John Petrucci Interview February 2018 – DT•USA
This past February, Dream Theater USA had the pleasure of interviewing John Petrucci before the G3 show in Fort Lauderdale, FL. We talked about the G3 tour, Dream Theater’s recent signing with Inside Out, the Images, Words and Beyond tour, the new Dream Theater album, the fans’ response to the Astonishing, Guitar Universe 2.0, the Liquid Tension Experiment, and even squeezed in some gear talk.
How is the G3 tour going this time around?
It’s amazing! I mean I can’t say enough about all these guys, not only Joe and Phil, but all the people in their bands, the crew… It’s a really cool feeling of friendship and cooperation and everybody’s just so into the music and the playing. After the jam every night, we walk off the stage just smiling and talking about how great it was, so it’s been really cool.
Is it less pressure than touring with Dream Theater?
Yeah. It’s a different kind of gig. I mean in some ways it’s more pressure, because I’m only playing in a trio and there’s no vocalist and no keyboards. The guitar is taking on basically everything. In other ways, there’s less pressure because it’s not a big production, and the show is shorter. There’s not as much going on, it’s not like the history of all these different albums and everything. So it’s more of a liberating feeling as well. So it’s a little bit of both. It’s a balance.
Dream Theater recently signed a long term contract with Inside Out, which I think it’s the perfect fit since they have such a Prog roster. How do you see that impacting the band?
This is only the 4th label we’ve ever been signed to in our entire career. In fact, when we were signed to ATCO, for Images and Words, that was an eight album deal. It was the longest thing we ever signed and it went through all the way to the last album with them. Then, we went to Roadrunner of course. We haven’t experienced changing to a new label too often, but I will say there’s definitely a renewed sense of enthusiasm. You have new people that you’re working with, and you know they have a lot invested. They want to prove themselves and they want to look at this as an opportunity to take the band to another level. So they’re infused with all this great energy, enthusiasm and attitude, and I think that’s really going to help us. For us it’s a new relationship too, so we want to make sure everything goes smoothly.
Thomas Weber, who signed us, we’ve known him for a long time. He used to come see Dream Theater play back in the day. He’s always been into progressive music and he had this label going and it developed and developed. It’s funny because he would approach us every time “Oh man! I really want to sign you guys” and finally the time was right. The offer was great and everything kind of lined up, and here we are.
You just wrapped up the 25th Anniversary tour for Images and Words, how do you feel now that the tour is over, and how do you feel I&W holds up 25 years later?
Feels pretty cool, actually. I definitely discovered that it has a lot of meaning to a lot of people. For a lot of people that was probably the first album they got into. There are a lot of longtime fans that came out to those shows that said to us “we’ve been listening to you guys since 92”. At the same time, there’s a lot of younger fans that weren’t around back then, and maybe they got turned on to an album like Train of Thought or Systematic Chaos, or even one of the newer albums, and they never saw us really play that material. So they had this enthusiasm like “Oh man! I can’t wait to see you guys play
it”. So it was a sort of combination of old and new. It was a ton of fun. James kept telling these old stories, and it was nice reminiscing about those days.
How do you feel connecting and playing Images and Words will help influence the style of the new album?
It could help inspire it, from my perspective. Playing all of that music from that time period, not only Images, but a Change of Seasons, To Live Forever and all that, it kind of brought me back to 25 year old me, or even younger… what I was thinking, how I was writing the kinds of chords I was playing, how we interacted, and how we thought. I can see some of that carrying into the next album. I mean we are who we are now. We’re not the same band to some degree, certainly not all the same members, but it did spark a re-connection to something about that writing style that is really special.
It’s a very melodic style. I think in some ways maybe it’s not as complex as where we’ve gone lately. (At the time) we were influenced more by Maiden, Marillion, and stuff like that. We got more classically influenced and kind of more evolved and developed. If you listen to the writing style on the Astonishing, some of the chord progressions and movements are really sophisticated. So compared to something like a chord progression on Pull me Under, it’s simple in comparison, but there’s something about throwing those kinds of larger shapes at a song that make it enjoyable as well. So hopefully we can strike a balance, where we continue with the knowledge and experience that we have as far as our sound, in house developed, but we also remember some of the direction and simplicity, and nature, of how we wrote back in the early nineties. So it’ll be interesting. We’ll see what happens.
