'A Retreat with Gear': Guitarist John Petrucci on How Dream Theater Bonded over Barbecue While Writing 14th Album

Mark Maryanovich
Dream Theater

When Dream Theater made its first significant splash with its 1992 sophomore album, Images and Words, the Long Island quintet’s combination of prog, metal and melody stood out like a sore thumb in the landscape of popular music. You could argue that the same holds true today, yet the band has been resolute in sticking to its sonic guns.

Two Grammy nominations and 15 million in worldwide album sales later (according to its management), Dream Theater is preparing to release Distance Over Time, theband's 14th studio album, on Feb. 22, in multiple configurations. Having already released videos for album tracks “Untethered Angel” and “Fall Into the Light,” the fivesome today delivered the official animated video for “Paralyzed,” which can be seen below.

With Distance Over Time, Dream Theater once again demonstrates its penchant for writing music that strives to be technically rigorous while also rewarding from a melodic standpoint. Keyboardist Jordan Rudess and frontman James LaBrie stack the new material with layers of harmony that become especially apparent as the whole band executes a host of dramatic chord changes, which has become one of its hallmarks. Meanwhile, guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Mangini continue to exert their prodigious chops, with Petrucci's thrashy riffs sustaining a level of aggression not often expected from an act approaching its 35th year.

That said, as Petrucci tells Billboard, human connection remains vital to Dream Theater’s creative process — whether it be finding the thread between the music and the emotional underpinning of its lyrics or the members’ bonds with one another. Case in point: For Distance Over Time, the band decided to room together, sequestering itself for 18 days at Yonderbarn Studio in the Catskills -- a decision that Petrucci says had a profound impact on the tone and shape of the album. 

Read our conversation with the guitarist below. 

The last time the whole band stayed together while working on an album was for Images and Words. Looking back during its 25th anniversary in 2017, you said there was a lot of camaraderie during that recording. What about this time?

John Petrucci With Images, we stayed together when we were recording, but we didn’t write it like that. We’ve kind of never done this before. The closest we came was for [1999’s] Scenes From a Memory, where we lived in the same area, staying in hotels and writing in the studio. It’s something we’ve done quite often, where we’d lock out a studio and the guys would commute, or, if they lived far away, stay at local hotels. But this is really the first time that we all went away.

So the camaraderie couldn’t have been better. The vibe was just so cool. It made for a really relaxed session because nobody had to go anywhere, drive home or leave at a certain time. We just had this really relaxed schedule where we could constantly think about the music -- whether it was while we were writing together, or the following day making breakfast and bringing up something from the night before.

You were living together like roommates, even cooking for one another. What did you learn about your bandmates on a personal level?

At this point, with the amount of time we’ve spent together, we all know each other really well. There’s no new surprises. But the cool thing about this was that, even though you’re onstage and on a bus together when you’re touring, you find ways to kind of be in your own world a lot. It’s not like you’re just hanging out all the time. But in this situation, we finally had a chance to just hang out, to do things like cook breakfast and barbecue together, to have some wine or bourbon together, reminisce and tell stories, watch TV or whatever it was.

And then, the more casual conversations would start to come up about family and “How are the kids doing? What’s going on in your life?” It was a chance to really hang out as friends. Picture that you’re friends with a group of guys, and maybe so often you’ll meet for an event or something. That’s not the same as if you all go away together. That’s when you can let loose and have deeper conversations.

It was almost like a retreat -- only with gear.

It was totally a retreat with gear. It’s like, “Let’s write some music in between figuring out what we’re going to barbecue tonight and the next episode of Shark Tank.”

The last time there was a lineup change was in 2010 when founding drummer Mike Portnoy left, and you said it was very difficult because your families were very intertwined. How much is that still the case?

It’s still the case with Mike. We just hung out over the holidays. Our families will always be intertwined. Our wives are friends, and our kids are friends. With the five of us now, a lot of us find ourselves in very similar situations. Our kids are the same age, where they’ve all either graduated college or are into their careers or are adults living in apartments. So we’re all onto the next phase of our lives, except for Mike, whose kids are little still.

What else did you bond over?

A couple of the guys are into golf. A few of us are into cooking and barbecuing. We’ll talk about our kids’ path in college and things like that. TV shows, movies, sports, football -- all the things that friends talk about. It’s sort of like this little club. This was one of the first times in a long time that we highlighted that, like, “Let’s embrace that and celebrate it and make a record that really speaks to that.”

What would you recommend that bands do so they can prevent losing that human connection?

So many things will happen, for better or worse, in your career, and it’s very easy for those things to bog you down or consume you. But when you get a chance to look back, you realize that those were not the things that were really important. When you reminisce, you don’t say, “Remember that time you got sued by so-and-so?” No, you say, “Remember when we played here and it was unbelievable, and we went out for that incredible meal and that funny thing happened?” Those are the important moments.

Given the new album title, how much did the Images and Words anniversary tour make you more conscious of the passage of time?

My favorite part of those shows was when James would take some time to tell stories in between songs and give the audience a little bit of insight as to what was going on in our lives and how different our lives were back then. I could’ve gone for even more of that. It was good to connect to that again.

The band has done concept albums, but this one has a wider range of subjects. What was on your mind with the lyrics you contributed?

For “Pale Blue Dot,” the big epic on the record with an interstellar kind of sound, a bunch of things came together in my life serendipitously that made me want to write about the Voyager mission and Carl Sagan’s famous quote about the pale blue dot. It was very specifically about a certain reflection I was doing at that particular point. For “Barstool Warrior,” I put on my storyteller’s hat. I thought the sound of that song was very old-school ’70s Genesis-style prog. I pictured Peter Gabriel telling one of his stories. And then with [first single] “Untethered Angel” and “Paralyzed,” I wanted to write about some real-life topics that I was thinking about.

Watch the video for “Paralyzed” below:

But the important thing with a lyric is that it has to blend seamlessly with the musical style. You have to really be in touch and in tune with the mood of the song when you’re coming up with a topic. When you get that right, when it clicks, the song just comes across as one big giant connected emotion.

Dream Theater always has focused on constantly improving as players. What would you tell John Petrucci, circa 1992, about his technique? Would your younger self’s chops light a fire under you now?

Oh, yeah. There are some things that, when I was younger, I did a lot better than I do now. [Laughs.] And there are some things I do now that I never would’ve thought of back then. I think what I would’ve told myself is, “You don’t have to make changes just for the sake of doing that.”

How would your current material challenge who you were as a younger player?

Oh, man, it would challenge me a lot. There’s definitely some stylistic things that have changed. My approach is a lot heavier and aggressive. When I compare albums like Images and Words to later records like [2003’s] Train of Thought or [2007’s] Systematic Chaos, the technical elements are way more advanced, so my younger self would have to wrap his head around how to get these techniques down. But my younger self would also have the innate fluency to be able to do it. It’s a weird thing, because there are certain things that were easier then that are harder now, and there are certain things that are easier now that were harder then. It’s not just a steady graph.