You might think being the keyboardist in the world’s leading progressive-metal band, Dream Theater, would be enough to keep Jordan Rudess busy.
But the classically-trained keyboard “wizard” (his nickname in the band and to its many fans) has never just taken on just one job at a time. Besides wrapping up Dream Theater’s next studio album, due out in September 2013, (the follow-up to the band’s Grammy-nominated 2011 release A Dramatic Turn of Events), he’s also creating a new solo project, developing apps for his successful Wizdom Music company, and working with a variety of musical technology companies including Recombinant and Roli on exciting new products.
Entertainmenttell.com recently spoke with Jordan to catch up on everything this “wizard” has in the works to advance music and technology. Along the way, we discussed what kind of gear this tech-head uses at home and on the road, and what’s next for Dream Theater.
(Note: An edited-for-space version of this interview was published in the June 2013 issue of Tell Magazine. The following is the complete interview.)
EntertainmentTell.com: You have a lot going on lately.
Jordan Rudess: Yeah, there’s a lot. It’s all about making lists and staying organized at this point.
EntertainmentTell.com: I’ll bet!
Rudess: All good.
EntertainmentTell.com: Let’s talk about your role at Recombinant as an artist in residence. Tell me about JamBandit. That sounds pretty cool. How does it actually work in terms of putting users into the music?
Rudess: The Recombinant people are really, really cool people. I met the head programmer, this guy named Jesse Chapell, when he was doing his app called Thumbjam. He and I became friends because I realized that he was doing some very high-level work and I was interested in it, and he was aware of my work. So we actually cooperated a little bit, did some things, and I helped him with some sounds, some ideas on that app. And then I found out about what he is doing with JamBandit and the Recombinant team, and I thought, “Oh wow, this is really, really cool—I like this idea and I want to play along.” So I met with the CEO, David Park, and started to talk about the concept. I thought, “This is very, very interesting.” I’m very interested in interactive music and their marketing slogan, if you will, is “Putting the fan in the band.” That’s an interesting concept by itself. And I think there are a lot of ways to do that, but I think that the way that the app JamBandit does it is really, really fun and it’s musical and it makes sense. So I felt like it was a good opportunity for me to be involved, but also to create some music that I could release in that format before anything else. Basically what they’re doing in JamBandit is, you’re able to load in a song and then you can play on the playing surface. You can choose different instruments, and what’s happening in the background to enable this cool user experience is that JamBandit is figuring out all along the timeline of the song what’s going on harmonically. It offers the user the appropriate scale to play his part against the music. So whether you’re a novice or you’re an experienced musician, you can move your finger on this playing surface at any point in the song and the results at some level are fairly guaranteed. It doesn’t matter if it’s super-complex or if it’s something really straight-ahead and it’s easy as you’re playing along—it’s pretty dialed in. The only thing—and this is kind of a positive—is that the instruments in JamBandit are pretty expressive, they’re very, very nicely engineered instruments. Some of the sounds are my own sounds, some of them are not, but whatever they are, they all sound really good, whether they’re playing a trumpet or a lap steel kind of guitar sound, or a wild Jordan-style lead—you can do pitch bends and you can do vibrato and have a really good time. And JamBandit is just making it possible to basically play in the key of the song. It’s like you’re jamming with another musician and they’ve got a great ear. They’re always going to be in the right mode, and it’s like JamBandit is your ear. It gives you that edge, and one of the main features within that concept that they offer in the app is that there’s a slider. I call it “a magic slider,” if you will, at the bottom of the slider. It’s going to basically play chord tones, so it’s the most basic choice of what’s going on in the music. So when you play against it, it’s totally, absolutely dialed in. Or as the slider goes up, it becomes more and more like chromatics, so it fills in the in-between notes. So at the top of the slider, maybe you have to use a little bit more effort to actually have it sound completely dialed in, but it’s still an awesome helper.
EntertainmentTell.com: So this prevents the user from hitting a clunker—every note is harmonically sound and in tune with what’s going on?
Rudess: Yeah—it really, really helps. At the bottom of the slider, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to hit a clunker, but as the slider goes up, you could. Then you start having to use a little bit more judgment, but that’s why that exists. There’s a default position for the slider as well. The whole concept, I think, is really, really cool—it lends itself towards this interactivity because it’s bringing the user into something. When they have to participate—when they’re playing—they’re going to choose an instrument, they’re going to jam along with it. That’s a really interesting and cool thing.
