DAVE: So, what a pleasure, James Labrie and a new album ...
JAMES: Yeah, it's really exciting and it's doing really well: Matt, Ray, Marco, Peter and myself are really excited about it.
DAVE: I got it a week or so ago and have had the chance to listen six or seven times and actually I was, well shocked, no that's not the right word, astounded I think, it's quite different ...
JAMES: Yeah definitely, it's probably what a lot of people weren't expecting, but at the same time it's exactly where Matt Guillory and myself wanted to take it. Matt's the keyboard player I've been working with since the first Mull-muzzler album in '99 and him and I, it's like an equal partnership. We write everything together, produce the albums together and everything, and it was exactly out goal to make what for what we were concerned was a very classic metal album.
DAVE: I remember getting the first MullMuzzler, then two more albums in the meantime and you could hear the development over time, but I think Static Impulse is a different gear in fact?
JAMES: Oh definitely, I think it's on nuclear gear!
DAVE: The opening bars are absolutely mental.
JAMES: We were looking to write a very intense, very exciting, very dynamic album, even to the point where I'm sure nobody was expecting there to be death-metal voice, but I think it works extremely well because there's a great contrast with Peter's vocals and my vocals, I think it adds much more dimension, dynamics and excitement. It really embellishes and supports what we were tying to do when we were writing the songs.
DAVE: You hit the nail on the head, but you're quite a well-know lead singer and it's quite unusual to have someone else singing first on your solo album.
JAMES: Yeah, yeah, exactly. For some people I'm sure think perhaps think it's a bit of a concept, a bit hollow, but for me the way I like to describe it is when you hear Peter's death-metal, screaming kind of voice, I look on it like another instrument. It adds that much more dimension to the music, it really creates another character and there's an element that it pushes the music that much further, makes it that much more intense; it furthers the message.
DAVE: In the prog-metal, as opposed to death-metal, scene of course Opeth have become quite successful with mixing the mellow and cookie-monster style vocals.
JAMES: Yeah, they are a fantastic band and they're doing an incredible job with writing, with the music they're creating. Technically and with their albums, the way that they sound, they're very diverse, they are a great, fantastic band.
DAVE: Peter, the drummer, he's from Darkane, right? That's not a band I know. He's a total monster on the kit ...
JAMES: Oh my god, he's just an incredible drummer, he's phenomenal on the drums and it's actually scary when you see him playing behind the drumkit, an incredible player. He's a fantastic guy, very well grounded, very intelligent, he's just all about the music, a great talent.
DAVE: Marco Sfogli, the guitarist, he's something else too ...
JAMES: Yeah Marco played with us as well on the Elements of Persuasion album, he's a phenomenal player.
DAVE: Sure, but I think on this album the technique and level of playing has gone up a notch. Actually I must say that there are times when the album sounds quite Dream theater-ish, which is no problem of course, but I'm wondering of that's your influence coming into the band, or is it perhaps just the huge influence that Dream Theater have in the genre?
JAMES: I don't know, but to me I think there are similarities in the music when it comes down to the musicianship and the intensity of the instruments themselves and what they're doing, how they interact with one another, the unisons and stuff like that. So there are similarities, but I think you know, to be honest with you, I think that the style of the music and where we take it is quite different from Dream Theater, I think that it has its own identity. On the other hand, Marco Sfogli will be the first one to tell you that he's been hugely influenced by John Petrucci - he considers John one of the greatest guitar players in the world. And Peter respects Mike as a drummer, Ray Riendeau respects John Myung as a bass player, Matt Guilloty respects Jordan as a keyboard player, so I definitely think there notoriety here, there's a nod of influence, but when it comes to Matt and I writing the music then I think there's enough of it that creates its own style, its own identify.
DAVE: Yeah, for sure, I certainly didn't want to tar it with a "this sounds like DT" label, but there are moments, licks and like you say, unisons where I could imagine that, you know?
JAMES: Yes, sure. I think too with Marco, for instance, you're hearing more of what he's capable of. With Elements of Persuasion he was really just introducing himself as a guitar player, just letting people hear who he is in a more debut-ish sense, but with this album he has really been able to come out and show his full prowess. He is a phenomenally talented guitar player.
DAVE: Absolutely, I really was floored with the level of musicianship on this album and it's right in-you-face from the opening bars, really grabs you by the balls and sure it calms down a bit for some more traditional James Labrie type ballads, but not that often
JAMES: Exactly, you know, I think it's something that we knew, that everyone for the lost part was going to be caught a little bit off guard. We also knew that it was going to be a sincere presentation from us of where our head-space is right now. It definitely is an album that is extremely intense, the only breather really is in a song like Coming Home which happens to be the last song one the album. We did that in purpose though as we wanted to create that feeling you get when you've finished a really intense book, you know the time when you close it and you're going "Wow" and just soaking it all in. With a song like Coming Home, it's very atmospheric, it very ambient, very solemn and melancholy, and I think it really drives home everything we've just experience both musically and lyrically.
