John Petrucci Astonishing Beards & Breathless Solos!

By A. Lee Graham

Soloing and shredding come naturally for John Petrucci. But bearding? That’s an entirely different beast.

“The key is keeping it clean and trying not to look like a homeless guy,” says Petrucci, surely tugging on the dense whiskers covering his chin.

Speaking from his New York home, the Dream Theater guitarist prepares for the U.S. leg of the Images, Words and Beyond tour. The excursion marks the 25th anniversary of the album that put the progressive metal giants on the map.

Thirteen studio albums into a career that’s seen multiple lineup changes, several side projects, and fan loyalty rivaling the Grateful Dead, the quintet is celebrating one of its most popular albums while continuing to debate one of its most polarizing. That would be The Astonishing, the double-disc dystopian concept opus echoing plot lines of Romeo and Juliet, Star Wars, Rush’s 2112 and even, as some fans point out, Footloose.

The new tour promises a more relaxed affair, with fans encouraged to clap along, snap cellphone pics and stand up, all discouraged by last year’s The Astonishing trek that placed playbills and civility above such raucous behavior.

But as Marty DiBergi said in This is Spinal Tap, “enough of my yakking.” Let’s let John Petrucci do the talking…

Lee: First of all, thanks for the time. I know you guys are busy preparing to take the Images, Words & Beyond tour stateside.

John: Yeah, it’s really crazy. I’m only home for a few days before we go back on the road for the final leg of the Images and Words anniversary tour, but I’m happy to talk to you.

Lee: That’s partly why I’m calling. I’m actually flying out for your LA show in a couple days.

John: Oh, great!

Lee: Last year, I caught both of your Astonishing performances at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. Quite a fantastic production.

John: That was a crazy show we put together.

Lee: But now you’re preparing for the next leg of the Image and Words anniversary tour. After performing it in Europe and Asia, you must know the album like the back of your hand, but is performing the material challenging after all these years or can even Dream Theater almost play this stuff in your sleep?

John: Yeah, we just came back from Asia and it’s cool thinking about how the album has reached so many people. We’re now bringing it to the U.S. and Canada. The album is special because it was the first time a lot of people heard Dream Theater.

I think the songs really hold up and, as you said, it really is second nature. We’ve played these songs so much, they’re kind of ingrained into our muscle memory. That doesn’t mean the songs aren’t without their challenges — there are sections of music that require concentration and practice — but they’re still challenging.

Lee: Are there passages that seem especially difficult to execute after all these years? Not that he can’t replicate them perfectly, but are there parts that [original keyboardist] Kevin Moore wrote that perhaps challenge even the mighty [current keyboardist] Jordan Rudess?

John: I don’t think Jordan has any trouble playing any of that stuff. I don’t think he’s facing any particular technical challenges. In that sense, the hardest part for me is for me and Jordan — or Kevin Moore back then — to replicate some of the unison stuff on guitar. You have to find the right fingering sequence to make that happen. That’s the hardest part for me: translating those keyboard parts to guitar.

Lee: You and Jordan have perfected the art of composing some mind-bogglingly complex unison lines. Do you see a time where you and he write something that even you guys can’t pull off?

John: Well, I never like to say the word can’t. To say some things are difficult is an understatement, especially in a live setting, but not so much in a studio where you can do multiple takes. In a live performance, you only get one shot. That’s the challenge of trying to execute things as accurately as possible.

To me, that’s what makes preforming a lot of fun because it’s not the sort of thing where you’re up there going through the motions. It’s like walking a tightrope or flying a really fast jet. Things go by so quickly, you have to be up to the challenges ahead. That’s what makes performing night after night so fun and exhilarating after all these years.

Lee: Most fans probably think each one of you rehearses by yourself, probably with a metronome, before getting together and rehearsing as a group. What’s the key to that group dynamic of performing on the level of Dream Theater?

John: What I’ve found is you can rehearse as much as you can at home, but even if you have it as close to 100 percent as you can get it as far as your chops and memory, it’s a whole different story when you step foot on stage and start touring. It’s not necessarily the challenge of any individual song, but the challenge of touring and playing that kind of music night after night, three hours a night, several days a week.

