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Interview: JAMES LaBRIE

Pure metal...interviews

After having a “one on one” with Jordan Rudess earlier this year, I found myself interviewing another member of the Dream Theater family – vocalist James LaBrie. A couple of hours before he was to storm the stage of the London Mean Fiddler, I had a friendly talk with James about his new solo album “Elements of Persuasion”, his upcoming tour with Dream Theater as well as why he is supporting the idea of banning smoking in public places!

Hi James. First of all, I would like to thank you for taking the time to do this interview with Get Ready to Rock. As much as I would like to ask you a few things about Dream Theater, I would prefer not to do so, because I believe that “Elements of Persuasion” is important enough and deserves all the attention that it can get. How come you decided to release this album under the name of James LaBrie and not making this the third Mullmuzzler release?

James: Well, one of the main reasons is because I have moved to another label. This is the first album that I did with them, and they pretty much asked if it was OK for me to go with my name. I didn’t have a real problem with that, just because this is a new chapter - a new album with a new label which has quite a different feel and music direction than the other two Mullmuzzlers. I think that it’s a bit more concise, better directed and much more focused on a goal that Matt Guillory (keyboards & Piano/additional guitars) and myself wanted to. Basically, that’s why – it just seemed like it was a fresh new beginning!

Knowing how busy you manage to keep yourself with Dream Theater and all the other projects that you’re involved in, I was wondering when you first thought about recording a new solo album.

James: A little over two years ago. What we do, Matt and I, is that we would get together when I had down time from Dream Theater. Whenever I had a break from them, I would get together with Matt for a week, either at my place or his place, and we would write the ideas, the seeds, for the songs. We would arrange and construct them, and then we would go back to our homes with them in order to sit down and continue to build any new ideas upon them that would come in the meantime. We sent MP3s back and forth to one another, and that was kind of the process – getting together every so often, really concentrating on new ideas and then being able to take advantage of being in the same room with each other. That also allowed spontaneity to come into the writing process. We basically did that over a period of two years, because I was also doing other projects as well like Frameshift, Madmen and Sinners and then I had to work on the Dream Theater albums and the tours with them. We really took our time with it – I don’t know if we’ll take so much time in order to do the next one, but this is just the way that this thing happened to unfold.

So, it looks like the two of you have made quite a good team together. By the way – when did you first get together with Matt?

James: That was in 1998 – that’s when I first start talking with Matt and I got the chance to listen to some of his ideas, where he comes from stylistically as far as the writing is concerned. Then we were able to get together, and kind of put our ideas together, so from that moment on – since the first Mullmuzzler release, we just kind of felt that we would be able to work together. Now, as the years have gone on, each of us can understand how the other approaches songs and how we get through them to our ultimate goal. Everything seems to be going a lot easier these days, and I think that’s why this album is quite different from the other ones. We are on a whole new level of collaboration now.

Do you find things much easier when you have to record your solo albums, than when you have to make a new album with Dream Theater?

James: I think it’s all the same work ethics, you know? When I go to do anything, I am focused and that’s where my concentration is – it’s on whatever the priority is at that moment. The way that I would sit down with Dream Theater, is the same way that I would sit down with Matt. The only difference being is knowing that, yeah, this is my thing, whereas Dream Theater is a collection of five guys and it’s more like a band thing – even though, this project is also like a band thing, because I keep using the same players in each album, with the exception of Marco Sfogli, who is our new guitar player. He also brought a whole new level of musicality to the band, because I believe that he’s an exceptional guitar player.

I couldn’t have agreed more with you on that, James!

James: He just turned twenty five last week, so he’s over- precocious, so to speak! I usually just approach any given recording or writing process kind of the same. With Dream Theater you have five guys that are kind of in on it, so I’ll put my two cents in wherever I feel that I really need to speak up. That’s when I don’t really like something, or when I hear something different. With this band, its two people communicating back and forth, and coming up with ideas and then just having to really communicate between ourselves, so it’s a little bit more focused in that sense or easier because I don’t have to take in five voices (laughs). For five songs, we brought in another guy that collaborated with us – Brian Wherry. He helped us write the songs that he was involved with, which were “Freaks”, “Invisible”, “Pretender”, “Undecided” and “Oblivious”. Yes, it was very cool.

