You are nominated for a Grammy. They say the nomination is the honor but wouldn’t it be great to take one home?
John: Who wouldn’t want to put that on the fireplace mantel? It would be unbelievable to win a Grammy; that would be a dream comes true. Equally unbelievable is getting nominated. We’ve been doing this for a long time and this is our first Grammy nomination; it means so much to us. When I heard the news I was flipping out and the whole band is really happy. It is an achievement for any artist but for us it is different. If an artist is being played all over the radio and they are very commercially oriented then it might just seem like another step in their career. Being a band that plays the kind of music that we do, it is different. The song that is nominated, “On the Backs of Angels,” is a nine-minute song. Our band plays progressive metal. We have time signature changes and we do all kinds of crazy stuff in our music, so for us to be nominated is so awesome. To be recognized by the Academy in this way is really unbelievable.
What is Dream Theater’s secret? Prog bands are not supposed to be nominated for Grammy’s or have their albums debut in the Top 10.
John: I think there is a listening audience for this type of music that is huge; I think there always has been. I think back about myself and there were bands that were really, really huge but they were not mainstream. I was still fanatically into them. There are tons of other people that are into that kind of music. It is just a matter of having it come to the foreground. It really is the power of the fans. This is the music that we love to play, love to listen too and love to write. There is a worldwide audience that has a lot of passion that is into this kind of music. To have it recognized in this capacity doesn’t happen too often.
You wrote the song that is nominated but you also produced the entire album. How did you wear the separate hats?
John: As far as writing the music, that is my passion and it is something I love to do and it comes very natural to me. Producing the music, at the same time, is kind of like wearing another hat. The key thing that I did for me, the whole time, from the beginning, before we even wrote a note, was to think of what kind of record we wanted to make. What was the specific goal we were trying to achieve and who were the people on our wish list that we were going to do it with. We got to work with a lot of great people who mastered and engineered the record. It was all about staying focused and remembering the kind of album we wanted to make. It was about taking the time to check yourself and make sure that you’re on track and that you haven’t strayed. To me, that is the key to success – having a definite goal. I think if you have that when you go in then you are more likely to finish where you wanted to in the first place.
The elephant in the room is that this album was made without founding drummer Mike Portnoy. I will say that this album may be one of the best, if not the best, of your career. Is the Grammy nomination sweeter because despite all the crap that Portnoy put you through you still succeeded to that level?
John: It does. We started the band together back in Berklee when we were 18 years old. We have been a band for all of this time. Mike leaving was a real heartbreak and a shock. We have been through member changes before but Mike was always a huge part of this band. There is that sort of moment, from fans, family, friends, and band members and yourself where you go, “What are we going to do? What is the next step and how are we going to do this? Can we make this successful?” Thankfully, from the very beginning we had so much support from our families, our friends and our fans and we took that support and translated that into the album. The album came out in the Top 10 all around the world. Our fans really seem to enjoy it. The Grammy nomination, on top of all that, is a great affirmation and a payback to all of those people who gave us that support. It is sweet. I can’t lie.
How is the new Mike different than the old Mike, professionally, personally and musically?
John: We wrote the album without a drummer present. Mike Mangini came in and learned the album and then added a whole new level of musicianship to it. It really was wonderful. Mike is a really cool person who is really easy to get along with. He is very dedicated and he gives 120% at all times. He has brought that attitude out on the road with us. His commitment to being a better drummer the next day, than he was the day, before is really great.
The original Mike had been doing this with us for a long time. Sometimes, because we have done so many shows together, you think that no one could do what he does. Mike Mangini brought huge amounts of passion and commitment, not only to his drums, but to the band. Knowing the history of the band and knowing our fan base and how important Mike was to the band, to watch the new Mike come in and do what he did is pretty amazing.
Portnoy left the band but there was a point where he wanted to come back to Dream Theater. What would the harm have been to let bygones be bygones and let him come back?
