As the voice of Dream Theater, James LaBrie should need little introduction. Holed-up in an American studio mixing the latest opus from the kings of progressive metal, Andy Read interrupts the Canadian’s busy schedule for a rare interview.
As well as the story behind his new solo album and tour, the Canadian speaks openly about his religious views, his desire to star on Broadway and how he once nearly died after eating a dodgy bit of pig!
And of course, we learn what to expect from the upcoming Dream Theater release…
ANDY: ‘Elements of Persuasion’ is James LaBrie’s third solo release and sees a change in both the project’s name and in the record label. I start by asking what prompted him to consign the former Mullmuzzler title to the musical history books.
JAMES: ‘Well I wanted to start things anew,’ he explains. ‘I’ve signed a contract with Inside Out and am no longer with Magna Carta. So even though I came up with the name Mullmuzzler, I just felt that things were starting over, so why not change the name as well. At the end of the day, who cares? It’s all about the music. But the label was pushing me to just use my own name and, as I said, it’s a new chapter and things needed to start afresh.’
Offering the listener a dozen, hard-edged slices of music, it would be too simplistic to label ‘Elements of Persuasion’ with simple tags such as ‘metal’, ‘progressive’ or ‘modern rock’. It has strong elements of all these things and more to boot. What it does achieve, in plentiful doses, is to fulfil the singer’s often-quoted aim of making his solo albums diverse in both their influences and styles.
Personally, the biggest difference to his previous releases lies in the fact that ‘Elements..’ is a far heavier, more metallic offering. So much so, that I believe it will be a huge surprise to many of his fans. I ask LaBrie whether he agrees with such an observation.
‘Yes absolutely. On this album I really wanted to create a balance. I wanted this to be contemporary but I wanted it to have it’s own identity – it’s own unique approach musically. We bring in some experimental elements, like some samples and even techno at times. But at the same time it is direct. Because we spent a lot of time on it, I think we’ve really achieved that balance.’
From the very start of the opening track, the one thing you can not miss is the input of new guitar wizz-kid Marco Sfogli. The sole change in personnel from the last Mullmuzzler album, a quick search on the web finds a stocky, shorthaired axeman with credits on just three Italian albums. I wonder where LaBrie came across this young talent.
‘To be honest I’ve only known the guy for like six months,’ he chuckles. ‘He’s only 24 years old, and I think he really brought the music a different feel - really brought it up a notch.’
‘His background is from Naples, in Italy where he studied music. His parents are in a world music group and he’s toured everywhere since he was three years old. He told me that he remembers when he was four, playing percussion with his parents on stage in South America. He’s very rhythmically-inclined. He was a real treasure to find.’
As we go into more detail about Marco’s contribution to the album, it becomes clear that it was another band member, former Dali’s Dilemma keyboardist Matt Guillory, who actually brought him forward.
‘We were originally gonna play with Andy Timmons (ex Danger Danger) but we couldn’t nail down a time that we could work together,’ explains LaBrie. ‘I’d still love to play with him but it wasn’t possible at this point. So Matt and I were discussing possible players. We had CDs coming in from guitarists all over the place. I mean, they could all shred like Yngwie Malmsteen but I didn’t hear anything in there that really grabbed me in a musical sense.’ And then Matt says that he’d been corresponding with this guy from Italy for the past year. I checked him out and within 10 minutes of listening to this guy, I was blown away. This was our man.’ ‘He’s a big fan of Dream Theater. He was a John Petrucci disciple, so to speak. But he very much has his own identity - and that I really respect.’
From the few interviews I’d read before with the Dream Theater frontman, LaBrie always comes across a deep thinker who puts a lot of consideration and experiences into his lyrics. He certainly has no hesitation, when I invite him to outline the thinking behind his latest release.
‘With the album title, it has a lot to do with the people that we meet everyday. The person that we become, is basically a mould from what we’ve been influenced by – family, friends, relationships, the media – the things that we come across everyday.’
