For the first time in two decades, the members of progressive metal band Dream Theater lived, wrote, and recorded together over the course of four months at the secluded, five-acre Yonderbarn Studios in Monticello, New York. They all moved into the property’s country-house where they shared memories, took turns manning the BBQ, and fortifying lifelong friendships as the music that became Distance Over Time happened organically and spontaneously throughout the summer in the beautifully converted barn only footsteps away.
With Distance Over Time, James LaBrie, John Petrucci, Jordan Rudess, John Myung, and Mike Mangini have realized some of their most exciting Dream Theater material to date. Still basking in the afterglow of seeing their Toronto performance at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts the night before this interview took place, we spoke with guitarist John Petrucci on the phone for fifteen minutes to discuss the new album. That interview (along with audio recording) lives here:
Are you still in Toronto? Or are you on your way to your next gig?
John Petrucci: We’re actually in Montreal. We’re playing here tonight.
To my tastes, Distance Over Time is the most excited I’ve been about Dream Theater in a while. I think I’m more of a heavy fan and I like the more metal riffs that are on the album.
Petrucci: Cool. I’m glad you are enjoying it. It’s a lot of fun to play live too.
I’m thinking that maybe all of your writing sessions should be all of you guys sequestered away at Yonderbarn from now on.
Petrucci: Cool. I’m glad you are enjoying it. It’s a lot of fun to play live too. You know what? It worked out great. I have no problem going right back up there for the next album.
From Distance Over Time, here is an animation video for the song “Fall Into The Light.”
What does that mean to you all to take an increment of time out of your lives and be together like that? I mean you’re all in your 50s. Give or take. That’s significant. I mean you’ve all got lives, right?
Petrucci: You know it’s been like that for a long time. You know we all started families pretty early, so you know, trying to strike a balance between what we do for professionally and all the time that we’re away raising our families and stuff. It’s always been something that we face. But I think actually as you get older and the kids are adults and stuff it actually becomes a bit easier. You hear that all the time with people whether they’re in the music profession or not that they’re able to have more of that time. And so you know taking a trip like that with the guys, it’s really that the timing was really perfect.
And when was the last time you were able to do something like that? We’ve got to be talking decades.
Petrucci: It’s not often we do something like that. I mean, we stayed together when we were recording Images and Words 25 years ago. But when we first started, we were just living in a house together while we were recording it. On a lot of the other albums like, well, you know, book hotels, and some guys come and go, and some guys will stay in hotels, and we’ll work out of a studio for a few months. But we’ve never really actually went away like a retreat together, and we’ve never done that before. So this is the first time.
Right on. The results speak for themselves. I think the new album is really concise and and it’s fresh.
Petrucci: Thank you.
So I mentioned that I was attending Dream Theater to a friend yesterday and he said “oh, the concept album band,” and that got me thinking. Are you that? Is that something that you do every time you make an album?
Petrucci: No. I mean we do have to concept albums, but that’s two out of fourteen.
Petrucci: Yeah. The one that we’re doing now, Scenes, it came out 20 years ago. So, it was almost 20 years later when we did The Astonishing, our second one. So, you know, it’s a part of what we do. But obviously there are more standard album features that feel more normal for us, so only two out of fourteen are concept albums.
Distance Over Time is the fourteenth studio album from Dream Theater and it was released on February 22nd, 2019 through Inside Out Music.
Maybe it’s because your songs are so cinematic that people just assume that you’re spewing a concept at them.
Petrucci: Yeah, we’re kind of, like you know I when I was younger, I was really influenced by Iron Maiden, and they always have those long story-driven tracks. “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and stuff like that. So, I think that’s probably where that comes from. You can hear that on our very first album that came out in 1989 with a song called “The Killing Hand.” You know it’s just like prog music is the perfect setting to be able to do that story-driven music. It’s very dramatic and cinematic and stuff. It’s a lot of fun.
The last tour that I saw was the Images and Words 25th-anniversary tour and I remember walking out of that thinking I don’t ever need to see your band again because nothing’s going to top that. And last night I kind of felt like you topped it. It was really great to see Metropolis done in full.
