Dream Theater (left to right): Mike Mangini, Petrucci, James LaBrie, Myung,
and Jordan Rudess. Photo by Michael Lavine
Like where they’re hearing the accents in, say, an asymmetrical
Yeah. Like, would you think of 9/8 as 6/8 then 3/8 or 3/8
then 6/8? It’s a total feel thing, but it’s sort of like, “Are we on the
same page, musically?”
Tell us about the writing sessions for the new album.
It reminded me of the early days, when it was just me sitting
in front of John and Jordan [Rudess, keyboards] and saying,
“I’ll play this part, you play this part, and we’ll record it.” A lot of
the early stuff was stuff I would first work on with John and Kevin
[Moore, original DT keyboardist] and then we would bring it to
the band. But once our  album, Images and Words
, took off
and went gold, we were just like this machine. We started touring
and writing and doing everything
So, in some ways, this was like we were back to the beginning.
It was a combination of writing as a group and not as a group. The
sessions were really mellow and laidback. We were all playing at
acoustic volumes, which made the dynamics of the communication
different. It felt less on the go and more meditative.
I had stuff that I worked on ahead of time—demos, songs,
and my riff library—but, ultimately, John, Jordan, and I went into
the studio and wrote together. As we were writing, we demoed it all. I
programmed the drums using Superior Drummer in Logic. After we
finished the songs, we sent them to Mike Mangini. About two-and-a-half
months later, when we came to record, he had templates of all the
songs—all the tempo maps and markers. It’s pretty incredible to watch
and record somebody like that. He came in and brought everything to
life. It’s a lesson for all professional musicians out there—not only about
being incredibly skilled and gifted, but also about being prepared.
How do you balance maintaining and/or furthering your prodigious
technique while working on the demanding live set and
committing it to memory?
Things go in stages. Right now, my focus is on the fact
that I know I have to tour, and the first show is September 24,
so I have to be able to play such and such songs. There’s a whole
process of learning them—isolating the guitars and going back and
learning what I played—then memorizing it and practicing the difficult
parts. It’s not the time to be searching out and practicing new
things: The focus is the short-term goal. Once I get comfortable
and I’m on the road, or when the tour cycle is done and I’m home,
then I can take a deep breath and start asking questions again, start
learning new things.
I’ll know what the set is going to be at least a month prior
to a tour. Then I put myself on a schedule where I at least run
through every song once a day, going through the set for two or
three hours. Some of the songs are really long, so it can take over
ten minutes to get through it once. Even if you’ve played it for
an hour, you’ve only gotten through it five times or so. Our set is
like two hours, and we’ll have a master set with extra songs in it,
so maybe there will be—from start to finish—like, three hours of
material to run through. Then, slowly it starts to come together.
Apart from just running through the set, I also have to get my hands
to do what I want them to do, which is a whole other thing where I just
warm up. I have a certain procedure that I do with my hands before I
feel totally dialed in. It’s two or three hours of subtle movements. And
it’s not anything that I learned from a book, it’s just playing.
Are you able to find time to do this every day?
It’s a part of my life now, so I need to do it. And before
every show I have
to do it.
You run through the whole two-hour routine before every show?
Yep. Absolutely. Usually, we’ll drive overnight on a bus,
check into a hotel, and soundcheck will be sometime after 4
o’clock, and then we’re usually on at 9. Between soundcheck and
the actual showtime—as soon as soundcheck is over—I disappear
and find a room, then immediately start my sequence. It really
has to be that way, because you can’t give it your all and feel good
about what you’re doing if your hands, if the physical side of things
isn’t ready. You have to condition yourself to be able to play the
way you want to play.