AN INTERVIEW WITH
Like the interview with Yngwie Malmsteen, now about a year ago, the interview with Dream Theater remained highly uncertain until only one or two days before the occasion presented itself. But eventually I heard I would be teamed up with bassist John Myung for half an hour around noon of Wednesday, February 15th, the day of their second concert at the Utrecht Vredenburg venue.
I arrived at the hotel well in time, waiting with some other interviewers for various band members to appear. A few minutes too late they started arriving, most of them with their hair still wet from the shower. I was lead into a secluded corner of a conference room where a really sleepy and, quote, "really spacy" John Myung joined me for your chat. I noticed he was wearing a very stylish black "Ytsejam Internet Mailing List" T-shirt.
We only had half an hour, so I decided to kick off right away so as to take maximum advantage of the time allotted.
What did you do prior to Majesty, and how did you meet up with the other guys?
Myung: The background before Majesty was just really a very simple lifestyle. Just going to school and jammin' after school, with John and other bands that existed back then. Just living with my parents and going to school. Simple suburban teenage life. Prior to going to Berklee (Berklee School of Music, ED.)...me and John made a decision to go there, and that's where the band was formed. There we met Mike. When he came into the picture we had the guitar-bass-drum nucleus, and we were constantly writing during college. And we grew up with Kevin, so it was just a natural thing for him to play with us. That's when the band formed.
What happened during the long time that passed between your debut album, "When Dream and Day Unite", and the second album, "Images and Words"?
Myung: Basically we were, like, really anxious and young, and we jumped on the first deal that we got, which was probably a mistake that we made. We shouldn't have done that, because the way the deal was constructed and everything was just really bad and there wasn't much of a future in it. So it took us a bit of time to step out of what we had done, you know, legally, and Charlie left the band and it took us a while to find James. So there you have it - legal problems, band problems, things of that that nature just take so much time. We took a year and a half looking for James and we spent a year and a half just trying to get out of our contract. Just hassles, basically, pretty much.
I guess it hits the spot if I say Dream Theater have been very prolific at writing songs, especially in the last, say, three years. How do you go about writing songs, and when do you write them? Your tour manager just told me you'll be rehearsing and possibly writing some material this afternoon?
Myung: We don't usually do that, but we're starting to, because it's really hard for us to get better at what we do if it only happens once every two or three years, after touring. We really have to start balancing touring and writing. That's why we take every opportunity possible to get together and to work on ideas that we have. I've got a couple of ideas already, though not a lot.
Which musicians influence your songwriting most?
Myung: I am probably influenced a lot by...I don't know. It's weird. Like, in the beginning I really used to look up to a lot of people and stuff, but as I got older I try to not follow any particular person, try to, like, seek my own type of cultivation and see what I can come up with. I got a band, so whenever I come up with something, well, it's interaction. That develops into songs. I think the matter of outside influences is different for everybody. I mean, like, Mike listen to a lot of hardcore things and heavy bands, Sepultura and all that, so, I guess it's different for everybody.
I already brushed upon your vast musical output. Don't you think it would have been a nice idea to release a double or even triple CD around now instead of the "Live at the Marquee" CD two years ago?
Myung: We didn't really do "Live at the Marquee" as a live record; that was sortof a souvenir from the tour, to tie us over between "Images and Words" and "Awake", because it took us so long to get over to Europe that we didn't know when it was going to stop and the label got offered this opportunity to record at the Marquee so we did it. I don't think it is a real live record. For instance I know we'd like to record several nights, not just one show, to be able to pick the best versions that came from the tapes. I hope we'll do something like that in the future, but I think it's kinda too soon to do something like that. That's something a band does after they have, say, 3 or 4 albums out.
What's this I've been hearing on the grapevine, about a forthcoming EP of sorts that should, among other things, contain the magnificent 20-minute epos "A Change of Seasons" that has so far only been performed live?
