After recording their debut album, When Dream and Day Unite, Dream Theater was faced with a variety of dilemmas. The record didn’t sell especially well, the group broke with its label and fired lead vocalist Charlie Dominici.
For a period of roughly two years, the band (drummer Mike Portnoy, bassist John Myung, guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Kevin Moore) set about writing the material that would become the collective’s breakthrough, 1992’s Images and Words.
The album would sell more than half a million copies in the United States alone, carry the group to Japan and Europe and land them on commercial radio via the song “Pull Me Under.”
Though Dream Theater has undergone its share of changes in subsequent years: Moore left the fold in 1994 and has been twice replaced, first with Derek Sherinian and, in 1999, Julliard-trained Jordan Rudess, who remains. Portnoy shocked fans when he announced that he was leaving in 2010, but fans have been quick to embrace his replacement, Mike Mangini.
Myung, who founded the group with Portnoy and Petrucci at Berklee College of Music in Boston, recently discussed the moments leading up to Images and Words and the decision to revisit that music on the quintet’s current tour.
Jedd Beaudoin: Dream Theater formed at Berklee College of Music in the 1980s. What was the musical landscape like during that time?
John Myung: That was ’85-86. We were really connected with the prog rock bands that really had their moment in the 1970s, bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, then we got onto heavier bands like Iron Maiden and Rush. Yes was also a big influence on us. It kind of sustained our interest throughout the early part of our life. Then, me and John Petrucci went to Berklee College of Music and that’s where we connected with [drummer] Mike Portnoy.
That moment you’re describing in the 1980s where some of the classic progressive bands [including] Genesis, Yes, others, were really doing stuff that was really kind of unrecognizable to what they had been. They’d become more pop bands in some cases. And Dream Theater’s one of those bands that comes along and has progressive elements but has a little bit of a harder edge. Did you have a sense that you were onto something different at the time?
I don’t think you're really understanding what you’re doing at the time. Real life happens all at once. You kind of get to reflect afterwards and say, ‘Oh, that’s what happened.’ As for us, it was just what musicians do: You take things from the past, things that you’ve been inspired by, you take that and flow it from the past into the present. Hopefully, it becomes impactful and interesting. Then that provides the future for the band. That’s sort of the cycle that we’ve been living ever since we first started. It’s just taking influences, assembling them our way and kind of making them present because we’re present. Eventually, that becomes the pipeline of future music and then younger musicians connect with us and it just becomes this ongoing cycle.
You released the first Dream Theater album, When Dream and Day Unite in 1989. That record had some promise to it. I remembering it coming onto the scene and it was this exciting sound because there really weren’t many bands doing what you were all doing. But the record didn’t necessarily find a huge audience at that time. Was that a little bit of a disappointment?
I think it was kind of good that it did what it did because it kind of forced us to go back to doing what we were doing, which was just really maintaining a disciplined schedule and writing and growing as a band. That’s just the reality of the situation. Sometimes you’ll release something and the timing won’t be there. But with Images and Words everything kind of fell into place, so those are two extremes: Releasing something and nothing happening and then going back to the drawing board and releasing something where everything aligns.
It was just a period where it just felt like we could do no wrong everything was just falling into place perfectly and when ‘Pull Me Under’ broke at radio, it powered the album to gold status in the U.S. Then it had a ripple effect throughout the world. We were having gold and platinum records in many other countries outside the U.S.A. It’s been incredible. We’ve just been busy ever since then, recording albums, connecting with the people that found out about us through the initial ‘Pull Me Under’ track at radio. For the past 25 years, we’ve just been maintaining that relationship by consistently putting out albums and touring.
Before you went in to make images and words, there was a shift in the vocal department. You brought in James LaBrie, who has been vocalist ever since. What made him the right choice for the voice of Dream Theater?
It was just this common bond we had with him. He walked into the room and as soon as he started singing it was obvious that he was the guy. He had a really incredible power with his voice. He was very present. He made you feel very alive, he added so much to the music. We were really fortunate to cross paths.
It’s been documented that the recording of Images and Words was marked by tension between the record company over what the album would be like. There was talk of it being intended as a double album. What was it like to, on one hand, be in the studio and creating this music that you believed in and, on the other, to have tension with the label?
