Dream Theater Frontman James LaBrie Chats With Full Metal Jackie
Radio personality Full Metal Jackie talked to Dream Theater frontman James LaBrie on this past weekend’s show about the band’s new album, ‘A Dramatic Turn of Events,’ which hits stores Tuesday (Sept. 13). The pair also discussed the group’s new drummer Mike Mangini and Dream Theater’s upcoming headlining tour with Trivium. If you missed the radio show, you can read Full Metal Jackie’s interview with LaBrie below:
What’s happening James?
Hey, how are you? I’m doing good.
I’m doing great, I’m so happy to have you on the show; I’ve been a big fan of Dream Theater for a long time and really excited about this brand new record coming out and you guys have a tour coming up in the fall as well. You guys are going to be out with Trivium correct?
Yeah, we’re going to be out and we’re taking Trivium with us, our labelmates, and we’re looking forward to it. We start on the 24th of September and it’s something we’re all pretty excited about. I mean we just finished playing through Europe doing the festival tour and it was great just to get out and get rid of the cobwebs and all of that stuff, but more importantly it was our first outing with our new drummer Mike Mangini and it’s great to get those gigs under our belt, so to speak. Everything went great, everything was fantastic and fans’ reaction was so positive and overwhelmingly receptive and, hey, we couldn’t be more blessed. It was all great.
Let’s talk about that. Obviously, Mike Portnoy was an integral part of Dream Theater since its inception, not somebody replaceable by simply hiring another drummer. At what point during his audition did you know Mike Mangini would be your man?
[Laughs] I think after the first three minutes. No, I mean he came there with so much enthusiasm and he made it quite clear, quite apparent to us that, “I’m coming after this gig and I’m putting my all into it and I’m very focused. I’m very prepared and I’m going to make it undeniably obvious to you that I want this gig more than anyone and I deserve it more than anyone.”
We played three songs from previous albums and, seriously, even after the first song it was just so obvious that this guy was unique, he was world class and I think the other thing that really was what drove it home for us was that it felt so natural; it just felt really natural. You would turn, if you weren’t looking at him and you turned away and you were just taking in the music and how it felt, it felt very natural, it felt synergistic.
We were all joking after the audition saying we could have played a gig [that night]. We literally could’ve walked on stage and played a gig, that’s how tight and in control he was, with playing through the songs.
The other drummers were phenomenal; the other drummers were unique in their own way. They all had their own style and their own interpretation, incredible drummers, but the way that he felt, it was the right chemistry, the way he engaged in conversation with us, he’s very intelligent.
I mean I’ve known Mike Mangini for 13 years and he played on three of my solo albums, so I was privy to have worked with him in the past and I knew that this was a guy who’s going to come in; he’s going to play and I’m pretty darn sure he’s going to have the other guys with their jaws on the floor and he did.
That being said, I know that there’s been some talk out there of everybody going, “Well, I’m sure that once Mike Mangini played that they were kind of closed down to the other drummers presenting themselves and giving them a fair shake” and I can tell you that we all stayed openminded listening to the other six drummers. It was just when we went back and started looking and reviewing the auditions of each drummer, we just kept coming back to Mike Mangini and there was just something there, it’s magic.
James, most of the songs are said to have been written prior to Mike Mangini joining the band. How did you account for new chemistry that would ultimately impact the music? Were the song crafted to specifically allow room for someone new to make their mark?
Yeah, Absolutely. I think the accurate way of saying that is that, yes, it was only the four of us in the studio; Mike Mangini wasn’t in the studio with us while we were writing the album. What would happen is that the songs came together in their own unique way by us tossing ideas back and forth and whether it was a riff or notes coming from John Myung or Jordan [Rudess] or John Petrucci or riffs that I had in my head that I was throwing at them, that’s how the music came together.