EntertainmentTell.com: There have been a lot of attempts to make the user interactive with the music that have emerged in recent years, but this sounds like it does that in a very cool way.
Rudess: It does! I’ve been thinking a lot about this interactive thing lately. It’s something that’s been on my mind for a while, and I really feel that there are different ways to do it. I don’t think there’s any one particular method … this is the best kind of interactive music experience. Obviously, different people come out with different interactive apps and technologies at different points. But this one is definitely one of the ones where you go, “Okay, this is really cool. It’s worthwhile, it’s fun.”
EntertainmentTell.com: Does this work in conjunction with your Wizdom apps Morphwiz or Samplewiz, or is it a different thing?
Rudess: Conjunction in terms of being conceptually related. It doesn’t work in conjunction with it technically at this moment. When my app starts to have Audiobus capability, and JamBandit becomes an Audiobus app … I don’t know if you’re aware of what that is, but Audiobus is a technology that lets you kind of link apps together and route the audio of one into the other, and then make it work, at some level, in conjunction. But right now, technically, they don’t. Conceptually they are related, especially because Jesse, the head programmer for JamBandit, his playing surface is very much related. We had many discussions that when you slide your finger on the screen, what really happens, even the idea of being able to have different scales called up for songs, is related to a Morphwiz concept. Morphwiz is a music app—you can up any mode any scale you want, any number of octaves, and you’re basically sliding your finger on the playing surface—and if you want to, you can be locked into a certain mode. So in that sense, they’re related apps. You have this concept of these multi-touch devices being really new and different kinds of experiences for the player, so we’re not trying to emulate something like a traditional keyboard with this type of thing. We’re trying to say, “OK, this is really different. It has potential. What can you do to offer the player something that makes a lot of sense in this platform?”
EntertainmentTell.com: Cool! So you’re developing original, new music specifically for JamBandit?
Rudess: Well, the music that I’m doing is specifically for it in one sense in that it’s being released in that format before anything else. It’s certainly music that at some point could be on a CD, could be sold through iTunes, although my desire in this case was to highlight JamBandit and show other musicians and offer this music to listeners in this format before anything else.
EntertainmentTell.com: And did you have this format in mind when you were composing the music?
Rudess: For some of it I did, actually. There are a couple of things that are in JamBandit … JamBandit is a free app, which is pretty cool, you can just check it out. And there is, for instance, a little piece of music that I wrote called “A Different Sun,” which was written with JamBandit in mind, just harmonically thinking about the experience and that just comes with it you can just download it for free to start playing and enjoy it. And that piece is pretty dialed in harmonically; it doesn’t go through a whole lot of changes and I wanted to put that in there because I felt like while the user is getting used to the experience, let’s not have it go through a million different chords. Let’s save that for later when they get a little more understanding.
EntertainmentTell.com: So you kept the music relatively simple to start?
Rudess: Yeah, yeah, relatively simple.
EntertainmentTell.com: For you.
Rudess: Well, it’s pretty dialed in. But, yeah, for me … for all of us in the Dream Theater world, we have to work to not play in 13/8, you know (laughs).
Rudess: Like my drummer Mike Mangini says, it’s harder for him to play in 4/4 than it is to play in some ridiculous time signature.
Entertainmentell.com: He is unbelievable.
Rudess: Oh my God, yeah, really incredible. Yeah.
EntertainmentTell.com: You all are.
Rudess: Oh thanks, thanks.
EntertainmentTell.com: The music is certainly very … ambitious.
Rudess: Yeah. The interesting thing about Dream Theater is that we all love a really good and beautiful melody, and we’re not afraid to have that in our music. But at the same time, of course we love to play and everybody could be considered a virtuoso in their area. It’s a combination of being on the side of “Hey, we’re going to play something really wild and crazy,” but also the fact that we really love melody and we’re not afraid to do that, which a lot of bands these days, a lot of younger bands, get very caught up in the complication and they forget or they think it’s uncool to just be incredibly melodic or expressive or expressed from the heart. And I think all of us … I don’t know, is it maturity? You can say we’re just a bunch of softy characters, or whatever, but we like that. I think it makes a difference in what we do.
