Exclusive Interview with Dream Theater’s John Petrucci: Why Their Songs Are So Long, Music Industry Advice, and How He Knew Mike Mangini Was the One

James LaBrie and John Petrucci.

Dream Theater. Photo provided by Roadrunner Records.

By Lisa Occhino

Nearly three decades after legendary progressive metal band Dream Theater originally formed at Berklee, the band has just released their eleventh studio album, A Dramatic Turn of Events, and is currently on a world tour. This record is the first the band has released since drummer Mike Portnoy announced his departure. Through an audition process, he has been replaced with former Berklee professor Mike Mangini.

Dream Theater’s concert at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston a few weeks ago was the best concert I have ever seen, and probably will ever see, as far as musicianship, band cohesiveness, on-stage energy, and pure quality are concerned. It should be a requirement for all aspiring musicians to see this band perform live at least once in their lives – but hey, that’s just my opinion.

I could go on and on telling you about Dream Theater, but since I got the amazing opportunity to sit down with John Petrucci – yes, the man himself – backstage before the show, I figure I’ll let him tell you about his band instead:


Photo credit: Lisa Occhino

Berklee Groove: What was your time at Berklee like, and how do you feel it affected your career as a musician?
John Petrucci: In the town that I grew up in, there were a lot of kids who played instruments – every corner, every garage, there was always someone playing, so I got used to that. But going to Berklee was like that times ten… I really felt like I was where I belonged. Me and John Myung went there straight out of high school, and we were just so into our craft and practicing all the time. People kind of look at you strange, but at Berklee everyone’s the same way so you feel like you really belong – it’s incredible.

BG: Looking back, was Berklee more valuable for the skills you learned and the knowledge you acquired, or the connections you made?
JP: It’s a little bit of both. For guitar players, it’s a funny thing. Guitar is the kind of instrument where most guys are self-taught – just shedding in their bedroom, and now with YouTube and everything else, you can find everything. Everyone’s getting so good so early. It was the same for me when I went to Berklee, I had all this technique and skill, but there was so much that I needed to learn as far as reading and music theory. In fact, all of that stuff I learned, I used right away in early songwriting. Just being in that environment, being able to go to the library and listen to different things, it was just a huge influence. You walk around the corner and hear someone playing a different style, and get into a conversation and get turned on to music that way. It was incredible.

BG: What’s your songwriting process like? How do so many of your songs end up being 15 minutes long?
JP: As far as why things turn out to be long, it’s probably just because we’re in this place where we’re playing music that we call progressive rock, you know – whatever you wanna call it, progressive metal, whatever – and to me, it stems from listening to bands like Rush and Yes and King Crimson and ELP and Genesis and all that, where this sort of artsy rock came to be, where the songs don’t follow a typical structure. So that’s the first reason: our arrangement structure is atypical. We like to kind of overdramatize things – have long introductions, have an extended solo section.

BG: So do you do it on purpose and say, ‘What would blow people’s minds and top what we did before?’
JP: Absolutely. We certainly do…. I think it’s actually important to ask some of those questions. Sometimes you do say, ‘Hey, what would blow people’s minds? That’s not crazy enough, let’s mix it up!’ And for me, when I’m writing on guitar, a lot of my ideas are melodic ideas. And on the guitar you can sort of arrange that and realize it, but you have to be able to hear a bigger picture. For me, I always hear in my head the final big, huge band arrangement. I think it’s important to have a vision, and sort of see past your own instrument and how it’s gonna come out in the end. And that’s part of the writing process as well: visualizing where you want to end. Some of those writing ideas are just me by myself sitting there, playing something cool, and recording it on a little recorder. Sometimes I take it further and demo it… sometimes it’s more collective, and we’re just creating riffs and ideas, putting them together piece by piece. But I think either way, you need to have sort of a direction and a picture of what you’re trying to do.

Photo credit: Lisa Occhino

BG: Do you ever get writer’s block? You have so much material – how do you find the inspiration to keep writing so much music?
JP: Being creative is something I never have a problem with – that’s just who I am, and the people I play with are the same way. We live for that. Sometimes things don’t come as easily as others; they take a little bit more work, but I don’t like to use the term ‘writer’s block’ because it’s all a challenge. I mean, are there times when I’m struggling with something? Yeah, sure, it happens. But the whole idea of being creative and the process of doing that – I love that. Besides just shredding on the guitar which is fun, the most fun to me is being creative, you know? Since I was a little kid, I was always painting or writing poems, just always something.

BG: So it just comes very naturally to you?
JP: It comes naturally to me, and especially if [the band] is together, it’s just instant – so many ideas.