Myung: We might be recording the EP but that all depends on things. Right now things are very very high up in the air. It's, like, touring time, and we kinda don't know what's going to happen: Whether we're going back to the States or whether we're gonna tour more or sit down and record a new album or record an EP. It's not certain yet. If it happened, I'd like to write some new stuff for it. Maybe, like, some live tracks, or maybe something we haven't used yet. But definitely some new stuff on there as well.
Which song on your new album, "Awake", did you enjoy writing most?
Myung: Em...(thinks rather lengthily) the song I probably enjoyed writing most was "Scarred". We don't play it live, however, because of the way we have our set constructed now, like, it would be too much. As it is right now most of the set is new material, with only, like, 2 or 3 songs from "Images and Words". To put "Scarred" in it would be, like, going too long.
Are there any songs in the entire Dream Theater catalogue that will never and have never been played in front of an audience?
Myung: We probably...I dunno. We'll probably never do "Space Dye Vest". That has nothing to do with the fact that Kevin wrote it, it's just that it's more of a studio piece. When we first did it we knew it was going to be a studio piece.
Speaking of Kevin, I hope you haven't been asked this question too often, but what are the details behind his leaving?
Myung: He left because he just wanted to do his own thing, you know. He was just so wrapped up in what he was doing he had no interest in being with us, unfortunately. So that's why he decided to leave.
Is Derek Sherinian, your current tour keyboard player, a permanent addition to the band?
Myung: Not yet but, you know, we'll see. He's a great guy to get along with. It might work out.
Could you name the best and the worst thing about being in Dream Theater?
Myung: The best thing about it is that I think we all, like, complement each other and we all, like, have a way of bringing out the best in each other when we write. And we influence each other in a way, like, Mike and John influence me in the way I play sometimes, that I wouldn't normally play. If you come up with a really weird part you work it out together. That's, like, the best part. We write, we have a chemistry, you know. We interact.
The worst bit, probably, is trying to balance the whole touring scene, and the personal aspect of your life, trying to get that together. That's hard. That's a tough thing.
In whose bassplayer's shoes would you like to be, if only for a while perhaps? Who do you look up to?
Myung: I don't know. I look up to a lot of people. I look up to Geddy a lot (Geddy Lee of Rush, ED.), I look up to...it's weird. I think it's really important to kindof explore what they do, not so much follow in their footsteps. To idolise someone too much would be negative, it acts as a handicap. A lot of musicians look up to Pat Martini, Peter Gabriel, you know...but it doesn't help.
What is to you the music release of 1994?
Myung: I don't have one.
When, in many years, you die, which song would you like to be played at your funeral?
Myung: I don't know. (Thinks for a long time indeed) I don't know if I'd want music.
What was the worst moment of your life?
Myung: (Thinks for a very long time) I don't know. I think it's too personal a question, perhaps.
I reckoned it might indeed be quite personal; it's not a question every person is willing to answer. It might also be the fact that he was really feeling spaced and not too well. I weakened the question by asking if perhaps there was something less bad that he would like to share with the readers. He suddenly went really sad and started to talk softer.
Myung: Probably Kev leavin'. It was just so weird what happened. I'd finished my bass tracks and then I flew home because they were gonna start mixing in New York, and then I went home for a couple of days and then I got a call from Kev going like, "I don't know how to say this, I don't really want to do this over the phone..." and then, like, I knew right then that he was going to say something like that and he did. I think I'm still getting over that. We wrote music together for over 10 years and we grew up as kids, you know, and now he's not in the picture any more.
It was quite obvious that these guys had been really close, and for those brief couple of moments I think I glanced into the soul of an occasionally sad John Myung. I found myself hoping the split wouldn't affect his personality permanently. I was glad I could pass on to the much more light-hearted "words to react to" section.
Myung: No sleep.
Charlie Dominici (the singer on their debut album).
Myung: Wedding. Mike's wedding. He sang in the wedding band on Mike's wedding.
Myung: (Smiles) Water.
