Resurfacing – an interview with James LaBrie
We got to meet James LaBrie on the day of Dream Theater’s performance at 2011’s Night of the Prog Festival at the Loreley, Germany. The popular DT story these days is that of the band who lost its star drummer and carried on without missing a beat, and it’s a good one. But we decided to try to tell another story – it’s not about the guy who left or the guy who replaced him, it’s about the others and how that change affected them.
How does it feel to be the undisputed frontman of the band for the first time in 20 years?
The undisputed frontman? You know, I mean… it was such a weird dichotomy, if you think about it. It’s funny, you mentioning that, because we, the guys in the band, we were talking about that everything is much more balanced, everybody is in their role or in their position. So it’s where things should be on stage, where it’s not somebody in the background trying to grab the limelight when maybe they should just be grooving or whatever. But I mean, that’s just Mike’s character, that’s just his personality. He’s big and he wants to be in the limelight. But unfortunately the problem with that is that it takes away from the bigger picture – and that is the band as a unit. And a lot of people have been commenting on that since we started out on this tour, saying „it feels more like I’m watching a band, with somebody up front singing and interacting, everybody else just back there and (makes drumming and guitar playing gestures). Everyone kind of assumes what they’re doing. And then there’s always moments in the night when there is the spotlight on these other members and it should be. But it creates more a balance. And we were talking about this, we were saying „you know, this is really cool“ – it feels like a unit. So it’s a lot better.
How is the tour going so far?
Excellent. M’n’M is just… Not the rapper Eminem! Mike Mangini – or Genie, as we call him. Although I do love Eminem, believe it or not! I love his stuff. But… It’s going great! Mike is playing amazing. He’s a gem of a drummer, he’s a phenomenal drummer. He’s very musical. So he just fits in and he’s just driving us, he’s like a a driving force, a monster backbone to the band. So it feels good, it feels very natural and we’re having a great time!
I don’t want to dwell on this for too long, but several people have asked me to bring it up: Are you still in touch with Mike Portnoy?
Have you talked to him at all this year?
I haven’t talked to Mike since the announcement he was considering leaving the band. And then… Actually, I should say the last time I verbally spoke to him and I heard his voice was on the conference call when he finally said „Yes, I’m leaving the band“. So that was it.
Let’s move on to more positive things. How has the songwriting approach changed?
Most notably there was four of us in the studio – there was no drummer there. Any of the drumming was… John Petrucci would do drum programming as we were writing the songs.
I read that you were playing drums at a young age. Did you get to play any drums with the band now?
No. I played drums from 5 years old till I was 17. But I haven’t touched them since, really. Well, I did, my son has a set at home and I got behind it and I quit very quickly. I was like „Oooh, I forgot everything“, so…
Dream Theater have been known for pretty much writing in the studio and the last album was the first time in a long time that John brought in a demo – for Wither. Did you have any demos this time?
There was one song that John brought in called Beneath the Surface. But he had… he had written a song and he thought it would be… Just because of the way that this album seem to unfold musically, it was an afterthought. And he was like, „You know, guys, I was thinking… There’s a song that I have and I think we can make it beautiful, make it Dream Theater.“ So we did – and it just came out beautiful, it’s a great tune.
You’ve been around during the writing of the music this time.
Have you been involved in the writing?
I was making suggestions here and there and definitely very much involved in all the melody structuring for the vocals.
Was that something new for you?
I’ve always been involved to a certain extent with the melodies of the song, but not to this extent. So that was new. And also, suggesting riffs and stuff like that. But, I mean, minimal, because… Here is the truth of the matter: The main composers of this band have always been John and…
Yes, let’s make sure of it – John Petrucci and Jordan have been the main contributors with riffs and stuff. John Myung really stepped up to the plate this album, contributing a lot as well.
This was something that kinda leaked out around Black Clouds: Jordan kinda admitted that John Myung hasn’t really been around when they were writing albums.
Well, he was around, but he wasn’t…. He was around, he was there, but he wasn’t involved. So…
How long has this been going on?
