debuted at number six on the Billboard 200 – congratulations on that!
JP: Thank you, man – I can’t believe it.
IC: You guys have been at it for 25 years now, whereas other bands at that stage are either broken up or on reunion tours.
JP: Yeah! We were just talking about that last night.
IC: So what’s it like to be at this point in your career and still reaching new heights?
JP: It’s incredibly uplifting for us. We’re really into what we do, and we never broke up, so we still have the passion we had when we started. We love doing it, and every time we go in to do a new album we’re like ‘This is our best one yet!’ So everything’s always infused with that kind of attitude, and to get that back… you can only attribute that to our fans, because that’s why it debuted – because everyone went out there. That’s a great testament for progressive rock in today’s environment, and the power of people that are really into music, that they can go out there and sandwich us between the Jonas Brothers and… you know what I mean? It’s incredible.
IC: It’s definitely a big step for you guys, and an even bigger step for the whole progressive metal movement.
JP: I hope so.
IC: The last time we spoke you mentioned that one of your priorities outside of Dream Theater was getting new material together for a solo album.
IC: So where are you with that?
JP: We’re nowhere with that [laughs]. Embarrassingly enough to say… I’ll tell you where we are with that. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like ‘Oh, man, I’ve really gotta do something.’ And I finally dove into the world of mobile recording, so at least I’m at that point, where I’m set up for the writing process.
IC: What’s your rig like?
JP: It’s a MacBook Pro with Logic and AmpliTube. I just have to learn how to use it all.
IC: I’m just getting hang of it myself. I got Logic a week ago, and they came out with a new version yesterday.
JP: A new version yesterday of Logic? I just bought it.
IC: That’s what I just did, too.
JP: Oh, no. What version is it?
IC: Logic 9.
JP: [sighs] Yeah, I’ll have to upgrade.
IC: So you’re working on that, and you guys have provided us with the Liquid Tension stuff that we haven’t heard in so long – a couple of shows and that DVD set that’s shipping now. Are you guys planning on making any new material with that lineup?
JP: We don’t plan on it. We’ve always said with that project that anything’s possible. We all really have fun with that project, and obviously we’re all in the same band except for Tony, and we love Tony. If the situation arose, we would do it. We’re not planning on it, but you never know.
IC: This is probably the busiest time for Dream Theater in many years.
JP: Yeah, but I’m really glad we did that tour. To prepare that kind of material for five shows was a little bit ‘Oh my God, what a project to go through.’ But I’m glad we did.
IC: One of the cool things about Black Clouds & Silver Linings is that you finished the Twelve-step Suite that started with ‘The Glass Prison’ and is now complete with ‘The Shattered Fortress.’ Are you planning on performing the entire suite in a row?
JP: Absolutely! We have to, in true Dream Theater fashion.
IC: Do you think there will be a DVD coming out for this?
JP: I’m sure everything will happen. One of the things that helps us to grow and survive is releasing a lot of different things. Even with this album, the way it came out with the instrumental version, the cover CD and the box set. Because we’re not the kind of band that’s plastered all over the radio, I think that our fans expect more and I think it’s important to do that. You’ll see a lot of bands doing that, where it’s not the norm to just put out the CD – there’s a whole bunch of different things that come along with that. I think it’s partly due to the age we’re in, and we’re happy to do it. So I’m sure there’ll be more DVDs and everything else to come.
IC: Excellent. So one of the things that you guys put out with album was the individual tracks – the instrumental mix. Was that something the label did, or did you guys do that?
JP: As far as I know, those are all Mike’s ideas – to do the instrumental, and the individual tracks. I know that bands have done that. I remember getting a Muse thing, and you could mix the different tracks. So I think it’s cool to be part of those ideas, but Mike’s the idea man. He’s always like ‘We gotta do this, and that and that!’ and I’m like ‘Oh, okay.’
IC: I remember watching a documentary of you guys doing Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, and you had a bunch of CDs lying around of inspirations that you had, like Meshuggah and Pink Floyd. Did you guys have anything similar for this album?
JP: We didn’t, no. We went in, and the biggest thing is that we wanted to really play on the strengths of the eclectic arrangement thing that is our sound. Not every song is like that, and we tried to make more of the songs on this album like that.
IC: Your rig is very well documented. You’ve got a whole section on your site devoted to all the settings, so I won’t ask about that. But you have had some subtle changes, particularly with the Mesa Boogie Mark V amp coming out while you were recording Black Clouds & Silver Linings. Did that make it on the album? Last time it was a picture posted with updates, and it was still the IIC+ and Mark IV that you’ve been using over the years.
JP: As far as my site goes, that’s going to be updated soon, because I have a brand new rig that’s just been built. It’s a Mark V rig. It has a lot of the same components in terms of effects, but it’s a Mark V.
IC: Is the Lone Star still a part of it?
