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Interviews   

Dream Theater, The Spirit Carries On – Episode 1 : John Petrucci


Two different men, two different opinions, two different vibes. The departure of Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater is a turning point. Whether it is one musically, we’ll find out in a few months. But given Mike’s prominence in the band – it’s no wonder Dream Theater was regarded as “Portnoy’s band” – there were many consequences and issues raised by this departure. We tried to take the pulse of the band. Firstly with one who was already in it and decided to go on, John Petrucci, guitarist and founding member. Then, with the one with whom the show will go on: the lucky Mike Mangini.

John Petrucci is a naturally quiet person, sometimes even phlegmatic. As a consequence, he’s always talking calmly, giving carefully calculated answers and continually seeing things in a positive way. And of course, being a prominent public figure, he’s careful about what he says. You’ll even notice how the subject of the communication with Mike Portnoy regarding his departure from the band has been impossible to mention. Petrucci even stating that he hasn’t paid attention to the latter’s statements and accusations in the press.

Apart from that, rest assured, he’s all but insincere and – for those of you who were expecting a boring and depth-lacking interview – interesting in his point of view regarding the band, the auditions for the new drummer, but also regarding other more general issues such as instrumental practice and the notion of musicality.

Clearly, interviews aren’t where he’s the most comfortable. There’s no surprise in the fact that Mike Portnoy, being very comfortable as a spokes-person, had been the face of the band for years. The redistribution of the roles within the band in that regard is one of the consequences of his departure: « Other people just need to step up and do more interviews, talk more and do more photoshoots. ». Among the fans, many believed that Mike Portnoy’s control over the band weighed down on his band mates. John Petrucci points that out as a misconception.

Finally, took advantage of this interview to try to learn more about the musical direction taken on the next record, A Dramatic Turn Of Events, scheduled to be released on September 13th 2011. A title that, according to the guitarist and unlike one may suppose, is not a reference to the band parting ways with Mike Portnoy.

« Some people really focus on technique and practice a lot, and some people don’t. It doesn’t make you any less of a player »

Radio Metal: Let’s talk about the Spirit Carries On documentary. Were you inspired by reality shows to make this documentary? Where did you get the idea?

John Petrucci (guitar) : The idea was that we knew it was going to be a very special event, trying all these different drummers. We knew that we wanted to have a way that we could watch everything back. Initially, we just thought we wanted to record it. But when we talked to our manager and record label, they thought it was kind of an exciting idea to record it professionally. We did that, and it went forward from there.

These types of shows are not very popular amongst the metal public. Were you worried about how people would react?

No. It’s not a reality show, it’s just a documentary. It was just about filming the auditions. We didn’t even think about anything like that. It’s not a reality show, it wasn’t on television or anything, it’s just a documentary of the auditions. So no, we didn’t worry about that at all. I didn’t even think of it! (laughs)

In the documentary, your way of looking at Mike Mangini at the very beginning of the first audition is quite amusing. Auditioning a new drummer was something completely new to you, it felt as though we were watching a guitarist playing with a band for the first time ever. Did you feel like you were twenty years old again?

Yeah, definitely! (laughs) It’s funny. It’s definitely different when you play with a new musician and there’s a connection, a chemistry. You feel yourself smiling, and you kind of get this feeling that it’s a lot of fun. It’s the same thing as playing with a great guitar player that you’ve admired for a long time, or jamming with somebody you admire. You definitely get that feeling of youth and rejuvenation, for sure. If anything, it makes you smile and enjoy the process. It was a lot of fun, actually.

Thomas Lang and Virgil Donati were not chosen because they have a tendency to over-interpret and modify the original musical parts. Did you specifically mention at the start of the auditions that you did not want people to do this?

We just told everybody from the beginning that we wanted them to learn the songs so we’d able to have something to play and see how it felt. We didn’t specifically tell anybody what to do. We just told everybody to learn these three songs. Then they all came in and played them. Some people learned them perfectly and some people… I mean, pretty much all the guys learned the songs, for sure. Everybody was very prepared and very professional. It’s just that some guys played it exact.

Virgil Donati stood out during the auditions because of his alien side. Let’s pretend that you had chosen him. Do you think that you would have been able to manage such a character who does what he pleases like in the audition?

