Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess: “In our new album, we’ll go back to the roots and the core sound of the band”
Just as we wrote when we first interviewed him about a year ago (find the article here), Jordan Rudess never seems to stop. Fresh out of a tour with Al Di Meola, he is about to embark on a solo tour entitled “From Bach to Rock”, with dates scheduled for Asia, Australia and South America. In addition to that, he has just finished recording the new Dream Theater album, which promises a return to the sound that made them one of the most influential bands in the prog metal genre.
Lotsofmuzik collaborator Rodrigo Altaf had a chance to sit down with Jordan and in a very lighthearted discussion, they discussed his plans for the “From Bach to Rock” tour, his musical influences, some aspects of the new album, and many other cool subjects. Check it out below:
Lotsofmuzik – Hi Jordan, it’s great to talk to you. So you have a few dates scheduled for November and December, and the tour is entitled “From Bach to Rock”, right? What can the fans expect?
Jordan Rudess - The "Bach to Rock" tour has been a wonderful musical outlet for me because it's a chance for me to return to my roots and play the piano. My musical path started as a young pianist at 7 years old and at 9 starting my classical studies at Julliard in New York City. So the "Bach to Rock" is about a journey, following the "Jordan Rudess" kinda musical journey. Literally, I take people through my path as a musician and I do it all from the piano. And I throw a little bit of technology in the middle of that, showing my work with music applications - I show my GeoShred app, but mostly it's on the piano. The fans can expect not only a little bit of classical music thrown in and some improvisation, but also some Dream Theater songs rearranged for piano as well and some original music. So it's a real, almost chronological journey through my musical life. It involves music and also I'm talking and telling its story.
Lotsofmuzik - Very cool! I saw the setlist of the other tour you did under the same name and it seems like a great show. Do you think there will be changes on the setlist or will you be playing primarily the same thing?
JR - There will be similarities, but because it's just me and I can do whatever I want, I always make up some stuff spontaneously right there and then. If something comes into my head, I can do it. So it's not so rigid like in other kinds of shows.
Lotsofmuzik - You also did a few dates on August and September with Al Di Meola. How did that tour come together? I imagine you guys have known each other for years, right?
JR - I hadn't known Al exactly. I had met him but many years ago, about 30 years ago. I didn't really bring it up to him, but he didn't remember me [laughs]. He knew my name because he is very well aware of Dream Theater, you know, John Petrucci and all these things. But I really met him for the first time let's say, in his mind [laughs] and the tour happened because we have the same agency - our agency is called APA. He is booked out of the California branch of APA and I’m booked out of the New York branch of APA. They were trying to organize the Al tour and someone in California thought “it would be great to have Jordan join the tour because then it would help the whole package and it would be more interesting”, so I was asked to join it. I thought that was cool, I was very excited because I felt that although there are similarities in our approach to playing musical instruments, it's a different audience. The Al Di Meola audience is very different from the Dream Theater/Jordan Rudess audience. It's more like a fusion, Latin jazz and we all thought the people in the audience would enjoy what I do. So it was a great opportunity to go out and reach different people which is what you want to do especially when you are doing an opening act. It's the whole purpose. It really did function. Actually the only thing that was bad, I did eight shows on the West coast and the only thing that was really bad about it, is that after the first show I woke up the next morning in severe pain. I had a back issue and when I got home I ended up having a back operation. It was horrible because I was in such pain but I made it through. As they say, “the show must go on!” [laughs]. So on all the shows, I basically crawled to the piano, did my shows and when I got back to New York, I said ok, I gotta deal with this. If you were to tell the story, yes, when the shows happened it was quite difficult. But musically speaking, thank God it was good. Now I'm actually getting ready to do a whole other batch of shows. It should be amazing for me, because although I’m known all around the world as the keyboardist for Dream Theater, I haven’t played solo in all these places ever before. So it’s really exciting to be able to go out for solo shows, especially because it’s so personal and intimate. It’s a chance for me to share that kind of personal musicality with people but it’s also a chance for me, because of the nature of the shows, to be able to have a more personal connection because I’ll be doing meet and greets that are a little bit more relaxed than in a band environment, where we have to be more on schedule and more careful. In this case, I can spend more time meeting people and chatting. This is a nice opportunity to connect with other people musically and personally.
Lotsofmuzik - I noticed that in your solo tours and with Al Di Meola and Dream Theater, it’s either short runs or longer runs with breaks in between. Have you found a good work/life balance at this point with your touring career and the home life?