John: It was a little bit more complicated than that. The process by which Mike left the band was one where we tried everything to talk him out of it. We told him that it wasn’t a good idea and that we had been together for too long to have this happen. We came to the realization that he needed a change. At that point, when you’ve exhausted all efforts, then you have to face the reality of the situation, which was that we needed a new drummer. We had to roll up our sleeves and find those eight drummers that auditioned. We, then, brought Mike Mangini into the band. He retired from his tenured position as an instructor at Berklee and we began making the new album. We rearranged and restructured everything within our business as well, which meant that we made hundreds of phone calls to booking agents, record companies and management. It really was complicated to do all of this. At that point, to have Mike say, “I want to come back” you can only imagine how we felt. It was too late and too far gone. Obviously, it wasn’t something that he wanted a couple of months before so we had to wonder why it would suddenly be different now. All of the reasons that he wanted to leave for were all still there; they didn’t go anywhere. It was just too late. We had to be genuine to ourselves, to our fans, to Mike Mangini and to our future.
Dream Theater always pushes boundaries. Is that an important part of the band to be able to be able to musically go where no band has gone?
John: There is an identity to doing that. One of the things that I have learned is that you have to keep the identity of the band. You can’t just be all over the map, stylistically. It is great to have different influences and to bring in other things and experiment, but there has to be an identity and style. Having said that, there are no boundaries to what we can do. We do not limit ourselves when it comes to song structures or song lengths or anything like that. I think that is really important. If something comes from you with total conviction, has integrity and comes from an artistically valid place, then whether it will hit people the same way, you never know, but you can have a lot of respect in what you have accomplished. I think that is what people latch onto and identify with. If you are wishy-washy within the style that you do then people are smart and they pick up on that.
Your fans expect things to be different. You can come out and perform an entire album by Iron Maiden and your fans dig it. A lot of other bands would have their fans scratching their heads trying to figure out what is going on.
John: That is a great point. We have that trust from our fans and we can do something that might be a little bit off the cuff or experimental and they will not only be up for it, they will be along for the ride. I think that is really incredible.
You did Number of the Beast live in its entirety. How did that come up to even think about doing that?
John: To be honest, that was old Mike’s idea. He was really into that music way back. He mentioned how the band Phish, every Halloween, would play an entire album. It was a great idea. I don’t know if Phish sparked that idea or if he already had that idea but he brought it up. We all loved that album and Iron Maiden is an influence to our band.
As a guitarist you can shred but you have a melodic sensibility and you have a lot of emotion in your playing. Do you realize how rare it is for a guitarist to possess all three of those elements?
John: Thank you for saying that, I really appreciate that. Sometimes I think of our music like classical music, not that we play that kind of music but rather the range of ability that is expected from people who play in an orchestra. You can expect something that is incredible technically difficult and then, following that, something that is really melodically beautiful. The bottom line is that it is all musical expression. My whole goal was to be able to do what I wanted to do, whether that be soulful, melodic, technical, heavy or whatever. You have to be able to do all of that stuff to play in this band.
You have done some interesting things outside of Dream Theater in the past. Are you working on anything at the moment outside of the band?
John: I get asked about doing a follow-up to the solo album I did few years back called Suspended Animation. It was fun to do. I haven’t done a follow-up and I have a lot of music written for that, so once we get the tour finished, and things settle down a little bit, then I would love to do that.
With Mangini being the rookie, did you make him earn his stripes? Was there any hazing?
John: The biggest hazing was for us to stick him on stage in Rome on our opening show. It was make it or break it time. He pulled through 100% for us.
Last one: Do you have your Grammy speech written?
John: I am working on a speech, just in case. You have got to be prepared. With all the great bands in our category I don’t think we will win but you’ve got to at least be prepared.
How about new music?
John: Writing is a funny thing, sometimes it just hits you. We are not really in that mode as we are traveling and living in hotel rooms. We haven’t really written anything officially for the next album yet.