Dream Theater’s career has spanned three decades and more than a dozen studio albums. But when it came to the progressive metal giants’ newest effort, Distance Over Time, due February 22nd, they still managed to find new and unique ways to approach the writing and recording process. This time, the New York–based five-piece — guitarist John Petrucci, singer James LaBrie, bassist John Myung, keyboardist Jordan Rudess and drummer Mike Mangini — decided to leave town together, heading up to a five-acre property in the Catskills. It was there, in a secluded barn studio dubbed, quite appropriately, Yonderbarn, that they created their 14th album — which, despite the bucolic surroundings (Petrucci describes “big open windows that looked out at a forest”), features some of their most aggressive music to date.
“You’d think we’d be up there all mellow and wind up writing some kind of country album,” Petrucci says with a laugh. “But it just didn’t work out that way.”
Indeed it didn’t. Rather, Distance Over Time, at least in spots, pushes the Dream Theater sound to its heaviest extremes, from the rapid-fire riffing that opens “Fall Into the Light,” to the thick, grinding rhythms that propel “Paralyzed,” and the scrambling, hot-wire instrumental interplay that peppers “At Wit’s End.”
At the same time, Distance Over Time presents a more immediate and concise take on the Dream Theater sound, particularly in comparison to the band’s previous effort, 2016’s 34-track, orchestra- and choir-assisted concept album, The Astonishing. Part of the reason for this shift, Petrucci says, was a desire to “look at each record as a clean slate and do something different in the spirit of creativity.” But another factor was the unique working arrangement at Yonderbarn. In the following exclusive interview with Rolling Stone, Petrucci details how Distance Over Time came to be.
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What led to the heavier sound and more succinct songwriting approach on this record?
A lot of it was due to the fact that we wanted to take a more organic approach to the recording process, and create a situation where you had all the instruments blaring together in a rehearsal room-type of setting. And I think when you do that, it lends itself to creating heavier music. Because you have the guitar amp cranking, and then, you know, Mike [Mangini] hears that from across the room and he responds to that in his drumming, and then someone else hears what Mike’s doing and responds to that in his own playing. Everybody is interacting with one another musically. And that makes for a more powerful album. At the same time, we also knew we wanted to do a bit of a shorter record, with more concise songs. We didn’t want to have three songs on the album. We wanted to have a bunch. So we kept it all very tight and focused.
Is the sound of this album in any way a reaction to the sprawl of The Astonishing?
I don’t know that it was a reaction. I mean, The Astonishing was certainly different. It was a huge conceptual piece that encompassed two-and-a-half hours of music, and took three years between writing the story and writing the songs. And then the recording had a full orchestra and a choir and, like, 570 tracks. And it was written by Jordan [Rudess] and I in a private setting, sitting behind a piano and a guitar, as opposed to what I just described, which was the band together in a room cranking up our instruments. But to say it was a reaction, I wouldn’t say that’s accurate. It was more like, “OK, we did that. Now let’s do something different.”
As far as doing something different, the creative process for Distance Over Time marks the first time that the entire band lived together during the writing and recording phases. What was that like?
It was great. I guess technically whenever we go into the studio we kind take it over and park ourselves there for two or three months. But we’re not living together. Everybody’s either commuting or staying in hotels. So this was the first time we were like, “Let’s just all go away together…” We were in an environment that was completely free of distractions — a huge property in Monticello that had a little country house and a barn that was converted into a state-of-the-art recording studio. There was deer in the yard and badgers all around. … At one point a bear came up to the studio. So that was interesting [laughs].
It sounds pretty serene.
It was. We would wake up, make some eggs, have some breakfast, maybe a few of the guys would go to the gym, and then we’d convene at the studio. It felt like we were just hanging out. We’d all be in the studio, and one guy would be on his instrument working on something, and a few other guys would be sitting around talking about what we were going to cook for dinner. Like, maybe we’d have a barbecue, or make ribs or something. Which we never actually did …
We talked about ribs. But we barbecued other things. We had smokers up there and Mike made chicken wings and James made burgers. … Anyway, I’m kind of getting off point [laughs]! But it was a real bonding experience. We were spending 10 or 12 hours a day together in that barn, and all the while we had our eye on the ball. Because like I said earlier there were no distractions. We actually wrote all the music for the record in about 18 days. And at one point I remember saying, “We could just sit here and do this for another few months and probably write the next five Dream Theater albums.” Because the music was just pouring out.
Let’s talk about some of that music. The first song I heard, “Fall Into the Light,” is pretty aggressive right out of the gate. The opening instrumental section is very Metallica-esque.
