An interview with Jordan Rudess
In 2005 Dream Theater played the Arrow Rock Festival and DPRP was set to do an interview with Jordan Rudess to talk about their latest album Octavarium. However, the organisation of the festival had not expected four members of the band to be scheduled for an interview, and with proper rooms for interviews not available Dream Theater's dressing room, the tour bus and the promotion office were quickly taken up by Portnoy, LaBrie and Petrucci. The only place left for us to do the interview was in the hallway of the backstage area. Now to illustrate the setting a little bit, the Arrow Rock Festival is an open air gig on a slab of grass-land, so backstage facilities are improvised cubicle type of spaces in a huge tent. So you might expect this to be a little bit thin-walled...
Next door to us one of the bands that had just come from the stage were unloading their energy on the furniture of their dressing room. Now the Arrow Rock Festival does usually feature the type of bands that have not had a hit for at least 20 years, and for this particular artist it seemed the last 20 years never even happened! Seemingly still living in the eighties, he regarded backstage furniture merely as nice objects to throw around the room and thrash. I am not going to mention any names here, but let's just say it was someone who used to play in Black Sabbath and later in Deep Purple. Anyway, the tape recording of my interview with the soft-spoken Rudess was useless as barely anything of the conversation could be made out over the noise of the trashing that went on next door.
Fast forward two and a half years and I finally get my chance for a reprise. The setting backstage of the Ahoy venue could not be any different than Arrow Rock.
I enter the room of the amiable keyboardist and am almost taken aback by the peace and serenity in there. Rudess is sitting behind an electric piano playing some classical music and there is not a trashed piece of furniture in sight. As I remind him of our previous meeting he muses:
Hmm, yeah, I never really got into that sort of thing. As you can see, it's all nice and tidy and quiet in here.
And comfortable too! I reply, as I recline on the huge comfy sofa. So since our previous meeting you have toured the world over, and gone back to write, record and release a new studio album, your ninth. In several interviews the band have often explained how each album is a response to a previous album ... in what way is Systematic Chaos a response to Octavarium?
We try to make things different for sure, you know, if we did something before we don't want to necessarily repeat ourselves ... in one way or another you are going to repeat something whether it's stylistically or whatever but with this album the idea behind it was to create something that no matter what always had some kind of like heaviness and some balls to it. In that way it's different than Octavarium, because Octavarium was a little bit more mellow in places and had some more elements of the melodic prog side, not that this album doesn't have some of that but I think Octavarium was a little bit more melodic ... this one definitely has the edge to it
But there's definitely also an element in Dream Theater that cares a lot about the melodic side ... I mean my favourite kind of music is melodic progressive rock like Yes and Genesis and Pink Floyd... so you're not gonna take that out of me, no matter what you say, what I offer to the band is going to be melodic stuff.
So The Ministry of Lost Souls for example, that is your doing?
John was actually at the piano one day in the studio and literally I heard him playing [plays main theme] he was like: "Jordan can you play this for me?" and I went "Sure" and played it ... that was his melody and it was beautiful and I told him "you know one day we will be playing this for the Italian audience and the whole crowd will be singing la-la-la-laaaa". But typically that could have been something that I wrote. I mean there's a lot of themes throughout the album that I did contribute, things like... [plays melody of In The Presence of Enemies] that's my kind of contribution ... or else the more Gentle Giant type contributions – the crazy rhythmical stuff that you hear in the middle of Dark Eternal Night or towards the end of Presence of Enemies – some crazy stuff that has my kind of touch on it ... but yes, Dream Theater is Dream Theater and all these influences come about to try and keep it, you know, interesting.
On Train of Thought you set out to make a heavy metal album, Octavarium was very symphonic, would you say that on this album it all comes together?
With Train Of Thought we were trying to make what might be considered in the style of a classic heavy metal album – still it has other elements for sure.
I presume that Mike and probably James are the ones that seem to go more for the heavy stuff. You just said you are the melodic one... so who's the Muse fan?