JP: No, it’s three Mark Vs, and I can utilize all three channels of each head, and all of the different modes of each channel. So there’s 27 different options or something stupid like that. We’re gonna take pictures of that, and we’ll put that all up on the Net. That head made it onto ‘The Count Of Tuscany.’ We were mixing the record, and there was a solo I hadn’t done – the solo after the last vocal, and that’s Mark V. Some of the more Alex Lifeson kind of parts with chorusing on them – that’s also the Mark V.
IC: That’s at the heart of the touring rig now. Are you using the stock Mark V?
JP: Stock Mark V, yeah. In fact, I just got the rig Tuesday, I programmed it Tuesday afternoon and we started rehearsing Tuesday night, and I tweaked it for the last three days – programmed all the effects, all the sounds. It sounds amazing to me.
IC: I was watching some of the YouTube clips from the Download Festival 2009. Obviously YouTube’s not a good way to judge sound, but even so I was really impressed by the live tone you had – particularly the rhythm tones. Was that also the Mark V at that point?
JP: No, that wasn’t. I think that was the A rig for that tour, which was two Mark IVs and a C+. So the rhythm sound was a Mark IV.
IC: The new pickups – DiMarzio has a brief description of the characteristic changes they’ve made, but how would you describe what the new pickups do for you compared to the original JP six and seven string pickups or the D Sonic?
JP: Well, I work with Steve Blucher at DiMarzio, and we’re both always thinking ‘How can we make this better? What’s the next stage of it?’ And even as the guitars change with the BFRs and the different wood, and the experience that I have in the studio or live, I’ll be thinking ‘I wish the higher notes had more girth’ or ‘I have a little too much bass on the lower notes.’ And Steve and I will talk about and then he’ll call me one day and say ‘Okay, I think you’re really gonna like this!’
We make subtle improvements, and I have no idea what he does – I don’t know the first thing about building a pickup. He’ll come back to me, and that’s how we do it. So the current incarnation is the best version of all those different things. But it depends – some guys like the other ones. I have guys that specifically request the original pickup, so it depends on what you like.
IC: I want to talk about some of the solos on the record, particularly the one in the middle of ‘A Nightmare To Remember’ about halfway through the track. You get an awesome bluesy, almost single coil kind of sound there. Is that the middle position of your guitar?
JP: It’s actually not. I know what you mean, and I don’t know why, but it just sounds like that. It’s actually the neck pickup on the guitar, and I maybe was just digging in a lot. That’s a C+, all of the solos on the record are C+. I know what you mean, it has kind of a squeaky, twangy sound. I don’t know why – it’s not a single coil thing, it’s the neck position.
IC: Did you do a lot of the solos in single takes?
JP: No. What I do generally when it comes to soloing is I kind of just have the solo section on a loop, and I just play along to it, and as I’m improvising certain ideas come out and I kind of go ‘Okay! Record.’ And I’ll do it, and go as far as I can go, and then punch in from there. I used to do a bunch of solos and then comp them together, but I kind of like to build it, and that’s the way I’ve been doing it for years now. Every so often I’ll just improvise something through, it depends on the kind of solo it is. A lot of times, I like to try to catch some of the odd rhythms and things, so I get really specific about the note choices.
So people say ‘Do you write your solos?’ Well, I don’t write them. It’s not like a piece of music where you write every single note, but they’re constructed out of improv. Like in ‘A Rite Of Passage’ there’s this really long descending line that I do, and I knew I wanted to do something like that, but I didn’t know what I was gonna play. I just kept improvising [imitates speedy descending line] and did it like ten times ‘Okay, that’s the one!’ And every one was different. So it’s something like that. It’s not written like ‘Oh, I’ll do this pattern.’ It’s whatever comes out, but it’s built.
IC: The last time we spoke I asked you to give advice to aspiring musicians – people looking to get into music. This time I want to ask you for your advice for people who’ve committed themselves to music as a career. What advice would you give them in today’s music market, based on your experience?
JP: The music market has changed so much, and I think the good thing about the way it’s changed is that you can make music and get it to a quality that stands up a lot easier. Then you can take that music and bring it to places a lot easier. So my advice would be to follow that path, like you and I were talking about with Logic and everything. If you can be ready to do stuff on the spot and have it be great, I think that’s a good thing.
The last thing you want to do, if you’re a developed musician, you’re in the field and you get an opportunity and you’re like ‘Oh! I have no way to…’ You want to have the tools to do that. A lot of bands come up to me, and the bands sound great – but they don’t have a demo. I know you’re talking about more advanced than that, but I think that’s important. I don’t think you can make excuses anymore, ‘I don’t have this, I don’t have that, I don’t have a way to record.’
IC: The tools are there.
JP: You kind of need to be there, yeah. I’ve been guilty of that sometimes. Someone will go ‘Can you write a song for this?’ ‘Oh, man! I don’t have the…’ It’s the worst feeling to be in that position. So I think that if you’re in the game and you’re a professional, you want to have the tools to do it. If you get asked to go up and do a jam, you want to make yourself available and have the tools to be able to do it.
Special thanks to Chris Dingman for the transcription of this interview.