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Where the Metal Meets the Road

After 22 years together, Dream Theater is still virtuosic, dark, and heavy, and going strong

 
  From the left: James LaBrie, John Petrucci '86, Jordan Rudess, John Myung '86, and Mike Portnoy '86 of Dream Theater

Drummer Mike Portnoy '86 sits on a tour bus that's parked in front of Boston's Orpheum Theater. Tonight's concert is one of the few remaining in this year's G3 tour that features a set by Portnoy, guitarist John Petrucci '86, and bassist Dave LaRue. "I won't get to cool it after this tour ends," Portnoy tells me. "I haven't had any cool-it time for 10 years. Even when I'm home, I'm working for Dream Theater; overseeing DVDs, artwork layout, merchandise for the tour; and picking the opening bands. Playing the G3 tour was easy. Someone else had to worry about all of the details; I just had to play one 45-minute set each night."

After a few days at home, Portnoy and Petrucci-along with Dream Theater's bassist John Myung '86, vocalist James LaBrie, and keyboardist Jordan Rudess-shot a video for their new album, Systematic Chaos; did some intensive rehearsals; and then launched into an extensive tour that opened in Europe.

In 1985, Dream Theater began as Majesty after longtime bandmates Petrucci and Myung arrived at Berklee in search of a drummer who was into progressive rock and metal. They heard Portnoy in a practice room and soon began jamming together. The trio would become the core of one of rock's most virtuosic and heavy bands. After leaving Berklee, the group added a vocalist and keyboard player and changed its name to Dream Theater. Current vocalist LaBrie is the band's third singer and the best fit. His agile voice snarls on the metal tune "The Dark Eternal Night" and then soars sweet and high on the power ballad "The Ministry of Lost Souls" (both from Systematic Chaos). The fleet-fingered Rudess, who joined in 1999 and replaced Berklee alumnus Derek Sherinian '84, is the band's third keyboard player (for more on Sherinian, see "Prepared to Handle Anything," page 13).

 
Halcyon days in Berklee's room E19. From the left, Myung, Portnoy, and Petrucci as the power trio Majesty, a predecessor to Dream Theater.  

The group has enjoyed unusual international success by attracting extremely loyal fans who think nothing of traveling to different countries to see the band. With little help from the mainstream rock media, the group's catalog has sold more than 7 million units. The band had minor success with the song "Pull Me Under" from its 1992 album Images and Words. The song and accompanying video received airtime on radio and MTV and expanded Dream Theater's audience. It also prompted the group's record label to demand a radio-friendly follow-up CD and that the group abandon its thick-textured, odd-time, 12-minute tunes, which feature Dream Theater's signature thundering drum and bass grooves and rapid-fire synchronized keyboard and guitar lines. An artistic struggle with the label ensued that came very close to tearing the band apart.

But Dream Theater emerged from the internal conflict more committed than ever to standing by its progressive rock and metal roots rather than chasing radio success. The choice paid off. After 22 years, the band continues to deliver songs with thoughtful lyrics that showcase instrumental virtuosity of the highest order, gaining the admiration of a huge number of fans worldwide.


The core group that became Dream Theater formed at Berklee. Tell me about your Berklee experience overall.

Mike Portnoy: The most important thing that I got out of Berklee was running into John Petrucci and John Myung. The three of us came together within weeks of starting school in 1985. I'll always cherish my experiences there. It was an incredibly inspiring environment to be in. For me, it went way beyond the drums. My focus was on ear training, music theory, and arranging. I was like a sponge trying to take it all in. There were so many great musicians around. I think I learned almost as much from the students as I did from the teachers.

John Petrucci: I had some influential classes. Learning about jazz harmony and chords worked its way into my writing. Just being in that environment with so many different types of musicians made it easy to get turned on to different kinds of music. It was a dream come true to be so immersed in music, and it made me want to be immersed in it my whole life.

John Myung: I spent some time studying with [former Berklee bass teacher] Ed Friedland, who was great and got me listening to funk players. [Professor] Joe Santerre was great as well. He helped me look at chordal playing on the bass. I remember being there surrounded by musicians. It was good to get turned on to other styles of music that I might not have gotten into otherwise.

Did you have solid technique when you came to Berklee, or did you develop that later?

J.P.: I had a pretty strong foundation in technique and improvisation when I arrived. It's more developed now. I was listening to Steve Morse and Al Di Meola, and I really wanted to be able to play well. I used the metronome religiously. I was self-taught, so I had to catch up in music theory at Berklee. When I took my placement test, I was in the lowest level, but I learned quickly.

