Jordan Rudess: We can do whatever kind of music we want to do.
We had the opportunity to chat with an upbeat Jordan Rudess at the start of Dream Theater’s The Astonishing tour, talking about the band’s new album, the stage show, songwriting and more.
These must be exciting times for you! Following the release of your new album, the tour just got under way and you’ve already played the first two gigs in London – how did things go?
Yes – it was so exciting. As usual when a tour gets going and you have to play the first show after not being in front of an audience for a while there are nerves involved, plus the fact that The Astonishing as a show has been such a huge undertaking. It went very well, though, and we were all really happy with how it all came together. The crowd reaction was excellent as well. I think a lot of people were taken with the experience and had a powerfully positive reaction.
With the story and the characters being such an integral part of the new album, what can the fans expect in terms of stage show?
We had a great company from Montreal work called Lucion Média work with us on all the visual aspects of the show. Together with our lighting guy Steve Baird they put together a very beautiful stage set and it looks amazing. The story is really enhanced by everything on the screen as it brings the characters to life! It’s a much different experience then any of our other shows because of the way we are using the visuals to guide the story along.
The new album focuses a lot on the melodic side of the band and de-emphasizes the metal element, leaving a lot more space for you, particularly your piano playing. Was that a deliberate decision early on or did it just come naturally while you were writing the music to fit the story?
It was partly deliberate. We wanted the music of the band to be focused on organic “natural” instruments like piano and organ and orchestra. It works well within the story since there is this dynamic between man and machines which the tale revolves around.
At what point did you realize this would be a two-CD album? Was there ever a point where you stopped and said “this is too overwhelming, we should aim for one disc only”?
We realized early on that we wanted to just go for it and make a double CD and plan it so that it could be an event as well. John Petrucci’s story was so detailed that there was no way that we could limit the amount of music we were writing. It was very much like writing music for a musical or a rock opera at times.
With the first CD being filled to capacity, are there scenes from the original script that you wrote music for but that ultimately didn’t make the album?
If you come to the live show you will realize that there actually was more! It worked out so well because now the live experience has this added element of some bits that did not make it to the album!! Come join us and see and hear!
I know that you’re a fan of my friend Gerald Peter’s band Circle of Illusion, having featured them as “Artist of the Week” on your website. Their debut CD was a big prog rock opera not unlike your new album, so I was wondering – did that album in any way influence the creation of The Astonishing?
Gerald is a protégé of mine and he has a great talent. His COI didn’t influence this project though…
Musically, the album continues a trend away from long songs that started when Mike Mangini joined the band. I checked, the average Dream Theater song between Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and Black Clouds and Silver Linings was at least 9:30 long, with Black Clouds even reaching an average song length of 12:30. On the three Mangini albums you’ve cut that down to 8:30 with A Dramatic Turn of Events, 7:30 with the self-titled album and now only about 4 minutes with The Astonishing. Was it difficult for you to keep the songs this short and focused?
This album has shorter songs only because it’s trying to tell a story and we wrote as much music as we needed for each scene of that story. It’s not like Dream Theater will never write a really long song again. I mean, hell, we wrote Illumination Theory. And that wasn’t short. We are basically in a position where we can do whatever kind of music we want to do. We have a very amazing flexible fanbase and over so many years we built a very strong core and that’s what makes it all possible.
From your personal perspective, how has the songwriting process changed since Mike Mangini joined the band? Because I get the feeling that this album in its current form would have been quite different with the old lineup.
Well, this album had a completely different approach. I wrote all the music together with John Petrucci. We decided going into this that in order to write music that was very much focused on a story and more like a musical or a rock opera that the two of us had to go into a more quiet space and just compose, as opposed to a lot of people in a room and composing in that environment. But in a way it made a lot of sense because John Petrucci and I have written the music primarily ever since I joined this band.
Yeah, I read an interview where you mentioned being very happy to be listed as one of the two main composers behind the new album, unlike previous albums where the music was mostly credited to the full band. Did you feel you weren’t quite getting your due before?
There’s no doubt about that. People were very confused and listing all the names on the “Dream Theater” album of the whole band as being the composers was very misleading. The last 16 years John and I have been the main composers of this band. And this is not to take away anything really from Mike Portnoy, who was a major influence in the band. Mike wrote a lot of the words and often would write melody lines with John Petrucci for the songs. He would also also have a say in what was capped and what was not. Anyway, this is a tricky subject because I don’t want to take away anything from my respect for Mike Portnoy and his talent and ability.
How did writing music to tell a story change your approach as opposed to just writing music for the sake of it?
It was really a very cool process. It involved morning meetings with John Petrucci about where we were in the story and then we would compose. As he would talk about the story, my brain works in music and I would think of chords and melodies, so then we would get to work
Writing music based on a story was a new thing for Dream Theater. Before The Astonishing, it seems the music always came first with the lyrics being added later. Both approaches obviously come with very different advantages and risks. How do you think this experience will influence the band’s future songwriting?
The actual lyrics came after the music was written in the usual DT format, although of course the story was written first! So it’s business as usual in that sense!
