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For nearly 40 years, prog metal flagbearer Dream Theater has stood tall and fortified the redoubt of guitar-driven rock. For aspiring amateurs as well as professional musicians across the world (and especially in Japan), the name symbolizes the convergence of masterful technique and inventive expressionism. This American band’s Japanese following remains enormous enough to fill Nippon Budokan in 2023. It’s no secret then that it continues to inspire generations of jrock headliners, who carry their forefathers’ spirits and ultimately spread their influence abroad.
JROCK NEWS was honored to sit down with Dream Theater co-founder, composer, and guitar deity John Petrucci amidst the Dream Sonic tour. Despite having to take to the stage just hours after the interview, John graciously shared candid insights on the current state of metal, the genre’s lasting relationship with the Japanese music scene, and its power to reach across borders and bring people together.
We couldn’t be more excited to soak up John’s warmth on the emotions and experiences that unite our very own reader base.
Thanks for stopping by! JROCK NEWS just had to sit down with you, since Dream Theater has been such a colossal inspiration with a huge following in Japan.
Thanks for saying all that! I really appreciate it. We’re having fun, and this is what we love to do. It’s great when I hear that other people are enjoying it or influenced by it. It just reminds me of me when I was influenced by Iron Maiden or Metallica.
We’ve been touring for a long time, either doing a full night of Dream Theater with no opening acts, much the way Rush was touring, or with one opening band. In fact, Devin Townsend opened for us at one of our last European runs. The idea of having this “progressive metal-themed traveling festival” was something I thought about for a while. Because we do so much touring, it’s fun for the band and the fans to do something different.
In this case, it was a matter of us, being huge fans of Devin and Animals as Leaders. Also, the timing worked out! You never know if the other band is in the studio or on tour. All this stuff comes down to how you can take advantage of the timing.
Now that we’ve done this and it’s been successful, we can take this all over the world besides North America. We can have different rosters. The idea is to represent the broad metal music and community.
What an opportunity to have the stars align. Throughout its 40 years of history, Dream Theater has continued to evolve in its pursuit of the avant-garde. Looking back to your days studying at Berklee to gaining international fame and to winning a GRAMMY, what are some thoughts that run through you now, purely as a musician?
It’s interesting you mention all those things. I’m still in a band with John Myung, who I met when I was 12 [laughs]. We still feel like the same kids playing in our local band.
When we first started, we gravitated toward the kind of music we wanted to write because of our influences. That’s just the music that came out when we wrote. We’ve been able to build a career based on what we love to do naturally. In other words, it’s coming from a very genuine place. To be able to take it to the point where we’re playing this “weird” music that’s not very traditional to a lot of people and to be recognized by an institution like the GRAMMY 15 albums later is a wonderful feeling.
Being excited and innocent about music but also getting this major recognition by doing it on our terms… It couldn’t be better. That’s the kind of success you want to have.
It really sounds like this all came from your love for the craft that grew organically until it was recognized by established institutions. Speaking of which, congratulations on your recent tour through Asia and return to the historic venue Nippon Budokan!
We live in an age of fewer and fewer guitar heroes, at least compared to the 80s and 90s. Despite this, why do you think Dream Theater or rock music in general continues to be a hit among Japanese fans?
That’s such a great question! First of all, Dream Theater and I personally love Japan. I really do. This time, I brought my two daughters, and we had a wonderful time climbing Mount Fuji and taking in the culture. I’m just enamored by the people, the food, just everything. It’s been like this from the first time we went, when we were just in our 20s and toured off [the album] Images and Words. We’re so fortunate to have such a great long-term relationship with the people of Japan.
From the beginning, they definitely embraced what we were doing, and we noticed that right away. In some parts of the world including America, sometimes it’s a slow burn.
So, your question is, “Why?” I don’t know how to answer that! When I speak to Japanese people, to different companies and to friends, everybody seems to have this common idea of trying to get the “best” out of things and putting a lot of intellectual energy behind this. Maybe that’s part of it? Our music is more “heady” than normal. There is a very deep appreciation of complex music, highly melodic music, which Dream Theater has in combination. Maybe it’s that? Maybe that’s the element that resonates.
I’m not sure if I’m really answering your question [laughs]. All I can say is that we love it, and we’ll keep coming back!
