Interview with James LaBrie by DT World
We spent 20 minutes with James LaBrie before the show in Oslo in February, talking about the Images and Words celebration and the story behind him joining Dream Theater. In addition we spoke about his guest appearances with Rik Emmet, Last Union and Ayreon.
Kim: 25 years; celebrating the Images and Words album – How does it feel?
James: It feels a little surreal at times, you know I guess you know we, uh… It’s funny because when you’re in that moment, when we were recording that album, if someone had said “you know, before you know it, 25 years from now you’ll be out celebrating the 25th on this album”… I would be like like dude, what the fuck, that’s so far down the road why would you even bring that up. But you know, as things tend to be with time it was like that, you know? I think it’s also allowed me to really reflect on everything that we’ve that we’ve gone through, everything that we’ve done musically as a band, and as friends, and our trials and tribulations along the way you know, our growing pains, you know. A lot has gone on and to keep a band together even for five years is extremely difficult.
Let alone 25-30 years. Yeah, it’s pretty amazing So it it is an achievement, it also you know, acknowledges the fact that it was, um, something that left an impression and was very impactful on fans around the world.
K: You came in the band during a quite turbulent period for the band as well. They didn’t have a- well, they had a record contract but they wanted out.
J: Yeah, they were with Mechanic/MCA at the time. They came off of the first album “When Dream and Day Unite”, they had Charlie Dominici and then um, they realized at that point that Charlie as talented as he as he is, and was, was not the singer for them and so they went through a period of two years you know, with a label that was kinda like yeah “Whatever you know, find your singer and get back to us”. There was no real support there and they went through several singers and they were you know, pretty much decided on one guy when my package- not this package- [pointing to a certain area on the body] my package happened to fall into their lap and you know, at that point it was just uh, you know, from what I’ve been told several times is that you know, they they got this package, they listened to my singing.
I sent them- they were sent studio recordings of some stuff I did with Winter Rose and some live stuff that I had sung. I guess they got it a night that they were together and listened to it and they went like “Holy smokes”, you know? And then Kevin Moore was actually the first one I spoke to in the band. He’s the one that called me up and said “Hey you know we heard the tape and man we want you to come down and seriously consider jamming with us” I said “Hey you know, sounds good can you send me some of your stuff?” cause I didn’t even know Dream Theater I said “What do you guys do?” And Kevin said “We’re like progressive hard rock/metal” You know I’m a huge Rush fan So I was like “Really, like Rush?” and Kevin’s like “Yeah, that’s a great example, Rush, man” and I went “Really? OK, I gotta hear this stuff” so they got me “When Dream and Day Unite”, they got me a few songs from “Images and Words” that they had already been working on, so needless to say I was like “What the hell is going on here? This is phenomenal” so um, funny thing happen, is that I guess in the meantime they- did you want to hear all this or what?
J:In the meantime they started to I guess think “Well you know we’ve been working with this guy Chris…
J: I think so… And they had been working with him for quite a while and they went “Well maybe we’re jumping the gun here….” so then Kevin calls me back and says “You know we’re kind of reconsidering where we are at this point and I went “OK, alright. Well, good talking to you anyways, best of luck”, right? Because invest any of my time, I was like “Oh, well…”. And Winter Rose was still a very viable project at that point and so I just said “Kev, OK, great talking to you man, best of luck, boom, say hi to the other guys that I never met” and that was it and then literally a week later I get another phone call and it’s Mike, Mike Portnoy and I was Kevin at the time “Hey Kevin, it’s Mike Portnoy you know, from Dream Theater”, “Yeah, how you doing?” “Okay listen I know this is crazy right…” Yeah you know Mike being his funny self and he said that “Yeah and so OK, OK, let’s forget everything that just happened, we want you to come down” and I was like “OK, yeah…” he says “Yeah you know, if we can make a date we’ll fly you down to New York and boom” and I said “Alright man, yeah, no problem, let’s do this”
But it’s funny because I got off the phone and asked my wife “What should I do?” Because I was like what’s going on here because I started thinking these guys going to be, you know, wishy-washy, and she said “No, you heard the music, isn’t that what you’re about?” “You’re right, you’re right…”, so my wife said “You’re gonna get your ass down there you are gonna jam with these guys, you’re gonna, you’re gonna show them what you’ve got” I said OK and went down there we were rehearsed that one night and just like looked at each other and said “Let’s start recording a demo tomorrow”
K: Yeah you know it’s funny, you said that your name was Kevin at that time…
J: It still is!
K: Of course, it still is! [laugh] We usually have, during our pre-parties we have a quiz and one of our staple quiz questions is- I have it right here- – “What’s James’ middle name?”
