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 phrase?

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.

Myung: 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 [1992] album, Images and Words, took off and went gold, we were just like this machine. We started touring and writing and doing everything together.

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.

Petrucci: 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?

Petrucci: 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.

Myung: 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?

Myung: 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?

Myung: 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.