Interview with Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater - October 7th, 2011
Interview & photo by Mike Bax
If anything, I felt a bit like I was out of my realm this evening as I knew more about Trivium than I did about Dream Theater. This was and is a bit pathetic considering how much I enjoy progressive music. With Dream Theater’s twenty six year career on the table, and my rather limited exposure to the band (I own the new album and the 2007 Greatest Hit compilation) having Jordan Rudess strut towards me with his hand extended was a bit surreal, to say the least.
Revered by millions the world over, and a much lauded keyboardist and instrumentalist, Rudess is the type of musical individual one could toss questions to for hours. He is involved with his craft down to the very construction of the instruments he plays.
Soft spoken, extremely polite, and quite informative, we left the really fan-boy questions on the floor and focused more on the new album and some of Rudess’s influences. We sat just outside of his change room area, in front of a large desk and mirror adorned with lights the size of baseballs that looked like it could prop a 1930’s period piece on cabaret dancing. While we talked, Rudess sat across from me in front of this sizeable mirror and sipped on an iced Chai that someone with the band had garnered him from the Starbucks just up the road.
Mike: I've never actually listened to any Liquid Tension Experiment, which is a bit ironic considering this project was your gateway into Dream Theater. When you were first invited to join Dream Theater, did you have any trepidation?
Jordan: I’m not sure if you are aware of this story, but this goes way back to when I was first invited to join the band. I was asked to join Dream Theater twice. The first time, I’d actually accepted to do a gig, which was a Foundations Forum gig, and then I decided not to join the group. It was a time in my life when I had to decide between a few different things. At the time I was in a band called the Dixie Dregs. When the Dream Theater offer came in I had a job that I’d just started at a company called Kurzweil, and my wife and I had a newborn at the time.
Mike: That’s a big factor.
Jordan: So I didn’t really take the Dream Theater job when it was first offered to me, but I did take it the second time around. At that point, when they offered it to me, I felt like it was cool, you know? It was timely, I knew who the guys were; we had worked together. So there were no weird feelings at all at that point. I was just ready for it.
Mike: Obviously, you seem to have delivered the goods, having done seven studio albums with them. You’ve been lauded with awards and have been recognized as a significant keyboardist and musician. It's got to be pretty rewarding.
Jordan: Yes, I get to make my music and my family is still eating. I’m happy and playing gigs. It’s very good. It’s hard to operate in this sense, where you get these things and it kind of becomes you. I’m with guys who play their own instruments and we all have our own challenges and our own worlds. We just keep trying to be better, and I try to keep balanced and healthy and just do my own thing.
Mike: This is an interesting tour for both yourselves and Trivium, in that you both have new drummers.
Mike: And new studio albums that are both good for their own stylistic reasons.
Jordan: Thanks, man. That’s pretty cool, yeah? It’s nice that it’s synchronized?
Mike: How was it recording and working with Mike Mangini?
Jordan: Well, he wasn’t involved in the writing process. I don’t know if you were aware of that.
Mike: No, I knew that when (Mike) Portnoy left, it was at a strange transition time and the media kind of blew it all out of proportion. From my standpoint, Mangini has certainly stepped in and done the job, as the album sounds great.
Jordan: Yeah, he did a great job. We wrote the music without a drummer in the sessions. We just used a drum machine to work out our compositional ideas and whatnot, and then when it became time to bring Mike in, we showed him what we’d put together. We weren’t really trying to write his part for him or anything… that’s impossible with a guy like Mike. We knew that he would come through and bring in some really cool drum parts, but at least we had composer type drumming, where we had the idea of what we wanted and it was actually quite great writing that way. I think that John (Petrucci) and I enjoyed having some sonic space to just kind of write the music. It was nice. I mean, when I write music I’m really just surrounded by my synthesizers and orchestrations. It’s not like there is a whole lot of noise flying around me. I have some control over whether I start with a drum beat or a bass line. If I want to start with a bass line I can just queue that up, I can build things from whatever point I want. There’s pros and cons to all the different styles of composing.