J: First name
K: Huh? No, middle name
J: No- Oh! I get it
K: Because everybody is fooled
J: Oh, that’s a good one, that’s a good trick
K: “Oh, I don’t know…” Well, it’s James…
J: It’s James, You’ve been saying it for years. Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s a good trick
K: So, did you record the “A Change of seasons” demo at that time?
J: Yeah, yeah, we did, yeah We went over to where John Young was living at the time and he had a another roommate and we went into his place, a really nice condo actually, it was pretty cool and that’s where we recorded the demo for five days- No, I was down there a total of five days when I first moved up so I think we had three days and I think we did, but we definitely did “A Change of Seasons”, “Take the time”… “Metropolis”…? …and “Learning to Live” So it was just… …just go for it, you know And on the second day that I was in there recording they said “Hey James, come on downstairs…” Actually we renovated John Myung’s bedroom into this recording studio. It was no bigger than probably from here to that wall and then we just made it happen and so I went downstairs and I said you know all the guys were there and they went “We want you in the band, we want you as a singer, what do you say?” I said yeah, I think you see a picture of us we’re sitting on a couch in one of the books and we’re like this holding our drinks, and that was the night we did that.
K: OK, so yeah, most of that was written before you were in the band
J: Of course they wrote vocal lines, melody lines before you were… I mean, the only thing I altered was I made some suggestions melodically here and there you know, “This would be better sung like this”, “This would be better sung like that”, “That’s more you know, meoldic to me, what do you think?” and they were completely open. They were all about just, you know, “Yeah, let’s make it the best it can be, right?” I mean, that’s that’s what any album’s about, it’s not about “Hey what about me? Don’t I get a say?” Ultimately, it has to come down to what are you trying to achieve? You’re trying to achieve the best, so put your freaking egos aside, you know, be a rational professional and approach it you know, properly, so that you get the best results and so that’s what it was with that too. But it was just, you know, I gotta tell you, Kim, it was just a great time because we were all thrilled, we were all excited, we were all extremely young, um, and freaking full of vigor and you know, enthusiasm, and fucking zest, and we were there all bout… you know, we were great friends you know, and we were comrades, and you know I think back to those moments, and Mike and I you know, were the best of friends, we hung out, shot the shit, laughed, had some drinks together but you know, I mean it was it was a really good moment in time. It really was.
K: Do you find it hard or difficult to do “Images and Words” in one go now?
J: Oh, yeah. Vocally? Oh fuck yeah, man. I mean, it’s 25 years ago. Absolutely, it’s a challenge. And you know, I got really sick on this tour I got very very sick. I almost thought I had bronchitis at one point but the doctor said no but you are sick. And so, because of that it’s been like a challenge for me to really keep my voice you know, where it is. So I’m just doing what I can to make it through, you know, and there are you know, I think for what I’ve been dealing with, it’s still coming out pretty cool. Yeah, I think you have done quite a good job at all the shows I’ve been to.
K: So, one of the changes this tour from maybe many of the other tours are the moments that you have on the stage where you kind of tell stories. That’s quite good interesting because you tell different stories every time too
J: Yeah well, you know, I thought, you know, I just thought approaching this tour, this “Images” anniversary, that it makes me more personable and we need to draw the people in, not only from a musical perspective but the human element, perspective- like we’re human beings… I’m going to tell you what we were doing at that time, I’m gonna tell you what we were going through emotionally I’m gonna tell you things that I’m pretty sure you’re not aware of. You might have read a lot of it in the books and stuff like that, but there’s some stories that I tell where a pretty damn sure people are going to go, “Oh wow, really?” So, they did that and they were thinking this and they were doing that at the time and you know, yeah and I think it’s really cool because the vibe that I get back from the audience is that were sitting in a living room and we’re having a conversation and I think that’s, you know, it’s not just the music that you go away at the end of the night, you go away with personality. You go away with “Hey these guys are freakin cool…” “These guys are like you and I, you know? They’re human beings, their spot for being in and doing what and who they are with the music, but we got the behind-the-scenes as well and I think that really makes makes for a very memorable evening.
K: And the other night we had that popcorn incident… What went though your mind?
J: I just laughed, I thought it was hilarious I thought, that’s great, that’s classic, so I just went with it. Norwegian popcorn.