DAVE: It's a pleasant song, but when you listen to the lyric there are some sad messages coming through
JAMES: Well that particular lyric I was inspired by a show I watch called "Dexter" and he's a vigilante serial-killer. I wanted to put my own twist on the story and what the lyric is saying is that this vigilante serial-killer is coming to terms with his feelings and emotions. He's recognizing his human emotions and he's asking for forgiveness for who, and whatn he was and the damage he's done, realizing that there is live in the world, he can be a part of it, but that it's too late in the end.
DAVE: In fact it's going even deeper than I thought…
JAMES: Yeah and that's one of the things I really don't like describing, describing each and every lyric. I really like to leave that to the listeners so that they can interpret it for something that means or speaks loudly to them.
DAVE: The reaction already to the album is incredibly positive
JAMES: Yeah, both Matt and I, plus the guys in the band were thrilled, the label too. The reviews around the world have been extremely positive so we're very happen, we couldn't ask for more
DAVE: And some tour-dates coming up
JAMES: Yes, we're going out from November 26th to December 20th in the States and a couple of shows up in Canada, and we're in the process of trying to set something up for Europe.
DAVE: That was going to be my next question…
JAMES: Yeah, we're looking at being over there end of February to the last week in March and we'll try to play as many places as we can, bringing this album with it's energy and otter fine things and getting face-to-face with the fans.
DAVE: Your partner in all of this, Matt, how do you guys work?
JAMES: Well the way that we work has been the same since the very first moment that we sent audio files to one another. So when I have a melody or a riff idea then I send it to Matt. Matt takes that and adds some of his stuff and sends it back to me along with other things that have hit him, ideas that he has thought of that can go with it. And vice-versa he'll send me ideas and I'll start singing melodies around it or I'll suggest where I hear it going musically and stuff like that. Basically that's how it develops, a back and forth situation with audio files and we slowly but surely develop these ideas and songs. We talk to each other off and on the phone and sometimes get together, but really I have to say it's mostly done through the technology that we have at hand today. It's something we don't rush, we take our time - we started writing the songs and everything that went into Static Impulse back in January '09 and we didn't feel we had finished the writing until practically a year later. So in January this year we felt we had the songs we needed in order to record the album. It's a lengthy process, we don't rush with things and we like to take our time and sit with things, we've found that having that kind of mentality and approach really serves us best.
DAVE: Well it's not exactly like you're sitting at home with nothing to do jut writing songs for your solo album, half the time you're out on tour of cutting a new Dream Theater album, it's busy no?
JAMES: Well the way that I do it Dave, it used to be that carried around this little digital recording gadget so that if I had a melody or a riff come into my head then I could just sing it into the recorder. Nowadays I have my iPhone so I can sing it directly into that and if it's something that I'm really feeling or am excited about then I send that same file to Matt and then we start sending it back and forth, that's how we go about it. So there's always some material lying around, bits and pieces here and there, so that when we get serious about it we can go back over all the material we've collected over the months that have passed.
DAVE: It's very much the modern way of building music for many people and I think it has liberated a lot of things in that respect
JAMES: Just imagine what Beethoven or Mozart could have done with it!
DAVE: I know there's a lot of problems that the internet is blamed for, but I think also, especially for our genre - OK, Dream Theater has been quite a success - but a lot of the prog and prog-metal bands don't have that kind of success and if it wasn't for the Internet then they'd be nowhere - the music get heard and the word gets around.
JAMES: Yeah right, on one side of things a lot of people will say that it has promoted mediocrity and yes, I agree with that, but on the flip side I think that it has really given a lot of musician and bands that otherwise would never have been heard the ability to put out some fantastic music. The biggest downfall is the fact that there's so much piracy and downloading - not only in music, but in every aspect of entertainment - I think that's the unfortunate reality and that's the beast that we have to contend with. You know all you can hope for is that people will begin to see things the way that they should be and feel that everyone is due their just and their credit and get something for that which they worked hard for.
DAVE: Well I guess you're lucky, well not lucky because you did work hard to get there, but Dream Theater is quite a big outfit and when you do a show they tend to be big shows, you can make a profit from it and this is a revenue-stream that the small bands just don't have, it's a cost to them to do a show. That changes the game a bit.
JAMES: Absolutely. It's a double-edged sword I guess, you know the way you look at it for a lot of people and artists out there. Until something comes in that can create a black and white situation, until that happens people are going to have to be very creative and innovative in the way they promote and keep themselves alive. I think it's very unfortunate. You know that's one of the main reasons that the touring world as we know it is completely saturated. It's because a lot of artists and artists have had to rely totally on the revenue coming in from touring, it's really unfortunate, very unfortunate.
