Perfect Sound Forever

Dream Theater

Interview by Mark S. Tucker
(January 2005)

When dreams and corporations unite, the result is generally ugly. Dream Theater is very much a part of the corporate rock machine, like it or not, and one can reasonably expect them to act in accord; such behavior is extremely profitable. I discovered this in an exceedingly nasty way.

DT's publicity adjunct, Kayos Productions, had originally asked John Collinge, publisher of Progression (a magazine I used to write for), to send someone to cover "an event" for the DVD/CD release of Live at Budokan at Warner's Burbank offices, and to review their upcoming concert with Yes at the Universal amphitheater. Despite my misgivings and prejudicial loathing of corporations, I agreed to be said correspondent. The very next day, one of Kayos' flunkies called, to say that Progression had informed him that I would be interviewing DT, which had not been a part of the original deal and in fact, Progression had not said I would, as I found when I called them. I eventually agreed to the interview anyway – why not; in for a penny, in for a pound, right? – but from the start Kayos were counterproductive.

Talking to their rep – who put on a "nice guy" image over the phone – I was promised the releases to review, an event pass, a 45-minute interview with the group, and tickets to the concert proper. I set aside the time, but upon arrival in Burbank for the "event," I found that not only was there no event, Kayos had not even informed the band's contact people of my presence. No one at Warner's had been informed of my impending arrival, of the publication I was writing for, of any DVD release event, nor of any interview session. It took five security guards, two dozen calls, and three-quarters of an hour just to get through the foyer. The Warner people, when I finally got to the fourth floor, were dismissive, cold, and curt. Most of the group was not there, and apparently never had been – only Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci, who were visibly unhappy to be pulled away from their submarine sandwiches and salads to give an interview no one had informed them of.

What should have been a 45-minute, in-depth colloquy, I'm sorry to say, turned out to be a 15-minute, hurried Q&A. P&P were pleasant enough once they got past their initial irritation, and their comments were highly interesting, but they were also only too happy to speed off once the Warner ranks rapidly removed them. My initial article (linked below) couldn't be written for a full month, as Kayos refused to send the promised DVDs or CDs; I had nothing to write about. And this behavior was coming from the promo company for a group that, whether it's covered on MTV or not, sells like hotcakes: I had to fight with them and Progression's editor for 30 days in order to get material to pen an article everyone was initially vitally interested in. I finally received only the DVD, very grudgingly and far too late. In the meantime, the deadline had passed, and I'd lost the free time I'd set aside to write Budokan up.

Kayos, to distance itself from the debacle, averred to the publisher that they'd not only sent the whole set, but had done so twice, attempting to shift blame toward either me, or the Postal Service. It worked: the publisher bought into this lie, inferring my dishonesty in writing, and demanded I mail him the imaginary second copy I was supposed to have hoarded.

That said, here is my 15 minute interview with Dream Theater. I was able to cram a lot into 15 minutes and, despite the warfare necessary to procure it, found the result sufficiently engrossing. Had I been given the promised 45 minutes, it would have turned out far better, of course.

PSF: Images and Words had a lot of...sloppy, grainy footage, not to mention constant cutaways from the concert itself. Who had final say on that video, and who had final say on Budokan?

Portnoy: The Images video...I kind of oversaw that, but in a very small capacity, because it was very early in our career. I was kind of just getting cuts every couple of weeks and then I'd give my opinion. So, really, that was concert footage along with stuff from my camcorder. On the Live at Budokan video, as well as Five Years and Live Scenes from New York Metropolis, I had 1000% creative control. I oversaw every single step, every cut on them. But, for Images, I make no excuses. Like it or hate it, I oversaw it. I'm a film fanatic; it's my biggest love, maybe even more than music.

PSF: Really?

Portnoy: Yep, it's been a pleasure for me to be so involved in the videos.

PSF: Let me digress for a moment then – who do you favor as directors?

Portnoy: We could be here all day...

PSF: Give me five or six.

Portnoy: Kubrick is my #1 god. David Lynch, Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorcese...

PSF: Fellini?

Portnoy: He's great. Of course Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher...those are some of the new guys I dig

PSF: Ever checked out Peter Greenaway?

Portnoy: Yeah, I liked The Cook, the Thief, the Wife, and His Lover.

PSF: You have to see Prospero's Books – Clockwork Orange was my favorite all-time flick until I saw Prospero's Books.

Portnoy: Yeah? All the Greenaway stuff looks so Kubrick-ian.

