From the outside, writing a Dream Theater (opens in new tab) record is a Herculean feat, a Homeric act of world-building, with the prog-metal stalwarts’ long-form compositions requiring a deep dive into the imagination.
Guitarist and producer John Petrucci has pulled the curtain back a little into the writing process, and he kind of makes it sound easy – describing the process more as, well, building with LEGO.
Appearing on The Vinyl Guide (opens in new tab) podcast, Petrucci was asked by host Nate Goyer what made a song a Dream Theater song, and if outside influences can be helpful with the process.
The Dream Theater guitarist revealed that, by this point in their career, with A View From The Top Of The World the band’s 15th album, it was their back catalogue was the biggest inspiration this time out, and anniversary tours for Images And Words (1992) and Metropolis Pt2: Scenes From A Memory (1999) helped set the mood for the album.
“We celebrated those two records by playing them in their entirety,” said Petrucci. “By doing that, and then going into the studio as we did last year, that stuff was fresh on our minds. We had reacquainted ourselves with writing from 20, 25 years ago, and how we did things, and I think we embraced that, and married and combined that with where we are now, and the things that we have learned on the last album which were really special and really cool.”
Petrucci said that he tried to avoid listening to other artists during the writing process, insisting that it was “dangerous”, and might seep into his work without him even realising. But Dream Theater’s history was something that the band’s “own internal mythology and lore” informs the songwriting.
“With the new album, it was an example of where taking inspiration from your own history worked out in I think a positive way. To me, the new album doesn’t mimic or imitate or sound like the albums that I mentioned, but there is a vibe, there is a spirit, and there’s something.
“A lot of reaction that I am getting from people is, ‘Even 15 albums in, this sounds like you guys are as fresh and passionate about this as ever. How do you do that?’ That’s a great, great, awesome compliment that someone can pay you.”
That said, Petrucci admitted, that back in 1999 when they were writing Metropolis Pt2: Scenes From A Memory, things were different; the band needed a reference point. Scenes From A Memory was their first full concept album and the band looked to The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime – both for inspiration, and to ensure the songwriting deserved the broader canvas.
“We used those records as inspiration, and reacquainted ourselves with what worked on those,” said Petrucci. “But, for the most part, I shut down most outside stuff.”
Petrucci has gone full-steam ahead in the past two years, releasing solo album Terminal Velocity in August 2020, and a new Liquid Tension Experiment album in April. Then came A View From The Top Of The World and a new eight-string signature guitar from Ernie Ball Music Man, the Majesty 8.
Speaking to MusicRadar (opens in new tab), he likened playing the eight-string guitar for the first time as “a piano with more keys” and would later debut the Majesty 8 (opens in new tab) on Dream Theater’s Awaken the Master.
“There are more options for bass notes, rather than approaching it from a stylistic standpoint. So I looked at it from more of a compositional aspect, from the mindset of having more choices to play a riff in this key and then extend the range down and go below where I’m normally able to go. And I had a lot of fun doing it!”
You can read the full MusicRadar interview here (opens in new tab). And listen to John Petrucci get nerdy about records and songwriting over at The Vinyl Guide (opens in new tab).