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Interview: John Petrucci on When Fans Can Expect New DREAM THEATER, His New Solo Album

"I wanted [Terminal Velocity] to reflect my identity and be my opportunity to say, 'Here’s what I’m all about.'"

Photo: Larry DiMarzio

If you're reading this, chances are you already know all about John Petrucci, the incredible guitarist and founder of progressive metal pioneer Dream Theater (whose entire discography is analyzed in my new book. Hooray for shameless self-promotion). As prolific as he's been with his main outfit, though, he's been considerably more leisurely when it comes to releasing solo material. In fact, his first LP, Suspended Animation, came out fifteen years ago, which is why the announcement of his follow-up, Terminal Velocity (which also features bassist Dave LaRue and drummer Mike Portnoy), is so exciting.

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The sophomore sequence is set to release in just a few weeks, on September 4th, making now the perfect time to speak with Petrucci about how the album connects to its predecessor while also charting its own path. We also dig into how COVID-19 has impacted the creation and promotion of Terminal Velocity, what Dream Theater is up to these days, and even the fan/internet reactions to Petrucci reteaming with Portnoy for the record!

Let’s just dive right into it. Obviously, this is your first solo album since 2005’s Suspended Animation. In the official press release for Terminal Velocity, you say, “I wanted the new tunes to really showcase what I’m all about as a player and to give an up-to-date depiction of where I am musically.” How does it build upon the last album while also setting itself apart?

In a way, it almost seems like a continuation of the first one, which was important because—I mean, Suspended Animation had a certain vibe in terms of the style of songs, the sounds, and the ways that people reacted to it. I’ve heard so many people say that they love putting it on for a drive or a workout, so I wanted to uphold that tradition. At the same time, my sound has evolved over the last fifteen years as far as how I record and my production techniques. Things like that, and so I wanted it to also reflect where I am in a more modern sense. The other thing that ties them together is keeping the band as a trio of guitar, bass, and drums. No guest musicians or vocals or keyboards. In some ways, the artwork connects them even though I used two different artists. When you look at the artwork side by side, and even the titles, they seem like twins.

Totally. The titles kind of sound similar. There's parallelism there.

Right.

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How many different cover designs did you have to choose from, and what made Sean M. Smith’s version stick out?

Sean did a few for me—maybe four or so—and it came down to this one or another one. I always consult my family; they’re usually there with me when I’m looking at stuff, and we all pointed to that one. There was just something about it, and it didn’t take long to pick. He’s a brilliant artist and designer and art director. Any of them would’ve been great, but I guess this one just looked like it went hand in hand with Suspended Animation.

It’s almost like the inverse of that one. That one was white and this one is black.

Exactly.

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What led to the opening title track also being the lead single?

It was the first song that I wrote when I started the sessions back in March, and there was something about the motif and the way that it starts. We sort of flipped a riff and put it through a filter to make that intro. It just sounded like the start of an album. With a lot of the songs, I didn’t have titles at first, but I knew that I wanted the Terminal Velocity hook of calling the album that, making it the title track, making it the first track, and making it the first single. That was all part of this grand plan. It’s funny how that stuff happens; it evolved organically. Right from the beginning, it felt natural. In the same way, "Temple of Circadia" always sounded like a closing track.

I can hear that.

Even though there were more songs to write, when I did that one, I just knew that it’d be the finisher.

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You get a sense of the proper sequencing, I guess. How it should all flow as a single experience.

Yeah.

It’s always tricky to answer, but aside from those two tracks, which ones stick out most?

Well, “The Oddfather” is really driving; even when I was approving mixes, I’d always go to that one first. The other one is “Gemini,” which is the oldest one. I wrote it in the early to mid-1990s and used it as a guitar clinic backing track. There are some really poor-quality versions of it on YouTube, from someone who was there and videotaped it. That was really the only thing I had to go by to relearn the song [laughs]. It’s kind of nostalgic, and I like that there’s an acoustic guitar solo on it. It’s the only song on the record that has one.

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It gives the tune a bit more individuality while making sure that it still fits within the feel of the sequence. Going back to the idea of keeping it as a trio with Dave and Mike, were there any other musicians who you at least considered having?

You know, it was always going to be a trio. With the first album, Mike was obviously still in Dream Theater; although me, Dave, and Mike played together on G3 tours, when it came to recording Suspended Animation, I wanted to keep it separate from Dream Theater. So, I used Dave DiCenso and Tony Verderosa for drums, as well as Dave [LaRue] for bass. This time around, Mike is not in Dream Theater, so in keeping with the tradition of not using Dream Theater’s drummer, I asked him to do it.

That’s an interesting way to look at it.

I like having individuality when it comes to a solo album, in terms of personnel, to the point of having Andy Sneap mix Terminal Velocity. It’s the first time I’ve worked with him. Likewise for having Sean do the artwork. He’s done layout work for Dream Theater but never a cover. So, when you look at it and listen to it and consider the players, it’s very independent from what I do with Dream Theater. That’s really important. I wanted it to reflect my identity and be my opportunity to say, “Here’s what I’m all about.”

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Otherwise, there’d be no point to have different projects and monikers.

Yeah, you don’t want them all to blend together.

I’m sure that every interview you’re doing is asking you about working with Mike again, and of course, I’m interested in that, too. But, I’m also interested to know what you thought of how fans and the internet as a whole reacted to that news. So many people seemed so surprised, and there were many opinions, as you’d expect.

