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?
John Petrucci: 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.
John Myung: 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 your lawyers.
Petrucci: 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?
Petrucci: 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?
Petrucci: 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.
Myung: 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.
Petrucci: 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.
Petrucci: 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.
Myung: 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.