Dream Theater’s John Petrucci

Dream Theater’s lightning-fast guitarist and co-founder John Petrucci talked to Pollstar about the band’s latest touring plans as well as the group’s audition process to find a replacement for longtime drummer and co-founder Mike Portnoy.

Progressive metal gods Dream Theater have been doing it their way since 1985. Formed as classmates at Berklee College of Music in Boston, the band scored a deal with Atlantic in 1992 and found a hit on radio and MTV with “Pull Me Under” despite no real organized promotion for the song. On the strength of the single and heavy touring, the band’s major-label debut, Images and Words, went gold in the U.S. and platinum in Japan.

Dream Theater quickly gained acclaim for its technical prowess. Petrucci, who has been invited to Joe Satriani’s esteemed G3 tours numerous times, is routinely mentioned as one of the top axe-men in the world.

Known for complex arrangements, epic-length albums and a die-hard fanbase that spans the globe, it’s no surprise Dream Theater band has continued to thrive. Its latest album, A Dramatic Turn of Events, debuted at No. 8 on the Nielsen SoundScan Top 200 charts in September.

It may, however, be a surprise for the band to receive its first Grammy nomination.

“It’s such an honor to be recognized by the academy,” guitarist John Petrucci told Pollstar. “Especially while being in a band that plays the kind of music we play, and even the song that was nominated, that’s almost 9 minutes long and was never released as an edit, it just kind of came out.”

Photo: Roadrunner Records

The band’s “On the Backs of Angels” single is nominated for best hard rock/metal performance, along with Foo Fighters, Megadeth, Mastodon and Sum 41.  Dream Theater’s first nomination comes after lots of hard work.

“We’ve been doing this for 26 years or so. … If you continue doing something that you know is right in your heart and what you want to do as a musician and an artist, and you don’t compromise that – that’s the best thing.

“You get the respect and the loyalty of listeners and fans around the world because it’s kind of a back-and-forth-type of relationship, and that’s probably the most important thing to us, the thing we value the most.

“At the same time, to get recognized in this capacity with the Grammys and Recording Academy is also another nice kind of validation, just another way of saying that what we’re doing is special and meaningful and important and relevant on a different level.”

Petrucci took the time to discuss the band’s latest touring plans, which include Europe and Asia this year with possible U.S. dates in the summer. He also talked about the decision to find a new drummer through a series of YouTube videos chronicling the audition and selection process following the departure of Portnoy, who left the band officially in 2010 in a somewhat messy breakup.

Photo: Roadrunner Records
Left to right, Mike Mangini, John Myung, James LaBrie, Jordan Rudess and John Petrucci.

So, are you ready for the European tour?

You know, I never feel like I’m quite ready. When I’m home, it’s a whole different set of circumstances. I’m married and have three kids, and so that includes all the business of things that go along with that. It’s kind of hard for me to imagine being away and not being there, and you know it’s kind of like you wear another hat.

I have a pretty extensive tour coming up. Going to be busy and there’s a lot of preparation. We have a few days of rehearsal. It’s just always a busy time right before a tour.

I imagine that no matter how often you tour and play the world, it’s still hard to get used to.

It is hard to get used to. The good thing is that every so often, like over the summer, my family came with me for a bit, which was great. And they got to see some really nice places – Italy and France and Switzerland – and then my son came along with me and worked with the band for that leg of the tour.

So, we do as much as we can to make things work and stay together, but sometimes it’s just because of schedules and school, they can’t come with me, so I’ll certainly miss them.

Yeah, we do a lot of touring overseas, not only Europe but Asia and South America. We go all over the world, so you know it’s a lot of traveling, but that’s part of what we do.

The other side of that is that I certainly love doing it and enjoy getting out there and performing and playing in front of people and bringing our music to our fans. It’s a great experience and I’m lucky that I have such a very supportive wife and family. Everybody’s into music and plays and understands and are really excited about the career that I have. It helps to have a very supportive family.

And now they can see how famous you are at the Grammys.

It’s pretty wild. It’s like, first of all, not only are we [the band] really excited about it, but my kids are freaking out and can’t wait. Especially my younger daughter, she’s so into it. The whole family is coming, so that’ll be great.

We are touring then but taking a couple of days off in the middle of that tour to go to the Grammys, so we’ll be flying back from the London shows to L.A. and going to the ceremony and flying back out.

I’ll be able to see my family for a couple days, so that’s nice as well, to break up that tour a little bit.

The new album seems to be a hit with your fans. Are you ever worried about how new material will go over?

You know what, when we toured we did some open-air shows over the summer and we played one of the songs, the song that’s nominated, “On The Backs of Angels,” and that went over really well. And we just finished a North American tour and the response to the new songs is so great that we actually added one or two [to the set], because we were getting reactions from people who were really liking the new songs and upset sometimes that we weren’t playing some of them.

We have so much experience at this point that, even as we’re writing and recording and the mix is going on, you’re sort of generating premonitions of how stuff will go over live. Even the song that we open our set with called “Bridges in the Sky,” as soon as we wrote that, you know it’s like, “That is the show opener” – you can just tell. Fast-forward a few months later and there it is and it works perfectly.