What state of mind were you in, when you first started composing the songs for “Elements of Persuasion”? It feels like there is some sort of tension behind every composition of this album, and with titles such as “Lost”, “Smashed” and “Oblivious” I can only assume that this is indeed the case.

James: Well, we definitely knew musically that we wanted to make a very aggressive and heavy album. I think a lot of that was because at the time of the inception of the ideas, we were both really into bands like Mudvane, Meshuggah, Linkin Park and Seven Dust. Also, we were listening to Peter Gabriel, so we kind of thought “how could we amalgamate these two different worlds, and bring them into the album so as to give it more depth and dynamics musically”? We knew that, overall, the predominant element would be heavy. The way that we write is that it’s always the music first, then the vocal melody, and then the lyrics. Matt wrote three sets of lyrics for this album. He wrote “Crucify”, “Alone” and “Lost”, and then I wrote the rest. With Matt, it's almost like a personal observation with his lyrics. With me...I kind of have three different sources of inspiration: the literature that I read, the media and the things that I see on TV, and also social issues – my personal observations and integration within relationships or just observing how people interact with one another. With me, once we have the songs written, I pretty much know where I want to take it melodically. Even when we write a song, I start hearing melodies, and then once the melodies are established, that dictates to me my lyrics in the sense that once I have the subject matter, it dictates the syllabus, so it’s easier to come up with the words at that point. With this album, I knew which subjects I wanted to write about. There is a sort of theme that’s connecting them – not that it was conceptual at all, but there are a lot of parallels and certain analogies of things that are going on around. I think that a lot of them had to do with who we are as people, from the time that we’re born to the time that we die, and those things that seem to influence us and inspire us are a lot of things from each stage of our life. That’s why the artwork looks like this (note: at this point, he showed me the album cover). I started coming out with this concept and communicated it to Thomas Ewer who is the artist. At this point, we are very much influenced by our microcosm which is our home, our immediate environment, and people surrounding us, like our parents and siblings. That home environment starts to mould our personality and shape us into who we actually become as adults, and then once we’re adults, it’s our relationships and the people that we hang out with, the career that we decide on or the type of education we have had and then we have other things that become priorities. A lot of it has to do with monetary values, materialistic goods, substances that we tend to want because we feel that they give us a bit more of a thrill – a high, so to speak. Then, at a later stage in life, we have a constant struggle with mortality and also the fact that we start to look in another, more meaningful sense at our existence and our life, and something that gives us a sense of salvation or helps us discover our reason for consciousness. But then, I try to keep the lyrics light – I don’t like to get that deep, because people are going to freak out (laughs). They will probably think “this guy thinks a lot – he probably needs to chill out a bit” (laughs). Anyway, I kind of knew that the lyrical content gives a brief enlightenment of these feelings and emotions, and situations that I believe that we all deal with and that are similar – there are more similarities than differences in general.

James Labrie

Do you believe that the people who listen to your music understand exactly where you’re coming from with your lyrics?

James: Yes. I have already seen from the internet, where people are trying to decide or interpret what’s going on lyrically, and for the most part they are close – some are way off, like “oh sh*t, how did he get to that???”. For the most part, I think that people...you know what, I really don’t like to describe my lyrics in a literal context, because I feel that it kind of takes away from the fantasy and the romanticism of the lyrics for the person to kind of make it become their own, through their own personal experiences. I think that that’s the beauty of lyrics: we might all read into them similarly, but there might be some areas of difference or different perspectives. At the same time, though, if it’s meaningful for the person, so what? That’s what’s important, you know? I think that, for the most part, people kind of land on the idea or the direction that I was going lyrically, or specifically what I was talking about. That’s also the beauty of painting lyrics with metaphors, so that we can all relate or have more of a connection with metaphors, than we do with an actual, literal meaning or description.

