INTERVIEW AND LIVE PHOTOS BY MARKO SYRJALA
Dream Theater is undoubtedly one of the most important and successful progressive metal bands in the world. Founded in 1985, originally under the name of Majesty, the group has managed to retain its popularity despite the numerous lineup changes. The current line-up of, guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung, keyboardist Jordan Rudess, drummer Mike Mangini, and vocalist James LaBrie have been together since 2011 and their latest album DISTANCE OVER TIME saw the light of day in early 2019. The new album is still heavily present on the setlist, but the main focus of this current tour is on the classic METROPOLIS: SCENES FROM A MEMORY album, which was released 2o years ago. I met a very cheerful and talkative LaBrie before the gig in Helsinki. We discussed various things including the ongoing Anniversary tour, the band’s challenging early days, the breakthrough, LaBrie’s solo career and his other musical projects outside the band.
DISTANCE OVER TIME – SCENES FROM A MEMORY
So first of all, let’s discuss the current “Distance Over Time – Scenes from a Memory” tour. You’re still promoting the latest album DISTANCE OVER TIME, but at the same time, you’re celebrating the classic METROPOLIS: SCENES FROM A MEMORY record, which turns 20 years old this year. I have to say, time flies.
Yeah, no kidding. Well, first, we’re having a great time out here. I mean, we’ve been out for quite some time already, over a year. It’s kind of hard to believe, and I’m sure you’ve heard this from every band when you’re celebrating an album that was iconic for the band and the fans. It’s already 20 years later; it’s kind of surreal. You just don’t know where the hell the time went, but it’s very exciting. Every night we get out there, and we see the response from the crowd, it’s incredible. I mean, it’s even– how do I put it? There is even more enthusiasm and excitement doing it on this tour than there was 20 years ago when we were initially doing it. And I think a lot of that is because everybody’s been able to sit with it, become enamoured with it, and so now seeing it, and hearing it live, is something that they’ve sat with for so many years. Now they’re finally seeing it being celebrated. So I think that has a lot to do with it.
Actually, I was in the crowd when you played the entire album in this same venue 20 years ago
Do you have any special memories of that tour, and do you remember that particular Finnish gig?
Yeah. Yeah. Wow. I mean, we’ve been coming here for quite some time, but yeah, that was a long tour as well. I remember when we initially went out with the “Scenes from a Memory” tour, I think we were out like eighteen months or something like that. The response to the album, it couldn’t have been better, and it was almost like another chapter to our career. It started a whole new chapter for Dream Theater.
This current tour continues for a long time. So you probably haven’t thought yet what the band will do next after this tour is over?
Well, no. I mean, we were on this tour, and it’s like, “Oh my God.” As it stands, we could conceivably– I mean, we’re going to finish this tour at the end of February here in Europe. Then we go to Asia in mid-April till the end of May and then we’re taking the summer off. After that, we’re going to out in the Fall, and we’re not sure where we’re going to go, what we’re going to do. So, we could be out until the end of September.
A few years ago, you celebrated the IMAGES AND WORDS album, which at that time turned 25 years old – you played the entire album on that tour. I think that these celebration gigs are great experiences for the fans. Do you have plans to make more tours like these in the future? For example, OCTAVARIUM turns fifteen this year, and if I remember right, it is one of your favorite Dream Theater albums?
I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite album, but it’s a very strong album for me. I’d say the album that really– aside from IMAGES AND SCENES FROM A MEMORY, yeah, OCTAVARIUM is a very special album to me. But actually, SIX DEGREES OF INNER TURBULENCE is an album that I think, if someone was to say, “What are your top three albums from Dream Theater?” I’d say, IMAGES, SCENES, and SIX. So definitely, yeah, I think that was a brilliant album. SIX DEGREES was…first of all, coming off of SCENES, and then, boom, into another album like that was…I mean, it was two home runs. It was a cool little period of time for the band.
