Interview: Dream Theater's John Petrucci

In 2002, I spoke exclusively to guitarist John Petrucci at the start of Dream Theater's Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence tour.

The new album seems to be split into two parts, what are the main themes behind the whole album? ​ Each song kind of has a purpose, as in a goal that we try to achieve, like the first song, Glass Prison was something where we wanted to write like a relentless, riffing, heavy song and I think I achieved that. There are a couple of songs where we wanted to get a little bit more experimental on the production end and kind of write a little bit psychedelic. As well as the music, you've always been very good at the production side haven't you? This album and Scenes From A Memory were produced by myself and Mike [Portnoy] so we're getting more into it as we go along, but Misunderstood and Disappear are approached a little bit differently recording wise and we get a little bit more trippy in the production. Then Blind Faith was something where we experimented a bit more instrumentally, with different kinds of guitars, I used a baritone, and John was using an eight string bass.

It's quite different isn't it, being able to use that skill and piece it into a song as well? Yeah, it's great and it has a different sound to the rest of the song. Then also personally we tried to write about something different and then I personally tried to write some things lyrically that would be different in things that were happening today. You bring up a lot of issues today in songs like Misunderstood where you are conjuring up different themes. Yeah, the song The Great Debate is about the stem cell research and cloning of humans and the morality versus the scientists and the religious versus the scientific angle, and the whole of Six Degrees is all about mental illness. That's the result of us wanting to write an epic song. In the past we've written certain songs that have been a little bit longer like Learning to Live and a Change of Seasons which is about 20 minutes or so. We wanted to do something like that, which ended up being incredibly long and being lots of different songs pieced together. That's something you seem to be particularly good at; writing epic songs? Going back before the albums Falling Into Infinity and Awake, looking at the Images and Words album and earlier, there seems to be a lot more individual songs. Songs that can sort of stand alone. Do you work more now on the themes throughout the albums? Do you pick a theme for an album beforehand or does that come in the studio while you are writing the songs? Sometimes it just sort of happens, Scenes From a Memory was purposely done that way because it's a concept album so the entire album is based on themes that are recurring. Then, as far as Six Degrees is concerned, the title track is definitely very thematic. It's in the vein of a classical piece, different movements and then the theme is repeated throughout the movements. One thing about Six Degrees is the whole classical influence as well, especially on the first track, Overture. It's very different from the neo-classical movement of the 80s though, where you get the guitarist just trying to play classical music very fast and just trying to repeat everything on one guitar. You've concentrated on the whole band bringing in the whole classical sound haven't you? Yes, I wanted to write a piece that sounded like we were instrumentalists inside of an orchestra, not that we were trying to mimic anything, like in the 80s, so it's not like we're playing like Bach or Pagannini or anything. There seems to be a lot of influences on the album - a lot a new influences as well. You've got the likes of Metallica and Pink Floyd on the first side of the album and then a Radiohead sound on Misunderstood as well, and then added to that classical and jazz. Does listening to such a broad range of old and new bands all contribute to how you write? It definitely does. That's been something that we've always done. We have certain influences that are our sort of foundation - they would be Yes, Rush, Metallica and Pink Floyd. On every record you can also hear the influences of music that's happening now and I think that blend is a way that we try to maintain the root sound of the band but at the same time move on and come up with something new.

