Songwriter Interviews

James LaBrie of Dream Theater

by Greg Prato

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Dream Theater frontman James LaBrie talks tracks from the album Distance Over Time, and explains how his vocal injury ("the darkest moment in my life") has affected his range.

There have been bands that combined prog-rock and heavy metal (Rush, Iron Maiden and Queensrÿche come to mind), but no band has done it as seamlessly and consistently as Dream Theater. The band started their recording career in 1989, and have been waving the prog-metal flag ever since.

Dream Theater (composed of singer James LaBrie, guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung, keyboardist Jordan Rudess, and drummer Mike Mangini) continues strong to this day, as exemplified by the release of their 14th studio album, Distance Over Time, and a diehard fanbase that stretches throughout the world.

LaBrie spoke to Songfacts about the album shortly before its release. He also discussed the lyrical meanings behind several Dream Theater songs, named his favorite singers, and talked about surviving a career-threatening vocal injury.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How is the new album, Distance Over Time, similar or different to previous Dream Theater albums?

James LaBrie: Well, it might be similar to some of the earlier albums in the sense that in a lot of ways, we pulled from our roots. We wanted to connect with how Dream Theater came onto the radar - we were noticed as a very progressive metal band. When Dream Theater came on the scene, "progressive metal" wasn't even a term. But because we incorporated the metal influence and the progressive, more technical aspects of music, that became a new thing, a new direction musically. It inspired a lot of other bands and still does today.

So, when going into Distance Over Time, it was a conscious effort that we wanted to very much incorporate both those elements into this album. We wanted it to predominantly be a more aggressive album for sure, and we wanted it to be more heavy and more metal-based, but at the same time establishing a balance between the two. Not losing our identity or signatures as far as the progressive side of Dream Theater goes.

The whole time while writing this album, it was, "Yes, it's going to be a heavy album, but at the same time, let's also make sure we incorporate everything that has stated what we are as a band."

Songfacts: Which tracks off Distance Over Time did you write the lyrics for?

LaBrie: I wrote the lyrics for "At Wit's End," "Out Of Reach" and "Viper King."

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind those songs?

LaBrie: "Out Of Reach," I wanted to write a song about how people are affected when they lose a loved one. And in this case, it was the perspective of a guy that witnesses or notices a girl. I used a coffee shop as the background. That's where a lot of people tend to go just to unwind, have a moment to reflect on what is going on in their lives. This guy notices an absolutely beautiful girl, and at first he thinks she has it all going for her: she's beautiful, well-dressed, seems to be financially stable. But as he sees her from day to day, sitting at her table, he realizes there is a sadness to her. So, the lyric is about him trying to communicate to her to rediscover love, because he sees that something is seriously missing in her life due to a loss.

"At Wit's End" is about... well, it's a very dark subject. It's the after-effect of a very traumatic and horrific experience, which is being the victim of rape. I read an article and then I saw a documentary on victims of such a heinous act, and it's really hard for the couples to go on. So, that lyric is about him telling his wife that no matter what has happened, she has to remember that he still loves her as he always has, nothing has been lost, and that she needs to see that he is still the man she fell in love with. He still does not think anything different. He is there for her, and he needs her to rediscover that yes, she has been changed by this act, but at the same time, she has to realize that there is more to her than what this act dictates. So, that's basically what that lyric is about: her trying to salvage the relationship due to that.

"Viper King" is just a really fun tune. It's about a muscle car - the Dodge Viper. It's about the spirit of having a love for something, whether it's a hobby or a sport. And in this sense, it's a love for muscle cars. It's an adrenaline rush, and people have different ways of getting their adrenaline rush. Mine, I love cars, but actually my adrenaline rush is downhill skiing. I love to ski mountains and stuff like that. But I also love vehicles.

When I was writing this lyric, due to the nature of the song, it kind of reminded me of Rush's "Red Barchetta," or Deep Purple's "Highway Star." It had that kind of feel - especially "Highway Star." It's a blues-rock kind of song.

"Viper King" has a little bit of those overtones and a very Van Halen kind of feel, as well. I just wanted to write about the thrill of driving down the road and letting your spirit free, enjoying the ride.

Songfacts: Is it ever difficult fitting lyrics or vocal melodies to Dream Theater songs due to the complexity of the arrangements?

LaBrie: No, because while we are composing and arranging a song, it's always with the thought, "OK, this section is the vocal section. This is the pre-chorus. This is the chorus. This is the bridge." So, we are always very much aware of what that section is going to represent. The intention is always to write something melodically powerful over top, and the energy of the song has to be something that really lends itself to a strong lyric.

Before joining Dream Theater in 1991, Ontario, Canada, native LaBrie sang with hard rockers Coney Hatch and glam metallists Winter Rose. After submitting a demo tape to the DT lads, LaBrie auditioned and got the gig. His first album with the band, 1992's Images And Words, was also their breakthrough, going Gold and spawning the MTV/rock radio hit "Pull Me Under." Twelve more albums have followed, including fan favorites Awake (1994) and Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999). In 2016 they released the over-the-top concept album The Astonishing, which according to online fan reviews such as this one, is the most "love/hate" release in the Dream Theater discography.
Songfacts: What is the hardest Dream Theater song to pull off live?