Chris Collins (the singer in Majesty, even before their debut album).
Myung: Good kid.
Myung: MTV's Headbangers Ball. I had talked with tour managers and other band members "off the record" before and the general idea was that they thought her hair was really silly and they didn't understand how the hell she could be allowed to present (and produce) such a program. I have to say John Myung's reply was a bit disappointing here.
The next word was "Derek Sherinian".
Myung: Pleasure to know.
Myung: Scary earthquake.
Myung: Great band.
MCA (the record company they did their debut album with).
Myung: Shrewd record company.
Jaco Pastorius (deceased bassist, formerly of Weather Report).
Myung: Probably one of the most influential bass players that I've studied.
Myung: Great bass player.
What do you see for Dream Theater in the future? What will the next step in the band's evolution be?
Myung: Em...just keep what we're doing. Just have the next album be the best we can possibly do. Just do the best we can, don't compromise, and hope that it constantly grows.
John finished his coffee and left for another interview. I could see he was looking forward to it as much as he had been to talking with me, i.e. not very at all. I spotted vocalist James LaBrie walking around without much to do for a minute, so I took a quick unscheduled opportunity to ask him something as well.
James had said in an MTV interview some nights before that Dream Theater was a good band to be singer in. I had really wondered at that remark, because there's always something going on musically that the singer could disrupt by not shutting up. Could he please elaborate on that a bit?
LaBrie: I mean there always comes a point when it's the voice that's going to carry the song. And, like I said before, this is the best band in the world for a singer to be in because of the construction of the music. It allows the singer to have the ultimate situation in expression. It's a singer's dream because of the diversity of the music it allows the singer to be that much more diverse as well.
I quickly took out some words for him to react to, too. I didn't have my question sheet with me so I only recalled two. The first was Geoff Tate, singer of Queensrÿche.
LaBrie: He's incredible. He's an incredible singer.
LaBrie: I like the band.
Already I was getting accusative glances from a girl that was going to do a radio interview with the whole band (including the recording of some really astoundingly silly radio station calls for her program, a Dutch hardrock show called "Bad Grrl").
I went up to the bar again to meet with the tour manager - who spent most of his time musing over past experiences where he had toured with Iron Maiden and all - and tried to get an extra arrangement to ask guitarist John Pettruci some questions of a rather more guitar-oriented nature. A hole was found in the schedule. After soundcheck and lunch, I could have 10 minutes with him early in the evening. Not a lot, but more than nothing and enough to ask him the few questions I had lined up.
(QUITE A LEAP IN TIME, DURING WHICH I HUNG AROUND A LOT AND, AMONG OTHER THINGS, INTERVIEWED FATES WARNING, THE SUPPORT ACT)
I was ushered into a dressing room where John Petrucci sat alone, relaxed, feet on a table. It was truly as if I entered some sacred realm. John is a really professional guy, totally void of any delusions of grandeur, enabling the interviewer annex fan to really feel at ease. Really modest, too. We chatted for a bit, but when we started to started to talk about guitars his eyes lit up.
Why do you endorse Ibanez?
Petrucci: Because, when we first did the first album, we did it in Pennsylvania where they have their factory, and the engineer introduced me to the A&R guy and they sent some guitars over. I never really played them but they sent, like, five guitars over, and I recorded the first album with these guitars and I developed this kind of relationship with the guy and been with him for since, like, '88. It started off as a convenience and changed into a kind of love. I loved them as soon as I tried them and now, you know, they custom-build anything. They've done a seven- string for me and all the six-strings, they've been great with advertising, and been cooperative with the label and the management with, like, give-aways and contests, and they're just a great company and the people are really cool. They're like, cutting edge, you know. I wanted to be part of something like that.
Dream Theater has taken a while to break through, with the debut never really becoming more than a cult effort, but now you've got a lot of respect and awards and stuff. I read in a guitar magazine poll that you came third in the list of best guitar players of all time after Jimi Hendrix and Eddie van Halen, you were the best guitarist of 1994 and Dream Theater the best band. How did that affect you?