Once we were sure that we had a song idea down and a song beginning to end, what would happen in the studio is that John Petrucci would do the drum programs, we did this through a computer, so he would program the drums and then we would send that song to, completed with drums on there, via synthetic drummer, we would send to Mike Mangini and then he would take it from there. He would craft it into what he felt was necessary in the way that the drums would unfold on each and every song and that’s how the whole process is done.
By the time that Mike Mangini came into the studio to do his tracks he was very sure of where he wanted to go; that being said, too, him and John Petrucci were bouncing ideas throughout each and every song, trying new things or trying something that might even make it much more strong or powerful. So that’s kind of the way it came up but we did give Mike Mangini absolute freedom in the kind of drummer that he is, his style is very apparent; he’s very intuitive, he’s very musical. He’s proven himself over many years that he is world class and he is unique in the way that he plays drums, so we wanted to capture that, we didn’t want to suffocate any of those elements that make him truly a gem as a drummer. So, we did allow a lot of liberty from him as far as how he wanted to express himself.
I want to premiere a new song from the album right now it’s called ‘Build Me Up.’ James, what could you tell us about this song?
It’s great! [Laughs] Well, I’d say this one song, definitely, it really speaks loudly. If there’s ever going to be a Dream Theater song that’s meant to be played on radio, this has a very powerful hook melody throughout the entire song, especially on the chorus. It’s talking about how people basically are built up to be something, that they’re great and people wait for an opportunity to knock them down, to kick them when they’re down, you know whether it be celebrity figures or anybody that has obtained great success. For whatever reason human beings seem to feed off of someone else’s misery and so it’s just kind of twisted in how we get off on that. So this song lyrically without diving into it any deeper is dealing with that subject matter.
But I think musically, it’s just a really cool tune. It’s heavy, it’s grinding, it’s very powerful even in the way the drums are pushing it forward like a locomotive and I think melodically, too, it’s exuding a lot of great hooks. Hopefully, it’ll be something everyone can sink into which I’m pretty confident it will be.
James, the departure of someone like Portnoy, hands on in so many aspects of how Dream Theater functioned must have meant a total restructuring of the band mechanism. Does such restructuring come at the benefit of shaking up the complacency of routine?
Yeah, I would think so. I think it allowed us to really rethink how we exist. I think one thing to be noted is that musically we were pretty sure, we knew what kind of album we wanted to make when we were coming into the studio which ended up being ‘A Dramatic Turn of Events.’ The music on this album, we knew that we really wanted to get back to our musical roots and we really wanted to recreate keeping it contemporary and keeping it new obviously.
What really put us on the map internationally and that was the progressive element of Dream Theater and the heavy metal element but keeping it in a very controlled and complimenting way for each element to speak loudly but not overtaking the other.
Beyond that, we also knew that there are a lot of behind the scenes operations that make a band what it is and there’s so many things going on whether it’s promotion, whether it’s artwork or just every day to day duties that need to be done that will enable a band to stay in the minds of the fans and in the industry in a very positive and healthy way.
So, we knew right away that we wanted to make it a unified venture from this moment on so that it wasn’t one person calling the shots; it wasn’t one person taking the responsibilities of the band because that just tends to kind of leave you out in the dark and there can be too many moments that can be somewhat surprising to you. “Oh, I didn’t know we were doing that or I didn’t know that, that was going on or how did this come about.” So knew that we never wanted to be, maybe, in that situation ever again.
So, transparency was the first thing that we said this band had to exist on and the fact that we were all going to discuss any move that was going to be made and it’s been great and it hasn’t been complicated, because the way we looked at it in the past was that, “Well you get everybody in, there’s too many chefs in the kitchen or there’s too many chiefs” or whatever. It hasn’t ever been a situation like that if anything it’s something that’s easily discussed, we all know what’s best for the band, we all know what we want, ultimately we want success and we want to continue building this so that it gets bigger and better.
