Interview with guitarist John Petrucci | By Nicholas Senior | Photo by Mark Maryanovich
Perhaps it’s not what one would expect, but it should not be a surprise that the first sound to ring out after the call connects with legendary guitarist John Petrucci is a guitar lick. The string maestro behind the band who basically created progressive metal is seemingly never far from his guitar. Sure, the novelty of John Fucking Petrucci practicing and playing while discussing Dream Theater’s latest release, Distance Over Time, released Feb. 22 via InsideOut Music, should eventually die down, but much like the New York group’s storied career, there’s still something special and surprising after all these years.
Distance Over Time is the formula for velocity, and there is a distinct sense of movement, purpose, and groove to Dream Theater’s 14th studio album. The childlike passion and joy that leads to this man playing guitar during an interview is clearly infused into the album. The band spent four months writing and recording at what was basically a cabin in the woods in upstate New York, and this impromptu summer camp resulted in what is easily Dream Theater’s best record with this new lineup.
Petrucci reflects on how he stays creatively hungry, why the band can’t help but write thematically-connected albums, and how bacon influenced Distance Over Time.
This record evokes the feeling of first discovering Dream Theater. There’s a renewed energy and enthusiasm. In a lot of ways, Distance Over Time feels like a “best of” record, highlighting all that Dream Theater have done over the years without trying to make it obvious; there’s not exactly a  Train of Thought tune or a  Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory song. It hit me immediately and only grew on me more over time. There’s that energy, and a lot of that seems to have come from this summer camp you all did in Upstate New York, right?
First of all, it’s really cool to hear you say that. It sometimes may be hard for people to understand this, because this is our 14th album, our career is over 30 years. People ask, “How do you feel going in? Do you feel the same? Do you ever get writer’s block or feel uninspired?” No! We feel like little kids, like the same guys who got together when we were teenagers. There’s so much excitement when you get to play and write together, and the environment that we did this one in really magnified that. You’re right about the immediacy of the songs; that was purposeful. I think because we were all in there playing really loud together, we wouldn’t settle on something unless all of us were 100 percent onboard. There was a lot of gut feeling, a lot of instinct to the songwriting, and I think that’s what you’re feeling as a listener.
One of things that’s underappreciated about your band is the amount and importance of groove to your sound. You’re phenomenal musicians, and there’s so much rhythm that goes into making Dream Theater work. This record also feels like a band’s first album together. They say you have your whole life to write your first album and then a year to write your second; this feels like the band’s starting-over record, like you’ve taken all your life to make a record like this.
Wow, that’s amazing; that’s really cool to hear. That groove element is so important. There are such basic elements to writing music, writing songs. Melody has to be strong, but rhythmically, that groove thing is what gets people moving. It doesn’t matter the kind of music. We have a lot of experience being a touring band, because that’s how we built our career. With the exception of “Pull Me Under” back in 1992, we really didn’t have commercial success driven from radio. Our success has been driven from our hard work on the road. When you’re in that environment playing, you know what people move to; you know what feels good to you as a band when it locks in. That groove element is such a big part of any rock band but certainly of Dream Theater and who we are. Certainly, it exists simultaneously with the more technical elements that surround it, but you’re right to point that out. That groove is very strong on this record.
Were there any surprises you found personally or professionally at the summer camp?
If I’m being honest, there really weren’t any surprises like that, mostly because we’ve spent so much time together. I think what was really refreshing about this situation is that we actually had more time that was really just for ourselves without any distractions—to truly just relax and hang out and not feel the pressure of time limits, commutes, or having to go home or anything like that. I think it made for an immersive experience. You wake up in the morning, smell bacon, and go downstairs where [drummer] Mike Mangini is cooking. You start talking about the song from the night before—we were always in the moment. That was what was really refreshing.
Apparently, bassist John Myung found the bassline version of a wellspring—that just kept springing forth new song after new song.
