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Interview: Dream Theater Keyboard Maestro Jordan Rudess

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His most ardent fans have dubbed him “The Wizard,” and not just for that white Dumbledore goatee he has sported recently. All Harry Potter and Hogwarts allusions aside, keyboard maestro Jordan Rudess was acknowledged as a musical prodigy at a very early age. By his ninth birthday, he was enrolled at the illustrious Juilliard School of Music for classical piano training. At 19, Rudess broadened his horizons of mastery to include the so-called Brave New World of keyboard synthesizers. And by the time most kids are thinking about graduating from college, he was rocking out his “wizdom” on recordings, and in live performance.

After performing in various projects during the 80s, Rudess earned worldwide acclaim after the release of his solo project, Listen. It led to a "Best New Talent" nod in the 1994 Keyboard Magazine readers' poll – which led to the attention of two progressive rock juggernauts, Dixie Dregs and Dream Theater. Both acts invited Rudess to join them; with a young family, he decided on the Dregs (led by guitarist Steve Morse) and remained a part-time member of that band for several years while he honed his rock chops and concentrated on being a dad. He also collaborated with Rod Morgenstein (of Winger) in the Rudess/Morgenstein Project during that time.

Several years later, Rudess received another invitation to join Dream Theater with the departure of their keyboard player Derek Sherinian. He has been their full-time keyboard sorcerer ever since – offering virtuosity on the quintet’s recordings Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999), Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (2002), Train of Thought (2003), Octavarium (2005), and last year’s tour de force, Systematic Chaos.

Rudess has also been a part of the band’s three most recent live efforts, Live Scenes From New York, Live at Budokan and Score, the latter celebrating the band’s 20th Anniversary live at Radio City Music Hall with the backing of a full orchestra.

Rudess is also a key component to the Dream Theater offshoot project, Liquid Tension Experiment, featuring his Dream Theater bandmates Mike Portnoy (drums) and John Petrucci (guitars), as well as bass guitar legend Tony Levin – best known for his Funk Fingers and work with King Crimson, Peter Gabriel and the Yes “splinter group” Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe.

Rudess is, by all accounts, rock’s premier keyboardist – easily this generation’s Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), Tony Banks (Genesis), and both Rick Wakeman and Patrick Moraz (Yes) all rolled into one. To wit, “The Wizard” has been influenced by all of those keyboard virtuosos (and their respective prog rock acts) and by everything from Gentle Giant to Aphex Twin.

On his latest solo release, The Road Home (Magna Carta), Rudess delivers a slate of songs that helped forge his formative years as a rock musician. He revisits and revives prog-rock classics by Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, ELP and others with a host of special guests that include Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree), Bumblefoot (Guns N’ Roses), and members of Spock's Beard, Ozric Tentacles, and Winger. 

In a rare break in the action, Blogcritics caught up with Rudess gearing up for Dream Theater’s current “Progressive Nation 2008” summer tour and supporting the band's Greatest Hit package. The recording artist, composer, producer and performer talked about a whole host of things with Cleveland-based author/journalist, Peter Chakerian. Their conversation covered a lot of ground and went a little something like this:

Before we get started, I wanted to ask you about something I read about you online in the Dream Theater FAQ through Wikipedia. When you were approached to join Dream Theater the first time, you instead picked the Dixie Dregs because of scheduling interfering with having a young family. True? If so, I have to say I really admire that.

Jordan Rudess: That was one of the biggest reasons for sure. I had a newborn in those days and really wanted to concentrate on spending time my family. But there were other factors as well. I also had a great position with Kurzweil that I was enjoying and I had musical things on my own going on as well. Those were all big factors in my decision to not do Dream Theater at that point. Being in a new group – and not being totally clear about the way things would go with them, even though I liked them all – the other path seemed a better option for me at the time.

I have to say, your new solo effort is really smashing. Very well done. How did you go about picking the playlist for your CD, The Road Home.

That’s great, thanks! There are a lot of songs from that era that were amazing and certainly a lot that affected me. I went with the ones that were at the very top of my personal list for being influential. Aside from being great songs, each one has a little bit of a story to it, for the reasons why I selected it. With [ELP’s] “Tarkus,” that was a real turning point for me. It was the first time I heard keyboards in that context with such power. Keyboards can be so big and strong sounding opened up some doors for me in my brain and helped frame how I could bring what I was doing compositionally into that world a little bit.

