Sharing the "scene" with Dream
By Dave Schwartz
Traffic, traffic, all this traffic! Such are the hazards of living in Los Angeles. As I am "speeding" north up the 405 Freeway I am very aware of the time. It's a Friday afternoon and in Los Angeles everybody is going somewhere. Did I say speeding? Actually I'm lucky if I'm doing 30 miles per hour! I finally arrive at the majestic confines of the Wiltern Theater. I mop my brow as I realize that Dream Theater is working through an extended sound check. My fears of being late subside as I spend an hour backstage chatting with record company reps and other journalists. On stage, Dream Theater finishes their sound check with the title track from their latest CD, "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence."
Slowly the members of Dream Theater filter past. John Petrucci on his cell phone checking voice mail, James LaBrie in a pair of sweats smiling and greeting us as he headed up to the dressing rooms. Soon I am introduced to Jordan Rudess, keyboardist and most recent member of Dream Theater.
I follow Rudess up the stairs to the dressing rooms. Along the way, he apologizes for the late sound check, explaining that the band was held up at the Mexican boarder. It seems the effects of 9-11 continue to touch us in many ways.
"Sorry that we made you wait, unfortunately our time is limited" he says.
The dressing room is sparse, but adequate and, as we settle into the over-stuffed couch, I look at my watch and realize Rudess is right. It is barely an hour before show time and the band is just now getting a chance to eat their dinner and dress for the evening. It's somewhat ironic that he is apologizing to me when clearly I'm the inconvenience! We laugh as I shared the series of the missed interview opportunities that are typical of music journalism. Phone calls from Denmark at 6 a.m. and the like are all a part of the road that has lead us to this couch.
I find Rudess to be warm and friendly. His musical lineage is impeccable, having entered the prestigious Julliard School of Music at the age of nine for classical piano training; his credentials reflective of the caliber of musicianship in Dream Theater. But there won't be much time for small talk, given the time constraints, we decide to dive right into the interview.
DaBelly: Dream Theater began this tour in Europe. This was before "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence" was released. How were the new songs received at those early shows?
Rudess: "The reception for our group is always good. But you could tell when we played some of the new songs that the audience hadn't had the experience of listening to them yet. That's really what was going on. But I think any group will experience that. If you put something out and the kids come and they're listening, but had never heard it before, it's more like they're interested, but they haven't completely grasped everything."
DaBelly: I understand completely. I know that when I receive a new Dream Theater album, it takes several listenings to be able to consume the material.
Rudess: "I know exactly what you mean. My favorite music was exactly like that as well and I think that, because of the little complexities that make things a little bit different or a little bit special, it just takes a little time to understand. But when you get it you say 'Yeah, that's cool! I like that!'"
DaBelly: To me, the new CD has more of a jazz feel. I think it's the keys that leave me with that impression. Is this a considered move or more of just a case of "the sum of the parts"?
Rudess: "It wasn't really planned. I mean, we go into the studio and we just start writing and basically let the inspiration just flow. With the combination of individuals in this band, there are so many different styles that could creep in. It's really a question of how we package it or how we limit it. I'm, personally, always offering really crazy stuff. It comes to them at least from left field because it's Greek sounding or something Indian. I try to inject the band with that stuff."
DaBelly: Like that ragtime section on "Scenes From a Memory"?
Rudess: "Exactly, that ragtime or whatever. I think the jazz part is all the same."
DaBelly: I've also noticed a very retro flavor to some of the keyboard voicings. As I first listened to the new CD, I also was reminded of classic Kansas ("Leftoverture") and ELP (Emerson, Lake and Palmer). Is that intended?
