After years of touring the U.S. as a one-band bill, Dream Theater hopes to create an annual touring brand to celebrate the genre it has so long epitomized.
Bassist and co-founder John Myung tells Q104.3 New York's QN'A that the band is happy to share the spotlight and celebrate what progressive music has to offer, with featured support on this run from mad genius Devin Townsend and instru-metal trailblazers Animals as Leaders.
"I'm looking forward to taking all of that in," Myung says of the bill. "It’s a Dream Theater event, but we’ve hosted it as ‘Dreamsonic’ to make it not so much centered on us, but to take out another couple of bands with us, and just to get some really good playing in over the summer."
Really good playing is what Dream Theater has been about since the '80s. As Myung recalls, the first version of the band used to write and rehearse five nights a week for six hours per session.
The band's latest release, Lost Not Forgotten Archives: When Dream And Day Unite Demos, is a retrospective collection of recordings that predate the first Dream Theater album. The collection pulls sharply into focus the band's early conviction and the astonishing level it reached as a unit, long before its first breakthrough.
"All of those archives, all those re-releases, all that does for me is it just puts me back to where I was back then, which is pretty incredible that it can do that," Myung says. "It’s interesting to see the evolution of what we were thinking, what we were doing, what we were using back then, and comparing it to now to see how things have progressed."
Read Myung's full QN'A below.
It's really exciting to see Dream Theater doing another tour in the U.S. with opening acts. I think the last time I saw DT tour with openers was the 'Progressive Nation' tour in 2009 with Opeth.
Yeah, I remember that. That was a fun tour.
We’re gonna be going out with a couple of bands: Devin Townsend and Animals as Leaders, as well. That should be a whole lot of fun. I’m looking forward to taking all of that in. It’s a Dream Theater event, but we’ve hosted it as ‘Dreamsonic’ to make it not so much centered on us, but to take out another couple of bands with us, and just to get some really good playing in over the summer.
I spoke to James LaBrie a few years ago, and he told me he missed bringing out openers and exposing Dream Theater fans to other artists. Did the whole band come around to feeling that way ahead of the ‘Dream Sonic’ idea?
Well, our latest album, A View from the Top of the World, came out in October of 2021. We spent most of 2022 in support of that record. And we actually just finished up in Asia in support of that album. We went all over Asia — Korea, Japan, the Philipines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia. It went really well, it was great to be in that part of the world.
This summer, rather than go back out and having things centered just on Dream Theater, we thought it’d be good to mix things up a bit, to interact with some other bands and to put together an exciting package, which I think we have.
We toured with Devin last year in Europe. He went over really well. We had a really good time.
Dream Theater is known for mixing up its setlist on tour, but Dream Theater normally performs for 2-plus hours. On this tour, do you think you’ll stick to one setlist?
It’ll be pretty consistent every night. As far as changing things up all the time, which is fun to do as well, you have to be prepared for that because everyone has to be on board — it’s not just us playing the songs. There’s a lot of coordination with the other creative operators that are involved with the whole production from the sound and lights and other things in between.
What's your main priority when preparing for a tour like this? Do you ramp up your practice a lot?
I find myself kind of just jumping straight into the songs, then I worry about all the other things, like ramping up my endurance, stamina, conditioning. The whole getting ready for tour aspect, that kind of starts when the tour starts.
For me, it’s just familiarity with the songs. I spend the most of my time just cycling the songs at home, just playing along to the record more or less.
One of the main features of your signature Ernie Ball Music Man 6-String Bass is the narrower fretboard; you've described it as a 6-string bass with a 5-string bass neck. Did that feature resonate with you because of an injury? I know 6-string bass can be hard on the hand, wrist and shoulders.
I did have a lot of issues. Basically, my hands felt like they were about to fall off. I’d be in my bunk on the tour bus traveling on the road and my hands would literally be throbbing. I’m like, 'Something has got to change.'
I would correspond back and forth with Ernie Ball Music Man, and we started working on getting something that was more comfortable for me to play. It’s made all the difference because it all starts with your hands and how you feel. And that translates into how you sound. It was a really big deal for me — it just sounds more comfortable.