‘What I conveyed to Tom Everhart who did the album cover, is that behind the main subjects – being the baby, the middle-aged businessman and the older person – I wanted the imagery to really convey, what it is that influences each and every one of us.’
‘So if you look into these lyrics that I’m writing, on a song like ‘Freaks’ I’m basically talking about street people. Going to cities around the world with Dream Theater, you can’t help but have a look at these people and have an empathy with them. These are people. They have feelings. But what really brought them to this position? Some wrong turns? Some bad influences?’
‘Then with a song like ‘Invisible’, I’m talking about a person who has been in a state of delusion – they can’t really find themselves. They can not have a true perspective of who they are and where they fit in.’
Not pausing, as he jumps to another theme, the song-writer continues:
‘So many people feel that if they follow or go with the masses they are doing the right thing. They’re not really thinking for themselves or listening to their inner voice. That’s what I’m dealing with in a track called ‘Undecided’, which is talking with religious overtones. Don' t believe in something just because it’s popular – it doesn’t really mean that it is the truth. That’s the whole thing. Listen to yourself. Always listen to your heart or whatever you want to call the inner voice - your spirit.’
He may be talking from the other side of the Atlantic, but from the conviction and confidence in his voice, I get the sense that this last idea is one he has spent a lot of time thinking through. Indeed I’ve long had the impression from his lyrics – tracks like ‘Blind Faith’ - that James LaBrie was a practising Christian. He again has no hesitation when I ask him to clarify his beliefs.
‘I was brought up in Catholicism. My parents still go to church every weekend. When I grew up, I went to church every Saturday evening. But basically as you get older, you start to read things, observe, you become your own thinker – or at least I hope you do. I would say that today I’m a more spiritual-directed person.’
Like politicians, in an industry dominated by the culture of sound bites, it is unusual to find a prominent musician willing to unveil more than he or she has to. But warming to the topic, James LaBrie is happy to oblige, when I invite him to go a little deeper.
‘My whole concept on it is that we are in a dimension that is what it is. We are put here for a purpose, but I think it’s beyond human comprehension. I don’t think it’s something that we really need to know. At this point of spiritual evolution, I think we are dealing with this stage that we are in right now. As an existence. We have to go through it. We have to live with it and we grow, so that when we go on into another dimension, it is completely beyond what we could ever conceive.’
‘I really do think that there's an entity or a creator that has brought the cosmos and has rationale. It’s not necessarily random. I think there is a purpose. There is a place that all of this is going to. I definitely feel that the consciousness that we have, there's a reason for it. It’s not something that we completely have to understand – for every question and every answer there’s so many yet to come. Anyway without getting into it in great detail – we’d need six hours and more for that – that’s my take on it.’
Well, there will be plenty of thinking time when James finally gets the opportunity to take his solo material on the road with a European tour planned for April. With Mullmuzzler, LaBrie had made it clear it would just be a studio project. Was there now, just a convenient gap in his schedule or does he really want to put a bit more energy behind this album?
‘Well, this is my third solo album and before we even started to write the material, I said to the label that I definitely wanted to support it with a tour. I think, way too often, we now have what is referred to as 'non-touring entities'. You see an album coming out, but that’s as far as it goes. Bands take the Steely Dan approach. It’s studio and then….that’s it. That’s all you get.’
Many of us will have had times when we’ve bought an album, taken it home and been totally unimpressed by what we’ve found. Only when we then catch the band playing those same songs in a live setting we are totally blown away. James agrees that an artist can really bring another dimension to their work by playing the songs onstage. He also loves that direct contact with fans and the immediate feedback from a live show.
‘I feed off of that so much. I feel that’s the most important aspect of music, but unfortunately I don't think it is really viewed that way in today’s world. Everyone wants things immediately. They just wanna sit in the comfort of their own homes and get what they need. You can’t beat being in the same room as the band. And I think these songs really lend themselves to something that could be very powerful live.’
For the tour LaBrie and band will be joined by Swedish metallers Evergrey. An exciting combination for sure, but not an obvious one. I wonder if Evergrey was LaBrie’s idea or the label’s.
