Progressive Rock, by its very name, needs to always be evolving and redefining itself. Dream Theater's bassist John Myung is definitely doing his part to make that so. On their new album Falling Into Infinity John pushes his personal envelope by recording tracks with his new Yamaha basses, a Chapman Stick, and even by playing a fretless bass. Reading our interview with him will help you keep up with this bassist-on-the-move.
John Myung is surprisingly humble when discussing his accomplishments on bass in his well-respected band of twelve years Dream Theater. He speaks of music in all-encompassing terms: writing on bass, as well as guitar and keyboards-turning 'ideas' into epic songs. On Dream Theater's latest album Falling Into Infinity, Myung's deep fretless work and progressive patterns helps to give Dream Theater's catalog of songs a great variety of musical 'personalities'. Three-fifths of the Long Island, NY band-Myung, guitarist John Petrucci and drummer Mike Portnoy-attended Berklee in 1985 (later enlisting Canadian singer James LaBrie and keyboardist, Derek Sherinian) and then went on to garner worldwide appeal with their thought-provoking lyrics and upscale chops. Approaching a new millennium, the band elaborates on the premise of 'Carpe Diem' (Seize the Day) from 1995's A Change Of Seasons; bringing their musical message into a new age. The soft-spoken, 6-string bassist makes no bones about his views on music education and offers some insight into the world of Dream Theater.
BF: Tell me a little about your musical background?
John Myung: I've had a lot of experience with Classical music. I studied violin for roughly ten years and then I switched over to electric bass, 4-string, which I played for about another ten years. Then I made the switch to 6-string bass, which I'm now playing exclusively.
BF: You've been known to Play Tung basses in the past. Are you still playing them?
JM: No. About a year ago I switched over to Yamaha basses. I felt the need to be connected with a bigger company because I found it hard to do the things I wanted to do with a smaller company. And Yamaha's treated me really good. I really appreciate the relationship that we have, so I'm very happy with it.
BF: Which model Yamaha bass did you play on Falling Into Infinity?
JM: I have a couple of TRBs and right now I'm in the process of designing a custom bass with them, based off their RBX bass line. They sent me a 6-string prototype for the RBX line. I'm working on developing something with them so, hopefully, it will be out soon. I wound up using the TRB for certain songs and then the RBX for certain songs. I had the TRB when I went into the studio and then after we had tracked a few songs they had sent me out the RBX prototype. It felt a lot better to me. So I wound up using that for the whole record.
BF: Why did you make the transition to playing 6-string?
JM: I just felt I needed more to work with. I need the lower strings to compete with synth sounds and I wanted to have more to work with. I felt that four strings were a little limiting because in the band there's a lot of guitar driven stuff, so having the extra strings makes it easier for me to compete with what's going on there.
BF: How did you arrive at the music you're playing in Dream Theater? What made you want to play this type of music?
JM: (Pause) Good question. It's just something that we've stumbled upon. It's a combination of our personalities and what we like musically-making a cohesive sound with all the different elements. And it's always changing because we're growing and our tastes are changing. We listen to more Pop stuff now than we used to, so those influences are coming in. Just a combination of growing and us sticking together as a band.
BF: I have your first album ... on vinyl.
JM: (laughs) Oh, that's horrendous! I can't listen to that record. Well, that's the difference between 1986 and 1997.
BF: Who are some of your favorite bass players?
JM: I love so many different players! The list goes on and on: Billy Sheehan, Marcus Miller, James Jamerson, T.M. Stevens. There's so many players to investigate and learn from that it's hard to find time to follow through with the whole list. But when I have spare time I like to learn more about other players. Kind of see what they're doing and find out which ones I really connect with musically.
BF: You attended Berklee right after high school. Do you think a formal education in music is essential?
JM: Oh, absolutely. Training, practice and learning is required of any job or position that you're trying to hold. A lot of people are born with exceptional talents, exceptional strength and stamina, but in the arts everything is pretty much acquired. You have to work and develop skills, so it's definitely important to get your education wherever you can find it.
BF: I noticed you played a Chapman Stick on the new record? Why did you want to explore that area?
JM: Well, pretty much everything that I've recorded with the band has always been behind the bass. I felt the need to do something different, which is why I started learning and studying Stick. I wanted to bring that sound into the band and I think it really added a lot to the song 'New Millennium' on our new CD. You can hear different types of songs; songs that have different personalities from the instrumentation.
BF: One song has a somewhat Latin feel to it. Tell me about your bass playing on that song ?
JM: Right. That song is called 'Hollow Years'. That was a track that I played fretless on-which I don't do a whole lot, but Kevin Shirley, the producer, really inspired me to take the fretless out and play. And I was really happy with what he got out of me because if it wasn't for him I wouldn't have done it. But now I'm glad I did.
BF: I think sometimes we all need a little push. Do you feel that way?
JM: Absolutely. Yeah. That's one of the great things about the band, too. We're friends but we also have a sense of competition where we help each other improve and push each other to try different things; which is cool.
BF: In the past you've written songs with longer arrangements that tend to be progressive in nature. Do you enjoy playing those songs more than the others?