Petrucci: It's, like amazing, you know. I guess I grew up playing guitar and reading, you know, these magazines. And going to shows, going to see these guys and reading about these guitar players and seeing them on the covers, and reading the columns. I was the onlooker, the kid, and now I'm staring from these pages, I'm on the cover, I'm doing these things. It's really weird, in a way, because I still feel like this same guy, I mean, the same kid, sittin' there practising. And suddenly there's all this recognition. It feels, you know, in that respect, very surreal, like "wait a second, what the hell is going on". Another aspect, you know, is that it's really encouraging. You know, they're my peers, the guitar players, and if they respect what I do that's really encouraging to me. Keep going, keep practising, get better.
Do you use special tunings or something? In what way are your guitars customised? What other special stuff do you use?
Petrucci: I don't really use special tunings. That's about it. Every once in a while I experiment with tuning changes, though. I use D'Addario strings, they're gauge 9 to 46, so the lower strings are a bit heavier, and I use Dunlop Jazz 3 picks. The pickups are custom...the guitars...the wood is bass wood, the necks are pretty standard but the frets are different. The placement of the switches and the knobs and everything is a bit different, for my hands. I only use two humbuckers, there's no middle pickup. The pickups are directly mounted into the body, and I have a three way toggle and the cool thing is this middle position is really clean, really cool.
If you take together all the Dream Theater albums, which song would you say had the best guitar bits in it, the bits you like most?
Petrucci: "Under a Glass Moon", the solo section, has some good bits. And on the new stuff, off "Awake", I like "Erotomania" and "Voices".
Are they also the most difficult parts to play?
Petrucci: There are a lot of difficult parts. There's some difficult parts in "Take the Time", some in "Erotomania". I think any song has its share, you know, sections and passages that need a little bit more concentration.
OK. Now for a few words to react to. Most of them are just names of guitar players that I'd like to know your opinion about. The first is Yngwie Malmsteen.
Petrucci: I am actually really influenced by him, you know. I was, like, 15 when I heard him for the first time and I freaked out and learned all the solos. I learned all that shit, when I first heard him in Steeler, and then Alcatrazz, and I learned a lot of stuff, and I learned "Rising Force" and I was so into it...and then I got out of it. I met him recently, a few months ago, and it was really cool.
Petrucci: He's amazing, you know, but he hear he isn't doing to well. It's really sad. "Perpetual Burn", the solo album, was amazing stuff. I remember hearing that and that was really impressive. Steve Morse.
Petrucci: He's my favourite. I'm actually friends with him, so we get chances to jam together, it's really fuckin' so cool. He's the greatest musician.
Petrucci: I love him, too. The way he phrases, he's very lyrical, he's very expressive, you know. Sometimes when I am playing certain parts or certain melodies I think of him, the way he phrases stuff.
Petrucci: He's great, too; you're mentioning all the greatest! Someone that I totally was into for a long time as well. And the guy just freaks me out, it's like he can do anything. He just seems like he'd do anything on a guitar.
Who have I left out?
Petrucci: There's so many great guitar players. Al DiMeola, Alan Holdsworth, Mike Stern, John Scofield, so many great players, it's ridiculous. Van Halen, Steve Howe, Paul Gilbert, Nuno, those guys are all wailing, totally. Alex Lifeson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, oh man, there's so many amazing guitar players.
In retrospect, the 10 minutes indeed seemed to last too short. Within this really short time we had become, like, well, like friends almost, like we were talking about guitars and guitar players in a bar, each of us a large pint of beer in front of us. It was quite amazing, and the adrenalin shot still hasn't quite worn off.
After this, it took another hour or so before Fates Warning started the show, the whole concert forming the perfect climax to this excellent day. But more about that can be read in the "Concert Reviews" article.
Written February 1995
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