‘The label originally suggested it,’ he admits. ‘I wasn’t really aware of the band but I said ‘OK, let me think about it.’ I looked at the options and came back and said ‘Yep, lets go for it.’
I also wonder whether his touring line-up will be the same as that which appears on the new album. That was clearly LaBrie’s intention, but the usual problems with the matching of busy diaries managed to get in the way.
‘Unfortunately, Mike Mangini, the drummer, is also a professor at Berklee Music College and it’s the same time as their exams. He tried everything he could, but four weeks off wasn’t going to happen. He’s pretty bummed out, as he’s been on every album and really wanted to do it. John Macaluso (Ark, Malmsteen, TNT) will be playing drums. The bass player Brian Benelly is also committed, so we have Andy DaLuca (ex-Symphony X) who’s an incredible bass player. The rest of the band, is who you hear on the album.’
But anyone who turns up expecting a set padded out with numbers from the rich Dream Theater discography, will only be disappointed. LaBrie is keen to insist that: ‘I won’t be doing anything apart from stuff from my solo albums’.
‘This is the first tour in support of my solo material,’ he explains, ‘and I wanna keep it to that and nothing else. Everyone’s going: ‘Oh you’re not doing any Dream Theater, Frameshift, Madmen and Sinners, whatever?’ And I say: ‘No!’ I really wanna keep it as a solo tour. If I decide to do another solo tour in the future - maybe after I’ve done this initial one - I will include some of the stuff I’ve recorded with the other artists. But Dream Theater is still a very live and vital touring entity. If people wanna hear those songs, then they can hear them when we start our world tour later in June.’
That comment offers me a seamless link to an obvious question. We are actually speaking just a day after Dream Theater announced the completion of the recording for their next album – due for worldwide release in May or June. Traditionally, members have refused to go into any details about the records until the band’s international promotional engine is fully tuned and ready to go. But I seek just a small snippet of information – an album title maybe?
‘As much as I’d love to, I really can’t,’ insists LaBrie…but then continues, ‘all I can say is that musically speaking, Dream Theater is known for its progressive stuff and is known for its heavy stuff and it’s all in there in a big way.’
‘For me and the other guys, I know we’ve said it in the past, but this is probably the best album we’ve done in a long time. It’s got incredible balance musically. It’s very exciting and very dynamic. We really feel people are gonna say: ‘Oh Shit!’’
Certainly, the band’s last album ‘Train of Thought’ split fans and critics alike. The only agreement as to its merits or otherwise, was that it was easily the band’s heaviest record to date. I wonder whether in terms of direction, the new album carries on in a similar way?
‘What you can say, is that there are still those heavier elements in there. But is this (record) more touching upon the diversity that Dream Theater is known for? Absolutely! Is it more progressive? Yes definitely! And I think because of that, there is more of a balanced direction going on. We’re not going to bang you over the head with a sledgehammer. This has more, I think, what Dream Theater has come to be known for since ‘Images and Words’.’
In addition to the band’s seven releases, James has also appeared on albums by Fates Warning (‘Parallels’) and Shadow Gallery (‘Tyranny’). You can also still track down copies of the only album from Canadian hard rockers Winter Rose, with whom LaBrie played in the 1980s.
Recent years have seen the vocalist develop an ever-expanding portfolio of side projects, that range from last year’s heavy metal ‘Madmen and Sinners’ album with guitarist Tim Donahue, to his part in Trent Gardner's progressive tribute to Leonardo D’Vinci. All a far cry from his first musical performances…in a barber shop quartet!
‘Yes, my parents told me from the age of five that I was always walking around the house singing to the songs that were on the radio. My father was then singing in a choir and also in a barber shop quartet. So he’d take me with him. It was definitely him who exposed me to this beautiful thing – the voice. It really developed my ears and passion for singing.’
‘I then went through elementary school, where the music teacher took me privately (sic!). She had me working with my voice and entering singing competitions. From the ages of 10-12, I started singing even more in barber shop quartets – and then from 14 I was in rock n roll bands.’