I love that song “Sound Chaser.” It was during a great time in Yes’ career, having Patrick Moraz in there – some fresh blood in the group – to try different things. Moraz was a huge influence on me in the style of pitch bending. That’s something that Rick Wakemen and Tony Kaye never did. Moraz had a real flair with that kind of approach. And there’s “Dance on a Volcano,” my all time favorite Genesis song, which left a huge impression on me in compositional terms.

I love how Tony Banks approached triads and dropped them over different roots or the same root. “Squonk” is like that for me, too. The Road Home really speaks to the harmonic doors and inspirations. Rhythmically and in the special melodies, this was a really fun album for me. All of these [songs] I love to listen to. It’s never boring for me… but you listen to them and sometimes it sounds a little old. I found myself wishing things were tighter and cleaner, so refreshing those songs and bringing it all up a bit was a lot of fun.

I remember having the same feeling with The Road Home that I had with the Liquid Tension Experiment projects you’re a part of. It’s pretty intense.

I’m glad. It was a very intense process, in terms of the energy and time that goes into these kinds of projects. With something like The Road Home, there really was a lot of thought and work that went into how I would approach things – especially the guests – even before I got into the studio. That manes it really exciting for me.

Talk about all of the collaboration and coordinating that huge list of special guests you have on The Road Home.

It was a combination of people I know; people I didn’t know who were recommended to me and people that I wanted to work with. All of them had some really good ideas on how to best contribute. A lot of phone calls and emails went into coordinating and getting things together; each person had a different story and a different schedule going on. When you collaborate with other musicians that you don’t normally work with, you never know how things will turn out.

I was very fortunate because, as a sign of our times, a lot of them are very capable in the studio and are amazing engineers who are great with technology. Kip Winger, Neal Morse, Steven Wilson… all of these guys are capable of doing amazing home recording in their own studios and you don’t necessarily need to schedule them for face time in a studio and then pay someone else to capture the proceedings in the room. A lot of them cut their own parts and then send along those parts as electronic files on an FTP [file transfer protocol] site.

When you work that way, with musicians working in different formats, it helped to have my longtime engineer John Guth there to help with synchronization issues and analyzing formats, MIDI [multi-instrument digital interface] protocols… with uploading on FTP sites, uploading files and connecting over the Internet on Skype, it’s just amazing how records can be made now.

Let’s talk about your influences a bit. Anyone who is familiar with your work can pick out a lot of them – Yes, Gentle Giant, ELP – and in that sense you really are a product of your influences, and yet, there’s some greater connectivity there. What continues to impress me about your playing – is your ability to meld technical performance with melodicism and emotive quality. It reminded me of [the tagline from the movie] Metropolis: “There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”

You know, it’s funny. I grew up playing and studying classical music. I always had a good ear and natural sense about improvisation and that improved when my mom would bring home popular and Broadway song sheet music with guitar chords. My interest in harmonies helped me improvise and eventually led me to having an interest in progressive [rock]. I spent time focusing on harmonies, [Tony] Banks’ triads, [Keith] Emerson’s suspended chords… but my approach would never be to learn an exact Xerox copy of a particular piece. Even though I love “Tarkus,” I never learned that or rehearsed that song in an effort to copy it.

I had a much bigger desire to go in and actually make my own music out of those chords by trying to locate every suspended chord and inversion and cycling my hands through all the different positions. That’s something I recommend for all young musicians. If you listen to “Tarkus” and you like it, it’s made up of fourths and suspended chords – try to make up your own piece with it. Explore the natural instinct for putting ideas together. For some people, there is a challenge to be original; for me, when I sit down and write something, that’s just not a problem. Making a soup of all things in my head is a good thing (laughs).

How much influence has your tenure with Dream Theater had on your solo work and how you’ve chosen to undertake it?

Certainly there has been a lot of influence. It’s hard for there not to be when you happen to be in a band with some of the best musicians on the planet! And John [Petrucci] and Mike [Portnoy] have been big musical forces outside of the group with Liquid Tension Experiment as well. All five of us working together in Dream Theater has had a great influence on me – I’ve learned a lot from interacting with these guys – and the way I think about developing sounds and tones to support the other instruments. Being in this band has helped me in developing library of sounds focusing on timbral qualities. We also play a lot of old metal stuff together, which has been great in broadening my rock education (laughs). There’s a lot of stuff to learn when you’re hanging out with talented professionals. You use every bit of that knowledge in your recipe… put it all into the soup.

