John Petrucci of Dream Theater

by Greg Prato

On lyrics, their latest live album, and writing a Dream Theater song with Desmond Child.

Although John Petrucci is thought of first and foremost as the guitarist (and co-founder) of Dream Theater, there are several other titles you can link to his name: lyricist, solo artist, teacher, and... the head of his own beard-grooming product line!

Ever since the band formed in 1985, Petrucci has been an integral member, and in the process, has received countless accolades for his technically demanding guitar playing – including being named the #1 "Top 10 Greatest Guitar Shredders of All Time" by GuitarOne magazine, and coming in at #2 in Joel McIver's 2009 book, The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists (in case you were wondering... only behind Megadeth's Dave Mustaine).

Petrucci spoke with us to discuss those four aforementioned topics, talk about the band's latest live album, and break down some of the most intriguing lyrics he wrote on Dream Theater songs.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Dream Theater has issued their ninth live album, Distant Memories: Live in London.

John Petrucci: We always knew on that tour we would record for a live album, because it was such a successful tour. The show and the production was really something that we were proud of, and we wanted to make sure we captured it on DVD. Really, the recording of the two nights in London [February 21 and 22, 2020] could not have gone better. The audiences were great, the venue is classic and iconic. And it was at the end of a European run.

The band and the crew and the production... everything was firing on all cylinders, and polished. The only thing that was a bummer was that was the last couple of shows we played before the whole pandemic hit, and we haven't played live since. Man, am I glad we got those shows in, and that they went so well.

Songfacts: How do you approach songwriting for Dream Theater compared to a solo album?

Petrucci: Dream Theater is collaborative, in that for the most part, we are all in the room together and we are jamming and we are bouncing ideas off one another and working riffs out together. It's very collective and interactive and collaborative. There's vocals and things that we are writing with that in mind in the arrangement. In the case of my solo material, it's just guitar instrumental, and I'm just writing it by myself exclusively. Both my solo albums [2005's Suspended Animation and 2020's Terminal Velocity] are trio format – there are no vocals, no keyboards, no other instruments. The guitar really takes on a larger role in taking all the melodies, all of the solos, all of the rhythms, and not having to think about parts that might be vocal sections, because there aren't any, and it's all coming straight from where my brain takes it, without any sort of checks or balances, for better or for worse. It's just in a different headspace.

Songfacts: Does writing lyrics come easy to you?

Petrucci: It's something I've always been really into and interested in: creative writing, storytelling, stuff like that. I love lyric writing. It's another creative process. It takes time, it's crafting. Hopefully it's something you get better at as you go.

It's an equally important side to the band: the lyrical content and message. It's really important to know your vocalist and think about word crafting and stuff like that. It's something that I love to do and I take a lot of pride in.

Sometimes, it might be a little difficult getting started. Probably the biggest hurdle is making sure you have a topic that you feel passionate about, that you want to write about. And then usually, from there, it's more of the craft. That's kind of like using the same headspace as music.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite lyricists?

Petrucci: For me, it was the bands I was influenced by – Neil Peart of Rush is my favorite, Roger Waters. Those come to mind, for sure.

Songfacts: Which song that you wrote the lyrics to are you most proud of?

Petrucci: The Astonishing, the latest concept album that Dream Theater did – our 13th album. I wrote a story first, and then wrote lyrics to go with the score of the story based on all these different characters. It was based on a mythology and a lore that I had made up, and having it coming from different perspectives of different characters. It was a huge undertaking, a lot of music, and a lot of lyrics. That's something I am extremely proud of. It was such a labor of love and such a big project.

Songfacts: You once wrote a song with Desmond Child.

Petrucci: On Falling Into Infinity, we had written a song ["You Not Me"], and there was an opportunity to work with Desmond on the lyrics. Looking back, I think I had the lyrics and we developed them together from there. It was a fun experience. It was something I never did before. We had always kept everything internal to the band – we never had outside writers or anything like that - but it was an opportunity to do something different.

I went down to his place. He was great, and we spent some time in the studio and reworked the lyrics to be in a better place, coming from his expertise and his influence. I never really have done anything like that again. It was a one-time thing, but it was a cool experience.