You can just tell. Everything is relative. I think this is about as close as you can get to having a six-string bass guitar that’s really, really comfortable to play without it being just a guitar. It’s a bass with really heavy strings. In terms of string-spacing and comfortability and everything else. It’s been a while in the making but it’s dialed in now.
When you were having issues with your hands, did you consider trying to make the set work with a 5-string?
For a while I would have a 5-string out with me, but it was just easier to stick to a 6-string, which had the range I needed for every song.
I had a 5, and I had 4s. Everything has their pros and cons, there’s a little more freedom with the spacing; you can be not as careful with how you fret things. I enjoy going back and forth. But just to keep things kind of streamlined, where I have everything covered, I just stay with the 6 for now.
I’ve noticed that you seem to stick with a bass for as much of the set as possible, as tuning allows, while John Petrucci is more inclined to change guitars every couple of songs.
Yeah. John will go back and forth between a 6-, a 7- and an 8-string. With me, I can cover all those ranges. When he goes into the 8-string track, “Awaken the Master,” I just apply a capo [to the second fret] to kind of get that relative tuning across the strings, which I believe is F#. So I can make it work just by sticking with one, unless I break a string, or feel like I have to switch up the color.
I know you’re really happy with your bass sound these days. Looking back on 30-some years of Dream Theater, is there anything you wish you could re-record?
Wow. I’m sure I could redo everything. But every album came out the way it did because of what went into it. Whatever it is we happened to be using gear-wise. I don’t really feel the need to go back and redo anything, but I am happy with the starting point instrument that I have now. You basically plug it in and it sounds good. If you’re using good gear, it just adds to it.
That’s what I’ve found with bass. It’s got to be right from the minute you plug it in, it shouldn’t really take a lot of work. If it does take a whole lot of work, the starting point isn’t right.
I remember Geezer Butler saying that Black Sabbath's 13 album was the first time he was truly happy with his bass sound. I thought that was a little sad, since he hasn't made another album since.
Right. It’s a work in progress; there’s only so much time you have for experimentation between records. And there’s a practicality side where you just go with what you have.
I really enjoy the evolution and making slight improvements and finding out about new things, things that make me feel better about what I’m doing. I’ve actually been working on an amp with Ashdown, so hopefully that will materialize soon.
Dream Theater’s last release was the Lost, Not Forgotten Archives, which is studio outtakes and demos from the late-‘80s for the real DT sickos. Is it wild for you to listen back to that material after so much time?
I think the thing with music is the thing that it does the most — whether it be something that we’ve done or something that another band has done — it kind of just brings me back to a place and time, as if it was a minute ago. It has that amazing capability to bring you back to that moment where you first heard that or first experienced that — a certain song or album.
All of those archives, all those re-releases, all that does for me is it just puts me back to where I was back then, which is pretty incredible that it can do that.
It’s interesting to see the evolution of what we were thinking, what we were doing, what we were using back then, and comparing it to now to see how things have progressed.
What struck me was how dialed in the band was at that early stage; you were barely out of college but you already sounded like Dream Theater. The band sounds tight and the arrangements are really ambitious — and you were doing it at a time when you couldn't use computers to help you write, arrange and learn parts.
No, it’s true. In the early days, we kept a pretty disciplined schedule. From 6 to midnight, we’d always be playing, Monday – Friday. And songs, we wouldn’t write them overnight … those songs really grew over time.
But once we stepped into the world of having to meet deadlines and tour schedules and things like that, you know, it was pretty obvious that once the computer aspect came in, we were able to do a lot more a lot quicker and experiment with sections a lot quicker. Rather than having to replay something, rather than have to worry about remembering parts, you play it once and then you copy and paste it and you put it wherever you want, which is kind of cool. I really stepped up the came in terms of experimenting with music on that sort of creative level.
Dream Theater seems to always have an eye on its next studio album. Does the band have an album ready or is there a date on the calendar for when you plan to start that process?
We’re gonna be busy with Dream Sonic ... [until] the end of July in Phoenix. Then the idea is to break for a while and eventually start thinking about the next record.
We’ll start it where we started the last one, we’ll all get together and see where we are. It’s always interesting to see where everyone is at and to see where it takes us, anything can happen. It’s one of those moments where you’re in that creative state. You start recording stuff and you start listening back, then you just watch it take shape. I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to the next one.