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Dream Theater Keyboardist Jordan Rudess Talks ‘The Astonishing,’ Plays ‘Happy Birthday’ for Fan

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Dream Theater‘s new album, The Astonishing, is a sprawling, epic opus set in the year 2285, where the United States has devolved into a dystopia called the “Great Northern Empire of the Americas.” Along with prog-magic storytelling and mythical reverie, the beefy, adventurous two-hour musical journey features all that Dream Theater fans have come to love in the form of wildly innovative musical proficiency.

At the recent NAMM convention in Anaheim, Calif., Loudwire had a chance to sit down with Dream Theater keyboard wizard Jordan Rudess to discuss the project. During our interview, a fan stopped by and mentioned it was his birthday. Rudess promptly treated the gentleman to a highly unique version of “Happy Birthday” as played on his new app, GeoShred. Check out video of that impromptu encounter above, and read our interview with Jordan Rudess below.

Jordan, why a concept album like The Astonishing at this stage in the band’s career?

Ever since we did Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory, which was my first album with the band back in 1999, we’ve wanted to do another concept album. I mean, we are a prog metal band so concept albums or something that are right in our wheelhouse (laughs). It was really just a matter of timing. After Mike Mangini came into the band for Mike Portnoy about six years ago, it wasn’t quite the right time for it. Before going too crazy we wanted to focus on a few really solid albums just to get settled in as a band again. Once that was out of the way, it really opened up the door to something like this.

How did the story for The Astonishing come about?

John Petrucci started working on the story about 2 1/2 years ago. He said, and I totally agree with them, that if we were to do another concept [album] that it had to be really detailed and a full and complete story, not just something loose. We’ve grown so much as a band that approaching something like this at this point, you just really want to do something it is special and complete. Something deep and lasting.

And I think the story that he wrote definitely delivers. You can tell because it lends itself to all of these other outlets we’re already getting interest from. Video games, film, maybe even a musical. When you have a story that is this deep, it’s really easy to extend across other platforms.

Talk about your role in the initial creation of the album.

At the end of the last world tour, John came to me and told me about the story he was putting together and when he described it to me it really struck a chord. I got excited and then he and I started talking about music in a whole different way. We were coming at this truly as composers; two people interested in doing more than just a conventional album. When you are writing music for a story, you just approach the process differently. Everything has to connect properly and there has to be a continuous thread.

When we got back from tour, like everybody else always is at the end of a tour like that, I was exhausted. But something interesting happens to me sometimes when I’m in that foggy state. It actually becomes a very sort of creative space for me because I’m in this haze, I’m trying to forget a lot of things around me and so I wind up in this place where, creatively, I feel very loose and aware. And so I just let loose. It was so basic. I would just sit down at the piano, still delirious from all the travel, click the voice memo function on my iPhone and just start playing. I captured so many melodies and little bits of things like this and it was amazingly productive.

And the process from there?

John and I got into a real dedicated program of getting together every day, going over our ideas in the morning, analyzing the story, and then working through the music during the day and night. Very intensive and collaborative. We also decided we wanted real strings and orchestration on the record so we hired a brilliant man named David Campbell who has worked on more than 450 gold and platinum records. The musicians he conducted were in Prague, David was in Los Angeles and John and I were monitoring and giving direction from New York so technology really played a part in the creation. It was incredible.

You added your own personal technology to the album with a new app, too, GeoShred.

I did! GeoShred is what I like to think of as the very first “iPad instrument.” I was very excited to be able to use it on the recording. It’s an app that is all based on a physical model of the guitar, that lets you truly shred.

You have a history of designing apps like this that let anyone partake in wild musical expression on their iPhones and tablets.

I’m always thinking of ways for people to express themselves on multi-touch surfaces. This is just the next example of that. I want to give people apps which enable them to enjoy the musical space they are in whether they are a professional or not. For me it’s about using the technology as an effective musical instrument and I’m very happy with the part that GeoShred plays on the new album.

What’s The Astonishing live show going to be like?

We’ve never done anything like this before; making a decision early on to do the whole album live, end to end, as a complete show. But it just works so well as a complete story and it lends itself to so many interesting production details so we decided to give fans this mind blowing, cohesive performance. That’s also why we’re playing beautiful, historic theaters as opposed to sports halls. We want great sound and ambiance. We’ve hired a renowned firm called Lucion Media and what they have come up with so far to bring this thing to life is pretty special. We know a lot of eyes will be on us for that first show in London and we want to deliver something unlike anything we have ever done before.

Our thanks to Jordan Rudess for the interview. Pick up Dream Theater’s ‘The Astonishing’ album at iTunes, and catch them on tour at these locations. In addition, Rudess’ GeoShred app is available here.

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