The bassline was from “S2N,” which really started the sessions off. He brought that in, and we’d work on it a little bit. It would spawn a new song, and we didn’t include that original bass riff, and we’d say that we’d come back to it. Except that happened, like, four or five times. [Laughs] It became a joke. “S2N” ended up being the last song we wrote, because we said, “All right, John, we’re going use your riff. Promise.”
Here’s another riff… Do your hands ever get tired, like ever?
Yeah, they get tired when I’m doing extensive workout exercises. You try to build that kind of stamina: playing for extended periods and stretching, shaking out your hands. The further into a tour, the more conditioned my hands are. Sometimes, the start of a tour is a shock; you play a show or two and realize, “Oh my god, my hands are killing me!”
That doesn’t mean the first shows of a tour are bad performances, just that the aftereffects get to you, right?
We definitely want to come out of the gates strong, but definitely, those first couple shows, you’re feeling those kinks in your neck, [your] knees hurt. You realize you haven’t stood for three hours straight in a long time. [Laughs]
That gets to one of the themes of the record, which is that we’re human after all, right? [The cover features] a human skull being held by a robotic hand. The whole record encompasses the idea of what it is to be human, which is interesting when you’re hanging out with a bunch of your friends, grilling and making music together. I’m sure there was a lot of deep human connection happening while the record was being written. What spawned the album’s theme?
That’s a great observation—I never heard it put that succinctly. It’s not something that we necessarily planned. The only thing I will say is that since the music came from this more primal and organic place, we wanted to make sure, lyrically, it matched up. That’s probably why there’s that connection: we’re telling more human stories. It definitely wasn’t preplanned, other than to keep the lyrics more grounded.
Whether it’s your concept records or your addiction series that spawned multiple records, [such as 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence], it seems almost impossible for you to write songs that have no nexus or theme around them.
There’s something about the experience of writing the songs together during a certain period where you’re all experiencing stuff at the same time. There’s bound to be a connection, whether it’s subconsciously or what people choose lyrically or even musically—what just kind of seeps in without you realizing it. It’s like the songs come out as a litter: they’re related by birth, I guess [laughs], how they originated.
If there is a song that ties it all together while also sounding somewhat unique within your catalog, it’s “S2N.” It’s so buoyant, bouncy. It’s the heaviest happy song you’ve written.
[Laughs] It reminds me, actually, of—I don’t know how far back you go with Dream Theater, but when we were really, really young, John and I, before we went to Berkeley and met Mike, we’d get together and come up with songs and riffs. A lot of that stuff ended up on our first demo tape [in 1986], what we called our Majesty demo, and then there was a follow-up demo [in ’88]. There was “March of the Tyrant” and all these crazy [song titles]. It’s kind of in that style, pseudo-Rush but heavier. That song brings me back to that style.
Distance Over Time definitely references those classic influences—Rush, Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, Yes—in a way that other recent albums haven’t. So, what’s the story with title?
The title came from a very silly place. It all makes sense now, and the title couldn’t be more fitting or poignant, but it came from the formula for velocity. We were going to call the record Velocity, and even that just came out of the joke, because of the D over the T, [the band’s initials].
You write serious music, but you don’t seem to take yourselves that seriously.
Right. That’s so important. You’ve got to have some kind of perspective. Playing guitar for a living, I’m definitely not saving the world. [Laughs]
I think this is the most exciting Dream Theater album in the past 15 years, and it stands tall with your venerated classics. The sheer sonic joy is clear from the first note and never really lets up.
What’s cool about what you’re saying, in talking to you, you’re not being hypercritical. People get very distracted by these weird details or the sound of this instrument or that, what somebody’s doing individually or a band member they like over another one. You’re just basing this on the musical experience, how the music hit you, which is the way I listen to music. I don’t care [about] the history, when it came out, who was or wasn’t in the band, who produced it. It’s just how the music hits you as a listener. If that’s the way it’s coming across, then I love that. There’s a lot of value in enjoying music that way. It’s supposed to be an experience.