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John Myung: “Eventually the sun will prevent the earth from making water and all the water here will evaporate. If the human race wants to carry on, it is going to be essential that we find a way to get off this planet and live a more nomadic life in space, something like Star Trek.”

De progressieve metal giganten van Dream Theater hebben zich tijdens de uitbraak van covid-19 opgesloten in DTHQ, het nieuwe hoofdkwartier van de Amerikaanse band en een combinatie van oefenruimte, opnamestudio en creatieve plek. Het resultaat is een weelderig vijftiende album ‘A View From The Top Of The World’ waarop veel te beleven valt. Wij praatten deze keer met de introvert overkomende bassist John Myung die echter zeer vriendelijk is, al komt hij pas helemaal los als hij het over zijn nieuwe aanwinsten qua materiaal heeft. En dan was ons half uurtje vlug voorbij…
Vera Matthijssens Ι 25 oktober 2021

I remember you were on tour for ‘Distance Over Time’ and suddenly the pandemic was there in Spring 2020. How bad this pandemic did struck Dream Theater actually?
Fortunately for us we were ending the tour right before the pandemic struck. We were doing a DVD in London and after the filming we flew back home. We had been on a European tour at that point. We were in Italy that last week of the tour. When we got home, all of this broke out, insanity all over the world. So fortunately for us it did not happen in the middle of a tour. We could complete our European tour and after that we were ready for a break and writing another record at that time. So in that respect it did not struck our normal cycle. Going to the fall we had collected ideas and started writing the new album ‘A View From The Top Of The World’. Fortunately for us it did not require much travelling. We have our own studio now. We set everything up and we just started writing.

It is positive that you could be isolated within the circle of musicians and friends…
Exactly, it was a strange time, but I think things are slowly getting back to normal, at least they are trying to, which is good to see. It is like a bad story that came in and we just cannot wait to delete it.

I remember for the former album you gathered together on a kind of farm and lived together. So I guess it was the same thing for the new one, but in your own studio. Is that right?
For ‘Distance Over Time’ we were in a barn, which was converted into a studio. It was a really special place. It had been reconstructed, so it was in very good condition and it was one of the most favourite settings that we had been in a long time. Our place isn’t a barn (although I prefer the barn), but it was cool. We got everything wired up and everything sounded really good. When we started writing, the first track we wrote was ‘The Alien’. That came together pretty quickly and I think that really pretty much set the pace and the sound for the whole album.

Indeed, there is a firm amount of heaviness in the album. I like that!
Yes, we like it too. It is the metal side of us, this is the hard rock side of us. It depends on what song we are talking about of course, but the heaviness in the guitars definitely speaks that language, especially the 8-string guitar on ‘Awaken The Master’. That is probably one of the heaviest riffs on the album. It is very heavy and that was the debut of John’s 8-string guitar, that is his signature model. It sounds amazing. That was actually the last track we wrote for this record. We started with ‘The Alien’. The sequence of the album is different, but this is the writing flow of the album, the way the songs evolved in the studio. The first track was ‘The Alien’, the second track was ‘Sleeping Giant’, the third track was ‘Transcending Time’, the fourth track was ‘Answering The Call’, the fifth track was ‘A View From The Top Of The World’, the sixth was ‘Invisible Monster’ and the last one was ‘Awaken The Master’. So that was the writing flow of the album, but it is not necessary the sequence. The sequence is a little bit different.

‘The Alien’ should be inspired by an interview with Elon Musk. Can you tell a bit more about that?
Here James would have a lot more to say, because he wrote the lyrics, but what he is talking about is about space exploration in the future of mankind. High technology is going to be very important in that sense and I relate to that, because astronomers are always watching and observing our solar system. I read one article, where like billions of years from now, the sun is just going to get hotter and hotter. Going into the future, the sun is going to get hotter, it is not going to maintain its current temperature and it is going to the point – the human race will disappear long before this happens – with the increase of the sun’s temperature. Eventually the sun will prevent the earth from making water and all the water here will evaporate. If the human race wants to carry on, it is going to be essential that we find a way to get off this planet and live a more nomadic life in space, something like Star Trek. Go to different parts of the galaxy will be necessary. It is a cool track.

That is a very fascinating theme. In a way space is hostile to us, on the other hand that’s where life started… it is a double feeling…
Right. We are all connected. Life comes from a big explosion that happened, the Big Bang theory. In a more philosophical sense, life brings meaning to everything, so in a way the universe… some will ask: what is the meaning of the universe? Well, it has no meaning, so it is up to us to bring meaning to life. The meaning that we bring to life is respectful life and doing everything to go on as a race.

