James LaBrie’s latest solo album Impermanent Resonance is out now. It builds on the foundation of his last effort, Static Impulse, but refines the sound to something quite remarkable. Before getting caught up in the juggernaut of the Dream Theater machine as they get ready to release their latest album, LaBrie and his songwriting partner, keyboards player Matt Guillory had a chat with DPRP. Braving unexpected technical glitches over recording equipment, we finally pounced on a stable phone line for a conference call to make up for the Skype conversation that refused to happen.
Interview for DPRP by Tushar Menon.
Hello James and Matt. Unfortunately the only recording equipment I could rustle up at short notice was the Garageband app on my iPad, so apologies for the metronome sound that occasionally pops up!
Matt: Well, I really hope we can talk in time!
Well, I’ve set it to 15/8… Now to business. Impermanent Resonance is your fifth studio album together. Was it a smooth ride working on this one?
Matt: It was definitely smooth. Working with James for so long, it’s just really comfortable. It took a while to get all the material ready, but it was very enjoyable watching the songs develop. The whole process was very smooth, even considering James’ commitment with Dream Theater, we were able to make it work out.
James: I think one of the great things, Tushar, with Matt and I, and it has been a collaboration for fourteen years, is that we never put a time constraint on it. We conclude it when we feel we have the ideas, and that’s been true for each and every one of these albums that we’ve created together. And this is true again for Impermanent Resonance. This album has Matt Guillory stamped all over it- he is the main composer. This is his vision. That’s not to say that I’m not involved, because, well, I am! But once again, it was a matter of not going any further until the songs were where they needed to be, and, more importantly, that Matt felt they were how he wanted them to sound. And not being under the gun is the reason why these albums sound the way they do.
Matt: I don’t think that was necessarily taken into account. We’re just writing music from the heart. Wherever the heart is taking the music is where it ends up. It’s great that we had critical success on Static Impulse but that’s never a factor in writing new material.
James: We’re always aware of what we created previously and what we’ve accomplished. Obviously you want to continue to maintain that identity. I think the fact that first and foremost, we’re sincere with ourselves, that ensures that the identity is going to be continue. The only difference is that they are new compositions, which are reflective of where we are currently, but it has a cohesiveness to the earlier material because it is the same people who are writing it.
Your solo albums have traditionally come out in the same year as a Dream Theater album. Does what you’re working on with them have any impact, in any way, on what you do with your solo albums?
James: Absolutely not, because the main composer is Matt, and he’s not in Dream Theater! (laughs) And as far as what I bring to the table with Matt, nothing that I’m doing with Dream Theater seeps its way into what Matt and I are doing. They are two separate entities.
Neither you, Matt, nor James, is primarily a guitarist. Yet the last three albums have been increasingly guitar heavy. How did that sound come about?
Matt: Well we definitely established the foundation of our sound with Elements of Persuasion. For years, I’ve wanted to be in a situation where I was creating heavy music, because that’s where my roots are. I love metal and I feel very drawn to metal music. I love guitar. I understand how it works. I don’t consider myself an accomplished guitar player, whatsoever, especially being in a band with Marco Sfogli, but having said that, I do have an intimate understanding of guitar and what works on the instrument, so I’m able to write guitar parts comfortably. It’s very natural for me to write on the guitar even though I’m not necessarily a guitar player.
James: Also, when you have the type of musician and player that Marco Sfogli is, someone who is extremely intimate with the instrument and has a melodic understanding that is phenomenal, you know that this is something that is going to translate very powerfully to the listener. So we take advantage of that as much as we can, the fact that we have such a phenomenal guitar player. Marco is at the top of his game, there’s no doubt about it. I don’t think that there’s anything technically that he’s not capable of doing, as well as musically or melodically. He’s the complete package.
There is a difference between music that you enjoy listening to and music that you are the best at performing. How did you and Matt arrive at the realization that your voice is actually very well suited to music this heavy?
