Story & Photo by Ben Hansen
Special to HNC
SALT LAKE CITY—Progressive metal is a style that has evolved significantly throughout the last 30 years. From the early contributors like Rush and Yes through the more intense modern bands of today like Mastadon, perhaps no band has done more to evolve the genre than Dream Theater.
The band has had several gold and platinum awards, nine albums, numerous world tours, and placement at No. 5 on the list of the 30 greatest live acts in the world today. Even Utah’s own Jon Huntsman Jr. has displayed his passion for the band, as he officially named July 30, 2007, as Dream Theater Day in Utah in celebration of the band’s last trip through town.
For more than 20 years, vocalist James LaBrie has been Dream Theater’s front man, helping to launch their successes into the stratosphere. Before a recent show in Salt Lake, we were able to get James to share his thoughts.
HNC: What did you do to celebrate the anniversary of Dream Theater Day on July 30th?
LaBRIE: (Laughs) Let’s see — where was I? I was in Europe. I can’t remember exactly where we were. It’s funny that you say that — Jon Huntsman is running for republican governor. It was really cool. He was a neat guy to meet, Governor Huntsman. Is he the still governor?
HNC: No, he’s moved on.
LaBRIE: I was really impressed with his knowledge of this kind of music and the bands that he grew up listening to. I didn’t really do anything special for that day — it comes and goes, to be quite honest with you.
HNC: Congratulations on having two consecutive albums in a row crack the Billboard top 10. After only 20+ years in the band, do you think that people are finding out about this “secret” Dream Theater band?
LaBRIE: You hope. I think it still amazes me how often I can come across people who will say, “I just found out about your band,” and then I’ll say to them, “What kind of bands have you listed to throughout your life?” They will say bands like Rush, Yes and Pink Floyd, and I’ll go, Wow! That just bewilders me that you can be into those kinds of bands, and not know until recently, within maybe a few years, that we even existed.
HNC: You guys were kind of the next evolutionary step in progressive metal…
LaBRIE: Yeah. The first thing that I would do if I was into those types of bands is I would also be on the Internet. You could research anything — just type in progressive bands of today. It still amazes me that it is still an educational process of letting people know who we are and what we are all about musically. It’s interesting, and it’s great. A prime example — here’s your son. He’s a fan. We’re seeing a LOT of that. We’re the seeing demographics from 15- 17-year-olds right up to 60-year-olds. It’s quite encouraging, and it’s a bit of inspiration to see that we’re covering so many generations.
HNC: Is your boy (Chance) into your music?
LaBRIE: My boy and my daughter are, for sure. It’s very cool. He’s 13, and Chloe’s 15. They have a keen appreciation for who and what we are, what we’re all about. It’s funny because when they are with their friends, a lot of their friends are listening to whatever song is on the radio, or whatever videos happen to be cool. Once their friends are aware of what we do, it’s once again like, “Oh my! What kind of music is this? What would you… I’m having a hard time listening to this,” because they have been inundated with what they hear on the radio, thinking that it is what represents music. Unfortunately it doesn’t. There’s a lot of amazing music.
HNC: Your music and Beebs (Justin Beiber) are kind of on different wavelengths?
LaBRIE: Oh boy. Yeah.
HNC: You’re four shows into the tour now. How are things working out with new drummer Mike Mangini, and how has the fan response been?
LaBRIE: We did a festival run over in Europe during July and the first week in August. We were over there almost six weeks, and the fan response over there was almost overwhelming. Each and every night, he got a standing ovation. People were up clapping and were quite ecstatic with his involvement. He’s infectious. First and foremost, he’s a phenomenal drummer. Secondly, he’s somebody that exudes such a great and positive energy. He draws you into his vibe, and he has such a great aura and is very charismatic on stage.
I think everyone is naturally drawn to him. Each and every day he goes out there and he pulls it off, does what we knew that he would do. I think the beautiful thing about Mike is that he’s been doing this just as long as any one of us has been doing it. He knows what to do, he knows how to prepare, and he knows it’s not just about playing, it’s putting on a good show. He is all of that.
We’ve done four shows in North America, and the fans have responded exactly the same way. They’ve welcomed him with open arms, and it’s quite encouraging to see this — for him especially. It’s very gratifying to see that.
HNC: His playing is solid on the new album.
LaBRIE: Yes. Wait until you see him tonight. He’s phenomenal! He really is a very unique, one-of-a-kind drummer.
HNC: The other exciting part is that we have a whole new production out with us for the rest of the world tour. A lot of people are going to be blown away, and so far they have been. It’s a big step up for us production-wise.
HNC: What was the most difficult song that you’ve had to perform other than Octavarium?
LaBRIE: That’s a good question. It depends on where you’re at. It depends on your mental state and on your physical state. That’s what puts up the challenge as to how you feel or how you connect to any one given tune. That changes, and is never a constant. I never look at a song like “Learning to Live” and go, “OMG, I’ve got to sing that tonight.” Sometimes yes, depending on if I’m not feeling well or am tired. It can even be a very mellow tune that tends to not connect with me, just depending on where I happen to be. I think that question would always change. I’m feeling great, and am right where I want to be vocally. Everything feels good.
HNC: I’ve read in past interviews that Octavarium is among your favorite albums. What in particular beyond just the songwriting makes that album so special for you?
LaBRIE: I thought that we really touched on some epic music, obviously with the title track and the dynamics of it. It really was the epitome of what Dream Theater is about as a progressive band pushing the envelope, and I felt that we really connected on something there. I still see the odd comment where someone will say, “I went back and listed to Octavarium. I hadn’t listened to it in a while, and all of a sudden it hit! Suddenly it connected with me, and I see what an amazing album it is.” I think that’s cool to see, because it reaffirms what I’ve always thought in that it was a good outing for us compositionally. I think that it once again established who and what we are as a band. It’s a very powerful album.
