John Myung: Balancing Act

John Myung discusses his writing and musical evolution on Dream Theater's latest album, Distance Over Time

John Myung: Balancing Act

John Myung discusses his writing and musical evolution on Dream Theater's latest album, Distance Over Time

“With all of these songs, there’s definitely balance, in terms of concise ideas, without going off on tangents too much,” explains Dream Theater’s John Myung. “I think it’s a new balance that we’ve found, in terms of creating a record that’s commercially viable, but doesn’t sacrifice anything creatively. Everything is more concise and to the point, which is cool, because it allows us to get to different types of ideas on our record. The result is a really diverse album that breathes. It’s cool that we were able to go in that direction.”

Myung is referencing the material on Dream Theater’s latest opus, Distance Over Time, released earlier this year and once again produced by DT guitarist John Petrucci. Recorded at Yonderbarn Studio in Monticello, New York, it’s the band’s 14th studio album — and it’s one of their most fine-tuned to date, featuring a more “back-to-basics” approach than their previous efforts, particularly the 34-song, hour-and-a-half concept album The Astonishing [2016, Roadrunner]. Distance Over Time finds DT challenging the notion of what it means to be, perhaps, the preeminent progressive-metal band on the planet. New tunes like “Untethered Angel,” “Barstool Warrior,” and “S2N” are a testament to songcraft, with their more condensed and “concise” formulas. These otherworldly prog-metal tunes still feature signature musical virtuosity on the parts of Myung, Petrucci, and their cohorts, drummer Mike Mangini and keyboardist Jordan Rudess, but the vocal melodies are intoxicatingly catchy, even commercial. James LaBrie’s vocal hooks are easily memorable, and the songs themselves are surprisingly short. Clocking in at just under an hour, Distance Over Time is only DT’s third album not to feature any song longer than ten minutes.

Myung has been with DT since its 1985 inception, when he, Petrucci, and original drummer Mike Portnoy were students at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Originally called Majesty, they would cycle through a singer or two before releasing their 1989 debut under the Dream Theater moniker, When Dream and Day Unite. Although he played 4-string on the debut and a Spector NS-2 4-string on the sophomore release Images and Words [1991, ATCO], John would thereafter become synonymous with 6-string basses, using them on all subsequent albums and tours. He mostly employs a three-finger right-hand technique and often peppers his bass lines with tasteful tapping passages and colorful melodic and harmonic interplay. His tapping solo on “Metropolis—Part I: The Miracle and the Sleeper” (Images and Words) put him on the map as a virtuosic pioneer in the bass community.

On Distance Over Time, Myung continues to explore the creative bounds of his instrument. His intro motif on “S2N” is a jacked-up musical nod to Steve Harris and Iron Maiden (think “Innocent Exile” on steroids), while his nuanced fretless approach on “Out of Reach” reveals deeply connected and accurately intonated melodic sensibilities. And, of course, there’s the shredding. Unison passages between guitar, bass, drums, and keys on tunes like “Untethered Angel” will boggle the mind and send most of us straight back to the woodshed.

“This album just tells me that the best is yet to come,” attests Myung. “It’s time to do the best stuff that we’ve ever done. So, we’re in a very good place right now. Everyone is so psyched about playing.” We talked to Myung while he was at home on Long Island, preparing for the Distance Over Time Tour, which kicked off on March 20 at the Balboa Theatre in San Diego, California. As always, he was thoughtful and considerate when discussing his approach to the making of Distance Over Time.

Your tone on Distance Over Time keeps evolving and getting better. Every time I don’t think it can get any better, it gets better.

Thank you. There are so many things involved when it comes to getting a really happening sound. I have to give Jimmy T, our engineer, a lot of credit. On this one, he was the main engineer, so I just kept an open mind to what Jimmy thought would work especially well as a DI source, and he recommended using some of Rupert Neve’s mic preamps. We wound up using something called the 5024 Quad Mic Pre for the main DI signal, and that worked out fantastic.

Did you mic any amps, or was it mainly just the DI?

A lot of elements were brought in. I brought in the Ashdown bass amp. The last time we used that was on Train of Thought [2003, Elektra], and there was something about that amp and the power that it had. Listening to that record, I wanted to bring back that vibe. We miked a 4×10 [Ashdown] cabinet. I’m actually bringing an Ashdown rig with me on tour, so that we can create that tone live, as best we can.

Did you come up with a bass sound that you used on the whole record, or did you modify it from song to song?

We did some experimentation, but apart from the fretless that we used on “Out of Reach,” I pretty much did the whole record with just two basses, and they were configured the same. They were both double-hum [humbucker] configuration. There’s just something about the double-hum combination that feels right when I’m playing — the attack, the top-end and the lows … just everything seems right.

What about pickup selection?

There are four settings that I can get. But it was pretty much one consistent tone throughout the whole album. The biggest factor that added or subtracted to the tone was either the pickup selector or whatever altered tuning I was in.

What altered tunings did you employ?