EntertainmentTell.com: That’s a good way to put it: maturity. I think especially on the last album, it was just an ideal blend of those two worlds, the melodies and the busy stuff. I think “Lost Not Forgotten” is a good example—there’s a great song in there beyond the arithmetic.
Rudess: Yeah, it’s a good example, sure. Totally. That’s why I stay in this group!
EntertainmentTell.com: Yeah, they’re good. I think you should stay (laughs).
Rudess: They’re OK (laughs).
EntertainmentTell.com: And a Grammy nomination last time around was fantastic!
Rudess: Oh, it was so great. In our world of prog-metal, you’re not thinking about commercial things too much, you’re not expecting that much, but the reality was, when that came around and we found out about that, it was pretty cool. It was cool to get a little recognition.
EntertainmentTell.com: Absolutely! We all had our fingers crossed for you. That was a tough race, but just the fact that you were included in the nominations was fantastic.
Rudess: Yeah, I feel like it opened up that world to us a little bit. And who knows, we might be lucky and be nominated again for this next one, which we are just basically putting finishing touches on now.
EntertainmentTell.com: I think you’ll win this time, hopefully!
Rudess: Alright, there you go, let’s put it out there (laughs).
EntertainmentTell.com: Well, let’s go there. How is the new album coming along?
Rudess: Well, for me, it’s coming along especially well because I just loaded out a bunch of keyboards in the studio late last night. I was putting my finishing touches on things. I left one keyboard there just in case anything comes up at the end of the process. Because now we’re working on things like vocals, guitar leads and some other little last elements. But we’re all really, really excited about it. I’ve been telling my friends that I feel like one of the differences with Dream Theater is that we’ve been around for a long time now, but unlike some groups that you hear where you kind of feel like they’re slowing down, they’re maybe losing a little energy, maybe getting sidetracked with the focus … I feel like that’s not happening to Dream Theater, and I feel very lucky that I’m involved with a bunch of guys that keep the focus, keep the energy and practice and the spirit, and I feel it’s another really strong Dream Theater statement. I feel in many ways we’re even reaching the next level. I feel that having Mike Mangini with us in the writing process was something that gave us … first with A Dramatic Turn of Events, knowing that he was in the band and having that possibility of his playing, gave the whole spirit of the band and also the musicality of the band another level. But this time, having him right there in the process, that gave us the next hit, because he had some really, really good input and you can hear it when you’re listening to the music. There’s even places where he’ll play something and you’ll almost have to laugh because it’s so ridiculously good (laughs). He plays some fills that you just can’t not smile—I’ll put it past anybody to not just almost crack up when they hear it, because it’s too good. I feel that on this album there’s a lot of that. There’s, of course, a lot of virtuosity, and a lot of really nice melody, and I had a chance to do a lot of orchestrational things. It’s not done yet, but I can say that I’m most proud of what we’ve created, all the tunes are cool, and I’m looking forward to having it come out and then going on the road with it.
EntertainmentTell.com: When do you think that’s coming out?
Rudess: It looks like it’ll come out in the fall at some point. We don’t have an exact release date for it.
EntertainmentTell.com: Excellent! And you have a Blu-ray from the last tour coming out as well, right?
Rudess: Yeah, we’re also working on that. I don’t think we’ve announced a release date for that either, but sometime late this summer, it looks like. But yeah, and that’s going to be really exciting too. It came out really, really well.
EntertainmentTell.com: I’ll bet. I saw that tour a couple of times and it was fantastic.
Rudess: Oh, awesome, great, great. Glad you enjoyed it.
EntertainmentTell.com: You guys are known for mixing it up. You don’t do the same set list every night?
Rudess: Well, we have been playing more of a similar kind of set list these days than we used to do. When our last drummer (Mike Portnoy, who left Dream Theater in 2010) was in the band, he was really into changing it up a lot. And one of the things that happened when he left was that we decided that we don’t want to continue along that particular path, because we felt like it was really important to us to have a show that was really dialed in and that we were really proud of and that we knew what was going to happen from moment to moment. So we went with the idea of, let’s just pick a set and maybe make some small alterations to it occasionally but in general keep it the same so our lighting and video people, our crew, we all know what’s going to happen and it can be more like a Broadway show where you feel like you’re watching something that’s really well-constructed and the cues all happen precisely. In the old days it was more like, “OK, let’s see, do I remember, tonight am I fading out of this one and starting this one and is the light going to be on or off and what is going to happen?” So as much as some fans love the idea of us changing around the set list, and there’s certainly a cool factor to that, there’s no doubt, we felt it was a little bit cooler for us, and felt better, to just change that a little bit and make it more locked in.