JR - It’s always challenging to do. I feel like this time around, I’m putting more energy into my solo stuff because I’m trying to establish it, so I’m using this time off with Dream Theater to kinda do that - It’s pushing a little bit harder than usual. Sometimes in a career path, one needs to push a little bit more in one direction than the other. Some guys maybe are lucky enough to chill out and to get ready for the next chapter of Dream Theater, but in my case I’m saying “well I have a little time, I’m gonna develop this, I’m gonna go out”. Everybody has a different way of managing their lives, their career. It’s a very busy time doing all this, and there’s a lot of rewards to it as well. When you put the energy out there, very often it comes back but sometimes it’s just hard to find the energy to move forward more than you absolutely need to.
Lotsofmuzik - At your age, many musicians are playing the same songs over and over, lots of them are doing that and are relying on their hits, but you are always moving forward. Why do you think you have such a driving power?
JR – I was saying to somebody the other day, I don’t have many hobbies. Music is my life, my hobby, my passion. I’m always creating, I’m always improvising. I just like to sit at the piano and just play and make up stuff. I just turn on Facebook live and play whatever comes into my head. I love to do that so, I’m always creating new stuff on that level. Even from a compositional point, I like to write music. I like to do it with my band, I like to do it on my own. At the same time, as I like to create new things, I’m not a musician that really minds playing the old stuff like some people say “Oh I played that song a hundred times or a thousand times and I don’t want to play it again”. I kinda feel like all the songs are a part of me and every time I’m playing, it’s a little bit different and maybe I’m getting better at it...so I enjoy all aspects of it.
Have you taken time to reflect on the path you would have taken, hadn’t you joined Dream Theater?
JR - It’s a lot of steps along the way that you wonder what would have happened. Dream Theater was a very important step for me because it really put me in the public eye. I was doing stuff before that and I kinda stepped into the arena of professional life ever since I joined Vinnie Moore’s band, I played with Paul Winter, I had gigs with the Dixie Dregs and I did a solo album. But nothing was really taking off to a point where I could say “ok, this is my livelihood, I can do this”. So it’s hard to say what would have happen: Dream Theater functions so beautifully for me to have a very strong career. We don’t know what would have happened. Musically speaking, I would have absolutely continued down the path that I was on. I was happy to navigate in the direction I was going. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened musically if Dream Theater didn’t happen, because Dream Theater takes a lot of my time. I say that not in a negative way, but only in the sense that there’s a kind of music that I’m interested in which I do with Dream Theater, that is very consuming, but I do other things as well. We don’t know what would have happened. It’s interesting because now I am taking the time to develop my solo career more which is an interesting move for me because I feel like there’s a part of me that wants to expand the possibilities in addition to Dream Theater that weren’t as open as before.
Lotsofmuzik – From what I’ve seen in your solo work you’re a prog fan. Which of these keyboard players would you say was your biggest influence: Rick Wakeman, Tony Banks, or Keith Emerson?
JR – My biggest influence was Keith Emerson. And the reason for that is because his harmonic sense was interesting to me. I love all the guys and they were also inspirations to me. But the chords and the power of the sound that he had…for a keyboard player to have that kind of power and energy was really impressive, along with the harmonies that he used, the suspended chords, that was really powerful in my mind. The other guys had other kinds of influences, even though I wouldn’t say they’re as large as the one Keith Emerson had on me. When it comes to Rick Wakeman, I enjoyed how he could take the classical elements and bring them into rock. Rick’s album “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” was an example of how you can use classic motifs and really rock out, so I thought it was very cool. And Tony Banks was a different kind of inspiration – I always thought that Tony’s harmonic language was very cool, and very different from Keith Emerson’s, and he had beautiful chords, a lot of ostinato based ideas where he would change chords over a single bass note. You could always tell a Tony Banks harmonic movement, and I tried to bring that into my own language as well, and mix it in with the other things that I was influenced by. I ended up having a mishmash of harmonic ideas in my head between all these guys and all the classical music I studied, and all the jazz influence , so now it’s all floating up here in my head, and it comes out in whatever way.
Lotsofmuzik – Are there any younger bands that you admire? I’ve seen you attend Haken concerts for example – any others?
JR – Yeah, I think the Haken guys are really great. A lot of the newer prog metal guys play so well, like Animals As Leaders, for example. I respect their virtuosity and their dedication and how they’re pushing their style. Musically my favourite stuff goes back to either classical music like Chopin, or classic prog like Genesis, Gentle Giant, Pink Floyd etc. When it comes to the newer stuff, I really like how Haken pay tribute to the classic prog sound and add a bit of metal to it too. And there’s groups like Periphery and Animals As Leaders who are shaking things up a little bit and raising up the level of technicque – I hear some stuff in their music and think “oh my God, I didn’t even know you could play guitar like that!” [laughs]. That whole revolution in the guitar playing with guys like Jason Richardson impresses me a lot. When you think about how far the guitar as an instrument has come from the introduction of the electric guitar up to what people are doing now is phenomenal. You can’t say the same thing about keyboards, because it’s not the same kind of path. You had people like Franz Liszt or Rachmaninoff playing incredible things in the piano, and what people are playing on keyboards now is not necessary harder than that, whereas with guitar, it kinda is thatw ay because the idea of picking like that on an electric guitar started with Les Paul. So the evolution of the instrument is very interesting to see, but it happens in different ways with the keyboards. Certainly there was nobody doing pitch bending on a keyboard in Bach’s time, although on the clavichord, which was the instrument before the harpsichord, you could press down on it and it would change the pitch. That’s interesting to think about, because not many people realized what was going on, but every keyboard after that didn’t do that – harpsichords, pianos or organs etc. We’d have to fast forward to the age of the synthesizer in order to have a lever to change the pitch.