Songfacts: Is there anyone that you would like to collaborate with?

Petrucci: Nothing that comes to mind. There are so many talented writers and musicians out there.

In Dream Theater, there are so many creative minds in the band, so that's not something we have the desire to do, or feel like we have the need to do. That's not something that has come up in all these years.

Songfacts: Let's discuss the lyrical inspiration behind several Dream Theater songs, starting with "A Fortune In Lies."

Petrucci: My circle of friends was friends with this guy, and he got caught in a very elaborate scheme of stealing things. That's something that we found out about this person that we didn't know was happening under all of our noses. It was definitely a song about deception.

Songfacts: "Another Day."

Petrucci: "Another Day" I wrote when my father was battling cancer. It was a song expressing that feeling – he was way too young when he got sick, he died too young.

That's not the only song I wrote about that topic and him ["Take Away My Pain" from Falling Into Infinity was another], but that was just expressing, "Don't go yet. There's more life ahead of you, hopefully." It's a son wanting his dad to stick around longer.

Songfacts: "Metropolis - Part I: 'The Miracle And The Sleeper.'"

Petrucci: That's a weird one, because that one is very arbitrary in the lyrical content. A very long time ago, I was watching some sort of TV show – a documentary or something – I don't even really remember what the topic was, but it spawned this Miracle and Sleeper character, and I just took it from there. It's fictional and kind of abstract. I guess that's the best way of describing it.

Songfacts: "Under A Glass Moon."

Petrucci: That song I wrote while I was listening to the song, trying to think of lyrical content. I went out in my car, sat in my car at night during a rainstorm, and I just got all this imagery. There was a full moon out, it was raining. I just came up with the title and started writing from there.

Songfacts: "The Killing Hand."

Petrucci: Another fictional story. That's very sci-fi. I don't remember the exact details I wrote, but it was something about somebody coming back from the future and killing somebody.

From the very beginning, I was really into writing fiction and coming up with stories. The kind of music that Dream Theater does – prog – is just the perfect backdrop for that because it can have long song forms with all sorts of eclectic arrangements, and it really lends itself to storytelling. So that was another fictional story I wrote.

Songfacts: "Innocence Faded."

Petrucci: I don't remember what or who was the exact inspiration, but basically the title sums it up. It's about going through life and certain things happening that chip away at the innocence you had when you were younger.

Songfacts: Before, you talked about a lyric coming to you while in your car during a rainstorm.

Petrucci: Sometimes a lyrical concept will hit me outside of playing music, or maybe I'll see something or read something or think of something that will click, and I'll say, "This is something I'd like to write about." I always try to take notes and jot an idea down or a title, potentially, and then start from there.

And the music can definitely influence what I'm going to write about. You don't want the lyrical content to be detached from what the music is saying.

Songfacts: Back in the early '90s, you gave guitar lessons on Long Island, New York, and I was one of your students in the summer of 1991. How did teaching affect or improve your own playing?

Petrucci: Because I was teaching, I was constantly playing and reviewing and learning new things to teach. My chops and my knowledge was really at a high point because I was in that mode. So, having all these different students and having them impart knowledge and being on top of things really kept me in good shape. A lot of the players were really good and we formed friendships, and I learned things from them as players. So, it was a really fun period of time for me.

Songfacts: Lastly, you recently announced your own beard-grooming product – John Petrucci's Nebula Beard Oil.

Petrucci: I worked with a company called Captain Fawcett out of the UK. They're an amazing men's grooming-product company. We partnered to make Nebula, which is a beard oil, beard balm, and moustache wax – for those of us gentlemen that have whiskers! It's an awesome product.

It's so cool for me, because I'm into the whole culture and the hobby, and to connect with a company that makes such a great product, and do something outside of music was a really unique experience. It's something that happened organically. If you are "bearded," check it out – you'll love it.

December 17, 2020

For more John, visit johnpetrucci.com, and for more Dream Theater, visit dreamtheater.net.

Further reading:
James LaBrie of Dream Theater
Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater
Neil Peart - Yielding To Inspiration
Joe Satriani
Steve Vai

photos: Mark Maryanovich (1), Rayon Richards (2)

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