Alright, but obviously the plot outline played a huge role in the way the songs were structured. While the exact words came later, the songs take many unexpected twists based on the story they were written to tell, in some cases never returning to a chorus the way a more usual song would do. Whereas with the more typical older DT songs it usually felt like the twists and turns were based on musical considerations first and foremost. Or am I on the wrong track here?
You are completely on the right track! The lyrics were written with the story as a real guide…
So it was a different approach to structuring the songs than before. Do you think it will have a lasting influence on future albums, especially the way you approach larger-scale compositions?
Every album we approach differently. We learn things each time we go through the process; so while there might be things we take away from this experience, I’m sure the next albums will have a different approach.
So what would you say you learned this time?
One of the things I learned a lot about is the sonic difference within a band context, between using virtual instruments and the “real” instruments such as the Steinway piano, the Hammond B3 organ and the live orchestra.
On to something different. Going by a recent interview I saw, apparently Mike Mangini’s lack of singing talent is the stuff of legend within the band…
Mike does an incredible Ethel Merman imitation and we all love it very much.
Haha! So I’ve long been wondering: Why did you never contribute backing vocals in Dream Theater? After all, before you joined the band, you put out a solo album called Listen that featured you singing lead on a few songs.
That’s a great question. Maybe because when I joined the group was very set in its ways and I never really pushed to do it and I was always very busy doing other things. But that doesn’t change the reality that I have a decent voice and I can keep really good pitch. Although my range is very low, so that’s one thing that would prevent me from being very proactive about wanting to do it.
Did this never come up when you realized Mangini wouldn’t be doing backing vox live?
Interesting. Continuing down that road… You’ve been a member of the band for about 17 years now, yet you’ve never contributed lyrics to even a single song. Why? Several of your solo albums had lyrics written by you before.
Probably for the same reason that I haven’t sung. Never pushed it, they were very established already before I joined the group and the guys write very good lyrics.
So in a way you’re still feeling a bit like “the new guy”, is that fair to say? Haha!
No, I wouldn’t say that. I would say that my role in the group is somewhat defined, although certainly with this new album is opening up a bit more since it allowed me to bring in other stylistic ideas that I haven’t before. The other part of this is I have an active solo career and if I feel like doing something else creatively, I always can. There’s also a lot of different kinds of music that I play that are not part of Dream Theater, so as much as think it is a big part of my life, it’s not the complete musical story of who Jordan Rudess is.
OK. Since you mentioned your solo works… When this Dream Theater tour is over, will there be a chance to see you performing music from your solo albums live in Europe?
Well, this Dream Theater tour is just beginning, so it’s hard to think about what’s going to happen after it. I will tell you though that before I left for this tour I almost completed all my tracks for a new album with Tony Levin and Marco Minnemann.
Cool! Any chance of that project playing live gigs in the future?
I guess it’s always possible, that would be a whole lotta work for me since I do a lot of different tracks on those albums.
Maybe you can get Gerald Peter to help out, haha!
Now you’re talking!
Last month, you were on a panel with artists like BT. What are some of the advancements in musical tech we can see from artists like you guys?
Well, you might know that I have my own software company that makes music applications and it’s called Wizdom Music. My latest creation is an iOS app called GeoShred that is based on physical modeling. It’s a partnership between me and some guys from Stanford University who have been working on physical modeling for a while. In my not so humble opinion it is perhaps one of the only musical instruments for the iPad. I don’t really like to call it an app because it goes way beyond that, it is a fully functional musical instrument.
Did you use that to create the NOMAC tracks, did I get that right?
No, for those electronic tracks I used a variety of different tools. I did play a very cool GeoShred lead on the album though after the guitar solo in the song A New Beginning. For the NOMACS music we used a combination of sound effects from various libraries and also some very cool virtual instruments that I have like the instruments from Heavyocity, Omnisphere 2 from Spectrasonics, Sugarbytes, etc
On the album these sounds are kept separate from the other songs. Do you see a way to integrate such electronic sounds in Dream Theater’s music in the future?
Well, the metal fans had a hard enough time with this album, let alone if I start putting all the electronics within the actual songs
Overall, how seriously does the band take fan feedback? Cause this definitely feels like a “we’ll do what we want” album, but earlier it did seem like each album was, to a certain degree, a reaction to the fan response to the previous one.
Well, we are not blind to what the fans think and we want them to have an enjoyable experience with our music. That said, the thing that keeps us sane, productive and creative is following our muse and being allowed to go in the creative directions that we as musicians want to go in. I also want to say that Dream Theater is a little bit like a brand. Not to make it sound cold, but we’ve developed a career over so many years making a certain kind of music that we have to be aware of where we come from and what’s been established. With The Astonishing it’s still certainly a Dream Theater album because it has so many of the elements that have made up our sound through the years, but it also takes it to another level because of what we’re trying to do, it’s a little different.
I know you’re always listening to a wide variety of music. So to wrap this interview up, name one somewhat recent release that you think everyone should hear!
Gerald Peter’s Circle of Illusion.