K: So last year you did quite a few guest appearance since you played- sang with the Rik Emmett
J: Yeah, oh he’s freaking… what a talent Oh my God, Rik Emmett, I’ve always loved that guy, incredible, and then, uh, Alex Lifeson was there as so I hung out with Alex but that’s the second time I’ve met Alex and he’s such a cool guy, he’s such a great guy He’s big… And I thought I was big And I’m talking, like- -he’s just a big guy, built. But yeah I worked with Rik. Rik got in touch with my old manager, you remember Jim? OK, so Jim works for Mascot and so I guess Rick contacted- and that’s who Rik Emmett is with, he’s with Mascot And he said you know I’ve always wanted to work with James, can you contact him? So Jim contacted me and he said “Hey Rik Emmet would love you to come in and sing a couple tracks from him” I said “What? Yeah I’m there, I love Rik” And then I talked to Rik on the phone he said I’ve been a a fan for forever of you guys and he says my son, his son’s 27 now, you know my son, he grew up with you guys and so I’d love it if you come down so yeah I went down there with them. I sang on a couple of hist tracks and we had a great time. I was only there for very short time.
But it was very, very cool and I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Rik Emmett play acoustic guitar. He is phenomenal acoustically, he’s a great- Excuse me. He’s a great guitar player, electric- -but acoustic he’ll blow your mind. He’s phenomenal. And then he’s got this beautiful angelic voice, you know, a friend of mine was like “Who’s gonna be able to sing higher? Rik Emmett or James Labrie?” Get out of here. But anyways, so I did that and it came out- I don’t know if you’ve heard the tracks yet… Well one of them was more Zeppelin, End of the Line, and that’s what Alex also played on. He did a great fucking job, he is one of my favorite guitar players ever. I’ve always loved Alex. and then I yeah, and then “I sing” was the other one but yeah, it was very, very cool, I brought my kids out- -kids, they’re 20 and 19! They’re not kids anyone, but I’m yeah and they hung out with Alex while I was doing my vocals. He’s like hanging out with my son and daughter just shooting the shit, and that’s I mean, that’s what I love about guys like Rik and Alex Lifeson is that as talented and as successful as they’ve been, they’re still human beings.
K: The same goes for you actually, the whole band, Dream Theater is very down-to-earth
J: I think that’s the only way to keep it, keep it real.
J: How long can we be acting something? sooner or later doesn’t that get tiresome?
K: You also played on the Last Union album…
J: Yeah! Well, that… Jesus! But I recorded that in 2012? I think When the hell did a do that? Wait a second, let me think here. Was it in 14? 2014? I think it was 14, but anyways a friend in the music business said there’s this band from Italy and there’s some really cool songs, and a female vocalist and they’re huge fans and they’d love for you to sing on the album and I said “Well, let me hear this stuff”. I always do want to hear it, right? Like even with Rik I said can I hear the tracks, you know? Because I wanna only be on something that I feel connected to. Otherwise then I’m just a rock-and-roll whore. Seriously, give me the money and I don’t care? No, I do care. I want to be a part of something that is cool. So I heard some of the tracks that they were considering my singing on and it was kind of more… it was it was more like a throwback to classic rock. Just freaking hard rock and I thought that’s pretty cool, you know, and cool storyline, religion and politics, and stuff like that. So yeah you know, I went in with Rich Chycki who I have recorded many things with, I went to his studio and recorded those songs and I think it all came out great. You know? President evil and all that, you know. Very cool.
K: And we have coming in up a couple months, the new Ayreon.
J: Yeah, Ayreon… Once again, actually… Ayreon, when I did “The Theater of Equation”, when we were performing that, he came up to me at the end of that production and he said “Hey you know, I’m working on something James, and I would really love for you to be a part of it again” “Can I count on you?” and I said Arjen, you know how I am, can I hear what you have in mind? and he goes “I know you’re like that, I know” and he goes “No, I wrote it with you in mind, these songs, for singing” so he says “You have to sing it!” I said “Well you put it to me like that again I’m gonna have to do it you know” but it is pretty cool because he- all of a sudden I get and email and it’s from Arjen and he’s like “I got the songs done!” “OK, I’m gonna send you the MP3s and you can listen” And I listen, I was like holy shit, this sounds freaking amazing. And then he told me all the other singers that he’s getting. It’s an incredibly talented vocal cast. And everyone on their on their own right is an amazing singer So, uh, yeah you know I went in and sand- -actually I sang that stuff in my basement in a little studio, but yeah, and I think it all came out great and I gave him what he wanted and yeah So, I’m really looking forward to hearing that, I’ve already heard a lot of it, but uh yeah, Arjen- I love the man, he’s such a spirited man, he’s very enamored in what he does and it’s infectious. And for me to meet somebody like that, such a great talent, very unique, very identifiable musically, it’s such a treat to be able to work with something like that because you really appreciate the depth of his musicality. Yeah, we’re really looking forward to hearing that. Cheers!