Put it this way: When Dream And Day Unite, he was very much involved. Images, very much involved. Awake, involved. From there it started to kinda like… (indicates steps) a little less, a little less, a little less. To the point where in Black Clouds and Silver Linings, it wasn’t… probably anything. Same with me! I was kinda like sitting back, going (gives an annoyed look) „What’s going on here?“ And that was a lot of the reasons why I needed to do my solo albums. Because I needed to get my ideas out and let people see that I write music. I write riffs. I write like this. I write lyrics like this. And so on. And it did me well and it did just the whole perception, so that people don’t think I was like (in a spoiled singer voice) „When am I singing?“ – I didn’t want that coming across, so it was very important for me to do that.
John Myung wrote lyrics this time. How many songs?
What has changed? There was a lot of talk about this infamous rule that he has to bring in lyrics in a song format and that’s why he had stopped.
I think because of the internet there’s a lot people that just start these rumors and they say „supposedly, John is doing this“ or „John isn’t doing this“, or „why is he doing this?“ or „why isn’t he doing that?“ – the thing is that he never felt connected. He just got away from it, he just lyrically got away from it. He didn’t feel that, 1., he was being invited to write lyrics, and 2., he didn’t feel that he was connected enough to want to write a lyric. With this song, there is a particular song that really struck him when we were writing and he was like „I’d love to do that song“. And it came out great, he came up with some beautiful lyrics, very nice lyrics. That song is called Breaking All Illusions and it came out great, it came out very cool.
OK, let’s talk setlists. Who’s in charge now?
It’s kind of collaborative. What we did is we all wrote down our favorite songs and then we took all of everyone’s favorite songs and we kind of broke it down. OK, this would be A, this would be B, this C and D… And that’s how we figured out what made sense for the setlist.
Not sure if you realized that when you were putting it together, but the setlist doesn’t feature a single song where the lyrics were written by Mike Portnoy…
That’s coincidental, that’s very coincidental. Yeah, I know. We were saying that, too. We were saying that everyone’s gonna think we’re throwing that stuff away. No. That’s coincidental.
The setlist is pretty varied, but kinda safe – it’s all album tracks. Are you going to add some B-sides or really rare stuff like Speak To Me, Eve or Space-Dye Vest, which hasn’t been performed by the full band yet?
At this point there’s no talk about that. The fact is that this is a whole new chapter for us, obviously. We have a new album coming out September 13, so the focus is really on making sure that that is set up properly, that that is going to get the attention it deserves because we’re extremely proud of it. At this point anything like that, any of the b-tracks or whatever you want to refer to – any extraneous parts to Dream Theater are still going to remain in the background – right now! I’m not saying it’ll never happen – right now!
Are there going to be any B-sides for the new album?
No. Everything that was written is on the album.
You haven’t had any B-sides since 1999…
What does that tell you, huh? What does that tell you? Haha! I think that if the opportunity avails itself, then it would be something that would definitely make sense. But at this point, too, I think the reason it hasn’t happened since 1999 is that when we’re writing an album right now, it’s very concise. „Let’s write! This is how long we’d like the album to be approximately, with this many songs“…
How long is the album?
Well, there’s nine songs… I think it’s 80 minutes?
So did you have a specific goal what you wanted the album to sound like, …
Yeah, we definitely knew where we wanted to bring it.
…was there something that you wanted to avoid that has happened in the past?
We just wanted to make a very classic Dream Theater album and to us a classic Dream Theater album would be the progressiveness with the metal, but very balanced and very complementary of one another, not one overtaking the other and not one seeming predominant throughout. So it was kind of a very conscious effort to make sure that we were touching upon some of the really classic moments in our history that really spoke loudly to us, saying „you know, that was cool when we did something like that, or when we had that kind of vibe or that direction musically going. That’s what we need to recreate, but make it sound like it belongs today.“
On the Backs of Angels sounds very much like classic Dream Theater, especially since it doesn’t sound like any other bands. There are no bits that sound like Metallica or Muse, for example. Many people complain about these things – does this ever get discussed within the band?
No, we don’t sit down and go „we can’t sound like Muse, we can’t sound like…“ – we don’t do that. But I think that we’re all subconsciously thinking „Whatever we’re doing here, we gotta feel right about it – that it sounds like us, first and foremost”. And especially with this album, because we knew there was going to be a lot scrutiny, there was going to be a lot of room for skepticism. So we knew that the best thing we can do here is be true to ourselves, first and foremost – which we always have been –, but let’s bring it to another level. Let’s really push the envelope here of who and what we are and really make it something that is undeniable, that it’s definitely who and what we’ve always been – but better.