Rudess: "You mean the sounds? Well there is an organ solo, a 'Blind Faith,' kind of like a percussive organ solo. In the title track, there is almost a Wakeman-esque solo lead line. Part of the thing with Dream Theater is that, we are trying to stay on top of the game and push this style forward, to do things that are original and changing. I think it is also a part of what Dream Theater is all about, to try and kind of tip the hat to our strongest influences, which is things like Pink Floyd or, in my case, things like Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson. There are unavoidable influences. They are things that we don't want to steer to far away from. The audience that we have and the things that we enjoy have a lot to do with that, so that's why you hear in the music, maybe more so in this case. On the first album (that he was a part of), I was personally against a lot of that kind of stuff. I would try to steer clear whenever I could. But you know the other guys were kind of like, 'Give me a mellotron' or something like that and I would be like," (Rudess grumbles under his voice), "'I don't know about a mellotron.' I wasn't into tipping the hat as much as pushing forward, but on this album I was more relaxed about it. I was okay, this is what it is and there was a perfect place for a Rick Wakeman Mini-Moog sound and I was like, 'Sure, here it goes!' As long as it doesn't go over the top like that. As long as there is still room for me, personally, to create some cool newer synthesizer sounds and develop textures and orchestrate and do my thing, I'm comfortable now with adding a little more of the traditional sounds as well."
DaBelly: In as much at your demographic of your listeners is somewhat older, many of them will recognize those sounds. Unlike my son who is 17 and loves Dream Theater. For him, this is all new.
Rudess: "Yes, he would just think that this is the new sound."
DaBelly: Whereas myself, I listened to this CD and it was like, "There's one, and there's something else." It put a smile on my face.
Rudess: "Oh yeah, you were recalling all the influences! I mean literally we sometimes call the parts, 'Oh that's the Genesis section' or the 'Floyd part' or Metallica. That's what Dream Theater is. We are a combination of all these influences and some original stuff in there as well."
DaBelly: What did you do different on this CD compared to previous?
Rudess: "This CD was done in a real different way. I was more comfortable in my role with the group. This CD, first of all, is not a concept album, it's more a collection of songs, one that happens to be very long. But all the songs are very different on this album. We have some things that are just more experimental. We spent time in the studio crafting different kinds of effects, taking more chances, putting things through backwards. We were, you know, just trying to be creative and find things that we hadn't done before. We wanted to educate, bring our listeners along for a ride sonically. We have these people that are listening to the group and, as people on a particular course, we all want to move forward, we all want to progress. So we feel a little bit of responsibility to lead a bit. To say, 'Okay, let's go in this direction.' So this album was a little bit about that, about taking everyone a little bit further. And the album, as it turned out, I mean it's got all the different sides of Dream Theater. It's got some very heavy. metal kinds of stuff in 'The Glass Prison.' It's got some keyboard-type prog in the title track. So I think this album is kind of a feast for Dream Theater fans, it's got a little bit of everything."
DaBelly: Yes, it is just a very enjoyable listening album. It's funny, when we first received the publicity on this album, I noticed that Mike Portnoy was being quoted as saying, "This is a very ambitious album," and I kind of smiled to myself because I hear that comment with every Dream Theater album.
Rudess: "Yes, it's funny because each Dream Theater album IS more ambitious than the last. That's part of what Dream Theater is all about. We like to relax sometimes and we like to torture ourselves and compose all these crazy riffs and then try to play them live. I guess in a way that is how you get proficient with your instrument. You have to challenge yourself."
DaBelly: Once again you wrote in the studio, are you trying to capture a freshness or spontaneity that otherwise wouldn't be possible?
Rudess: "Yeah, it works for us. I mean, we originally tried this with Liquid Tension Experiment. (LTE was a side project that featured Rudess, Mike Portnoy, John Petrucci and King Crimson bassist Tony Levin). We found that we could really work well like that. We get inspired and come up with something and then just lay it down. We had such excellent results working together in that way, that we just brought that into Dream Theater when I got hired. It was kind of like, 'Well, let's use this approach because it really seems to work.'"
DaBelly: Do you find yourself building sections of songs and basically assembling them?
Rudess: "There is a bit of that, sure. As a matter of fact, there's a lot of that. That's kind of what... That's what Mike is like a specialist at. Petrucci and I feed him tons of notes and riffs and chords and he'll be the one that does much of the figuring out, this part that part."
DaBelly: But at some point you have to sit down and actually learn the song.