The love is definitely mutual. Perhaps, the pursuit of refinement is what attracts in Japan.
Several Japanese acts capitalize on combining the heavy and the melodic. Are you personally aware that your music has helped influence some major Japanese artists, including hard rock band SIAM SHADE and all-female metal unit NEMOPHILA? How do you feel about your role shaping the music scene at large?
I have heard that. I’m aware of some but not all of it. It’s always wonderful to hear [smiles].
Again, I go from my own experience: You’re a young player learning an instrument and you connect with the music of a band. For me, it was Rush. It kind of imprints on you. It stamps you. You immediately become tethered. It becomes such a big influence. And if you’re lucky enough, it could turn into a career of your own.
To me, when I hear that there are bands in Japan, especially professional musicians, who were not only influenced by Dream Theater but themselves become successful in the music industry, it just makes me smile.
It’s what we did. It’s the same thing. It’s fantastic. There’s so much talent. There’s so much great music.
Japanese artists have cited the language barrier as the greatest difficulty in breaking into the US market. Dream Theater has united so many fans across many borders in Japan and beyond, even though not all these fans speak English. What is the secret ingredient in your sauce for bringing people together through music?
Man, music is an emotional experience. It’s how something moves you as a human being. That could be anything. It doesn’t have to be sensitive or melodic. It could be the heaviest, most crazy stuff you’ve ever heard. The point is there’s an emotional connection.
What I love about playing live is that we have such an international fan base, from Malta to Dubai to Tokyo to California. When you’re on stage and playing music, you see the reaction of the people in front of you, whether they can speak the language or not. Dancing. Moving. Smiling. Singing along, even if it’s just phonetically. Laughing. Crying. Screaming.
That’s when the language barrier and the international barriers break down. It doesn’t have to do with where you come from or where you live or what your culture is. It all has to do with the emotional connection.
In terms of evoking emotions or looking back to your own emotions when writing music, what has been your favorite song to perform on stage and why?
There are certain songs that audiences all around the world relate to more than others. The reaction is always so beautiful. Sometimes it has to do with the message of the song, sometimes it’s just the feeling of the song.
For a band like Dream Theater who’s known to be very prog and technical, one of our most beloved songs is one of our most simple songs, which is The Spirit Carries On from [the album] Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory. You know, it couldn’t be simpler of a song. It’s almost just like a gospel progression. The connection that the song makes with the audience is just so special.
We also want to congratulate you on your continued success with your educational retreat John Petrucci’s Guitar Universe! These have been an amazing experience for all your colleagues and curious minds that venture to Fort Lauderdale. Any chances of building additional chapters overseas? We know a particular country that would be very interested…
Thanks for mentioning that! John Petrucci’s Guitar Universe is in its fourth incarnation. It’s a huge event—it’s sold out—and the collection of guest artists is just mind-blowing. It’s four days of so much fun. The campers form lifetime relationships. Some of the guest instructors are very famous musicians who I had never met before! You form these incredible music relationships and friendships, and all the barriers are broken down. It’s not like rockstars and fans. We’re all just guitar players.
The idea of doing an international version, because all four of these have been in the US, is definitely something that we are talking about. I’m hoping to explore this for future camps. It would be wonderful not only for people in Japan and Asia but for people in Europe. The idea of holding this in another location outside the US really interests us, so we’ll see where that goes!
[John Petrucci’s Guitar Universe 4.0 began on August 3 and concluded August 6 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida]
Thank you very much for sitting down with us today! As a final wrap, please share your thoughts on the future of Dream Theater and the state of rock and metal across the world.
Yeah, sure! Indicated by the recent Dream Theater GRAMMY win and the Dream Sonic tour, prog metal, as I tried to say in my speech, is alive and well and kicking butt! The more bands, the more musicians, the more guitar players doing this sort of thing the better. We love it.
Once this Dream Sonic leg is finished, we’re done touring for our A View from the Top of the World record. We’ll take some time off and get into writing some new music either later this year or beginning of next year. Thank you for the interview!
Dream Theater wrapped up its Dream Sonic tour with Animals as Leaders and Devin Townsend on July 26 in Phoenix Arizona. Check back with JROCK NEWS for our special report on the third to last show on July 24 in San Jose, California, and read all about its artistry and philosophy that unite fans across the world and keep music a gift that keeps giving back to the international community.