The way it was communicated to the outside world was that when Mike and John were producing the albums together, John would take care of the acoustic side and Mike would do more of the arrangements and the conceptual stuff.
Yeah, a lot of that was true.
So how is John’s approach different now that he’s doing most of it?
Well, he produced the album – he was the producer and I think he did an exceptional job. He was extremely dedicated, very focused.Endless hours spent making sure that everything was going exactly… I mean, we were all together, we were all unified. Constant conversations just making sure that everything was going exactly where we wanted it to go. But he’s very specific, he’s very particular, he is extremely connected to who and what we are – obviously, being one of the main composers. So I think he was in a perfect position to really oversee everything and the thing is that it wasn’t from a dictatorial standpoint. It was like, „Hey, I’m a bandmate, but you let me produce this, so I’m really going to be doing that the best I can.“ – so I think it was great in that sense. I think, too, just him approaching that field and knowing that there were all these other elements to Dream Theater, that we were also saying „if the music is saying this and the lyrics are saying this, this really lends itself to a lot of visually exciting things to be done and to be added to the whole presentation.“ So, like I said, it’s very transparent what we’re dealing with now as a band. If we have something to say, we’re gonna say it. We’re not worried about offending someone or being defensive or walking on eggshells. It’s all about „you know what, I’m gonna be honest with you. If I really don’t feel something or don’t like something, I’m gonna tell you. And I expect the same from you! And I wanna know where everything is going and I wanna know what’s going on“ – and it’s working out amazing.
Do you think it makes sense to talk about future live releases?
It doesn’t make sense… I mean, do we wanna do another DVD? Absolutely! Is this tour gonna be the right one to do that? I would think so personally, but nothing has been taken further than to say „Maybe this is the album to do another DVD, a really cool one.“ It hasn’t been taken any further at this point. But there is a strong possibility.
It would be cool if you would discuss releasing previous DVDs like Budokan and Score on Blu-ray Disc because they were filmed in HD and they’d be great on the new format.
Yeah, absolutely. There is a lot to be considered, for sure.
Speaking about older live releases – did you ever consider, because it’s been so long, doing another semi-acoustic gig like Rotterdam in 1998 ?
Yeah, I would love to do another acoustic setting. I thought that was very cool and our fans really appreciated it, it put us in a whole new light. I can see that coming back. I think… whether it would be this tour, I doubt it. Because I think this tour is all about „It’s a new beginning, it’s a new chapter,“ and I think once everyone hears the album, they’re gonna be going „Frickin’ give me it! Play it! We wanna hear it!“ – but it would be nice consider that maybe the next world tour. Or if not that tour, the next tour. But I think it’ll definitely come around again where it will make perfect sense. And it would have to be something that is really very well thought out, it has to be planned. Cause I don’t want it to just be „hey, let’s get up there, guys, with a little low lights, and let’s keep it really cool, like show up in our street clothes“… It has to be something that creates excitement and that makes for a very incredible evening, a memorable evening.
You sounded very happy that you got to record your vocals in Canada. Why didn’t you do this in New York with the other guys around? Were the lyrics just not ready at that point?
No no no… What happened was I said to… everyone! I said to everyone: „You know, I wanna record the vocals, first and foremost, with Richard Chycki“. Because him and I have a long history and we work amazing together. And just by the way that the schedule was unfolding, I said „you know, this makes sense for me to start singing, the first couple of songs that we have ready, I’m gonna start doing them in Canada“. And everyone was like, „Yeah, man – you know what you’re doing!“ So I started doing the first two songs and then we said „why don’t you come down and finish the rest of the album in New York?“ So what happened is, I went down to New York, thinking „sure, we’ll all be together, be a big happy family and whatever.“ So I got down there and the one day that I was there, the first day that I got there to start singing, it just didn’t feel right. And I said to John, cause he’s the producer, a bandmate, I said to him, as a bandmate, I said „this isn’t working. I’m going back to Canada and I’m gonna sing up there and finish my recording up there. Because I’m in my zone, I know exactly what I wanna do, I don’t need anybody guiding me. I never did, really. Ever. I never did with my solo albums and I never did with Images and Words or Awake – so, I rest my case! But anyways, the fact is that this album lent itself to everyone really being able to start anew, really being able to be who and what they are, right? That’s what this album also signifies: We are who we are and this is our moment. This is our resurfacing, so to speak. So I recorded the rest of the album up in Canada. The very last song we did, John came up cause he just wanted to be there because he had some specific ideas – Build Me Up, Break Me Down. So he came up, he flew up and he came to the studio and we hung out. It was great, we had a great time. Everything’s great!