There’s been a lot of anticipation for the next DT album. What is the timeline for Dream Theater entering the studio and a new album being released?
We’re still talking about this, so I don’t want to give any solid information but it’s not going to be any sooner than January 2019. If you think about the timeline, I’m doing G3 until May. We still have to get into the studio itself to write and produce an entire album, deliver it, do the promotion. If you’ve backed that up, however many months it takes, and you are looking at the earliest, January, but I don’t even know. Obviously with the new label they’re very interested in making everything as great as it can be. So they’re going to want to have a plan with as much advance notice as possible. So as soon as we lock something in it’ll be public information. No need to keep it a secret or anything. We just don’t know right now.
Rumors have been swirling for a long time about you using an 8-string for the next album, what can you tell us about that possibility?
It’s kind of a question mark because me and Ernie Ball Music Man are talking about doing an eight string together, we are designing one. However, we don’t have one yet. There’s a lot on their table. So it’s a project that has started, and it’s a matter of if it’s ready in some form by the time I enter the studio to write. If I have one in my hands, I will use it. If for whatever reason it gets delayed or something, then it is what it is. So you know in a perfect world they’ll have a prototype, or something even better ready in time, and they’ll send it to me and I’ll start writing with it. That’d be fun.
You have JP Guitar Universe coming up in August, and you have some amazing talent lined up: Guthrie Govan, Tosin Abasi, Tony MacAlpine, Al Di Meola and many more. What can participants expect from version 2.0? Will there be any changes?
I really enjoyed how the first one came out. A lot of what we did, we’re going to continue. It’s at the same location which is in Long Island, at the Glen Cove Mansion, and which was perfect because the campers got to stay at the facility, and then all the events were in the same building. So that worked out great.
This time around we have 3 new instructors. A lot of (the previous instructors) came back, but Al Di Meola is new, which for me, when he said “yes” I wanted to hug him through the phone. He’s going to do a one day appearance only. He’s going to do a special masterclass that day and a concert at night. So that’s fantastic. Guthrie, I have not met, but from what I’ve seen him play on YouTube, I’m just blown away. The guy is just ridiculous. Amazing! I’ve heard nothing but great things. So that’ll be exciting. Also, my friend Jon Finn from Berklee, who’s been a professor there for a long time, and whose band toured with Dream Theater a long time ago, is coming. I loved his drummer so much that I stole him for Suspended Animation (Dave DiCenso). So Jon is going to bring a Berklee contingent to the camp as well.
What everybody enjoyed so much last time was that it was like a university summer program. There was so much instruction, so much information. We’re going to keep that. In addition, we’re going to have more involvement from the Ernie Ball family, which is great. Last time we did a barbecue and I was flipping burgers, and that was great, but this time, if all plans go as scheduled, Sterling, who is an award winning Pit Master, is going to barbecue for us, and then also do some speaking and playing. So we’re working all that as well.
One other thing, and campers will know more details as the time approaches, is that we’re going to try to make sure that everybody can see and get instruction for all the guests instructors. Last time it was kind of hit or miss, you had to choose with the schedule. So we’re going to try to break it up into groups so that people can do rotations.
What would you say to someone that feels intimidated about coming to Guitar Universe?
I would say that they have nothing to worry about because there’s no situation, no matter what level you’re at, where you are put on the spot or forced to play. It’s not like that. The camper community does get together and do these different jams, which is really great to see, but it’s all volunteer. You can play as much, or as little as you want. You don’t have to bring a guitar really, if you just want to absorb the knowledge, and be part of the whole scene. I understand it could be intimidating, being that there are so many great players, but instead of thinking “Oh I’m not good enough” just think “there’s so much for me to learn just by watching these people play, and talk, and teach that it outweighs that”
After some delay, The Astonishing Novel is finally out, what can readers expect from it?
It definitely took longer than expected. I read it and it’s fantastic! It makes me smile. Peter Orullian, who wrote it, had so many great conversations and brainstorming (sessions) with me. He made the story so much richer and deeper. It fills in all the blanks and it tells the backstory of the characters, and why they are the way they are. It has so much more action and battle scenes, and it’s really, really exciting to read. The artwork that was done for is fantastic. It was supposed to be ready before Christmas but that didn’t happen. This is all new to us.