There are basically four tunings. One option was everything tuned a half-step up, and another was everything normal [standard tuning]. Then there’s everything tuned a half-step lower, and then, last, a whole-step lower. The bonus track, “Viper King,” was tuned down a whole-step, so that took a lot of tension out of the strings, which presented its own interesting dynamic, in terms of getting the tone to sound right.

“Viper King” has more of an industrial metal feel and sound.

It’s just really low. It’s amazing how much everything changes based on how much tension you’re working with. This was the first record where I really had a strong appreciation for doing stuff in altered tunings. The color translates so differently when the tuning is altered.

What do you mean by color?

On “Untethered Angel,” everything was tuned up a half-step, and I think that had a lot to do with the vibe of that song and the direction that it took. So, there’s definitely something to be said for altered tuning. It’s another level of useful creativity, if you have time to explore it.

“Untethered Angel” is particularly melodic and catchy. I wonder if tuning up a half-step has something to do with the tune’s melodic timbre.

That’s exactly what I was talking about — it’s complementary. The melodies are kind of pulling everybody in. I also think it’s is one of James’ best vocal performances ever.

Dream Theater

On “Untethered Angel,” there’s a unison riff, but afterward you’re landing only on specific notes, rather than playing the full riff. How do you make that kind of discovery, where you’re accenting certain notes to create a counterpoint?

That particular part is reminiscent of the type of riffing you’d hear on an Al DiMeola record. It starts out with everyone in unison. When the bass part becomes simpler, it’s just acting as the glue to keep everything together. Basically, that’s a matter of zooming into the fast riff that John is playing and seeing what note is actually passing at [any given] point in time, and kind of pedaling on that, or accessing that note so it makes sense in context. It’s not just going for it and hoping it works. I mean, there are times when that’s cool, but this is really worked out, where we magnify the notes and extract the music from within the riff.

So, you’re reverse-engineering the riff and finding the exact notes you want to land on with Petrucci?

Exactly. It’s a way to explore the creativity of an idea. If the idea is kind of electrifying and fast, “Okay, well, what do we do with this?” One of the best things to do is figure out a pulse that you want to work with, and then translate that passage through the pulse, and slow things down, getting the key notes that are happening, based on the time that’s going on underneath the riff. You’re just pulling out key hints and notes within the energy of the initial riff, and then it starts taking shape — it starts speaking to everybody in the room, and everyone starts to vibe on what’s going on. Then we have a general sense of where it should go. Other things start falling in, and we’ll record, and listen back, and then comment, and change things around if necessary.

Immediate feedback is one of the great things about working with other people.

That kind of live spontaneity has a lot of freedom, and there’s a creative flow to it, too. It’s such a natural way to write, and that’s what’s cool about being in a band and writing with people. It’s a lot easier than trying to do all of that by yourself — it’s like you can’t. Everyone has their instrument, has their role. Everything is happening in real time, so that’s cool.

The record sounds very much like you guys are playing together. Even if you did overdub stuff, there’s a palpable energy that feels live.

That’s what we were going for. We were going for that oneness and capturing that live energy, where everything is just working. We were in a beautiful barn, and we had a little demo workstation to record everyone quickly. As ideas were flowing, we were recording with this little workstation, where everyone had one or two channels going up to it. We were capturing the vibes and the room mics were capturing the energy in the room. That’s how it went down. It was a very cool thing, for us to be in this live, spirited environment. Plus, the barn had big windows — there was light. It didn’t feel like we were inside. It was farmhouse and a farm, and we just lived on site. It was great.

“Paralyzed” is a cool track. What’s the story with that tune?

That was the second song we wrote. There are actually two versions; the second version made the record. It was a riff that Mike brought in, very powerful and aggressive, with a Rage Against The Machine kind of energy. We wrote it in a day or two. Then, after sitting with it for a while, over the weekend when we came back, John thought differently about it and suggested that we revisit it, but with a different approach. It had more to do with the intro and how it starts.

It is a really heavy, almost “pick-oriented”-sounding riff, if that makes sense.

The riff sits kind of foreign for me, in the way the notes open up and it being a half-step down. It was definitely something that taught me a different way of finding riffs and musicality on the bass. However, the basic theme of this record sits very well on a guitar and electric bass. It feels really natural, and I think when that happens, it carries a power that’s really important to have.

“S2N” starts out with an amazing bass intro. Is that something that you brought to the band?

That was the last song we wrote, but it was the first riff that we worked on. It took a while for it to settle in. We started developing it, and then we took a week break before we reconvened. When we came back, we hadn’t demoed it — it wasn’t recorded — so we lost what we had, and we just kind of moved on. We came back to it a few other times, but it would always just spark another song. So, in a way, it was a riff that we’d work on, but it would spark something else, that took on a life of its own — that wasn’t really related to that riff. I think it sparked four other songs!

So, how did you eventually circle back around to it?

