In an age of producer-driven, computer-generated music, Jordan Rudess stands as an icon of virtuosity within amplified modern music. His technique is nonpareil, his harmonic imagination is vast, and his passion is without limit, and as such, he has emerged as a standard bearer for quality and innovation within the field of progressive metal. As the keyboardist for Dream Theater, the reigning kings of their genre, the audience for his thrilling musicality has swelled into the millions.
Musician’s Friend: Have you collected the important keyboards as they came out? Were you the first kid on your block to have a Yamaha DX7, the first with a Korg M1?
Jordan Rudess: I have a lot of these instruments, but I was never really into the collector’s mindset. As I've been going through my path as a keyboardist, it's kind of been more about the ones that really matter to me. I don't necessarily like to collect. Especially when I was younger I wasn’t into holding onto like the older gear. I didn't have any real feeling about it. I kind of like having different keyboards even if I don't play them that much. I'm happy as long as I can make the sounds that I want. These days with my Korg Kronos and my computer there are certain tools that are just so powerful sonically speaking you can cover a whole lot of ground.
MF: Your relationship with Korg is very strong these days.
JR: It’s a relationship that started many years ago when I worked for them. It turned into an artist relationship. They've been very supportive. I've taken the Korg Kronos all over the world with me. It's such a powerful instrument. The short story is that whatever I do in the studio with all my various keyboards and software, I pretty much boil down to a Korg Kronos before most of the live shows.
MF: It’s my understanding that you were trained as a concert pianist.
JR: I was. I went to Juilliard from the age of nine, basically leaving when I was about 19. I left because I had been going there for so long and I really started to get into the world of synthesizers. I got tired of sneaking into the practice rooms to play my blues and rock and what have you. So I needed to go and kind of discover the world of synthesizers. I'd been collecting pictures of Minimoogs and putting them all over my bedroom wall until finally the day came when I was able to get one and then of course things totally changed.
MF: You experienced some resistance on peeling away from that education I'm sure.
JR: Oh, yes. I was so deep into it. I was going to be a classical pianist. From nine years old I had been practicing from three to six hours a day. I was being groomed to be a classical pianist and I really thought I was going to be. My teachers and my parents, that's basically what they knew so it was tough for them, but for me I never really had my chance to have, I guess, my teenage rebellion or to start getting into the kind of music that I've been interested in and exposed to.
MF: So who cracked through that shell? Was it Keith Emerson?
JR: Yes. Keith Emerson had a lot to do with that, actually. Started out with things like Chick Corea, that album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. Somebody played that for me. I thought that was really, really cool. But even more of an impact was listening to things like Tarkus. That blew my mind entirely. All of a sudden I realized that you could have so much power on the keyboard. I mean I knew the kind of chords Emerson was playing, but the kind of intensity and power just literally blew my mind and changed my life. That mixed with some good amount of Genesis and Pink Floyd and Gentle Giant and things can definitely change.
MF: Were you into Kraftwerk and heavy synth groups?
JR: I was really into Tangerine Dream. Tangerine Dream was very influential to me, especially albums like Phaedra. Things like Tonto's Expanding Head Band were awesome. I loved Tomita, Tomita's music, his arrangements of Debussy and Mussorgsky were awesome.
MF: That would be a logical bridge to that heavy classical background.
JR: Yes, absolutely. I was so turned on by that I still listen to Tomita's arrangements to this day that he did on the big modular synthesizers. They are still extraordinary.
MF: In the early '90s you were a bandleader with your record Listen, and then you started getting some pretty attractive offers from established groups, notably Dixie Dregs. Was it difficult to let go of the reins and follow the direction of an established musical vision of someone else's?
JR: I had been working for some of the keyboard companies like Korg and Kurzweil. As I was working for them my career started to open up more and more because I was meeting people. Then eventually it led to my doing my solo album Listen. That was just a solo album. Basically did it myself. I hired a drummer. Ken Mary came in and played drums. I had different people playing and he was singing. It was primarily a solo album, but then I started to get calls from other people. For me the offer of playing with the Dixie Dregs was really, really cool, because I was a fan of that band anyway. Huge fan of Steve Morse and Rod Morgenstein and I saw them as masters. So to be invited into that fold was really an honor for me. It actually came at the same time as the offer to join Dream Theater back then. When I first got the offer with Dream Theater, it really wasn't the right time for me to do that, so I went out and played with the Dregs.
MF: Speaking of Morse, speaking of Petrucci, you've had a long association with some pretty high octane guitar players. Is there some advice you might have to keyboardists on how to complement the playing of a really assertive guitarist while still retaining your own musical identity and contribution to the project?
JR: That's a really good question. I think excellent guitarists generally like keyboardists because they get inspired by the fact that there are a lot of things you can do on a keyboard that may be really hard to do on the guitar, but that are really attractive to do once you've figured it out. The guitarists I've worked with are always really into and really appreciate the kind of approach that I have on the keyboard. And I guess it's always mutual. In the case of the guitarists I've worked with, the Vinnie Moores and Petruccis and Steve Morse-type guys, it's a mutual admiration, mutual learning. These are people that are so focused and so proficient. They look to me to provide a different kind of musical knowledge base. My background, coming from the classical world mixing with the rock world, I spend a lot of time on my technique and really refining my craft. I think the reason that these guys enjoy working with me and I think what other keyboard players could do to make themselves more attractive is first of all you have to be really focused and proficient, but you have to have kind of a wide breadth of musical ability and knowledge to make a difference to band mates, especially somebody who's that good.
MF: Back to some gear questions if that’s okay. What about monitoring on stage? Do you use in-ears?
