As it is with so many bands, it’s hard to believe that metal veterans Dream Theater just recently celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary together. Coinciding with that twenty-fifth anniversary was the unfortunate departure of founding drummer Mike Portnoy last year and the addition of Mike Mangini. So far Mangini has filled in admirably for the band as they embark on a world tour in support of their latest and eleventh record A Dramatic Turn Of Events. In this exclusive chat with lead singer James LaBrie, James discusses the new record, his feelings on it and how the band transitioned from working with Portnoy for so long and then having Mangini in the mix. James also gets into some more personal matters, including his upbringing in the small Ontario town of Midland and how he was able to expose himself to rock n’ roll in such an environment. Check out Dream Theater on tour over the next several months in Europe followed by a trek through North America.
Before getting into what’s going on with Dream Theater and your new tour and album I wanted to ask you some more personal questions about your upbringing and how you got into music. Now you’re of course from Canada and we’re a Canadian publication based in Toronto. What was it like growing up in the small town of Penetanguishene, Ontario in terms of your exposure to music? What did you grow up listening to?
James: I was just born in Penetang so, the hospital. So basically I was born in the hospital in Penetanguishene, my mom grew up there, my father grew up in Midland, but we were already living in Midland. I’m the youngest of four kids so no, I was just born in the hospital there and brought home within four days or whatever and my house was in Midland.
Now I’m familiar with Midland from having a cottage close to there in Wasaga Beach. What was your exposure like towards music growing up?
James: It was actually amazing because there wasn’t a lot to do around here so when you would get together with your friends it was all about getting together with your friends and sitting the basement listening to your favourite bands. And that for me would be anywhere from Led Zeppelin, Rush, Yes, Pink Floyd, Kansas, Aerosmith, Judas Priest, you know, on and on and on. And that’s what we would do, we would just sit around and listen to music. I had been playing drums since I was five so around ten years old I was approached by guys who were fourteen to play in their band which was a really big deal for me and I did play with them, I think I played with them for six weeks which felt like an eternity for me at that point. It was a great experience because I was playing drums and I realized then and there that this was something that I wanted to do.
But I also realized at that point too, singing, because I started singing a couple of songs with the guys and I had always been singing as well since I was five and going through elementary school I had a music teacher that took to me really well and she nurtured me as far as getting into singing contests and things like that. But I knew I wanted to be in a band, I just knew it so for the first few bands that I was in leading up to about seventeen years old I was the drummer and lead vocalist. Around seventeen, that’s when I started thinking I’m okay as a drummer, but I think definitely my forte is singing. There are a hell of a lot of great drummers out there and I knew that there many that were better than me so it was a matter of just really honing in on my singing and that’s what I was going to go out and chase.
You talk about there playing in bands when you were younger. Was there any kind of strong scene there in terms of rock n’ roll? Were there any popular bands or clubs you went to?
James: No, it would just be more or less like you’d rent out a hall and that’s what you’d do. But no, there weren’t any popular bands; there were other bands like myself floating around where we’d feel like oh there’s our competition or whatever. But if you wanted to see a real band you had to go at least as far as Barrie, I think it was the Roxie or whatever it was called, and you’d see bands there. Because I remember seeing Max Webster down there and later on Kim Mitchell and Gotto and these bands that would just come through because you just wanted to experience something. If you wanted to see the real big bands you’d have to go down into Toronto to see Ozzy or whoever you were into seeing at that point.
I think it’s great that you decided to settle in Midland, Ontario, close to your hometown rather than move to the United States like so many others who make it big in music. What made you decide to stay close to your roots?
James: Well both my wife and I, we met in high school so we were both from this area. So once I was signed with Atlantic… and I made it really clear to the guys in Dream Theater even when I first met them, they asked me to be their lead singer and I said that’s no problem, I’d love to sing for this band, no problem. And I said, but, I’m not moving down here guys, I want to make that clear to you right now, I want to stay up where I am close to family and friends. And that’s really important to me and it was extremely important to my wife too as well. Being the nature of the business we’re in, I’m gone and I’m gone a lot and the last thing I would want for her would be that she’s down somewhere with no family or friends. Not that we wouldn’t have made friends wherever we moved to, but it’s just not the same. So that’s pretty much what the big decision was, wanting to stay rooted where I grew up.
Now let’s talk about the latest and eleventh Dream Theater record A Dramatic Turn Of Events. What are your feelings on it now upon its release?
James: Well I still feel the way I felt about it when we were recording it and when it was actually mastered. I feel it’s probably our best work to date by far and I think that it’s a very strong statement showing that you know, we are still the band we’ve always been it’s just that we’ve got new music out and we feel that this is an album that’s parallel with Images And Words and Scenes From A Memory. So I think it’s definitely for me our strongest material to date and I think just from the fans’ reaction around the net and on the various boards it seems like all things are pointing towards that, that it’s been extremely well received. So another couple of weeks and we’ll know exactly what’s going on because I’m sure everyone will be talking about it and giving their critiques on it. But we all feel the same way I mean, I’ll speak on my own behalf, but I know talking with the other guys everyone is extremely pumped about this and we all feel that it’s the best stuff we’ve ever done.
The most significant change on A Dramatic Turn Of Events is the addition of Mike Mangini on drums, taking over for founding member Mike Portnoy after a long audition process. What was it particularly about Mike that attracted you to selecting him?
