Interview with John Petrucci from Dream Theater: Dramatic Changes

Dream Theater have made a career out of capturing the imaginations of musicians for over 25 years. The band’s unflinching devotion to virtuosity and writing behemoth progressive metal albums continues to inspire passion for intricate music in new generations of fans.

Never was that passion more evident than last September when founding member and drummer Mike Portnoy left Dream Theater after the band rejected his pleas to go on hiatus. Fans responded with a hurricane of criticism towards both parties. But, as universally worshipped guitar hero John Petrucci explains below, the band (which then consisted of founding bassist John Myung, singer James LaBrie and keyboardist Jordan Rudess) was resolved to find a new drummer and continue on to write another album.

After auditioning seven of the world’s finest drummer, the band hired Mike Mangini, who not only boasts some of the most frightening chops of any drummer in the world but has also played with the likes of Steve Vai, Extreme and Annihilator. Then they proceeded (sans Mangini) to write their next album.

The result is A Dramatic Turn Of Events, the band’s 12th album and strongest work since 2003’s Train Of Thought or 2002’s Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence. It’s everything fans love about classic Dream Theater and it showcases the best of their heavy and melodic sides without getting too sappy or trying too hard to impress the thrashers in the crowd.

Whereas on the past two albums the band seemed to be trying to appeal to new audiences, A Dramatic Turn Of Events is a gift to diehard Dream Theater fans; it’s massive in scope, meditative in tone, it demands repeat listens, it showcases each instrument and has a color and production unique from its 11 predecessors. With the whole world watching, Dream Theater delivered.

Congratulations on the new album, John. How was the writing of this album different from previous ones?

Thank you very much! You know, the environment was a bit different in that, obviously, Mike [Portnoy] wasn’t there. He’d been in the band since the beginning, and that was the biggest difference. And not only that, but there was no drummer there and we wrote the record without a drummer.

It was an interesting process and environment and something that felt really comfortable and really conducive to being creative. We had a very focused idea of what kind of album we wanted to make and it was just a great environment to make that happen.

Did you typically write music with Mike Portnoy before he left the band? Or did you do most of that with John Myung or Jordan Rudess?

Well, it depends. Like, sometimes I’d write stuff myself and just demo it and bring it in, and I did that on this album as well. Other times Jordan and I would just get together and work out ideas or sometimes John [Myung] and I—early on in our career John and I—we grew up together—so that’s how we’d write music; just the two of us in a basement or bedroom or whatever.

As time went on, probably from [Scenes From A Memory, 1999] forward, we started doing more writing in the studio together. The whole band would be in the studio together.

You’d write out of jam sessions?

Yeah, we’d do a lot of jamming and things would kind of spark from that.

It’s good to have a balance. When you write by yourself or when you write with just one other person—guitar, keyboards or guitar, bass—you’re able to really hone in on the core elements of music: Harmony, chord progressions and melody and stuff like that, and you can really get it exactly where you want. Sometimes when you write in a band environment and you’re jamming, things go by a little quickly and it certainly sparks really great ideas and stuff, but you still need that time to kind of craft it.

Why was Mike Mangini not included in the writing of the new record?

I decided to do it this way because I wanted to make sure that we were able to focus on Dream Theater’s core compositional elements and sounds without a new person coming in. Whatever that Mike might have brought to the table, I thought it was too early to kind of bring in somebody that we didn’t really know at all, as far as their compositional abilities.

I’ve been writing this music forever and just felt comfortable in that kind of environment. When you can focus on just guitar, keyboards, bass and our singer is there, it’s just a more intimate environment and you’re not trying to integrate somebody else and feel them out. I just kind of wanted to eliminate that whole process. I mean, it could have been great, but I was more comfortable doing it this way for this album at least.

So after touring with Mike, that will be an easier transition?

Exactly. At this point he’s been in the band for a year, we’ve already done a tour with him, we’re gonna have completed another full world tour, we have a chance to jam with him during sound checks and sit with him—we’ll know him way better. I think it’ll make more sense to bring him into that process for sure.

When did you notify him that he was in the band? November 2010?

Actually we were trying to figure out the date the other day. I think it was earlier than that.

But needless to say, you kept it a secret until April.

Yes, which was very difficult (laughs).

How did you manage that?

Well, we did our best and we just kept our mouths shut and didn’t say anything. Nobody said anything to anybody. That was the biggest thing. It was really difficult to do; we wanted to let people know way sooner, we were dying to let people know, but no one said anything to anybody. The end result I think was good because people got to find out who the drummer was through the audition videos, which I thought was a really cool way to do it.