I think that’s a situation where you allow people to do what’s best for you. To let go of the reigns. I think that’s healthy. I think it got to the point where they were just looking after our best interests. They didn’t want to overburden people with too much music at once. It was more ideal to record an album that was under an hour, where you had that sense of satisfaction, driving to work or wherever it was, where you got to hear something from the beginning to the end.
It worked out. We got to record the additional material, which later became an EP. It gets to the point where you kind of have to let go. It was obvious that there was nothing to complain about. We were signed to a major record company and we were in a major studio recording an album. That was more than enough to keep us going at that point.
You mentioned earlier the track ‘Pull Me Under’ which became a major force on the radio in 1992. Do you a recollection of that track coming together? Did you have a sense that it was something special?
I just remember sitting on the steps of BearTracks Studios and listening to John overdubbing and working on his guitar tracks with [producer] David Prater. With that particular track it’s funny … not even hearing the full song but just hearing guitars and how they were being recorded … hindsight is 20/20 but there was something going on with that track that made me think that it had a really undeniable quality to it. I couldn’t think of anything stopping it. It just really agreed with me. I thought, ‘How could anybody not like this? It’s really, really good.’ I had that sort of premonition.
People often say that in 1991 Nirvana hits and heavy music goes away but you are certainly an exception to that in that landscape. What was the morale like in the band during that time?
It was just an amazing period in our career. It’s a great feeling when something like that happens. It’s been a journey ever since.
But you are right. There were a lot of different things happening. The climate was grunge and so many other things happening as well. But that’s the nature of music. It’s never still. What you think is popular today may not be popular tomorrow. It’s just this constant flow of energy from the past, appearing in the present and moving to the future and it’s all different types of musicians that play into that and that’s what makes music so vast. It’s such as a vast space.
At what point did it become a discussion to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the album?
Toward the end of our last tour, which was in support of The Astonishing album. It just felt like the right thing to do, to go back to that period when things were so strong in the band to kind of realign with that period, the older catalog, the older song, to reconnect. It’s healthy. It also gives the younger fans that didn’t get to see us play [the older material] the chance to see the album in its entirety. We have this incredible fan base where it’s young school children to older adults. It’s a way of reconnecting with our younger audience that wasn’t around when Images and Words came out. It’s just a really great thing. It feels great to be doing this.
It seems to me that you have a fan base that will follow the band through pretty much anything. You’ve undergone lineup changes and shifts in style and there are people who have stuck with you through all of it. That has to be an incredible feeling.
It’s an amazing feeling. We don’t take it for granted. It’s not like that for everybody. It’s actually pretty incredible that we’ve come this far and that we’re [still] growing. We just got back from a five-week tour in Asia. That was incredibly awesome. It great to go to many of these countries for the first time like India and Dubai and connect with the fans there.
A lot of bands do experience what we experience but it’s only for a day. But, for us, it’s been an ongoing thing. So we’re very thankful to our fans and feel really fortunate to be in the situation that we are.
We talked about the commercial success around Images and Words and it seems to me that Dream Theater never became a band that went chasing further commercial success. It was not a priority. Are you happy with that decision that you didn’t try to create formulaic things that you knew or thought you knew would land on radio?
I think it’s just the way we think as a band. With Images and Words it was great to have a really successful album but then we were able to let that go and do what we were doing rather than just chasing images and words. But, then we said, ‘Tomorrow’s another day and let’s think about doing new things.’ It’s just the way that we’ve approached every album.
I would think that there has to be a certain amount of shared goals and shared vision in that, which isn’t always easy to do and certainly isn’t easy to do over more than 25 years. What, in your estimation, has kept the band going all this time?
I think it’s the loyalty that we have to each other, a certain trust and bond. There’s always outside influences that will [express] opinions. I think our instinct as a band is understanding how we got here and to keep doing what got us to this place rather than abandoning it, rather than abandoning our roots and who we were as people. Once that happens then you become susceptible to a lot of things that could be detrimental to the band. So, I think it’s just the trust and faith that we have in each other.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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