Interview: Dream Theater Keyboardist Jordan Rudess
Thursday, November 14th, 2013 at 11:30 am
Keyboard player. App developer. Wizard. Jordan Rudess is all of these things. The phenomenal talent behind those sumptuous Dream Theater keyboard tones is a continuously busy man.
Not only is he a member of the progressive metal colossus Dream Theater, who released its twelfth studio album this year, Rudess has been working with King Crimson bass player Tony Levin and drummer and guitarist Marco Minnemann in creating the inspiring Levin Minnemann Rudess album – an instrumental rock masterpiece put together by three incredible musicians.
Away from music he is an innovator, creating new ways of teaching and training musicians in the world of apps. More on that further down.
Geeks of Doom: This isn’t the first time you’ve worked with Tony [Levin] …
Jordan Rudess: Right; Tony and I have done two Liquid Tension Experiment albums together in the past.
Geeks of Doom: And I guess that was a good experience because you wanted to work with him again?
Jordan Rudess: It was a great experience. I really enjoy working with Tony, I find him to be just a great musician. One of the things I like is that not only does he have a very good ear – so he hears very accurately; we can work on that level – but also Tony operates in the world of notation. When we were together with Liquid Tension Experiment I could write something out in musical notation and it would mean something to him, which is not all that common in the world of rock music where you have someone who is trained. So for me working with another trained musician is always wonderful.
Geeks of Doom: Was that the same with Marco [Minnemann]? I know he’s a very proficient musician.
Jordan Rudess: Oh yeah, Marco’s amazing. I almost forgot, in the space of time I wasn’t working with him, just what he does. Not only is he an amazing drummer, but he is also a composer, he plays the guitar, he’s all over a lot of stuff! He’s super talented. That’s why I took this gig really because, you know, I’m quite busy with Dream Theater and all the stuff, but I felt like, Hey I get to work with Tony Levin and Marco Minneman, couple of my favorite musicians on planet Earth, so I gotta do this, ha ha!
Geeks of Doom: Absolutely! How did it come together? Did they set it up initially and then came to you?
Jordan Rudess: Yeah, I guess it was Scott Schorr and Tony. Tony’s worked with Scott a bunch on different albums of his and Tony wanted to work with Marco, that was the first thing he thought of, and then Marco was into it and they started to work on different riffs. They were sending things back and forth between them, next thing you know Marco was composing some stuff and they had this whole little thing going on, the two guys. But they realized that they needed someone to complete this to make it into a possible album because it was really mostly drums and bass with some guitar as well on certain Marco tunes. So I got a letter. Basically they were reaching out to me to see if I would be interested and I found it really, really cool, so I said yes!
Geeks of Doom: How did the writing go? Did you already have ideas that would fit in?
Jordan Rudess: My writing came later because they had the blueprint if you will for all these tracks, but some of the blueprints were very much a sketch. One thing I got was only drums! I mean, it was an interesting challenge. Scott basically said to me it would be great if you would compose something over Marco’s drum track and some things were just a bassline and kind of a groove. There was a good amount of writing on my part even after I got the stuff from those guys. They definitely, for many of the tunes, needed to have music written on top of it to make it into a tune. Now, that said, there were some songs that Marco wrote that were more fleshed-out that I still did a lot of work on. But they were a little bit more structured and they had some harmony ideas moving through and rhythmic things were determined so it ended up, actually the whole album, honestly ended up a whole lot more work than I thought. Plus, I think there was a certain kind of album that Scott was used to making I guess with Tony which was more the musician lays down different parts and grooves and he, as the producer, can move things around and make them work. So when he presented it to me, he was like, Jordan get the tracks, just jam some ideas that you want, just get inspired maybe lay down a lead, a piano part, a couple chords or whatever, I’ll move it around make it work! But when I got it I thought, man, especially with the stuff Marco laid on me, I was like; this is real stuff! These are compositions, I need to really apply myself I can’t really put the Jordan Rudess seal of approval on this stuff and just jam it out and send it out the door, this album’s going to be taken very seriously! I mean, I got a reputation here, man, haha!
So I had to be really on this to do it right so that’s what I did, I ended up spending a solid month at least, if you think about in terms of time going in everyday maybe more, six weeks, literally everyday going in and hitting it. Some of the stuff was more like a puzzle because the guys would lay down some bass things … Tony’s just banging away on one tonal center; I could make it sound like Genesis, I could make it sound like Zappa, I could make it sound like Mozart, I don’t know what! It all felt like it was fair game and there was a lot of decisions to make “˜cause, ok, they’re grooving out on something but it’s just the bass and drums and I’m like which direction, of all the directions that I have at my disposal, do I want to choose? So that was part of the challenge. It was also part of the fun because the album, in my opinion, ended up being really cool and having anything from, you know, like Zappa-type-idea trippy space music to progressive rock touches to a metal vibe. It’s got this cool, large blend and what was actually really cool about what they sent me was that even in their tracks alone the music had a lot of variety. The ideas have a lot of variety so one thing would be more slow and dirge-y, another thing would be more groove-oriented. Some of Marco’s tunes were more like prog fusion just in what they offered me as a seed. The album turned out to be much broader and really greater than the idea that was presented to me initially. Scott, I’m sure he wanted this to be easy for me so it could get done quickly and happen, so I understand as he presented it because he does work like that, he does a good job working like that.
Geeks of Doom: So did Scott become like the fourth member?