Lotsofmuzik – Very interesting! And one of your many endeavours outside of show business is being an Artist in Residence at Stanford University’s CCRMA (Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics). What exactly does that entail, and how is the work going – how much commitment does it require?
JR – I had a wonderful time as an Artist in Residence at Stanford. My connection with the Stanford guys was in the musical technology world, and my company making music apps. I had partnered with some of the guys coming out of there, and in my various visits to Stanford as an artist showing new technology I established a relationship with the school and with these guys to the point where they invited me to spend the semester there as an artist. Being an artist in residence is a very flexible and wonderful position to be in, because it basically means that you’re doing your art out of the university, and you’re expected to open up your artistic world to the students and the community around you. So I very much did that. They have these things called symposiums, but I changed them to “synth-posiums” [laughs] and showed various technologies, whether it would be on a seaboard or on an IPad etc. I invited people in and talked about what I use in my musical life, I’d meet people doing cool things and ventures, young students changing the audio world as we know it, and I played a few concerts there as well. So, being an Artist in Residence was a combination of doing some performances but also opening the doors of my musical life to people there, meeting everybody, trying to educate and being educated as well. And I’m going back to Stanford this winter, not as an Artist in Residence, but maybe more as an adjunct teacher for one semester.
Lotsofmuzik – In addition to all that, you have your “day job” with Dream Theater and just finished recording a new album. I saw a picture of you with a Hammond organ in the studio – will you bring it with you on tour, or will you stick with the Korg?
JR – Yeah, I was playing around with the idea of getting some very cool organ sounds, and I was thinking of all the possibilities, because today in the digital technology world there’s all sorts of ways to achieve an organ sound. But I ended up with the Hammond X5, and I found it to be amazing, really great. I ran it into a device called “motion device” which is kinda like a Leslie [amplifier] – it moves the sound, spins it around. So eventually I thought I should take this with me because it has a good place in the new album, it has a really powerful sound, and changing things up a little bit would be cool as well.
Lotsofmuzik – Great to hear that! And to use a phrase that many fans have been saying one way or another, this seems like your most collaborative effort to date, at least on the lyric writing side. Was that the same musically, or did you and John Petrucci write the bulk of it as before?
JR – It was definitely very collaborative, we had a wonderful time all together, we basically hid away in a secret location, we found an old barn turned into studio and set aside a couple of months to do everything. We were very constructive, very energized, had a great time together, a lot of laughs, we cooked together, joked around, but in general we had an uninterrupted musical experience together, which was very productive. We feel very good about the new stuff, we think it’s very strong and that the fans will really enjoy this album.
Lotsofmuzik – Some of the most prominent criticisms of the fanbase are about Mike Mangini’s drum sound in the studio and about how difficult The Astonishing was to absorb – were you guys aware of that, and did you discuss it when it came the time to write and record the new album?
JR – Yeah, I know there were a lot of people who had trouble with the drum sound. Personally I never had a problem with it, I liked it, but I guess everybody’s a critic nowadays, and everybody’s voice is somehow of great importance in the internet world in the safe zone behind a computer [laughs]. I think I understand why some people maybe didn’t like the drum sound, and I’d also say that Mike Mangini wasn’t 100% happy with it either. But I think what’s gonna happen on this album is an amazing drum sound – it’s killer! Again, everybody’s a critic and I’m sure in the end somebody will always find something to say, but for me it’s one of the best drum sounds I’ve ever hear.
