“The Day You Feel You’ve Got Nothing Left to Learn, it’s the Beginning of the End”: Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci discusses New Album, Touring, Guitar Camps & more

Prog titans Dream Theater released their 14th studio full-length, Distance Over Time, on February 22 via InsideOut Music / Sony, and later this month, will embark on a North American “evening with” tour, playing two full sets, comprising a mix of new and old material, plus Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory in its entirety, to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the iconic concept album’s release.  The band’s newest effort certainly leaves no stone unturned in capturing the essence of what the DT name has meant and represented for over 30 years, but at the same time it also carries a distinctly modern feel, and witnesses the band succeed in attaining the often elusive balance between consistency and evolution. Guitarist, co-founder and songwriter John Petrucci spoke to Metal Assault last Tuesday March 5, about all things DT and JP. Enjoy the in-depth chat below, along with a taste of the new music, track listing, tour dates and everything else.

John, it’s good to have you again on Metal Assault. I wanted to pick your brains a little bit on the new album Distance Over Time, which just got released. There’s a lot of things I noticed, but the first thing that struck me was that it’s heavier than most of your past albums, and definitely heavier than your previous album, The Astonishing, at the very least. Is that something you agree with?

Oh yeah, in general it’s definitely one of the heavier albums we’ve done in a while. I think it’s probably because of the way that we did it. We went away together, we set up all of our gear in this amazing-sounding refurbished barn studio. The guitars were cranked up, the drums were loud, and it just sounded so good in that room, the heavy riffs just came out. You get in that primal riff mode when it sounds so cool, you know (laughs). But yeah, it’s definitely heavier than the last few, for sure.

That’s awesome, and makes a lot of sense. I think progressive rock or progressive metal is mainly defined as music that has progressions and variations within the songs. But it could also mean that a band progresses over time. This album of yours, it even carries a lot of modern prog elements. What do you think about that?

Yeah, all albums are different. I think every album encapsulates what the band is feeling creatively at that time in their lives, and there’s definitely an evolution. Along the way there’s a lot of experimenting. This is our 14th studio album, so every time we go in, we try to do something different while retaining what we think is unique about our identity as a band, and not losing that. The way this record has been produced and mixed, even though it’s kind of a more organic-sounding record, it’s not vintage or retro, it’s definitely pushing towards a more modern sound in the impact of it.

Like you said, every album is a reflection of what you’re going through at the time. It’s interesting that in the last couple of years you guys were doing a lot of the Images And Words 25th anniversary touring. How did that play into the creative process for Distance Over Time? I’m not sure if there are too many similarities between the two albums musically, but I wanted to get your take on it.

It is an interesting thing, that the run time of Images And Words is about an hour long, and Distance Over Time is also an hour long. So, when we were playing the whole Images And Words album in its entirety for the 25th anniversary tour, there was that realization, that it’s kind of cool having a record be of a length that you can listen to on a train ride or during a workout or something like that. A lot of our albums either max out the 78-minute CD length, or they are double-CD. So it was kind of cool to do that after reflecting on Images And Words. As a guitar player it sort of reconnected me a little bit more with the melodic style of some of the progressions. I kind of re-familiarized myself with the direction that we were going in back then. It definitely seeped its way into my subconscious, even my conscious creative process when working on some of the parts on this new album. So, I don’t know if there’s similarities in the sound of it or in the songwriting, but I would be lying if I said that something didn’t rub off from doing that anniversary tour.

And of course, for the last new album tour, you guys did the whole of The Astonishing live. Is that something you’ll be doing this time, even though you are also doing Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory?

We’re not going to be playing Distance Over Time in its entirety this time. The Astonishing was a very unique way of presenting a tour that was very special to that specific album, but this time we are still playing an “evening with”, which means no opening bands, we play two sets, and the second set, as you mentioned, is Scenes From A Memory in its entirety. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of its release, as it came out in 1999. But the first set will be more of a mix. So, definitely a bunch of songs from the new album because I think it’s going to be a ton of fun to play these songs live, but we’ll mix in some older material as well. We’re not going to play the new album in its entirety.

This upcoming tour surely brings a sense of nostalgia to people who picked up Scenes From A Memory when it came out in ’99, but it’s an equally exciting prospect for the younger fans who didn’t get to see that tour, don’t you think?

Oh sure! Scenes From A Memory was our first concept album, and a lot of younger fans who got turned on to Dream Theater through Train Of Thought or Systematic Chaos or later albums, they kind of missed that period when Scenes was released, and they probably didn’t get to see the tour we did on it back then. So, this is an opportunity for people to get to see that record and that story unfold in its entirety, which is how it’s meant to be seen. So it’s really exciting for people who were there in ’99-2000, to revisit it, but I think it’s more exciting specially for younger fans who’ve never seen it before. It’s a great opportunity for them.

So, this will be another anniversary tour for you, after you just did Images And Words a couple of years ago. Obviously a band that’s been around for as long as you guys have been, there’s these anniversaries coming up constantly. Is this something that you are doing for Scenes, or do you think more anniversary tours are to follow in the coming years?

Right, it’s interesting, and kind of weird, because one you start doing this type of thing, you wonder whether you’d be expected to do it every time, and whether it’s something that we should do every time an anniversary comes up. I don’t think we necessarily will. Images And Words, for us, is such an important album that doing the 25th anniversary tour was really paying tribute to it. And doing Scenes 20 years after its release and getting to sort of recreate it for a younger audience is really special because it’s a special album, it’s a concept album, there’s a lot of visuals, there’s storytelling. But to be committed to have to do that every time there’s an anniversary, I don’t think that’s going to be the way forward. I mean, just for example, our first album, When Dream and Day Unite, is celebrating its 30th year since release, as it came out in 1989. So, we’re not doing an anniversary tour for that record. There’s different ways for us to celebrate milestones of those releases. We don’t necessarily have to always do anniversary tours. But I think with some of the more special albums, tipping the hat to them is important, but for the fans that have been with us that whole time and for the younger fans as well.

