James LaBrie: Vocal Injury Caused Strain With Mike Portnoy, Rest Of Dream Theater Was ‘Behind Me 100 Percent’

In advance of Dream Theater's imminent release, 'Distance Over Time,' frontman James LaBrie opened up about the band's evolution, its impact, the latest album and 'the darkest place' he'd been as a performer and its effect on the band.

Dream Theater pose in front of a rushing river.
Mark Maryanovich / Courtesy Photo

In advance of Dream Theater's imminent release, 'Distance Over Time,' frontman James LaBrie opened up about the band's evolution, its impact, the latest album and 'the darkest place' he'd been as a performer and its effect on the band.

Dream Theater is perhaps the most well-known and widely acclaimed progressive metal band on the face of the Earth, having skyrocketed to fame on the heels of 1992’s Images and Words and having maintained a high profile ever since. As a lifelong metalhead, Dream Theater always spoke to me — and legions of others — on a visceral yet emotional level, layers of meaning and metal wrapped up in an unerring musicality.

Lead vocalist James LaBrie has fronted the band for nearly 30 years, beginning with Images and Words and providing soaring performances throughout the band’s entire discography — up to and including their most recent album, Distance Over Time. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and speak with James, our conversation spanning topics ranging from the band dynamic to the MeToo movement to the stirring poetry of Carl Sagan, the latter of which spawned the song “Pale Blue Dot” on their most recent release.

Scheduled for a February 22 release, Distance Over Time is a powerful album, the tracklist frenetically conjuring the breakneck energy and technical wizardry for which the band has become famous. From the darkly stirring “At Wit’s End” to the dynamic and daring “Fall Into The Light,” virtuoso-level musicianship and poetic lyrics combine to make this release one of their best in years.

My conversation with the voice of Dream Theater was earnest yet casual, at once light-hearted and dreadfully serious. Words — and their meaning within the context of the band’s lyrics, as well as the wider world — were discussed at length, teased out, and laid bare. And by the end of it, I’d come away with the sense of having spoken with a man of intellectual curiosity, creativity, and great empathy. All essential traits for the frontman one of the world’s leading metal and hard rock groups.

Don’t take my word for it — continue reading and discover the truth for yourselves.

Nicholas Morine: I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me today. I’ve been a fan for years and years, since Metropolis Pt. 2.

James LaBrie: Oh wow! So you’re going to have to see this tour, seeing how we’re doing that album in its entirety.

NM: Very stoked to see how that pans out for you guys!

JL: For sure!

NM: So, Dream Theater’s next album is slated for release February 22 – what can you tell me behind the creative process behind ‘Distance Over Time’?

JL: It was a little different from what we’d done previously, inasmuch as we actually lived together. We were in a house, about 100 meters from the studio. I think that really provided the environment that was necessary — or that we thought was necessary — to create the type of album that we ended up with. In the sense that we were isolated. We severed ourselves from any of the other domesticated things that go on in everyone’s lives. And we were able to just mainly focus on the whole writing process and the whole creation of this album.

I mean, that being said, there would be a few days here or there where someone would have to leave. But not enough where this would interrupt someone else working, or a couple of guys working other parts out. But for the most part, it was all of us there from beginning to end – just being focused on the songs, on the writing on the songs.

I think that the fact we were able to gather, it just allowed us – whether it was a glass of wine, or whether we were out back barbecuing steaks or burgers – to have a conversation that always came back to the music. It was a constant cultivation of ideas. Whether it was something that we were presently working on or something that we felt – a direction that we felt we needed to go – being around one another all of the time was an advantage.

We haven’t done the living together thing since Images and Words. Difference being, Images and Words was already written. It was just a matter of living together while we actually recorded the tracks. This was different in that everything, from beginning to the end, writing and recording was done there.

Although, myself personally, when it comes to recording the vocals – I always do that in a remote location. Usually up around Toronto. The rest of the guys, they record it at the studio. That’s just the way I like to work. Myself and the engineer – and leave me alone! [laughter] You know?

NM: I think that’s the artist’s prerogative if I’m not mistaken.

JL: Yeah! No, absolutely. Absolutely. And everyone has their comfort zone, so. Over the years we’ve all come to respect that. The other guys are fine with being in the studio and recording the parts. We had James Meslin – who we refer to as ‘Jimmy T’ – he was our engineer throughout the entire process. So those guys would work with Jimmy T at the Yonderbarn, which is where we wrote and recorded.

Myself, I worked with Rich Chycki. If we go back to the ’80s I was in a band called Winter Rose with him. He went on to be an extremely successful engineer, and he’s worked with Dream Theater over the course of the past three albums – engineering and mixing. But I’ve been working with Rich off and on for the last 30 years, you know? So we have an almost unspoken language. When I go in to do my vocals, he knows exactly where I’m coming from – and I know where he’s at. It’s just a very productive session.

Continue reading.