PSF: Yeah, I agree.

Portnoy: I mean, the slow-moving, symmetrical shots and all that...very Kubrick. I think Todd Haynes' style reminds me a lot of him also.

PSF: Yeah, they all do a lot of deep planning beforehand. But back to music: mind-theater groups have had a rough time maintaining momentum. Queensryche and Savatage had their peaks, and are declining, yet you guys seem to constantly forge ahead, and gain ground – what's the secret?

Petrucci: That's a good question, man, because...you know, Queensryche also had a very big thing and then...[makes a plane-crash motion]. I think for us, we try to not only make each record different, and to have a direction, we try to keep it very interesting. We never walk away from a song or a CD and just say "Eh," [shrugs].

PSF: You're never quite satisfied.

Petrucci: Yeah, you know what I mean? We always try to keep everyone, ourselves included, interested. We're also very in touch with the fan base, which is what keeps us going...much to Mike's credit, because it's not really something I involve myself with. He's got his finger on the pulse. I think that fans appreciate that, and they're obviously not going to hear us on the radio, so there has to be some way to get out there.

PSF: I've seen where Mike gets down in the streets and interacts with the fans, shows genuine interest, appreciation, enthusiasm. That's rarely done.

Petrucci: Yeah.

PSF: I've been to a lot of concerts and almost no one ever takes the time to say "Hi!" unless it's from the stage, and is part of the shtick.

Portnoy: You brought up Queensryche, so I'll run with it.

PSF: Go right ahead.

Portnoy: They're a specific example. We toured with them last summer and I think they...either are clueless or just don't care what their fans think. I mean, I've seen interviews with Geoff Tate and he doesn't care whether the fans like or dislike something. He doesn't know what other modern musics might be out there. He openly admits that he never listens to anything. He hadn't even heard of Dream Theater until we toured together.

PSF: No kidding?

Portnoy: I think that's part of the reason they've declined, because they're living in this vacuum. They're not staying up to date with what the fans want to hear or with what the rest of the world is like.

PSF: I was pissed with their post-Operation Mindcrime material. They'd hit their high point and then turned into Poison and Cinderella. I figured they were being swacked at because of the controversial nature of the anti-government material, or just hadn't an idea what was what.

Portnoy: Now they're actually doing, believe it or not, Operation Mindcrime 2, after the fans have been asking for it for fifteen years!

PSF [Laughs]: They finally got it? Not too long to wait, hmm?

Portnoy: They're taking the easy route, and thinking, "Okay, I guess we should do this now," for better or for worse. Maybe they're finally listening to their fans. Don't know whether or not they'll nail it, but, we'll see.

PSF: Such a great group, too. DT's style constantly expands and explores. Are you comfortable moving more into more progressive realms?

Petrucci: Depends on what you mean by that...

PSF: Traditional prog-rock. Dream Theater's heading into more of the trad arena lately - more so than, say, neo-prog or technical metal.

Petrucci: I don't know, man. There's a certain element of that that's been really done and there's a big portion of the sound which just becomes retro...like you're working so hard to sound like that. I think, although that's a big influence, it's important for us to be more cutting edge. There's a certain way we want the records to sound; it's important. I know there are a lot of young bands in the audience, and that also has something to do with it. A fifteen-year old kid is going to have, say, Linkin Park and then put one CD up to the next and, sonically, you want to be able to match up to the different styles of music. So, that whole retro-prog thing is...[trails off]

PSF: I had an bizarre e-conversation with Chris Cutler (Henry Cow, Art Bears). He was saying the same thing you're saying: "It's been done to death. Especially, you Yanks want to put a Mellotron in everything," and blah, blah, blah. I replied that there was a certain truth to that, but, on the other hand, it's a very solid sound and can still be explored.

Petrucci: Oh, totally, totally.

PSF: He and Dave Kerman (Blast, 5UU's) aren't very happy with the scene, in any event. Now, the keyboard spot in DT has always been the most volatile position in the group, though you pick winners every time. What's the story there and is Jordan beginning to sweat yet?

Portnoy: [Laughs]: It wasn't supposed to be...actually, for the first ten years of the band, it was the vocalist position that was always changing. I don't know, I think Kevin started the chain reaction. He left the band, that was his decision. Our first choice to replace him was Jordan, but he was unable to make the commitment at that point in his career. That's why we went with Derek. As the years went on, we still wanted Jordan. After John and I did two albums with him for Liquid Tension Experiment, we still felt that longing to work with him. He was the right guy all along. As soon as Kev left the band, we knew Jordan was the guy. When he became available, we put it all in place. It was just a strange chain of events that made it, as you say, a volatile position, but now, with Jordan in the band, it's very secure

Petrucci: [grinning]: Jordan has no reason to sweat [everyone laughs].