DAVE: Coming back to you, a clichéd question perhaps, but where do you, as an artist, draw your inspiration from? Who is influencing you know and in the past?
JAMES: My lyrical inspirations come from books, media: newspapers, TV shows, films I'm watching you know, and then just observing everything that's going on around me - life itself if a very inspiration field to draw from and put the pen to paper, so to speak. For bands I'm listening to everything from Disturbed to Stoned Sour (??), Killswitch Engaged to Opeth and Messhuggahn, Empition, Katatonia, Darkane, Dark Tranquility, In Flames, but I also love the last album from Radiohead, "In Rainbows"
DAVE: That's quite a metal influence there though
JAMES: Yeah, yeah absolutely, I appreciate it because I think it's great musicianship. For a lot of people I think it's hard to get past the death-metal voice, but there's still great musicianship going on and great music being written within those bands. Even like I said, Radiohead, Soundgarden, Disturbed, Stone Sour, even bands like Shinedown or Breaking Benjamin I love, Linkin Park in some areas, ah jeeze, I don't know.
DAVE: My god, you're educating me on bands I've never heard of…
JAMES: Mutiny Within as well, they're a really cool band on Roadrunner
DAVE: I've never heard of them, how sad is that?
JAMES: Yeah, check 'em out, they're really cool
DAVE: You as singer James, let's say 10 - 15 years ago, you used to get quite some flak from DT fans, comments like "the guy can sing live", "he can't hit the high notes". You remember those days?
JAMES: Yeah, yeah, of course
DAVE: This doesn't happen any more, you've really improved your vocal performances, not only on the record but most certainly live. How?
JAMES: Well 15 years ago I've suffered a hematoma. I basically ruptured my vocal chords and they bled, I bled onto my vocal chords, which in most cases is detrimental, if not irrevocable or rather irreparable I should say. I had to learn to deal with that, I had seriously damaged vocal chords. I had to get over it and get to the other side and it took me a long time, from 1995 until around 2003 when I felt my voice was really starting to come back online to where I wanted it. I started studying in 2003 with Victoria Thompson, a female vocal coach, and then in the last two years off and on I've been spending time with Jaime Vendera. Basically it was a matter of, well I was kind of held hostage to the fact that I had seriously damaged my vocal chords and there wasn't much I could do about it. My voice was very much compromised in a live environment and I had to do the best I could and, well, fans were very upset because prior to the vocal accident I was able to go onstage and sing like crazy each and every night, and sing with ease. It was a lot for me to get over, it was very challenging and almost at times it seemed insurmountable, but I was able to transcend the situation and find my voice again, and continue to develop once again as a singer. I think my voice where it has been now and for the last seven or eight years has been in a great spot, it's very strong, very powerful and it feels great.
DAVE: Seems to be improving with time I's say, isn't it the case that singers tend to get better as they age?
JAMES: Yeah, if they look after themselves. Granted you can definitely get better, I mean I jog five kilometers a day, I don't drink very often - and not at all when I'm on the road, I don't smoke at all, I get plenty of sleep, take plenty of vitamins, drink a lot of water, juice, eat a lot of very healthy foods. All these things lend themselves to keeping you in great shape and especially for a singer when you rely totally on an organic instrument. It all comes from what you feed the body and you have to really treat it like a temple.
DAVE: It must have been really hard when you were going through all this, especially with all the fans moaning about it and there was very little you could do about it at the time…
JAMES: Yeah, it was very disheartening, a very dark period and it was very hard to take, I'm a human being like anyone else at the of the day. But I had to grow some thick skin and say to myself that the only way I was going to get around it was to to everything in my power to find a way to get my voice back, nurture it back to full strength. One of the ways I did it after studying with this lady, Victoria Thompson, who has an absolutely phenomenal voice, she said, "You know your voice is buried and one of the biggest things for any singer, a lot of it is psychological. So you need to get past that insecurity and get your confidence back, realize who and what you are as a singer, and start bringing that voice out again, believing in yourself". So that was one of the biggest hurdles first and foremost, I had lost a lot of confidence in myself. So once I had got over that hurdle then it was just a matter of her teaching me some techniques so I could go out there every night and sing like the guy I used to be.
DAVE: I saw you guys live for the first time on the first tour with Derek at The Forum in London, I guess that was 1995 and just after you had the injury
JAMES: Well it was December 30th. 1994, I was down in Cuba with my wife and I suffered food poisoning and was violently ill which is when I suffered the hematite. So when you saw me in '95 it was after the accident. What was more frustrating than anything was that sometimes my voice would feel great and I'd be able to sing great, but then other times, more often than not, it wouldn't feel great at all - it was very much compromised and it was cracking here and there, I wasn't able to sing in the range I was used to . It was all these things, so yeah, it was extremely challenging and dark period in my life, I wouldn't want to do it again and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy because it was just absolutely a horrible experience.