Jordan Rudess: Well he didn’t have to do as much of that kind of moving things around and producing as he maybe thought that he would originally, or has had to do on other albums. I think a lot of this album was more helping to bring it out to the public and guide and organize and be a producer on that level rather than shuffling audio snippets around. He did a little bit of that on some of the stuff, but I think that he ended up feeling like I was sending him stuff that was so laid out and planned and I was moving around my own audio snippets, ha ha! I felt like no one’s gonna move around my shit, ha ha! But [on] some of the tunes it was appropriate to do that and he definitely did some of his magic as well so he was wonderful. I have to hand it to him that he was able to quickly understand where this particular group was at and take the right attitude and do the right thing to help it all move forward and to get it going and to give everybody space and respect and help to produce and make this album happen. So even though it might not be exactly what he was thinking when he first presented it to me, it worked out that he was very effective in producing this album. It wasn’t necessarily all the producing that he thought he was going to do, it was maybe a different kind of thing.
Geeks of Doom: You mentioned a moment ago that you’re all very serious musicians, but in the video for “Scrod“ it’s the opposite of that; you’re all having a great time being silly! Was that an important thing to get across?
Jordan Rudess: We all liked the idea. Scott put forth that whole idea for “Scrod,” I think it came from him, and we liked it. I think all of us responded to the idea of being a little more light-hearted [on] all the media surrounding the album because we are serious musicians but we also like to have fun and I find to add a little bit of humor to the serious side of what we do is always great. I was talking the other day to someone about Dream Theater and saying that within a Dream Theater song I like to find humor, I like to be able to take a motif, I like to turn it around, and maybe do a honky tonk thing with it or I like to just do something that makes you smile a little bit. I think that’s a really cool way to go. So the idea of using humor like with “Scrod” I thought was really cool because here you are, these super-serious guys doing this crazy thing with fish! I think it worked. It was a little frightening I guess in a way first of all when Scott said to me, we want to do it because obviously scrod is a kind of fish, but when he first said that to me I was like, where am I going to get fish videos from?! How am I going to do anything with fish?! The funny thing is that I remembered my wife is a theatre producer so I remembered like a month or two back that I saw some kind of a big fish a prop that looked like a real fish come through the house with all her other props. So I’m sitting there meditating on this idea [of using] fish and then the light bulb went off! I said, Wait a minute, my wife has a fish somewhere!
Geeks of Doom: And it looks great in the video! Also away from music you create apps and inspire new ways of teaching music…
Jordan Rudess: Yeah, totally, that’s a whole other side of what I do. I have an app company called Wizdom Music. My most recent app that we released is called Ear Wizard that is an ear training app for any musician that wants to be able to hear better. All musicians always want to have a better ear so they can play with other people better and just hear better; that’s what this is for. I wanted to start making apps that were actually related to my educational side. I have an online conservatory also on the web, I’ve had it for years; jroc.us, so I have that but I wanted to bring it into the app world since my company makes apps. So this first offering, Ear Wizard, is a free app for iPhone and iPad and it’s kind of like the old classic game Simon: it offers you the ability to listen to chords and then play them back but you can hear a sequence of chords and it keeps getting larger and larger so you’re forced to hear them and remember where they are and remember the progression. So it’s kind of a fun take on the classic Simon game in a Jordan Wizardy kind of way, if you will, ha ha!
I got into it all because when I discovered the iPhone and the multi-touch surface, I was very inspired by what one could potentially do to express music on this surface and I’d been playing with a very simple piano app, it was like a beta or something years ago, and I thought, Wow there’s some real possibilities here! So when the app world started to emerge and people started to make apps, I kept my eye very much on it. I’m not a coder myself but I started to introduce myself to programmers who I thought could relate to my vision about it and I met this guy named Kevin Chatier and together we made my most successful app which is called MorphWiz which is a way of playing on the surface but expressing each note on a vertical grid. So you could think of it almost like a violin where you press a note down then you can move your finger on that note and you can change the tone and the volume of the note while your finger is connected with the note. Unlike a piano or something where you press the note and the sound just goes and you’re not controlling it. In this way it’s more like an instrument, like a wind instrument or a bowed instrument.
One of my big things is to be able to incorporate the world of visuals. To me the largest concept of a playing experience for a musician is when you can put your finger on the sound and have continuous control over the sound but you also have visual feedback. That can be informative but also entertaining if you want to present it to the screen. What a great concept that you could actually have visuals coming out of your performance that are meaningful to the performer and give you information about what is going on, but also can translate as an entertainment value to the audience. So MorphWiz was my way of kind of putting that out there.
Geeks of Doom: Obviously your apps and the almost countless amount of albums you’ve been involved in over the years means you seem to be always working – is that a work ethic that’s been ingrained into you, or do you have a problem with sitting still?!
Jordan Rudess: What it comes down to [is] I’m so passionate about what I do, I live and breathe for these things, for playing music obviously, but also for working in this creative space. As long as I’m awake I can’t think of anything more that I want to do. That’s like top of my list that I want to do when my eyes are open during the day and my brain is somewhat turned on: I want to be playing with the surface and thinking of ideas and talking to my friends who are helping develop these cool things. What else am I going to do?! I mean obviously pay some attention to my family, put food on the table, and try to make a few dollars and whatever, but I love my work and my work is my hobby, too. It’s not like I’m going fishing, ha ha!