PSF: In view of this tour, and of King Crimson's slate in the past with Tool, do you see a better platform forming for trad prog-rock and prog-metal to continue meeting?

Petrucci: I think it's a great idea. As long as the original bands are still around...

Portnoy: I think it's not so much the line between prog-rock and prog-metal, it's the line between today's prog and yesterday's prog – not to put Yes and King Crimson on yesterday's list. I was talking with somebody about this the other day, and Dream Theater touring with Yes is very much the same as Tool touring with King Crimson. It's a matter of yesterday's generation and today's generation meeting up with one another. At these shows, we're seeing a lot of the younger generation that came up on Dream Theater. They weren't raised on Yes and King Crimson the way we were; they're growing up on Dream Theater and Tool.

Petrucci: That's correct.

Portnoy: So they're coming out and, as shocking as it may be, there are a lot of kids who don't know who Yes is.

PSF: [Laughs] I know!

Portnoy: It's incredible! And then, on the other hand, you have Yes's audience, which is older and maybe has no idea who Dream Theater is. As I said, it's just a matter of yesterday's prog and today's prog helping each other out, to make more people aware of the whole genre in general.

PSF: Is the Yes audience taking to you as avidly as the younger?

Petrucci: I think so, in general, but by the time we play our final song, I feel the entire audience is really with us. It very much looks that way. We've heard a lot of comments where someone from the audience will say "Listen, I never heard of your band before but this is really cool."

PSF: It's in the prog tradition...

Petrucci: Our sound is a lot heavier, so it's hard for some people to take it initially. I've noticed comments about people telling our fans to sit down and "Why is it so loud?"

PSF: [Laughs]: Twenty years ago, they would've been yelling for you to turn it up!

Petrucci: [chuckling]: Yeah, there's always going to be some kind of gap.

PSF: The Who, the Moody Blues, the Rolling Stones, and many prodigiously talented groups have made it to the 40-year mark. You guys have been around for 18 years now. Didn't Nostradamus predict a 100-year reign for Dream Theater?

Portnoy: / Petrucci: [Laughter]

Petrucci: I think so! Yes is still going, after all!

PSF: Do you see yourselves holding up and plowing through another decade or two?

Petrucci: I don't see why not.

PSF: It's better than changing tires at the garage, right?

Petrucci: The cool thing is that we all value this. We built this. You don't just tear down a building for no reason. It's solid, it's an enterprise, and there are people who believe in it with us.

PSF: Are you self-managed, or do you have an over-structure?

Petrucci: We have management.

PSF: That's what usually ends up screwing the good groups...

Portnoy: We've been through those years of being screwed: three or four different managers, lawyers, booking agents...but they've been lessons well-learned, and we've been very stable. Since Scenes for a Memory, the management, the label, everything behind the scenes – and in front – has been quite stable, for a good five to six years. It's working well.

PSF: Mike, twenty-one friggin' Modern Drummer awards! That must be some kind of record!

Portnoy: [Laughs]: Yeah, I fooled 'em all!

PSF: And ten years as Prog Drummer Numero Uno?

Portnoy: Ten years in a row in the progressive rock category. I think that's a record.

PSF: It's gotta be. You're up there with Bruford and Peart.

Portnoy: Those are two of my gods right there.

PSF: But you also have that "conversational drumming" side to you.

Portnoy: Well, I try to have the technical and polished side of a Neil Peart or Bill Bruford, but with the adrenalin and the bombast of a Keith Moon or a Lars Ulrich.

PSF: Rolling Stone magazine actually praised you guys, even though no one in the group wears cellophane pants, has a purple mohawk, or dates Elizabeth Taylor...

Portnoy: ...Um, Jordan may have dated Elizabeth Taylor. [all laugh]

Petrucci: [blue tint in his dark hair]: And I kinda have a purple mohawk! [laughter]

PSF: How has their critical viewpoint been, historically? They're not exactly famed for their embrasure of progressive musics.

Petrucci: [looking to Portnoy]: Have they ever even...

Portnoy: Yeah, the mainstream ignores us. The Rolling Stones, the SPINs, the Entertainment Weeklys, the MTV.coms, blah-blah-blah – I think the most publicity we ever got was when we put out an album on Sept. 11 with the New York skyline in flames...