Something people don’t think about is the stamina part. It’s one thing to master your instrument but quite another to stand on stage three hours a night with your hand in the same position. Most, or about 90 percent, of the performance for me is rhythm and riffs, then a solo comes along. Having your hand in that position and your forearm muscle without rest between songs — that’s the stamina part. You only get better at that as the tour progresses and you have that under your belt.

Lee: Maintaining that rhythmic precision must be a strain. Does your weightlifting help or hinder the strain you put on yourself onstage?

John: As long as you don’t abuse yourself. I’m very careful not to. I just came  back from the gym and I’m very careful not to use too much weight. I work out alone, so I don’t do something too severe that when I get out on tour, it hurts my wrists. Not to say I haven’t had my injuries before, but I’ve learned from my mistakes.

I don’t see it as helping or hindering my guitar playing. As long as your arms aren’t injured or tight, I think you’re fine.

If you hurt yourself and are stiff or if your shoulder hurts, it might affect your playing negatively, but that’s the kind of thing you need to be careful of. I don’t see it like, “Oh, that’s my bicep. I can’t pick faster.” I don’t see a correlation. I was a skinny guy playing in my teens and twenties, and it didn’t affect me.

Lee: I’d have to agree. Let’s go back to The Astonishing staging for a minute. The tour was quite a rigid stage production, with you guys treating each evening more like an opera or a musical than a rock concert. Is the current tour more relaxed, more a return to a more conventional rock approach?

John: Absolutely, it’s a total change. The Astonishing was presented more as an opera or a musical in that it was a stage show. We had a thing where we didn’t allow cameras, and they were in all-seated venues. A lot of people didn’t like that. We get that. We were just trying to do something different to present a visual storytelling kind of thing. For the most part, it came across that way, I think.

This [the Images, Words and Beyond tour] is more traditional. You’ll even hear it with the opening walk-in music we play. We wanted to create more of a party-celebration atmosphere. James [LaBrie, vocalist] is loose on stage. He tells stories about the Images days. We’ll have some improv moments and it’s definitely more a a celebration, a party that people can stand up and take pictures, whatever they want. The last tour was obviously a departure, something different.

Lee: Can fans expect a return of the smartphone police?

John: No (laughs). They won’t be there.

Lee: Is it annoying for you to pour your heart out onstage only to look back not at fans’ faces, but at a sea of cameras pointed at you? And flashes going off, too?

John: I’m not going to lie. As a performer, it’s totally annoying. You look out and see phone screens instead of faces. As long as we’ve been doing this, you’re slightly self-conscious to know you’re being filmed at all times. If it were up to me, if I had my way, I’d prefer people just going to the show and enjoying it as opposed to filming the whole thing.

Sometimes I’ll watch a person filming the whole thing, and, they’ll be holding up their phone or iPad, and I think, A, is that even enjoyable to you? And B, what are you going to do with that: have some iPhone version of a weird camera angle, watch it over and over?

Me, as a concertgoer, I go to a show and am in the moment. I want an experience. If I want to snap a picture before the show starts, whatever, but I don’t understand viewing the whole concert through an iPad, for instance.

Lee: You’ve downplayed the likelihood of an Astonishing Blu-ray, citing fewer people buying live concert. But do you really think that applies to Dream Theater fans? They seem eager to snap up anything you produce, given the quality you put into each product bearing the DT name. And lastly, was there ever a properly filmed show from the tour?

John: Unfortunately, there was never a properly filmed show. We did talk about it and we talked about a couple of cities where it might be filmed. But we kind of changed our minds at some point. We’d have to resume production of the show and play a one-off and film it, and that’s not impossible, but it’s not in the plans right now.

Lee: Not filming it might make the tour more special to the fans who actually saw it. They have a memory many don’t.

John: Yeah, you’re right. An interesting thing, as well, is I wonder how it would translate to DVD. But to me, the more impactful thing was the live presentation of it. I may be wrong, but listening to an album of that production is one thing, but being in a venue is kind of like watching a movie, so it had a lot more impact.

I could tell by the response of those who saw the show that they got it. Those that didn’t quite get it, once they saw the live presentation, they were on board. They connected. I’m not sure how that experience might translate to DVD, but those who were at the shows got something special.

