DREAM THEATER Members Discuss Songwriting Process, Being On The Road

June 27, 2007

Berklee Today recently conducted an interview with DREAM THEATER drummer Mike Portnoy, guitarist John Petrucci and bassist John Myung. A couple of excerpts from the chat follow:

Berklee Today: Tell me about the band's writing process.

John Petrucci: For the past few albums, we've set up in the studio in a circle so we could see each other. We start jamming, and ideas develop out of that. We record everything while we do this. We write things down on a big board and start developing an inventory of ideas. We name them, sometimes after bands we feel they sound like. Ideas become a section of a song. Once we start to see a direction and begin arranging the song, the ideas become more solid. After we have something, we demo it, listen to it a lot, and then record it. We may stay in the studio for several months.

Mike Portnoy: The process is really the same now as it was in 1985. At Berklee it was the three of us in Room E19 bouncing ideas off of each other and creating music. The format of writing instrumental pieces first remains the same 22 years later. These days, John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess will be the most hands-on with the notes, riffs, runs, and chord progressions. They kind of mold the song. I tend to be the grand architect, working out the form using a blackboard behind the drum kit and directing. We write something and then start recording it. We focus on one song before we start another.

Berklee Today: What role do the other band members play in crafting songs?

John Myung: I contribute by listening and taking in what is going on, and then reacting to parts of a song as it develops. I also try to come up with things that spark an idea for a song.

John Petrucci: James LaBrie is there taking everything in, but his part comes later. Since we write as an instrumental band, it's hard for him to contribute in the early phase since he doesn't play an instrument. But he knows what's happening. As a song evolves, he'll make comments.

Berklee Today: Does James write the melodies?

Mike Portnoy: Not exclusively. Once the music is done, the lyricist will have the biggest part in writing melodies. Usually, we'll discuss the melodies, but on the new album we left the melodies solely up to the lyricist. John, James and I take turns writing the lyrics.

John Petrucci: Since I'm a lyricist, I'm always thinking about the sections that will feature the vocals. We don't write an instrumental tune and slap vocals on it. The melodies may come from a keyboard or guitar part. Mike, James, and I write most of the lyrics. I'm a fan of creative writing and telling stories. John Myung has written lyrics in the past but not recently, and Jordan Rudess hasn't written any.

Mike Portnoy: I think having the three of us work out the melodies gives uniformity to our style, but our lyrical styles are different. John's lyrics on the new album tap into fantasy; they're fictional. My lyrics have a harder edge and are straightforward. James tends to be more poetic. We have different styles, but in the end, it all sounds like DREAM THEATER.

Berklee Today: How do you conform your personal lives to the rigors of a heavy touring schedule?

John Myung: I've grown accustomed to it for the most part. I have a family with two sons. When I'm home, I try to play catch-up with everything. This aspect is hard for me personally, it can be challenging, but you grow accustomed to it and manage.

John Petrucci: I love playing live, but our tours generally last about a year. I could never do this without the understanding and support of my wife. She's also a guitar player, and we knew each other before DREAM THEATER started touring. We have three children, and the sacrifice they make by not having their dad home for months at a time is unbelievable. It's almost too much to ask. This is the hardest issue for a musician, because your calling and passion is your livelihood and it takes you away. But I'm thankful every day that I'm able to do it.

Read the entire interview at Berklee Today.

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