So, we’re able to discuss things and it’s an open dialogue and I think because of that we all feel much more connected and much more free and calm and spirited and I think that even comes out; well we know it does, because fans are talking about it, that there seems to be a whole new unity going on within the band, a whole new spirit on stage and everyone’s roles are speaking loudly as far as the way you see a band and view a band. And so I think it’s all great you know, it’s all really taking us to a better place.
We’ve been playing this song on the show for a couple weeks now. James what could you tell us about the song ‘On the Backs of Angels?’
Well, ‘On the Backs of Angels’ is dealing with, in society we have, people always pushing themselves to be bigger and better, entrepreneurial individuals looking to say something and make something different, something that puts them up to create a very successful situation for themselves. And on the other end of the spectrum we have people that kind of suck or bleed the system and want to somewhat break down anything that is positive or complacency seems to be their mote and it’s unfortunate and it’s very destructive and it’s very negative. So, there’s two things going within this song but aside from that, I think it’s another song on the album that proves that we’re maintaining the identity of Dream Theater loud and clear.
What’s the setlist going to be like? At this point you guys have so many records under your belt, what could we expect from the setlist?
Yeah, well we thought it’s important that our previous albums are maintained and they do have moments throughout the night that they’re brought forth. So, with that being said there will be a song or two from the previous albums going right through the catalog and then obviously there’s going to be a bit more support and focus on the new album where we’re going to play a few more songs than we would from the other albums. But, I think the way we have it structured, will make for a very exciting night musically and I think very fulfilling and gratifying to our fans that have been with us from the very beginning right up to the newer fans that are coming on board now or have just recently come on board in the last few years. So, it will make for a very exciting evening musically.
And we are a devoted bunch of fans I will say.
There’s no doubt about it, that we are blessed with the kind of fan base we have worldwide and we realize that and we witness it every single night we walk on stage. It’s just phenomenal, the energy and the kind of reception that we receive each and every night, it’s just it’s overwhelming.
James, how do you think ‘A Dramatic Turn of Events’ would have turned out differently and sounded different, if not the world wind that has been the last 12 months.
Yeah, I don’t think it would be the album that it is. There’s no doubt in my mind. I think this really availed itself to us being able to really come at this differently. I think the fact that we didn’t have the usual construction going into the studio, maybe having some pre-conceived ideas musically and the jamming out the ideas, I think that the fact that the drums weren’t there at this particular time really allowed the ideas to breathe. We were really able to analyze them in a naked sense because you were just hearing the riffs, the notes and you were really able to hear it for what its true essence is in that kind of presentation and later on putting percussion around it just even embellished it and reassured us that it was a right move.
It also just allowed us to communicate to one another differently what our ideas were and where we felt it was necessary to go as a band musically and one of those things was definitely we wanted to get in touch with getting back to what really put us on the map internationally. But beyond that it was just a very strong and relaxed and calm communication that was going on and I don’t think that would’ve been the case if we had gone back into the studio like we had with previous albums, going down the road that we thought was sure to work for us.
This was a whole new approach and I think it really allowed us to come up with the music and to come up with the direction musically and the sound and energy and vibe that came out on this album, so it definitely did create something new.
James, I really appreciate you being on the show, as I said, long time fan and I’m looking forward to seeing you guys out on this tour. Dream Theater’s tour is kicking off Sept. 24, most of the dates with Trivium. You can go online to see a full list of dates and ‘A Dramatic Turn of Events’ comes out in stores Sept. 13. James thank you once again, I appreciate it.
Thank you. I appreciate it, Full Metal Jackie! Yeah!
This coming weekend, Full Metal Jackie Radio celebrates the North American Khaos tour with interviews with Michael Amott of Arch Enemy and Freddy Lim of Chthonic. The current North American Khaos 2011 Tour features Arch Enemy, Devildriver, Chthonic & Skeletonwitch. Also, Jackie will be premiering new music from Machine Head and Charred Walls of the Damned. Full Metal Jackie can be heard on radio stations around the country — for a full list of stations, go to fullmetaljackieradio.com.