John Petrucci: The Prog Whisperer
GW Can you point to specific parts on that record that reveal the distinct personalities of each band member?
PETRUCCI Yes. In as much as we all found each other and we love the same stuff, each guy does have his own angle on things. Jordan is an incredibly talented, classically trained pianist. He went to Julliard when he was nine years old, but he is also really into psychedelic, progressive music and is constantly turning me onto all kinds of bands that I’ve never heard of. John and I are very similar in that we grew up in the same town and share the influences of Iron Maiden and Rush. We come from more of a similar background than any of the other guys. Mike is like a music library. He knows so much about the history of music, including the widest variety of musical styles and bands, including a great many new bands, many of which he brings along on the Progressive Nation tours [Dream Theater’s progressive-rock package tour, which debuted in 2008]. I think the combination of all of our different spirits and influences is what makes this band unique. It wouldn’t be the same if any of us were not there.
But I can point to examples of each guy’s distinct personality. Toward the end of “The Count of Tuscany,” there is a unison “odd time-signature” section between the guitar and keyboards that is a “Jordan” section. He also contributes some of the more classically driven chord progressions in that song. The verse sections that are very much based on guitar riffs are more indicative of my personality, but then the song breaks into the chromatic-like chord inversions that are more keyboard based.
GW At 3:25 into “The Count of Tuscany,” the guitar, bass and drums play syncopated accents over which Jordan plays a very unusual and angular melody.
PETRUCCI That section is a really good example of the combination of our personalities, because Jordan wrote that line he’s playing, but you would never hear that type of thing orchestrated in this way in the music of [Seventies British progressive rock band] Gentle Giant, for example. That’s an example of Mike and I creating a backdrop to the melodic theme Jordan had devised.
GW You guys incorporate some very complex meter and shifts in meter. How do you work that stuff out? Is it written down or do you hammer it out as you go along?
PETRUCCI We’ll usually analyze what’s going on in terms of the meter shifts, and we’ll write out some cryptic music notation for us all to follow. Jordan tends to write out everything note for note, but we’ll write the meter changes out on a big board so we can all see it together, and then it’s a matter of hashing it out. Mike is brilliant at taking something and interpreting it in so many different ways. We’ll play the same riff over and over, but he can make it sound like nine different riffs with his drum patterns.
GW A good example of that is in “A Nightmare to Remember,” at the 12:40 point, where he plays what feels like a twisted 12/8 over the 4/4 guitar riff.
PETRUCCI Something like that takes a lot of time to work out. That has become a signature of our sound, where there’s a “circular” type of riff that is interpreted in different rhythmic syncopations. We’ll try an endless amount of drumming/feel permutations. It’s like a math project: “What if I play in 9/8 and you guys play in 4/4, and it comes together when it comes together?” And it takes a lot of time to decide which version, or versions, we are going to use. Sometimes we use all of the versions, and that’s why the songs end up being 20 minutes long. And this is the fun of writing progressive music—you can do whatever you want to do.
If an idea totally sucks, everyone knows right away, but if a certain idea is valid but the discussion is whether it’s appropriate, we’ll let it live for a little while and have a lot of discussion about it. The policy is that we’ll never shoot anything down before trying it, and sometimes when you do that, the person that was the most against a certain idea all of a sudden sees the light.
GW After the crushing orchestral opening theme, ominous verse section, meter shifts through 5/4 and 6/8, and dream-like acoustic interlude, we eventually arrive at a very pop-like, highly accessible chorus.
PETRUCCI We’ve been talking about influences growing up, and one of the biggest ones for our band is finding that great big melodic hook that pulls a song together—the “ultimate” chorus. We always try to infuse our music with that, no matter how dark or crazy a piece might be. On “The Dark Eternal Night,” from Systematic Chaos, the chorus is a huge hook that opens up the whole song. As writers, that is a satisfying element that we are always looking to add to our music.
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