INTERVIEW: Jordan Rudess of DREAM THEATER (October 2021)

For a musician who’s constantly creating, the COVID-19 pandemic has offered the silver lining of time. Jordan Rudess, best known as the keyboardist of Dream Theater, the world’s leading progressive metal band, has taken full advantage of it, as Dream Theater’s upcoming 15th studio album, “A View from the Top of the World” (Oct. 22, 2021, InsideOutMusic/Sony Music), will be his third release of the year, following the solo record “A Chapter in Time” and the long-awaited third album from Liquid Tension Experiment, his “supergroup” with Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci, bassist Tony Levin and ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy. He also has continued to innovate, developing and releasing new music apps with more on the way. Not that he hasn’t felt the effects of the pandemic; Dream Theater just postponed its fall tour to 2022 after all. Live Metal’s Greg Maki recently caught up with Rudess to discuss the new album, the band’s rich legacy, LTE, new apps and more.

LIVE METAL: I guess we’ll get the bad news out of the way first, which is Dream Theater postponing the tour until next year. Was that a difficult decision to come to for the band?

JORDAN RUDESS: Yes. (laughs) It was very difficult. There’s nothing easy about this for anybody on any level, but the touring thing is very complicated, a lot of parameters. Every band, I will say, has their own parameters, so it’s not like anybody can truly understand why one band goes, one band doesn’t and this and that. All I can tell you is that given the parameters that we have, the decision was made to do this, and I think it was probably the right decision given what’s going on out there. And we’ll see everybody in February. We didn’t cancel. We postponed it. And I think I really have a strong feeling that things will be a lot better soon, and we’ll be able to do our thing without as much complication. I do know if we had gone on this tour that it would have been a very difficult tour, because we started to talk about everything we needed to do to make it happen, and it was just like, “Oh my god, do we want to do that?” Like, that sounds horrible, like not going to be able to go into catering and not having anybody backstage at all. Why go and do anything when it’s going to be so unpleasant?

Obviously, a very different situation, but you did some solo shows earlier this year. How did those go?

I had fun doing them. It was a nice outing for me. It was obvious that people weren’t coming out, because it was nothing like the tour that I had done before that as far as the numbers. So it just made me think that people are really not coming to shows. And then I spoke to my agent, like “What, is it me? Do I have bad breath or something? What’s going on here?” (laughs) They were like, “Yeah, it’s up to 80 percent down for a lot of acts.” So you’ve just gotta hang in there and wait till things settle down.

OK, moving on to better things now, the new Dream Theater album, “A View from the Top of the World,” comes out Oct. 22. It’s the 15th studio album, which for me is kind of hard to believe because I became a Dream Theater fan back in ’92 when I heard “Pull Me Under” for the first time, and I can’t possibly be that old now. But there’s such a great body of work the band has put together and a legacy at this point. Does that come into your mind at all when you’re working on new material, as inspiration or just something you have to live up to?

There’s all those elements, for sure. One of the things that we did think about going into this album—and we always think about it—is what can we do that’s the most effective, what’s the most engaging. Not that we’re basing our whole musical output on what others think. We’re definitely not. We are pretty true to ourselves in our creative vision. However, we don’t live inside of bubbles, and we are a band that has a following all around the world. We really care about that. It means something to us on every level, even just emotionally with the way that we’re making our music. When we go out and play, we know that the energy is higher when people are with us, so what are they going to respond to?

DREAM THEATER

So one of the things we thought about as an example was the “Scenes from a Memory” album. We had just been playing that, and we understand and we saw how it affects people. We’re kind of like, “Well, maybe we should think about analyzing it a little bit and kind of tapping into what made that special. What are the elements that people responded to?” So that was on our mind a bit while we were creating. I would look at my sounds and go, “Oh, this is kind of like the sound from ‘Scenes.’ That would work here.” Again, not that we were trying to create the past either, but just tap into it a little bit with the awareness that it does make a difference.

And then as far as expectation goes, we work so hard on everything that we do. It’s a band of kind of intense characters, and we take everything really seriously, and we don’t let anything go. Everything from the creation of the music to the engineering to the mixing—everything is really super focused and serious. That’s just the way that it is. So it happens on every album that I’ve ever been involved with in Dream Theater. There’s always a feeling like you’ve got to make this one great and maybe make this one better than the last one.

What influence did the pandemic have on this?