Lee: I know I did. I have a few friends who weren’t exactly fans of the album who came away from the live experience appreciating it a lot more.

John: To me, the whole album was written as a show. Some people ask why it was so long and had so many different ballad moments. But it was written as a story meant to watch when you kind of get into the motivation of the characters. To do that, you have to have a certain length. That’s the power of live. It means so much more as a live story even more than the actual album.

Lee: If nothing else, The Astonishing proved you know how to write and orchestrate a narrative story with linear flow like a movie. Is there a chance of revisiting the more abstract lyrical approach of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, where the album focused on a specific subject yet didn’t follow a linear storyline, per se?

John: Sure. Yeah, I don’t see why not. We haven’t gotten into the studio yet to work on the next Dream Theater album, but that’s something we’ve done many times before where the material not necessarily with characters and a plot. That’s something I like doing personally as a lyricist.

Lee: Something that always grabbed me about Six Degrees was the fact that, despite its focus on mental states, it was relevant to what was happening in the world back then. For instance, “The Great Debate” spoke about stem cell research, which was quite controversial at the time. You know what I mean?

John: I don’t know what you’re talking about. That was a love song (laughs).

Lee: Oh, a love song. But of course it was. I should have known (laughs). Actually, going back to The Astonishing, that was more of a timeless theme, a Romeo and Juliet narrative set against a dystopian, sci-fi backdrop.

John: Yeah, as in most movies, there’s always an underlying love story that … even if it’s a sci-fi setting or musical, there is some kind of dramatic tension thing going on. It does help to drive the story, no matter the setting.

Lee: While we’re discussing future albums, I know it’s early, but have you guys talked about plans for the next studio record? I know that Dream Theater traditionally waits until gathering in the studio to start writing, but might you take a different approach this time?

John: We know exactly what we’re going to do, what we want to do, and we’ve started jamming ideas as we’re touring. Just piecing seeds together at sound checks. Nothing crazy, but if someone has an idea, we start jamming on it. We record some ideas, but it won’t be until we’re in the studio where it will be fleshed out.

Lee: In that case, you’d better be careful of fans secretly recording at sound check.

John: Yes, true, absolutely. 

Lee: Talk about the John Petrucci Experience you recently hosted in New York. Did it turn out how you expected? I recently chatted with [guitarist] Tony MacAlpine, and he said it was really fun. What were the highlights, in your view?

John: I agree with Tony. First of all, it was amazing having Tony there. I’m a big fan of him. He was in Vai’s band in G3. He’s an incredible player. It was a pleasure and an honor to have him there. This was my first one and I was kind of nervous. I wanted to make sure all 200 campers walked away having a great time. I think that’s what happened. It was a combination of Dreamcatcher [Events, promotion company] putting this together. They did Steve Vai’s and Joe’s campus, too.

The venue was helpful, too. We did it in Glen Cove in Long Island. The instructors made it fantastic: Andy McKee, Rusty Cooley, Jason Richardson, Tony MacAlpine, Tosin Abasi … it was this amazing combination of not only players and professionals, but also teachers. I think campers walked away with the feeling that it was this special thing. It was enriching and instructional.

They met friends from all over the world they’ll have forever. We had a barbecue, wine tasting: we’ll do it again next year. It hasn’t been announced yet, so I wouldn’t announce a date for this article, but it was such a success, we’ll do it again.

Lee: Let’s talk G3. You and Joe are no stranger to the experience, but what do you think [Def Leppard guitarist] Phil Collen brings to the table. He’s a solid player, but I know some thought him as an unusual choice since he’s not someone everyone thinks of as a shredder.

John: I don’t know Phil. I’ve never met him. From what I’ve heard, he’s a great guy and a great player. I know Joe is really fond of him, and he did Joe’s G4 Experience, so I’m sure that played a role. I’m sure it’s going to be great. I have no doubt he’s a great player. I trust Joe. I’m sure Phil will be a lot of fun and fun to jam with. I’m looking forward to it.

Lee: I saw you, Joe and Steve Vai for G3 in 2001. You performed “Glasgow Kiss,” which would later appear on your solo album, Suspended Animation. All these years later, and still no follow-up John Petrucci CD. Are you going for a Chinese Democracy record?