I did an interview with Jordan (Rudess: keyboardist of Dream Theater) a few months ago and I remember him saying how he had to record his solo album in two weeks, because of the upcoming Dream Theater tour for the support of “Train of Thought” album. Was that also the case with your album?

James: No, I wouldn’t put myself into a corner like that, because it would have been impossible! I don’t know how he did it, to be honest with you. No, with me, I had it planned out so that when Dream Theater would finish their last world tour, I had enough time to just chill out with my family. After that, I just went into the studio, which was end of September 04, in order to record the drums. From the beginning of October, through to…probably the middle of November, I was off and on in the studio, because at the same time, we started the writing process for “Octavarium”, the new Dream Theater album, which is going to come out on June the 7th. We started on the 1st of November, and then we were taking breaks in between. For most of October, that’s when we did all – bass, guitars, keys and piano, and then in November I took eight days to do the vocals for this album. I kind of fit the days in whenever, because I recorded it at my brother in law’s cottage. We set up a Pro Tool system, so that I was looking out on the water while I was singing. It was great, because it kept me really focused and calm, and it was very inspirational because I had no distractions. I would say that the recording process was probably a five-week one. The mix and the mastering took place in late December/early January.

It all sounds quite relaxed – almost ideal to me.

James: Yeah – relaxed and manic, because I was very deep into the Dream Theater world at that point. I was going in while they were mastering in the morning, at the Hit factory in New York, which is no longer now and Dream Theater was the last band to have recorded there. Anyway, in the morning, I would go in while they were mastering this album at the Hit Factory mastering studios. That was upstairs from where we were actually writing and recording the new Dream Theater songs. So, in the morning, I would be upstairs watching them mastering a couple of songs of the “Elements of Persuasion”, and in the afternoon I’d be downstairs with Dream Theater…

Did you ever have any quality sleep? What time would you go to bed every day?

James: One, two o’clock in the morning (laughs). You know what, it’s just a matter of knowing how to balance things and not feel at all confused over what you have to do. It went well. I made sure that, whatever I was involved in at a particular moment, that’s all I was thinking about.

Do you get involved at all with the recording process, the production of the album and things like that, or do you leave these things in someone else’s hands?

James: No, no, no! I actually produced this album, so I am very much involved. I have a certain way that I want things to sound and I know what I’m looking for. Richard Chycki mixed it and was in the mastering process along with Scott Hull, who, unfortunately, didn’t get credit for it because of a mix up at the printing company. Anyway, Scott Hull has worked with a lot of Steely Dan albums. He is great at mastering. Anyway, back to what you asked me. Even during the recording process. I would always communicate to Rich certain sounds that I was looking for for certain parts of songs. I would tell him “I need you to do this and that”, and we would sit down and discuss it. We would play the sections, and I’d say “this is what I am looking for, like a filter, a fact or a flange or whatever is the situation. I had a real clear vision or sense of where I’ve needed things to go, whereas in Dream Theater, my involvement is different, as I explained previously. When I have to write the melodies, I write them with Mike (Portnoy: drums) and John (Myung: bass), and I will also get involved in a couple of lyrics. When I am recording the voice too, I have a certain way that I want the voice to come out and then I walk away from it and let them be the producers. Mike and John then sit down with the mixer, and they have a certain way that they want to mix the albums. Would I do it different? Probably, but we’ve kind of “thrown” them into those “chairs”. “You guys wanna be the producers? Ok, go for it”. When you listen to any of my solo albums, they’re done exactly the way that I’ve seen them – more so on this one than even on the Mullmuzzler ones. In the Mullmuzzler albums, I had an idea, but the guys who produced them didn’t necessarily...get it (laughs). They were not able to bring it to life, whereas with this one, Richard was right on it. Richard has worked with Mick Jagger, Seal and Pink. He’s been involved with bands enough that he knows, either you know what the hell you’re doing, or you don’t get hired. Richard is also an old friend of mine, because we were in the band Winter Rose together – he was the guitar player. I know exactly how he works – he knows exactly how I work, so it was already a relationship…

Made in heaven?

