By Andrew Bansal
Prog titans Dream Theater have inspired countless aspiring musicians over the years, but while bands influenced by them continue to present varying, oftentimes wildly experimental interpretations of this genre, Dream Theater never strayed from their path, and everything they ever released has a clearly recognizable DT stamp over it, with sweeing guitar solos, prominent keyboard segments, rich harmonies, busy rhythm section and soaring vocals all orchestrated together with a melody-driven approach. Musically, the band progressed naturally from the 2013 self-titled album for the next batch of material, but thematically and lyrically ventured towards their biggest undertaking in their career thus far, and the result was the massive concept-based double album ‘The Astonishing’, released in January 2016 on Roadrunner Records. Since then, the band has been touring extensively to present the entire album live as a concert experience. Dream Theater is currently on the second US leg, and will be bringing this epic show to the Grove of Anaheim on November 16th. Last Wednesday November 9th, guitarist John Petrucci spoke to Metal Assault in detail about the album and its corresponding touring cycle. Enjoy the chat below.
John, it’s a pleasure to have you on Metal Assault. I want to talk to you mainly about ‘The Astonishing’ and the tour. You have been playing this album live this year. While writing or working on the album, did you know that this is what you were going to do on the tour?
Yeah, we planned it that way from the beginning, and actually, the whole concept was mainly conceived as a standalone show. The album is kind of the studio version of the show, and that’s why it’s so long. If you’re just seeing a full show in one night of entertainment, it’s at least two-and-a-half hours with an intermission, so that’s why the album is in two acts. It was always meant to be performed as a standalone show.
When people see this show live, is it just performed as Act 1 and Act 2 with no talking in between, as opposed to a regular concert otherwise?
Exactly. The show experience is very much like going to see a broadway show or something like that. We’re playing, for the most part, in really beautiful seated theaters that normally put on musicals, ballet, operas and things like that. So we’ve gotten to see some of the most gorgeous, amazing buildings, not only here in the US but in Europe as well. Just being in those buildings is incredible. But you’re right, we perform the show in two acts and there is no real speaking to the audience, per se. It’s like you’re watching a cross between a rock concert, a movie and a musical.
Before you announced this tour, it was made clear that it was going to be the Astonishing tour and you’d play this whole album. It’s not like you were hiding anything from fans that expected the older material. Considering that, what’s the response been like from the audiences on the first leg?
Yeah, in the beginning we tried to be as clear as we possibly could. This show is kind of like what Pink Floyd did with The Wall, where we’re only presenting this show. So, from beginning to end, once it’s done, it’s done. There are no encores, no other songs. The response was really great. We started in Europe, then we did the US, and it was amazing. Coming back through now and going to some of the places that we didn’t go to in the spring, now in the fall, like down south and in Texas and things like that, we’re definitely getting people who are repeat viewers who saw it the first time around and were kind of begging us to play some older stuff as well, just for the fun of the experience. We actually agreed and started doing that the other night in Canada City. So, for the remainder of the shows that we have until December 5th, we actually broke our protocol and we now do an encore with a few older catalog Dream Theater songs. It’s a fun added element to close out the tour, because this is the last of the Astonishing run that we’re going to be doing, for now.
So now it’s an even bigger show for people. You get the album and some of the fan favorites along with it.
It is! And just in full disclosure, we had to cut out a few of the songs from ‘The Astonishing’, just time-wise. We didn’t have enough time in the night to play everything (laughs). So we tried to pick the ones that may be weren’t going to be detrimental to the storyline, and we took a few of those out, just so everybody is fully aware. But I think it flows great, we did it the other night, and it was actually a lot of fun to play some of the older songs at the end. But it’s still a lot of music. Even as is, it clocks in at close to three hours. So, it’s a long night.
I think with this tour you’re probably reaching newer audiences too, because people who’ve heard about the band but never seen you live and are not too familiar with the discography, they don’t really have any expectations as to what songs they need to hear. They just go to the show and enjoy it for what it is, right?
That’s totally true. There’s a lot of first-time people, I’m meeting them all the time. They’d never seen us live, or may be heard of us before, or even have been following us but never got a chance to see a show. Just from an outside perspective, this show must be pretty intense to take in for a new Dream Theater concertgoer, to all of a sudden see this whole story play out with the production that we have, and this intense musical experience. But yeah, you’re right, there’s definitely a lot of first-timers, for sure.
Right, and I was just going to ask you about the live show itself. For the album, you wrote this story and this concept, and there are characters, places and maps. But in the live show, how do you present that, aside from just the performance of the music alone?
There are a couple of props on the stage that kind of set the environment tone that is done in the artwork, but primarily it’s done through video. We worked with this company to create a very special video look that is sort of three-dimensional. So, when you’re looking at the stage, there’s some video that’s in the front of the stage, some that’s mid-point, and there’s some that’s sort of staggered behind us. Basically the entire show has been animated with video to describe the story and it’s all timed with the music. So when the settings in the story come up, whether it be in an amphitheater or in Ravenskill, the fictional town that the story takes place in, you see it on the stage and it has a feeling like you’re on a virtual ride. We have perspective from flyover scenes with the NOMACs, to looking at the map from an eagle eye perspective and stuff like that, and that’s all done with animation and video. It’s just really cool to watch.