HNC: From reading other interviews, we’ve found out that you guys have established some “staples” for your set lists for this time around, and have changed the way that you go about this from the past. Was it you who selected the song off of Octavarium?
LaBRIE: I don’t believe so. I’m not sure who did that. The way that we went about this is we made a list of all of the songs that was considered as the master list, and then we voted. So that’s how we got an idea…there might have been three guys in the band that like that tune, two guys in the band that like that tune. Anything that was four or five votes for a song is what we went with for what we established as our A set list, our B set list, and our C set list. I think that we were all unified on that track.
HNC: You guys are well known for doing tons of covers, from Rush, Maiden and Queen through Metallica and Rainbow. Do you have a particular favorite song that you like to cover?
LaBRIE: No, I don’t. That was something that Mike was pretty much the flag bearer on wanting us to do covers, wanting us to pay homage to these bands that had classic albums that were very influential to many different bands out there. To be quite honest with you, my favorite songs to sing are our songs. That’s me. I did have a great time singing the Queen songs, just because Freddy Mercury was my all-time favorite vocalist and consummate front man. I think that where you really stand out is when you be yourself.
HNC: Was it fun for you guys to get to share the stage with Iron Maiden?
LaBRIE: Yeah. We had a really good time. We didn’t really see them. A lot of people assume that you’re all together backstage and that you are hanging out and partying. There is none of that, really. First of all, they don’t usually show up to the gig until maybe an hour before the show. We have our routines, every band has their routines, every band member has their routines on how they prepare themselves and get themselves set up for each and every show. We’ve known them for many years. I’ve done interviews on the BBC when we’ve been in the UK with Bruce Dickinson. I think we’ve done three or four interviews, so we know one another well. With that particular tour, it was just a matter of two bands that respect one another, here to create a buzz, and that’s what we did.
HNC: With you knowing Bruce [Dickinson], has he given you any kudos or props for covering “To Tame a Lamb” or “Number of the Beast”?
LaBRIE: No. That’s just like someone doing our stuff. I’m not necessarily going to sit down with them and go, “Wow! What you did there was really amazing.”
HNC: So it’s nothing like Ozzy, going and hiring the drummer that did the best cover version of “War Pigs”?
LaBRIE: Yeah. It’s not like that for me personally. Maybe for other singers, but not for me.
HNC: I can see your point. Are you kind of mad at those people who copy you?
LaBRIE: I don’t get mad at people who copy me. In one respect, that’s flattery. It’s the ultimate compliment when someone wants to cover you, because that means that they love you that much and they take seriously what you do and want to replicate it, to see how close they can get to the original.
HNC: The newer material seems to focus less on the high-octave vocals, and more on progression, power, and depth on each vocal track. All of the true fans know what happened with the vocal cords (hematoma) years ago – what else has contributed to this change?
LaBRIE: I look after myself. I get plenty of rest, I jog 3 miles a day, I take my vitamins, and I drink plenty of fluids. I don’t drink when I’m on the road. I think that that really helps. Anybody that has been to the shows, especially on this tour, can see that my voice is back to the full prowess self, and I feel great. When I approach any tour, it is about me being able to give 100 percent each and every night. Every singer will tell you that they know what can really assist you in getting there. Everyone has their ways, their little secret potions that really work for them.
HNC: Are you still sipping honey?
LaBRIE: Yes — honey and hot water. It is really soothing.
HNC: Can you tell us a little more about the nickname “Pirate” that Jordan gave you?
LaBRIE: I have that part of me that I can be a little aggressive at times when I want to make my point. In my past, when I was younger and more foolish, I was a little more physical to express myself, not so much verbal I got into some rumbles along the way – quite a few actually. It kind of rears its head every once in a while where I can be a little temperamental. I don’t mean where I’d ever threaten anyone, I just mean where I come out like (GROWLING) WHAT!!! One day, a few tours ago, he (Jordan) goes, “Argh, the pirate’s coming out. We’d better watch ourselves!” He used to call me captain. I’d come in and be like, “What’s going on here guys?” and he’d say, “Here comes the captain, better make sure that everything is in order!” Jordan has a nickname for everyone.
HNC: Fans wanted me to ask about the 12 Step Suite – are we going to get a chance to see this happen, and if so, when?
LaBRIE: I really doubt it. That was Mike’s baby. That was him expressing his personal experiences. I’m not going to say never, because you should never say that, but I will say comfortably that it’s not going to happen on this tour.
HNC: You’ve mentioned to us before that you’re Christian. How has your view of religion evolved and changed over time, and does that come through in your music?
LaBRIE: I was raised Roman Catholic. I would say that from the time I was sixteen and on, I became more spiritual, really reading spiritual books that gave me a little bit more appreciation. We all have incredible insight within each and every one of us. A lot of our answers can be found within us instead of being externally sought after.
I think that we don’t give ourselves enough credit. I think whoever designed us designed us so that we can rely first and foremost on ourselves. Instinctually, I think that we’re always given strong messages, but we tend to ignore them because of what we’ve been inundated with over the years, that then we feel the need to look elsewhere for answers. We shut that voice off, and I think that it is very unfortunate, because I think a lot of people would be more grounded, more confident, less neurotic, and less insecure. I think that we are going through a very transitional point in life in our times as humanity. Even this album, A Dramatic Turn of Events, is speaking on those very subjects — that we are seeing dramatic changes spiritually, politically, and socially.