Petrucci: That’s really cool. You know we put a lot of work, as we always do, into the production side so that show becomes more than just about the songs, but about the experience. And so we want people to have a really stimulating visual experience, and we try to do something new, and this Scenes show that we did is nothing like the original tour when the album came out 20 years ago. This has an all-new animated content really depicting the story. And so, you know, that’s what we try to do. Every time we go out we try to do something fresh and unique and give people a new experience. Especially people that have seen the band multiple times like yourself.
So I really felt like you had a graphic novel element happening. Like a lot of the animations and some of the comic book style artwork that was in the background. It made me feel like you were pushing more towards a graphic novel with what you were trying to show visually.
Petrucci: That’s 100 percent correct. The artist who creates all of that his name is Wayne Joyner. He’s based out of Atlanta. And his concept was to present it like a graphic novel like you’re unfolding the pages. So you’re right on with that.
Putting the visuals together for something like that that can take as long as or longer than creating the music, am I right?
Petrucci: Yeah, exactly. It does take a long time. We start really really early on. We even started before the new album was done, you know?
Check out the music video for “Untethered Angel,” the first released from Distance Over Time.
That’s got to be interesting; “Here’s what we’re thinking but we don’t actually have a finished product yet. Get going.”
Petrucci: We have to think about being way, way, way in advance you know? It’s the only way. Otherwise, that content takes a long time, and backdrops need to be made. And screen design and set design. It’s not something that happens in a month.
I felt like watching that show last night, it needed to be captured live. Are you thinking that you might document this tour in any way shape or form and release it for sale?
Petrucci: Yeah, we will eventually. We’re talking about where to do that. We have a long world tour ahead of us. There’s gonna be a lot of cool locations. I mean Toronto would have been actually really cool but you know we’ll do that later in the tour for sure.
Right on. Kevin (Dream Theater’s publicist) was just telling me that you were going to announce a beer that’s based on the title “Barstool Warrior” from your new album is that indeed true?
Petrucci: Yeah absolutely. It’s the first time we’re doing a partnership with a brewery, and we’re going to have a Dream Theatre beer called Barstool Warrior. It’s a Pilsner style. The brewery that’s making it is on Long Island which is very appropriate that’s where the band is from. That’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re going to premiere that on April 11th and then it will be available everywhere.
Right on. You’ll have some Canadian fans crossing the border to pick that up it’s hard to bring liquor over the border with our LCBO mandate for controlling all of our booze. Tell me a little bit about that track that is the bonus song on the new album, “Viper King.” I actually googled it because it almost sounded like a cover it was so different than all of the other material on the album.
Petrucci: Well, we wrote that, you know, during the meat of the sessions. It wasn’t supposed to be a bonus track but when we were looking at all the songs and how they fit together, that song seemed to be just a little bit different. It’s a little bit more of a fun, partyish Zeppelin, Deep Purple-ish (song). So it seemed like it was more fitting as a bonus track. But it’s a good track. We had a lot of fun jamming on that, and it really rocks and shows a kind of a fun jammy side of the band.
Shots of Dream Theater at The Sony Centre in Toronto, ON on November 12, 2017.
I was surprised to see the number of people that have sat in their living rooms and recorded it and posted those videos as YouTube clips online. I wasn’t expecting that for a bonus track.
Petrucci: I haven’t seen that. I got to check that out.
Well, It’s out there. When you’re tinkering around on your guitar are you always recording your ideas and riffs? And if so, how big is your hard drive full of ideas that you’ve never used?
Petrucci: Well you know what, I mean if I come across like a cool riff or melody or idea I always recorded it right away, but I could do it very simply on my iPhone on the voice memos, and then I label it. It’s very easy to get back to access anywhere. In fact, we went in to do Distance Over Time (and) I had a huge collection. And sometimes after only you know 30-second little bits or riffs and ideas. Sometimes they are longer. For example, “Fall Into The Light” is largely based on riffs that I collected and ideas that just began while I’m playing my guitar something hits me, and I think “hey, that’s really cool, I should record that.” I don’t step into a studio or anything, I just very basically record it on my iPhone. It’s a really easy way to capture that, and it works out great.
Cool. As a band of musicians considered to be amongst the best in your class, I’m curious what you draw inspiration from. How often do you hear a modern band and find yourself impressed by them?