With this kind of an album and a show, as you said earlier, you’ve been playing venues that do broadway musicals and things like that. Do you think there would ever be a possibility of you doing that kind of adaption for this album?
Oh yeah, there have been many levels of this whole project from the very beginning. I imagined it first as a Dream Theater show, and then of course as a Dream Theater album, but beyond that, there’s a video game that is in development, there’s a novel that is in development. And one of the other things is that, yes, it would fit perfectly, I think, adapted as a musical, in the same way that The Who did that successfully with ‘Tommy’, and Green Day more recently with ‘American Idiot’ on broadway. So yeah, that would be amazing. It’s a whole different world from the rock and metal scene, so it’s a different group of people to have to make those relationships with, but that’s something that we’re pursuing and I would love to see that. I think it would be totally awesome.
It is a concept album and a story, but it is divided into 34 tracks. How did you even go about doing that?
It was very complicated. The first thing was writing the story. Once I had the story written and all the characters, then Jordan and I over the months were collecting our own musical ideas based on the mood of the story. So we had tons of these little snippets of ideas, and eventually, right after the last world tour ended, we got together, just the two of us, and we would sit and further develop those ideas. We would read the story section by section, see what’s happening here, who’s entering the story, and we started to create all these musical themes. Once we had all those different themes that related to certain characters, then it was a really arduous task of storyboarding the whole thing and dividing it up into the two acts and into the 34 songs. We basically scored the music to the story. We would literally read the story, talk about the characters’ different trajectories and what was going on in the plot, and create the music based on that part of the story. So, it took a long time and it was very complicated. Jordan and I recorded a few video clips that we call ‘Inside The Astonishing’, and we’re going to do more. You can see it on our YouTube channel. We sort of break down how we did the album. So if there’s anybody out there that’s into the composition element and the storytelling element, we break that down. It might be more on the nerdy music side (laughs), but it’s really interesting to us and I know that some people find that type of thing very informative.
Very cool. Writing music for a concept album like this with such a story and all these different characters and emotions, I’m sure it allows you to express yourself more as a musician, as compared to a typical album that you would otherwise right. Would you agree with that?
You know, I think they’re all musically expressive. It’s always an ‘anything goes’ attitude that Dream Theater has when we write, but I guess this one may be expanded that a little more because we were going outside of ourselves and trying to picture what these different characters might be thinking and where the story was taking place. Of course it’s all fictional, so we were kind of creating these different worlds. So, it did expand our mind creatively. But I would say that emotionally, musically and spiritually, t’s always been something that’s a part of all our albums. Even when we go in to write the next one, we’ll have just as open-minded of a spirit. Whether it’s more straight ahead, more traditional Dream Theater, heavier, or whatever it turns out to be, it’ll still be a reflection of who we are as musicians, as creative people, and it’ll always come from that genuine place, which I think is really, really important. People pick up on that and appreciate it.
I have one more question for you, kind of following up on the last one. After writing such a long and epic album, I’m sure you feel drained in terms of songwriting ideas because you used all of them for this one. The next album might take a while. Is that a good thing for you, and does it allow you to just tour on this album live and not even think about writing new music?
Believe it or not, that sort of creative bug, it doesn’t really go away, Andrew. It doesn’t matter that we wrote all this music. We have tons more ideas, even in soundchecks when we get together. We inspire each other, things start coming out and we already start thinking about what we’re going to do next. That’s the one thing about Dream Theater. There’s never a dry well (laughs), no shortage of ideas or inspiration. So, we definitely are enjoying the tour that we’re on now and presenting all of the hard work. This album took about three years to complete, so we’re really enjoying the fruits of our labor, but at the same time, that creative edge and the creative bug is always there and we look forward to getting in there and doing the next one. It’s always fun and always a great experience as musicians to get together and do that.
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Dream Theater remaining US tour dates:
11/10/2016 – Corpus Christi, TX @ Selena Auditorium
11/12/2016 – Tulsa, OK @ Brady Theater
11/13/2016 – Grand Prairie, TX @ Verizon Theatre At Grand Prairie
11/15/2016 – Tucson, AZ @ Centennial Hall
11/16/2016 – Anaheim, CA @ City National Grove of Anaheim
11/18/2016 – Temecula, CA @ Pechanga Resort and Casino
11/19/2016 – Reno, NV @ Grand Sierra Theatre
11/20/2016 – San Jose, CA @ City National Civic
11/28/2016 – Charlotte, NC @ Ovens Auditorium
11/29/2016 – Jacksonville, FL @ Florida Theatre
12/01/2016 – Clearwater, FL @ Ruth Eckerd Hall
12/02/2016 – Orlando, FL @ Hard Rock Live
12/04/2016 – Atlanta, GA @ Atlanta Symphony Hall
12/05/2016 – Durham, NC @ Durham Performing Arts Center