DT USA Interview with Jordan Rudess
During the first leg of the Distance Over Time tour, DT USA had the pleasure of sitting down with Jordan Rudess to discuss a wide variety of topics, including his 20th year with Dream Theater, his latest solo album, Wired for Madness, and the inspiration behind it. What he finds hardest about the creative process, how streaming services can provide invaluable intel for bands, the band’s relationship with Inside Out Music, some gear talk, and of course, the 20th anniversary of Scenes From a Memory.
The first leg of the Distance Over Time Tour stopped in 30 N. American cities, and received much praise and acclaim. Not only was it a dynamic setlist including classics, rare songs, and some tracks from the new album, but it also featured Scenes from A Memory played in its entirety every night. This unique combination brought out many lifelong Dream Theater fans, and attracted some newer audiences as well. Dream Theater has now embarked on the second leg of the tour which will visit another 30 N. American cities before heading to South America in December, followed by a full European tour in January and February of 2020.
We started our conversation by asking Jordan how he felt about the tour, and what we can expect in future legs
It really has been great. The combination of doing this new album, which has been so successful around the world, plus doing all of Scenes from a Memory is like an award-winning combination. People are just excited, and they’re coming out. Shows are basically selling out everywhere and it’s been a really great time for the band. The energy is very strong.
We are going to cover a lot of ground with this album, and we’ll play some other things as we go. It’s exciting!
Being the 20th anniversary of Scenes From a Memory? Does this tour cycle hold special meaning for you?
Yes, absolutely. It’s a very exciting tour because the energy around the band is so great, and it’s my 20 year anniversary with the band. Although it’s more like 21… I joined in 98 and then the album came out.
It’s so amazing to have that 20-year mark, and have it be such a great time for the band. It’s pretty incredible in the span of this long band career. Well first of all, (it’s amazing) to have this long of a career, and to be vital, but to have it arching up like this, is really cool. It’s a testimony to a lot of things: like the hard work that the band puts into the music we make, the fans and the support we get from them, the management and the staff that we have, everything just comes together. It’s like a perfect storm in a very positive way. It’s so exciting.
Has it been challenging to go back and play Scenes from a Memory in its entirety? Was there any special preparation needed?
A funny story…. For me, in my world, it’s very much about the data- what keyboard did I play, what program did I use, and where is that data? One part of it is the notes, and the notes are easy because I have charts, but the bigger part for me is all of the different sounds that I used.
I knew I played Scenes on a Kurzweil keyboard, and then I researched by asking the Dream Theater experts: “When was the last time we played anything from Scenes?” I don’t remember these things- he says laughing. I was gathering information because I needed to find that data and I didn’t want to have to reprogram everything from scratch.
I finally figured out where to look, and I got the energy together to start the search because I knew it was going to be a commitment. So I walk in the studio, I go over to my Oasys keyboard, which is where I think that I have all of Scenes. I turn it on, and I hear this terrible sound like “chunk, ka-chunk, chunk” and it didn’t start up… The drive was broken! I am thinking “Oh my gosh this is really, really bad”
That must have been daunting at that point, while trying to prepare for the tour…
It would have really taken me, in some cases, two days to program each song, maybe more. Some of them are so involved with so many sounds, and I would’ve wanted to nail them. When I first did (Scenes), I was in touch with what I had done and created the right sounds. I didn’t want to remake the sounds, I wanted the original sounds.
So I got on the phone with a friend of mine, Rich, who is an expert in these things, and to make a long story short, while I’m on the phone with him, I was noodling around on my Kronos, which is my current keyboard looking through those drives, and just kind of freaking out about it, when all of the sudden I hit a button that took me to another partition of the drive, and I see “Oasys backups”. There was a procedure that you had to do from the Oasys to the Kronos to get everything to remap. So I thought “ok well at least I’ll get the names (of the sounds), if I do it this way.
I loaded in the sounds, and sure enough, it worked! It brought in all the sounds, and I said to my friend “Oh my Gosh, it works! It’s not supposed to work!”
Did you find out how you were able to recover everything?
My friend thought that Korg had updated the operating system to allow a smoother conversion. Sometimes you just get lucky!