As for the second part of your question, Dream Theater has had a very long career, and when it came the time to do the album that turned out to be The Astonishing we wanted to do something that was created a little bit different than usual. We wanted to do a concept album, and John Petrucci and I decided that the best way to do this kind of album was to sit in a room and really write this thing, like a musical or a rock opera, and that’s what we did. We took some very focused time writing all this music, an it’s an album that I’m extremely proud of - It’s one of my proudest achievements with Dream Theater. But I know it was a very polarizing album for the fans, and I think the reason is that Dream Theater fans are varied anyways. You have the guys that like the heavy stuff, while other like the progressive and more melodic stuff – and there’s a lot of different kinds of music within what we do, so it creates this situation. You can’t really please everybody, and in The Astonishing we couldn’t please everybody. A lot of our metal fans kinda dropped off and said “what the hell are you guys doing with these sweet soft parts?” [laughs]. And I get that, that’s fine – you can’t please everybody all the time. But I’m excited because I feel like this new album is going to be a home run. I get it – Dream Theater fans don’t like to go for too long of a gentle ride. Maybe a ballad here and there, but I think the bulk of them are not so into the Disney-esque influence [laughs]. We did that and we loved it, we had a great time, it was the biggest production ever. But now the next stage is back to the roots, back to the core of the sound – screaming Hammond organ, killing leads, chunky riffs, slamming drums, and everybody will be there moshing! [laughs].
Lotsofmuzik – Some artists say that the tension between band members create the best albums - that seems to have been the case with Jagger and Richards, David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen etc. Dream Theater, on the other hand, seems to be a VERY friendly environment. Do you think that having tension in the studio would generate a different, or better DT album?
JR – I think that what happened in this album was that because John Petrucci and I wrote the last album together without any input from the other guys, there was a bit of tension in that [when we started to write the new one]. I think that led us taking the move of convening in this hideaway. So in a sense, tension led to this great album, because everybody was so anxious to be involved and said “I wanna do this”, “I wanna do that”, and we got together as a group. And John and I were very opened to it, since we enjoy hiding away and do the bulk of the writing. But at the same time we were like “yeah, bring it on, guys!” [laughs]. Let’s feel your energy and create something that’s more a “group-approved” kind of album. It was great to have Mike Mangini there because he is very high-spirited and has a powerful reaction to things, and creates excitement in the room. I’d play something and he’d go “Wow! Wizard, that’s amazing!” [laughs] and this kinda influenced his drumming as well. In The Astonishing we didn’t have that, and this time it really helped push the energy on this album. And having all the guys being involved ended up being a lot of fun. I guess I’ll relate it to the question in the sense that it did result out of some kind of pressure, or tension, that everybody wanted to return to the core of who we are and get together in a room to do this.
Lotsofmuzik – I’ve seen you shred on guitar on YouTube - have you ever considered performing guitar live, or recording a song on guitar?
JR - I have been playing more guitar. Not so much in the last month because I hurt my back, but I played some on my new album. What started it was that at the last NAMM show I met a wonderful luthier whose name is Przemek Drużkowski - you can probably see him online, he built me an 8-string custom guitar which is called The Wizard Model, and it’s available for purchase if you go to his website. It’s an awesome, slick guitar. Then I discovered the Strandberg guitars, which are these wonderful light carbon fiber guitars, so I’ve been playing them. But the sad part of it is that now all my calluses are gone! [laughs], I had to really work to get those back, but now they’re gone because I haven’t played it for so long. I guess the bad part of playing guitar is that you have to endure a little bit of pain before you can really go!
Lotsofmuzik – You have a reputation for walking around town when you’re playing a show – I myself have met you in the streets of Pamplona in 2014, when you were there on the self-titled album tour. How often do people recognize you, and what was the craziest fan encounter you’ve ever had?
JR – They recognize me more if I’m walking around in the area of the venue on the day of the show. If I’m walking in a random area in a big city like Barcelona, there’s usually one or two people that recognize me, but my career is nowhere near the level of, say, Madonna, for example [laughs]. Usually one or two people at the airport will recognize me as well, and that’s ok.
The craziest encounter I had was in Italy, where I was walking around on the day of the show, and I didn’t realize we were very close to where we’d be playing a few hours later. People discovered I was nearby and I literally had to hide, because when situations like that happen everyone wants a picture or an autograph and things like that, and that’s ok, but with a large crowd, things tend to be a bit chaotic.
Lotsofmuzik – I found it funny when I ran into you that you didn’t have any entourage or security or anything like that
JR – On certain countries I’ll have security, but it depends on where we are as well.
Lotsofmuzik – Ok, so a silly question to wrap things up: have you considered shaving your beard?
JR – I have considered it, but I haven’t done it yet. I think it’s a statement. As an artist it’s kinda fun to have a signature look. If I shaved it up, I’d look like this, what do you think? [hides beard with the hand on camera].
Lotsofmuzik – Not too bad, you’d look just like a regular guy! [laughs]
JR – I could go into hiding, then I wouldn’t be recognized by any fans and I could walk around everywhere, right?
Lotsofmuzik – Right! Well thank you so much for your time, and I wish you a great tour!
JR – Lovely to talk to you! Take care, man! Bye!
For an updated list of Jordan Rudess tour dates, please click on the following link: https://www.jordanrudess.com/tours/
We are a bunch of Independent writers and reviewers.