EntertainmentTell.com: You’re also doing a project with PledgeMusic. Why don’t you tell me a bit about that?
Rudess: That’s very exciting. It was interesting when I started to put it together in my mind, and when I started to put it online, and now it’s become interesting on some other level, even now that it’s in motion. Basically, there are some creative things that I’ve had desires to do—I felt doing it through PledgeMusic would be a really, really good move. Part one is that I have this piece called “Explorations for Keyboard and Orchestra” that I wrote a couple of years ago and I took it to Venezuela and I premiered it there. But unfortunately, I never really got the recording that I wanted because I had a pretty high-level youth orchestra play it down there, but they weren’t quite up to the task, nor did we have enough rehearsal to really do this right. So, given the amount of effort that I put into writing this piece of music, I feel like it should really be released properly, so the PledgeMusic campaign is very much about raising the funds through fan support to do this right. And so that’s a big part of what it is. Right now we’re figuring out the logistics of how and where to do this recording. The idea is that we not only get an amazing audio recording of this orchestral piece—which is also like a concerto in the sense that it’s got a featured keyboard part—but so it’s how and where and all those things are coming together now. But the other side of it is that I’m also working on a solo piano interactive app, speaking of interactivity. And I kind of rolled it in to one thing—the “Explorations” concept for Pledge and the interactive piano app is about my own new piano music and opening up ideas for how users can interact with that, and make it their own, and share it. Very different than the JamBandit idea, but I think it’s equally cool.
EntertainmentTell.com: So, the piece, “Explorations,” you’re intending to record that with a full orchestra?
Rudess: Well, that’s what’s being decided right now. There are a couple of different ways I could go with it and I’m just figuring it out. It very well might be with a full orchestra. I might do it a little bit differently as well. But the idea, the end result will not only be an audio recording but it will also be a video experience. So it will be an artistic video presentation of this piece as well as the audio.
EntertainmentTell.com: Are you looking at this as potentially a CD/DVD package, something like that?
Rudess: Yeah, exactly. It will be released in different formats—as pure audio, as a DVD. So, the idea is to go in there and get all of the different media out of it.
EntertainmentTell.com: You’re keeping busy, sir.
Rudess: Yeah, keeping busy, and I’m so happy that I loaded out yesterday so I can focus on some of these other things. But of course, with all of these things, one doesn’t totally work alone on a lot of these big projects. I have some really cool people that will help, and do help with all of this stuff on every level. So I’m lucky to have a good team around me that really is helpful.
EntertainmentTell.com: We thought that TELL magazine would be ideal for this, because it’s a tech magazine, but also I write about music in there.
Rudess: Oh, that’s really cool.
EntertainmentTell.com: And I always ask people I talk to about what kind of tech they use? What are you into besides, of course, all of your musical gear? Are you a smartphone guy?