The Muse fan? Well, Mike... no let's skip back – Mike is like me in a kind of way in the sense that he likes a lot of different styles of music, although his selection is a little bit different from mine – he can even go into the hip-hop kind of stuff and I don't so much go there, but then he doesn't go for the electronic music and I kind of go in that direction – but he likesthe very heavy stuff, classic progressive music and hip-hop. He likes a lot of stuff so he's wide open to any ideas that come about.
James he likes a lot of things as well – he's a melodic kind of a guy. John Petrucci and John Myung come very much from the kind of Iron Maiden, Metallica, Queensrÿche background, but they also listen to Yes and stuff and they like Pink Floyd – there's certainly some progressive experience in there, they have their share of that, but their roots are the Iron Maiden kind of Metallica thing. And then me who comes from a classical background and after that I got into synthesizers and spacey music and my progressive rock and Gentle Giant and it all got mixed up into a kind of ensemble.
Yes, but I mean that there's always been like a distinct Rush influence or Metallica influence, or U2 and Pink Floyd influences that come around at at least once on an album. And now on the last two albums all of a sudden there is this very distinct Muse-like influence in Never Enough and Prophets of War.
Ah yes the Muse thing... John Petrucci had originally brought his album to our attention and I remember Mike listening to it saying "this is great, this is really great shit as well" and got really excited about it and I listened to it and thought "I like this – it's rather cool". To me, the Muse thing, I wasn't as jazzed about it with that particular kind of music – as much as I really do like Muse; I think they are great and their concerts are awesome – but to me harmonically speaking I guess because I come from a classical background, to me the simple classical harmonies, the little arpeggiated things, I don't get that excited about it and I know that we will tap into that Muse kind of vibe and things like and and that's OK, it's not like they've written Dream Theater stuff, it's Muse-ey or whatever, it is what it is ...
So is that the reason why instead of using an arpeggiator you are actually playing all those bits live?
Yes, exactly, I am not gonna go down that route. At least if I am not going to be all that about that particular style at least I'm gonna have some fun doing it. So there are some parts on the new album The Prophets of War but also even in Presence of Enemies and also the chords that are going on and stuff, by holding down the chords and playing the line and I feel like "OK at least I'm having some nice little workout here" – it's fun kicking my chops – and it's Dream Theater because we're playing it live so when we are doing advanced arpeggiations you can be damn sure it's my fingers and not some machine. And I have nothing against machines either of course because I use them and I like arpeggiators and I think they are awesome and cool but our group in this particular situation is about the live presentation – I think it makes a difference – there's a lot of groups, even progressive groups that I love that use tracks – most groups use backing tracks and play click tracks – we don't do that...
You don't use click tracks either? Wow!
We don't use click tracks either. It's all the real deal and a lot of times I'm hitting like samples and stuff. I'll have my low A in the keyboard assigned to it so when you hear the "Dark Master" thing it's all hit like a low A on the keyboard and it's coming up – a lot of things like that – we do it live.
It seems that this album actually took longer to write and record than usual or is that just a perception? Compared to Train of Thought which was knocked out in about like 3 days
No with Train of Thought we were in the studio for a month or so – that was the one album that we did at least in my time by going into a rehearsal studio and writing it first and then actually going into the recording session. The other albums have all been: you go in / you go to a big studio that has a nice large live room / you set up all our gear and we just go nuts / we write / we record / it just kind of all comes out
I've noticed that each time Dream Theater go out on tour, everyone apart from John Myung, sports a new look. Does this make you the most fashion conscious band in prog?
[laughs] Hmm that's funny. I think we are pretty fashion conscious especially our guitar player who is notorious for having like a completely different image, like every time I see John... like first of all his hair grows incredibly fast – incredible – it's unbelievable – I said to him "John, your hair, it grows so fast, the other day you had this really short spiky hair – what's going on?"
