Interview: Dream Theater's John Petrucci, Jordan Rudess on the band's future

Cool, calm and collected: Dream Theater's John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess hang at Cove City Studios in Long Island, NY. © Joe Bosso

Inside a cozy lounge area at Long Island's Cove City Studios, Dream Theater's John Petrucci fixes himself a cup of coffee and then sits down on a soft leather couch. "I think the new album looks good for September," he says. "We don't have an official date yet, and we're kind of playing around with titles. But I'd definitely say September is the month we're shooting for."

The master guitarist heaves a contented sigh. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he exudes the sangfroid cool of a guy who's just weathered a fierce storm and has emerged unscathed. Which, in a way, is the truth: Last September, drummer and founding member Mike Portnoy threw the group for a loop when he up and quit, intent on drumming for heavy metallers Avenged Sevenfold and expressing a desire for an extended hiatus from Dream Theater, leaving the prog-rock titans, in Petrucci's words, "more than a little stunned."

It was a difficult time, to say the least, but with the recent announcement of Portnoy's replacement, Mike Mangini, who has played with Steve Vai, Extreme, Annihilator, and has, until just recently, served as a faculty member at Boston's prestigious Berklee College Of Music, things are looking up in the world of Dream Theater.

"I hear an interview is about to happen," says Jordan Rudess, who grabs a bottle of water and sits down beside Petrucci. The keyboard whiz, similarly dressed but sporting an Apple baseball cap, has been finishing his parts on the much-anticipated new record. He doesn't have long: in June, the band will convene in NYC to rehearse for four days before hitting the European summer circuit, which includes a headline slot at the High Voltage Festival on Sunday 24 July. "We're definitely looking forward to playing live this summer," says Rudess. "And we're really excited to show everybody what Mike Mangini is bringing to the band."

Pleased at the thought that their new album is almost in the can - to say nothing of the fact that Dream Theater is still together - Petrucci and Rudess settled down with MusicRadar for a candid discussion about trials, tribulations and triumphs.

All career bands face various hurdles. Was Mike Portnoy's exit the hardest thing you've had to deal with as a group?

John Petrucci: "Mike leaving Dream Theater has been the hardest thing we've had to face for quite a while. Other members have left, and those were trying times, as well. I remember when [keyboardist] Kevin Moore left [in 1994]. That was devastating. We didn't know we'd eventually get to Jordan. [Rudess laughs] But Kevin leaving was hard, too. I grew up with him and wrote music with him. But yes, of course, Mike leaving… it was big blow."

Jordan Rudess: "For me, personally, it was probably the biggest hardship I've had to face in this band. Obviously, I wasn't around for Kevin Moore or Charlie [Dominici, the band's singer, who left in 1989 and was replaced by James LaBrie], but Mike's departure, yeah, it was extremely hard. Even with the other things we've gone through - label changes, lawsuits, other kind of bullshit - other than Mike leaving, it's been a pretty smooth ride, at least in the 13 years since I've been in the band."

Of course, Mike wasn't just your drummer - he was a founding member, and he was involved in so many aspects of the group.

Petrucci: "That's Mike's personality. He puts his whole self into it and obsesses over things. He did the artwork and kept all the archives - that was just his way. He did a great job of keeping in touch with the fans and having his finger in so many different aspects of Dream Theater."

You've all been free to explore outside projects, but how did you initially feel about Mike's plan to play with Avenged Sevenfold? Did you think it might be too much time away from Dream Theater?

Rudess: "Mmmm. There were a lot of feelings in the band about Mike's plan. We had a lot of discussions about that. Various people had differing feelings, too. My first thought was, Wow, that seems like a great opportunity. He'll go out and play with Avenged Sevenfold, and that'll result in a lot of their fans coming back and checking out Dream Theater. So, at first, I didn't have a problem with it. [to Petrucci] You had a problem with it, though…"

Petrucci: "So it's 2/4, then it's 7/16, and then it's 3/4..." Rudess: "Yeah, duh, everybody knows that!" © Joe Bosso

Petrucci: "Yeah, I did. I remember he told me he was going to play on their album, which was OK by me. I thought, Oh, that's cool. But then he told me he was going to go on tour with them, and I remember telling him, 'I don't think that's such a good idea, Mike.' We had some pretty intense conversations about it.