Petrucci: I mean there’s so many amazing players out there. It’s not difficult to do. I’ve actually done two guitar camps I’ve hosted on Long Island in New York, and I had some of the most amazing players. You know. My good friends as guest instructors, that was inspiring enough, and that was the week before I recorded guitar solos for this album. So that was incredible to see and to experience. People like Tony MacAlpine, Tosin Abasi and Andy James. And the list goes on. It was pretty amazing.
Let’s take you back about ten years to the music video for “Wither” from Dream Theater’s tenth album, Black Clouds & Silver Linings.
I liked that James mentioned last night that fans were saying you should just consider playing the entirety of Distance Over Time live. Was that ever a consideration for you? Did you feel that might be a bit much after doing that with The Astonishing?
Petrucci: Yeah I think it would be a bit much. I mean I’m really, really happy, we all are, that fans are responding so positively to the new record. We’re so happy about that. And all the songs were kind of written in a way where they’re sort of meant to be played live. They were demoed live. They have a lot of energy, but I think especially since we’re playing Scenes in its entirety we want to offer a bit more variety in the first set of the night.
Do you have a Dream Theater “Spinal Tap moment” that you might be able to share?
Petrucci: Oh there’s lots of them. I mean I’ve done things like walked/fallen off the stage. I’ve walked straight off, which isn’t fun. But yeah they happen all the time.
If your career as a guitarist hadn’t worked out for whatever reason did you have a backup plan?
Petrucci: I never had a backup plan, no. I always had tunnel vision. So I’d be in trouble if it didn’t work out.
Were you good at anything else? Were you an artist or a painter or a writer?
Petrucci: Yeah I was. Since I was a kid, I was an artist. And you know I write poetry and stories, and I think that kind of is very naturally feeds its way into the music and what I do. Because it’s the lyrics where I use all that experience to continue to write for the band. So, you know, that’s why The Astonishing project was so satisfying because it kind of encompassed all that stuff you know with art and music and video and movies and story and plot and characters and, like a novel, it was a very deeply creative project.
I’ve always felt like your band or members of your band were into the comic book medium. I’m pretty sure a couple of your albums had artwork by Dave McKean on them.
Petrucci: Yeah, you know it’s funny that none of us are actually into comic books. But we sometimes have used that sort of imagery, but none of us are actually comic book readers. It’s a funny thing.
The Astonishing is Dream Theater’s previous record and from it, the music video for the epic “Our New World.”
Hmm. And lastly, if there was ever a rock biography movie about Dream Theater put together what would you say would be the feel-good moment of that film?
Petrucci: You know that there’s a lot of different moments that that were really great fun moments for us. I mean you know you could take the first time we heard our music on the radio with “Pull Me Under” becoming a rock hit back in ‘92. Or some very special shows that we played whether it be a Radio City or Madison Square Garden, places like that around the world. We’ve been doing it for a long time, and there are so many really really amazing moments that we’ve experienced. It’s pretty incredible. We’re very, very lucky.
Do you think you’ll ever do like a live presentation of an album again like you’ve done with (live albums) Made in Japan and Number of the Beast?
Petrucci: I mean that’s yet to be seen. It’s not something we’ve done in a while. And we have so much material of our own to play. So you know it’s hard to tell. I wouldn’t say no, but it’s not something that’s on the agenda right now.
Upcoming European Tour Dates:
06/10 – St Petersburg, Russian Federation
06/11 – Moscow, Russian Federation
06/13 – Firenze, Italy
06/15 – Oberhausen, Germany
06/16 – Donington Park, United Kingdom
06/17 – Esch Sur Alzette, Luxembourg
06/19 – Oberhausen, Sweden
06/21 – Brynäs, France
06/29 – Clisson, Norway
06/30 – Aarhus, Denmark
07/03 – Sofia, Bulgaria
07/05 – Verona, Italy
07/07 – Barcelona, Spain
07/12 – Saint Julien En Genevois, France
07/13 – Warsaw, Poland
07/07 – Vizovice, Czech Republic
07/20 – Mainz, Germany
07/21 – Winterbach, Germany
07/24 – Tolmin, Slovenia
07/26 – Sibiu, Romania