Mark Maryanovich for PFA Media

Dream Theater: Still Rising to New Heights

With three plus decades under their belt, 1.5 million monthly listens on Spotify alone, and a new album out today, it’s clear that Dream Theater was not going to let a global pandemic fully stop them from doing what they love for both themselves and their fans.

It’s hard to believe that 35 years have passed since Berkley College of Music students John Petrucci (guitar), Mike Portnoy (drums), and John Myung (bass) formed Majesty. After filling out their lineup and preparing to release their debut, another band with the same moniker threatened legal action, so Portnoy’s father suggested they adopted the name of a Monterey, California venue and Dream Theater was born. Following a series of lineup changes (Portnoy exited in 2010 and replaced by the underrated Mike Mangini) and more than a dozen studio recordings, the band remain a musical conundrum. Unlike Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates, with each Dream Theater album you always know what you’re going to get. Therein lies the twist – while some artists lose their creative steam after more than three decades, Dream Theater are still the standard bearers for progressive hard rock with top-notch musicianship and fresh, creative songwriting.

Although the new A View From The Top of The World does not contain songs tailored for radio airplay – the first single and music video, “The Alien,” clocks in at over nine minutes – it fits comfortably among the band’s best work. Tracks such as “Invisible Monster,” “Sleeping Giant,” and “Transcending Time” are certain to join the band’s live repertoire. In addition to Petrucci’s peerless fretwork and Rudess’ stellar keyboards, drummer Mike Mangini is a musical tour de force throughout, hopefully silencing critics still griping about founding member Mike Portnoy’s departure more than a decade ago.

Dream Theater were supposed to be in the middle of a U.S. tour when the album debuted, with dates in New York and Pennsylvania. The current uptick in COVID-19 cases, however, delayed the trek until this winter and the workaholic guitarist is not happy. Not only does Petrucci hate disappointing the band’s fans, but he’s also been itching to play live ever since their last tour abruptly ended.

I was looking forward to seeing Dream Theater perform this month. Unfortunately, COVID-19 lingers.

The shows are delayed, not cancelled, and will happen this February and March. [Bassist] John Myung and I were against postponing the shows. We really wanted to do the tour, but we couldn’t convince the other guys that it would be safe, even if venues follow COVID protocols. I don’t like disappointing people. I’m ready to tour. I’m itching to tour. It’s been nearly two years.

Time flies.

Time does fly and bands are out there touring successfully. There have been bands who have had to cancel shows and there are those who have gotten sick, but there are other tours that have worked out fine.

Although Dream Theater were off the road, you never stopped working. You were a part of a new Liquid Tension Experiment record, LTE3, you released an instrumental solo record, Terminal Velocity, and you composed, recorded and produced music for Dream Theater’s A View From the Top of the World. Do you ever stop to breath?

The Dream Theater tour in support of Distance Over Time started in 2019 and we were planning to continue it through the Spring of 2020 when COVID shut us down. If we continued touring, I don’t know if all of these other things would have happened. Once I found myself with an indefinite amount of time [before touring again], it was the ideal situation to do things I haven’t been able to do for years.

The last solo album I released was more than 15 years ago [Suspended Animation]. During the last couple of years, I’ve thought to myself, “I really have to get this going,” and looked for little pockets of time in which to do it. I started to get serious about doing it during Dream Theater’s last tour. I thought I would get it at least started. Little did I know at that time I would get it started, finished and released?

A similar thing happened with Liquid Tension Experiment. [Peter Gabriel and King Crimson bassist Tony Levin, ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, keyboardist Jordan Rudess] and I had been talking about doing another album for years, but our schedules were never all open at the same time until COVID came around. The pandemic shutting down tours opened up everyone’s schedules. We were not scheduled to work on a new Dream Theater record, but we didn’t know how long it would be before we could tour again. It sounded unfathomable at the time, but here we are. We decided were not going to sit at home like retired guys, so we went into the studio and here we are a year later.

Dream Theater’s albums continue to grow stronger, too.

I don’t like failure. I dread the thought of fizzling out. I continually try to challenge myself both creatively and musically. I still love practicing and playing the guitar. I am also thankful for being able to do what I do, to have a career in music. Not everyone is able to do that, so I don’t take that lightly. The other guys in the band share that mindset. When we get together it’s always this big challenge to top what we’ve done before. It’s an opportunity for me to put my best foot forward musically and creatively, as both a writer and as a producer. I don’t want to take anything for granted. I don’t want to be lazy. It’s not in this band’s nature.

Everyone in the band is musically accomplished, even vocalist James Labrie. I wonder, especially during the last tour when Dream Theater performed both Metropolis Part Two: Scenes From a Memory and Distance Over Time in their entirety, if audiences were watching and listening for mistakes? As if the band’s members were race car drivers who could crash at any moment?

[Laughing] That’s funny. If you were to be a fly on the wall when the band is writing, jamming, or rehearsing for a tour, you would see that no one in the band is going to be “one upped” by anyone. If someone starts playing something, you immediately want to join in. If you can’t do it, you are not in the club. It is our collective mentality. We love to play; we love to challenge ourselves on our instruments and we are creative people. We hold ourselves to that high level during our live shows. We want each performance to be the best thing we can do. It is not always perfect and we’re not always perfect, but each night is an opportunity to do better. Thankfully, we have found each other and have this commonality. When you put all of those pieces on the same stage, it only makes the collective better.