You know, when Portnoy was with us and he was at his drum set while we were writing, some really interesting cool stuff would come out of that. So we had to come at our cool stuff a different way this time around. The kind of stuff that would emerge with Portnoy in the room was he was always really good at turning around meters. You’d play a riff and he’d play it one way, and then he’d suggest we keep playing it and he’d just reverse what he was doing. It became almost a stylistic thing for Dream Theater. Without that this time around, and Mike Mangini in the room with us now, we didn’t do that. We enjoyed other benefits to the composition process this time around, and Mike Mangini was able to do plenty of cool stuff when he came into the sessions and turn things around and do cool things to the songs. He just wasn’t a part of the writing process, so you know, some changes, but I thought they were really cool.
Mike: With as many albums as Dream Theater has, it must be challenging to pick your set lists?
Jordan: Yes, very much so. It was also challenging in that we got so used to Portnoy doing all of the set lists in the past, we all got kind of complacent about it so we had to rethink it this time. And just like everything else in our organization, we had to say, “Hey, ok, we had a guy who took control of a lot of things. And here we are now, he’s not around anymore, so let’s make sure that we cover all the bases.” So in regards to a set list, we had to really think about it a bit and figure it out. It was actually pretty cool. We went around to each guy and went so far as to make an Excel spreadsheet and we put in what each guy wanted to play and what we like, and looking at all of the different albums so that there is a balance between everything for the evening and make sure we are being responsible to the material. This tour was really about being feeling positive and feeling good, you know, making the right steps forward as a band. Making the right music, presenting ourselves well live, and everybody having a real clean kind of feeling as we move forward and making sure all of the ground was covered with what we were kind of left with. So with regards to set lists, we had a process and we did a nice job putting it together.
Mike: Are you going to do any covers this evening?
Jordan: Covers? Not tonight, no.
Mike: Ah, well. I liked reading online that you seem to follow some avant garde music in your repertoire; bands like Aphex Twin and Autechre.
Jordan: Yeah, totally.
Mike: I don’t hear a lot of those bands coming through in your music. I'm sure it's more traditional sounds that influence your work on Dream Theatre material.
Jordan: For Dream Theater, my musical output is very focused on certain styles of music. Dream Theater certainly is a band that has a lot of different things going on, but one of the things that is definitely NOT going in is that kind of ambient electronic material. I mean, there is a little touch of some cool stuff in there leaning towards that style, but just a little bit. For those of us that are aware of that world of music, there are some very different sounds out there, and I play in that world a lot. My solo albums have more songs that lean towards that direction – those bands I’m very interested in. In my work with manufacturers of instruments that I create there is a lot of that mentality and interest in that style of music, so I have an awareness and interest in that genre. To me that whole sonic world of music is something that I incorporate wherever I can in my own material. I think you can hear little bits of that even on this new album, which I think is cool.
Mike: Do you think you would ever score a film?
Jordan: I would love to do that. You know the part that’s kind of holding me back is… well… look at my life, right? I’m always in the studio or on the road with the band. In the world of doing film scores, the only way I could really get into it at this point is if somebody who was a known person in that world came to me and said I really love your music and I want you to do it. The game of fighting to be noticed in that world is not something I need to do or really want to do right now, you know?
Mike: I think that’s how a lot of good scores come about.
Jordan: Yeah, people come to the individual(s) and ask. That would be nice if at some point I actually have the time. I mean, I am interested, so maybe putting the word that I’m interested will help in the future when I do have time.
Mike: I can hear in the bits in Dream Theater’s material where you really come forward and shine on the songs as being in the arena of film scoring, easily.
Jordan: Yeah. There’s no doubt that my head is in that place musically. The talent is there in the sense that I likely should do it. The question is really where have I been, who do I know, and how do I fit that into my life.
Mike: A while back, there was that Kerrang! compilation of Maiden tunes, in which Dream Theatre contributed 'To Tame a Land'.
Jordan: Oh yeah, right…
Mike: I really love that collection of covers. Every song on that compilation is special. Can you talk a bit about how that opportunity came about, and recording that track?
Jordan: Yeah, right. It was a cool mix of bands. I remember doing that. I think I did my part when I was on the road.
Mike: Really? So that all came together on the fly? You didn’t go into a studio and hammer that out?
Jordan: No, I think we did it all as we were traveling. That’s my memory of that song, anyway.
Mike: That song sounds pretty tight.