James: Yeah – exactly so. It was very cool.

I really don’t know what the reaction has been towards this new album of yours, but what I do know is that I really enjoyed listening to all the different styles and sounds that are featured there. Quite unusual in places.

James: It’s experimental, and some say that it’s risky, but Matt and I knew that as much as we wanted the album to be heavy, we also wanted to bring some other worlds to it, so to speak, like the techno beats and the samples. Matt is a huge BT fan. I don’t know if you are aware of this guy, but he’s phenomenal. He is an absolute genius when it comes to sounds and samples. He’s worked with guys like Sting. BT actually writes songs for albums whose production is simply phenomenal. Matt, being a big fan, he wanted to bring in these elements and that’s when I started to listen to BT myself. I remember saying “wow, this is very cool. We can maybe put some of them here and there, as long as it makes sense”. That’s the thing – that’s what we talked about. Let’s not just do it to be cute and say “look at this, don’t you think that it’s cool?” It had to make sense in the fact that it was supporting words and mood-wise musically. That’s how we decided to bring all those elements in. Even with a song like “Loss”, we were kind of juggling that back and forth – whether we wanted to incorporate it on this album. It’s quite different than the others – it’s more like a jazz contemporary feeling tune, you know? We kind of altered it slightly here and there to give it a bit more contemporary feel, and then we felt comfortable enough putting it on the disk. That’s the same thing that we did with a bonus track called “Understand”, and it’s quite different. That’s more coming from a Gabriel/Seal approach. We still did what we wanted to do, and throughout this album, it was really cool bringing in those elements. It was exciting for us, experimental. Like I said risky, but I think that it all made this album so much better.

It is hard to imagine how a fan of James LaBrie would find it difficult to like an experimental song. I was hoping that they would have become used to things like this by now.

James: Well, I’ll tell you – I will give you an example! In South America they are loving the album, but in one of the interviews that I did (laughs)…the guy was “you know the Metalheads love this album, but they’re also pissed off”. I was like “OK, why are they pissed off?” and he then explained to me that it was because of these samples and the use of techno elements in a song like “Alone”. Even though they love songs like “Crucify”, “Freaks” and “Oblivious”, they couldn’t wrap their head around the fact they heard all these record scratches on “Alone”, and that pissed them off. This is what you’re dealing with – you’re dealing with people that are “if it’s not going to be this and all this, you’re going to try to enlighten us to another angle musically and we don’t appreciate that – we just want to hear to it like this”. I don’t know – that’s fine really. Music is, by nature, very subjective. You’re going to get people that are into it and appreciate it for what it is, and you’re going to get other people that are confused by it (laughs). At least that’s my interpretation, and that’s fine.What this guy gave me was kind of like a loaded compliment. That’s OK, because I wouldn’t have done it any other way. That’s me, and this is Matt – you either like it or you won’t.

For the record, let me just say that I’m really happy that you did chose to experiment this way and that I hope that one day, fans will be smart enough to realise what you did there.

James: They love the album- they were just a little taken back by these things. I think that the reviews and everything that I’ve seen around the world have been incredible – we’re very happy with it. For those who don’t get it, that’s fine too – I’m completely comfortable with that! I don’t expect everyone to like it – that’s just not reality.

Is there a time limit as to how much longer you are going to be on the road promoting “Elements of Persuasion”?