PSF: Ouch!

Portnoy: Or when I had an imposter running around NYC. It's the things behind the scenes that get us more publicity than the music.

PSF: John, slotting in with Satriani and Vai isn't exactly a small honor. Very few guitarists can keep up with them and I see Fripp is set to tour again in G3 at the end of this year (2004).

Petrucci: Fripp, yeah...

PSF: He's absolutely amazing – my favorite guy – but what set the stage for your inclusion with them?

Petrucci: I got a call.

PSF: Just out of the blue?

Petrucci: Yeah. Actually, we were in the studio at the time and management called. Joe's manager called my manager...

PSF: My, my – how very industry! His people called your people called their people called...

Petrucci: [chuckling]: Yeah, it's weird like that. But it was a matter of, "Do you wanna do G3?" and we became really good friends in the process.

Portnoy: John's too shy to admit it, but he was at Steve's house today.

PSF: Oh?

Petrucci: Yeah, no big thing. But G3 was a good tour. Mike was there with me, played drums. It was an excellent collection of musicians: Billy Sheehan, Mike Keneally...

PSF: I covered CalProg and Keneally headlined there. His new compositional style is so bizarre.

Petrucci: Yeah.

PSF: It's between Beefheart and Varese [Petrucci and Portnoy laugh], and you're watching him switching on recorders and loop machines, attacking synths...and you're thinking, "What the fuck's going on here?"

Petrucci: Wacky guy.

PSF: Neal Morse played that day also. You guys have sat in with him...

Portnoy: I've worked with Neal for many, many years. Two Transatlantic albums and two tours together, subsequent live albums, videos. And I've worked on his last two solo albums – oh, and we also did Yellow Matter Custard together.

PSF: Huh?

Portnoy: Beatles tribute; you can get it from his site. It was fun.

PSF: He reminds me now of Kenny Rankin.

Portnoy: That's the only time Neal has done that; it's not his new direction.

PSF: Still, it was great, beautiful. He's very talented with that stuff.

Portnoy: Forget about the fact that I have a great musical relationship with him: I'm his biggest fan. He's one of my favorite songwriters in the history of music.

PSF: John, I'm told that you and Jordan started jazzin' out on a recent duet CD. Is this an upcoming Dream Theater wrinkle or just a side affinity?

Petrucci: It is indeed a side affinity. Jordan and I...well, what it really is, is just a peek into a very personal moment. We were writing little core progressions and improvising, the kind of thing we'd do backstage or if I went over to his house–

PSF: Spontaneously?

Petrucci: Yes. We knew we had to do the gig, so we'd written some music for it, but most of it was highly improvised. We have good chemistry together. It was done for a benefit, a one-time thing, and came off well.

PSF: Watching Dream Theater play is like running a marathon: exhilarating and exhausting.

Portnoy: [grins and grunts]

Petrucci: Feels like that to us too!

PSF: ...and now you're doing three-hour shows all over the world? That's quite unusual.

Portnoy: To take it a step further, the set lists change every single day, so we have to have, like, five to six hours worth of material at our fingertips at all times. And now, not only are we playing three to three-and-a-half hour shows, but, because the shows are rotating, we have to utilize soundtrack-ing to rehearse, so, yeah, it's an exhausting process for us.

PSF: Jesus! Grueling!

Portnoy: Our music is incredibly technical and there's a million notes. It's not like Phish, where they can do these space jams for an hour – and that's not a slag, I dig those guys – but the point is that there's a lot of notes and programming with our music.

PSF: Yeah, you guys are shredding most all the time. Why not get an orchestra and give Metallica a run for their money?

Petrucci: [grins]

Portnoy: I think that's definitely somewhere down the road...although, Jordan's a bit of an orchestra all by himself.

PSF: When people think of prog-metal, they inevitably come to Dream Theater. Does that ever surprise you?

Portnoy: It's a compliment, but we in no way invented the genre. Queensryche and Fates Warning were around before us, even Metallica incorporated elements. It's flattering that we're universally recognized as pioneers of the genre, but I think that may also be because we've gotten the most mainstream crossover success.

PSF: As I was getting ready for this interview, several people were dying to know if you're going to release a CD of your Iron Maiden covers.

Portnoy: Through Ytsejam records, all that stuff is either out or on its way.

PSF: I'll be one of the first in line to grab a copy.


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