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:: Spotlight :: Interview with Dream Theatre

By: Carmine Pascuzzi

In June, long running act Dream Theatre made their long awaited return to the scene with their tenth full-length effort ‘Black Clouds & Silver Linings’ – an album that’s been hailed as another masterpiece for the New York based progressive metal act.

In the lead-up to the band’s return to Australian shores, I caught up with keyboardist Jordan Rudess in Porto (Portugal) to talk about the band’s upcoming dates, the climate within the music scene and how it relates to Dream Theatre’s insular world, and the overall response to their latest magnum opus.

“The reaction from most people to ‘Black Clouds & Silver Linings’ has been kind of interesting. I think the album has a nice balance of all the elements that make up the Dream Theatre sound. Some people have claimed that some of our albums have been too heavy, and then there have been some that are saying that we need a little more of this, or a little less of that. Of course, people are still saying the same things about this album, but I think this album is just that more balanced out in regards to having a bit of everything that we’re been known to put into our music, and people have been responding positively to that.”

In a recent chat I had with vocalist James LaBrie, he claimed that while many believed that ‘Black Clouds & Silver Linings’ was the band’s strongest release in many years, he was at a loss to pinpoint just what it was that many had felt give the album something the others didn’t. When asked the same question, Rudess too is a little lost pinning the album’s success to any one particular thing.

“This album was kind of conceived in a similar way to our last album ‘Systematic Chaos’ (2007), in a sense that we went into the studio with a fresh, kind of open plate frame of mind. There were no real preconceived ideas stylistically prior to heading into the studio. We just wanted to get in there and write some really good Dream Theatre music. So that helps in a way to open things up stylistically to whatever comes kind of comes in. That’s not to say that the output is going to sound hodgepodge like. What it means is that we were a little more in a clearer and freer state of mind to write our music. So that’s what this album was kind of all about. Things didn’t actually become any more defined about what we wanted to create until we had created a bunch of it. So as things were coming together, it was only then that we could see where we needed a little more of this, and a little less of that. For instance, if we felt that we were leaning a little too much on the heavier side of things, then we would focus a little more on writing some quieter and more atmospheric stuff to balance things out. We needed a ballad to help rectify that balance, so we wrote a ballad. I think that way of working really worked for us on this album. I also thought that ‘Systematic Chaos’ was a really great album. But I guess it goes to show that you can never really know what’s going to totally hit with people.”

Drummer Mike Portnoy is well known for being the driving force behind Dream Theatre. But in terms of creativity, and particularly when it came to putting together ‘Black Clouds & Silver Linings’, Dream Theatre is driven creatively in the musical sense by three individuals within the band.

“Sometimes in the past, the guys might come in with a particular concept that they want to pursue. No so much as a concept album kind of idea, but more of an overall concept in terms of how they want the album to feel and sound. A lot of those ideas can come from Portnoy or John Petrucci (Guitarist). They’re always cooking up something. If there’s going to be a direction, they’ll generally propose it. But on these last couple of albums, that didn’t really happen. Portnoy is definitely a driving force within the band. He does things like devising the set lists for each show when we go out and play and he’ll come up with other ideas, like the ‘Progressive Nation’ tours we’ve been undertaking for the last couple of years. He’ll figure out which bands we’ll take out with us, and take charge of organising everything based around that. The rest of us don’t have much to do with that side of things. But at the other end, when it comes to writing the music, then it really comes down to me, Portnoy and Petrucci. And it’s really the three of us that write the music for Dream Theatre, especially in ‘Systematic Chaos’ and ‘Black Clouds & Silver Linings’. It was really just the three of us. Nobody else really had anything to do with it. Portnoy kind of takes it from there, and ensures that all the other stages come through as the producer of the album we all start to do the tracking. That’s when everyone else starts to do their thing. John Myung (Bass) will come down and lays down his parts, and then LaBrie puts his finishing touches to everything.”

One of the really surprising aspects of ‘Black Clouds & Silver Linings’ is that upon its initial release, the album became the fastest selling Dream Theatre release to date. Although the news itself doesn’t sound all that remarkable, given the economic climate, and the fact that the album was released in a lavish three disc set (The ‘Black Clouds & Silver Linings’ album, an instrumental version of the album and a six track covers disc), it certainly defied the current trend of diminishing CD sales.