James: Yeah – we have two more days (laughs). Tonight we play here in London, tomorrow we play in Paris and the following day we play at Aschaffenburg in Germany. After the tour is over, I am going back home to relax with my family for a month because after that the Dream Theater tour starts up. That’s the thing: the label is very happy because we’re having really good sales, but they also said that it would have been really beautiful if we could stay on the road a bit longer. I was offered a tour in South America by a local promoter. Also I was offered to play in Asia, but I can’t. If I was to really get into those areas, I would need at least two weeks to do South America and at least another ten days to do Asia, which means that I would have to spend a week with my family…no, I am not doing it. Not when I’m going to jump into a Dream Theatre world tour, and I know that we’ll be out pretty much until next year this point. With Dream Theater, we are going to go to South America, Asia and possibly even going to Australia. Then we’re doing a North American tour with Megadeth through the States and Canada. Then we’re coming back here in the fall to do a headline tour, then to places like South America and Asia and after that back home to do a headline tour so we are easily talking about a whole year of touring really!

James Labrie

Do you still enjoy doing it after all these years?

James: I still love being on stage, I still love being in the studio writing and recording – I love it, but I’m completely fried on travelling. I hate it! I hate getting on a plane, I hate getting on a tour bus (laughs). I’m fried on that part of it, but I know that I still really like walking on stage and I’m really comfortable where I am right now. Vocally, I’m back to where I was twelve years ago, or even better. I think that this also gives me a renewed sense of enthusiasm.

What exactly do you mean with “back to where I was twelve years ago”?

James: Well, because in 1994 I wrecked my vocal cords. It wasn’t irreparable, but the doctor, a throat specialist, said that it was going to be a very lengthy healing process. It took me about little over two years ago before I really felt that my voice was feeling like it once did, and then I went back studying with a girl by the name of Victoria Thompson. She completely brought me to a point where I feel that I’m stronger now than I ever was. Just from this studying, and now my voice is back and my range is back, but for many years it was a dark period for me to go touring. It was very inconsistent – I had a good night, and then I had two or three sh*t nights (laughs). It was unpredictable – I didn’t know if I was coming or going vocally. Touring from about January 1995 to the latter part of “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”, I didn’t know where I would be. It could have given out any single night. It was pretty trying time for me – a pretty dark period. But now it’s all in the past, and now I am where I am and it’s great!

About tonight’s performance: Who are the artists that are going to accompany you on stage?

James: Well, it is obviously Matt Guillory (keyboards) and Marco Sfogli – the guitar player. Then we have Andy DeLuca (Symphony X) on the bass guitar who is from Chicago – he is not really known, but he’s a really good bass player. Then we have John Macaluso on the drums, who has also played with Ark and TNT and is indeed a great drummer. Mike Mangini who’s played on the Mullmuzzlers, as well as this and Bryan Beller (bass), they were not able to do it. Mike had commitments – he teaches at the Berkley music school and this was exam time. He tried to get out of there actually – he asked his professors or bosses if he could get out and they said “absolutely not”. He wanted four weeks off, and they wouldn’t give them to him. Bryan Beller was already committed to doing a tour with another band, so he couldn’t bail on that one. Hopefully, next time, if we could schedule and set it up properly, I would be on tour for much longer. I would like to be able to wait for two months in order to see how good the album will do and then go on tour. That’s the way I want to do it next time, instead of just a quick one and then I’m gone. I want everybody to know that this is much more than just a side project thing that everybody seems to be doing these days, you know? This is an actual band, and it would be great to take the actual players out next time round. Mike said that he was even willing to quit in order to go on tour with the band next time (laughs). He’s really bummed out that he cannot be here, but with the right planning we will really make something out of it. We will, possibly, do some more extensive touring in the States. Ultimately, I would like to get out with another band in the States, have them headline and have me open and do, like, an hour set – knock the people out with it and then move on. We’ll see – we’re talking about it, but it’s all a matter of getting the writing done, getting the recording done and then setting things up so that it falls in the period when Dream Theater is taking a break.

You are one of the few musicians that I’ve personally met that has played almost everywhere – from the biggest arenas to the smallest venue doing covers with Barney from Napalm Death on vocals. Have you reached a conclusion as to which is the ideal crowd for you, numerically speaking? Is there a live show that you can single out as the best ever in your musical career?