“Fall Into the Light” is an example of a very guitar-riff-driven song on the album. And there’s a few of them. This one actually three components. One is that opening riff, which I came up with backstage when I was on the G3 tour. I had my signature Mesa Boogie [the JP-2C] with me, I dialed in a really heavy sound and that riff came out. I took out my iPhone and I recorded it and labeled it, like, “Cool Riff in E” [laughs]. And that sparked the Metallica-esque style of the song. Then there’s some faster passages that are very riff-y and right-hand-heavy, and the third component is the mellow section in the middle, which gets sort of orchestral and very melodic. That was something that I had written in my basement on an acoustic guitar. I think I called it “Cowboy Section” because it has a Western-y vibe. So “Fall Into the Light” was a case where I brought these parts into the studio and then we put it together as a band. And it’s a really fun song to play, especially for me because it’s very riff-driven metal.
In contrast, “Barstool Warrior” is very melodic and bright in tone. It has a proggy, almost pomp-rock feel to it.
That’s the one song on the record that I think really tips its hat to the U.K. prog thing that is a big influence on Dream Theater. When we first got together we were into Metallica and Iron Maiden and stuff like that, but we also loved bands like Yes and Pink Floyd. Then you add in Jordan and his influences, which is bands like Genesis. We’re able to pull out that side of our influences and then take our own approach to the style, which is a more melodic style for us.
What was the inspiration behind the lyric? Who is the barstool warrior?
As a lyricist, when I hear that style of music I take on this whole Peter Gabriel perspective and kind of go into storytelling land. So after the music for the song was written, we were working on the melodies for the vocal sections and I started to sing something about a guy in a bar. And it was funny, but it was also like, “Wow, that actually could work!” And it’s the one song on the album that comes from a fictional place. It’s about two unrelated characters — the first is an alcoholic townie type of guy who lives in a little maritime village and has made excuses his whole life for not really getting out of there. He’s stuck in this place and wondering why. And the second person is a woman who’s in an abusive relationship and also stuck, and is wondering why she stays. So the song explores how people get stuck in situations like that. And at the end it turns around — and I know this is starting to sound kind of heady [laughs] — but I take a Buddhist sort of perspective where I’m saying that everything that you think, that you feel, that you believe in, that you dream of, you can make that your reality. You don’t have to be stuck in these situations. So there’s a bit of a positive twist at the end where the two characters realize that. It’s fun to write a song like that every once in a while, because it’s almost like a poetic challenge — you’re trying to tell a story, but you don’t have a lot of words to say what you want to say, because a song is only a few minutes long. Although with Dream Theater, sometimes it’s many minutes long.
You’ve announced the first dates for the Distance Over Time world tour, which you’re also billing as a 20th-anniversary celebration of Dream Theater’s fifth album, 1999’s Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory. Will you be playing the whole record at each show?
We are. The tour is going to be “An Evening With,” and part of the evening will be playing some of the new record and some older songs in our catalog, and then also playing Scenes From a Memory in its entirety. So it going to be a lot of fun. And that was a really important record for us, speaking of storytelling and all that. Because it was our first concept record.
There’s probably a lot of people out there who assume every Dream Theater record is a concept record.
Yeah, right [laughs]!
What was significant about Metropolis Pt. 2 for you?
Well, it was our first album with Jordan, so that was important. And it was the first album where we didn’t use an outside producer. I remember back then having a conversation with Mike [original Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy] where we said, “Let’s not do that anymore. Let’s produce ourselves.” And we basically have ever since. So in that respect, going back to what we were talking about earlier, Scenes From a Memory might have actually been a record that was a reaction to the previous one. And then we also figured that we hadn’t done a concept album yet, and we decided that it was time. It was like, let’s make our Operation: Mindcrime, our Tommy, our The Wall. It was definitely a conscious decision to do something bold and new and different.
Some felt that the record prior to Metropolis, 1997’s Falling Into Infinity, was a moment where the band made some commercial concessions in order to appeal to a more mainstream audience. Was that the case?
Well, if you listen to that album I don’t know if there’s really a very commercial-sounding song on there. But I do remember there being a point where we had everything written and our label at the time [EastWest] wanted to hear more single-type stuff. So there was that sort of involvement from the label to try to have some songs on there that were more commercial. But it’s a funny thing when you actually try to do that, because progressive metal, just by the nature of it, is not commercial. And if you try to consciously write something commercial you end up missing the mark. Because it’s not something people expect from you or necessarily even want out of you.
Nowadays, you can just play to and grow your core audience, which is primarily people who want to hear this instrumentally vigorous music. You’re sort of freed from any concerns about whether or not a song might get radio or MTV play.
That’s totally true. But the interesting thing is, it’s actually a bigger scene now for progressive metal or whatever you want to call it. When we were first starting out the scene didn’t really exist. There was a few bands, like our buddies Fates Warning. And Queensrÿche was kind of in that zone, but not really. We had more of an instrumental focus, I guess you could say. So there wasn’t a big scene. But now there’s all these different offshoots of progressive metal and there’s so many bands with incredible musicians that are doing really, really cool stuff and taking the music into different areas.
So even though there’s no longer radio or outlets like MTV, the music has a further reach and people are saying, “It’s cool to do this. It’s cool to have a song that goes in all these unexpected directions and has some serious playing on it.” And is maybe 20 minutes long. [laughs] The type of thing we’re doing doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb so much anymore. And that’s really great to see.