I’ve always said that if I could go back and do this all over again, and we had all the time in the world, I would have done the book first. Do the book first, then do the tour, and then have the CD available at the shows.
That would have been amazing! I think a lot of people needed to hear the Astonishing live to connect with it…
That’s a good point because as a standalone piece of music it’s a lot to take in. If you’re not being absorbed by the story, you’re kind of like “well, why are they playing this? It doesn’t sound like Dream Theater” But, from the response that I got from people that came to the shows, and when we’d end the show and the credits were rolling, all I saw was smiles and hands in the air. So it would have been nice to release the book first. Have people leave (the show) saying “we gotta hear that again” and then pick up the CD… but we did it all backwards, because of the nature of the industry, and what you have to do.
We always get questions about Liquid Tension Experiment. The rest of Dream Theater has their own projects going on, is that inspiring you to get out and release more of your solo work?
You know, it’s not that I’m not inspired. It’s mostly because, and this will sound so lame and I say it all the time, it’s mostly because I don’t have the time, you know? For example, this part of the year where Dream Theater’s not on the road and we’re not in the studio, would have been the perfect time. But what am I doing? I’m touring. And then what do we do when I get back from this? We have to go into the studio… and what happens after that? We’ll start promotion. So it’s really been very difficult for me to squeeze it in.
Another thing is, I get so much satisfaction being in Dream Theater- playing this music, writing this music with the guys, being fortunate enough to say that they’ve let me produce it, and haven’t killed me yet. It’s so artistically and creatively satisfying. So as fun as the solo music is on an instrumental level, it’s not like it’s burning inside of me, like” I have to”. I get so much out of Dream Theater. At the same time, I do understand that a lot of people really enjoyed Suspended Animation and I have a whole bunch of new songs. It’d be great to get them recorded and done.
You actually do have some new songs?
Oh yeah. I have a ton of songs. I play the three of them tonight. Actually one of them isn’t mine, one’s more of an interpretation of the song.
You’ve reached a certain level of mastery on your craft, how do you continue challenging yourself musically and creatively?
I have?? What?! -Laughs. As far as guitar playing is concerned, the craft of guitar playing, it’s never ending. You know, it’s not like you wake up one day and say “Oh I can do everything” You can’t. Every day is a different challenge and it depends on what you’re doing. For me right now, I’m on tour with G3, so it’s all about performance. So every night I think “how can I play that better? What did I not execute great?” And just try to rise to that challenge every time you perform. You know some days you’re on, some days you’re not, but as a performer, you just constantly want to give your best, and try to play things as good as you can. If you mess it up one day, try to play better the next night. So it doesn’t stop, and it’s a common thread, if you talk to any guitar player, any musician, they say the same thing “let me review what happened last night so I can do this better”. I don’t think I’ve met one person that’s like “yeah I’m perfect, I don’t need to practice”
Do you still feel that connection to the audience while playing? Has it changed over the years?
First of all, I think the connection with the audience is really, really important, because that’s what this whole event is. People are coming to see you perform. It’s an interactive occasion. You’re not playing to a wall. You’re playing to real, live people who have paid a lot of money or sacrifice to get there. So I always try to take on this attitude that I have a responsibility to deliver the best I can do. When playing with Dream Theater I certainly try to look out, connect with people as much as possible. Having said that, the complexity of the music that we’re doing, the fact that we use in-ear monitors, it kind of closes us off to the audience, and we’re hearing a lot of things going on. Sometimes it’s easy to get in your own little bubble world. With G3 I’m not using in-ear monitors, I’m using traditional wedges and musicians earplugs, and in a lot of ways, I can hear the audience. It’s more ambient. It’s really liberating as a guitar player and I think it helps me connect more with the audience. Plus there’s no vocalist, so I can’t hide in my little world since I have more of a responsibility. Sometimes it’s hard depending on the venue and how far away you are where you can see, but it’s definitely important.
Do you still get nervous before a show?
Not generally. Sometimes at the start of a tour, I am a little anxious. If I do get a sense of nerves, I have things like just regular breathing and things to calm me down. I love to drink coffee but I found out recently that if I only have my morning coffee then I’m less likely to have any sense of heightened anxiety before I go on, which is nice because the goal is to walk onstage feeling calm, in control, and that everything that led up to that moment, your practicing and everything is going to come out the right way. Things like nerves or anxiety don’t help that at all. So yes the coffee thing is interesting.