"But you know, I can't control what Mike does or what anybody wants to do. Going on the Avenged tour was his decision, but I made it very clear how I felt about it. Doing projects, that's fine. We all do outside things. But playing in somebody else's band, and to that degree… that's different. I thought it was treading dangerous waters, for sure."

During the Iron Maiden tour you did last year, did you have any inkling that trouble was afoot?

Rudess: "No, not at all. Not a clue. If you would've asked me right before everything went down, 'How's everything in the band?' I would've said, "Everything's great. We're so solid, just smoothly riding along.' There was no sign of trouble. I think we were all shocked when we held this meeting and Mike dropped the news on us. We were all like, 'Whoa! That's a total surprise.'" [laughs]

When Mike told you of his plans, did you attempt to change his mind? Did you try to come to some sort of arrangement that would make him happy and keep the band together?

Petrucci: "The biggest thing we did was tell him, 'Don't do that, Mike. It's a mistake.' And we gave him all the reasons you could give to somebody that you're in a band with. See, he wanted to take a long break. He didn't want to leave at first; he wanted to take a five-year break from Dream Theater."

This might be a strange analogy, but it seems akin to a husband leaving his wonderful wife and wanting to run off with -

Petrucci: [laughs] "The younger girl. Right. And she might seem terrific at first, but hey, we told him, 'Mike, this might seem exciting right now, but you're going to wind up unhappy.' We did try to tell him that."

Rudess: "A band member wanting to take a bit of a break is one thing. People are entitled to a break. But Mike wanted to take five years off from Dream Theater. That was a major blow to us. Five years?! That's a big statement. I mean, this is what we do. We enjoy it, we make our livings from it… You can't just stop it cold like that."

Petrucci: "Basically, he was telling us, 'I'm having a good time with this other band. I want to be a part of it.' He didn't want to go right back into Dream Theater, the writing, recording, touring... He thought that we should go away, and then when we came back in five years everybody would welcome us bigger than ever."

Five years. That's a long time to be out of the public's eye.

Petrucci: "It's an eternity!" [laughs]

Dream Theater with 'the new guy,' Mike Mangini (pictured left)

Rudess: "He did try to sell us on it, though: 'We'll come back. Everybody will be thrilled. We'll sell tons of tickets and records…' Mike is great with the whole rock 'n' roll vision thing, but we just couldn't swallow that concept."

Petrucci: "Dream Theater is our empire. I like to use that word to describe us. [laughs] We made it, built it, it's what we do. Again, you just can't ask us to stop everything. I guess that was OK for him…"

Well, apparently, it wasn't. He went off with Avenged, but in December, when it became clear that he wasn't staying in that band, he came to you guys and asked if he could rejoin.

Rudess: "Yeah, that was a very challenging time. It was several months later, and what basically happened was… [pauses] You know, just to give you an idea of how deep this was to lose him, how difficult it was… after we got off the phone with him, when he told us what was going to happen, that he was leaving… I literally sat on the steps of my studio and cried. This is a guy who's a friend of mine, who we all love and admire. We didn't want to see it come crashing down. The whole thing brought me to tears.

"But we all realized that we had to find a way to keep going. This is our business. We enjoy it, we love it - how do we keep doing this? So we went into motion. Through us putting our heads together, we decided, OK, we've got to find another drummer. And that resulted in us finding these seven amazing drummers to check out. And that, too, was also very emotional: How do you bring a new guy into a situation where you've been with somebody else for so long? It was a very heavy thing."

Petrucci: "It was sort of like when somebody dies. After you're done crying, the planning kicks in: 'OK, we've gotta do this, we have to arrange the funeral and put everything in order.' Even though we were in shock and were filled with a lot of emotions, we knew we had to carry on."