James: I think the reason for that is that Matt knows me so well and writes vocal-friendly music. Matt has a beautiful singing voice himself, and he is very focused and spends untold amounts of time of vocal melodies. Having the instrument as he does, with piano and keyboards means there’s a more intimate connection vocally. From as far back as when he was a very young guy listening to me in Dream Theater, to right now working with me, Matt has understood my voice and what I’m capable of doing as a vocalist. He knows my sweet spots as a singer and he knows how and where I’m going to shine. I too am extremely sensitive to what allows me to bring out those qualities in my voice. I think that’s the reason why, when a lot of people hear me doing these albums with Matt, it seems a little more obvious what kind of singer I am. What do you think, Matt?
Matt: Absolutely. I feel extremely blessed to be in the musical environment that I’m in. Getting to work with James is such an incredible opportunity, I really want to spend the majority of my time making sure the vocal melodies are as well crafted as they can be, to highlight all the aspects of his incredible vocal ability.
Having worked together for so long, and over the years developing a strong love for vocal production, this is an amazing thing to be part of. And what James does is just breathe a whole new life into all of it.
James: Thank you Matt. That is a high endorsement from someone I have the utmost respect for. If I can just add to that, the fact is that everyone should remember the fact that Dream Theater is such a massive musical statement- it’s not just about the vocals. It’s not just about being a singer in a rock band, because there’s so much going on instrumentally, and the fact that our music is so eclectic, and there are so many elements to our music, it would be absolutely impossible to say that the focal point is always going to be with the voice. It’s absolutely unachievable. But, at the same time, that platform has allowed me to be expressive in so many different ways as a vocalist. However, when it comes to music that lends itself to vocal expression, this is what I gain from working with someone like Matt and being in this band.
The melodies on this album are among the most accessible that you’ve recorded. With different orchestrations and arrangements, this could have been a successful pop album.
James: I think that what Matt and I are doing here is a sincere and genuine expression of what we want to be right now musically. The icing on the cake is that there are definitely several songs on this album that could easily be radio hits and would allow us to connect with a completely different audience than the audience that I have with Dream Theater. We are completely aware of the fact that there are songs on this album that could bring us into that realm of a more pop-influenced audience and we’re completely open to that. If that were to happen, we would receive it with open arms. The main thing is we created these songs because that’s exactly what we wanted to create. If we attain a new level of success or, if I may say, admiration, from a very big audience, then that’s a beautiful thing for all of us to accept.
Matt: First of all I think it’s very cool that you connected with the melodies especially in the choruses. I spent quite a bit of time on it, so that’s very nice to hear. I would like to keep the door open. I wouldn’t want to put any limits on where we could go with this. As long as we’re being musically honest, the sky’s the limit.
Do you think ahead while writing and recording an album about the possible musical direction of the next album?
James: No, we have no plans about the next album. We’re right now focusing on this album and also Matt is currently working on material for a solo album. I think the time we decide to do the next album is when the switch will be hit and we’ll be getting our minds and hearts and souls into creating another album.
Will your solo album be instrumental, Matt?
Matt: No, no! Personally, I have a hard time listening to instrumentals! (both laugh)
How can you say that? You work with a member of Dream Theater!
Matt: I know that sounds really funny…
James: (laughing) He’s a mean guy, man!
Matt: For me it’s all about the vocal. My roots are definitely grounded in metal, but I have developed a passion for pop music especially when it comes to vocals and vocal production. So when I say instrumental stuff doesn’t interest me, it’s not because I don’t like it, or anything like that. It’s just I’m more drawn to vocals.
James: The other truth that Matt isn’t saying is that Matt has a beautiful voice, so doing a solo album will give him the opportunity to show the world what kind of a voice he has. It’s something that Matt as an artist has to do. He has to, otherwise it’s just going to be unfinished business.
Matt: We’d love to. Gosh, we’re so proud of what we’ve created with both Impermanent Resonance and Static Impulse, and unfortunately we weren’t able to tour behind Static Impulse, so we are all excited and fired up to perform this music live. The reality is, however, that Dream Theater has a new album coming out in September and they’re gearing up for a promotional campaign that’s going to start very shortly, so James’ efforts are going to be shifted over to Dream Theater and the will tour to support the new record, which doesn’t leave us a big enough window to tour at the moment. However, when Dream Theater finishes their tour, then it would make more sense for us to go out at that time. We believe the material is really strong and will still be relevant then.