BG: What’s your best advice for how to practice your instrument the right way?
JP: I think there’s a little bit of OCD in everybody who practices for many, many hours a day. To stay focused for six hours or whatever it is, there’s that little chip that’s missing in all of our brains, but that’s what makes everyone a unique musician, and you need that. It’s the same with athletes that are very disciplined with the way they pursue their careers. You have to have that in you. If you don’t have any patience and you can’t do that, it’s kind of like a battle. There’s no serious musician that I know that doesn’t like to practice; everybody likes it and looks forward to it. So that’s the first thing. What helped me when I was younger is that I was very organized – not at first when I was young, but when I started to get into all these different guitar players and music and everything, I got a little bit overwhelmed… you have all this stuff flying around, and what helped me was to be really organized. I would plan out my practicing sessions. If I knew I had an hour and a half chunk of time, I would maybe pick three things and work for a half an hour on each of those things. So I think it’s important to have a goal before you sit down. A lot of people come up to me and are like, ‘I don’t know what to play, I just noodle around and watch TV,’ and that’s not really gonna do anything. You need to actually have a goal, be determined, and map it out. I think that’s important.

BG: Do you think being a great musician is something you’re born with, or strictly a result of practicing?
JP: I think it’s both. I think there is a certain gift that people have that are drawn to music and are really good at it, there’s no doubt… I think there’s definitely a gift that goes with music and art. However, that’s just a small part of it. Anything that you do with an instrument or craft involved, it’s the time you put into it. It depends how far you want to develop it.

How has the dynamic of the band changed or stayed the same over the years?
JP: Well, when we were really, really young, we were kind of finding our way as far as how we were going to write music together, and what sort of music we wanted the band to write. And I think that dynamic kind of matured as we got older and the band became more experienced. We sort of realized what everybody’s strengths are…When you have that understanding about what kind of musicians you are, the dynamic gets a lot more comfortable because everybody knows what they’re good at and how they can contribute. When you’re young, a lot of times it’s like seeing little kids play soccer – everyone’s just following the ball. And professional teams know how to pass.

Photo credit: Lisa Occhino

BG: So Mike Mangini is your new drummer, and he was a professor at Berklee. What made you decide on him? Was it a close call between him and anyone else, or did you know it was going to be him?
JP: We had an audition process, which is actually documented very thoroughly on the special edition of our new album. There’s a movie, it’s called The Spirit Carries On, and it’s a 60-minute documentary that shows how we auditioned the seven different drummers. But pretty much from the first song we played with him I knew this guy was it – nobody’s gonna do better than him. And it turned out to be amazing. I mean, everything about him – his playing, his personality, everything – he’s like one of us.

BG: For someone who’s never been to one of your live shows, what can they expect?
JP: It’s very visual, and sort of interactive. There’s a lot of shots of everybody’s hands, so there’s sort of a focus on the instrumentalists. We try to cover as much old material as we can, and we have a new album out so we put in a whole bunch of new songs. We just try to make it as dynamic and dramatic and cinematic as we can. We’re fans of the way Muse and Rush do their shows. We look to those kinds of shows as just being really entertaining and musically satisfying.

BG: Tell me about your latest album, A Dramatic Turn of Events. How is it different from or similar to your previous releases?
JP: It’s probably different than the last couple of releases in that people are saying it has more of a balance of our sound. We have a metal sound, but it’s in the context of progressive rock music. This album has more of that balance, where it’s more of a mix of metal and prog. It’s very melodic. It was mixed by Andy Wallace, who’s just a master and I’m a huge fan of. So it’s probably our best-sounding album, sonically.

BG: What’s your best advice for aspiring artists and musicians?
JP: I think it’s important to be creative. It’s the thing that’s ultimately going to separate you. I mean, you think about how many people play piano or guitar, it’s so many – especially when you go to Berklee it’s like, ‘Oh my God, there’s 2000 of me.’

BG: Yeah, it can get very competitive.
JP: Right, it gets competitive, and everyone has great ability and stuff. But you know – just talking about rock music for example – when you think about the bands that have stood the test of time, it’s great music, not just individual players. It’s the music that reaches us and really has meaning in our lives. That music comes from that creative part. So it’s not just learning your instrument and practicing songs, but it’s writing songs. I think that’s really, really important. It says a lot about who you are as a person and it separates you out from other people. It’s your identity.

James LaBrie and John Petrucci.

BG: Being in the music industry for so long, what would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
JP: You know, some of the cliché lessons are true, they really are. When they say, ‘Oh it’s who you know,’ it kind of is. There’s so many people trying to do the same thing, and if there’s some edge that you can have, someone that you can get your music to who might listen, it’s important. I would say one of the lessons is: don’t ignore the business part of it. If you’re serious about making music your career, it’s not only about the things we’ve been talking about – practicing, writing songs – there’s a big business part, and don’t be blind to it. Don’t keep your head down and sit there in your room. You need to know what’s going on in the real world.

BG: After the tour, what’s next for Dream Theater?
JP: Well, it’s an ongoing tour. The album was just released three weeks ago, and this is the North American portion of the tour. Then we have some European touring in January and February, and after that we have South America, Australia, Asia – it’s a full world tour. It’s pretty much gonna consume the next year for us.


For Dream Theater news, music, tour dates, and more, visit www.dreamtheater.net.