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It’s a perfect spring evening here in Melbourne, when James LaBrie, vocalist of the deific progressive metal band Dream Theater, receives my call. Currently on tour in South Korea, James finishes up his workout and returns to his room for our chat before he must make his way to soundcheck.
The band are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their landmark album Images and Words, which was groundbreaking when it released in 1992 and remains as relevant now as ever. James begins by reflecting on how this feels to him personally,
“It’s slightly surreal to imagine, and to digest the fact that 25 years have gone by. We’ve had a terrific ride. Like any band, we’ve gone through certain transformations and stuff like that along the way. But we’ve had an amazing career! I still remember my father, when we first had Images and Words come out and it was hitting everywhere and it was exploding around the world, he said, ‘well enjoy it man! Because before you know it [laughs] you’ll be looking back on it and going what happened!?’ and at the time you’re thinking yeah right you know? But here we are! And this is what we’re doing, we’re looking back on the release from 25 years ago. It’s pretty amazing. The other thing you’re thinking about too is the industry you’re in and 25 years ago I was thinking, ‘Well if I’m around in 25 years that’ll be amazing and still doing what I love to do.’ The fact that we have been able to continue our career for as long as we have and that we’re still relevant, we’re still wanting to be in the pulse so to speak, it’s a crazy ride no matter what you decide in life, and this is no exception!”
He continues by touching briefly on how nostalgic the whole celebratory has been for not only him but the other 4 members of the band as well,
“It’s very nostalgic. Every so often we’ll start talking about what we were doing back then or what we were going through when the album first came out. Riding around in vans and sharing hotel rooms coz we didn’t have any budget. Just trying to make ends meet. And then all of a sudden everything kind of switched. It felt like overnight, that we were in tour busses, nice hotels in our rooms and catering and all that other stuff. You kind of bring up stories and bring up funny things that happened. It just brings everything to the front. It’s like opening up the time capsule and looking back at what you were experiencing at that particular point in time.”
As James’ very first album with Dream Theater, Images and Words holds a special place for him and he takes a minute to tell us about some of his favourite experiences during the recording process,
“It was exciting for all of us, because we walked into a studio to record an album that the guys for all intents and purposes, had been working on this material for 2 years! Coz then at the same time looking for another vocalist. So, walking into the studio, everyone was extremely pumped. Myself personally, yeah it was my first album with the band, but it was my first official album with a major label. So that was quite exciting for me. Then just knowing the songs that were on the album, I couldn’t wait to dig in and get behind the microphone and start singing each one. I remember before we were even recording I thought ‘you know what guys, yeah granted we don’t really sound like anything out there, but that’s a good thing and I think that the music is gonna speak for itself.’ Sure enough it did. It did prove itself.
I do remember going in to sing Wait For Sleep and I remember just feeling something when I was in there. I was just sucked into this vortex, it was kind of a very dreamlike state. Singing that song and being completely isolated, but in a good way. Just really feeling everything that song stood for and singing it with heart and soul. I’ll always remember that. I can still picture myself, having the headphones on and then the song starts. I had the lights down really low and just clicked into that. And everything felt, frickin amazing. I just sang through it once and the engineer said, ‘That’s it! That’s it! You don’t need to do it again!’ and I said ‘Oh, well, you know let me do it again just to see what else I have.’ And he said, ‘No I don’t want you to because then you’re gonna grab something else and you’re gonna say let’s take that or whatever, right?’ So basically, we just left it! [laughs] It was pretty cool.”
On a similar note when discussing if there is anything he would do differently if he could undergo the recording process for the album again he enthusiastically states:
“I wouldn’t change a thing on that album! I know Mike [Portnoy} would want his mix changed on his drums because he was very upset about the triggering. And granted because you know, I though acoustically his drum-set sounded frickin phenomenal!” He continues, “But I think really everything that was done served a greater purpose and I think that we were focused on that’s the way it needed to go down. And I don’t think there was any reason to doubt where we were going or what we were doing.”