I personally think that DISTANCE OVERTIME is your strongest album in a long time. It’s also the first album where all current band members have been involved in songwriting. Is this something you wanted to do, or did it just happen?
I think that the fact that we went back to wanting all of us to be in the studio together and the fact that we kind of just closed ourselves off to everyone and everything; going there, living there, and just mainly focusing on the music, that was a big step for us. Because it just really– it’s one thing to say you’re in a studio and you’re writing together but when you’re actually around one another, and you’re living together. Even if you’re eating together or you’re sharing a bottle of wine or whatever, you continue to talk and you dialog. Ultimately, the conversation comes back to the music that you’re working on, and it really cultivates that whole process; it makes it even that much better. We had such a great time doing it, and the results were amazing because our fans, just like you said, around the world were just like, “Oh my God. This is incredible. I love this album. It’s rekindled my passion for the band.” We’re thinking at this point, too, when it comes time to go back into the studio. At this point, it makes sense for us to do that again.
This line-up has been together for almost ten years and released four successful albums. But some people still call it a new line-up, and some fans are still shouting after former band members. Does it seem that you can never please everyone?
You can’t. You know what? Here’s the thing: you’re always going to have your fans out there and your audience that prefers this member or that member or whoever it was, okay? Or, as you just said, that line-up. And that’s fine. If that’s the way you feel, then we’re not going to sit here and try to convince you otherwise. It doesn’t matter, because that’s the way you feel and so you either can appreciate who and what we are today or you don’t. Hopefully, you do. And you can really get into the music, and you can really have a great time, and we can continue that relationship. Or you don’t, and then you just move on to someone else. It’s that simple. Yeah.
However, as I said before, DISTANCE OVER TIME is a great album, and in my opinion, it’s your best record since TRAIN OF THOUGHT. This album is easy to listen to compared to THE ASTONISHING, which was, in my opinion, like a mammoth. “Laughs”
Yeah. I mean, THE ASTONISHING, I mean, personally, I love the album. I think it really allowed me as a vocalist to be able to go the full gamut and to really show everything that I’m about emotionally and vocally. To me, that was kind of a tour de force. I even had Dennis DeYoung from Styx, and Steve Smith from Journey say that too — tour de force for what I had done on that. That album, it was a lot for the fans to take in, I agree. Its kind of like it was a rock opera, and you’re either going to be into that kind of a thing, or you’re just going to go, “Shit no, man.” If you think back, look at The Who when they released TOMMY. Everybody was like, “What the hell are you doing to us?” Eventually, it came around, and everybody loved it. There’s always going to be albums in a band’s discography that some people are just going to go, “Nah, that’s not for me. That’s not my thing.”
I’m by no means saying it’s a bad record, but it’s not the kind of album you listen to when you drive a car, for example. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, you put it on when you put the headphones on, and you’re hanging out just crashed on your couch.
MORE ABOUT METROPOLIS: SCENES FROM A MEMORY
My all-time favorite Dream Theater album is definitely SCENES FROM A MEMORY. I think it’s the best record the band has ever made. But before that album, the group went through difficult times. The previous release, FALLING INTO INFINITY, was not as successful as expected, and there was also a lot of internal tensions in the band. If you think of that time period of the band now, what comes to your mind?
I mean, it was a very trying time for the band. It was incredibly trying. Yes, there were a lot of personal things that were being dealt with individually and the band, as a band and the bandmates, there was a lot of friction going on. It was a very challenging period for the band, growing pains, so to speak. We had to start looking at one another and kind of accepting one another for our idiosyncrasies and who we are as people. We’re all different. It was definitely a dark period for the band, no doubt about it.
SCENES FROM A MEMORY is the first Dream Theater album with Jordan Rudess. After problems you had with his predecessor, Jordan was probably that missing piece of the puzzle that made the group complete again?