The other day I met him at the airport and I swear to God as he walked up to me he could have been either a wood chopper after an extended stay in the woods or from the band Pantera or some other band because he had his hair pulled back and he had this really really bushy face of hair and I thought "Oh my God" [laughs] but he is into it and it's really great. We are in the arts, we're entertainers and we're having fun, and we not only like to change our visual thing but we, personally, for instance with my keyboard set up, when I come back and start a new world tour I like to have something different – something – some element...
Yes, you added the Continuum and the slide guitar on the previous tour.
Exactly, I needed that because I played the slide guitar intro on Octavarium, you know the slow Pink Floyd-y intro with the slide guitar and then my Continuum, the fretless kinda keyboard thing, with sampled guitar-sounds, that whole intro, that was was all me on the record, and of course I had to do that live as well, so I had to bring these instruments along on the road and that is sort of how that started...
So you starting to play slide guitar... was that an attempt to upstage John Petrucci then?
Haha, well, I'll tell you, it takes a lot more than that to upstage John Petrucci [laughs]. But of course, there is bit of upstaging involved... or at least adding stuff to keep it interesting and refreshing for the audience. Last tour I also had the big modular Moog... I'm not using that any more live – at least not for now – but I added a couple of things now.
I have my master keyboard but I also have this, I discovered this kind of throw-back keyboard – it's a digital version of a Mellotron, you know which they used to use for Moody Blues and Genesis and it's a classic big white beast which they used to play... And now I have the digital version of that which is called the Memotron, which has a similar white look, it's got similar knobs on it and I decided I would put that on my rotating stand but off to the left.
And then when I was in the studio working on this latest album I played a Korg instrument called a Korg Radius synthesizer and every time I put my hands on it the magic happened and everybody said like "that's the sound!" But I said "wait a minute I haven't even searched yet for anything". They'd say "how about a pad sound" and I'd go 'pad' like that category and I'd hit it and they'd be like "oh my God that's it" – so even though I probably could sit there on my Oasis keyboard and make it happen and program it on something else... you know what, it's a very thin very cool rack unit, it's got a lot of cool lights on it and little knobs and it's especially light so I had a new stand made that actually has my master keyboard and up to my right is this Radius synthesizer and to my left is this Memotron.
And now for the whole thing I hired an artist to build a hand. It's really cool.
My stand builder actually is a guy from The Netherlands, Patrick Slaats, he's an amazing guy and he's built me like three stands. But for this particular stand we used his rotating mechanism, but I had a guy from New York who's an artist, a metal artist, build an actual hand and it holds up my keyboard, so the whole thing turns, it looks really cool and they did a great great job.
So I had that and the thing is visually really cool.
I think it's quite funny because you quite famously redesigned the whole stage setup for prog keyboardists by putting everything onto just the one keyboard, instead of having a huge stack...
Yes, yes – they've spread out a bit haven't they. But my show, what you hear when you are in the audience with Dream Theater live is basically that one instrument except for now I have my newest toy it's called a Zen Riffer – it's in the spirit of the old keytars, you know the old strap on keyboards, although it looks a whole lot cooler than anything like that ever did and looks like a deadly weapon actually. It's an awesome look, and I play a little solo on that, you know, doing the prog thing...
Jumping in the audience and the likes?
Ah, well, not quite. I mean, being the senior member of the band I am sort of past that stage, but I guess it's still prog anyway. [laughs] But yes, I guess that's rather a cool addition and then I also use the Roland Desyn, that's the voice of my continuum, and the V Synth is actually the sound of my Zen Riffer and that's used with some killer lead patches that I programmed on there, which I use for some leads as well during the night.
So the modular moog from last tour has been retired?
Yeah, I promised the guys I wouldn't do that... I actually took it out for a few shows at the beginning of this world tour, and then I saw the looks on the some of the crew's faces... And the reality is that I wasn't really using it that much, it was more for show, it really was. Obviously it has a very unique sound, it is a great instrument, but I wasn't really making use of it to the point where I can't live without it, you know? And I felt like adding these other visual elements, you know, your eyes are going to be distracted so hopefully people won't notice. Of course you will always have some people say "oh what happened to the giant Moog" - whatever! [laughs] there's other stuff to look at now!
