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The Count Of Majesty: An Exclusive Interview With JOHN PETRUCCI Of DREAM THEATER

By Curt Miller, Editor at Large
Monday, November 8, 2021 @ 12:01 AM

"I'm happy to say that, on our 15th album, our identity is very much still intact. The same things that were important to us then are still important to us, which is essential for a band in terms of your identity, legacy and impact."

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Band Photo Credit: Rayon Richards
John Petrucci Photo Credti: Larry DiMarzio

Several days ago
via conference call
sitting in my home
I met the Count of Majesty

A brilliant guitarist
with talents rarely matched
he spent some time with me
discussing ideas that heís hatched

Now, if you can get passed that cheesy opener based on DREAM THEATERís ďCount of TuscanyĒ, youíll discover what I did, or rather reaffirmed, that John Petrucci truly is a prog master with a diverse array of ideas, recordings and outside interests.

In addition to being a founding member and lead guitarist of DREAM THEATER, Petrucci has recorded two solo records, three albums as a member of LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT as well as albums with Jordan Rudess, G3 and several guest appearances. This year marks Petrucciís 20th anniversary partnering with Ernie Ball Music Man guitars and heís also introduced his own line of menís grooming products and a signature bourbon.

John Petrucciís talent and technical playing proficiency are the stuff of legend. His name has become synonymous with progressive metal and heís definitely had a big influence on many, including this writer, who writes about music today in large part due to DREAM THEATER, its music and as such, John Petrucci. So it was a real treat to chat with him a bit about the recent release of the bandís 15th studio record, A View from the Top of the World, and some of the other things heís been up to of late.

KNAC.COM: Right off the bat, Iíd like you to know that itíd be tough to overstate how much influence DREAM THEATER has had on me and how much I really appreciate you and the band.

PETRUCCI: Thatís awesome! Are you a guitar player?

KNAC.COM: I'm actually a drummer, though my background is management consulting. The reality of it is, my health isnít all that good, so I eventually started writing and I write about music primarily because of DREAM THEATER.

PETRUCCI: Oh, wow. Thatís awesome!

KNAC.COM: The first couple things Iím curious about relate to the bandís new album, A View From The Top of The World (released October 22nd). I think I may know the answer to this already, but what are some of the elements that must be present when you sit down with the band to write a new record in order for the music to be authentically DREAM THEATER? And how have those elements changed after 36 years and 15 studio records?

PETRUCCI: It's funny because they haven't really changed too much. Thinking back, you'd have to go back in time and picture the early members of DREAM THEATER as young guys who listened to metal Ė METALLICA, (IRON) MAIDEN, OZZY (OSBOURNE), stuff like that, but who were also really into RUSH, YES, GENESIS and PINK FLOYD. When we got together to write music, it turned into this combination of something that sounded heavy, but was technical, had elements of prog, with long songs and solos and was also really melodic. Those things were important to us back then and, honestly, that hasn't changed. They still are. Take the title track from the new album, for instance. It encompasses everything that we're about.

If you want to hear what DREAM THEATER is about, what's important to us, what elements are important, you'll hear it in that song. There's energy and a big sound. There's a lot of playing and opportunities for band members to stretch out, solo and improvise. It's very melodic. The song tells a story, so itís cinematic and epic sounding. The production of the drums and guitars and the overall impact that it makes, all of that, have always been important and it's always been something we've been honing trying to improve upon.

I'm happy to say that, on our 15th album, our identity is very much still intact. The same things that were important to us then are still important to us, which is essential for a band in terms of your identity, legacy and impact.

KNAC.COM: Even though this album isn't a concept album, it has very positive energy. Does it have another underlying theme beyond its positivity?

PETRUCCI: When I tried to think of an album title, I went through the lyrics and their subject matter and found that they werenít really linked. Something that did strike me, though, was this sort of dark/light duality. Itís not a new concept, but itís prominent throughout the different lyrics, so initially, I tried to come up with a title that really reflected it. All the great ones are taken, like angels and demons, things like that, the contrast between good and evil or dark and light. The idea of using A View From The Top of The World as the perfect positive title to this epic record, a title that summed up what the whole thing was about just came to me one day.