Especially for an album like SCENES FROM A MEMORY, who’s more perfect to come in and write that kind of record? It was our first conceptual album. Then you had somebody like Jordan coming in who was all about progressiveness, was all about conceptual albums. The bands and artists that he grew up on, whether it was Genesis or Pink Floyd were infamous for their conceptual albums that were by far some of the most incredible albums ever released. So for him to come in and have that kind of inspiration growing up, and then being in a band like Dream Theater, it was perfect timing. It couldn’t have been better, and it proved it’s to be a very fortuitous situation, for sure.
THIRTY YEARS OF DREAM THEATER
I’m sure that you’re aware that next year is going to be your 30th anniversary with Dream Theater?
Mm-hmm. I know that! “Laughs”
It’s a very long time for anything. I can guess that when you joined the band, you probably didn’t expect this trip to last that long?
I mean, hey, for a band to even last freaking fifteen years is something. So when I sit back and I think that it will be thirty years in 2021… I mean, I was just telling you I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that it’s been twenty years since SCENES FROM A MEMORY was released. Now it’s going to be thirty years since I’ve been in the band and it’s crazy for me to think about that. At the same time, each and every one of us in this band, we realize just how fortunate we are and how blessed we are to have had such an elongated and successful career. How many people can say that? Not many.
If I remember correctly, after the band released WHEN DREAM AND DAY UNITE, they split quickly with vocalist Charlie Dominici. Then they briefly had a guy called Steve Stone in the band, but it didn’t last, and then they performed instrumental shows. When did you hear about the band the first time?
Well, what happened was that I was in a band which you’re probably aware of, Winter Rose. We were out touring with Lee Aaron. Long story short, I gave Lee Aaron a disc that we had written all these songs with Winter Rose, and she threw it down to a friend of hers in Quebec. He threw it down to New York, and the Dream Theater guys heard that disc, at which point they contacted me. They sent me WHEN DREAM AND DAY UNITE. I had never heard of Dream Theater before because my understanding was that when that album came out, it had critical acclaim from rock magazines around the world, but it didn’t really do anything.
I think it initially sold something like 5,000 or 10,000 copies or something like that. So, me being in Canada – I was in Toronto – I wasn’t even aware of this band. What I was told is, somebody from MCA records, her name was Charity, she contacted me and said, “There’s this band called Dream Theater. They’re in New York, and I heard that you were really into progressive music.” And I said, “Yeah, I am. Who told you that?” And she said, “Oh, this guy Pierre.” “Oh, okay. Okay.” And she said, “This band Dream Theater, can I send you off the disc and you can listen to it and let me know what you think.” Well, as soon as I heard it– I’m a huge Rush fan. So as soon as I heard it, I was like, “What the fuck is going on here? These guys are incredible, they’re brilliant, and they’re only– what, 20, 21 years old?” So at that point, Mike Portnoy actually called me and said, “Hey, we got your disc. We listened to it. We want to fly you down to New York and have you come and jam with us.” And I said, “Sure, man.” I said, “I just listened to your album, and it’s freaking great. What you guys are doing is brilliant.” I said, “I’ll come down, and let’s see if we can make this work, and if it clicks.” And that’s what happened.
Have you ever thought that your career could have gone down an entirely different path? I mean, before joining Dream Theater, you played with several hard rock and glam bands, including Coney Hatch. That stuff was very far from Dream Theater material… “Laughs.”
Yeah. I was really young when I was doing that, man. I was like 21 when I was in Coney Hatch. I grew from all these experiences. I was with them for about a year, and then I left that band because I just didn’t see it going anywhere. Then I was in three or four bands before I started Winter Rose, and then eventually Dream Theater. But I think that things happen for a reason. Winter Rose, at the time, was being looked at by Atlantic Capital. Who’s the other one there? I think it was Polygram. I think it was. It was then that these labels were serious about possibly signing us. Then when I heard Dream Theater, I was just like, “Wait for a second here. This is so unique and so different. This is something that if the cards are played right, it could materialize into something epic… or it’s just going to fall flat on its face.”
