Formed in 1985, Dream Theater are familiar to virtually all fans of metal or progressive music and anywhere in between having carved out an undeniable legacy across their ongoing existence. It may be somewhat surprising that, following two prior nominations, “The Alien” is their first Grammy win having picked up Best Metal Performance in 2022, coming off of last year’s excellent A View from the Top of the World. We sat down to speak with vocalist and member of over 30 years James LaBrie to discuss that recent win, their forthcoming extensive run of shows across Europe, and tour life as part of a metal juggernaut.
We begin with discussing their recent win, and whether there was a feeling something special was in the works as “The Alien” was being pulled together. “No, other than that we were excited about the track being, ‘That’s what we wanted to create and that’s what we created.’ It’s acknowledging that it’s another great DT song, but no, even with ‘Pull Me Under’ (Images and Words, 1992) we weren’t sitting around going, ‘This could be a huge hit worldwide,’ and that’s what it ended up being,” LaBrie shares.
“You can guess at stuff like that, and you can say something has a lot of potential, I can see everybody gravitating to something like this but no, ‘The Alien’ we just thought was a great track and not only does it open the album, it opens our setlist when we play live now which is poetic justice now it’s a Grammy award (winner). That’s really cool that we open the night with that and hit you over the head with it, but not at all, we didn’t think this is something that’s going to be big with us.”
Dream Theater are renowned for typically sharing lyric writing throughout their members (with typically one taking the helm for each track), and in the case of ‘The Alien,’ LaBrie was the writer. On the track’s influence, there’s a direct feed: “I watched a podcast with Joe Rogan and Elon Musk, and they were talking about going to Mars, wanting to terraform the planet, and that’s where it came from. It was around a three-hour podcast and actually my son turned me onto it… he said, you need to hear this, it’s crazy, and as I listened to it I was thinking, ‘Holy shit, this is really cool stuff, this is great subject matter.’
So I started jotting down all these notes, and when I came back to it a little bit later on once I was starting to pen some lyrics for the album, I thought it was perfect, this song, the energy behind it, the vibe, the groove – the 17/8 groove which was funny for John (Petrucci – guitarist). So I thought these lyrics would perfectly fit with something of this direction, this vibe musically, so that’s how I went about it.”
“I wanted to write about humankind and how sooner or later we’re going to outgrow this planet, and I hope along the way that we realize we better be damn good to it or else it’s just going to get rid of us and it will go on, we won’t, even if it takes a million years to recover from our harmful ways. So I thought it was very fitting for something like this, and it’s something that everybody is very intrigued with these days. Technologically speaking, we do have more resources and capabilities to be able to go on explorations as such, so I thought it was something we could all relate to, something very contemporary as far as dialogue.”
As an aside, we discuss whether LaBrie himself would go to space if Musk were to give him the opportunity: “I think I’d be crazy not to. I’d say, ‘when do I need to be fitted for my suit?’ Do I want to be one of the volunteers to go to Mars? Absolutely not, maybe 500 years from now if I’m back as then there’d be a more straightforward immediate path to it. To go out and circle the globe though that would be mindboggling.
To answer the question yes I would, but with all the rockets and billionaires going out there I’m not really sure that that’s such a great idea, we’re just taxing our biosphere even more. Let’s only do things like that when there’s an intentional purpose that will benefit the many not the few.”
Moving away from the track that opened their setlist, their latest album and this discussion LaBrie and I talk about what in the back catalogue might have been overlooked in terms of awards and recognition previously.
“I’ve said in the past, ‘I Walk Beside You’ (Octavarium, 2005), when we recorded that song and listened back I thought, ‘Oh my God man, it’s so fricking cool,’ and it’s unexpected from Dream Theater. I think the fact that that song, with the moniker Dream Theater, threw a lot of people off. If there’d been the moniker behind it U2 or Coldplay or something like that maybe it would have been taken on that more pop rock sensibility, and it would have been taken more seriously, and it would have been absorbed a little more naturally. I think when everybody heard that song from Dream Theater, let’s face it though, our music is eclectic, we touch on every music style you can think of from jazz, classical, rock, metal, prog, fusion, but not country.”