We still had a bonus track to cut. So, we revisited the riff again, and John suggested, “Why doesn’t the song just start with the bass riff?” I didn’t really hear it going that way, but he was like, “It could be really cool, like Iron Maiden’s ‘Wrathchild’” [Killers, 1981, EMI], where the bass riff starts the song. So, I played it, and we started developing it. Then it turned into the song that it is now.

How are you playing that intro? Is it a tapping thing?

No, I’m just playing it like a bass. The interesting thing is that it was the last song I recorded. I noticed, as we were working with on it, how the tone was changing. By the end of the song, at the end of the session, I wasn’t happy with the sound anymore. It turned out the batteries in the bass were going, and so I put new 9-volts into the bass, and it all came back to life again.

On “Pale Blue Dot,” there’s an effect at about four minutes or so that sounds like it’s coming from the bass.

No. Anything that would sound like that in that song would be coming from the keyboard. That’s another Mike Mangini idea; it’s very powerful. The concept for that song was to do something more reminiscent of what we’re known to do, in terms of just instrumental playing. The concept was to revisit the kind of playing we did on Images and Words — to go on that sort of instrumental tangent.

Did you use your Moog Taurus pedals anywhere on the record?

No. I wanted to, but it didn’t seem like we needed it because there wasn’t anything that lent itself to using it in the studio. When we go into pre-production [for the tour], I might break it out and see if I can work it in for actual live shows. In terms of what I needed, and what was happening in the studio, I had it ready, but the way everything flowed, I didn’t find any creative need for it.

Are you using effects anywhere else on the record? Or is it pretty much just the Music Man through the Ashdown and Neve?

I don’t know if you can hear it much, but at the very ending of “Pale Blue Dot,” it turns very spaciously melodic, and I’m holding long, sustained root notes. There is a distortion pedal on that. We were experimenting with all these different types of distortion on it. I’m not sure exactly what distortion patch was ultimately used, but that’s the only point on the record where I wound up using any sort of effect. So, the record, in terms of my sound, is just bass. There wasn’t much need for any effects or any sort of processing. It was just one of those records.

What was it about “Out of Reach” that made you grab the fretless?

It’s a very ballad-oriented song that lends itself to that sort of vibe. It’s a very open song, and there’s something about a fretless that sits well, because it’s so smooth sounding, based on the inflections and the emotion that you can kind of get out of it. The song has a very new-age kind of feel, which I thought lent itself well to fretless bass.

Is the fretless a Music Man Bongo, as well?

It’s a custom fretless they made for me years back. I think it was made during the Dramatic Turn of Events album [2011, Roadrunner], so I’ve had it for a while. I haven’t used it a lot. But when I do get to apply it to songs, I definitely love it.

When I pick up a fretless, because I don’t play it all the time, I find it requires a different approach. It makes me think about a song differently and how I’m approaching it.

It definitely has its own soul. It’s different from a fretted because of the type of sliding you can do and how each note is shaped. With the fretless it’s more about the shaping of a sound, because you don’t have the frets doing that for you, and you get more emotion, more soul, out of it. I definitely have a strong appreciation for it. I wish I could use it more — maybe I will. When I do use it, it’s for mellower, ballad-oriented songs and poppy, new-age kinds of things.

“Barstool Warrior” has some amazing references to both Yes and Jethro Tull, and you play a cool countermelody, along with Jordan, in the middle of the tune. My ear was drawn to it because of the interplay between the bass and the piano.

Yeah, that track came out very cool. We grew up listening to bands like Marillion, Yes, and Genesis. The Genesis influence comes more from Jordan. When it gets to the breakdown, that was actually a suggestion made by John. He thought it would be cool to do a bass melody. I wanted to come up with something that was not necessarily busy, but something that filled the moment, that just flowed into another part. Then it goes to the whole next level — the U.K. influence, with the syncopation that’s going on. Then the next part goes into something that reminded me of the Who, but that’s kind of abstract.

The songs still feature the same adventurousness and instrumental musicality DT is renowned for, but they’re more concise. You just get on with it.

We changed it up. We did something different. We wound up getting a diverse album of ten songs that you can listen to within an hour. It’s got that balance of creativity and also commercial appeal with the strong melodies. It has just the right balance for us, you know?


Dream Theater, Distance Over Time [2019, Inside/Out]


Basses Custom Ernie Ball Music Man Bongo HH & HS 6-strings (Signature Model prototypes with 5-string spacing)

Strings Ernie Ball Long Scale Slinky (.032–.130)

Rig Ashdown ABM-1200 head, AB-600 head, ABM-410H cabinet

Effects Ernie Ball MVP volume pedal, Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II XL, Fractal Audio MFC-101 foot controller, Little Labs Voice Of God Bass Resonance Tool, Mesa Boogie Grid Slammer overdrive, Moog Taurus 3 pedals, MXR Bass Compressor M87, MXR Bass Octave Deluxe M288, MXR Bass Chorus Deluxe M83, TC Electronic Hall Of Fame 2 reverb, TC Electronic Flashback 2 delay/looper, TC Electronic Vortex flanger, Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2

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