DAVE: But hey, you persevered, you got through it and the band kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger
JAMES: Well I'm very fortunate to see myself true and get to the other side, so it's all good and it deserves to stay in the past!
DAVE: Thank god they play such long instrumentals, eh?
JAMES: Absolutely, I'm all for it
DAVE: A friend of my, Fred Ravry, he's a big DT fan and had a few question he wanted me to ask you, one of which is: when the guys start on their long-winded instrumental, you creep off-stage so as to not look look a spare part, what is it that you do during that time?
JAMES: I do a lot of stretching exercise and drink water, I hum and that's about it, water, stretching, humming until it's time for me to go back on again. I like to keep myself loose, otherwise I would get too comfortable and then it would be to much of a shock to the system before I get back into it…
DAVE: I was going to suggest that you need a pee too with all the water you're drinking, but I guess you sweat so much during a gig that you don't need to?
JAMES: Well sometimes
DAVE: Another crazy question - gear. Guitarists, bassist, keyboard players, drummers, they're always talking about their equipment, guitars, amps etc. Do you ever talk to other singers about "man this is a great microphone"?
JAMES: Yeah, for the most part I've used the Sennheiser and Shure brands. One of the most reliable microphones on stage is the Shure SM58. It's still one of the most incredible, reliable, true resonating microphones. It really does let the voice shine-through for what it is organically, it doesn't alter its tonality or add its own EQ so for me, for the most part it has been that microphone. When I'm in the studio, for the last 8 years I've used the Blueberry made by the microphone company called Blue, and it's and incr-e-d-i-ble microphone, phenomenal. They have other models as well, but if you were to punch in "blue microphones" in Google and see all their brands, it's a phenomenal microphone and really well priced. It's amazing just how advanced they are and how reasonable they are for price, they get the sound and everything. So every DT album that you've heard from Train of Thought I've always used my Blueberry and on Elements of Persuasion and Static Impulse too.
DAVE: Interesting to know. OK, can we talk about Mike?
JAMES: Yeah, that's no problem
DAVE: Well it was quite a shock for us out here on the planet and things seem to be getting a bit acrimonious now, a bit of a war of words? What's going on?
JAMES: Well to be honest with you, I've always said and the the rest of us in the band have said that we want to take the high road in all of this. We don't want this to turn into a sling-fest where we start calling out each other and saying this-and-that about each other. I just don't want it to go that way, I'm not into the negativity, I'm not into facilitating and perpetuating those kinds of situations. It's not good for anyone, it's shallow and I just don't want to go there. I think that obviously there's going to be room in any situation like this for mis-interpretation, for misunderstandings and I think it's really unfortunate, I think it's unfortunate where it leads to and what it lends itself to. To me, I'd rather just say that I put out a message on my board and the DT board had to answer to some of Mike's queries and I wanted to skinned of et the record straight. But I also made it known at the end of my statement - you can go on there and read it - I'm not giving any further weight to these kinds of discussions as I just want to keep everything cool. I want to keep the higher road, I think we all do.
DAVE: Yes, of course, but it is a fact that many people, true or not, saw Mike as the defacto leader of the band., he was always the spokesperson on stage for instance. So you guy will now takes steps to close this void?
JAMES: Yeah, we are going to start auditions in a couple of weeks and we have seven drummers lined-up to come into the studio with us and jam through some songs, and music, and everything. We're going to be looking for somebody that really stands for and embellishes everything that DT has stood for and will stand for. So he has to have the right chemistry, the right vibes, the personality, he has to be somebody we feel completely connected to and comfortable with. Once we feel that that person is sitting in from of us then it will be announced to the world. Then we'll do the obvious and move forward into the next chapter of Dream Theater.
DAVE: Yeah I agree, it's a shock and a shame, but I'm really interested to see what new stuff you guys are going to come up with. Maybe we can see John Myung writing some lyrics again?
JAMES: I think John, with this recent turn of events, he'll be heard more and with the writing and all that you can't help but change. I think it's all going to be an extremely interesting situation. We want to keep the XXX?
DAVE: Sure, but it must be hard with all this shit flying in forums and living your life a bit in the media, that's not funny?
JAMES: Exactly, it's easy to get drawn into it, but I'm not going to, I can't allow myself to entertain it, or give it any sense of validity.
DAVE: Well let's hope everyone calms down a bit and keeps following the band
JAMES: For the most part I've seen everything being very positive, you get the odd comment that's a little negative, but overall I think everyone's extremely positive.
DAVE: OK James, thanks for all the years of great music and taking the time to speak to DPRP
JAMES: Thanks to you for the support, I'm really pleased you like the new album Dave, take care and I'll see you on tour
Interview for DPRP by
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