“So when I think about that song, I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, ‘I absolutely love that song, everything it’s about and going on for,’ I think that song should have broken wide open. I think it was one of those things people had a hard time wrapping their head around: ‘They’re Dream Theater, they’re progressive guys, play progressive metal.’ Whatever man, just listen to the song, isn’t that what music is about? Just listen to it, and appreciate it for it is saying in that particular moment, not everything else it encompasses. That’s one of them for sure.”
“There’s so many songs, there’s always time constraints too. If we’d been in the golden era when progressive bands were given their fair shake, you know with Led Zeppelin and ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ how long is that song? Twelve minutes or something? But it was played and ubiquitous on every radio station in the world.”
With a 25-date run in Europe having now begun, we discuss the topic and LaBrie shares openly his thoughts on the political climate in the region.
“First of all, nobody is absent minded to the fact that we’re dealing with a very horrible situation currently and it’s really affecting everything you know. For bands touring it’s definitely showing its way in many negative connotations. To be on a positive note though, we are (looking forward to getting over to Europe) – it’s been a while, it’s been over two years. We start in Northern Ireland in Belfast, and then Newcastle and London Wembley Arena then on all through Europe. It’s still going to be a different kind of tour vibe because we’re still maintaining that COVID bubble. You’re not free and easy to go out wherever you want and meet people on the tour that you’ve come to know as friends over the many decades. So that’s unfortunate, we kind of feel like a circus act – let them out the cage, put them on the stage and do the show, then put them back in the cage, that’s basically what it feels like man, it’s really bizarre.”
“It’s not the same; we’re trying to get back to a sense of normalcy but it’s not. There’s going to be a lot of barriers in Europe as well, places like Croatia, Poland, and Czech Republic, it goes on and on. Our last show is in Istanbul, Turkey, and that area you know is very volatile. We’re there to play music though, and we’ll do that because music is magic and it touches to the core of each and every one of us, and that can bring some sense of convalescence in terms of wanting to make a better world than what it currently is. The perfect case scenario would be something like if this conflict was over tomorrow, or over right now, that would be better. People can start rebuilding their lives.”
“I touched on lyrics similar to this situation that’s going on when I wrote the lyrics for ‘Smashed” from Elements of Persuasion (2005, solo album) that was about the Chechnyan – as they were called rebels, but they were just trying to protect their country from the Russian aggression. So we’ve been here before, and I know Ukraine has been in this (before), so hopefully the tour can shed some light onto people, enrich the way they feel and we can have a great time. I know that every time we walk on stage it’s such an amazing feeling and our fans are phenomenal throughout the world. So we’re looking very much forward to it and hopefully it’ll be something that if we were to speak in two months from now I could say, ‘Man, it was an amazing experience, it was all very positive.’ I hope that’s what I can come back home with.”
On what fans can expect from the show, LaBrie shares the whole experience encompasses not only the music. “The visuals are amazing. We’ve been working with Wayne Joyner for some time and he’s the one that creates the visuals that support the lyrical content. That’s a huge part of the show and who and what we are, so the visuals are very stimulating and powerful. Then you’ve got the lighting show; our lighting director Steve Baird has been with us since the Awake tour, he’s phenomenal, he’s such an incredible visual and visionary person. He’s worked with everyone in the industry but he’s been with us true to form since 1995 and he’s an incredible lighting director, so his show is spectacular just on its own, then you add the visuals, and then you have Michael ‘Ace’ Baker who’s phenomenal as our house engineer, and then our crew who make all this happen and bring all this big show.”
“So it’s exciting. From the moment that we hit the stage, it’s this big wall of sound and also there’s so much for the fans to grasp onto visually, not to mention that we’re interacting with our fans and trying to have as much fun and that’s what matters for the next two hours whilst we’re on stage. I think the setlist really proves itself, it’s very powerful, and it’s a good unfolding of who and what we are as a band. If we tried to satisfy each and every fan out there with their favourite song or what they want to hear we’d be doing a six-hour show every night which is humanly impossible.”