I think besides making it difficult for us all to get together, as it did for the Liquid Tension stuff, we had to figure out some serious logistics and what would make everybody comfortable and all that kind of stuff. I think the main thing is when we got into the studio, which was our headquarters at this point, we all had this kind of drive, like we worked so hard to get here, and we finally made it happen and figured it out. Let’s really go in there and hash it out and do the best we can. It’s pretty intense. We go there, and we didn’t have a whole lot of preconceived ideas and stuff. We just went in ready to make this creation happen in a fairly tight environment. At our headquarters, the live room that we set up in to do this is pretty small. I couldn’t have all my keyboards set up. I had my main Kronos and maybe one other thing in there. And we just focused in and worked. It was a very intense period of time.

You did the Liquid Tension Experiment album there, too, right?

Yeah.

Did that experience help prepare you for making this Dream Theater album there?

Yeah, a bit, for sure. It kind of loosened us up a little bit—well, John and I. But yeah, it got us in the flow of working, recording and feeling that environment, and also, because of the nature of Liquid Tension Experiment—it’s improvisatory in some ways and a little bit more, shall we say, free, like anything goes—it kind of stayed with us a bit, I think, and we kept a little of that energy. I think when you hear this album, there’s elements of it that kind of did get affected by John and my experience doing LTE, like allowing the leads, tradeoffs and things to happen, and going for that fun and not squeezing things down and making them tighter, letting things relax, letting the music breathe a little bit, letting the longer songs just kind of happen. I think that was influenced by the LTE recording sessions.

That’s interesting. It’s definitely a change from the previous album, “Distance over Time,” where it was a lot tighter and shorter songs. But addition to that looser, freer feeling you were just talking about, I hear some of that same energy from “Distance over Time,” too.

Yeah, there is definitely a bit of that. It’s funny to think about in a way, because Dream Theater is this particular large window of stylistic possibilities. There’s a lot of things that are possible, everywhere from prog to metal and then some kind of a mix. It’s like, how much of this do you throw in? How much of this? Where does it blend? We’re always playing that dynamic between those styles or between that combination, and I feel like in “Distance over Time,” we found a particular blend. It’s, of course, not that different from things before it, but there’s a certain kind of blend that you can say was a slightly different sound, and we maintained that, maybe learned from it and brought that into this album. So there’s definitely stylistically some similar elements, although you have that freedom on this one, as well. We allowed things to breathe a little bit more, I think.

You’ve got another epic song, the title track that closes out the album. I’m always interested in the approach that bands have to those longer songs like that. Is it decided in advance that you’re going to do something like that, or are you writing and it just turns into that?

We kind of go into things knowing what we want to do, but there’s also a little bit of that “oh, it’s happening” and just letting it go. We don’t know “oh, we’re making a 20-minute song.” We just think, “Well, we’re gonna let this evolve.” We’re not trying to do this in a song structure, so we can take things and we can just work on them to our heart’s content. With Dream Theater, having a longer song like that is not a difficult thing to do, because using compositional techniques and things that are not necessarily in the song format are fun for us and we enjoy it. We’ll have a motif, and I’ll have it in the upper part, let’s say in my right hand, and oh, let’s try putting it in the left hand and putting some chords over it. Let’s try taking that rhythm structure that we did and putting something else against the rhythm.

There’s all kinds of fun we can have with the musical elements, and that’s a bit of what happened in that epic. We literally developed a rhythmic idea, which in this case was this 23/8 time signature that Mr. Mangini (drummer Mike Mangini) offered, and then we put together this big theme. Once we got the theme, I was like, “OK, let’s go.” So then you start building elements, and we decided that the whole thing would build and eventually grow. And that took a while, even before vocals came in and everything. So that’s fun for us. It’s almost harder in a way to write a strict song format (laughs) than it is to compose and play with riffs and motifs and rhythms and do our thing.

Have there ever been times where you’ve maybe gone too far in something like that and had to edit and bring it back down?

Well, what’s interesting about the way we work is that even though things can be long format and, like I was saying, allowing things to breathe, we still are very conscious and concerned about the architecture of songs. So we will look at things like, “Wow, maybe that part does go on too long. Maybe we should put in a pre-chorus here.” There’s a lot of consideration for the shape of it even though it’s in a long form. That’s something that ever since I joined this band, I realized that there’s a lot of talent not only in the area of coming up with riffs and playing and all that, but also in this understanding of the form. One can say, “Well, what form is it?” (laughs) But in Dream Theater, we really consider that. It’s a shape. It’s like building a house of sorts, I guess.

In addition to being a part of creating all this incredible music, you’ve always been an innovator in terms of technology and inventing new instruments and things like that. Did you have any new toys that you were able to try out on this album?

