By: Justin Beckner
Jordan Rudess is not only “that keyboard player guy from Dream Theater”, he defines what it means to be a musician by breaking the chains of the mundane rock sound and continuously pushing the limits. For most musicians, being a member of Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment and working on his 13th solo album in the past 20 years would be enough to satisfy the inner artist, but Jordan has gone far beyond that. Recently he completed work on an album with Tony Levin and Marco Minnemann which has been hailed as an instant classic by fans and critics. He also recently released the first of his own music education apps through his company Wizdom Music. He also started the Pledge Music Campaign and continues to work on making music more of an interactive experience. Jordan Rudess serves his time on the front lines in the often misunderstood world of Prog Rock - bushwhacking through the untamed reaches of the sonic realm with blissful abandon and tactical precision.
Justin: Let’s start by talking about how the new Dream Theater album came together.
Jordan: Well, the way Dream Theater usually handles the whole process is, we start by sitting down and discussing where we’re all at and where we want to go musically – what we want to create. We do sort of a check in on where we are personally and musically and decide what we want to create. We’ve always been very conceptual about things before we start the process of writing. It’s been that way ever since I’ve been in the group and I’d imagine even before that, there was a lot of intricate planning that goes into a Dream Theater album.
Justin: Its got to be an amazing experience to sit in a room with so many great songwriters and see everything come together.
Jordan: It’s super exciting. On this particular album we had the addition of our fairly new drummer, Mike Mangini. It was really cool to have him involved in the writing sessions for the first time. It’s a very intense energy-driven experience that moves from going very fast when we’re composing together – sometimes we’re blown away at how fast the ideas are coming out, to the slower more analytical parts of the process where we comb over details. The slower parts of making records are usually when I might go write some music down with a pen and paper very slowly and the other guys will go into their own world and take a break or something.
Justin: I suppose I should ask how the two Mike’s measure up to each other.
Jordan: Well the two Mikes, the new Mike and the old Mike are both very different people and they’re both very different players. Both of them are great drummers but a lot did change both personally and musically for use. Musically, the new Mike has certain skills that the other one does not. For example, he’s incredible with mathematics, especially related to music. He was able to bring us some architectural structure that we’ve never had to this extent before as far as meters and how different instruments will interact – that was a totally new element that we got to work with. Also, Mangini has a technique on drums unlike any other human on the planet, so that brings an element of change. He also is really fun in the studio has tons of energy which we feed off of. I’m not saying that in any way to put down our last drummer Mike Portnoy who is an exceptional talent and a world class drummer but I’m saying that some new things were offered to the group.
Justin: Was there any plans for what this album was going to become before you started writing it?
Jordan: One of the ways we looked at it was that we wanted to make sure that the music that we played was not only what we all thought Dream Theater represents but also really be honest about who we are as people and where we’re coming from and make sure that we’re making music we feel comfortable with. We wanted to be really true to that instead of letting outside influences that don’t really relate to who we are as people dictate our music. We wanted to say ok, we are Dream Theater in 2013 and we are going to be true to the music and true to what we feel this group is and as long as that mentality is in place, I’m very comfortable with anything that happens.
Justin: Is that why you, after all these years, decided that now was the time to release a self titled album?
Jordan: Yeah, we feel that were in a very strong unified clear place in our career and we wanted people to understand that. We’ve been around a while but I don’t know if we’ve ever, in all those years, felt like we were such a strong and unified force of musicians as we do now.
Justin: You talk about that feeling of unity in the studio – how do you think that feeling effected the sounds that came out on the record.
Jordan: It’s a general kind of a vibe and I think its best exemplified in the live experience. This last tour was a real confirmation of what’s going on in the band right now with Mike Mangini. We’d walk off the stage and we’d get so many comments about how tight the band sounded and how much energy we have and how much we feed off of each other. I think “unified” is the best word for it. There was never one person who steals the show. I definitely feel it when we hang out together too – it’s that vibe that we are what Dream Theater is and should be.
Justin: Dream Theater is clearly a very satisfying outlet for you. So what do you get from your other projects that you don’t get from Dream Theater?
Jordan: Music is my life and I like all kinds of music. I just put out an album with Tony Levin and Marco Minnemann recently. That was a little more in the spirit of a Liquid Tension Experiment project and it was satisfying in a different way than Dream Theater, it allowed me to express myself in a different way. For that project I got to be like a mad scientist in my studio with all my little sounds and I was able to explore styles that done really fit into the Dream Theater realm of possibilities. Then I’m working on a solo piano album and an interactive app. There are a lot of things in music that are important to me outside of Dream Theater and getting a chance to do them is very satisfying as a musician.
Justin: Tell me about how that Levin/Minnemann/Rudess project came together.
Jordan: I had learned about Marco Minnemann’s playing before the Dream Theater auditions and I knew he was an exceptional drummer and I really wanted to work with him. I invited him to come and be part of the Dream Theater auditions and I knew that he was a guy I wanted to work with no matter what happened with the Dream Theater auditions. So as it worked out, he didn’t get the Dream Theater gig but we definitely were interested to follow through and find some way to work together. Then to fast forward, I worked with Tony in two Liquid Tension Experiment records and I enjoyed working with him very much, we both come from a classical music background so we communicate in a similar way and have a great relationship. Tony reached out to Marco and started working on ideas months before I ever found my way into the picture. But at some point during their brainstorming ideas, some emails went out to a few musicians and one of them was me and I was, of course, really interested so I ended up saying yes. Originally I thought the project was going to be much more improvisational in nature but when I got the sound clips of what Tony and Marco had been working on I realized that there was some serious depth to this stuff. Some of it was a little looser and really needed some glossing over but some of them were very intricate compositions and they were really intense. It ended up being much more than I anticipated. It took about a month to work through the compositions – there were some really cool and interesting musical puzzles like on one song I had to go in and compose music around a drum track because that’s all there was there. I got to take this project into many different areas stylistically then what people are used to hearing me do. Having Marco and Tony lay down the music that they did made for a really cool place to start from. I was smiling ear to ear at the end of that record because it was a challenge and because of the areas we were able to take it musically.