KNAC.COM: Moving away from the album into a new direction, a lot of artists either directly or in various forms of media have indicated that DREAM THEATER has been a huge influence on their lives, music, the way they record, even their initial interest in playing. Just off the top of my head, thereís Felix Martin, a musician from Venezuela who simultaneously plays twin 8-string guitars, the fretboards of which are conjoined. Then there's Gabriel Guardiola of IMMORTAL GUARDIAN, who simultaneously plays keyboard and guitar.

PETRUCCI: I donít know them, but it sounds unbelievable. [Laughing] Makes me feel like an underachiever.

KNAC.COM: No, not at all. The reason I mention them is Iím curious as to whether you feel that DREAM THEATER's influence has come full circle in that, when you listen to new music, does the material of those who count you among their influences impact your writing style? And do you hear your influence in their music?

PETRUCCI: First of all, that's really awesome! I mean, it's always cool to hear that! Music is funny in a way, and even more so when youíre a guitar player because so many people seem to play guitar, people that youíd never expect, like your dentist or whatever. Thereís a common ground with guitarists and musicians in general, so itís humbling the more I hear about players whoíve been influenced by DREAM THEATER or myself in some way. I think it's awesome!

It does happen that I'll hear some sort of crazy music, something that really catches my ear that I think is amazing, and then it turns out that the person who created it is a DREAM THEATER fan. Itís this weird full circle where people who were influenced by me are now influencing me. It's like a cool sharing circle, especially in the guitar community. The couple of musicians you just mentioned are guitar players and I find that it happens a lot. It's wild! It's incredible!

We're very fortunate to be able to do what we do, especially given the style of music that we play. It's kind of been swimming upstream against the current the whole time because we're not a pop band. It's not easily digestible music, but we have incredible fans and listeners. So it's always great to hear stories like that. That's really cool!

KNAC.COM: That kind of leads directly to my next question. Youíre now and always have been, at least to me, a huge fixture in the prog scene. Once you become that and you're 36 years in, is there sort of a coming of age shift in priorities where, like anything, there's no need to prove yourself anymore? Is there more opportunity to focus on the music as opposed to doing insane time signatures and all of the different, crazy things because you're already there and have proven yourself?

PETRUCCI: What you're talking about is funny because I'm not sure that's something that we think about in that way and you can hear it on this album. Thereís still the drive, passion and desire to play our instruments and make music together at the highest level that we can and that we're capable of. Weíre still up for that challenge, love that challenge and I don't think that has waned in any way. When you listen to ďThe AlienĒ, the opening track from the record or the title track, whatever, you can hear it. None of that has gone away. I hear what you're saying, but it's still there and it's still important to us.

What does happen with experience is getting more opportunities to develop those skills and the playing skills are, honestly, things we all have in common since most developed the basics by the time they were teenagers or in their late teens. In my case, it's more about writing, composing and producing, honing my sound. Of course, as a guitar player, going on this whole tone mission to find your sound and developing equipment, signature equipment if youíre fortunate enough to be able to, helps you get there. Those things come more into play and more into focus and, ultimately, help the overall impact of the songs.

As you become a better writer, producer and musician, the songs have more impact, but all that stuff that you were talking about, like the desire to challenge yourself to do stuff that's crazy is still there. If I'm honest with you, it doesn't go away. In fact, Iím literally immature in that way and weíre like little kids with each other. If somebody starts playing something thatís crazy in our band, you better damn well be able to keep up with him or take it to the next level. We challenge ourselves like that all the time. Maybe weíre just immature in that way.

KNAC.COM: I love it! It couldíve been just a misinterpretation on my part, like where you can sort of let your hair down after awhile. Yet Iíve heard athletes say that they just want to be better than they were yesterday and that they never stop trying to improve.

