Q&A: Don't expect to hear Dream Theater songs when John Petrucci plays Clearwater this weekend

The 55-year-old guitar icon just released his second solo album, 'Terminal Velocity,' recorded when COVID-19 lockdowns were in full swing.

click to enlarge John Petrucci - Larry DiMarzio
Larry DiMarzio
John Petrucci
Don’t worry: Prog metal quintet Dream Theater isn’t calling it a day. Guitarist John Petrucci is just taking a quick breather before the band heads overseas next year.

The 55-year-old guitar icon just released his second solo album, Terminal Velocity, recorded when COVID-19 lockdowns were in full swing. “You know, it's not Dream Theater, it’s an instrumental trio. It just feels really nice, and just intimate and cushy,” Petrucci told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

He knows that the process of learning guitar has changed dramatically since he was a kid, but is all for it anyway. “Maybe there was an older kid on the block that knew how to play it right. But now, you know, you can get instant access to tutorials on basically how to play anything,” he explained.

He even had a book-and-disc set out at one point, which ex-Alice Cooper guitarist Nita Strauss credits as one of her biggest influences in terms of performance. But thanks to the internet, a reissue or follow-up to “Rock Discipline” is unnecessary in Petrucci’s eyes, so it would be best to just let it rest in peace.

The pandemic caused Petrucci to reunite with original Dream Theater drummer and co-founder Mike Portnoy, who left the band over a decade ago. He appeared on Terminal Velocity, as well as the third Liquid Tension Experiment album, a side project featuring Dream Theater alum and bass legend Tony Levin.

As a result, Petrucci is bringing his old comrade on the road with him, with one catch: There won’t be a taste of Dream Theater at all. “I've obviously done those tours and my camps, but I've never done a solo headlining tour. And I thought, this is the first I'm going to do it, so I’m gonna play my own music,” he added.

Get our full interview with John Petrucci below, and go see him and Mike Portnoy live at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater on Saturday, Oct. 22. Meanstreak opens.
Hey, John. Thanks for doing this with me, really appreciate it.

No problem. Thanks for doing this with me! I’m in New Jersey tonight. I know this is for Florida, which is a little ways off, but it's great to talk about it.

New Jersey, huh? Home of The Boss.

That's right! *laughs*

So, earlier this year, Dream Theater rolled into Florida and did a gig at the Mahaffey Theater, which is a really intimate setting. And this time around, you’ll also be in a theater, just solo. Do you like playing those small venues, or do you prefer arenas and amphitheaters?

I mean, it depends. I think with what I'm doing right now, this instrumental show, I think the small theaters are perfect for it. It’s just kind of the perfect environment. You know, it's not Dream Theater, it’s an instrumental trio. It just feels really nice, and just intimate and cushy. When you have 500 or 1000 people, I like that. You know, Dream Theater is different because our audience sizes range. It's like the weirdest thing that depends on what country we’re in, or what state, or whatever.

I mean, we go from playing arenas and amphitheaters, to smaller theaters. It just depends on the market, really. And, you know, both situations could potentially be great. If the theater is a nice size, let’s say like the Beacon Theater in New York or Radio City Music Hall, then it’s beautiful. They're big, the stage is great, and the decor is nice.

If it's a little bit of a smaller place for Dream Theater, a little too small for us, then we kind of run into problems where it's hard to fit our show in and stuff like that. So you know, it's funny how it works across the world and even just across the US, depending on where you are as far as the sizes of the audiences.

Definitely. I want to go back a little bit. Technically, the first time you picked up a guitar was when you were eight years old, right?

I can't remember the exact age. I was either eight or nine, and I wanted to play guitar. I started taking lessons on this horrible acoustic, and I had a teacher that came to the house. I absolutely hated it. Just hated it. *laughs* I couldn’t do it, too hard. It wasn't until I was 12 that I picked it up on my own accord, and then just got addicted.

Right, so you mentioned that the terrible acoustic guitar was your first guitar ever. What was your first electric model?

I believe it was a guitar that I bought in a local flea market. It was a Les Paul copy, made by Suzuki of all brands. And it was pretty wild. It was black and it had a vine down the neck, and Mother Pearl binding. It probably didn’t cost that much, so that was my first guitar.

Cool. I didn't know Suzuki made guitars. That's like finding out that Yamaha does motorcycles as well.

Yeah, exactly.

You previously cited people like Steve Morse and Alex Lifeson as a few of your all-time favorite guitarists. Are there any younger guitarists that inspire you?

So many. I mean, you're absolutely right about Steve and Alex. But there are so many people. All you have to do is go on your phone and go on Instagram or YouTube or TikTok, and you see this amazing collection of talent from all over the world.

I just ran a contest with Neural DSP, which is a company that I have a signature plugin with. We did a contest where you submitted yourself playing my music, and it was just like, all these young guys just playing it so beautifully. I think it’s so much easier to access seeing how people do things, as compared to was when I was younger. You had a record, you had to put it on, and you didn't know what the person was doing.

I used slow it down to the slower speed on the turntable and tried to guess and figure it out. Maybe there was an older kid on the block that knew how to play it right. But now, you know, you can get instant access to tutorials on basically how to play anything. That just raised the bar.