The track, Disappear, has a very ghostly and relaxed feel to it. Where does that sound and the idea for the song come from? Well I would say that song was definitely the most Radiohead/Pink Floyd influenced, a kind of spacey song and I think that the emphasis on that is in the actual song - the chord structure, the singing and the way that is was produced. For example, when we recorded that we started off with just the acoustic guitar throughout the whole song and then we built everything on top of that and the drums were one of the last things that we'd got as opposed to everything else where the drums is the first thing we usually record, so I think the approach and recording it that way made it sound very trippy and spacey. So, going back to Metropolis Pt1 on Images and Words, did you plan to do a whole concept album for Part Two? Was that always in mind? I think it was always in mind to do a part two, but it was just left real open, just like whenever, and there certainly wasn't an idea to do a whole concept album. Where did the whole story come for the whole Metropolis theme and Scenes from a Memory? Metropolis was kind of an independent song that I wrote lyrically and when we decided to do part two, I came up with the theme of reincarnation and had to figure out of a way of how it linked lyrically with the first song. That was a little bit of a challenge but we basically had that seed when we went in to do the whole album, so we kind of knew what it was about. I did a lot of research, bought books, went to the library, listened to tapes all about hypnotism and reincarnation. You get outstanding reviews in all the guitar and music magazines but in this country there's not really much air-play on the radio. There are a lot of bands like that, such as Marillion and Pink Floyd who constantly bring out excellent albums. Does not having to worry about whether or not it'll be played on the radio or not, make it easier for you to record albums because you know you can go into a studio and do exactly what you want to do? Is it easier without the pressure of having to release a 'hit' single? Definitely, I think that we have all the freedom to just write the types of songs we want to do, it doesn't matter whether they're three minutes long or whatever and I think that's part of what keeps us unique and I think that people that are fans of the music like that side of us. One of the first that's noticeable when listening to your music is how technical and well produced the songs are. How difficult is it do get that sound on stage? It's funny that you should ask that! It's definitely very difficult because one of the great things about recording in the studio is that you can really pay attention to the separation of the instruments and then live, you have the amplifiers on stage and a lot of volume coming off the stage and then trying to put that into a PA is really difficult. So, I'm happy to say that for this tour, we've moved into the world of in-ear monitors where we don't have any monitors on stage and we don't have any amplifiers on stage so everything is isolated. In fact, the only thing that's coming off the stage is the drums, so if you turned off the PA and we were playing, all you would hear is Mike playing the drums, so that makes it a lot easier for the sound man to recreate the clear separation, so we'll tell tonight! We did a warm up show in New York and I had a lot of people say that it was the best they'd ever heard. So far you've produced a mini album, a concept album, loads of live albums. How far do you think you can go over the next few years? Have you got anything in mind as to what you want to do next? Any ideas for new albums? I don't know - one thing I do know is that we like to keep every album different and individual. A lot of my favourite bands over the past few years have done that. I think if you're a fan maybe you like certain records more than others but there's something that you like about all of them and I think that it's important to keep diversity. Looking at your guitar playing on its own, there seems to be more of a bluesy edge on some of the tracks, the likes of Goodnight Kiss. Have you been listening to other people recently, have you always enjoyed playing that way, or is it just the feel of the songs? I think the blues element to my playing is something that's developed over the years. I find that with most guitar players that it's something that takes time to develop unless that's all that you do. One of the good things is that before I had recorded the guitars to that track I had just come off the G3 tour in the states with Satriani and Steve Vai and it was just guitar all night long so I had a lot of that in my head when I was recording that track. A lot of your songs are very technical pieces. What's your song writing approach when you get into the studio, do you have an idea in you head and then play it to the band or do you all get round together and say right, this is what we want this song to be? Is it an individual approach or do you all start off with the same idea and then work at it that way? Primarily we'll talk about what we want a particular song to be. We'll say for example with Glass Prison, let's write something really intense and heavy and lets stay focused on that. For Six Degrees we'll say let's write an epic song, let's not have any rules, just go in and out of different moods, so we have sort of a plan as to what we're going to do. Sometimes I'll come in with parts already and say 'hey guys check this out' or Jordan will come in with something on the keyboard and say 'we can use this somewhere' but in general I think we keep an idea as to what the song is going to do, what its purpose is going to be. You've had a massive influence on guitarists over the years. Do you like the fact that people can now look to you and say, look at that, we can do that with music and guitars and like the fact that you're pushing music to 'the next stage?' ​ Yeah, I think it's really cool. That's always been a dream when I started playing. I'd looked up to all these bands that were influencing me so if I could be in that position, that's awesome.

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