(laughs) I really like Virgil. I think he’s a very cool guy, a very nice guy. I remember him from touring with G3, when he was playing with Steve Vai’s band. I had a couple of really nice conversations with him. It’s really easy to get along with him. He’s just one of these guys that’s such a monster player and a great showman. I had no problem with him whatsoever, I thought he was fantastic.

Mike Portnoy has admitted himself that he hasn’t worked on his technique for years. Considering your expectations for these auditions, do you think that Mike Portnoy would have been chosen if he had been auditioning with the others?

Mike Portnoy is an awesome drummer, one of the best drummers in the world. I love him and I love the way he plays, so yeah, I’m sure he would have been chosen! (laughs) I’ve played with Mike forever, I love the way he plays drums. Everybody has a different approach and a different style to what they do. Guitar players are the same way; some people really focus on technique and practice a lot, and some people don’t. It doesn’t make you any less of a player.

« If you get somebody that’s so good and so perfect, and on top of it, just like a really nice person, then I think it makes it easy for people to accept the change. I think it does make people a little bit more accepting to see that. Because it’s not just like we tell people: ‘Here it is, take it or leave it’. You get to see the process, and it makes a lot of sense, you know? I think any logical person would say: ‘Oh, I would have done the same thing’. »

It is clear in the documentary that Mike Mangini wanted to be in the band the most. Is this what helped you decide?

Definitely. The first thing is that there has to be a chemistry, and the playing just has to feel great and be right. That’s the first thing. And Mike Mangini proved that in the first song we played with him. But besides that, there are so many others factors. We’re a band, we’re a tight bunch of guys, and everything about Mike Mangini is… His history, his personal life, his attitude towards the auditions all played into why we wanted to chose him.

Was the choice unanimous? James Labrie seems really enthusiastic about Minneman…

The auditions were very exciting. The interviews you see in the documentary were done right after we’d auditioned each guy. Marco was great, he was very exciting, and a couple of the other guys were great too. But eventually, we had to put all that aside and just talk and make a decision. So yes, it was unanimous.

Considering how much you seemed to enjoy playing with Marco Minneman, do you think you could work with him in the future? In a side project to Dream Theater, for example?

Yeah, sure. Absolutely. I’d love to, for sure. I think he’s a wonderful drummer. I’d love to work with all these guys! (laughs)

It was announced that this documentary would be released as a DVD. Should we expect to find it as a bonus DVD along with the next album? Will there also be some new videos, such as longer extracts of the auditions?

It will be included as a special edition. I think it’s gonna exist the way it is. There’s a lot of footage, so we could eventually put out some more stuff. But it took a lot of time to mix and edit it as it was, so I think it’s just gonna come out the way it is.

When a new member of a band is introduced to the fans, the reaction can sometimes be negative and even aggressive when replacing a much loved member. However, according to the forums, it seems that Mike Mangini has been welcomed with much enthusiasm. Why do you think this is? Do you think that the fact Mike is presented as an undeniably friendly guy in The Spirit Carries On has something to do with this?

I think he’s a very well-respected player. You can’t deny his talent on the drums. And I think that on top of that, he’s a wonderful person, very friendly and very easy to get along with. He’s just a likeable guy, and his talent is undeniable. When you watch him play drums, he blows you away. I understand when you’re a fan of a band and you don’t want to see a member replaced. I totally understand that, I would feel the same way. But at the same time, if you get somebody that’s so good and so perfect, and on top of it, just like a really nice person, then I think it makes it easy for people to accept the change.

So maybe the documentary did make it easier for the fans.

Maybe it did. I think so, yeah. That was part of the reason why we were doing it. We thought to ourselves: “It’s kinda cool that people will get to see why we made that decision and what was the process behind it”. I think it does make people a little bit more accepting to see that. Because it’s not just like we tell people: “Here it is, take it or leave it”. You get to see the process, and it makes a lot of sense, you know? I think any logical person would say: “Oh, I would have done the same thing”.

Every band that changes line-up is later harassed by hardcore fans with an obsession for an “original line-up reunion”. This is what has happened with Kiss and Guns N’ Roses, and it is quite disrespectful to the new members. How will you deal with this when it inevitably happens?