Is The Dream Theater Headquarters (DTHQ), where the album was recorded, a subtle way of saying “home studio?”

No, but it’s conveniently close to where I live. It’s a facility we talked about building or acquiring for years. As a band, you’re an organization. There are certain things you have to be able to do: rehearse, record, store equipment, etc. And there are facilities for all of that stuff. We just thought it was time to have our own place, a centralized place. We can do everything there: record, rehearse, hang out, and even shoot darts if we want to.

It created a more relaxing situation for both recording and producing the record.

Producing is something else I love to do. I got into it when Dream Theater did the Metropolis Part Two: Scenes From a Memory record. Mike [Portnoy] and I decided to produce the band’s records. Then he left the band and I became the sole producer. I love the process and I love the challenging work involved. I also love that the guys trust me with it. Being in the DTHQ, we knew we could create an album that would be impressive on every level. It makes it more comfortable for me and gives me freedom. There are no restrictions on time or budget.

Speaking of time, A View From The Top of The World does not contain any three-minute songs.

[Laughing] No – especially not on this record. Like I’ve said, we weren’t scheduled to go into the studio, so when we got together, I said, “Well, what do you want to do?” I had some ideas and some preconceptions of the kind of album we could make, but we weren’t sure when it would come out. So our collective mentality was, “Let’s just see what happens.” We did not put any limitations on ourselves. I guess that’s why the songs are long.

Will Dream Theater be performing the entire album in concert?

We won’t perform the entire album… although we will do a lot from it. We’re excited to perform the new material.

Uncharacteristic for Dream Theater, the next tour will include an opening act.

We haven’t done that in a while. For a long time, we were touring with opening acts, before moving on to An Evening With Dream Theater format, which is fun. We just decided that since we’ve been doing that for a while, we should change it up and take another artist out on the road with us.

During the pandemic James, who resides in Canada, could not travel to the states and was forced to participate in the new album’s creation through Zoom.

For most albums, James is in the studio with us while we’re writing. Most time, the vocals are recorded in the studio with us. He did record his vocals for A Dramatic Turn of Events and Distance Over Time in Canada. This time around, I wanted to have him in the studio with me working on and recording his vocals as opposed to doing it remotely. The only vocal engineer we have worked with [remotely] in the past is Richard Chycki, because James and Rich have such a long history. Rich has also mixed and engineered Dream Theater records in the past. Having James work with Rich in a Canadian studio is the next best thing [to James physically recording with us], because you know it is going to come out great.

To me, the producer, having James in the same room with me, being able to flesh things out, is really the way to be. Fortunately, he was able to do that last March. But during the writing sessions, which started last October, he wasn’t able to come down from Canada because of COVID-19 restrictions. He recently built a recording studio in his house and we have a big screen television in our “live” room at DTHQ, so we Zoomed him in and he was there nice and big. He could hear us and we could hear him. In some ways, it was better for him. When you’re in a room with four musicians – playing bass, keyboards, drums, and guitar – all cranking away, it’s hard as a singer to get a word in. So it was great for him to be in his studio and make comments. It was certainly more comfortable for him.

After the record was written, having him physically in our studio to record vocals was invaluable. I am so happy how the vocals on this record came out.

In hard rock and heavy metal, vocals are usually the equivalent of male sex organs in porno movies: present out of necessity and no more. James Labrie, however, is an instrument unto himself, vital to the band’s sound.

It is so important, especially within the style that we play, because it is progressive music and the songs are longer. There is room to do things and to say things and explore stories. If Dream Theater were simply instrumental, we would not have the same impact as we do with James singing. As we are composing all of this crazy stuff – take the opening track, “The Alien,” which has a weird time signature and it is very technical – when vocals come in, it’s the glue. It brings it all together. You hear someone tell the story or express some kind of thought. The choruses and vocal melodies draw you in, make you want to listen to it. I don’t think a song like “Transcending Time” or the title track would be what they are without the vocals providing those moments where you get pulled into the track. The instrumental portions are cool and fun, there are opportunities as instrumentalists to solo, but in the end, it’s all setting up and built around what the vocals are going to be doing. The same goes for all of the music the members of Dream Theater were influenced by, whether it was Yes, Rush, or Genesis. The vocals always played a tremendous role.

Since keyboardist Jordan Rudess joined the band for the recording of Metropolis Part Two: Scenes From a Memory, the way the two of you play off of each has been mesmerizing.

That is something we love to do. From the moments I was really getting into the guitar as a teen and listening to Al Di Meola trade solos with Chick Corea or Yngwie J Malmsteen trade solos with Jens Johansson or Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith and Dave Murray hand off guitar solos to each other and then harmonize, it has been my mindset to have another player in the band to do that same thing. Yes, it is something Jordan and I have been doing since he joined the band, but it is in our DNA.

Each member of Dream Theater is a virtuoso musician at the top of his respective craft. Do you think that true musicianship is lacking these days?

Not at all. I actually think the bar has been lifted so high to where it’s expected. All you have to do is go on Instagram or YouTube to witness eight, nine, or 10-year-olds playing things that used to seem so difficult or impossible. It’s funny. We will write this music, have these crazy sections and be so proud and happy and say, “Oh, man. It’s going to blow people’s minds.” And a day later, there is an 11-year-old playing it. [Laughs] It’s almost expected that people can play at such a high level.

I look forward to seeing you on tour.

I look forward to getting back to playing live music. I was disappointed having to postpone the shows and I look forward to just being back on stage again.