M.P.: I was listening to Rush, Yes, Genesis, and Frank Zappa in high school and had learned a lot about odd times. So when I got to Berklee, I think my drumming style was pretty established, but I did a lot of polishing and perfecting there.

The attention the band received from radio and MTV for the song "Pull Me Under" might have lured some to seek more commercial success. But you followed it with music that wasn't really in vogue in the 1990s, when alternative rock was big and audiences seemed indifferent to virtuosity.

M.P.: I think the key to our longevity is that we were never fashionable. Bands that jump on a particular style or trend will be history when that fad ends. We were just musicians who concentrated on playing our instruments and writing music with integrity. We ignored what was fashionable. That makes short-term success very difficult, because you won't get a lot of mainstream exposure. The long-term benefits, though, are evident in our career. We've always been ourselves, and our fans appreciate that. Our main audience is made up of musicians who really want to play their instruments and be the best they can be. I think that audience will always exist.

J.P.: "Pull Me Under" was a commercially successful track that helped us get to a point where we could do more touring and develop a larger following. But that song is not what defines us. We make our presence known by traveling all over the world. People want to come out and see multiple shows. Our fans relate to the nature and intensity of the music. They feel we have musical integrity and that we have made our own path.

Dream Theater walks the line between progressive rock and metal. Your music is heavy, but the musicianship and lyrical content are far beyond those of a typical metal band.

J.M.: We grew up with music that had those qualities. Back then it was King Crimson, Zappa, and Rush. It was natural for us to put those qualities into our music and reinterpret influences we grew up with.

J.P.: All of us listened to Rush when we were kids. Some of the music on albums like Hemispheres and 2112 was basically like Led Zeppelin music that was really progressive. Iron Maiden was also doing long songs, concept albums, guitar solos, and unison lines. Yes figures in there too. Mix that all up with Metallica, and you have the core sound of Dream Theater. It all stems from our early influences.

How did the band's practice of writing epic pieces evolve?

M.P.: It didn't evolve; it's just how we wrote-even back in the Berkee days. We naturally write long songs, maybe because we compose collectively. There are always a lot of ideas being thrown in, and we just go where the journey takes us. All the progressive bands in the 1970s had long songs. We modeled ourselves after them but gave our music a heavier edge.

Tell me about the band's writing process.

J.P.: For the past few albums, we've set up in the studio in a circle so we could see each other. We start jamming, and ideas develop out of that. We record everything while we do this. We write things down on a big board and start developing an inventory of ideas. We name them, sometimes after bands we feel they sound like. Ideas become a section of a song. Once we start to see a direction and begin arranging the song, the ideas become more solid. After we have something, we demo it, listen to it a lot, and then record it. We may stay in the studio for several months.

M.P.: The process is really the same now as it was in 1985. At Berklee it was the three of us in Room E19 bouncing ideas off of each other and creating music. The format of writing instrumental pieces first remains the same 22 years later. These days, John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess will be the most hands-on with the notes, riffs, runs, and chord progressions. They kind of mold the song. I tend to be the grand architect, working out the form using a blackboard behind the drum kit and directing. We write something and then start recording it. We focus on one song before we start another.

What role do the other band members play in crafting songs?

J.M.: I contribute by listening and taking in what is going on, and then reacting to parts of a song as it develops. I also try to come up with things that spark an idea for a song.

J.P.: James LaBrie is there taking everything in, but his part comes later. Since we write as an instrumental band, it's hard for him to contribute in the early phase since he doesn't play an instrument. But he knows what's happening. As a song evolves, he'll make comments.

Does James write the melodies?

M.P.: Not exclusively. Once the music is done, the lyricist will have the biggest part in writing melodies. Usually, we'll discuss the melodies, but on the new album we left the melodies solely up to the lyricist. John, James and I take turns writing the lyrics.

J.P.: Since I'm a lyricist, I'm always thinking about the sections that will feature the vocals. We don't write an instrumental tune and slap vocals on it. The melodies may come from a keyboard or guitar part. Mike, James, and I write most of the lyrics. I'm a fan of creative writing and telling stories. John Myung has written lyrics in the past but not recently, and Jason Rudess hasn't written any.

M.P.: I think having the three of us work out the melodies gives uniformity to our style, but our lyrical styles are different. John's lyrics on the new album tap into fantasy; they're fictional. My lyrics have a harder edge and are straightforward. James tends to be more poetic. We have different styles, but in the end, it all sounds like Dream Theater.