Dream Theater changed record labels for the first time in a very long time, and at first I thought it was rather strange for a band to be moving from Warner, you know, one of the big five labels in the world, to a small label.
But then again we were always in a division of Warner, at least in the States, you know, Atco, Elektra, Atlantic, and now we are again, as Roadrunner has been taken over by Warner. When we first started to talk to them they were under Universal and then when we were about to sign they were under Warner, but it's a lot better than before, really, it works out very well – you know RoadRunner is obviously an amazing organisation and even though they are under the Warner umbrella they seem to be very independent. They've been doing a great job – they are very interested – very involved and they are a hands-on company. I've met a lot of people and got to know them a bit. In my whole time with the previous label I didn't know anybody and it was definitely not a productive situation for the group, I mean yes they put out the record and got it distributed but there was no energy behind it so that sucked – and everybody that I've talked to like press people they all say that Road Runner is great to work with, you know, they're totally there, they're just awesome.
So, you've also got a new solo album out?
I do – have you heard it?
I have indeed, and I think it is a very interesting album. What made you want to do a prog covers album?
You know I had never done anything like that before – I have always been the kind of musician that draws from the styles and been interested in what makes certain music tick and kind of figure out what's going on, but never wanting to spend the time to necessarily play someone else's whole song unless I had to in a cover band. That never interested me that much. But I was thinking that recently that wouldn't it be cool if I went back and really did a version of some of the music that has influenced me the most – to really go back and do it – for instance the Gentle Giant track that was a very favourite song of mine but I never once went back and actually sat and figured out that song, even though I really figured out Gentle Giant's style and have been using it in my music ever since. But the song no. So I thought that would be awesome and then I was thinking the Tarkus thing – that piece came to me at a point in my life when it had such a huge influence – I was just a kid who was all about becoming a classical pianist until I heard that piece and some of these other ones and then I was thinking "holy shit – the electronic keyboards they can really rock there's a lot of power there" so then I would listen to The Beatles and stuff like that. When I heard the Emerson Lake and Palmer stuff, with what I had been doing on the piano with what I had been writing, with what I was now listening to, it felt like "OK here is a new path". And I heard like Rick Wakeman and some of the stuff he was doing. You know, he was doing an album like the Six Wives of Henry VIII and some of the amazing progressive stuff.
And so when I went to do this project I was thinking: "let me do the pieces that mattered really the most." So I chose a small handful of goodies – so I chose Tarkus, Dancing Up A Volcano which is Genesis, Just the Same - Gentle Giant, Sound Chaser by Yes - real favourites - and all had a special meaning, a really different kind of influence. Certainly the Genesis thing for me it was all about Tony Bank's harmonies the way he used chords. Gentle Giant was all about the counterpoint and rhythm. And Emerson, his music to me was about this incredible power, the kind of suspended chords he would use. And Yes, I mean, I love Yes – their vocals and all... And from a keyboard point of view I chose this song because Patrick Moraz played on this album, Relayer, and Patrick Moraz was a huge influence on the way I play leads and use the pitch wheel...
So that's what I did and I also got a chance of play my new Steinway concert grand that it's my house and now finally at the age of 50 I figured out how to get a good piano. So I really wanted to record it so I played a little bit of Yes, Genesis, I Talk To The Wind of King Crimson on which I sang as well on there.
Then there's one original piece which is called Piece of the Pi which is a song that was slated for the Dream Theater album that was basically as a band we wrote ourselves out of time so there was no possibility of having anybody's solo music in there so I said "oh that's fine with me, I know exactly where to put it" so that's what made up the album.
So how did all the guest vocalists come about?
The guest thing came about in different ways – you know – there was a lot of thinking, deciding, talking to record companies, going back and forth, making some calls seeing who's available... And everybody is a different story... I mean was thinking at one point about using three drummers and then I thought you know that's far too complicated let's just use my buddy Rod [Morgenstein] who can play the shit out of this and there will be no questions and I know he will do what I want. Because I've used other drummers in the past – you know big names or whatever - and it's never straight ahead that way but I know that Rod and I see things in the same way, we both know exactly what we want to do. Listen to the album, you know, I don't have to say anything, it's awesome.