Exactly. You obviously don’t want to fall into a trap, so to speak, because otherwise it will never end for you.

Right! It would almost become like a burden, and we like to keep things fresh and change things up instead.

Well, the touring is one thing, but a lot of bands like yours also do big festivals all over the world. Do promoters or bookers ever ask you guys to do special shows, like performing an album exclusively for a particular show? Do you get requests like that?

Not really! Doing festivals is different and it’s such a fun time, and you’re playing to thousands and thousands of people, with all these different bands. So it’s a great experience, but we haven’t really gotten specific requests from promoters saying, hey would you do this album or that. I think they just kind of follow our lead, which is really nice, and that’s the way we’ve been doing it.

That’s good, because I know a lot of bands do get those kinds of requests often. So, moving away from DT for a little bit, one other thing I wanted to ask you is about John Petrucci’s Guitar Universe. You’ve started doing that annually since 2017. A facebook ad for it popped up on my feed last year and even though I don’t play guitar, I thought it was something cool for anyone who does. What is that experience like for you? Is it a challenge to translate what you’re trying to do on your instrument, to other people?

Well, as far as imparting knowledge and stuff like that, it’s something I enjoy doing and I have a lot of fun with it. I’ve been doing that since the beginning, so it sort of comes naturally to me, doing masterclasses, workshops, magazine articles, or instructional videos. It’s something I like to do. I think because I went to Berklee, I have that background where I’m able to do it in a way that I can break down what’s going on musically. So the camp is a real magnified version of all that. It’s like a concentrated thing, doing those kinds of masterclasses. For me, not only is it enjoyable to get to meet all these different people who come from all over the world and all different levels an ages to experience this, but also as a guitar player, to be in the company of some of my favorite players and contemporaries. I mean, I had Al Di Meola as a guest, Guthrie Govan, Tony McAlpine, Tosin Abasi, Jason Richardson, Rusty Cooley, Jon Finn, Andy James … the list goes on. Every player is so incredible and we’re all doing this thing together where we jam every night, we’re hanging out, we’re BBQing, I’m meeting all these wonderful men and women from all over the world, and it’s such a great experience and a great celebration of the guitar. So, it’s awesome for me, and the teaching part, again, it just comes naturally, and it’s just a great setting to do that.

That’s awesome. And on that note there’s one last question I wanted to ask you. You’ve been doing the Dream Theater thing for a long time and you’ve had other projects, and you have people all over the world who are fans of your guitar playing. But do you still feel that you are learning as a player and a songwriter even today?

A 100 percent. Absolutely. Every day. Every time I pick up the guitar, every time I perform, every time I go into the studio, or write or play with other people, they’re all learning experiences. There’s so much more to do, there’s so much inspiration out there, because it’s younger and younger players that are absolutely mind-blowing on their instruments. Who knows where it’s going to go next? It’s crazy. So yeah, I’m constantly inspired by the instrument that is the guitar, by the community, and there’s always something to learn. The day that you feel you’ve got nothing left to learn, that is the beginning of the end.

– by Andrew Bansal

Distance Over Time track listing:
01. Untethered Angel (6:14)
02. Paralyzed (4:17)
03. Fall Into The Light (7:04)
04. Barstool Warrior (6:43)
05. Room 137 (4:23)
06. S2N (6:21)
07. At Wit’s End (9:20)
08. Out Of Reach (4:04)
09. Pale Blue Dot (8:25)
10. Viper King (Bonus Track) (4:00)
Total Duration: 1:00:51

Dream Theater “The Distance Over Time” Tour, celebrating 20 Years of Scenes From A Memory:

03/20 – San Diego, CA @ Balboa Theatre
03/21 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Wiltern
03/22 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Wiltern
03/24 – San Francisco, CA @ The Masonic
03/26 – Denver, CO @ Paramount Theatre
03/28 – St. Paul, MN @ The Ordway
03/29 – Chicago, IL @ The Chicago Theatre
03/31 – Milwaukee, WI @ Miller Theater
04/02 – Detroit, MI @ The Fillmore Detroit
04/04 – Toronto, ON @ Sony Centre
04/05 – Montreal, QC @ Place Des Arts – Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier
04/06 – Quebec City, QC @ Theatre Capitole-Cabaret Du
04/08 – Boston, MA @ Orpheum Theatre
04/09 – Oakdale, CT @ Toyota Presents Oakdale
04/10 – Red Bank, NJ @ Count Basie Center for the Arts
04/12 – New York, NY @ Beacon Theatre
04/13 – Upper Darby, PA @ Tower Theater
04/15 – Washington, D.C. @ Warner Theatre
04/17 – Nashville, TN @ TPAC
04/22 – Charlotte, NC @Ovens Auditorium
04/23 – Atlanta, GA @ Tabernacle
04/26 – St. Petersburg, FL @ Mahaffey Theater
04/27 – Jacksonville, FL @ Moran Theater
04/29 – Dallas, TX @ The Bomb Factory
04/30 – Houston, TX @ Revention Music Center
05/01 – Austin, TX @ Bass Concert Hall
05/04 – Mexico City, Mexico – @ Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez

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