Fireworks Magazine Online 86: Interview with Dream Theater

CE Updated


Words by Gary Marshall

February 2019 brings the release of Dream Theater's fourteenth studio album, 'Distance Over Time', which sees the band moving to a new way of working and signing to a new label in the shape of InsideOut. Fireworks sat down with James LaBrie to find out the details.

Fireworks 86 Dream Theater Interview

It may be cold and wet outside but I'm warmly welcomed by a friendly and enthusiastic James LaBrie at Sony Music's London HQ as we settle down for a quick chat about their upcoming album, which to my ears represents a return to form, being more about the songs and less about the virtuosity.

YouTube interviews with the band show them locked away in a remote studio, which turns out to be the five-acre Yonderbarn in Monticello, New York. With this being a process they'd not used in a very long while I asked LaBrie what precipitated this move. "It was John Petrucci who suggested it to us; we were like any other band in thinking about where we were going to record the new album and should we go back to where we did the last one, shall we get a warehouse and create our own studio etc. Then John sent out an email saying his wife Rena had suggested we get a place away from home where there'd be no distractions and we could just get on with being creative, bonding as a group and just hang out, so we set about finding a place and someone came up with this fabulous location. It once belonged to a Japanese composer, he did the music for the movie 'The Revenant' and he'd set it up as a studio but when we were there it was just a room as he'd taken away all the equipment aside from the cabling. We all loved the place, it felt so right...they'd taken all this old barn wood and refurbished it and it sounded phenomenal. The drum sound Mike (Mangini) got in that room was something else; he was very enthused by that, but everything in that room sounded phenomenal. The last time we did anything remotely close to working this way was on 'Images and Words' (1991/2), albeit that time the music was written before the recording. We lived in a house together and recorded at Bear Tracks every day. This time we lived in a farm house that was probably 100 yards away from this renovated barn where we'd go every day and start writing together, so it was a significant change for us. Indeed Jordan (Rudess) had never worked with us in this way as he joined after 'Images'. Unlike previous albums no-one brought in completed songs, it was purely a riff or a refrain that we'd then sit around as a group and work on until we were happy with it and then we'd move on. We'd start at noon or one in the afternoon and work through until ten or eleven at night, until we dropped really. It was amazing...=organic and collaborative with everyone contributing, which I think was what we needed as a band.

When you first put a band together you start with everyone in a room creating, jamming and playing live off the floor and the ideas are spontaneous and although people might be suggesting changes, the creativity is in that moment, that's invariably how bands come up with the songs for their debut album. Aside from a couple of seeds that came from sound-checks on the last tour everything else was of the moment, written on the floor in that barn. There was one particular riff of John Myung's that he'd start playing and almost every time it would take us off somewhere else and another song would come out of it. What was so great was that we were immersed in the music and rather than each of us going home or to a hotel after a day's work and commuting back the next day we were living on site and we were around each other all day so we would carry on discussing the music between sessions, over dinner or breakfast, so we'd hit the room energised and with ideas to work up. There was a really positive feeling and electricity around the group as a result and it was a prolific experience. Being around each other having conversations that always lead back to the music was great and I think the songs really reflect that energy and togetherness and I think the results speak for themselves. There were times when people left for a day or two because there's still the domestic stuff you have to deal with, but for the majority of the time we were all working together."

So, I wondered did this mean they worked more quickly on this album than any of its predecessors. "I'd say the writing process was probably about the same as usual, which tends to be around the three week mark and if I remember correctly we wrote this in seventeen days. We must have been in a pessimistic frame of mind though because we'd booked the place for two months just for writing [laughs]. However, the recording process was very much quicker as we'd track the demo live as soon as we were sure we'd got the writing done. Initially we'd gone out there with the intention just to write the album but the acoustics and the vibe in the room were so fantastic, which I think really helped the writing process too, and after considering any number of studios we might use for the recording I think it was either our engineer Jimmy T (James Meslin) or our right-hand man Matty Schieferstein who suggested 'Why don't you record it here?' So we did. Jimmy pretty much set the place up as a fully-fledged studio over a weekend after we'd hired in the equipment and we got on with recording there and then; that's everything apart from my vocals which I do in a studio closer to home in Toronto that I am very familiar and extremely comfortable with. I work there with my Engineer Rich Chychi who I've worked with for thirty years and he knows me and what I'm striving for."

LaBrie is the band's vocalist but he's not the sole lyricist so I was interested to learn how he gets his inspiration but also how easy does he find it getting the necessary emotion into someone else's lyrics? "I'm influenced by things that I hear in conversation, literature I read and stuff I see on TV, just being a human and what goes on around us is there for inspiration. Like with the track 'At Wit's End' which is about the abuse of women and the psychological effect that has on them. I've not approached this album any differently. If it's someone else's lyric I want to get into it and really understand it as soon as I can so I know what's their motivation and what it is they are trying to get across to the listener. Once I've got that I'm good to go and if there are parts that are unclear to me then I'll check back with the lyricist and I may suggest some minor changes until I'm comfortable I've got the right vibe. With John Petrucci's lyrics I've pretty much interpreted them completely accurately immediately.