One of those younger guitarists that I was talking about is Nita Strauss, who cites you as a major influence in her performance style, mainly thanks to your book-and-disc set, "Rock Discipline."

That was mid-90s, I believe that I put that out. Mid or early 90s anyway, either ’93 or ’94. That’s really nice of Nita to say that. I get that feedback from a lot of people who got "Rock Discipline" when they were first learning guitar or wanting to expand their abilities. They’ve told me that it's been really helpful, so I think that's awesome. I remember doing it and preparing for it. I never had done one before, and I just wanted to put everything I possibly could teach in one video.

I want to dive back into your tour. Even though Mike Portnoy is with you, this is the first time that you're touring by yourself without G3. And I've looked at the setlist, too. Honestly, mad respect for sticking to your solo stuff and not doing Dream Theater things with Mike. That's huge.

Right, I appreciate you saying that. That was my mentality all along. You mentioned G3, I've obviously done those tours and my camps, but I've never done a solo headlining tour. And I thought, this is the first I'm going to do it, so I’m gonna play my own music. A lot of people I’ve done interviews with have asked me “Are you gonna do Liquid Tension? Are you gonna do any of Mike’s songs, or Dave’s or Dream Theater?” I'm like, “you know what? This is going to be all about my music. I have two solo albums, so there's plenty to choose from.”

And the fun thing is that we've worked in some really cool areas in the show to jam, and for me to feature Mike and also Dave LaRue, so it's just been so much fun. And the show's about an hour and a half and it just goes by like so quickly, so I’m glad I’m doing it this way, too. I appreciate that.

Of course. You know, that's what Slash did earlier this year when he went out with Myles Kennedy. He did all his solo stuff, and not a lick of Guns N’ Roses.

Right, right. That's great, I respect that.

I definitely want to ask you about the Lost Not Forgotten series that Dream Theater has been doing. It's a brilliant idea to me, kind of like Beatles Anthology chopped up into album-sized increments. How did that come about?

Well, I guess it stems from the original YtseJam Records, which was Mike Portnoy's idea to kind of beat the bootleggers by putting out our own live albums. Just tapes, demos and things like that, which people were bootlegging anyway. But we put out quite a number of releases on there, in the high 30s, I believe. But then, Mike left the band, and it had been a good 12 years since we’d really done anything like that.

I had a conversation with the band and Thomas Waber from Inside Out, the label that we're on, and we talked about the difficulty people have grabbing that stuff now. You know, none of it is available digitally, none of it is available on vinyl, and there’s nothing from the Mangini era at all. There are albums and shows that could have been wonderful to release that we never did. So, we started thinking “what's a good way we can relaunch this, and make it something where we're giving back to the fans that are collectors?” And if they want to go to one place, and able to either buy a vinyl or stream something right then and there on their phone, or buy the whole collection, whatever they want to do for a certain show.

We're going to make it easy for them to do that, and it's turned out really, really cool. People can go onto dreamtheater.net, then to the Lost Not Forgotten tab, and everything we've done so far is there. We have a lot coming out, and it’s gonna be quite the volume of work, but it's like a collector's corner for our fans.

That's awesome. And I really hope like, 10 years down the line, you put one out for Distance Over Time. What an album.

Off the record, that is in the works. And that’ll be our demos, so you'll be seeing that soon.

Sweet. I know we're running out of time, so I've got one more question for you, and I like to ask this to all the musicians that I talk to: What advice do you have to offer to young, up-and-coming bands and artists?

You know, one of the things that really was helpful to me when I was younger wasn't only practicing the guitar, which of course was really essential. But there were a lot of kids in my neighborhood that I grew up with, including John Myung and Kevin Moore, the original Dream Theater keyboard player. We just jammed all the time. Every day after school, you’d wheel your amp to somebody's house and play, or somebody was having a party and you’d play. I would do these crazy long jam sessions with guys that were into the Grateful Dead, and then the next day, I’d be in somebody's bedroom in their house, and we'd be doing Scorpions and Michael Schenker.

It kind of helped me to round out my vocabulary as a player, so I guess what I'm trying to say is that my advice is to try and play with other people as much as you can. Try to put yourself out there in an environment where there are people better than you that you could learn from, or you can just have fun and find different styles that you may like, and at the same time, hone in on your skills and your chops. It was really helpful to me, so don’t just stay in your bedroom and record videos. Get out there, it’s really important.

John, this has been great. Thanks so much for taking the time, and before I forget, congratulations on the Grammy win from earlier this year!

Oh thank you so much, I really appreciate it. That was a big, big moment for Dream Theater, a big moment for me personally, and the band, and I think a big win for prog metal. That's not something that's usually represented too often at the Grammys. And we love coming to Florida, obviously. I’ve been there a million times with Dream Theater, G3 and everything. So this tour coming there is going to be fantastic. Dave LaRue is from that area, even though he was more of an Orlando guy.

We have Meanstreak opening up the show, and they've been incredible. That's an all-female band, and is composed of my wife and Mike Portnoy's wife and John Myung’s wife. They’re just kicking ass and doing great.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length*


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Josh Bradley

Josh Bradley is Creative Loafing Tampa's resident live music freak. He started freelancing with the paper in 2020 at the age of 18, and has since covered, announced, and previewed numerous live shows in Tampa Bay. Check the music section in print and online every week for the latest in local live music.
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