Concert Reviews

Dream Theater's John Petrucci On Obsessing Over Rush, Playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and More

Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci took time out while the band was in Ohio a few weeks ago and talked about his first forays with music. It was expected Rush would be mentioned, but we also talked about the first time the band played Dallas, new drummer Mike Mangini's first show with the band, and how it feels to have his own children following in his footsteps. They hit Verizon Theatre tonight.

What was your earliest exposure to music? I've told this story a lot and it's a kind of funny little story. I forget the age. I might have been eight, I might have been nine. We had an organ in the house that my parents had bought and my older sister, who's two years older than me, was taking organ lessons. The way our house was designed, the organ was in the living room and down the hallway were our bedrooms. She would have her lesson at night. Me and my younger brother would have to go to bed and my sister would be up, having her organ lesson and hearing all this music coming from the living room and having fun. So I had this idea: "Hey, I'd like to take lessons." I figured I would take guitar lessons and it seemed like the manly thing to do. Unfortunately, my lessons were during the day on a Saturday, so my plan totally fell through. That was the beginning. Honestly, I didn't enjoy it very much. I was little, I had a plastic guitar, I couldn't press the strings down. Playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" was not inspiring, so I did not pursue it at that time.

What was the first band you obsessed over? Probably Rush. I started to get turned on to a bunch of different bands when I was in middle school/high school. I was turned onto The Who and Black Sabbath and Yes, and stuff like that. But Rush I obsessed over. I wanted to have every album. I wanted to know storylines, read all the lyrics, learn the songs and everything. So that was definitely the first one.

Was it with 2112? Well, I first got turned on to them with Hemispheres. Songs from Moving Pictures were on the radio, but I didn't really follow it. A friend of mine who was really into them was like, "Oh, you gotta listen to this song." That's where it all started.

Jumping ahead here, what do you remember about the first time Majesty played? I don't think I can remember the first time Majesty played. We didn't really have many gigs, to be honest with you. At the time, I remember playing Mike Portnoy's stepfather's wedding. We played a couple songs, which was fun. We didn't go through the normal process of being a band, getting out there in the bar scene and gigging and getting our demo out there. We did our own thing. We wrote a ton of music and we did do a demo to get that out there, but we didn't have a lot of playing experience. We got signed, basically, right from the basement, so it was an interesting and different way of doing things.

Was the Images and Words tour the first major tour you had done? Yes, exactly!

I know Dallas was a stop on that tour. What do you remember about the first time you played here? It's hard to remember. From what I remember of those days, we put ourselves in a van, we drove ourselves, we had two people in our crew, we played in clubs to very few people in the beginning until things started to hit. "Pull Me Under" became a radio hit and things moved on from there. I remember coming through Texas; I remember playing Dallas, but I don't remember the exact venue. But we've been coming there since our first tour back in 1992. Pretty wild.

This is probably still fresh in your memory: What about the first show you played with Mike Mangini, other than the fact that it happened in Italy on July 4th last year? That was a big deal. It was the debut of Mike to our fans in a live setting. It was great that it was in Italy because we have some of the most incredible, passionate fans who have been with us since the beginning. I do remember one of the first great experiences of going to Europe was playing in Rome hearing the people sing our music so loud. It was louder than the music we were playing. So Rome was very, very fitting, especially with the name Mangini. You can't go wrong. And yeah, it was a little nerve-wracking for him, but it ended up being a great show. Everything didn't go 100 percent exactly as planned, but the show was pretty smooth. He did a great job. He had a lot on his plate, a lot of responsibilities to take on, not just the music but the technical aspects of playing it.

I saw some YouTube footage of it and everybody seemed very supportive, especially during the drum solo. Yeah! That was the thing that I noticed and that I'm so thankful for: The listeners of our music and our fans all around the world really welcomed Mike Mangini immediately, and in such a welcoming, positive fashion, which meant so much for us because it was obviously a big change and we felt so strongly and so positively about Mike and we wanted everyone to feel the same, you know?

Sure! He still continues to get that kind of reaction. We just came back from Asia. Even though it's been a while since he's been in the band, it was the first time that people in Japan and Korea had seen us with Mike. People standing up, applauding, smiling, everything. We couldn't be more grateful than that.

I have to admit as a longtime fan of the band, as well as Extreme, when I heard that it was going to be Mangini replacing Mike Portnoy, I was like, "Huh?" Right!

Because, no offense to [original Extreme drummer] Paul Geary, but Geary's drumming is pretty different from what Portnoy was doing. Sure!

And then seeing clips from that show where they slow everything down . . . Oh yeah, Time Warp!

Then I was like, "OK, alright." Then I watched the documentary [The Spirit Carries On] and it was pretty obvious to me. If you've ever seen Mike with Steve Vai, it's a more comparable musical setting.

What was the first show that you took your own children to see? Of other bands?

Yeah! You know, it's a funny thing. I have three kids. They're all teenagers now, but they've been in the live scene from the beginning. I remember them being real little and putting ear-protection headphones on them and taking them along. Most of the times, it was on tour with us and they've seen other bands through Dream Theater's experience, whether it was on festivals or opening acts or stuff like that. I can't say I remember taking them specifically out to a concert as a toddler, but they've always been in the scene because of what I do.

You've mentioned that it was hard to convince your parents to go to Berklee and subsequently drop out. Any of your kids express a similar interest? Absolutely! In fact, all my kids are musicians. My son is going to attend the Berklee summer music program for the first time this year as a 16-year-old. They're all going down that path. They're all very interested, and I must say as their proud father, very talented. Being on the other side of it, it's a little scary knowing the reality of the music industry. It's amazing they have this in their blood and they want to do it. My wife and I fully support them.

What I really appreciate about you guys is that all along, even with Mike Portnoy in the band, you were very open about how you went through some incredibly difficult things. Like, writing Images and Words was a year-and-a-half experience, right? Oh yeah, right.

And to parlay that to your younger fans and your children, that's always a good thing to remember. It definitely is. Something that they don't necessarily really know. You know, newer fans, younger fans, and even my own kids, they weren't around during those times. They just see the industry that we're in and the success that we've achieved. It's basically my job. It's always existed, it's always been there , but they didn't really see what led up to that and how difficult it is to try to get there. That's an interesting thing to impart onto them.

With this current touring cycle, I'm assuming it's coming to an end after the South American tour. I wanted to ask what you're going to do next. You are absolutely correct. The South American leg, which will happen in August, will be the final tour stop in support of A Dramatic Turn of Events and then I have G3, also in South America, in October, so I'll be right back. We'll take some time off; do some writing in that time and we'll hit the studio early next year.

I can imagine it's pretty exciting that this will be the first album writing with Mangini. Yeah, that's going to be exciting. In fact, since we've been on tour, we've taken advantage here and there at soundchecks. If I write something in my hotel room, I'll bring it in and try it out at soundcheck. Or if we spontaneously bust into a jam, we record all those ideas. Mike is right in there with us, showing us his ability as a drummer, his ability to pick up things, to create things and react in a way. We had a fantastic chemistry with him already without getting into the studio. So it's very exciting, very encouraging.

Dream Theater plays Verizon Theatre on Monday, July 9.

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Eric Grubbs is a Dallas-based writer who has published two books, Post: A Look at the Influence of Post-Hardcore 1985-2007 and When We Were the Kids. His writing has been featured in Punk Planet, Popdose, Fort Worth Weekly, The Dentonite and LA Weekly. He supports Manchester City and will never root for Manchester United.
Contact: Eric Grubbs