Justin: Is this project something that you will continue to do or was it more of a one-off kind of thing?
Jordan: You know, it was very enjoyable for us and it’s been doing very well – it’s number one on Amazon Hard Rock and it’s been that way for a while now. So it’s definitely something that has some legs, its just a matter of arranging time to promote it and ensure that it will be financially viable. But right now all indications are that this is something that’s really alive and is going to be appreciated which means that we’ll be able to do another one.
Justin: Have you talked at all about touring with Levin/Minnemann/Rudess?
Jordan: Well it’s a little early to tell but if another album happens, then the likelihood of a tour is that much greater.
Justin: Did you foresee this level of success for this project when you started?
Jordan: I didn’t really know – I knew it was going to be a cool album but how much success it was going to have was pretty difficult to gauge. What I was hoping for, and it looks like it’s happening, is that it would reach into the same area as Liquid Tension Experiment because I think it’s equally as cool and different of a project. It is different but I think the audience feels that it was something along the same wavelength as that project.
Justin: There has been a question that’s been bothering me for a while and I suppose that you’d be the best guy to ask, what is “Prog Rock”?
Jordan: Prog Rock has two meanings at this point and it’s an interesting ting to discuss. You never really know what people mean by it but usually people mean that Prog Rock is a style that emerged in the early 70’s with groups like King Crimson and Yes and Pink Floyd and it was all about those groups stretching the bounds of rock music by adding elements of harmony and structure and they would break new ground by using synthesizers and things like that. The other way to look at, and the way I prefer to look at it, is that “Prog” means that you’re moving forward and continuing to expand the art form all the time. So really, if you look at it this way, progressive rock should be a much different sound than it was in the 70’s. There are not a lot of people who consider themselves fans of “Prog Rock” who think that way. I think the more progressive music these days are in the electronic field; people like Apex Twin or something like that. So my hope is that people will continue to evolve the rock genre because I feel that there is still a lot of room for rock to grow and to me that is what defines progressive rock.
Justin: Technology seems to motor that drives progressive music into new territory.
Jordan: Yeah, certainly technology gives us different timbres to work with and that’s a big part of the sound in any stylistic movement in music. The electric guitar was what started rock and roll, then synthesizers came along and that helped electronic music progress. It’s always been a matter of harnessing the technology and using that to establish a new realm of possibilities.
Justin: Speaking of technology moving us forward, tell me a bit about your new app.
Jordan: The new app is called the Ear Wizard; it’s the first in a new line of apps that I’ve been involved with creating for music education. I’ve had an online conservatory for many years (www.JROC.us) and I wanted to take some of those educational ideas and start bringing them into the app world. I have a company called Wizdom Muisc that will be releasing these. So this one is an ear training app –it’s a free app actually and it has some depth to it but in order to get all the functions you have to pay something like a couple dollars. But ear training is one of the most important things that a musician can learn, so that’s why I came out with this app first in the series. I wanted to make sure I offered something that offered a unique way for musicians and non-musicians alike to improve their ear and their memory. Ear Wizard is kind of a take on the old Simon game.
Justin: What made you want to start teaching music?
Jordan: I’ve always been involved in teaching and sharing my knowledge of music, it’s just kind of who I am. I don’t give piano lessons so much anymore but sometimes we give away a free piano lesson with me via Skype or something like that as a fundraiser and I really enjoy teaching that way.
Justin: Most people have some sort of hobby outside of music, but you’ve been involved in so many amazing projects aside from Dream Theater and your solo records, have you ever felt burnt out on music?
Jordan: Never in the slightest. I have a love for sound and that’s who I am really and there are so many different sounds and styles of music. As long as I can express myself in ways that I want to, I feel like I don’t have enough time to spend doing music.
Justin: I understand that this love for music started at a young age. Do you recall when you discovered that you had a passion for music?
Jordan: Well I was in my second grade classroom accompanying the kids in my class with the songs they would sing on piano. One day the teacher called up my mother and told her that her son was playing so well. My mother asked what instrument I was playing and she was shocked when she heard that it was a piano because we didn’t have a piano at home. So my teacher said that she had better get one. That’s where it started.
Justin: Tell us about your Pledge Music Campaign.
Jordan: Pledge Music is sort of the musician’s equivalent of Kickstarter. As record companies sort of start to disappear it’s really important for musicians to have an outlet to get their projects done. So I wrote this piece called Explorations in Keyboard and Orchestra and I went down to Venezuela to premier it but I never really got a good recording of it. So this year I started this Pledge Music Campaign which is actually under way. It’s been a wonderful endeavor and the way it works is you get your fans to participate – its kind of a crowd funded thing. So the bands become part of the experience and the band can follow along with the whole experience. The goal of it was to create an album of this orchestral music. I have a relationship with an orchestra in Poland called the Symphonic Theater of Dreams through my work with Dream Theater and I’m working with them on recording the music for this album. So I put it out on a pledge and asked people to participate and it’s been very successful – orchestras are very expensive so I’m continuing to ask the fans to participate. The other part of the campaign is to develop an app where fans can modify the songs from my solo record to create their own versions that they can share online. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s at www.pledgemusic.com/jordanrudess.