Rudess: "Oh yeah, and John Petrucci's got one of the most amazing memories on the planet. I'm always amazed at the amount of notes he can remember and the order of the parts and everything. I've got it all written down in musical notation as we go and I'm looking at. You know, everybody gets it done in his or her own way. I'm reading through it, he's memorizing it, whatever, and at the end it gets done."
DaBelly: And that leads right into one of the perceptions of this band. I'll draw from the last tour as the example. On the second leg of the "Scenes" tour you didn't play "Scenes from a Memory" every night. In fact, you shook up the set list by frequently changing it. You left the impression, at least with me, that the band must know an unusually large base of music and, given the complexity of most of your music, it was impressive to see the set list evolve.
Rudess: "Before the 'Scenes' tour, I learned a certain amount of material. Before this tour, we decided to play a slightly different set every night, but of course, that is going to consist of a body of work. So maybe I learned 50 songs or something like that. So we can draw from that. I mean it's a big, big task."
DaBelly: This leaves the impression with the fan that, well, you know that due to the Internet the fans know which songs you're playing each night and, because of that, they are conscious that you haven't performed a given song for six months.
Rudess: "It is challenging, but luckily there's some weird way that we just sort of draw the music back and we try to run through everything. If we haven't played a song in a while, we will do it during sound check or we'll say to each other, 'It would be good if on Thursday we play 'Beyond This Life.' So naturally your mind starts to bring that stuff in and... you know."
DaBelly: Lyrically, you've tackled some important issues with this album such as stem cell research and mental illness. Although you've touched on mental illness previously, I don't recall Dream Theater offering so much social/moral commentary in the past. Is there a reason that band opinions have surfaced in your music at this time?
Rudess: "John Petrucci wrote the words to 'The Great Debate' and I know that when it comes time to write the lyrics, he enjoys immersing himself into various concepts whether it be a storyline like 'Scenes from a Memory' or something like stem cell research. I think that he was ready in his life to tackle something like that. For this album, he did the most, it seemed. You know, we spent a lot of time writing the music and then, all of a sudden, it was time to write words and he gets totally into it. He's AMAZINGLY into it. He's got books everywhere and you can't talk to him and he's completely obsessed with getting it done. He'll stay up all night and go for a couple days reading and reading all kinds of information from thesauruses and dictionaries. So that was his headspace, his desire to tackle something that he could not only learn about, but also express himself creatively. I think that he's a great lyricist. He brings up a lot of issues and the words sound good with the music."
DaBelly: Through this interview you've brought up some of your more epic pieces of music, in particular "Scenes from a Memory" and of course "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence." There isn't a three-minute song in Dream Theater is there?
Rudess: "I don't think so. What we're specialists in, is developing our themes and having a great romp! We just go for it and play and we don't feel any necessity to limit ideas. It's not where I come from, I'm from a classical background. You know, you have a theme, you're going to modulate and you're going to develop the theme. You put the theme in the bass, you change the chords then you re-harmonize..."
DaBelly: It sounds like you were ideal for this situation!
Rudess: "I'm more familiar with concertos and sonatas and other forms."
DaBelly: On the DVD from "Scenes," in the section where the entire band is discussing the music, you repeatedly mention the reoccurring melodies, that this is the earliest hint of this theme. The structure of the music is written much like a book. It's unfortunate that the average music fan that will only listen to three-minute songs may not understand.
Rudess: "Yes, they may not want to take the time to appreciate the music. I mean even in the title track of 'Six Degrees,' that's what it's all about. In the overture, you have all the themes represented and then, throughout the course of the whole songs, the themes come back in different ways and..."
Suddenly it happens. Yes, all good things do come to an end. This time, it is at the hands of the Elektra representative, but it's for a good reason. The show must go on and with it, the preparation. Jordan Rudess's dinner has arrived and the balance of the band is already changing for the performance. We shake hands and say our farewells. As I wander back down the stairs and make my way to my seat, I reflect on our conversation, his quiet demeanor and articulate communication. I had found far more than I expected in the few minutes available.
As it turned out, the show kicked some ass too! But then, you knew that-- Dream Theater shows always do.
For more information, visit http://www.jordanrudess.com and http://www.dreamtheater.net
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