The conversation turns to the topic of playing the album in full again so many years later and James talks about what he thinks is the greatest part,
“Well I mean, it’s a little cheesy, but just to look at the faces of the fans! They’re flipping out! What’s really interesting is the demographics that are out there. So, we’re seeing anyone from the age of 15 to 65 years old, so it’s kind of easy to tell who was around back when, when we first came out, and who are the new fans. I think just in general you look out, you see this enthusiasm. You see they’re going through nostalgia too obviously, the ones that have been with us from the very beginning. But the new set of faces is very encouraging and inspiring because you see just how much they’re into and how familiar they are, with this album. Whether they were enticed to listen to the album because it is the 25th [anniversary] or through the years they’ve come to become familiar with it and hold it dear. These things are leading to such an incredible feeling or energy or vibe, each and every night within the rooms that we’re playing.”
I ask James if seeing these younger faces in the audience affirms to the band that they must be doing something right, he responds, “Exactly, if that album is resonating with a 15-year-old, it says a lot. It says that it’s timeless.”
Whilst discussing the structure of the setlist and how Images and Words comprises the entire second set, James shares his thoughts on the first set, the encore, the future of the band and songs he would have also liked to perform during the set which didn’t quite make the cut,
“The Encore is A Change of Seasons which is another one that thrills fans all over the world. But the first set are songs from various albums, just to see the reaction to that, it’s really the bigger picture that we’re talking about here. It’s music as a whole. It’s who and what we stand for as a band musically that really brings this all together. Those songs we feel were also a very important and vital stage for each and every one of us throughout our career, from whatever album they might be from. Whether it be Train of Thought, the self-titled album, even The Astonishing. All these albums are something that people were there for in a very big way when we were out in support of them. It also creates our conversation, obviously in 2018 I think our focus will be solely on recording a new album, writing a new album and then 2019 coming out with a new album and a new world tour. But it also kind of lends itself to the reaction that we’re seeing from people, that leads us to where we wanna go with new album. Which I’m not gonna get into coz we don’t want to. But it leads to what kind of a setlist too and what kind of a show we should present on the next world tour. Obviously playing songs from our new album is always a must and a given, but it’s also to kind of touch and reconnect with songs that we know that the fans are probably missing, and are very dear to them.
There’s a lot of songs that I wish could have been there. Songs from Awake, Scenes, Six Degrees and Octavarium which is still a very dear album to me.”
As the conversation begins to near it’s end James takes another trip down memory lane and draws some comparisons between when they toured in support of Images and Words back then, and what the dynamic is like touring the album now,
“The difference is we were very young, we were stoked. We were trying to create the stage for ourselves and create a name for ourselves worldwide. You gotta remember we were basically in support of Images for almost 2 years, so the dynamic difference between the two is back then we were hungry. Not that we’re not hungry now! [chuckles] We still love what we’re doing but we kind of established ourselves and we’ve been very successful. But back then it was like this is our opportunity to prove who and what we are so that is beyond a shadow of a doubt that fans and new fans are gonna come on board in a big way. So it didn’t matter that were out as much as we were. It didn’t matter that were gone for 7 or 8 weeks and then we’d go home for 10 days or 12 days, then we’d go back out for another 7-8 weeks and go home another 2 or 2 and a half weeks. So that was constant but at the time you were just like whatever. This is where I wanna be, this is what I wanna do. It was all for one, one for all and let’s just frickin do whatever we can to make this thing explode, and we had a great time doing it. And back then on days off we’d be hanging out, partying, having a great time. It’s quite different now. Now on our days off we wanna go out and have a cappuccino, maybe find a great meal, go for a walk, work out and keep yourself in sound mind and body.”
As always, before we say our farewell’s, James humbly shares his best advice for aspiring progressive metal bands,
“Stick to your guns man, I mean, if you really believe what you are doing is identifiable, it’s unique, you’re creating something that sets you apart. You’re creating something that’s exciting and that you feel is relevant to what it is that you’re representing then you have to go for it. And you have to be in it all. 100% committed in every aspect of what it takes, to make it stick. To make it happen. Be united. Be cognizant of your bandmates and appreciative of your bandmates so that you can all be there for one another, making it the absolute best it can be.”