But still, Mike asked to rejoin…

Rudess: "Yes, well, OK, so we put everything together. We got the drummers in, which everybody knows, and we filmed the audition process and put a lot of care into the documentary. So after that whole process, we found somebody who we thought was great - Mike Mangini. 'Oh my God, this guy is fantastic! This can work. We can do it.'"

Petrucci: "And something I should point out - Mike Mangini's life changed dramatically. He was a professor at Berklee, and he had to give notice that he was leaving. He's got a wife and two kids - the whole thing. So he came down and we started making a record. Everybody was supportive at the label. Things were feeling good. We had our feet on the ground again. And then Mike asked if he could get back in..." [He shakes his head]

It was too late.

Rudess: "Yeah. You know, Mike Mangini resigned from Berklee. You can't just tell him… We were in motion with him. We were invested in Mike Mangini and our future. Everything was going full steam. So Mike Portnoy came to us and asked to rejoin: 'Hey, guys I've reconsidered, I've made a… a mistake.' It was like, 'Oh my God, you can't do this to us. You can't pull the rug out from under us like this.' It was... [sighs] it was hard. Here we went through this whole drama, and we finally found this new guy who we were happy with. At a certain point, you just throw up your hands and go, 'This can't be happening!'" [laughs]

You've both been very candid about how heartbreaking Mike Portnoy's decision to leave was, but at any point did you feel angry or scorned?

Petrucci: "Sure. Those are normal reactions. You try to be levelheaded and philosophical about things. You know, change happens in all kinds of situations - things you'd never dream of. But there was a feeling of 'How could you do this to us?' That only lasts for so long, though. You can't dwell on the negative. Negativity breeds negativity. You have to accept things and realize that change happens for a reason."

Mike Mangini checking Sports Phone. No - he's just been told he's in Dream Theater!

Of the seven drummers who auditioned on the webisodes, were there others who you considered and maybe reached out to that you didn't actually try out?

Petrucci: "There were a couple, but I don't really want to mention their names. The list was quite small. It might have been nine or 10."

From the videos, it was pretty clear from the outset that you were all pretty happy with Mike Mangini. But Marco Minnemann looked almost equally close. And then there was Pete Wildoer, a last-minute wild card.

Rudess: "Yeah. You know, we spent a good amount of time with each guy, all seven of them. By the time each guy left the room, we had a pretty clear picture of what they were all about - how hard they could hit, how we would relate to each guy. We improvised with them, put together some musical challenges… It was a very long and involved process with each drummer."

But was everybody in the band immediately going "Mangini" and then "Marco"? What I'm getting at is, were you all unified at the same time, or did one guy have strong feelings about one drummer while the others felt differently?

Petrucci: "There was a lot of discussion. We talked about everybody and how we felt. Chemistry is so important. You know, you can have a lot of fun playing with somebody, but then you have to come back to the other matters. We're talking about bringing somebody into our band. We had to picture that guy back there behind the kit and visualize how we would look on that stage.

"And then we had to consider getting along with that person - having him on the bus, hanging out, eating dinner, writing music, recording music, taking pictures, doing interviews… all of those things that you do with another band member. Ultimately, we had to think of ourselves as fans and consider how they would feel with this guy in our band."

Rudess: "I look at it like we were casting a movie. We have the script, but is this guy the right actor to bring the character to life? Is he too tall? Does he say the lines with conviction? Does he have that magic? Many things go into a decision like that. We needed a mind-blowing drummer, but we also needed somebody who could fit the mold of what this position is all about.

"The thing about Mangini was, he really wanted this. His mind was so set on it. He put it out there, he said it on video, and he made it very clear to us in the room. We felt very confident quite quickly that this guy was super-serious and was going to do whatever it took to be part of this band. He wanted it fiercely. Plus, he came in and nailed everything so perfectly - amidst the scene of a crew and cameras and everybody standing around watching. The pressure was on, and he pulled it off."

Petrucci: "From the second he came in, he just blew us away. You know, playing with Mike was the first time we'd played with another drummer. The feeling we had from him… Plus, there were the other considerations: we're all East Coast guys, we went to Berklee… he's got kids… We felt like we knew him already. He was one of us."