James: Well just the sure fact that he’s a phenomenal drummer, I mean he’s world class, he’s very unique, he’s unparalleled in the way he plays, his style of playing is just phenomenal. Also, he’s just very musical, he’s very gifted and very intuitive when it comes to music and you know, he was a professor at Berkeley Music School in Boston for ten years. He just proves himself as being surely one of the best out there. But just beyond that, the chemistry, it was so immediate, it felt so natural when he sat down, he sat in the room with us and he started playing. It just felt amazing and there was an immediate connection there. And you know we were all laughing about it because we all felt that right after doing the audition with him that we could go out and play a show right then and there, that’s how well-prepared and natural it felt. There wouldn’t have been anything stopping us from being in front of thousands of fans at that point. He came there and he made it perfectly clear that he was going for it and he wanted this gig and he was so enthusiastic and so focused and prepared and such great energy pouring out of him when he was playing. He’s very intelligent, he’s an extremely smart individual and even when we did the improvisational part of the audition he just flowed into it seamlessly, it was just an amazing experience.
I knew the way Mike plays, he’s played on three of my solo albums and I’ve been in the studio on those three occasions and I just knew what kind of a powerhouse he was and what he was going to do once he came in was surely going to blow these guys away and he did. Everyone was laughing, jaws were on the floor and we were saying oh my god. But that being said too, we all kept a very open mind for the other drummers because all the other drummers deserved the utmost respect from us and the opportunity to prove and sell themselves. It was just an amazing experience to finally see him sit there behind the kit and jam with us and the guys were absolutely blown away.
As has come to be expected, the band’s own John Petrucci took care of production duties on the new record. John has been producing your records for a while now, but did you ever consider bringing in an outside producer and would you consider it in the future?
James: Well you know over the last four albums, I think since Train Of Thought we started to get other producers in, but it was Mike and John producing the albums. But you know to be honest with you, if you’d had this conversation with me maybe a year ago I might have been saying yeah you know what guys, I think we should shake it up a bit and bring in an outside producer and see where it takes us musically, it might be very exciting and it might really pay off for us. But the way that this album went down you know, just the feeling in the studio when we were writing the material and recording it and John wearing two hats being a band member first and foremost and then being a producer. He handled it with a lot of class and he stayed completely open-minded so that it was a conversation with a band mate first and foremost when we were discussing the music or where it needed to go. He wasn’t something that was unapproachable and I think he handled it admirably because he was able to be extremely focused as to what he wanted from the album both sonically and musically. He was on it from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to bed and he was like that every single day throughout the whole process from the writing to the recording to the actual mixing process of it. So I think he did an amazing job so I’m always the first one to say give credit where it’s due. So with that being said, I don’t know, it worked so well this time I don’t see it being an issue where that conversation would even come up, you know, maybe we should get another producer. If he handles it exactly the same way on the next album then there’s no need for it.
Check out the song: “On The Backs Of Angels”
The cover art for the record features a guy on a unicycle traveling across a fraying rope above an airplane and the clouds. Who created the artwork and is there any concept behind it?
James: Well it was Hugh Syme who’s another Toronto guy, he’s famous for all the Rush albums he’s done, he’s done several bands. How that artwork came about was the title for the album originally was Bridges In The Sky. So he went with that and he flew with that so that’s why you’re seeing this imagery and it wasn’t until later that we wanted to change the title of the album because we found out that there were other albums out there called Bridges In The Sky or something very similar, too close and it just didn’t feel right or original so we changed it. But you know after coming at him with a new title we felt that the imagery was still kind of supporting where we were going you know, life itself. A Dramatic Turn Of Events is dealing with the lyrical content on this album which is about the dramatic changes that we’re all witnessing around the world, the social changes, the political changes, the spiritual changes. So looking at that imagery, the metaphor is pretty cool, it still supports where we’re going so it just made sense to keep going with that imagery that he had already created with the other title, it still fit. Whether it’s us just trying to be convenient or accommodating, I don’t know [laughs]. But no, we truly thought it was good and it made sense.
The “A Dramatic Turn Of Events” tour’s first leg through Europe just wrapped up in early August. Were you pleased with how the shows went?
James: Oh my god, we were like ecstatic about how the shows went. The fans completely embraced Mike Mangini and rightfully so, he went up there and he did a phenomenal job. Needless to say, he knew he was stepping into a big position but he was all about it, he was extremely focused, very well prepared and he knew the challenge ahead of him was a big one, but he handled it admirably and he rose to the occasion. And the fans just absolutely loved him; he does a drum solo every night that leaves you just spell bounded. The whole thing was with our fans, we were reading on the various fan sites and whatnot and everyone was saying that the band seems so spirited, that it seems like a real band presentation where everyone is doing their role where everyone is sitting comfortably and it just seems like a big band onslaught. So it just feels great, we’re at a whole new chapter in our career and I think it’s really coming across very strongly to the fans when they are witnessing us live. All the feedback from the fans has been extremely positive and Mike was completely accepted into the band wholeheartedly from the fans so we couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Now in terms of touring you have the second leg of the tour beginning in late September through North America. What can we expect from Dream Theater after this tour and into early 2012?
James: We’re doing the North American tour and we’ll finish around the end of October. We’re going to take a bit of a breather after, they’re talking about us maybe going to the Pacific Rim and doing a few weeks over there before Christmas. Then we come back and we start a European headlining tour January 23rd in Finland and then we go throughout the UK and Europe until I think late February. Then there’s talk of us going down to South America and then possibly coming back up and doing another leg through North America. South America would be sometime late March and North America would be maybe sometime in April into early May and then they want us to possibly go back and do all of June throughout Europe doing all the headlining festivals. So there you go, it’s kind of planned out for the next year what we’re supposed to be doing.