Once I was able to find the sounds, what was really fun at that point is that with a little more time, I was able to tweak the sounds and make them even better. Now, I know more; how to allow things to be EQ’d and placed in the mix, especially live, so things can be heard, and can really shine and be effective. So I did a lot of little touch ups of the sounds, in some cases fixing some things that I thought “well this can really be better”. It’s 2019, and things can be improved and be more glorious, or even more effective, while still maintaining what people need to hear.
Did you have to make any other technical changes for this setlist?
For “A Nightmare to Remember” I originally used a Continuum, now I’m using a Continuum mini. The designer of the Continuum figured out how to make a smaller one, and it’s really cool, it has all the built- in sounds. I was able to put it on my Kronos, it’s small enough that it sits there, so I use it for some of those parts. I also use my own app, GeoShred for some of the other stuff, like there’s a continuum lead in A Nightmare to Remember and I play that on Geo Shred because it’s cool and slidy, it does the trick.
Let’s change gears and talk about the music industry. With all the changes in music and record sales, how do bands measure success now?
Between looking at the album charts and also looking at the number of streams on various platforms you can monitor success pretty well. What’s amazing is that even Spotify, one of those companies that are notorious for paying the artists very little, their applications are really great. You are able to see what’s going on with your streams. Like I can see how many people were streaming different songs, and it tells me the exact number. Which country has the most, and it lists them in order. It’s really a lot of information which is pretty cool. The record company was very excited the other day because we had reached like 20 million streams for the new album.
Distance Over Time was released with a new record label. How is the band feeling with Inside Out Music?
Well they’re incredible! There’s not that many great record companies out there these days, but Inside Out is really one of them. We work with Thomas Waber, who is like the head of our particular project, and he’s been into Dream Theater since the very beginning. So it’s been a dream of his I think to work with Dream Theater, so finally he was in a position, and we were in a position to make it happen. So it’s been great because he’s been so supportive, and the company has been behind him. It’s probably the best record deal situation that we’ve had in a while.
They’re into creating really beautiful physical merchandise like these box sets, the different colored vinyl. They really do everything they can to engage the customers that would want that kind of stuff.
The company that’s doing my solo album, Mascot Label Group, is another really great record company. They’re wonderful. It’s just so amazing.
Let’s talk about your latest solo album, Wired for Madness, which was released in March of this year. The album is fantastic. We loved the diversity of styles in it, it really goes everywhere.
You listened to it and you are still talking to me? He says laughing. The first time I played Wired for Madness for my wife, I made a mistake. I played her one of the really progressive songs, in the car while we were driving home, and she said “I don’t get this…” and my heart sank.
Since then she’s listened to it and she really likes it, but I realized that you don’t want someone to listen to it in a noisy space or with distractions. It deserves, and needs, the kind of attention to really go for the ride and enjoy the sonics, and all of the stuff that’s happening.
It’s asking a lot of the listener, and those pieces aren’t for the faint of heart. They are more for people who really want to experience some cool music and some cool sounds, and are able to take that interesting journey.
Even when Danielle had heard it properly and liked it, she was like “you can’t release an album of just that. You have to release some things that are easier to understand and digest” and I was like “What do you mean? I can release an album of total craziness if I want to, I think it’s cool”.
Of course she was right! I realized I better write some songs, like regular songs. So I did, and it balanced out the album pretty well… including writing a Blues song.
So a lot of people are surprised to hear that you did the vocals on this album, even though you’ve sung before. Have you always wanted to sing?
Well I mean I sang on my first solo album, Listen, so many years ago. It’s just something that I do. Although I’m really glad I’m not the singer of the band. What a hard job. I don’t know how people do that.
James is so religious about taking care of himself. He’s so methodical about everything that he does. You know to even approach singing stuff from so many years ago, it’s mind boggling. It’s incredible the way he takes care of himself to be able to take on this amazing task, and he’s been singing really well on this tour too, so great. Just commendable.
We heard that there’s a book in the works for Wired for Madness. Can you tell us about that, and also about the inspiration behind the story on the album?
So first of all, our friend Peter Orullian, who actually wrote the book for the Astonishing,was excited about this concept and wanted to write something. It’s a novella- a shorter kind of book. He’s taking my concept, and expanding on it and writing a real book about it which is really cool.
The inspiration for the story came when I first started to work on Wired for Madness Part 1. I saw a window of time that I could actually dive down this rabbit hole, if you will, of creating a solo album, because you know doing this kind of album is so intensive.