And I’ve got to be honest with you, here’s the thing, when IMAGES AND WORDS first came out, I don’t know how many people know this, but there were only 10,000 copies put up for distribution. That’s fucking nothing. I can tell you right now that you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation today if “Pull Me Under” hadn’t gone through the roof and become a hit on radio and MTV because what it did is set up a platform for us. It put us on a pedestal that we were able to ride this wave, set up the AWAKE album, and then set up any other subsequent albums. Without “Pull Me Under,” IMAGES AND WORDS would have gone nowhere, because already the label was kind of like, “Well, nothing’s really happened.”
We were in a van, driving around playing little clubs, sometimes 50 people. One time we played in front of five people, one time we played in front of 100 people. Then all of a sudden, “Pull Me Under” went through the roof, and then we’re selling out everywhere, playing in front of thousands of people a night, and it was just like a whole flick of the switch. We were really psyched, and we could hear it for what it’s worth. It wasn’t catching on, and it wasn’t until it caught on at college radio first, and then it went to national radio. That’s what blew it up as.
The band made its breakthrough with IMAGES AND WORDS, and everything looked good. But in 1994, something happened which made things harder for years to come. I’m talking about the food poisoning you got on your Cuban vacation.
Well, I mean, it was serious. I ruptured my vocal cords, and it changed who I was as a singer. It was a very trying time, and still, when I look back on it, that was a very dark period for me. That was a very trying time for me, and it put a lot of tension on me just because I know a lot of the fans were like, “What happened to James’ voice? Holy shit, he’s not singing like he used to. It seems like he’s having a lot of difficulties.” And I was! I was having a lot of problems, and I was seeing ears, nose and throat specialists, and stuff like that. When I look back, all I can say is that it was a real bullshit period for me, and I hated it. I hate what it did to me as a singer, but I was able to bring back I’d say 90 to 95% of who and what I was back then because I didn’t get all my range back. I got a hell of a lot of it back, and it was just me being determined to get back to being who I was.
You’ve always written a significant amount of the band’s lyrics and song melodies. Still, until recently, you haven’t been involved much in instrumental songwriting. However, you have released several solo albums filled with your own material. So the question is, do you feel that your writing style fits better with your solo material?
Well, I think that, first of all, when you’re in Dream Theater, and you’re sitting there in a room, there are so many frickin ideas flying around. The only way that I could get my ideas in there is that I put together all these pieces that I have, riffs, ideas, whatever it is, and then I just go, “Here’s what I got, here’s what I’m thinking, this is where I’m coming from.” Then we’ll either take pieces of that, or we won’t; that’s how it works. But yes, generally speaking, there’s so much going on in Dream Theater instrumentally, especially between Jordan and John Petrucci that a lot of it is just flying out and pretty much done. On this last album, though everyone was involved, everyone was a part of it. Even at that, it’s still hard to get all your ideas in there, or as many ideas as you’d like to. It always comes back to, and I get involved in the melodies and the lyrics.
When it comes to the solo albums, it’s Matt Guillory and myself who are working on these ideas, but a lot of that too, with Matt, is I do the same with him. I throw him all my ideas, and I go, “Here you go, here’s what I’m thinking musically. This is the direction I’m thinking. Here are some melodies and stuff like that.” We’re able to piece it together, the both of us, and make it happen. To a larger extent, Matt, because he’s playing the keyboards and he’s writing and all that, he’s a big, big part of that process, where he’s writing a lot of it. We sit down, we put the melodies together, and then I’ll go, “Okay, you do those songs for lyrics, and I’ll do all these songs for lyrics.” That’s how we’ve been working together since… the first album came out in 1999. So there you go. There’s another thing that’s 21 years we’ve been working on. And we’re working on the new one right now, and it’s going to be a freaking killer. It’s going to be a killer because it’s been a while. 2013 was the last one.