Let’s do a lightning round. What have you taken away from working these people and how has it informed your playing… Rod Morgenstein

He’s as steady as a rock on the drums. An incredible musician. Whenever I play leads, I think about Rod because he always demands the most melodic special lead and special bend for a situation. He’s very tuned in.

…Liquid Tension Experiment…

That’s been an interesting project. It was very free, with Mike and John really wanting to have someone else come in and just completely add their elements to the mix. A little bit of that energy was like Dream Theater is now, but different and open in environment because Dream Theater was established.

…David Bowie…

That was an interesting gig for me, different from just about anything else. I anticipated my role [for Heathen] to serve as a producer and artist in any way they needed… and I came in thinking I would get to do some Jordanesque stuff with the sounds and stuff, which was exciting. I came out of it with a different lesson, and I suppose a lesson on life in general. I went in and set up stack of Kurzweils and machines to use, and made suggestions that we should use these vintage sounds [to emulate] a Fender Rhodes or Hammond [organ]. And I was pointed in the direction of a real Fender Rhodes and Hammond, and asked to play those. Things happened differently from how I envisioned and I figured out pretty quickly that my role there was to make their vision turn into reality… which is ultimately the role of any studio musician (laughs).

…Steve Morse…

When I think about working with Steve Morse, I think about all the fun we used to have trading leads. He’s one of my all time favorite guitarists. Steve taught me that when someone else is laying a down a lead, you need to chill out a bit and play a supportive role. Maybe even turn it down a little bit. Steve is a good band leader, very musically sensible. No bullshit. I remember our first couple rehearsals together and his point was to do your best to support the lead and the melody. He was totally cool. It was a lesson learned – something I hadn’t heard before – because in those days, I wanted to blow my best riffs all the time. Steve brought me back to cool sort of musical reality. He’s in my head when I’m playing with Dream Theater and in any other situation. I keep that experience in mind and always try to be really supportive. Hold things down.

No offense to Richard Barbieri, but when I saw a YouTube video of you and Steven Wilson doing [the Porcupine Tree song] “Lazarus,” it blew me wide open. What’s Wilson like to work with?

I did limited work with him on that Blackfield tour he went on… I know him pretty well; he’s a good friend of mine. He’s a real natural musician, with amazing taste in music, and he has figured out a lot of things on his own. He’s a great engineer, has a voice of musicality and judgment when it comes to just about anything. Steven is very particular about what works and what doesn’t and there’s little doubt of that. It’s pretty obvious he’s spewing good taste when you listen to Porcupine Tree, because it all feels so right (laughs).

…and what about Dream Theater…?

For me, it’s a mixture of being my creative self – that original self – and also partly that studio mentality in trying to do what is right for situation. The original part comes into play because John and Mike really wanted me in the group because I am an original musician with keyboard skills who is capable of writing and fresh ideas. No shortage of those there! (laughs) A lot of it is in little details… in creating those vintage sounds, pulling things back so things sound really tight and not cluttered… and a lot of orchestrational things as well.

For someone like me, there is always a temptation to overdue, particularly coming from classical solo background, where I want to be able to play. Learning where the energy needs to be placed, and knowing those exact moments when it’s time to come forward, that’s been key to being in Dream Theater. It’s brought on a natural maturity for me and made me a better musician. Those challenges add a level of excitement for me, to be always pressing the edge. It’s a good thing.

Who would you love to work with in your career that you have yet to?

That would have been an easier question to answer many years ago, when I had more heroes. Peter Gabriel. And Steve Vai. He would be fun.

Who are you listening to now that impresses you?

I’m a big fan of Super Furry Animals, Radiohead. I also like a lot of electronic music artists, like Markoff, Autechre and Boards of Canada. I still really like to listen to music and a lot of different kinds as well. Everything from Art Tatum to Coldplay and younger progressive bands like Porcupine Tree. And I like a lot of the newer metal kinds of things.

You are so engaged as a musician, a perpetual creative machine… I would imagine it is hard to let down. What do you do, outside of family, to rejuvenate yourself?

That’s a really good question (laughs). Usually, I’m into walking and getting outdoor exercise, which helps a lot. Lately, I’ve been so busy that I haven’t done much of that. When I’m more relaxed and in good spirit, the creativity is pretty natural to me and I don’t necessarily need to regenerate. Left to my own accord, I tend to just work a lot.

