Progressive metal heavyweights Dream Theater are generally seen as the flagship of the progressive rock and metal scene. With the departure of drummer Mike Portnoy many thought the band was done for, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Their latest self titled album is a clear sign there’s still chemistry around and that Petrucci and Co are in a really good place. Helena Rosendahl spoke with frontman James LaBrie about the new album and everything surrounding it on a sunny afternoon in London.
Your first release featuring new drummer Mike Mangini from its inception, truly his ‘Right of Passage’ into the band, what has been your collective intention with the album?
Well I think that as a band what we realised is that with A Dramatic Turn Of Events, leading up to that album one of the original members left (Mike Portnoy left the band), and then we did the auditioning. We found a guy that we knew from the very start was going to fit like a glove and I think from that point it was a matter of us doing what we do, let’s write a great album, this is really necessary. But Mike Mangini wasn’t involved in that writing process for A Dramatic Turn Of Events, but granted he came in and he came in and still did a phenomenal job when it did come down to him doing his tracks. I’ve known Mike Mangini for over fourteen years, he played drums on three of my solo albums; first two Mullmuzzler albums and Elements Of Persuasion. So I’ve known him for quite some time. And so I also knew that he’s the man.
Is that because you had that ‘working relationship’ already in place?
Yeah, just because I love his personality, he’s one of the easiest guys to get along with, you know, he has such a great attitude. He’s a phenomenal drummer; the best, I feel, on the planet and I don’t think I’m alone on that one. I think what really helped was we had an entire world tour (‘A Dramatic Tour Of Events’). When you’re out on the road that’s when the true colours of someone really starts to show themselves and not only that, you get much more in-tune with, no pun intended, the musician and you understand how he works, he reacts, he interacts, and I think that by the time we went in to start thinking about what we wanted to bring this album he was fully on-board, we knew that it was just going to be a phenomenal ride with him – which it was – he showed up from the very first day that we started writing and he was ready. At the same time, what was really great about him was he’s very respectful, like he understood, you know, that “these guys have been doing this for 20 years plus, they’ve got a chemistry going on here so you know, I’m gonna sit back but at the same time I’m also going to be involved and really enthused”, which he was. That wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t done fifteen months out on the road with us, so that was a crucial step. So moving right to that point, now usually what we do is we discuss where we think we want to go or what we think is necessary or what we’d like to see be included within this album, the next musical journey.
You said in a recent interview that this album is the “most cohesive” work you’ve ever done. Keyboard player Jordan Rudess has also claimed that he and John Petrucci now feel “like free”. From your standpoint, how has the creative experience differed now?
It feels completely different. I know what Jordan is referring to and I would say that granted, Jordan and John Petrucci are the main composers but at the same time it’s a much more collective effort now, more so than it’s ever been. John Myung is really coming to the front, I’m coming to the front with what I represent, Mike Mangini speaks for himself in that you have to remember somebody like him, he’s been doing this just as long as we have, we’re all from the same place of inspiration and influences; growing up at the same time and schooling and all that musically. The way that this band writes quite a bit is there’s a lot of spontaneity and Mike Mangini is all about that. He hears a riff or a chord progression come from Jordan, or even a groove you know, stemming from John Myung and he’s just like (air-drumming) on it and playing it and you’re looking over and going “Oh my god it’s awesome!”You know what, there are a lot of moments on this album were actually what you hear is one take on the drums, right there when the part was constructed. Like immediately ‘bam-boom’ and he’s got it down. He’s just instinctual, he’s an intuitive player, I mean he has a full understanding of what this means. So I think you know Jordan is definitely right, there is a chemistry of freedom too with John and him so that it doesn’t feel like there’s a pressure or a need for any one of us to say: “Well what about me? Wait a minute here you’re not listening to me!” No, we listen to every one of us and it’s the sum of the parts you know? It’s really why I think the last two albums sounded the way they are is because it is a collective effort, it is all about truly being a band in a writing environment.
Dream Theater harkens back to more your traditional songwriting as featured in Images & Words, with shorter, song-orientated pieces and less emphasis on keyboard and guitar duals – was this deliberate?