PETRUCCI: One hundred percent true! I completely relate to that and that probably would have been a better and shorter answer to the babble that I just gave you.

KNAC.COM: No, Not at all. I wasn't sure if it was more like, as a teenager you wanted to prove how good you were, but eventually just decided to heck with it, I've already done that. Or if you're like, you know what? I'm going to keep getting better each and every day.

PETRUCCI: Oh, the latter for sure. Absolutely! And not only am I speaking for myself, but I think I can easily speak for the other guys. Everybody feels that way. You never want to stop improving. You don't want to slow down or admit defeat, so everybody practices all the time and tries to improve. You want every album and every show to be better than the last.

KNAC.COM: Taking a look at prog over the last half-century, the stuff I grew up listening to as a kid. At least for me, RUSH pretty much set the bar and then there was KING CRIMSON and FRANK ZAPPA who were great if not a little bit out there. When Images and Words came out in í92, Iíd never heard anything like it in terms of technical proficiency, kind of like RUSH squared if you will. Then iní95, DRAGONFORCE started getting recognition with material that was technically proficient and brutally fast.

By anyoneís estimation, youíre pretty much a progressive music expert, so Iím curious to know where you see prog headed moving forward. Will it just keep getting faster? Will increasingly diverse instrumentation or computers come more into play? Where does it go to become even better and crazier than it is?

PETRUCCI: You can see the development of prog over the years. And Iíve said this a lot at risk of repeating myself. When DREAM THEATER first started Ė you mentioned Images And Words before; there wasn't a prog metal scene like there is now. We make references to bands from the Ď70s out of the UK, like YES, GENESIS and FLOYD, or of course, Canadaís RUSH. That was our prog thing and we were kids who listened to metal, so when we wrote music, it was a natural combination of the two. Fast-forward all these years; since the early nineties, the prog scene exploded and there are so many different factions and splinters that go in all different directions. Some are heavier. Others are more technical. There are those that are more mellow and melodic, but it all fits onto a big family tree type thing. Itís hard to say where it's going to go, but it is amazing to see it go as far as it has and I think it's only going to continue to grow.

As far as the technical proficiency of musicians, that's on a whole different level than it even was when I started playing guitar or when Images came out. With YouTube and Instagram , young players can learn things instantly and you literally have 8, 9 and 10 year olds playing any technical DREAM THEATER part as well as any of us. The bar has been raised and it can be taken to wherever it wants to go. It's pretty wild!

KNAC.COM: Itís been well documented how devastating the pandemic has been on the music industry. It seems like DREAM THEATER has made good use of its down time, so I'd like to learn more about the breaking in of DREAM THEATER HQ and the creation of the multiple album releases youíve recently had, including DREAM THEAATERís Lost Not Forgotten Archives series. What are some other ways youíve found to make the most of the extra time?

PETRUCCI: Well, you're right that (the pandemic) has had a major negative impact on the live music portion of the entertainment industry, particularly for musicians with live music just stopping, venues being shut down and no bands being on tour. That's never happened before. Itís the first time that every single band no matter who you were, NEIL DIAMOND, METALLICA or some new local band, were shut down and not playing live. It was an unheard of situation that definitely had an incredibly negative impact. The flip side of that is that a lot of music was created during that time.

Musicians or creative people, and I can only speak from my own perspective, but I immediately went into the studio and wrote and recorded my first solo album in 15 years, which Iíd planned to do anyway. I wrote Terminal Velocity at the DTHQ, which is the new headquarters you mentioned before. It's an all-encompassing facility that has storage, offices, lounges, a recording studio and a live room. It's something we've wanted to do forever and finally have. My solo album was the first album I recorded there, and then I went in over the summer and did the first LIQUID TENSION album in 22 years with Tony Levin, Mike Portnoy and Jordan. We did Liquid Tension Experiment 3, then the DREAM THEATER record, and like you said, the Lost Not Forgotten Archives was something that was part of our bootleg series that desperately needed some cleaning up, but we didn't really have the time to do it. So the past 19 months or so gave us the time to do that and all these other things.