You visited a lot of new interesting places with the Images, Words and Beyond tour
Yeah it was really cool. We went to Dubai for the first time, which you hear so much about, and that was really interesting. You know seeing how that part of the world has developed, and how much money is there, and what it’s turned into, it’s amazing. I mean it’s outstanding. Also, we played in India for the first time. You hear all these different stories about going there, and how it’s going to be, and we just had a wonderful time.
There’s always this really welcoming thing that happens, whether we are in Israel, Italy, or we are in Chicago, people embrace us being there. When you look out and you see people from all over, like in Dubai, it’s one of the most diverse audiences we’ve ever played to, and you see everybody getting into it, smiling and singing. It doesn’t matter what they’re wearing, what they look like, where they are from, it’s just like this large community of people that are there because they’re enjoying the music. As foreigners in those countries, it just makes us feel so welcomed, which I think is really special. I don’t think a lot of people get to experience that, and it’s really something we don’t take that for granted, you know? It’s really amazing.
T: Some gear questions now… what determines which guitar you’re going to play each night?
Well in general since the Majesty came out, since we developed that, I just fell in love with that instrument and I play it nonstop. Having said that, the other models that we came out with are also outstanding instruments, so I always want to give them some love as well.
For the Images tour, I was talking to Maddi one day and I thought for Images and Words we used to play an Ibanez guitar, basswood body with a Floyd rose on it. Maybe it would be good to play the JP-16, which is a basswood body with a Floyd rose? It had a similar sound and that was my reason for using it.
T: We saw you in Rochester and seems like you are constantly tweaking your sound throughout the show
Always. I’m annoying. Here’s an interesting thing about playing a concert using in-ear monitors versus not using them. So when using the in-ear monitors, depending on your mix, it basically sounds like a CD. It’s an unbelievable sound, but at the same time you hear everything right there. So as I’m playing, I’m just “too much bass”… I drive myself crazy. I’m the worst tweakaholic of all time. Playing with just wedges and earplugs, you don’t get the same sonic experience, so it doesn’t sound as hi-fi and everything, but in a lot of ways it’s more enjoyable because it’s old school just playing guitar, and so my head doesn’t go to that tweak space. So it’s a cure for tweaking.
T: Have you had a chance to play around with the AXE FX-III?
I have not played around with it yet. That’s my plan. Before we integrate into my rig which is the plan ultimately, we got to make sure that everything is going to transfer and work. I’m just going to have fun with it backstage and kind of play around with it. I’m really excited for those guys. It’s a great release and that they put a lot of work into that.
I saw some comments online and just to clarify, with the Axe FX, I just use the effects. As wonderful as the modeling is, I use it for the effects. My JP-2C, that’s my whole sound.
Even on this tour, just before I go on and Maddi just checks it, you hear the audience… it’s like a beast just got unleashed… it’s such an awesome amp.
T: Any new guitars you’re looking forward to?
I’ve been talking about this version of a Majesty for couple of years. I had this idea of a carbon black Majesty with a spalted maple top and cream binding, and cream pickups. They finally did it! I showed it to my wife, and I’m like what do you think? And she said “it’s like a steakhouse guitar” because it’s like so manly. So we call it the Steakhouse Majesty. It’s my dream guitar.
At NAMM, Music Man also unveiled some new colors for my guitars. The new JP6 one is FireMist Gold. They also did different BFR ones.
T: I like what Ernie Ball is doing with the quarterly releases, for those of that count down the days to NAMM
If you look at the series of my guitars since the Majesty came out, we did the original version, we did an Artisan series, we did a Precious Metal series, and now the Monarchy. I think that if the general series keeps changing too much, it puts too much out there and people can’t keep up with it. Right now we’re on the Monarchy series which is gorgeous, those will be around for a while, but in the meantime the BFRs will do some very special versions of those, and they just do those in limited quantities.
The thing about Ernie Ball Music Man is that every instrument they make they are like works of art. They’re so special. They’re so detailed and so beautiful. You can’t go wrong.
Interview by Victoria and Tim Martinez for DT USA , a chapter of DT World
Very special thanks to John Petrucci, Rikk Feulner, and Kim Sakariassen