Yeah I think we did go into this saying let’s really think about the crafting of songs. Not that we don’t do that on every album, of course we do. It has to make sense, it can’t be a superfluous, self-indulgent ride, otherwise you’ll have no audience. But I think with this one that we knew that what – like those three assured, or necessary parts that we knew had to be included within the album being the opening track, the instrumental and the epic.It was really about the songwriting and even as far as what everyone was doing as a section is going on, it’s not just a matter of “yeah just keep in moving forwards” it’s like “what’s really happening while we’re going through a verse or a particular section that is very technical or complex? What can we do to make it more memorable?”, something that you can really feel has been ingrained within you and you’re walking away with. But I think all these ‘attention to detail’ approaches do benefit us in the end and really make this album. You know, I mean it is still really Dream Theater but it has something different and it’s great that you’re picking up on that, it is about our ‘core roots’ and it’s also about the rawness, like the way it was more of just being aggressive and heavy and having great melody hooks and all that.
I understand that you once again recorded your vocals separately with engineer Richard Chycki in Canada. Why do you prefer this approach?
I don’t like anyone to be around when I record my vocals, it’s the same with John Petrucci when he’s doing his solo’s or tracking his rhythm guitars, he doesn’t want anybody around. That’s just the way that I work best, I work where it’s just me and the engineer, it’s my interpretation, it’s my bringing, conveying what I feel it emotionally says to me. If anyone else is in the studio I find it to be a distraction.So yeah Richard Chycki and I have a huge history, we’ve known each other for 25 years. We were in a band in the 80’s together called Winter Rose and so we have a great connection and a great chemistry with one another. And the thing is that Rich, he knows me probably just as much as the guys in Dream Theater as a vocalist. He knows how I like to work, he knows how I like to really be patient in the way that I find the voice that is right for that particular section, and it’s just worked wonderfully for the last two albums under those those principles. What’s funny is that I worked under those principles the first few Dream Theater albums and then we started bringing in John and Mike (Portnoy) and if I could go back it would’ve been: “let’s not ruin a good thing here, let’s keep like I know I can work my best.” Not that I’m ashamed of, or I feel that I didn’t do something vocally there that I shouldn’t have but it’s just that I know that this is the best way to work.
You have sold over 11 million releases worldwide, reaping countless critical acclaim and accumulating a staggering amount of truly dedicated fans. Do they feel creatively limited by the pressure of pleasing such a significant, fanatical fanbase?
I don’t like to speak on behalf of the band but I will comfortably say, no, I don’t think so. I think that the way that we introduced ourselves as the band, and I wasn’t even on the first album, from the second album onward and the way that we’ve maintained such an amazing relationship is because of what we represent as a musical entity. There are no limitations, we are expected to be unpredictable, we are expected to push the envelope, to be experimental and that’s the ultimate in creative freedom. I mean, that’s the only way that we can exist. So I don’t think that we’ve ever, ever found ourselves in a situation and gone “well you know…what do you think they expect from us?” I mean granted that you might think that but it’s not something that you stay focussed on or concerned with. It’s really a matter of what we feel and I’ve always said that each album of any band for that matter, is almost like a crystal ball, looking into what was influencing them at that point, what was going on in their lives, what were they intrigued by, what were they disturbed by, what was their emotional state at that point. And I think that each album is a very strong reflection of that. You have in any given band 3 guys, 5 guys, 6 guys, each person has their own personality, each person has the way that they react and communicate. It’s a matter of learning that from one another and I think that’s what really makes any band really click because we’re not all the same in a sense and that comes through musically quite a lot clearer, it’s an energy that’s indescribable and a union that’s indescribable.
You’ve got big touring plans for 2014, with numerous dates already announced – could we see a live DVD on the horizon as well?
We have a new DVD come out November 5th, so that’s Live at Luna Park which we recorded down at Buenos Aires and so that is going to be our latest and I think it is our most complete DVD that we’ve ever done to date. So behind the scenes there’s a documentary which also supports the actual show part of it. We shot two nights there so we almost have 5 1/2 hours of show, of footage. It comes out November 5th, but we also have it coming out at sometime around September 19th it will be aired at theatres around the world. So at that point it will be heard in 5.1 which is the ultimate for a band and their music like this, and in that environment too it’ll be truly an exciting experience.