JR: I do. I've been using them for the last seven, eight years. I use Sensaphonics. They're really great. Ultimate Ears is another great company. I've used those. I like those, too, but the Sensaphonics are a little more pliable in your ear, a little softer, so I like those. In the old days I used to play with Dream Theater with all our amps and there's no number of speaker cabinets a keyboard player can have that can equal even the tiniest guitar amp. There's just something about it. The guitarists come on stage with a pignose and you could have like eight whatever kind of keyboard speakers and you still won't be as loud.
MF: I guess the effectiveness of the in-ears depends on good communication with your engineer.
JR: Yes. We have a monitor guy who sits on stage with us and knows what we want to hear. As a matter of fact, my tech, my keyboard tech, mixes my show himself. He does a separate on-stage mix for me.
MF: So he's under in-ears as well and he has a good sense of what you're looking for?
JR: Exactly. That's totally it.
MF: Do you play any analog instruments these days? B3? Rhodes?
JR: I play lots of different things. My most beloved instrument is completely analog and that's a Steinway piano. I'm very involved with that instrument. I'm not much of an electric piano or a Hammond type of guy, although I certainly play my share of those types of sounds within my own keyboard world. I have one of the original Fender Rhodes bass models, given to me by Harold Rhodes Jr. It's the one that Ray used to play in The Doors. That kind of thing. Really fun. I also play my Minimoog. That's an analog instrument.
MF: Now, the Seaboard - you're in love with the Seaboard?
JR: I have my Seaboard right in front of me as we speak.
MF: Do you see it essentially replacing the role of the Continuum or do they each serve their relevant function for your performance?
JR: The Seaboard is very different from the Continuum. The Continuum is an absolutely flat instrument. It's an amazing instrument. It's wonderful. But the Seaboard, because it has a keyboard form factor to it, I think opens it up more towards existing keyboard players. I think that when we finally come out with a Seaboard that is a smaller size, not an 88 model, but maybe with, say, a 61-note model, I think it's the kind of thing that most keyboard players are going to want because they'll realize that they can do all the things that they just can't do on a traditional keyboard.
MF: A lot of touring keyboard performers will work with a broad selection of physical boards, the iconic three-tier keyboard stand to the left and another one to the right.
JR: Sure. It hasn't really been my approach, ever, live. I love to have that kind of setup with I'm recording or when I'm in the studio just writing. I like having a lot of different boards to put my hands on and provide really quick inspiration, but when it comes to live I like to keep my focus in one place. Nowadays with the Korg Kronos, the way it can go from patch to patch or from combination to combination without having any glitch or interruption in the sound no matter what the effects are doing or sounds you're playing, it's pretty cool.
MF: It's pretty amazing to hear that reverb tail from the previous patch do its diffusion while you've already punched up your next sound. That got my attention the first time I heard that.
JR: I've wanted that for so many years. I've been bugging the companies to put that kind of ability into it and just kind of waiting.
MF: What are you listening to these days?
JR: I listen to things that people probably wouldn't expect me to listen to, everything from like Sigur Rós - you know who they are?
JR: I love that group. It's wonderful. I listen to my friend Steven Wilson's music. He's got a new album out that I think is wonderful. He's the guy behind Porcupine Tree. I listen to Radiohead. I've always liked them. What else? I listen to a lot of electronic music, Autechre, or Aphex Twin. I tend to listen to a lot of things that are more, I guess, mellow, on my own. I mean I spend my life playing progressive metal and I kind of feel like when I 'm on my own I just want to hear things that are a little bit more soothing to the soul. Something mellow is often what's called for. Little Pink Floyd, maybe, a little Genesis. Little bit of Black Fields could be pleasant. I tend to go back to my Gentle Giant type stuff. King Crimson's nice if I'm not into mellow. I love Imogen Heap. I like Keane a lot.
MF: Do you want to tell us a little about the Pledge Music campaign?
JR: I wrote a piece a couple of years ago called “Explorations for Keyboard Orchestra” that I've always wanted to record really properly. I took it to Venezuela a couple of years ago and I premiered it with a youth orchestra down there. I never got the recording I wanted, so I thought I would do a Pledge Music together this small army of fans who could come along for the ride. I'm in the middle of it right now and we're basically putting together a whole plan to work with a full orchestra, get the piece recorded and also get a beautiful video documentary out of it. I've also been working on a new piano solo album. As part of the Pledge campaign we're doing an interactive app of the music so the listener or the user will be able to listen to the music and also use gestures on their device, like an iPhone or an iPad and control the sound. Do things like adding effects, reverbs, delays, glitchiness. You'll be able to record your own interpretation of my music and share it with your friends.
MF: Any other creative avenues, apart from Dream Theater and Pledge Music? Smaller groups you're working with?
JR: The other thing I'm working on is I have this company called Wisdom Music. We do apps. So I have a whole new crop of apps. For those who don't know, the apps that kind of put Wisdom on the map were things like Morphwiz or Samplewhiz, but now I've got some new ones I'm really excited about. We've got one coming out pretty soon. It's going to be called Ear Wizard. It's an ear-training app with my own take on how ear training could be taught. It's kind of like a cross between Simon, if you remember the game Simon, and more traditional kind of ear training methods. It incorporates little short videos of me playing different chords in different modes and the user basically has to play back the chords that he heard and keep on adding to the sequence. The level keeps on kind of accelerating until finally at the hardest level there's a timer that is an hourglass that's counting down so you've got to guess chords really quickly. We're just getting that ready for release. It should be out in a few weeks.
MF: Any tour dates coming up?
JR: We are not going to tour for a little while. We're going to be home taking some time off, which would be great, and then in 2014 we'll kick off and we'll head out there, our big tour.
MF: I will be sure to come check it out. You've been very gracious with your time with me and I really appreciate it.
JR: I really appreciate your support as well. Thank you so much. The latest Dream Theater album, Live At Luna Park, is out now.