James: Absolutely. We’re going to take this out. We’re going to have to wait until the end of the next Dream Theater touring cycle, but then we’ll be putting together an extensive tour. This band live will put on an extremely powerful show and the music lends itself to an incredible evening.
To move focus from the new album for a moment, I’d like to get your opinions on the debate instigated by Thom Yorke from Radiohead over Spotify and in general on the current models of music distribution.
Matt: From my perspective, with my limited knowledge, Spotify seems like good exposure, but without more knowledge on the subject, it’s hard for me to comment on it.
James: Well Spotify works under the same principle as Netflix. With Netflix, you pay eight bucks or whatever a month and you can get unlimited movies. Spotify is the same concept- you pay a certain amount a month and you have access to millions and millions of songs and they say that out of what each subscriber pays, a portion of that goes to the artist. What that equates to, I can’t really say, but it sure as hell doesn’t equate to the same as if you went out to the store and bought the CD. I can assure you it’s not that percentage! (laughs)
The thing is, Tushar, I have never been a supporter of illegal downloading. I know some artists say that it gets them exposure and into the homes of people who would not normally have known about them. The fact is, at the end of the day, it is licensed material and licensed material needs to be properly accessed. It should be paid for. If you enjoy it, then there should be no reason not to contribute to the cause. You’re supporting the artist, their vision, the fact that this is their career, their livelihood and what they’re spend immeasurable amounts of time on . If I were to say to you, ‘Tushar, let’s go into a grocery store, fill up a cart to the top and take it out to the car’ and the store owner comes out and says ‘You know, I would really appreciate it if you considered paying for those groceries’ and then you and I look at each other and say ‘Not really, I don’t feel like it today, but thanks a lot. I do need to eat’, how ridiculous is that? I can assure you that nine out of ten artists feel the same way as I do. It’s an unfortunate reality that so many people don’t have a conscience about it. Seems to be the technological world we live it. It doesn’t make it right, but it does exist.
A final question in two parts. First of all, Matt you mentioned your affinity for pop music. Can you name some artists whom we might be surprised to discover you and James enjoy. And secondly, do you both still listen to new music with as much excitement and enthusiasm as you did when before you became professional musicians?
Matt: To answer the second part of your question, probably even more so now. It feels like I’m more enthusiastic listening to and discovering new music than I have ever been. I love being inspired. So I have the same, if not more, enthusiasm as I did when I was a sixteen year old. As far as music that I listen to that might surprise people, I don’t know. I love the Backstreet Boys. I listen to their stuff quite a bit. The writing is incredible, the vocal production is out of this world. It’s just world class songwriting. You listen to one of their records and it’s like a masterclass in songwriting and production. I love Kelly Clarkson, Pink. I could go down a list of pop stars right now, like Katy Perry. Their records are things that could be studied, and that’s something I do. There’s so much going on in the production on these records, that I’m always hearing something new.
James: Matt mentioned a few of the people whom I listen to and respect immensely in the pop culture. I think Kelly Clarkson has a phenomenal voice and the songs are so well written. Pink, wow, what a powerful set of lungs, she reminds me of Ann Wilson from Heart. Beyond that, I love a band called Red, they’re a great rock band with great hooks. I like Two Door Cinema, Needtobreathe, Young the Giant. Muse is still think is just a phenomenal band. I like Breaking Benjamin for their hooks and pop sensibility and still having a metal backbone.
About the second part of your question, absolutely. I don’t think I go out and look for something as much as Matt. I usually wait until it just hits me as I’m driving and listening to several different stations on Sirius XM. I’m always flipping all over the place. That’s how discovered a band called Script, and another called Ours. I’m always looking first and foremost at what they’re saying to me as a vocalist and melodically. And is the music intelligent? It could be brilliant in its simplicity like with U2. So that’s how I let music affect me as a listener. I think it really helps that Matt is the kind of musician and composer he is and that we listen to the sorts of things that we listen to. This is why we have such a wide palette to draw from.
Thank you Matt and James, it’s been an absolute privilege!
James: Thanks, Tushar, it’s been great. And thanks for your support.
Matt: Thanks. I enjoyed the interview.