Yeah. I have a company called Wizdom Music that’s created a bunch of different interesting, cutting-edge music applications, and I’m involved with a lot of other companies, as well and their technical technological innovations. One of the applications that my company put out, actually, some years ago, which is called GeoShred, is one of these applications that’s become like a platform almost. So it constantly adds new things now. It uses a technology called physical modeling, which is an interesting way to make sounds similar to sampling or subtractive synthesis, which is what synthesizers like the one in back of me use, but in this case it’s physical modeling. What I was able to use on this album is some new capabilities of GeoShred and some new physical models. The whole middle section of “A View from the Top of the World” I played on my iPad with this very beautiful cello sound. Literally, John’s playing the guitar, and we’re playing a duet, and I’m expressing this cello on the iPad, which is part of GeoShred now. I was very pleased with that.

How involved are you with stuff that’s beyond the music, like artwork and videos and things like that?

I’m really involved in visual stuff in my life. As a matter of fact, I do a lot of playing with visuals and editing video and all that. With Dream Theater, my role is not necessarily to get that involved with people doing that. John Petrucci basically dealt with Hugh Syme, the person who’s doing the cover. Wayne Joyner is our friend who does a lot of the video stuff for us, and actually Wayne is somebody that I discovered and brought into the band. A lot of times, because I have this interest in technology, I help to bring in people who can do these interesting jobs. I brought in this guy who we’ve nicknamed Johnny Video years ago, who we brought on tour, and he was doing some really cool stuff for us in the video domain. So I play a role in that sense of keeping my antennas out for these cool people doing interesting things, and I can help bring them into our world.

The previous Dream Theater release was the live album “Distant Memories,” and obviously, you were talking about how you were playing “Scenes from a Memory” on that tour. That was your first album with the band, so playing it again, did that take you back to that time and bring up a lot of memories?

Yeah, for sure. First of all, as a keyboard player, I’ve got to find the files. I programmed these songs before. I’m very program intensive because I try to make things happen on one master keyboard which has a lot of power. But it means that I have files that have to be located from years ago or recreated. So it’s always kind of intense. I went through that process—any kind of files I had or any kind of notation that I might have in the old days that’ll help me to get this thing going. But it’s always a trip going back and putting my hands on those riffs again, and in many ways, after a few seconds of doing it, I’m like, “Oh, right, this is it”—like riding a bike or something like that.

That, to me, is still the ultimate Dream Theater album. It’s probably my favorite album of all time. This next question might be hard for you, but if you were to meet someone who never even heard of Dream Theater, if you had to pick one album and then one song that you think sum up what the band does, what would you pick?

Well, it really depends on who I’m talking to, right? Are you a metal guy? Are you a prog guy? Male? Female? (laughs) But to say you just want to hear what Dream Theater is all about … “Scenes” is a good one to kind of tell them what it’s about. There’s no doubt that would be a pretty good choice. But sometimes I meet somebody who’s more into the proggy kind of thing, and I might say “Octavarium” or even “Six Degrees.” I might point them to the second disc of “Six Degrees” because it’s very melodic and almost keyboard-driven and harmonies and stuff. But song-wise, it depends on who, but sometimes I’ll say, “Go listen to ‘Dance of Eternity,'” but that doesn’t tell the story, of course, because it doesn’t have vocals. (laughs) So you might want them to hear something else, like one of the epics like “Count of Tuscany.” That would be a good song to kind of tell the Dream Theater story.

So as we said, the Dream Theater tour is now going to be early next year. Putting together the set list, has that become more and more of a challenge as you’ve gone on? There’s so much material, but with your fan base, there aren’t songs that you have to play and people want to hear stuff from all eras and new material. There’s a lot of freedom there, too, right?

Yeah. It’s always a challenge. Aside from that, there’s also the time constraints. You’ve got to make it fit into a very specific time window, and our songs are long. Not that long ago, we started to have Maddi (Matt Schieferstein), our head tech, put together a list of songs and their lengths and put things out so you can analyze them and see how to put this puzzle thing together. So Maddi is very helpful. John is very instrumental in putting together those lists. And as far as all the guys in the band, we’re kind of like, “I really want to play the song. I don’t want to play that one.” So maybe John and Maddi will start something off and say, “What about these?” And we could say, “Oh, that looks great,” or “No way, I’m not playing that” (laughs) But it’s tough, because then you have not only the time constraints and you want to have different songs from different periods of time, but you also have songs that somebody doesn’t want to sing or somebody doesn’t want to play. It’s amazing that we can do this at all.

Are there any songs that you’ve never played that you would really like to see get added in?

I think every tour I say I want to play “These Walls.” It’s a really nice song. I don’t think it’s on this set list. I’ll keep on asking till we finally play it, till everybody agrees.