PROJECTS WITH OTHER PEOPLE
You’ve worked on a variety of projects outside the band, including Fates Warning, Tim Donahue, Frameshift, and Ayreon. How important has it been to work with different people and to make something musically different?
I think it’s very important because I think as a musician, you always grow, or you should grow from your interactions with other musicians. When we’re in Dream Theater, we know each other so well, and we know there’s a chemistry there, and there’s a flow. It always seems to be, to a certain degree, effortless. When you work with other musicians, you’ve got to kind of wrap your head around how they approach ideas, how they approach a composition and where you insert yourself and where you feel comfortable in the sense that you can create something very productive, something that you can both be proud of, something that you can say, “Yeah. That’s exactly what I wanted to see happening.” The finished product is something that you can stand behind 100%. So I think every time you work with another musician, you grow because it’s a different experience. All these years that I’ve been doing the solo albums, I’ve grown immensely because of that because that’s a completely different environment. And working with Matt and the other guys in the band, I mean, they’re phenomenal musicians. Peter Wildoer and Ray Riendeau on bass and Marco Sfogli on guitar, and then Matt Guillory as a keyboard player. He’s freaking incredible. And working with Arjen or– I did MADMEN AND SINNERS with Tim Donahue. He’s a freaking amazing musician, as is Henning Pauly from Frameshift. You definitely grow with all of these interactions with these great freaking musicians.
Arjen Lucassen is a unique person, a real character. He loves to create massive and sometimes almost ridiculously crazy sounding things. So, how was it to work with him?
He just has such a clear vision of what he wants. He told me since when he’s writing a song, he goes, “Oh! I know who I want to sing that. I know who I want to sing that.” He just knows. So when he approached me many years ago to do THE HUMAN EQUATION, it was because he said, “I was sitting down one day, and I was writing, and I was thinking, ‘I’m putting this whole concept together, this conceptual album together.'” And he said, “I knew right away I wanted you to be the lead role because of the way your voice is. You can get very subtle and emotional. And then you can get really heavy and hard-hitting and stuff like that.” And he said, “I knew right away that I wanted to get you.” He had read an article where I was complimenting him, and so he thought, “Wow, there’s the door. I just need to open it now.” So that’s why he contacted me. So that’s great. But he’s phenomenal– he is such a great musician and very focused. A lot of people– he’s a very nice person, for one thing, but that being said, he’s a very serious person. When you work with Arjen, you’d better be prepared and know what the fuck you’re doing because he expects 100% from you.
How about that True Symphonic Orchestra thing? Is that project still going on as well?
No, I mean, that was just something where I was approached to sing along with a couple of opera tricks and put those songs into a more rock format, a heavy metal format. That was a lot of fun. I went to Krasnodar, Russia, to record it. And no, I think that it was kind of just this little special thing put together and I think it came out great. I had a lot of fun doing it, but I think for anything to move forward from there, I think that it was just like a one-off.
Our time is running out, but here’s one quick question. A couple of years ago, you were supposed to be a guest vocalist for the Pink Floyd Symphony band with a massive stage show, and…
Oh, yeah, yeah.
That tour never happened. Why?
I don’t know. I think that, as far as my understanding is, they didn’t get all the financial backing that they thought they were going to get.
Maybe they didn’t sell enough tickets to make the tour?
Well, that, too, must have been a part of it. But I think initially; they were looking for investors to put all this money up front to get all the production, the rehearsals. It was going to be big. They were going to have all these freaking Cirque du Soleil people and stuff like that. I remember just thinking, “This is a huge production. This is going to cost a lot of money.” And all of a sudden, I’m getting word that “Oh, we’re not getting the backers and we’re not–.” And I’m thinking, “Guys, it’s way too big. I don’t know what you’re thinking.” So, I don’t know. That’s what happened.
You never heard of them again?
No, because nothing happened from it, ever again.
Alright, James. That’s all for now. Thanks for your time and good luck with the show tonight.
Thank you, Marko.
CONCERT PHOTOS FROM HELSINKI BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