Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess is one of my all time favorite musicians. In my opinion, he totally changed the face and shape of the “keyboardist” roll in heavy metal music. What at one time was a “behind the curtains” position in heavy metal music, Jordan has brought the keyboard and all his other toys to the forefront to prove to be as important an instrument as any other. I had the extreme pleasure to talk to Jordan backstage before Dream Theater’s Atlanta performance. At the time, his new app GeoSynth had yet to be released and I got to be one of the first to see and play it which was an honor. We also talked about how he got into metal music, his latest and past iPhone/iPad music apps and his respect for Kip Winger. This was without a doubt one of my favorites to date. Hope you enjoy this one!
Jordan, welcome back to Atlanta. It’s really cold out there today so it must feel like home to you huh?
Yeah it really does. I was just thinking that today feels like a cold New York day. It’s cold and windy. It’s nice [laughs].
Jordan, thanks so much for taking the time to meet me. I’d like to start out by saying that we all know that Mike Mangini has been well received and loved by all so I don’t want to dig on that topic. I want to know about you.
Very cool. We can certainly do that [laughs].
So how does a Julliard educated pianist end up playing progressive heavy metal music?
That’s a really good question. I started out picking up the piano by ear which quickly lead to more of a formal background. I went to Julliard and was very serious about it. Everyone thought I was going to be a classical pianist. I was always very into improvising and other stuff as well. My mom would bring me home sheet music from theater so I had my head in a lot of places. Then I discovered rock n’ roll and started listening to Beatles records. When I was 19 I left Julliard and I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do but I got really into electronic music making wild crazy sounds on the synthesizer. I was all about just playing wild electronic music. I started to get into progressive rock bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Genesis. Somewhere along the line I had some friends turn me onto the more metal type of stuff like AC/DC, Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. I didn’t listen to a whole lot of metal but enough that I knew what was going on.
Those bands are almost anti Julliard in a way.
Yeah but I really liked it [laughs]. I thought it had a cool vibe. Even though I was a very straight ahead kind of classical kid, I had to have my rebellion at some point. It didn’t really happen at 16 or 17. It happened at 18 or 19 [laughs]. I discovered Black Sabbath and that helped me to get some angst out.
At what point did Dream Theater come into your life?
I was looking for something really cool to do so that’s how I ended up here.
You were offered the Dream Theater gig once before though and you turned it down. Why didn’t you hop on board the first time?
It was a different time in my life and a different time in Dream Theater’s life as well. They were doing a lot of touring and they looked like they were going to go out on the road for a really long time without any breaks. At the time I had a lot of things going on at home. My wife and I had just had a child and that was a big factor. The other was that I was offered a job playing with the Dixie Dreggs which wasn’t as demanding and still allowed me to balance my life. I also had a job working for Kurzweil (piano company) that had just come together. I felt like if I stayed home I could be with my kid, I could do my thing at Kurzweil and get that income and also enjoy my gig with the Dreggs. It was a hard decision because I liked the Dream Theater thing but it didn’t seem like I should drop everything and just go there. It wasn’t until being asked to do the Liquid Tension (side band featuring John Petrucci, Mike Portnoy and Tony Levin) albums, having fun doing them and having them be successful that Mike and John came to me and asked me again. At that point a lot had changed. I got to know the guys, my kids were a little older and things were just different so it was a better time. It was all about timing.
Getting to work with the Dixie Dreggs must’ve been awesome. That led to you working with Rod Morganstien who is an amazing drummer.
Oh yeah, he’s a great drummer and one of my best friends in the world.
That connection also lead to you working with Kip Winger. He gets a lot of flack but he’s really an awesome musician. How was it working with Kip?
Right. I haven’t done much with Kip as of late but he and I get along really well. At this point he’s a classical composer and he’s amazing. He’s such a talent and he blows my mind. He sang on my “Road Home” album. He did the Gentle Giant song [laughs]. He sang on “Tarkus” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer too [laughs]. Man, anyone who puts him down just doesn’t understand him or doesn’t know just who he is. He’s an amazing musician.
So what does Jordan Rudess listen to to wind down after a long night of loud, heavy music?
I like a lot of mellow music. I think generally I gravitate towards things that are a little bit more calm. I certainly don’t listen to metal really. I listen to things like Porcupine Tree, Blackfield or Pink Floyd. Something calm. I love Sigur Ros. Do you know them?
Yeah, I love Sigur Ros. The Icelandic Pink Floyd!
Yeah. I hear they broke up which I’m pretty sad about. I also like Radiohead, Coldplay. I just like things that are flowing and mellow. I get enough loud music in my life [laughs].
When you’re off the road, do you like to get together with friends and just jam sometimes?
A friend of mine is always telling me, “Man, we’ve gotta play!” and I say, “Man, I’d love to but at the end of the day all I want to do is something really quiet and mellow [laughs]. I don’t want to jump into another intense gig and hear anymore loud noise [laughs].
But you’ve done some really great guest appearances in your spare time.
Yeah, I really enjoyed playing on Steven Wilson’s last album “Grace For Drowning.” When he thinks of me for his solo albums, the first thing he asks me to do is to play my Steinway piano at home and lay down some tracks for him. I love doing that.
As a keyboardist, you’ve always embraced technology and seem to always be on the cusp of the ever changing trends. Some people will argue and say that all this technology can make you a lazy player. Do you feel that it makes for a lazier musician?