Not just the music part but the part that happens after it. All the production, all the text that has to happen, the mixing, mastering, the guests, and the marketing. It’s bigger than just the music really. Although the music part was huge too.
I don’t need to have a concept, or lyrics, or vocals, to get into something but I think there’s a lot of people who could really use those tools to be able to immerse themselves in something. Having those things makes it a bigger experience, and I think it makes it more possible for more people to enjoy it. So I was thinking I should have a story around this.
So I started to talk to one of my very best friends, who is into these kind of things, and we sort of bounced around some concepts, and we started talking about the kind of piece that I’m writing and the musical journey. So the story is about this character, a guy who decides that his mental and physical abilities are starting to diminish and he wants to take advantage of a future kind of operation, or procedure, to become partly robotic. In doing so and undergoing that, he goes through all these changes, and a lot of them are negative because he thinks it’s just going to improve the quality of his life, but meanwhile this major kind of intervention creates a situation where the human is like inside of this shell that’s dealing with everything. So the whole thing can be thought of as a spiritual adventure of what happens to a person when they are taken care of, and they’re almost like left alone, he is diminishing but somehow everything is being handled.
At the end of the whole piece, James comes in singing and that’s kind of wrapping it up to the point where you either think that the guy is dying and moving on to the next dimension, or he’s having a major spiritual awakening, it’s kind of like the energy of it. I was going for like a ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ vibe. That kind of a feeling musically and conceptually.
I’m so happy that he decided to do it because he was perfect and even though I enjoy singing various parts that I write, I wanted that to be more like a real vocal thing, like only he can do.
How did James’ collaboration come about?
I asked him if he would do it and he said he would. So that worked out perfectly! And then of course, the wonderful female vocalist from the group Iamthemorning, Marjana Semkina, played the part of the angel. She has such a lovely voice and was able to play that part beautifully.
What was the hardest part of the creative process?
I always find that the hardest part about doing any kind of project, whatever it is, is getting started. It’s kind of like “I know I did it before but can I do it again?” It’s always that question in your mind… Can you produce it again? Can you do it again? I don’t know why that is. I think a lot of creators feel that at the beginning of something. You listen to something the older you get (and think) “that’s pretty good, but how the hell did I do that?”
So I was in that mode. What am I going to do? I don’t know if I can do this again, but I walked in and I started to do it, and getting started IS the hardest part. So every day I’d come in and I’d record like a minute of music, or thirty seconds, or two minutes or whatever it was, and as I was getting into it, I realized this is not a song. I’m not writing like a simple song, I’m writing something that is ongoing.
You always experiment with a multitude of instruments, and you actually ended up beating JP to the 8-string guitar. We want to know how that came about
I was at NAMM and we were showing my GeoShred app at the convention, and this guy comes up to me and says “Jordan I want to show you my guitars, I’m right around the corner”. So I went over to his booth and I saw these beautiful guitars, and he was like “I know you play the guitar, maybe I can make one for you?”
He was just really nice, and totally into Dream Theater. I’m thinking this guy says he wants to make me a guitar? Those guitars are beautiful! That’s pretty cool! So I hadn’t played guitar in a while. He’s letting me try different things. He asks what kind of guitar I’d like, and I said “Well, I don’t know… an 8 string would be cool.” So he said well, here’s one that I’ve made, you can try that. So I was trying it out, and of course I couldn’t really play it because I hadn’t practiced even with a six string guitar, but I thought “hey, I can play 88 keys, I can play eight strings”.
So next thing I know he says “I’m coming to New York to hand deliver it to you”. Lovely guy. His name is Przemek Druzkowski, and he delivered the guitar very proudly, and it’s so beautiful.
Then I had to figure out how to play it- he says laughing. So the first thing I figured out is that I could tune the lowest string to an E so I could do these extended bar chords. So when I play a bar chord it was like “whoa! it’s incredibly deep”. That was a good start. I got it up and running pretty quickly, made a little video about it, played it on some some of the title tracks and put some rhythm guitar parts down.