Some of the song lyrics employ Christian and biblical images that are not typically the domain of heavy metal.

J.P.: We are not a Christian rock band. I am a Catholic, but I don't use the music to proselytize; that's not what we are about. I think that a lot of the images and phrases found in biblical stories are brilliant. The words associated with religion and Bible stories evoke very powerful images. When I write lyrics, I am into the sound of words and try to tell stories, so I draw on them.

It must be hard to keep all of the music under your fingers for when you go out on tour.

M.P.: I write all of the set lists and e-mail a master list of songs for the tour to everyone so they can practice everything we'll play. We do a lot of rehearsing during sound checks, because there is a different set list for every show. For instance, I will look at what we played on the last two tours that came through Boston and make a set that doesn't repeat any songs we played the last time. This ends up making a lot of work for Jordan in programming his keyboards and the lighting guys in programming cues for each performance.

It's great that you work so hard to make each show unique.

M.P.: I know what I want to hear from my favorite bands. The fans know that when they come to a Dream Theater show or buy a live album, every one will be different. Our last three live albums, each is a three-disc set. So on those nine CDs, there are only three or four songs that repeat. The repeats will be included because we did a completely different version of the song. I pay a lot of attention to this stuff for the fans.

Is your audience the same generation that came to your concerts when you started out, or are younger people turning out too?

J.P.: The fans are getting younger and younger. We meet teenagers who say the first album they really listened to was Octavarium or Train of Thought. They have a lot of music history to catch up on! Some kids are coming to shows with their dads. I love to see that. Having so many young fans in the audience means a lot to us.

Where is the largest concentration of your fans?

M.P.: Europe has the largest group. In America we'll play theaters that seat 1,000 to 3,000. In Europe we play arenas that range from 3,000 to 10,000. Even if there are more fans over there, our audiences are great everywhere, from Seattle to Seoul to Stockholm. We have a big following in South America too. This type of music draws really passionate fans.

How do you conform your personal lives to the rigors of a heavy touring schedule?

J.M.: I've grown accustomed to it for the most part. I have a family with two sons. When I'm home, I try to play catch-up with everything. This aspect is hard for me personally, it can be challenging, but you grow accustomed to it and manage.

J.P.: I love playing live, but our tours generally last about a year. I could never do this without the understanding and support of my wife. She's also a guitar player, and we knew each other before Dream Theater started touring. We have three children, and the sacrifice they make by not having their dad home for months at a time is unbelievable. It's almost too much to ask. This is the hardest issue for a musician, because your calling and passion is your livelihood and it takes you away. But I'm thankful every day that I'm able to do it.

How would you describe the new album, Systematic Chaos?

J.M.: It has a darker mood than some of our other albums, and the lyrics are really thought-provoking.

J.P.: There are elements from the Train of Thought album, a blend of heavy music mixed with progressive style. Overall, it's focused in a metal direction. This album has more of the epic drama of our Scenes from a Memory album, but takes things a little further. There are some epic tunes, and it's pretty dark and heavy. We didn't get experimental to the point where we might lose some listeners. I think our fans will get it.

M.P.: Musically, the CD is what people always expect from us: epic songs, metal songs, prog songs-a little balance of everything, but it feels like a new chapter. Score [a concert DVD released in 2005] felt like the end of an era. Now we start the next 20 years. Having a new label has injected excitement about the possibilities that lie ahead.

After you fulfilled the terms of your contract with Atlantic Records, did you consider going it on your own and without a label before you signed with Roadrunner Records?

M.P.: Doing everything ourselves would be impossible; we don't have the manpower. We have our own official bootleg series that we offer online. That's small time but is still massive to oversee. We knew with the size of our fan base that we needed a legitimate label, but we did not want to dive back into the corporate world of major labels. Roadrunner is the best of both worlds. They have a lot of mainstream acts on their roster and clout, but they have an independent spirit. It was critical for our band to be able to be ourselves and have the label support without the interference of a major label. I think with their support, we'll be able to continue to grow even more.

The Internet must be a big help for a band like yours that doesn't get a lot of radio play.

M.P.: It has been a huge part of our growth and development, because we couldn't rely on our previous label, MTV, or Rolling Stone to help. Before, if fans wanted tour dates or to connect with other fans, there wasn't a way to do it. Now, you can punch Dream Theater into a Google search and find all kinds of websites. That has been a tremendous help to us.

Do you think the tendency of consumers to download single songs more than albums will mean that the idea of a concept album will fade?

