Dream Theater Author Rich Wilson: The Gibson Interview
Dream Theater changed the face of progressive rock, bringing it to a new generation of fans and raising the bar pretty darn high for future proggers. Originally released in 2007, author Rich Wilson's book Lifting Shadows: The Authorized Biography of Dream Theater went behind the scenes with the band to uncover their history and inner workings. This rock-library must-have has been revised to cover the departure of founding drummer Mike Portnoy, the subsequent welcoming of Mike Mangini into the fold and the band's successful touring on the back of the album A Dramatic Turn Of Events. With the revised edition due in September, Gibson.com reached out to Wilson for a chat about the book, the band and his opinion on their self-titled twelfth album, which is also due in September.
Unlike some bands who seem to collapse when a key member leaves, Dream Theater seem to have gone on to have a second life. What effect do you think Mike Mangini has had on the band musically and personally?
That's something that has happened throughout their history. They managed to replace original singer Charlie Dominici, as well of course as keyboard player Kevin Moore, with Mike Portnoy also being replaced by the very able Mike Mangini. I think that the band has an inbuilt determination to write music and progress which centers around guitarist John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess, so even though Portnoy felt that it was time for a break, they were convinced that they needed to push on. In terms of replacing Portnoy, that was never going to be easy, but in Mike Mangini, they have recruited someone who could technically match Portnoy. Mangini has also been fully involved in the writing of Dream Theater's new album and, with his talent, it doesn't come as any surprise that he's stepped up to the plate, helping them to deliver another solid album. There are many fans who still believe that Dream Theater will never truly be the same without Portnoy's enthusiasm, drive and personality, but from the band's perspective, they seemed to have personality clashes with Portnoy, and they'll claim that Mangini's easy going nature has helped them move on. Even after you've spoken to a band dozens of times, you never really get to know the truth as to exactly what went on and how things are now - though these things do have a habit of coming out in the end.
What's something you were surprised to learn about Dream Theater during the process of writing the book?
As you'll know yourself from interviewing bands, there are quite a lot of egos out there and some characters who are in the main pretty unpleasant. The striking thing about Dream Theater was really the fact that not only are they obviously superb musicians, but they are genuinely great people. They were all extremely gracious in terms of interview time and access, though because of his overwhelming enthusiasm, I worked very closely with Mike Portnoy for the original edition of the book. I think that without his encouragement from the first day that I suggested writing the book, it wouldn't really wouldn't exist. He also had a massive list of contacts, all of whom were able to give me their perspective on the band's history, as well as persuading some people close to the band to speak to me. But all of the band member have interesting personalities and were very open to things that other bands wouldn't even think about doing. I remember once being with them in the studio when they were recording the Octavarium album. For a band to be so open and friendly, despite being in the middle of recording an orchestra, showed what a decent lot they are.
How do you actually go about writing a book like this? It must be a huge amount of work.
If you were to sit down and think about the amount of work, you'd never start writing a biography! The trick for me was to break their history down into chunks of time, and then slot all the mounds of research and interviews into each slot. Psychologically, that made it much less daunting as it would be easy to be overfaced. You can then try and work out what was really going on with the band and write the text accordingly. The killer in terms of writing the book was the time it took to transcribe all the interviews, but once everything was in place, actually writing the book was the easy part.
What are your personal favorite Dream Theater songs?
I was lucky enough to get into the band from their first album after hearing their demo played on a radio show here in the UK, back in 1989. So I do have a love for the likes of "Only A Matter Of Time" from their debut. I don't think that you can go far wrong with their Scenes From A Memory album, or the title track from Octavarium. I know a lot of fans were turned off by the straight-ahead metal of the Train Of Thought record, but to me it was fresh and something that needed to do to avoid becoming predictable. From recent releases, I do love "The Count Of Tuscany" and "This Is The Life" from their last album. I think their hardest challenge from here is to avoid becoming predictable, and I do worry that they might end up like Rush - releasing a new album every so often that nobody really cares about and then doing a greatest hits tour. I think that's something they'll need to be wary of.
Have you heard the new self-titled album yet? What are your impressions?
Yes, it's a solid album. I've only had it a few days and I've not had a real chance to really fully appreciate it. I am impressed with "The Looking Glass", which reminds me of their very early days, and "Along For The Ride". The rest of it will really have to have time to sink in, as it's typically epic and complex Dream Theater. It's funny though, as no matter how good the album is, I know there will be intense debate in their fan community about every nuance. So I can predict that there will be questions over the mix in terms of the vocals, as well as whether they used "triggered" drum sounds. But I do still think it's a step up from their last album. I just hope that next time around, they might do something a bit different - another concept album would be good!
All of the guys from Dream Theater have been involved in side projects. Which of these do you see as having a particular impact on Dream Theater? e.g.: obviously Liquid Tension Experiment had a very quantifiable effect on the band's future. Which other ones would you rank as major turning points that fed into the band's next projects?
I think you nailed it there, as Liquid Tension was such a catalyst for them bringing Jordan Rudess into the band. Apart from that, I don't think that their side-projects really fed into their thinking. Mostly, it was a way of the individual members doing something different away from the Dream Theater "machine". So Mike had his overtly old-school prog with Transatlantic playing music that DT would never consider, Jordan as a classically trained pianist has ventured into that sound, and James has developed a Nordic metal approach for his Mullmuzzler and solo records. John Petrucci's records are few and far between, but tend to be instrumental and fall into the same field as, say, Joe Satriani. Bassist John Myung's interests have been in the Jelly Jam project, which again is music that's well outside the realm of Dream Theater.
Lifting Shadows can be ordered from liftingshadows.com