After much turbulence, Dream Theater (from left, Mike Mangini, John Myung, James LaBrie, Jordan Rudess and John Petrucci) are stronger than ever.
Were it judged merely on the strengths of their latest album, A Dramatic Turn Of Events, 2011 would be deemed an incredible year for Dream Theater.
But when you consider the fact that the progressive-rock giants faced an audience initially divided as to their new drummer, Mike Mangini - the majority of fans couldn't wait to see what he would do, while a loyal faction of Mike Portnoy supporters were skeptical - it makes the success of their latest studio offering (and the rapid acceptance of Mangini) all the more sweet.
Having just received their first-ever Grammy nomination for the song On The Backs Of Angels, DT guitarist John Petrucci, keyboardist Jordan Rudess and Mangini sat down for a year-end round of questions.
Noting your current album is called A Dramatic Turn Of Events, what dramatic historical event would you like to have witnessed?
John Petrucci: "Many of the events occurring recently that are shaping the world we live in have to do with uprising and breaking free from oppressive rule. Our own American Revolution must have been an incredible moment to have lived through."
Jordan Rudess: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was premiered on May 7, 1824 in the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, along with the Consecration of the House Overture and the first three parts of the Missa Solemnis. This was the composer's first on-stage appearance in twelve years; the hall was packed. I would certainly have wanted to witness that!"
Mike Mangini: "One dramatic historical event that I would have liked to witness was Jesus walking on water to the boat full of apostles. That ranks high on my list of 'jaw-dropping' events."
Can you talk about a song or musical moment on the new album that you feel brings you as a musician and/or the band to a new level?
Petrucci: "For me, including the song Beneath The Surface on the new album was something unique and special. It is a song that exposes a very personal subject matter in a song structure that is a bit different from what DT is known for. Taking those types of risks makes for a more interesting and compelling album."
Rudess: "I feel that the song Outcry really brings our band to the next level. Although it is surrounded by some very majestic thematic sections, the whole center section of the song is the wildest prog we have ever written. When we play it live, it is like this amazing ride that you strap yourself into and make a commitment to and when you finally reach the end, you feel like 'Wow, that was cool!'"
Mangini: "One musical moment on the new album I feel brings the band and me to a new level is the first riff section in On The Backs Of Angels. I had practiced hard to play this, so I got better from it. This section features a level of coordination that allows me to orchestrate the simultaneously - but different - parts played by the guys. The 'Johns' [Petrucci, guitar; Myung, bass] are playing in unison, and Jordan is playing a different part. I feel that by coloring it in rather than layering on another complex part, or too simple a drumbeat, is very different for DT."
If you were to record a duet with an artist outside the genre of music for which you're known, who would that be and what song would you cover?
Petrucci: "I would love to record a version of In Your Eyes with Peter Gabriel."
Rudess: "It would be cool to do a duet with Yo Yo Ma. Maybe an arrangement of Ruby Tuesday by The Rolling Stones - that would be beautiful."
Mangini: "If I recorded a duet with an artist outside of the progressive-rock genre, I would record a drum track with Violinist Itzhak Perlman. In this duet, I would orchestrate his violin part on the drums like it was a drum solo with associated musical notes."
The new album proves that you guys remain as uncompromising and fearless as ever: three of the nine songs clock in over 10 minutes. What do you feel these expansive song lengths enable the band to achieve musically?
Petrucci: "By breaking the boundaries of traditional song arrangements and time constraints, we are able to develop ideas more fully. The music is allowed to take some twists and turns, and take the listener on a more adventurous type of sonic journey. It also enables us to stretch out on record as soloists and to develop our lyrical concepts and musical themes more thoroughly."
Rudess: "As someone who grew up studying classical music, the idea of longer forms feels very natural. It takes a while to fully develop and explore musical themes and emotions. We love the idea of taking the listener on a journey or 'experience,' and the longer form definitely allows that. All told, though, we have nothing against a good, standard song format and enjoy working in that form as well."
Mangini: "The expansive song lengths we use in Dream Theater allow us to achieve a level of artistic completion with an idea. By being able to add sections in a song, or expand on them, we're able to explore music like it is a journey rather than to play a recurring theme over and over."
If you could have a conversation with any historical figure, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Petrucci: "Well, he may not be an historical figure exactly, but it would be amazing to sit down and talk with Walt Disney."
Rudess: "I'd like to hang with Jimi Hendrix, because to me, he was the epitome of cool. He had a flow and trippiness to his music that influenced me so much. It would have been cool to feel the energy of the human being in person!"
Mangini: "I would have a conversation with Pope John Paul 2nd out of any historical figure. I would ask him how to interpret the philosophies of Aquinas, Augustine and Marcus Aurelius, as well as his own with regard to the use of musical talent as it affects the human soul."
As musicians who tour the world regularly, we're sure you have had that classic night where it all goes wrong a la Spinal Tap. So can you describe your worst night on tour ever?
Petrucci: "Although there are many embarrassing moments that I would rather choose to forget, there probably isn't anything much worse than falling off the stage. It was a long time ago and very early on in our career. I literally walked right off the front of the stage and fell into the audience. You heard a loud 'clunk,' and it stung a bit, but I got up and continued the song. I promise you'll never see me do that again!"
Rudess: "The final night of our last tour, we were in Mexico City, Mexico. It was a huge show. The total Spinal Tap moment was when 20 minutes into the show, my hydraulic keyboard stand got stuck in the down angle position. I played the rest of the show - one hour and 40 minutes - on this very unusual angle, hoping that as each section went by I would be able to keep it all together.
"The whole band was looking at me, and knew that I was in trouble. Some were taking pictures and others just looked at me sadly. It was amazing but true that I managed to play all the keyboard parts fairly well, even in this predicament."
Mangini: "My worst night on tour can appear more than once in that it has to do with not enough warm-up time. This shows itself in the form of a song mess-up because I'm thinking about how to loosen up as quickly as possible. The level of mental and physical pressure I put on myself to play what is in my mind is greater than my body can accommodate if I am not warmed up enough.
"It is a rare night that I can just walk to the stage with no warm-up and play, but it isn't a random thing. I have to be feeling just the right combination of mental calm and physical looseness in order to do that."