James: Not really, I don’t think that there is any one gig. I think that each gig for the most part has been unique. You’re playing in front of different fans and people each and every night, even if you’re in the same country. It’s a different city, it’s a different vibe. To me personally, and I don’t know how the other guys feel about it, I’ll take any environment, whether we’re playing in front of 10.000 people or in front of 500 people. Each has something to offer. When you’re in front of 500 people, it’s much more intimate, much more eye contact and you also feel the vibe going on and that’s really exciting. When you’re in front of thousands of people or when you do the festivals, that’s cool too. It’s unbelievable when you see all those people having a great time. Each situation has something to offer, I think. This is an interesting tour for me, because I haven’t done these rooms like this in a long time, you know? It’s kind of reminding me of where we came from with Dream Theater and it’s all good. It gives you a sense of appreciation where you’ve gone with a band like Dream Theater and where we’ve been able to take things. Also for me, it’s like starting this thing from the very bottom and developing things. This is a completely different entity that has nothing to do with Dream Theater. I’ve been having a great time playing these clubs, aside from the smoke! This is one thing that I really hate. It is really bad, especially in places like Italy and Germany where you might as well pass me a cigarette while I’m on stage (laughs). Seriously, the other night when we were in Düsseldorf, it was unbelievable – my eyes were burning and the other guys in the band were complaining about it too. I don’t miss that playing the bigger theatres and venues – I definitely don’t miss that! You know what – it’s exciting. Each night, it’s a different bunch of people that you’re playing in front of and they are also excited because it’s their first time seeing you and you just keep reminding yourself about that. This is their moment to experience maybe what you’re doing every night, but this is their first time experience with this particular tour. Once you can really keep that clear in your mind, then you go out every night and you give your best, no matter what environment or setting you’re in. Festivals are cool – I don’t mind doing them, but festivals are so limited with what you can do and achieve. There are all these other bands and depending on where you’re at, especially when you’re headlining…oh God, you can just see how fried everyone is – they’re exhausted! They probably have ear-fatigue and then you can forget all about it. I think that one of the best festival tours that we ever did was when we were with Page and Plant – that was great, an amazing experience.

Are you one of those people that gets fed by the reaction of the crowd? Do you kind of demand such a response from your audience?

James: I think that everyone reacts to such a vibe. On this tour, for instance, we were in Switzerland, and it was really bizarre because it reminded me how it is when you play in Japan. The crowd was really quiet while we were playing our songs, and made us start thinking “are they really into this, or are they hating it completely?” In between the songs they would start cheering, but once another song started they immediately became quiet again. I was like “what the hell is going on – I don’t remember this from Switzerland at all”. The other night I was “holly sh*t – I don’t know what to make of this again”, but it obviously went great because the merch guy came and said “holly sh*t man- the other night I couldn’t keep up with the shirts that I was selling” and then the promoter came and said that people loved it and I was “what, are you kidding me?” That’s the way those people reacted to it and it’s different each time. You don’t know what to expect each night, but you definitely do vibe off from the crowd’s reaction. I know that, no matter who I play with, and mostly being Dream Theater, they all react the same way. If the crowd is really quiet or conservative, you feel like “hm, ok” – look at them right in the face and see if you can kind of make sense at to whether they are into it or not. If they’re not into it, then they should go (laughs).

I find it quite difficult as a fan of your work and of Dream Theater not to keep still when John Petrucci for instance, is doing a guitar solo. This is something that you should expect as a reaction, when you play complicated and technical music parts.

James: Yes, I can understand that. When it’s “An Evening with”, it’s a long evening of music – that’s three hours long, so you have to realise that not everyone is going to be headbanging or raise their fists in the air for three and a half hours – it’s not right. Each night has its dynamic feel, which is good – you want it to be like that.

James, I want to thank you once again for doing this interview. I hope that the “Elements of Persuasion” will become as successful as it really deserves. What is your message to the subscribers of Get Ready to Rock?

James: Hi everyone on Get Ready to Rock. I hope that you’re enjoying “Elements of Persuasion”, and I hope to speak with you soon – see you on tour!


Interview © 2005 John Stefanis

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