The new Liquid tension experiment album came out earlier this year—first album in over 20 years. What was it like going back to that project again?

That was something that we really wanted to do. There was a lot of text messages through the years—”Oh, let’s do LTE, let’s do LTE.” But of course, everybody with their schedules, they’re busy, they’ve got other things to do. Although it was a cool idea, it wasn’t on the very top of the list, or there was things going on politically speaking with band members and people making that not so easy to do, as you can imagine. But finally, we were at this point, the COVID thing, we were all sitting home, the clouds were out of the sky, it was clear, and you could say, “Let’s do this,” and everyone’s like, “Yes, let’s do this. Let’s make it happen.” It was really great.

LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT

That album actually had more of that feeling kind of like oh my god, 22 years and a new album—what are we gonna do? I felt more pressure about it. I wanted to make sure that we could capture the magic that we had on the first ones. I even came into that with more ideas to start with than I did with the Dream Theater one. That, I just trusted—it wasn’t as much of a time constraint—that things would flow and the muse would be there. But I didn’t know for sure in the two and a half weeks that we were going to be together with LTE that any magical things would come into my head. (laughs) So I put together some riffs ahead of time just to say, “Well, how about this?” But of course, when we got together, the magic was there. I didn’t even use all the riffs and melodies that I came up with ahead of time.

Has there been any talk of playing any shows with that?

Well, I think we’d love to do that, but hey, we’re trying to get Dream Theater on the road right now. It’s tough to think about extra touring at the moment.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

One of the things that I’ve been doing in this crazy, crazy period of time is I started a Patreon. It’s been really, really great. I think it’s a different kind of experience for everybody, but for me, it’s been amazing because I’m somebody who number one, likes people. I like social media. I’m an improviser, so I like to play. I’m also interested in education and educating, so it’s been functioning really, really beautifully. And in addition to the things I just mentioned, I’ve also been interviewing people on my Patreon. I had a really nice interview with Rick Wakeman the other day, which was cool. I’ve spoken to a lot of people. So it’s kind of satisfying a lot of the things that I like to do and needs and been a nice addition to my life, shall we say. I set up a whole streaming studio with cameras and lights and all this stuff. It’s been really fun.

Do you have another solo album in the works?

That’s a very good question. My last solo album that I recorded at the beginning of the lockdown period—that was called “A Chapter in Time”—it’s a very kind of thoughtful, musical diary almost for me, and I recorded it out of my personal studio and released it probably about four or five months ago. But now I’m thinking about what’s next, and there is this time. Everybody got completely thrown off by this whole thing of postponement, so let’s see. I have it definitely in my mind to get into the studio and start working on stuff, but I wouldn’t promise anything at the moment. But yeah, always busy doing stuff. I’m working on some very interesting musical apps. As a matter of fact, there’s one coming out on my birthday, which is Nov. 4. We decided to release it then just because it’d be really fun. So I do have a new music app that is going to be released on that day. So people can keep their ears open for that.

Can you say what that’s going to be?

Yeah, I can say. It’s going to be called Polywave. It’s an application that’s based on the idea of sequencing waveforms together, and you can draw your own waveform. So when you play a note, it’ll literally go from sine up to square to your own waveform to this, and it can flow in any direction, any kind of thing you want. And then you can automate them, so you could have one waveform panning to the left, to the right, in the middle and different pitches, and it’s really, really cool. It’s one of the things I’ve been working on pretty hard with an amazing company called Fingerlab, out of France. We’ve kind of combined our energies. That’s the first of three music apps that I have planned going into 2022.

I put out an app not that long ago, actually, which is not a music app, but it’s related to music. It’s a music visualizer, but it’s a programmable music visualizer. It has MIDI, so you can send MIDI assignments to the various parameters. You can load in your own images, you can load in your own mp3 files, your wav files. In the very near future, we’re going to allow you to load in video, so for somebody who’s trying to make their own music video that just looks cool. They can even control the MIDI. It’s called Vythm, and it’s actually a free app. It’s available for iOS and Android, and you can run it on your desktop. And then if you want to have certain plugins, open up certain modes, then there’s a small charge for the modes. But just to get it and to get started with it, people can download it for free, and it’s pretty fun. So that’s what I’ve got.

LINKS:
Buy “A View from the Top of the World”
www.dreamtheater.net
www.facebook.com/dreamtheater
www.twitter.com/dreamtheaternet
www.instagram.com/dreamtheaterofficial
www.youtube.com/dreamtheater
www.jordanrudess.com
www.facebook.com/jordanrudessofficial
www.twitter.com/jcrudess
www.instagram.com/jcrudess

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