Sometimes the human race is too much destructive without knowing it…
Yeah. There is that concern too. There is a really cool movie called ‘Inner Worlds Outer Worlds’, it is a really cool documentary that I watched and it talks about the worry that the technology is racing ahead, but it is going at a faster rate than human spirituality and the topic was that if it moves too quickly, it can have a really negative effect, because if we have all this technical power, but the human side of us isn’t able to control it and use it wisely, then it can be a destructive force. The track ‘The Alien’; there are so many different subjects you can relate to that.

The album occludes with the 20 minutes long epic title track. Any thoughts on this one?
The epic on the album, the title track ‘A View From The Top Of The World’ was actually the fifth song we wrote. Lyrically it deals with the challenges that people take; extreme challenges like climbing the Mount Everest… People make these adventures their huge events in their lives. With the adventures comes the great danger of being very close to death. ‘A View From The Top Of The World’ is sort of related to that spirit, an adventure that drives these people to do what they do, these amazing feats. We wanted to catch the spirit of that whole mindset.

That view is also reflected in the artwork, done by Hugh Syme again. It shows a kind of glimpse of mystery one can find in some Pink Floyd covers in my humble opinion…
Right. That is actually a really interesting thing that you notice. Hugh Syme originally presented the cover to us. Did you know it is actually a real place in Norway? It is called (spells it) Kjeragbolten. It is a high mountain top in Norway. It is a cool picture of it and we combined it with shoes from someone instead of someone standing in the middle of the rock. Anyway metaphorically it definitely works with the title of the album. When it comes to artwork, I don’t really question Hugh Syme, I cannot wait to see what he comes up with. So it turned out to be an amazing cover and I love how it works with the title.

Is there a certain reason why you have chosen Andy Sneap for mix and mastering?
We like to mix things up, it is always cool to get a first perspective, it adds newness to an album rather than being static, where everything is just the same, just different songs. John (Petrucci) has experience in working with Andy, he was doing stuff for John’s solo record, so it was a natural thing to continue working with Andy at that point. I think he did a great job. The album definitely sounds strong. I can hear everything, it is really clean. It is a very modern sounding record, very strong sounding. The guitars and everything are very powerful.

And you can hear your bass better than ever…
Yeah, thank you. That is another thing we worked on, trying to get the bass more upfront in the mix. I have been working with Ernie Ball Music Man for a long time and right before the record we released my John Myung Signature Bongo 6-string, so I had to use that for the first time on the record too and it definitely sounded really good. I am really happy with the end result. The timing could not have been better. You go for writing a new record and I had this new bass that came out few months prior, it proved to be everything I wanted it to be, as far as it goes with an instrument as a tool. Everything about it was perfect.

Good, a new toy indeed…
(chuckles) Indeed, I played many different basses during the years. It is a personal thing. You have to mercy what’s available. So for me, to have a custom instrument, makes me really happy. I took this base, I customized it and now it is exactly like I wanted it to be. So I am very thankful and honoured to be able to have done that with Ernie Ball Music Man. Picking out an instrument and gravitate it towards what you like, it is a personal thing.

I think it has to grow on you, you have to get used to an instrument and feel connected with it…
Yes, absolutely, there is that aspect too. So I have been out on a journey, trying out lots of different things and finally found something that I really like. On top of that I have done some cool things with Ashdown during the break. On Ashdown Engineering they make bass amplification and guitar amps. I have been working with them on a pedal and also on a bass combo. I have always wanted to have a bass combo. I wanted something that I can use at home and in the studio, but I also wanted to take it on tour with me. So the idea behind it was having something I could use in all settings. I have a great pedal that’s going to come out too. It is going to be called the Ashdown Jam double drive and it is going to be a real cool pedal. It is going to have two drive settings. I like the way it responds with the bass and I cannot wait until it is coming out. It is great for distortion. Live it is very useful for certain parts, like the intro for ‘As I Am’. And I also need a little bit of overdrive when I play live; at least it shows more energy. When you are up on stage and you are behind a big sound field that’s projecting sound, for some reason, I tend to push things a little bit harder than I normally work. Just to feel a little bit more connected to the instrument that way. During the break I got to take on some projects. That is one of the things that kept me busy during the downtime. The bass has been up for a year, actually the one year anniversary of the bass is out, it is doing well. We are going to celebrate the anniversary with a new colour, until now it was only black. With Ashdown the pedal is going to be manufactured and the amp is currently being finished up. So a lot has happened: a new bass, a new pedal and a new bass combo.

What are the plans for the near future?
Our October tour in North America has been pushed to February 2022. Hopefully we can do Europe in April. We have two video clips at the moment, but there will be more in the near future.