And then you know Kip Winger is an old friend of mine and he was with Rod originally and I'm a big fan of his talent – he's so much deeper than most people I know and I always like to give him the chance to show that and I think on this album he definitely shows how he can sing the crap out of progressive music. He did an incredible job on the Yes thing with Nick [D'Virgilio] they sang that harmony stuff together and he sang the Gentle Giant tune – he's the biggest vocalist on the album. And Steven Wilson who is now a good friend of mine through the years and was kind enough to have a little time to sing for me.
Quite special for him to sing on something that is titled "prog" ...
So nice, yes he loves prog – only kidding!
He doesn't like his name associated with it
I think he's maybe ... [laughs] it's hard because progressive rock... there's some weird stuff going on and stylistically... whether it's the musicians' fault, or the media's fault for giving it a bad slant... But when you think of Tarkus I was talking to Steven and I was saying "Yeah I love that" so he did it.
And then of course Neal Morse, a classic prog figure, and Nick who is the singer of Spock's Beard who is also a great drummer. And then on guitar I used Bumblefoot from Thong who was a legend in the guitar community, really incredible. Then there's Edwin, the Ozric Tentacles guy, who came about because of the Record Company – I didn't know Ed – he was someone they recommended and I thought "Wow great idea I love Ozric Tentacles – it's cool"
And then I have two younger guys playing guitar – one who's name is Ricky Garcia, he's a German guitar player and he actually plays with a band – Chipping Lafay – a very popular kind of Gothic pop figure in Germany. Ricky I've known for years when he was a student at Berkley and I just decided it was a good opportunity to use him because he's very talented – he played the solo on Sound Chaser in answer to my solo. And then the wonderful Italian guitarist Marco Sfogli, who's kind of got the Steven Morris / John Petrucci type sound. He played on the Genesis track and – I think that's it I can't think of anybody else ...
Any bass players?
No bass – what people could understand about the album is that really the core sound instrumentally is the keyboards and the drums – there's no bass, there's no rhythm guitar. I just do a lot of orchestration in my studio with the keyboards to make it happen. A lot of times if I create a bass sound, the bass sound is tracked, maybe I'll use a little bit like a regular bass sound but then I'll add some cool synthesiser to give it a little character of it's own and make it work with the music – I'm very much into shaping the sounds.
And you're not just doing note-for-note recreations of the original songs. You really give it some of your personal touch.
I added a little original parts to the pieces here and there when needed or stretched out solos and sections. Added a bit of continuum here and there, there's a lot of continuum on the album actually.
Do you follow the current prog scene at all?
[ponders] Do I follow the current prog scene? Well, I listen to Porcupine Tree and urm I've just got turned onto a band called Three the other day which I thought was really good you know? Do you know them?
They are hard to look up on the internet. They've opened up for Porcupine Tree and they've been around for a little while – they're great – check it out. Good luck though on checking it out.
I'm pretty familiar with what's going on – we have Symphony X opening up for us, they're a very good band – but I also like a lot of other kinds of music like The Apex Twin and Boards of Canada, and I like electronic music a lot. I listen to Murchov and groups like Sigur Rós – Sigur Rós is a wonderful and spacey group, like Mum. I tend to go for mellower stuff on my own listening actually, I don't much listen to metal prog – it's not really my thing – except for what I play.
Well, Porcupine Tree is getting quite heavy
Porcupine Tree has this tiny bit of the heavier
A tiny bit? The last album was quite heavy I thought
Compared to Dream Theater maybe not so much [laughs] I find their stuff never gets too metally – there's an element of mellow melodic that I like. I don't dare call it prog [laughs] melodic, yes, that is what I call it.
Interview and photos by Bart Jan van der Vorst
Dream Theater Official Website
Jordan Rudess Official Website
DPRP Review of Dream Theater - Systematic Chaos
DPRP Review of Jordan Rudess - The Road Home