And his name is Mike - you've got that part memorized already.

Petrucci: [laughs] "Yeah! But as a drummer, he was phenomenal. The guy was just a beast. One other thing: I love what he said on the video, which was very important. He said, 'This isn't a gig to me.' That really spoke to us."

Rudess: "We felt that. His perspective really mattered."

Petrucci and Rudess, after hearing MusicRadar's ideas for potential album titles. © Joe Bosso

How soon after choosing Mike did you start recording the new album?

Petrucci: "We waited a good chunk of time before we called him. It was kind of excruciating. We waited a few weeks, I think. I'd say we started recording in January. There was maybe a month or two between making the decision until we were in the studio."

Did you do any writing with Mike, or were the songs ready to go when you started recording?

Rudess: "Mike didn't write with us. Basically, we got in the studio and did our thing. We wrote songs and sent them to him. He came in and just nailed his parts. He's incredible. I'm finishing my keyboard parts right now, and I'll go to the computer to see how things are lining up, and I'm just speechless. The guy doesn't mess up!" [laughs]

Petrucci: "We had the demos, had them fully written out, and he learned them and added his own stuff. But every time he would do something, if I said, 'Hey, can you do that again?' he'd do it, and it would be perfect. The guy is… he's out of his mind! [laughs] People are not going to believe how great he is."

Rudess: "But what's really special about him is, he's not just a technician. Yes, he plays his parts perfectly, but he comes at everything as a total musician. Everything he does has real soul and a depth of feeling."

Not having Mike Portnoy in the recording and writing process, did that change the band dynamic in any ways you can pinpoint?

Petrucci: "It was a lot quieter. [laughs] Mike Mangini's playing style is different. He plays very hard, but he's got a very deep groove. He almost plays behind the beat just a little bit - even through he's right on the money. He's extremely locked in, but if he does do something technical, he's still right there."

Beyond the music, how do you think the band might operate differently? As we said, Mike Portnoy was so involved in other aspects: he wrote the setlists, he did artwork, he was very active with the website…

Rudess: "It's true that Mike Portnoy was involved in all of those aspects. He covered a lot of ground. He enjoyed it, and he felt very controlling when it came to certain things. OK, he's not here now, so we know there's certain things that we have to do. Which we can do. We're very capable people. The fact that we didn't do those things in the past was simply because Mike wanted to."

Through all that's happened, do you still have a relationship with Mike Portnoy? Do you speak? Are you friends?

Petrucci: "I'd like to think so. We're still working things out between us, but yeah… I hope so."

Petrucci warms up to our album title ideas. Rudess remains unconvinced. © Joe Bosso

So it's not contentious?

Petrucci: "No, it's not contentious, and we have no intention of it becoming so. There are details in any separation or divorce, things that have to be figured out… and we're working on them."

What are your concerns about the fans? I'd say that most people are behind you guys all the way. But, as you know, there are Mike Portnoy supporters who are still quite upset.

Petrucci: "Sure. I understand that. As a fan, I can relate. There will be those people who go, 'No! You can't do this.' But I've been a fan of bands where members have left, and I've still been a fan of both incarnations. I grew up listening to Yes, and they had different lineups. Change can be good.

"And we've been very fortunate to get so much positive support from our fans. I know this is a big thing to them, as well. But we're still here, we're more dedicated than ever, and we're not going to let anybody down. We've been doing this too long to stop. I feel as though our best work is still ahead of us."

Rudess: "I think that balance of fan support might have shifted recently, and I would say the videos had a lot to do with it. People got a chance to look inside our world and see what this has meant to us. They saw the amazing drummers we auditioned and how good we all feel with Mike Mangini. You know, Mike Portnoy was great, and Mike Mangini is great. We're fired up, and we're a very happy band once again. I think the fans, even those who might still be doubting us, will see that we're moving forward with nothing but the best of intentions. Like John said, we're not going to let people down."

Dream Theater headline London's High Voltage festival on Sunday 24 July. Buy tickets here.

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.