LaBrie: There are several, whether it's the dynamic or the emotional aspect of it. But if you're talking about the calisthenics of singing and really pushing one's limits, I would say "Innocence Faded," "Take The Time," and "Learning To Live." Everything else seems to be in a very comfortable range. I'm talking 25 years, going on 26 years after Images And Words.

So, a lot of that material is very difficult, and also the Awake stuff, because that was before I had my vocal injury where I ruptured my vocal cords. Due to that accident, I was compromised a little bit as a singer in the sense of range. Before the accident, my range was ridiculous. I could sing from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to sleep. Since then, I have to be very careful and a little of my range was compromised. Some of those songs are notes in the stratosphere. I had to alter the melodies to fit who the singer is today.

Songfacts: For those who aren't aware, what exactly caused your vocal injury?

LaBrie: In 1994 my wife and I, with a few other friends, went down to Cuba and I suffered severe food poisoning. While I was vomiting I bled onto my vocal cords because it was that bad. If anyone out there knows about food poisoning, it's horrible. You're delirious, and at some point the conversation is, "I want to die," because you just feel that bad. But because of that, I saw two ENTs - ear, nose and throat specialists. This happened around December 30th of 1994, and on January 10th, I was supposed to be singing in Tokyo.

In got in to see the doctors on January 4th or 5th due to a friend of mine who is a doctor, and they told me, "You need to take six months off. You shouldn't be talking, you definitely should not be thinking about singing." And Dream Theater at the time had just come off a hit album with Images And Words. We had only done the North American tour leg for the Awake album, and we were then moving on to Asia and Europe.

So, even though we were starting to make good money, it would have been catastrophic if I had said to the band, "I've got to take six months off." We didn't have that luxury - it probably would have broke the bank. So, unfortunately, I had to go back singing, probably when I shouldn't have. It took its toll, and it took several years to even feel that I was back to where I was comfortable as a singer.

So, instead of hitting D's and E's and F-sharps and all that stuff, I was able to hit C, C-sharp, and D. But I had to really watch it. I have hit F notes here and there, but I have to really watch it. But that was probably the darkest moment in my life, for sure.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "Anna Lee" from Falling Into Infinity?

LaBrie: Well, here we go again, here's "Mr. Dark Subject."

"Anna Lee" is about sexual abuse, an incestual thing that I read about, so I wanted to write about this girl. Now, the name in the article wasn't Anna, her name was Natalie. But it was about how in third-world countries, there is sex trafficking and all that stuff. It was loosely inspired by that: The sex trafficking in the South Pacific Rim where a lot of it happens, and the Middle East. I wanted to write about it, so "Anna Lee" is about sexual abuse - how women are completely mistreated. And there are also overtones of incest, as well.

Songfacts: "Scene Seven: II. One Last Time" from Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From a Memory.

LaBrie: That's basically about a love that has been lost. It was a love triangle, that whole story. The love that has been lost, but the love that is found again through reincarnation. It's a renewed or a found love in a more pure sense, without the betrayal.

Songfacts: "Prophets of War" from Systematic Chaos.

LaBrie: That's all about 9/11 and the way that governments responded to it. What we witness around us, there are hidden agendas that unfortunately create the divide, create the hate, create the ignorance. There are things that are being orchestrated through governments that unfortunately have a detrimental effect on humankind and on society.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite singers?

LaBrie: Right off the bat, Freddie Mercury is my all-time favorite. Steve Perry, Lou Gramm, Rob Halford, Steven Tyler, Robert Plant definitely, Ian Gillan, Glenn Hughes, Rod Stewart, Nat King Cole, Conor Mason from Nothing But Thieves, Sameer Gadhia from Young The Giant, and Paul Meany from Mutemath. I love Ryan Tedder from OneRepublic - I think he has a beautiful voice. Jeff Buckley is another one. I believe Jeff Buckley is an influence on Conor Mason.

Songfacts: Looking back, which Dream Theater album are you most proud of?

LaBrie: This one [Distance Over Time] is a big runner-up, but Images And Words is always going to be my choice, because that established what Dream Theater really is. I think it's a phenomenal album from beginning to end. When I look back at that time, when that album came out, we stuck out like a sore thumb, but thanks to Derek Oliver [A&R man], Atlantic got behind this. Grunge was the big thing, and then we come out with an album like Images And Words... people must have been looking at us like we had two heads. And then, for that to be successful, that really paved the way for the rest of our tour, and has created the longevity of who and what we are.

But I'm also extremely fond of The Astonishing, which I know is a very controversial album. And the reason I say that is for me personally as a vocalist, it really allowed me to show every single facet of who and what I am as a singer. So, that album, even though it polarized our fans - there's no doubt about that - to me, as an artist, it really was absolutely fulfilling and gratifying.

January 28, 2019
For more Dream Theater, visit dreamtheater.net.

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photos: Mark Maryanovich

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Comments: 2

  • Darío from ArgentinaInteresting to see LaBrie's perspective, I always see people giving him a lot of hate without knowing the tragedy that it was his vocal cords getting compromised so early in DT's story.
    Interesting interview, thanks a lot to both of you and all the people behind it.
  • Zhivko from BurgasMEGA AWESOME INTERVIEW!!!
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