Jordan: Tight is a Dream Theater trademark, right?
Mike: As I mentioned, I like Turn Of Events a lot, especially 'Bridges in The Sky'. I enjoy how the low toned vocal intro / symphonic chanting leads in to one of the albums heaviest songs. Is that a didgeridoo that starts that song off?
Jordan: (mouthing the low toned intro for me) That is actually a sample off of the Omnisphere Library. Omnispere is one of the greatest soft synths in the world, made by friend’s company. Some great sounds; we had a good time with that stuff. They found some monk or something that made that sound or something.
Mike: So 'Bridges in The Sky' kicks in and winds up being one of the heaviest songs on the new album. At over ten minutes long.
Jordan: It’s cool, right? I like that song too. It’s got a nice blend to it. It‘s got that strength to it, but it also has that cool progressive section with the ethnic things going on throughout it. I think it’s kind of a cool tune.
Mike: Ok, say you are in a room and you’re talking to somebody and they find out you are a musician, but know nothing about Dream Theater. If they asked you what the best album to start with in Dream Theatre's repertoire, what would you tell them and why?
Jordan: Hmm. That’s a really good question. At this point, I’d tell them to check out the new album. I’m very pleased with it. I’ve probably been able to listen to this album more than any other album I have been involved with for whatever reason. It’s funny because as a musician – and you have obviously checked out what I like – I’m not really a fan of metal. I don’t listen to progressive metal either. I listen to things that are generally more sonic, like Autechre or Boards Of Canada. My friend Steven Wilson’s project Porcupine Tree or Blackfield or Pink Floyd or old Genesis, Yes or Gentle Giant. So, I think I like the new album because it has a little bit more of a balanced harmonic and melodic sound. One of the things we did with the new album and the new situation is we were able to spend a little bit of time talking about where we wanted to go with this. All of a sudden it was very open. So I think we managed to tap into where we were as people. We kind of took out that need to be part of the angry metal scene. There’s nothing like that… there’s no Cookie Monster vocals on the new album. Like you said, there’s some stuff that’s very heavy, but there nothing too out there. We’ve got some chunky stuff in there that rocks without being angry, which I like. The Cookie Monster stuff, I have trouble listening to. It’s not my thing, you know?
Mike: You know; I was driving in here today listening to Liquid Metal on satellite radio and I decided I can do maybe 15% of the material on that station. I tend to turn it off, because it’s too far for me into that genre. They don't really repeat material, but the songs still manage to sound repetitive.
Mike: And I LIKE metal. I just find that metal now is not what it was ten years ago - the growling, relentless Pantera at 45 RPM stuff. It’s crazy heavy and I can’t seem to get behind a lot of it.
Jordan: Me either. Some people obviously can, right?
Mike: Yeah, a lot of folks are totally into it.
Jordan: Even our touring mates (Trivium), they have a lot of angst in their songs. Growls and Metallica speed. They have a lot of Cookie Monster vocals going on. I dunno, maybe I’m just getting old. I can’t relate to it, and I’m glad that it got taken out of our mix of styles. I think we do better without it. Nobody here is really into that. Maybe Mike Portnoy had an element of his musical and personal life that captured that energy, and I think that is maybe why we had the element in our material. It helped us stay kind of current, and I did like and support the idea of bringing existing styles into the Dream Theater blend. I mean, he did the ‘A Nightmare To Remember’ tune, and some people said that’s not real Dream Theater or whatever, and I thought it was fine. We were bringing in a little bit of a genre into our music or whatever, but now I’m happy that we are doing what we are doing.
Mike: Some bands I’ve talked to have said that they inhale while doing those vocals to get that low rumble in their larynx.
Jordan: Really? That’s crazy.
Mike: I think it’s amusing that you called your compilation release 'Greatest Hit (...And 21 Other Pretty Cool Songs)'. It almost says, “Yes, we had a radio hit, and we have all of this other cool stuff, so check it out,” right in the title.
Jordan: We tried to convey that as best we could with that release.
We wrapped up talking about other new releases that had been good this year. Opeth and Mastodon came up, and then Rudess started talking about Portnoy’s Adrenaline Mob material and how much he enjoyed it, suggesting that I check their material out.