So, Dream Theater is doing the Progressive Nation tour this summer… and it got me to thinking what a cool annual event it could become. The thought of it becoming an annual event is pretty exciting; making it a huge, three-day festival as an expanded Bonaroo or Langaredo-type thing sounds cool, too.  Having all your influences and [bands like] Tool, the Mars Volta, Explosions in the Sky, Porcupine Tree, Marillion, Coheed and Cambria, System of a Down, VAST, the Flower Kings… all on one stage… could you put in a request? (laughs)

Um, OK! Sure! (laughs) We’d like to see [the tour] become something we do every year. It’s a great idea and there’s a lot of interest out there.

You’ve certainly earned your nickname “The Wizard” in more ways than one during your career. What’s next, aside from the Progressive Nation tour? Have any other big plans?

I always do. For one thing, learning new technology is on my plate – feeling the need to learn new tools and investing time learn new programs – because I think technology influences people’s music and that can be a very positive thing. I think that’s what being progressive is about, learning the new, modern and forward-moving things.

I’m also doing a lot of programming things for the upcoming Liquid Tension Experiment 10th Anniversary shows coming up. That keyboard I used on the project 10 years ago I don’t have anymore. Dream Theater will get started on another album and hopefully I’ll get a little break in the summer to create some music for the next solo outing or project.

Jordan Rudess: The Road Home (Magna Carta)

1. “Dance on a Volcano”
2. “Sound Chaser”
3. “Just the Same”
4. “JR Piano Medley”
    (“Soon,” “Supper’s Ready,” “I Talk to the Wind,” “And You and I”)
5. “Piece of the Pi”
6. “Tarkus”
 
Upcoming dates on Dream Theater's Progressive Nation 2008
Featuring Dream Theater, Opeth, Between The Buried And Me and 3

May 17 Cleveland, OH @ Time Warner Cable Amphitheater @ Tower City
May 18 Albany, NY @ The Armory
May 20 Boston, MA @ Orpheum Theater
May 21-22 New York City, NY @ Terminal 5
May 26 Washington, DC @ DAR Constitution Hall
May 27 Richmond, VA @ The National
May 28 Atlanta, GA @ Tabernacle
May 30 Miami, FL @ The Fillmore
May 31 Orlando, FL @ Hard Rock
June 1 Tampa, FL @ Ruth Eckerd Hall
June 4 San Juan, PR @ Coliseo Puerto Rico

The Liquid Tension Experiment 10th Anniversary Tour

June 21 Bethlehem, PA @ NEARfest
June 23 New York City, NY @ BB King’s (two shows)
June 25 Chicago, IL @ Park West
June 27 Downey CA @ Downey Theater
June 28 San Francisco, CA @ Bay Area Rock Fest

Online

Jordan Rudess: http://www.jordanrudess.com

Magna Carta Records: http://www.magnacarta.net

Dream Theater: http://www.dreamtheater.net

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About Peter Chakerian

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    This is really, really long Peter. But it is also very, very good stuff. I really enjoyed reading all about the different people Rudess has played with (especially Steven Wilson as I’m a huge P. Tree fan), and about his influences (loved learning about his favorite Genesis songs by Tony Banks).

    You might wanna consider breaking this into two, or three parts next time as not everybody is the progressive music fan I am, and might not have the where-with-all to stick it with it.

    But personally I loved this as I expect most other Dream Theater/progressive rock fans will as well. Great stuff.

    -Glen

  • http://www.joyrides4shutins.typepad.com Peter

    Thanks for the compliment, Glen. Rudess is a great interview… and I had thought about breaking the piece in half, but couldn’t seem to find a place I felt comfortable doing so. In the end, a monthly magazine-length feature piece comes along once in a great while for me. I had to leave it intact. Anyway, thanks for checking it out; I appreciate the feedback.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Yeah!! Excellent Interview!!

    It’s about time the man (Mr. Rudess) gets some credit here on BC. He definitely adds dimension to D.T. unfortunately their new album was disappointing(to me).

    As for the Progressive Nation Tour, if it was to get huge, I would rather see some more underground prog bands instead of including SOAD or Coheed… They have such a great line-up right now and I wouldn’t want to cheapen it any just to make it huge. Maybe add a couple more bands like Aghora,Cynic & Spock’s Beard. Adding SP to have another giant that can sell tickets & because they are wicked good.