So I certainly hope that people enjoy the new songs and, based on the reactions that we got here in the U.S. and Canada and Mexico, I have a positive feeling about it. I’m looking forward to the tour. Europe is always great because it’s so diverse. The different areas we go to, the people react different, and you know you’re kind of really quickly experiencing all these different cultures while playing in those different environments. It’s pretty amazing.

Any U.S. dates coming after that?

I’m not really sure. We do have plans for an Asian tour set up and a South American tour as well – those are both in the spring. I’m not sure whether or not we’re going to do more U.S. shows. We certainly are talking about it so I don’t have a definitive on that. But we might.

If we do more U.S. touring it would most likely be in the summer time.

You guys are huge overseas, maybe bigger internationally than in the U.S. Have you pinpointed a reason for that?

It’s a very good question. I’m not 100 percent sure why. It could be a cultural thing. When we tour in America, the shows are great, and the fans are just as passionate and excited as anywhere else in the world, but in other parts of the world, in parts of South America and in parts of Europe and Asia, the size of the venues and the amount of people we get at concerts is considerably more. Differences of playing to 20,000 people as a headliner as opposed to 5,000 or 6,000.  Yeah, there’s a significant difference.

In some cases it’s something that we’ve built. Like the UK, for example. The first time we played in London we played a club. We built to the point where we were able to now headline and sell out the Wembley Arena. So sometimes it’s a matter of working hard and going back and building it. And in some countries you’re going for the first time, and there’s an amazing amount of people because there’s an anticipation possibly. Further into our career, if we hit a country for a first time, like a couple years ago going to Moscow in Russia for the first time, or wherever it may be, then having a developed career backing up it, then those initial shows are very big.

We’ve built from the beginning. I do remember the first couple of times coming to Europe, and we played clubs and smaller places.

In Europe, they do have the festival opportunities that we take advantage of, which we don’t really do in the U.S. So maybe we’re hitting a lot more people that maybe never heard of us in that sense. So that might be a reason as well.

The other thing in the U.S, is that – while we’re thankful to have a great fanbase no matter what – maybe radio and TV and stuff like that plays a bigger role in expanding a band, their level of recognition. Whereas in other countries, in South America and Brazil and places, maybe it’s just that a lot of people really love metal and hard rock and really want to go to concerts and they don’t care if it’s on TV or the radio, maybe it doesn’t matter as much.

There is a built-in cultural thing where people enjoy metal music and they enjoy progressive rock music, progressive metal, where it’s this big thing where it might not be as much in the U.S.

How are things going with new drummer Mike Mangini?

We debuted him live at an open-air festival in Rome … in July. And the response and the reaction to him has been incredible. I really have a lot of respect for our fans and listeners of our music because they’re just very, very gracious about how they’ve accepted Mike and we couldn’t have anticipated a more positive reaction.

We have a whole bunch of dates under our belts with him and he’s doing great. He’s a great performer and great to play with. Our fans have welcomed him with open arms, so that makes it all even better.

Seems like your fan base is very supportive.

I think it’s people that are really music lovers and they obviously enjoy what we do. I meet fans that have followed us from the beginning and are still with us and it’s always great to meet people like that. They just want to see the music and the band continue on.

People are very happy to just be able to get new Dream Theater music and to see us play live. When we look out into the audience and see people yelling and screaming and singing along and standing up and smiling, it’s a great feeling, a great interaction.

We’re fortunate to be able to make a living at this. Sometimes when bands make changes things go in an opposite direction. But we’re very fortunate – the album debuted Top 10 again, the tour’s been successful, and there’s the Grammy nomination. We’re really at a great place and we’re very thankful. You see a lot of what’s going on with the economy … and see tours failing and bands breaking up and everything else, but we’re fortunate that we have the ability to continue and be successful. We don’t take that lightly, that’s for sure.

Following the departure of longtime drummer Mike Portnoy, you guys decided to film the auditions for a new drummer and post them on YouTube to reveal the selection. How did that go?

I think it was something that was very helpful, because when Mike left the band, there was a lot of speculation, a lot of people were concerned about our future, or concerned about who we would get. It took us a while from the time that Mike quit to the time that we made the announcement.

The reason was that we wanted to bring all of our fans into the process. Having all the auditions filmed and releasing it on the Web in the three-part series – where in the final one you found out who the drummer was – it definitely generated awareness. It also made everyone feel included – to see exactly what we went through and how we made our decision.

I think it really brought people together. I think it was a very positive thing and I’m so happy that we did it. It’s been a successful year and album since then, so I think that started things off in just the right way, the way that we needed to do things.

Photo: Roadrunner Records
“I meet fans that have followed us from the beginning … They just want to see the music and the band continue on.”

The band’s next dates include Jan. 23 at Helsinki Ice Arena in Finland; Jan. 25 at Hovet in Stockholm, Sweden; Jan. 26 at Vallhall in Oslo, Norway; and Jan. 27 at Valby Hallen in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Click here for Dream Theater’s website.