JM: Well, I think you need variety. I love playing every song. I mean, I shouldn't say that! (Laughs) In the past we've always been traditionally known for our longer type arrangements, but, I think with this record we're trying to strike a better balance between self-indulgence and powerful songwriting. They are two different types of songs with two different personalities that are both valid and have a purpose. The more song-oriented stuff gives the band opportunity to get played on radio, which is really important because kids buy what they know. If they don't hear you then they don't know about you. It is important that you are able to feel really good about what you do and be honest with yourself knowing that it's definitely the type of music you want to be playing. There's a whole other type of satisfaction that comes from that because when you're playing, people can see your conviction. When you can reach people on that level, I think they will talk about you and will spread it that way through word-of-mouth.
BF: A lot of musicians are into you guys. Do you ever look out in the audience and see all the musicians looking on to see what you're doing next? Do you notice that?
JM: I definitely notice it. But when I'm playing it doesn't enter my head space. I'm just more like thinking about my parts and what I'm doing.
BF: You've been playing with your drummer Mike for such a long time now. How would you describe that relationship? While performing are you conscious of the other instruments you are playing in synch with?
JM: In the band, in a way, we're all drummers. We're all filling in certain, rhythmic holes. It just happens to be that the bass provides a very supportive type of rhythm. It's like the glue of a song. I think it's the thing that if you don't understand what's going on with the complexities of the instrument, it's the one instrument that can take you through the song, hopefully. (Ponders) But my relationship with Mike ... it's a good relationship. I love Mike, and I think it's a real rewarding relationship. I think he definitely inspires me to always improve and to get better, and that's important to have.
BF: What do you practice when not playing Dream Theater songs?
JM: I practice whatever my hands feel like doing that day. I practice scales a lot. Then if I get scale-heavy I'm like 'I don't want to do this anymore, let's do something else', so I'll concentrate on chord tones and practice different shapes that I know and then try to discover a few more shapes that I'm not naturally able to play and build those up. Sometimes I just play along to tapes and when I get tired of that I record some ideas.
BF: How do you approach a day of practice?
JM: I try not to set expectations so that when I sit behind the instrument I try to lose myself and not think of it so much as a win/lose situation. 'Is it going to be a great day? Or is it going to be a bad day?' It's just going to be a day of practice and whatever happens will happen. I don't mean to be too carefree, but sometimes when you expect too much from yourself you choke and you don't really wind up accomplishing anything. If you expect everyday to be a great day behind your instrument, you're setting yourself up for a lot of disappointment. I used to psyche myself out a lot that way. When I just accepted it as a part of my life-something that I do-it's a whole different world. Then you don't feel pressured and that's when things start coming to you.
BF: A lot of the songs on this new album seem to deal with some hard topics. You composed a song called 'Trial Of Tears'. That one really made me think and want to analyze it. Can you tell me more about that song?
JM: That was the first song that I did a sketch for where I played guitar and keyboards and bass on it, and I presented it to the band. It was a song that went through many different stages. The first demo that I made was a really raw version of that and then we worked on it as a band and took it to another level. It turned out to be this incredible song that went from the version that I did to something that incorporated the band, which is a really great thing because you can still have independence and choose a direction, but then be able to synergize what that song is with your bandmates and be interdependent with them. That's when the magic happens. That's when the song really starts to transform and take on a strong personality.
Lyrically, that was a real therapeutic song for me. It deals with ego and my perception of it and understanding how it can cage you and really alter your perspective, but then realizing that life is really short so you need to make a decision. You also need to learn how to deal with regret while still moving forward. There's one line that talks about, 'you're not much better than the man you hate.' That's pretty much a play off one of the commandments 'Love thy enemy'. You know, 'Open up, you're not the only person here.' Also, my view of heaven being here today and not some distant galaxy, but based upon how centered and conscious you are will affect your experience and your perception. Understanding that is a really hard thing to do. It's just a whole bunch of different things that I was going through, just put into a song.
BF: The great thing is everyone will walk away with something unique from that song and make a connection to it.
JM: Which is cool. I appreciate that when people can connect with it personally. I think that's a big part of why you're into a certain artist. I'm a big Sting fan. I love all his stuff and even though I've never met him personally, I still always find myself putting on his CD's because I feel that there's a personal connection there. I really relate to what he does musically. That's a really important part, I think, of being successful is to have those types of relationships with people that hear your music. Hopefully, if you have it all together you are reaching people that way.
BF: Is it hard being in a band sometimes? Is everything a group decision?
JM: It's weird. In a band certain things default to certain people. It's not like you always have to decide as a group on every little point. At some point whoever feels really passionate or strong about a situation or about something that we're dealing with, there's always usually one person that kind of oversees something. Sort of like the producer of something. It's a strange animal being in a band, you know. It's kind of funny.
BF: Is it like being part of a family?
JM: It's very much like a family. You're like brothers and if you see too much of each other, sometimes there might be a few squabbles. But, I mean it's all in good fun, though. We appreciate who we are and what we've accomplished with each other and we don't want it to stop. We want it to keep developing.