Obviously, you can’t control what people think and say. Dream Theater has been a band for 25 years. In the beginning, I started this band with John Myung. We’ve had different singers and different keyboard players. Things happen in a band, especially when you’ve been around for as long as we have. The important thing is that the direction and the style and the integrity of the music stay intact. It all has to come from the heart, and I think that people will accept that. Whether or not people want to see an older member or an original member – I can’t control that. I suppose people want that. But you just have to believe in yourself and have confidence in what you’re doing, which I do. I think that the new album sounds amazing, and Mike Mangini is gonna be really awesome. I think people are gonna love to watch him play.

« Everybody in this band plays a role and has so much importance. I think that what’s different may be the public’s perception. Nothing has really changed in that sense, it’s more that people thought that things were different, you know? Mike Portnoy did a great job at being forward in the press and stuff. Maybe people thought the other members took a back seat, but they really didn’t. »

How has the role distribution evolved within the band? It seems that Jordan Rudess has gained importance when it comes to the creative and decision-making process…

Jordan has always been important. Everybody in this band plays a role and has so much importance. I think that what’s different may be the public’s perception. Nothing has really changed in that sense, it’s more that people thought that things were different, you know? Mike Portnoy did a great job at being forward in the press and stuff. Maybe people thought the other members took a back seat, but they really didn’t.

Mike Mangini did not take part in the writing of the new album because it had already been written. Will he take part in the writing of the next albums?

I don’t know, actually. I thought it was important this time that we just got back to writing with the composers – just guitars, bass and keyboards. I’ve written a lot of things for the band and for my solo stuff without a drummer, and I’m used to doing things that way. It’s sort of a very easy flow for me. I didn’t want to bring somebody in that was going to be new and have a different dynamic and a different personality. I didn’t want to start out that way. I wanted to reconnect with the basic elements of composition. I mean, who knows? Maybe he’ll write on the next album. I don’t know.

Mike Portnoy is undoubtedly the main image of Dream Theater. Was this difficult for the band at the time he was in the band?

I think it’s just a matter of perception. Again, Mike did a great job at putting the band and himself forward to the public, doing a lot of interviews and doing a lot of stuff on behalf of the band. Other people just need to step up and do more interviews, talk more and do more photoshoots. All that good stuff! It’s a matter of shifting things a little bit.

Many things have been said about Mike Portnoy’s departure; however many more remain unclear. How did things go from “Hey, I’d like to take a break” to “I’m leaving”? It’s a little strange!

It is strange. I think you’d have to ask him, really. I can’t speak for him, I don’t know what was really going through his mind. Again, I can’t control people and what they decide they want to do. It’s really something you need to ask him. I don’t know.

When Mike tried to join the band again and you refused, he claims that you did not answer him directly but via your lawyer instead. Is this true?

Once again, you need to ask him. I’m not sure what he said in the press. I don’t know. These are questions for him!

« [This album] is really special. There’s something about it, about the content and the mood that’s very unique and very special. »

The new album is entitled “A Dramatic Turn Of Events”. In many interviews and in the documentary, you talk about Mike’s departure as a real trauma. Is the title of the album a reference to this separation?

The title of the album is a reference to the subject matter of the lyrics. The songs are all about different life-changing, sort of dramatic events, either in History or happening now in the world, politically, religiously or spiritually. It’s all about events that have changed the world and changed people’s lives. That’s what the title refers to. It’s kind of coincidental: it seems that it’s about the band’s situation. You can read into that if you want, but it’s really about the song lyrics.

This album is the follow up to Black Clouds And Silver Linings, that was considered a “safe” album. Should we expect a significant development from this?

For every album that we do, we put all of our energy and our best efforts into it. Some albums, for some reasons, are more special than others. I don’t know why, it just turns out that way. I think this one is really special. There’s something about it, about the content and the mood that’s very unique and very special. I can’t wait for this to come out, I can’t wait for people to hear it. I’m very proud of it.

Are the riffs heard in the documentary part of these new songs?

No, they’re not. They’re just for the documentary.

Interview conducted on june 8th, 2011 by phone.
Transcription : Saff’
Dream Theater’s Website : www.dreamtheater.net



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