Speaking of your solo albums, the US tour got cancelled. (James rolls his eyes.) Will you do some other tour once the Dream Theater tour is over or is that…?
Well, tell you what, I’m only gonna agree to do another tour if everyone else that is involved in the business side of things really picks up and really gets organized. Because it was so disorganized last time. That’s why I basically said, „you don’t have the visas yet. Where we’re at this point, by the time you get the visas processed, we’re gonna have one rehearsal and then we’re gonna go out.“ And I said, „I’m not doing that. I’m not compromising myself in front of my fans. With one rehearsal? We’re gonna go out and do an hour and 45 minute show?“ So I said, „No, I’m pulling the plug, sorry!“ But it had to go down a certain way, that’s it.
Here’s a question that a fan asked me to bring up: What are your favorite and least favorite songs to perform live?
Uuuuuh… Least favorite… I would say, probably… I don’t know… New Millennium. That song, I just didn’t feel it. There were some cool moments in it, I just didn’t… whenever we performed it, I didn’t feel it. The favorite song for me is… I love Scarred, I love performing that live. And… well, Octavarium, that whole frickin’ thing… Ministry of Lost Souls and that… I don’t know… Octavarium in itself, this song, I loved performing. I thought it was an amazing song. It’s kinda hard. That’s a hard question to answer cause there’s so many moments that I know… cause 99 percent of the songs, I love singing.
I think it’s a question that lends itself more to an e-mail answer, really…
Yeah. The fact is that I also have to consider where I’m at at this point in my career. You know, it’s great to sing the older material, but let’s face it – the older material is very demanding because I’m singing in the frickin’ stratosphere. And the newer material is more… it shows more my mature voice. So it depends. And we know we’re always gonna play the old stuff because that’s what’s dear to our fans, but at the same time we have to be very selective and we have to make sure that it’s in a balanced way.
You’ve been shortening some of the old songs on recent tours, like Voices and Take the Time. Whose idea was that?
Yeah… I don’t know! (gives a sarcastic look) Heh! Wasn’t mine, but… You know, I’m not saying… That’s what Mike wanted and he was partly right, because to sing those songs every night and all those sections would’ve been extremely taxing on my voice. But the way we like to work it out now, like doing Learning to Live and doing all these songs where I’m singing like F#s and stuff like that, is, „let’s put that in the set, but I’ll sing it one night here and I’ll sing it another night here, but I won’t sing it every night.“ – and that way, I can do the whole frickin’ tune.
So you’re not doing rotating setlists right now because Mike is still new to the band, but you will keep changing songs from night to night…
Yeah, we’ll keep saying, „OK, let’s take that tune out and let’s put this tune in“, but I don’t think it’s ever going to be like it was, where it’s like, here’s one set and you come tomorrow night and it’s completely different. No.
It’s too much…
I think it is. I think this way we’ll be a well-oiled machine and we’ll be just like (assumes aggressive pose). And we’re already feeling that now. But there will be some substitutes. There will be like, „OK, that song’s tonight, but I’m not singing that song tomorrow night. I’m gonna sing this other older tune tomorrow night. And this other older tune the next night. And then we’re gonna come back to that one.“ So it just kinda floats it around, but it helps me. My voice healed and I’m back to normal, but I’m also cognisant of what I’m capable of doing. And if I keep it balanced then I can do it. So I’m not gonna try to be Superman and prove that (in a cheesy voice) „I’m gonna go out there and sing these songs like hell!“ – no, I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna be mature and I’m gonna say „I can do these songs only if we do this, and we scope it out and we space it out“. And there you go!
Let’s just wrap this up with one more question: Name one somewhat recent CD that everyone should hear.
Well, I was talking about it for quite some time, but Soundgarden – their last album I loved. Just cause Chris Cornell blew my mind. But… Sevendust? I love those guys, so check it out!
About the author: Michael Schetter plays bass in the instrumental prog fusion project Relocator whose debut CD featured former Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian as a special guest. Michael is also the organizer of the Generation Prog Festival and concert series.