Itís also given me time as an entrepreneur to pursue some of my other interests, such as the bearding community and introducing my own beard oil and men's grooming product line. I also launched a signature bourbon with Iron Smoke Distillery called Rock The Barrel. These were all things that I was interested in, passions and hobbies of mine that I never really had the time to pursue because DREAM THEATER was always on the road. That's the flip side of this, the fact that some good did come out of it. Iím definitely glad to see the live music side coming back, but it's still not where it should be. I'm itching and dying to play live because itís just been way too long!

KNAC.COM: I have a couple last things before we wrap up here this afternoon, but before I do, Iíd like to share a personal experience about DREAM THEATER. I literally drove to Buffalo, New York on August 20th, 2007 during the Chaos in Motion Tour with a JP6 in hand and had the entire band sign it.

PETRUCCI: Oh, that's awesome! That's so cool!

KNAC.COM: Anyway, getting back to my last few questions. First, after 36 years of DREAM THEATER, will NIGHTMARE CINEMA ever hit the stage again?

PETRUCCI: [Laughing] Hopefully not!

KNAC.COM: Ha! I wouldíve guessed you thought it something fun for you guys to do every now and then ease some of the stress out on tour.

PETRUCCI: [Still laughing] I'm joking, you know? It was fun! Something we would do just as a goof and have fun with. But yeah, I think that band broke up a while back.

KNAC.COM: Second one and this may be a tough one. After 36 years, favorite DREAM THEATER moment and you have to pick one.

PETRUCCI: Favorite DREAM THEATER moment...Well, there are many, but I'll pick one Ė playing at a sold out Madison Square Garden show in New York with IRON MAIDEN. Thatís definitely it and it was on my birthday. That was a big moment!

KNAC.COM: Thatís terrific! So, one last thing and I always ask it. Even though I try to be thorough, I know I may miss something. What do you want to make sure that's in this I may not have hit on?

PETRUCCI: You mentioned guitar players earlier, your JP6 and the guy who plays the two eight strings. One of the things that I'm really excited about with this new record is the debut of my signature eight string guitar on one of the tracks, ďAwaken The MasterĒ. I have been with Ernie Ball Music Man for 20 years. We have special edition guitars that came out in celebration of our 20th anniversary. Weíve been working on an eight string for many years and I was finally able to get a prototype in time to write ďAwaken The MasterĒ, record it and put it on the new record. The guitar was recently released as a limited edition and it sold out within 12 hours or something, so people who were able to get their hands on it are in for a treat. It's a Majesty eight string, itís an unbelievable and you can hear it on ďAwaken The MasterĒ. Iím looking forward to bringing that guitar out live because it just sounds like a beast! It really does! It's unbelievable!

Interestingly enough, even though it's not the title track, ďAwaken The MasterĒ is my favorite song from DREAM THEATERís new album. Perhaps thatís no surprise because it only reaffirms what I already suspected before my conversation with John Petrucci began. The band he founded under the name MAJESTY at the Berklee College of Music that eventually became DREAM THEATER was just the beginning. 36 years later, itís difficult to measure the impact heís had on the progressive metal scene even if only factoring in DREAM THEATERís 15 studio records. Add to that Petrucciís solo material, his work with LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT and all of his additional recordings and it becomes ever more clear that this prog legend, this master if you will, never lost a beat or nodded off over the years.

The enthusiasm Petrucci expressed for his new Majesty eight string and his desire to play the guitar live is palpable. Heís reinvigorated, a master reawakened and ready to prove once again that heís more than merely one in the crowd. The prog metal crowd wouldnít exist; at least not in its current form were it not for John Petrucci. His contribution, influence and ongoing pursuit of personal betterment have elevated him to the level of master. He truly is the Count of Majesty!

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