John: (laughs) It’s funny. It’s one of those things where when we first did one … well, when Joe asked me to do the tour, we [Dream Theater] were recording Six Degrees. He wanted solo material, and I had no solo material. I really had no itch or desire to do a solo album because I’ve always felt Dream Theater satisfied so much of my creative desire as a guitar player but once you do one, people are like what about another one?

I always say this and I sound like a broken record, but I have enough material for a new solo album, but Dream Theater is so busy and not only with scheduling touring, but also time in the studio, and production with the band, as well.

I’m already in the studio 24/7, so I don’t really have the time to do this, but it’s something that will happen. Unless I’m some kind of miracle worker on my days off at home, you can see from my schedule it’s hard to find those holes in time to record.

Lee: And I look forward to seeing several shows on the Images and Words run. I’ll be at the Wiltern next week, as well as Dallas and Austin in December.

John: Dallas will be last show of the tour.

Lee: Here’s a quick quiz to wrap things up. What’s the one thing you can’t live without on tour?

John: My beard products: my shampoo, my oil. Gotta make it look amazing.

Lee: Look astonishing.

John: (laughs) Yeah.

Lee: Doesn’t it ever become itchy, scratchy?

John: Scratchy? I’ve never found facial hair to be scratchy. It’s just kinda there. The problem is keeping it soft. If you’re going to make a statement by having a big beard hanging off your face, the key is to not look like a homeless guy. Trim it and keep it soft. Make it look like you care.

Lee: How about grilling. Do you a favorite recipe?

John: I love barbecuing, putting steaks on the smoker. I owe all of the love to that to Sterling Ball [Ernie Ball-Ernie Ball Music Man CEO], who turned me onto this. He’s a competitive award-winning barbecue champion. He hooked me. That was several years ago. When you cook like that at home, whether steaks or ribs or chicken or rib roasts or turkey on the holidays, it’s great. When you cook like that, there’s nothing like that.

Lee: From signature guitars to barbecue, it sounds like you owe a lot to Sterling.

John: Absolutely.

Lee: In closing, is there anything you want to tell the fans?

John: Well, they just announced a G3 leg for Europe, which will be with Uli Roth.

Lee: Wow.

John: Actually, with all my G3 runs, I’ve never done a European run. It’s incredibly exciting for me.

Lee: Have you ever played with Uli?

John: No, I haven’t.

Lee: Incredibly nice guy. And a truly fantastic player.

John: Definitely.

Lee: Thanks for taking the time to chat, John. I’ve been a fan since discovering the When Dream And Day Unite cassette in 1989. I read about it in Metal Forces, and if memory serves, Jason McMaster of WatchTower turned me onto you guys back then, too. At that point, only WatchTower and Fates Warning flew the flag for what I called prog metal.

John: Absolutely. The stuff WatchTower was doing back then was just insane. Ridiculous, very ahead of its time, and of course what Fates was doing was amazing, too. They were mixing metal with prog. Dream Theater brought more of a Yes orchestration with keyboards. It’s hard to explain to people that the whole prog metal scene today just didn’t exist back then. It was just starting. Even before that, you had Rush doing Hemispheres, which was kind of metallish, and even early Metallica, but doing it the way WatchTower was doing it was rare.

Lee: Of course, prog and metal both existed, but Dream Theater was heading a scene that seemed to mix the proverbial peanut butter and chocolate and fans dug it.

John: Yeah, especially with When Dream and Day Unite was very underground and it was a miracle we even got signed to a record label. We got criticism all the time about how we didn’t know how to write a song, our solos were too long, etc. — all the same things we’re still criticized for now. It was in the early ‘90s, so people didn’t know how to react to it.

Lee: Ironic since what launched your career early on was a hit single (“Pull Me Under”).

John: Exactly. The funny thing about that is, if you look at the songs at the time, even though it was a rock radio hit, it was a long song with a dynamic range that was completely bizarre. With the exception of the chorus, it didn’t make any sense why it was as hit. It still baffles me today.

Lee: Even the radio edit was fairly long.

John: It was. It had two keyboard solos, long guitar solo, etc. Twenty five years ago, the songs that were being played on radio were really different: Nirvana, Pearl Jam. Dream Theater was completely different. But here we are.