On a couple of occasions where there has been ambiguity I'll ask him to give me his literal meaning and after he's done that I'm like, 'That's what I thought but it's good to know.' I like to internalise what the lyrics mean to me and how they emotionally hit me so when I sing them it's sincere and it's coming from me; it's almost as if those lyrics become mine even if they weren't, but that's always been my way of working. Through that process I pretty much know where I need to be vocally to express those words. I don't listen to any other music while we're creating an album, and I think John Petrucci is the same, because I don't want to be in any way influenced either directly or subliminally by melodies I might have heard elsewhere, as I feel you just need to be thinking what is going to come naturally out of you and not because you've been reminded of something you've heard elsewhere...which makes it difficult because I love to listen to music when I work out [laughs]."

Presumably given the way they worked on the songs this time around few, if any, lyrics were written beforehand. So how does LaBrie deal with that during the song's development process? "I'm with the guys in the room feeling the vibe and I pretty quickly get the feel of where the melody is going or needs to go so I'll just lay down a guide vocal for future reference and so I don't forget it. At that stage it's probably just me la la'ing along, no proper words. I'll work with John Petrucci and Jordan on the melodies and then we'll go off and write the lyrics. If I remember correctly I wrote three of the lyrics including the bonus track 'Viper King', John Petrucci did three and he co-wrote several with John Myung."

So, who were/are his influences? "I'm Canadian so Rush were a major influence but there was Led Zeppelin of course, Judas Priest, early Journey, Foreigner, Deep Purple and Queen, because to me Freddie Mercury was the ultimate frontman. I saw the movie 'Bohemian Rhapsody' recently and although they changed some of the truth – I don't know why they had to do that – I still thought it was terrific. The guy who plays Freddie is amazing."

I mention that I've always thought of John Myung and Queen's bassist John Deacon as being in a similar vein − understated, quiet and just getting on with playing. LaBrie is quick to jump in. "But they are absolutely integral to their respective bands."

The average length of the tracks on the album is shorter than we've seen from the band in the recent past. Was that a deliberate decision? "There was a conscious effort but we never let it be the mould or a contrived thing. To my mind if that ever became the case we should stop. We were always thinking 'Is the idea finished, have we explored all the options?' We would go round and round working up ideas. A case in point is the track 'Paralyzed' where we had a whole other section and we were like 'No, it's unnecessary. If we need to go there, let's do it live' and that was it, three minutes of music gone just like that. It sounded amazing, it really did but it wasn't necessary. At the back of our minds we were working with the premise of let's get to the point and smash it out the park."

I wondered if the band felt a weight of expectation to produce epic tracks, LaBrie is quick to shoot that thought down. "I would certainly hope not. I think our fans are sophisticated enough not to just like us because we do epic songs. We'll do them when there's a need for it and when what we are trying to do requires that amount of time, but it has to serve a purpose. Dream Theater is about the songs not about the length of the songs.

There was no masterplan involved, we just went where the music took us and as we were working up the tracks we'd stop when we felt the idea had reached its natural conclusion. There was one track, I'm not telling you which one [laughs], which had a long solo as the outro but when we all considered it we felt that part wasn't integral so we left it off. It wouldn't surprise me if that section doesn't find its way out there as and when we play the song live. I think that might be cool."

Given that the band tour extensively with every album I wondered how far in advance do these excursions have to be planned. Does it start as soon as they begin the album process? "Oh, there's a whole lot of planning and logistics that goes into booking a tour and that starts many months in advance. As soon as we start on an album we'll have an idea when it will be released, so our people will be talking with promoters and bookers as soon as we let them know when the album's due so they can put together a cohesive itinerary. The production guys have to develop stage, lights, transport etc. People often complain that we don't come to their town or country but we're not responsible for those choices, we leave that up to the professionals whose job it is and who have the expertise to sort out the schedule and appropriate venues. From a personal point of view we need to know the time-frame we have to book out. They'll give us the start and end dates and roughly which territories we'll be in when and then they'll fill in the specific concert dates and venues later on. Almost inevitably the tours grow more shows but we know the window for the start and the end." It seems that the majority of the European dates will be on Festival stages including 'Download' in the UK.

With fourteen albums to select from how do you go about choosing which tracks to play during the tour, it must be very difficult? "If it was up to us we'd play everything off the new album but you can't do that as the fans want to reminisce with you and there are so many incredible songs that we've not played in a long time. As a band there comes a time when you ask yourself, can I really play a track like 'Pull Me Under' again, and the answer is that there are songs that can be retired for the moment. It's not that they'll never be played again. Of course on this tour the whole second half will be 'Metropolis Part 2 – Scenes From A Memory' as it's the album's 20th anniversary in 2019 so that takes care of a chunk of the show, so then it's about what we can fit in to the remaining time available, which will be about an hour. Potentially we're going to work up a number of songs and then play them in rotation so it's a different set each night. That's not settled yet, we're still in discussion about that."

Slightly mischievously I suggest they could do an hour long medley. "I've never been a fan of medleys. As a kid, if my favourite bands did a medley, I felt a little cheated because the songs had been edited."

When undertaking a lengthy tour when the set is the same every night, doesn't that get tiresome? "It's tiresome when you think about it," replies LaBrie, "but not when you're in the moment because of the energy you're getting from the fans, the look on their faces, their animation..."

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