“It’s cool because when we start in Belfast and for the next three shows we have Tesseract opening up and they’re a great band, and then for the rest of the European tour we have Devin Townsend. He’s a great musician and a great guy, funny guy, he really i, and he always puts on a great show. So it’s going to be a great, great evening of music so yeah man, let’s celebrate the human spirit and the music, that’s what it’s all about.”
We touch on how downtime between shows is spent whilst being in a COVID bubble and there’s still a few activities on the cards for LaBrie.
“Well, I do go for walks. Jordan (Rudess, keyboards) and I will get together and we’ll go for our walks and then we’ll pick a place to go for dinner. That’s not every day, every guy in the band does their thing on days off, there’s a lot of days where I just want to chill out, watch a movie, read, get in touch with the family. I do like to go on big long walks, get out, be outside, because on show days it’s from hotel to venue to bus to next city and boom, boom, boom, it’s the same thing, you start feeling like a caged animal. So on the days off I’m trying to do something completely different and create something therapeutic, let’s get back into the real world and I don’t care if I walk by a thousand people here today because that is the real world. That equalizes and keeps everything balanced.”
Some previous conversations I’ve had have been with artists finding their way in their career via somewhat smaller or more self-made, but no more trying, tours where the name of the game is sleeping in vans and parking spaces to get your music out there. Reflecting on the size of Dream Theater we talk about what comparative luxuries LaBrie couldn’t do without on the road.
“I’m definitely not going back to touring in a van! I did that for half of the Images and Words tour where we were making ends meet, we’ve been there, we know what these other musicians and bands are talking about, and I think everyone has to pay the price you know. Well not has to, there are instances and examples where they go from rags to riches in the blink of an eye, or at least it seems that way. What do I not want to do away with? We stay in very nice hotels, that keeps our sanity you know, and we fly, and fly comfortably so to speak in business and stuff like that, and then we have the tour buses and the trains.”
“You become accustomed and it’s something you expect; there’s that expectancy that there’s going to be a certain level you maintain when you’re out there and that’s what maintains your sanity, your focus and your health. It goes without saying, a lot of musicians would agree, that when you go on the road you get sick because you’re bouncing all over the place. Fortunately, and I’ve had to deal with that in the past, getting sick, which is the worst thing for a vocalist, you find something that works for you to maintain your health. You eat healthy, a lot of vegetables and fruit, drink a lot of water, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and stay away from people that you know who are sick. So all of that lends itself to having a consistency with being healthy on the road.”
“I would say those things you look for and you expect, and if you were to go backwards and all of a sudden they’re going, ‘well you’re all going to be sharing a hotel room together,” or ‘you can only shower when you get to the venue,’ or ‘you’re going back and it’s cube vans and vans for you to get around.’ I’d be like, ‘I don’t think so.’ I don’t think you could go back to that. That being said, if I was to do a solo tour which I did back in 2005, we did have our tour bus, and flying here and there, but I wasn’t staying in luxury hotels you know what I mean? It was like three star, we can do that, we’ll each have our own room, but let’s think of the logistics here, keep that in mind and be respectful and make it work. You’re not going to stay in a flea-bitten hotel, but you’re not saying in a five star either.”
To wrap up, we reflect on the dynasty LaBrie and Dream Theater have built together as a legendary progressive metal band, now recognized by their Grammy win. What could be left on their collective bucket list as an artist?
“I would think to continue to do this for as long as we’re completely engaged with it for the right reasons, and that is that we love it. Just try and keep writing music that we can stand behind 100 percent and be proud of it and feel that we’re continuing to evolve. That’s why I do my solo stuff, I want to let people see that there’s another side of me, and on the latest solo album Beautiful Shade Of Grey, that’s exactly what I did, it’s something that’s different from what’s being released out there and it’s unique in its own sense, and I think the fans are really appreciating it.”
“It’s all about staying engaged with what we have been doing for as long as we have been doing it, but doing it for the right reasons, not about people saying, ‘If you do this you can make that much money.’ It’s that if you’re doing something you love, that’s all the reasons you need. How much longer? I would hope that we’re going to do this for at least another ten years and we’ll take it from there. One day at a time, but right now we’re having a great time, we have a great album out there, the first leg of the world tour went down amazing and we’ll probably be out for the next twelve months, 14 months, in support of A View from the Top of the World.”