“The special edition version of the album was something that we had discussed about doing in the past. And it’s something that’s currently very trendy to do. You know, putting out albums, and letting the audience have a little more flexibility in the way they listen to it, and what they want to do with it, is something that artists and labels have to consider these days. And in this case, Portnoy really pushed it through to make it happen. He pushed with both the record company and with management to have it released in that form. And to see it released like that, and see it get to number four on the Billboard charts in America, that’s really saying something. There’s even a deluxe collector’s edition box set version as well. That includes the three discs, double vinyl, the DVD audio and a whole host of other stuff. It’s the DVD that really stands out, as it comes with all the stems. What I mean is that it allows you to separate all the instruments. That big box set pretty much gives you everything you could possibly ever want from this album! (Laughs) And that sold really well too. There’s this whole new movement these days. There’s people that want to load these files into their computers so that they can mix things themselves. That’s a big part of what’s going on. That’s the cutting edge you know, and we want to be a part of that.”

But while Dream Theatre is doing well for themselves within the music scene, Rudess is all too aware that the music industry isn’t the same as it once was.

“The music business is really in a weird state right now, and it has been for some time. It’s getting harder and harder for new bands to do anything, because record companies are just not picking up new bands like they used to. And there’s nowhere for these new bands to play either, with music venues either closing down or restricting access to up and coming bands. You kind of heard about these things, and initially, it kind of comes across as being pessimistic for the most part. On the one hand, you brush it off as simply being one point of view, and rationalise with yourself that things really can’t be that bad. But after a while, you realise that things really have changed. I really feel like it’s in a messed up state right now. We really do have more bands today than ever before. I used to think that the internet was great, because it provided all these avenues for the bands. Bands would figure it out and get their music out there to a whole new people of potential fans, all the while finding new and creative ways in using the internet to get their music out there. But as time goes on, I think a lot of bands are finding out that it’s a whole lot harder than it used to be. They’re finding that their competing against a whole lot of other bands out there that are trying to get their music across in the same way. I don’t know. I’m sure the industry will find a way to figure and straighten things out, and become a little clearer for people out there. But I guess for us in Dream Theatre, we have this world of our own. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been around so long, and we have this nice, solid and strong foundation that is there to support us in everything that we do. I think in general, Dream Theatre is on their own planet in terms of the business side of things, because things are pretty good.”

But that’s not to say that the down turn in the economy and the slow decline of the music industry hasn’t had an effect on Dream Theatre while out on the road in Europe.

“This most recent tour has been quite interesting. Although we took the ‘Progressive Nation’ package to Europe (Opeth, Bigelf and Unexpect were on the bill), the concert sales haven’t really been what we wanted them to be. So I think its really telling on that level because, you know, there’s no denying that there are issues with the economy around the world. And I think that reflects itself even in the shows. Interestingly enough, some of the gigs that we did on the July/August U.S. leg of this tour, you would see these big crowds of people that would be in the seats that were not so expensive, and then you would look down at the regular seats that were down there in front of us, and then some of those seats were empty. That in itself is very telling as well. But despite the numbers being a little lower than we hoped they would be, this tour has been pretty cool. We’re getting towards the end of our European tour right now. We’re pushing through to the end of October, and then we’ll get to go home for a month. And then as soon as we’re back out on the road, we’ll get to come and see you guys down there in Australia. We’re looking forward to coming down again. Portnoy has already done the research into which songs to play this time. He’s gone over that with a fine tooth comb for every city that we’re playing to ensure that there’s something of interest to everyone! (Laughs) So that’s always good. So you’re guaranteed whether you live in Melbourne, Sydney or wherever, you’ll hear something that you didn’t hear last time live. So even if you saw us last time, you’ll feel like seeing this tour is like the first time all over again!”

I would like to thank Jordan Rudess for his generous time, and Janine Morcos at Roadrunner Records for making the interview possible.

Tour dates in New Zealand & Australia

December 11 - PERTH, METRO CITY

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