Yeah, those were beautifully done.

Thank you, thank you very much.

Did you tell your families that Mike Mangini was in the band?

Yeah, we did, but the funny thing was that I didn’t tell everybody. I told some people in my family but not all of them. The funny thing is that Mike Mangini didn’t tell his parents, which I thought was hysterical. He’s like, “No, I’m not telling anybody!”

I’m like, “You can tell your mother and your father! It’s okay” (laughs).

But he’s like, “I don’t want to take any chances!” So yeah, it was really hard to keep that a secret, trust me.

Did you feel at all like you were leading a double life?

Yeah, right? Yeah, you just have to avoid the question. Some people would say—some of my close friends would go, “Oh, Mangini would be great!” and he was already in the band. So I’d have to do my poker face, “Yeah, sure” (laughs).

How is your relationship with Mike Portnoy now?

I haven’t spoken with him in quite a while now. We’ve known each other forever. We were in the band for over 25 years. But yeah, I haven’t spoken to Mike in quite some time now.

He initially took and has continued to take what seems like the brunt of the criticism for leaving the band. Do you think that was fair to him?

I think that people can be pretty mean. It’s not good to read, as far as negativity. People from all walks of life make changes and for whatever reason leave jobs. Whatever it is in their life they have to do, they have to make decisions. That’s what happens. I know that people were very upset by that and I can totally understand that, but the world can definitely be a little hard on people.

As far as the music on the new record, was there anything that influenced this album that was absent from past albums?

Going into it and writing it, we had made a conscious decision to really focus in again on the core compositional elements: What are the things that we really want to explore and focus on on this album? I knew that I wanted it to be a broad album, that we wanted to give everybody the band an opportunity to shine, whether that’s in an arrangement way or an orchestration way. I knew and hoped that it would be mixed by Andy Wallace, which it was. I wanted the presentation sonically to be epic and grand and high-fi and all that stuff. Those were some of the goals. We really wanted to infuse the elements of progressive music that we grew up with and make sure that it was a melodic album and rich in the lyrical message. Those were all the things that were on our mind, that we talked about the whole time.

So were you inspired by work that you had previously done in Dream Theater?

I think that we’re always inspired by—we always kinda look back and kind of assess what we’ve done: What do we like about moments in our history and what don’t we like? What are the things that we want to continue to explore and keep a part of our sound and what are the things that we don’t necessarily want to be a part of our sound. It’s like that in any successful situation that you’re in; you always have to go back and assess and ask questions and always think in a way that’s moving forward, but that’s using your experience and lessons from that past to make things even better.

The section immediately before the vocals in “Lost, Not Forgotten” is 30 seconds of the craziest music Dream Theater has ever composed.

(Laughs) Yeah, it’s pretty crazy.

How do you approach writing something like that?

Well, my first thought is exactly what you said: I want to write something insane, so that’s my goal. I’m gonna write something that’s gonna turn out to be really wacky, that’s gonna throw people. So that’s what I have in my mind the whole time. And it’s a matter of a combination of techniques and twists and turns and speed and things to get it that way, and then building upon that: Adding keyboard harmonies to make it even wackier, and then Mangini coming in and catching all the rhythms that we’re doing, turning beats around to make it even more confusing, writing a bass line that’s outlining harmonies somehow. All those elements brought together.

With any musical section of our songs, you have to have a focus while you’re doing it. If the goal is that you want to write something that is beautiful and uplifting, you have to keep that in your mind the whole time. In this case, I wanted to write something wacky and crazy and that was the mindset.

You’re so revered as a guitarist, how are you challenged nowadays?

You know, the guitar is like a beast that you’re constantly trying to tame. You’re constantly trying to get better at your craft and writing is certainly a great vehicle to explore new things that you haven’t done before, especially when you’re writing with such great musicians, and you’re able to push yourself to new levels.

Playing live is another experience that pushes that because then you have the opportunity night after night to try and perform as good as you can so you have to practice a lot and take things apart and focus on little elements. It’s all a big challenge [and] that is the fun of being a musician and trying to get better.


Dream Theater will play Mayo Center For The Performing Arts in Morristown, NJ, on Oct. 11, Beacon Theatre in NYC on Oct. 12 and Merriam Theatre in Philly on Oct. 16. For more info, go to