Dream Theater bassist John Myung
(left) and guitarist John Petrucci.
Photo by Michael Lavine
A little over a year ago, just as the members of prog-metal
giant Dream Theater were contemplating the
logistics of their next album, the unexpected—no,
the unthinkable—happened. Drummer Mike Portnoy, a
founding member and the band’s spokesperson and leader
since its inception at Berklee College of Music in 1985,
quit. Portnoy had toured with Avenged Sevenfold in the
spring of 2010 after the band’s drummer, Jimmy “the Rev”
Sullivan—who idolized the Dream Theater drummer—passed away unexpectedly. Miscommunication and dissatisfaction
must’ve abounded in both bands, because Portnoy
apparently thought he had a chance of becoming a full-time
member of the younger, more commercially successful AX7,
but guitarists Zacky Vengeance and Synyster Gates claim
they hired Portnoy primarily to honor their deceased bandmate.
By the time Portnoy realized the direness of the situation,
Dream Theater had moved on.
Shortly after Portnoy gave his notice, seven of
the world’s top drummers—Mike Mangini, Marco
Minnemann, Virgil Donati, Aquiles Priester, Thomas Lang,
Peter Wildoer, and Derek Roddy—were invited to New
York City to audition for the vacant slot. To make the
already nerve-racking auditions even more terrifying, the
band filmed the three-day process for a documentary-style
reality show called The Spirit Carries On
. The grueling
audition consisted of three parts: Phase one covered songs,
phase two entailed jamming (presumably in odd meters
that aren’t even in the same universe as the 12-bar blues!),
and phase three dealt with riffs. In the end, Berklee College
of Music professor Mike Mangini got the gig.
On September 13, 2011, Dream Theater released A
Dramatic Turn of Events
, which was produced by guitarist
John Petrucci. We caught up with Petrucci and bassist
John Myung to broach the touchy subject of Mike Portnoy,
get more details about the audition process and the new
album, and talk gear.
First, let’s discuss the question on everyone’s minds: Were
there signs Mike Portnoy had been thinking of leaving
prior to his announcement?
No. It came out of the blue. We said everything
we could to try to convince him that it was a mistake,
but ultimately it was something he had to do.
In hindsight though, you could kind of connect
the dots. When you look back, you can pick up on
vibes and stuff. But it wasn’t like you thought it was actually
going to happen.
I’ve read that Portnoy says when he later reached out to
you guys to try to reconcile, he only heard back from
By that point, we had reconstructed our infrastructure
and moved on in a major way. We filmed the movie, had
the studio time booked, and chose Mike Mangini who then
left his tenured professorship at Berklee. And then Mike came
to us and said, “Hey, I want to come back.” We were like
“Really? Are you kidding me—after all that?”
Have you guys talked?
It’s ongoing. When you’re a band that’s been together for
this long, there are a lot of business things involved. It’s very similar
to a divorce; you have to work out all of the details.
Let’s talk about the drummer auditions. What songs did you
choose and why?
Well first of all, we didn’t want to overwhelm everybody
and have them learn an hour’s worth of music or anything like that.
We wanted to make sure we had a varied array of songs that make
up our style.
And the different elements that we incorporate into
our live shows. We also wanted to get a sense of how they would
approach the different songs.
We chose “The Dance of Eternity” for its real technical
and progressive aspect. Then we chose “A Nightmare to
Remember,” because it’s important to have a drummer that
can kick hard, play double bass, and do all of that great stuff.
“Nightmare” not only has that but it also has more sensitive groove
moments. And then we chose “The Spirit Carries On,” which is
moodier and simpler, and all about the feel and the flow. That was
a good balance. If a drummer can play all of those songs with us
and have them feel comfortable, then we’re on the right track.
When you watch the auditions, you can hear that some of the
drummers added their own twist to the songs—and you can tell
that didn’t go over so well.
I think for any musician joining an established band,
the first focus should be on making it sound like the band. If you
come in and take a completely different approach and change the
style up and start doing your own fills, it might be something cool
technically and musically, but it’s ultimately not going to leave a
really good first impression. We’re looking for a new drummer and
we have a discography of many, many songs plus a worldwide fan
base. It’s not only us as band members, but it’s also our fans who
are going to want to hear the songs played and have it sound like
Dream Theater. The audition environment is not really the place to
try and change things up and reinvent our sound.
We were looking for more of a classical interpretation. It
was more like, “Let’s run through these songs and see how great and
natural they feel,” rather than looking for the improvisational side of it.
You can have two people play the same part and it feels different. Every
drummer has their own way of interpreting and phrasing things. The
one thing unique about every musician is how they interpret the subdivisions.
How they group the notes and cluster the subdivisions.