Well, I wrote the music and programmed the drums and then sent it to Mike. He came up to my studio and tracked his parts, which was great because we could communicate then and there. He’d ask me if he should follow the exact drum programming and of course, I said, “No, do your thing.” There are sections that are specifically important in terms of the rhythm, but for the most part, he had free range. He’s a very spontaneous and off-the-cuff drummer, and although he did all of his homework, he was still able to add his own flair and bring the songs to the next level. He just has that spirit. People have commented—and I agree—that it sounds like we’re all playing together.

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Absolutely.

As far as anticipating how fans would react, I knew that it would shock a lot of people, but also make a lot of people happy. That’s the biggest reaction I’ve seen, even beyond any sort of controversy. So many people are just extremely happy that we’re doing something together musically. I love that. When I read responses or comments or talk to people during interviews, that’s the big thing. It’s not like the controversy you’d maybe anticipate; it’s all positive, and people say, “It’s so encouraging and uplifting to see you guys play together.” I’m glad there’s positivity surrounding the release. It’s been amazing.

That’s great, and what should happen. My reaction was a bit less drastic, I’ll admit. I sort of just thought, “Well, they’ve known each other for decades and started this huge band together and it’s literally been ten years since all of that went down. Everyone’s moved on and they’re doing their own thing, so why not?”

It was a good opportunity and it makes sense. Sometimes, these things go the other way and it turns into such a dark thing in terms of assumptions and controversy. That hasn’t happened with this, and I’m glad.

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I think some fans will always feel a bit polarized about all of that, but again, it’s been ten years and all parties involved are happy and successful doing their own thing.

Right.

I’ve spoken to a few artists who’ve talked about how the current pandemic and quarantine have had good and bad consequences in terms of their productivity, release schedules, promotion, touring, etc. How has Terminal Velocity been affected and are you optimistic about things somewhat going back to normal in 2021?

Realistically, as far as my schedule was concerned, I’d planned on doing this in the spring anyway. Obviously, I didn’t anticipate that I’d have many, many months to do it [laughs].  Dream Theater had a bit of a hole in terms of touring, so I planned to do it. With the pandemic, I found myself with more time, which enabled me to focus on it from beginning to end and get it done. I’m releasing it on my own label [Sound Mind Music]—through The Orchard Music—and there’s a lot of work involved there. It’s been nice having the time to focus on all of that and to promote it. All of that’s been good. I don’t think there will be a shortage of new music coming out this year.

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If anything, there will be more.

Sure. I’m glad to have the time to concentrate on it and not feel too spread out by being on the road while I’m trying to approve mixes and call the label manager and all that. As far as touring, as all of us know, it’s totally uncertain. We’re talking about shows possibly not happening for another year or more. It’s something we’re all dealing with, and not just with me or Dream Theater and our crew. Every band on the planet is thinking about that. Hopefully, it’ll get resolved ASAP so we can get back to it in the safest way possible. Every musician I talk to is in the same boat, and it’s really surreal. It’s weird not being able to perform; that’s a big, big part of it. In the meantime, as creative people, we’re going to do what we do: make music.

Of course, you have a few people who are trying to play concerts as if nothing’s happening. They’re encouraging large gatherings without any precautions.

It’s best not to do that [laughs]. Do it when it’s right to do it and don’t put anybody in danger.

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Continuing with Dream Theater, what can you say about what you guys are up to in terms of 2021 plans?

Back in February, we recorded two nights in London and filmed for a DVD. That should come out later this year; it’s being edited and mixed now. Those shows were great; they were a lot of fun and I’m excited for people to see it. We were able to do a lot of touring in support of Distance Over Time and even the 20th anniversary of Scenes from a Memory, but there were some territories we didn’t get to because of the pandemic, like Asia and Australia. Now everyone will get to see it in some way, at least. In light of having shows canceled or postponed because of the virus, our schedule has changed because we’re anticipating that there won’t be touring for another year. So, we’re going to go back into the studio sometime in the fall and work on new music so that a new record can come out sometime next year. That wasn’t the plan originally, obviously, but that’s how we’re going to pivot.

It’s great that you guys have that adaptability.

I’m looking forward to it. It’s sooner than we anticipated, and that’s okay, too. The important thing is to try to make the best of the situation and do what you can do professionally.

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I’m sure fans won’t mind, either. Outside of the professional duties, what have you been doing to keep busy and relaxed?

I think all the normal things. All of my adult kids came back home because they’re schools and jobs were closed, so we had the family back together. We got into Ozark, which was awesome, and we’re rewatching The Sopranos even though I’ve seen it all already. There are a ton of movies we watched, too, and we’ve enjoyed the warmer weather and used the pool and all that. Unfortunately, what we haven’t done—but it’s changing little by little—is hang out with friends and family outside of our house. We’re just trying to keep everyone safe, so we’ve missed a lot of celebrations and gatherings. We’ll have to make up for lost time since things are starting to change. Some restaurants are allowing indoor seating around here, and we’ve been supporting local places. We’ve cooked a lot, too. You know, just the stuff everyone is doing.

That’s all you can do, I suppose. Thanks for taking some time to speak with me, John. I can now cross it off the bucket list. Take care and congrats on Terminal Velocity.

Thanks, Jordan. It’s nice to finally have a second solo album out there. Now interviewers can stop asking me when I’ll do it [laughs]. Best of luck with your book, too. I can’t wait to check it out.  

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