Well, a lot of the technology that I use actually has to be played. It’s not like you’re just sitting in front of a computer. I totally believe that there is a new generation of musicians that can make music with their computers. I’m not one of those guys that says, “Oh you’re playing a computer. That’s not really music.” I am absolutely the opposite. Whatever your craft is, if you’re good at it, if you can make what’s going on inside your imagination turn into sound that we can hear, the more power to you. You’re a musician. I think there’s a lot to be said about someone who can express themselves through a physical instrument be it a violin, a guitar or a piano. Certain kinds of things flow on different instruments that there’s really no replacing that. But with technology, I love it because I find that there’s other ways to express yourself like I do with the apps (iPhone and iPad based music apps) now.
Jordan, I love apps. I was pretty skeptical about them but I played a bit with the Hexatone app and it was pretty bad ass.
I actually have a brand new one that’s about to come out. It’s called GeoSynthesizer and it’ll be out in about 10 days. You’ll be the first one on your block to check it out [laughs].
I was just processing guitar sounds. So late last night I was on the phone with a friend of mine to get this together to submit to the store tomorrow. I was thinking, “Shit, I don’t have any guitar sounds” so I called up my friend and said, “I know it’s late at night but can you record a couple of tones for me” [laughs]. Here, give it a try.
Man, what an honor. I got to be the first kid on my block to play this! Man, I sound like I know what I’m doing.
[laughs] And now you’ve got it recorded. It’s probably the fastest playing app out there. You can really feel like you’re doing something in real time.
I really love playing with these apps Jordan. These apps are also a learning tool as they have notes and chords notated out so that the user can actually see what it is that they are playing. Like they know that this is a “C” and this is a “D” and so on.
Exactly. You don’t need to come at this knowing how to already play piano. This could be a new instrument and it should be. It’s another way of thinking and expressing. In many ways I think that it makes things easier. You don’t have to have big skills or strength to press down keys or strings. You can have something like this that you can just play and do all these cool sounds and effects.
I really love your attitude and your desire to aid future up and coming musicians.
I love the idea of using technology to find ways that we can be expressive in new ways and find ways that we can be more expressive. The app Morphwhiz comes out of a lot of the experience I had with other kinds of controllers and I’m really excited about it because it’s this kind of vertical grid that I think is a super expressive way to play an instrument. It’s a new idea. It kind of stems from my use of the Continuum.
What the lesson is here, my real reason for pursuing this whole thing is that through these new technological devices, we’re able to see new ways of being expressive with music. It’s not just getting more technical and away from music. The amazing thing here and the gift here is that you’re actually able to be even more organic through the technology which is what we are looking for.
I find that apps like these are helping to create a whole new breed of musicians. I have never played keyboards because I never had the patience to learn a new instrument but these apps really seem to novice to jump right into it and get excited.
Totally. I don’t have any problem with the idea of giving music to everybody. It’s exactly what you were saying. You can take this and feel like, “Wow, I can make some music with that” and you can get the enjoyment of it. It doesn’t mean you always have to be a professional musician but maybe you will be. At least you can take this and into that music space and get some music out of it. Also, a professional can do things that you can’t do on other instruments as well which is the cool part about it all.
So if I download these apps to play with, can I call you or email you for some pointers?
Yeah. Sure, why not [laughs].
You have become somewhat of a keyboard hero in the same way that guitarists have their guitar heroes like Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page and so on. Who are some of your keyboard heroes?
Oh I definitely have some keyboard heroes. People like Rick Wakemen and Patrick Moraz. Keith Emerson is a big hero of mine. Those are the guys that when I got out of Julliard and classical music I looked towards them. Keith Emerson had so much power playing “Tarkus” and some of the Emerson, Lake & Palmer stuff I had heard. I liked how Rick Wakeman fused some of the classical elements with mini Moogs and that proggy kind of sound. Those ideas meant a lot to me.
Are you starting to hear some of your influence in any up and coming musicians?
Yeah, I do hear it sometimes. People will sometimes send me a YouTube video or CDs so yeah, it’s definitely having an effect.
How does that feel for you as an artist?
Pretty cool actually. It’s trippy [laughs].
Ok Jordan, here’s a curve ball for you. If Hollywood was to make a movie about Jordan Rudess, who would play you?
Oh wow. Well, I hope that Johnny Depp would play me because I like his style [laughs].
I heard that you will be doing a solo performance at The Iridium on November 12th in New York. What can fans expect from a Jordan Rudess solo performance?
That’s a great question. They can expect to hear all sorts of things. I was just thinking today, “What the hell am I going to do on November 12th?” A friend of mine books that venue and he’s been asking me to play there for a while. I’ll just be getting off the road so I haven’t thought about exactly what I’m going to do. I’ll definitely have my Kronos (keyboard) there and an acoustic piano. Maybe I’ll play some progressive rock melodies and maybe even something from “Notes on a Dream” and maybe a bit of my classical piece “Explorations” as well. I’m still figuring it out. I’m not going to go out there playing the heavy rock stuff [laughs]. It’s going to be a nice, pianoy kind of evening with lots of other sounds and some cool visuals. You should come to the show [laughs].
Sure. Can I crash at your place?
[laughs] Absolutely. [laughs]
Jordan, thanks so much for taking the time out to do this evening. I really had a blast taking with you.
That’s very nice of you. Thanks. I had a good time as well. I look forward to checking out your website.
The Brainfart & Jordan Rudess