M.P.: We live in a Dream Theater bubble that is separate from the real world, and our fans are there with us. What we do and what the rest of the world does are different things. Our albums are on iTunes. We have a dilemma, in that iTunes doesn't allow you to download songs running longer than 10 minutes. Our albums are all on iTunes, but all of the songs are not available individually. Our fans generally go out and buy a whole album, though.

Who are you listening to these days?

J.M.: I've been listening to the new albums by Porcupine Tree and Blackfield and the single from the new Rush album. I try to be aware of new music from bands I have an appreciation for.

M.P.: I have very broad tastes. Two of my favorite albums from last year were by Lamb of God, which was very heavy, and the Flaming Lips, which was kind of psychedelic. I am still as much of a music enthusiast as I ever was. I follow bands and trade bootlegs and follow tours.

Over the course of the 22-year history of the band, has your musical perspective changed in terms of where you are going?

J.P.: Yes. The initial influences that determined the direction of the band haven't changed, but we've all developed as players, songwriters-and for Mike and me-producers. When we first started, we didn't know anything about recording. Everyone has come into his own as a solo artist. We record and jam with other people. So as professionals, everyone has grown. We are very comfortable when it comes to writing material for a new record. I'm comfortable playing live on the G3 tours with guitarists like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, and Paul Gilbert. After all this, you don't feel like the little kid you once were. You feel confident and that you fit in and can have a good time.

M.P.: We're still the same kids who went to Berklee as music fans wanting to play our instruments. Now, we have wives and kids and nice homes and are fortunate to be making a living from our music. But we still have the same musical mentality.

What would you like Dream Theater's legacy to be in rock history?

J.M.: I'd like to be remembered as a band that made great albums, inspired other bands, and had career longevity.

J.P.: Our band blended two styles of music-prog rock and metal, which generally don't go together-and developed a style that people could relate to. Those who are into Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest generally are not going to be into the Dixie Dregs and Gentle Giant. Taking those styles and blending them so that people on either side could understand the music is our contribution.

M.P.: We've carried the flag for going against the grain. We have always done things on our own terms. For better or worse, that has inspired other groups. I get CDs from bands that want to sound like Dream Theater, and sometimes I think we've created a monster because some are so over the top that they forget about the importance of the song. Regardless, I like to think we've inspired young bands to follow their hearts and really learn to play their instruments.

 
  Derek Sheriniain '84

Prepared to Handle Anything

Derek Sherinian '84 graduated from Berklee the year before Mike Portnoy, John Petrucci, and John Myung enrolled. But they met years later when Sherinian was working with Alice Cooper; drummer Jonathan Mover told him that Dream Theater was auditioning keyboardists.

"Even though I'd played some fusion at Berklee, Dream Theater's music sounded very advanced after what I'd been playing with Kiss and Alice Cooper," Sherinian says. "I received a CD with the tunes and prepared for the audition." Sherinian was hired as the band's second choice. "Jordan Rudess was the keyboardist they really wanted to hire, but the timing wasn't right for him to take the gig, and I got it," he says.

After joining Dream Theater in 1994, Sherinian faced a real musical challenge. "I had to learn a three-hour set in two weeks. Every minute I was awake, and even when I went to sleep, I was listening to their CDs to absorb everything. I knew that if I could get ready for that first show, I'd be prepared to handle anything that came my way. My experience with Dream Theater helped me feel confident that I could go in and hold my own playing with anyone."

Sherinian was a sideman at first, but was soon made a full member of the band. He is credited as a performer as well as a cowriter on the Falling Into Infinity album. During his four years with Dream Theater, he also played on the EP A Change of Seasons and the live double album Once in a Livetime.

"That was a tough time to be in Dream Theater, because they were struggling with their record company and with each other. They had made their first three records without the label telling them what to do, and then Atlantic told them they had to come up with a more commercial record."

Sherinian stayed with the band for four years, and then Rudess became available. "To be truthful," Sherinian says, "I never saw myself growing old with the band. I come from more of a rock background, and they come from a different place. When I look back, I see it as a very positive experience, because I was exposed to a worldwide audience. I'm proud of my years with them and glad I could help them out during their transition period."

Since his departure, Sherinian has released five solo albums (visit www.dereksherinian.com). The most recent, Blood of the Snake, features Billy Idol, Zakk Wylde, Slash, John Petrucci, Yngwie Malmsteen, and others. And for the past four years, Sherinian has been a member of Billy Idol's band. "I feel really fortunate to have played with many of my musical heroes, tour all over the world, and influence young players."