Then I realized that it wasn’t feeling great to my hand. So I was about to go on a piano tour, the Bach to Rock tour, and I felt this weird thing right under my left thumb. I thought you know, I shouldn’t have gone from no guitar to an 8-string. It’s a big neck and I’m pressing too hard with my thumb and I’m not a player. With my general knowledge of music, and having played years ago, yeah I could play it… to a certain point, but muscle wise, I was trying to get it together too quickly. So I put my beautiful guitar down for a while. I went on this wonderful worldwide piano tour and now I’m kind of ready to play it again. Luckily that feeling went away. That freaked me out. I guess in my normal life as a pianist, I take pretty good care of my hands and I don’t really feel stuff like that.
I went to Juilliard and I learned to play (piano) properly. With the guitar, what do I know? I’m just picking it up and moving my hand any which way. So I took a little break. I was lucky enough to be able to play it on the album and to show the world this beautiful guitar.
Now Przemek and I are working on a carbon fiber one, super light. So the wizard model will be incredibly light, and it’s really beautiful too.
You’ve done so many things in music: different styles, different instruments, signature instruments. Is there something musically that you haven’t gotten to do that you would like to do next?
I’m so interested in new technology and new methods of expression. I’ve got my own ideas about how to control sound, and I’m still kind of working on it. I’ve got a really cool new app I’m working on that’s kind of like Morphwiz, which was 10 years ago, but the next generation. I’m interested in things like VR, AR and AI. So there’s always something interesting.
One of the things that keeps me bubbling with excitement is that I work as an Artist-in-residence at Stanford University. I just had my second term working with them and they are incredibly high-level audio people, they work a lot with spatial audio, they got amazing people that are doing VR, and these incredible rooms with 56 speakers and all kinds of cool stuff, and very interesting people to talk to. I don’t have all the time in the world to do that, to explore those kinds of things but when I do there are pathways which are so interesting to me.
So you’ve done Keyfest for four years now. For anyone wanting to participate in the future, do they need to have a certain level of expertise, or mastery?
So the way we set up Keyfest it’s open to anybody. You can be a beginner and just come to see us and have a good time. It’s about hanging out with other keyboard players. It’s about listening to the people who I invite to some concerts, and jamming, as you want to, basically. It’s at Sweetwater Sound which is an incredible candy store for musicians. It’s just such a great place. So yeah it’s totally wide open. We have kind of an understanding and compassion for whoever wants to come and enjoy the time with us.
You have been a source of inspiration for many keyboardists out there. Are there any young players you keep your eye on, and see what they are up to?
There’s definitely a lot of young guys that I kind of help out and enjoy their playing. People like Gerald Peter from Vienna, a really talented player. Also the person you guys know from the Dream Theater world, Eren Basbug from Turkey, who conducted for us, and is also really into keyboard playing and is figuring out his career. I’m also friends with the wonderful Italian keyboardist Marco Parisi, who is a great keyboard player, and I kind of follow his path. Also, Diego from Haken, such a lovely guy and a great talented player.
To wrap up the interview let’s finish with a couple of fun questions. We know you don’t have a lot of time for it, but is there any TV show, or series that you’re really into?
I generally don’t watch TV. Although my wife told me about ‘Mozart in the Jungle’ which I’ve been watching and I’ve been enjoying that show. It’s good for me to have a show to watch when I’m touring.
If the band rotated instruments for one night, and you had to play guitar, which song would be the most fun for you to play?
One of the really heavy rock ones! Like ‘As I am’ or something like that. Although I don’t think I could play that lead.
Tell us one thing we may not know about you, can be anything at all
One thing you do not know about me? Well I just decided to go down this path of learning how to work After Effects and Premiere, and video editing. Like motion graphics stuff. Well people do know that I’m into graphics but they don’t know that I’m really serious about it.
Also, a lot of people who haven’t heard the whole (Wired for Madness) album yet, don’t know that I am also really into the Blues. My record company just added me to a Blues playlist on Spotify, which I thought was really fun. It’s their own because they have a lot of Blues artists on their label. So I’m in this blues playlist. I think it’s really funny. Maybe my next album is gonna be all blues…
Interview by Victoria and Tim Martinez for DT USA , a chapter of DT World
Very special thanks to Jordan Rudess, Rikk Feulner, and Kim Sakariassen.
Photo credit: Joel Barrios, Norrsken Photography.
Photo credit: Joel Barrios, Norrsken Photography.