Rudess: Oh yeah. Well, because I have this company, Wizdom Music, I’ve been lucky enough to put my hands on a lot of the different devices—Android devices, Windows devices, all kinds of different computers, and honestly I always come back to my Apple iOS devices, and right now I’m talking to you on my iPhone 5. So I’m definitely a gadget person. I love these kinds of things. I have my little video and audio recorders, like my ZOOM products, Tascam toys, and I definitely like these little boxes that create audio and video. And the way that I got into this was just from a musical point of view. I’m just so into technology that can create sounds, so I end up playing with all kinds of interesting controllers. Right now one of the most interesting things I’m doing from a technology point of view—which is probably something that you would be interested to cover—is, I’m involved with a company called Roli, and they’re making an instrument called the Seaboard. The Seaboard is an instrument that’s not out yet. Roli is a startup company. This instrument is like a modern take on the keyboard. What it does is it offers an entirely different kind of touch experience. We like to call it an elastic touch. It has the physical form of a keyboard, the black and whites are laid out in a similar way, except for when you touch the instrument, the feeling of the keys are much different. They’re not actually keys that you press up and down like on a piano keyboard. Instead, they’re keys that have a texture to them, so your finger touches a key and then your finger can go into the key. It’s kind of an organic experience. I tell people when they’re going to touch it—I guess elastic touch is a really good term to describe it—but I think that after you touch it, it’s really like an addictive touch, because it really feels cool when you’re expressing sound by using this technology, especially when you put your finger on it and you start pressing and you’re bringing in a sound from nothing to a full volume. You start to do it—“Wow, this is really different.” It’s much different than traditional after-touch, where your finger is basically at the bottom of a key and then you’re just pressing into it and there’s not a whole lot of physical sensation going on. And also, the other thing that’s core to the idea of this keyboard is that every note that you play, every finger that goes down on the instrument, is an independent, individual event. So you can bend one note and not the other. You can add vibrato to maybe a couple of notes and not the other ones that you’re playing, which is really the next level of expression for keyboardists. And further, what’s really interesting is that the whole iOS, the whole multi-touch platform, opened up people’s eyes and ears to a lot of possibilities, especially because the apps are so inexpensive. People can download things—even Morphwiz and Geosynthesizer, my apps, and other people’s apps as well of course—but they got opened up to all of these ideas. So there’s this gap between what’s going on in the multi-touch world, and all these devices that we can even have in our pockets, and the music manufacturing world of big keyboards and large companies making instruments, where in some ways the devices that we have in our pockets are more advanced than these big expensive instruments that we’re able to buy. So there has be some kind of give, and I know everybody in the industry is thinking about it, or should be thinking about it if they’re not. So something like the Seaboard, although it’s new, it’s alternative, it’s cutting edge, it will change things up—I think these kind of things are really important, because obviously we’re going somewhere, this gap can’t remain. So the reason I’m working with this Roli company is because I feel like what they’re offering is really important to where this industry is going. And as a keyboardist, I feel like I’ve played a lot of alternative controllers that had nothing to do with a keyboard interface. But this one, because it has an actual keyboard-type layout, it’s more directly connected with who I am as a musician. And I also feel that from a marketing point of view, even though it is different, it could be something that a keyboardist could want to include in his rig and do different things with. Maybe it’s not going to take the place of his Kronus keyboard or whatever, but it very likely will be something that he’ll be like, “Man, I really want to have that.” They’ll see me or somebody else doing things that they can’t do on their keyboard and it’ll be something cool that they’ll want to do.
EntertainmentTell.com: Like the Continuum that you use—that’s a different thing that some might not take to.
Rudess: You got it, exactly. The Continuum is absolutely awesome, it’s a wonderful instrument designed by a brilliant man, and it’s fantastic. However, it’s left of center because it’s not a keyboard at all. So, it would be, “What is it?” It’s something that’s so different. You can’t use your keyboard skills to play on that.
EntertainmentTell.com: Right. Do you see using the Seaboard in your rig down the road?
Rudess: I definitely want to, yes. As a matter of fact—here’s an exclusive for you—just last night I played a track on it on the Dream Theater record. I had it in the studio, I wanted to use it, but it’s a prototype, and I don’t have a whole lot of sounds for it right now. I haven’t had a chance to program it. But our engineer, Rich Chycki, the guy that’s been doing this whole album for us, he was like “Jordan, you’ve got to use the Seaboard.” And I said, “Well, Rich, I don’t have a whole lot of time to program it.” And even though in one sense, we take a lot of time in what we do, in another sense we’re trying to use the studio wisely and get through it. So Rich was like, “No, no, just program the thing. You’ve got it here—use it.” So I said, “OK, if you want to give me a half an hour, I’ll put something cool together.” He was like, “Absolutely, go ahead.” So they went out for coffee or whatever. And I sat there tweaking this cool sound that had this glassy pad sound and when you press into it, it was like a piano, and I was like, “OK, here’s what I got!” And then we laid it down.
EntertainmentTell.com: So it will be on the record?
Rudess: Yes. It will be on the record. So that’s fun.
For further information on Jordan Rudess, go to jordanrudess.com
And be sure to check out Jordan’s music apps at www.wizdommusic.com