Initially combining the roles of drummer and lead vocalist, at the age of 21, LaBrie began training with the renowned operatic vocal coach Rosemary Patricia Burns. Then after working with several Canadian bands, he became the vocalist for Winter Rose. That was, until Pierre Paradis, manager of avant-garde Canadian metallers VoiVod, approached James regarding a possible solo project. In passing, Pierre also mentioned a New York-based band called Dream Theater who were looking for a vocalist. The rest, as they say, is history.
It wasn’t until around two years ago that LaBrie decided to return to musical study, this time with a lady called Victoria Thompson. It was a decision, that he believes has enabled his voice to be ‘in the best shape ever’.
‘She's really helped me focus into the figure I am today,’ he enthuses. ‘I think I've gone beyond where I thought I was ever going to get to. Because of the studying, I've become a much more confident and controlled singer.’
He goes on to explain, how a meal of pork, beans and rice, while on holiday in Cuba in 1994 almost left him for dead and has made him very precious about his voice.
‘Within two hours of eating that meal, I was like deathly ill. It really hit me. I dunno if you’ve ever had food poisoning, but you literally feel like you’re gonna die. I was dizzy - almost incoherent - just a terrible experience.’
‘In layman’s terms, I ruptured my vocal chords. I went to see three specialists and they all said it would take a long time to recover - yet two weeks later I had to be in Japan singing again. I must say that up until the end of the ‘Six degrees..’ tour, it was only then that I felt my voice was coming back to full strength, That was when I went back to study with this girl Victoria and I think I’m singing better than ever now – both studio and live.’
And the voice was even given a chance to shine on Broadway, when last year LaBrie took part in a special AIDS benefit concert. I wondered if he could ever see himself appearing in a full musical on the world-famous stages of New York.
‘I’ve entertained the idea,’ he admits. ‘Neil Burke was the composer who called me up to do this concert and he’s been a fan of my voice for years. And he’s said, ‘Whenever you wanna put time aside and you wanna pursue this, you let me know’. So I think it is something I might pursue down the road. It’s not something that I could ever fit into my schedule now, but who knows? Five years down the road, it may be something I can seriously get into.’
With a sudden vision of him dressed up as the Lion King, I wonder whether he’d fancy a new play or prefer a starring role in one of the Broadway classics.
‘Well if somebody came up to me and said there’s this brand new piece that’s gonna be put onto Broadway, then that would be better, because then I could create the voice and be original. But even though it’s more commercial, I would love to do Phantom of the Opera. I could just really see myself doing that. Jekyll and Hyde as well - I could see myself in that or Les Miserables. It would just be a matter of timing.’
To finish, I’m interested to get a small impression as to what sort of person James LaBrie is away from the musical spotlight. It’s known that, living in Toronto he likes to keep his distance from the band environment when he gets his free time. But I wonder what interests he has outside of music.
‘Well, actually tomorrow we go as a family on a ski vacation to a place in Alberta called Panorama – it’s an amazing ski resort. I love watching movies; I love going on hikes with my family; I love going bowling and swimming; I love reading; I love hanging out with my wife and the occasional glass of red wine here and there. In fact, I really love just being at home, by the pool and all these surroundings. That’s the place where I really like to be.’
INTERVIEW FOR DPRP BY ANDY READPhotographs by BART JAN van der VORST
19.04.2005 : I-Treviso - New Age
20.04.2005 : I-Rome - Qube
22.04.2005 : I-Milan - Transilvania
23.04.2005 : CH-Pratteln - Z 7
24.04.2005 : D-München - Elser Zusatzhalle
26.04.2005 : NL-Tilburg - 013
27.04.2005 : D-Hamburg - Markthalle
28.04.2005 : D-Düsseldorf - Tor 3
30.04.2005 : UK-London - Mean Fiddler
01.05.2005 : F-Paris - Elysee Montmartre
02.05.2005 : D-Aschaffenburg - Colos-Saal
James LaBrie - Official Website
Dream Theater - Official Website
DPRP Review of Elements of Persuasion