Dream Theater’s James LaBrie – Each Record is Like a Crystal Ball (Interview)
Canadian vocalist James LaBrie has played an integral part in making Dream Theater one of America’s leading progressive metal acts. While not all of their albums are equally beloved, each one — be they classic genre collections such as 1992’s Images and Words or controversial statements such as 2016’s The Astonishing — demonstrates why they’ve remained so singular.
Unsurprisingly, the quintet’s upcoming 15th studio work, A View from the Top of the World, is no exception. In anticipation of its release, we spoke with LaBrie about how the band learned from the past and triumphed over the present to create their most collaborative and representative work in a decade.
How does the artwork represent the record?
We fed primarily off of the closing title track, and the whole thing centers on the idea of intentionally pushing yourself to your limit (such as how thrill seekers live for the adrenaline rush of risking their lives to do seemingly impossible things). In the booklet, each song has its own imagery, too.
That’s cool. Did any prior albums inspire the LP?
Sure. You can’t help but be consciously or subconsciously influenced when you’re playing a whole album on stage every night. You’re reminded of the subtleties that make it so beloved. Specifically, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory  is very dynamic and intense, so revisiting it in concert recently reminded us that it’s a major part of who we are. The same thing happened when we played “A Change of Seasons” nightly. We analyzed its compositional approach once again to grasp why it’s so cherished by listeners and us.
It’s an amazing piece.
Thanks. [The title track] is another side-long piece, so rekindling those directions definitely helped. That being said, we knew beforehand that we wanted to have another epic track. It’s something that we should do every five or 10 years. It’s always been a part of us, too, and it set the trend of the rest of View.
It’s remarkable that you guys can still pull it off.
Not to sound cliché or cheesy, but if you’re doing it out of passion instead of necessity, that’ll come through. That’s especially true since we were writing during this pandemic, and we could go into our own studio [DTHQ, in NYC] and work on our time. We fully isolated ourselves in a bubble, which kept us at ease and became a welcomed distraction.
It really was. Plus, we never run out of ideas. We have so much material that we’ve never entirely developed. Instead, we put it aside in favor of things that’ve recently encouraged us, like something we’ve gone through. Each record tells that story. They’re like crystal balls that convey what was happening in the world and with us at the time.
Let’s face it: Every time an artist releases a new album, they’re going to boast about it. That’s how it should be. Even Distance Over Time  turned a new leaf for the band, and most people embraced it since The Astonishing was so controversial and polarizing. I stand behind it 100 percent and love everything that all of us brought to it, but it demanded more attention from listeners. Distance Over Time was about reviving the traditional Dream Theater elements, and View pushes that further.
You used Zoom to work with the other members, correct?
Well, partially. When we were writing, I was in my home studio and contributing remotely. If anything, I found it advantageous. In the past, I’d be in the [recording] room with my headphones on and the mic in front of me; if I had a recommendation, I’d have to wait for them to finish working on something and then run out with the melody or riff on my phone. I couldn’t keep yelling, “Stop, I’ve got something!” That’s too disruptive.
Oh, I see.
This way, I was able to mute them [laughs], sing my ideas into my mic and then share them once they were ready. Jordan [Rudess, keyboards] and John [Petrucci, guitars] are always throwing suggestions around. They’re so prolific, and then you’ve got Mike [Mangini, drums], who’s been very engaged. I can’t tell you how fast things moved along. It was beautiful.
It sounds like it.
As for recording the vocals, I flew down there. I was isolated in a hotel room for 10 days and then met John in our studio. It was the first time we’d been in the same room while I was singing since Black Clouds & Silver Linings . It was strange, and we were laughing about how it took a pandemic to get us together again. It made the process more collaborative because we could tweak things on the fly.
There’s a pleasant sort of irony to that.
Yeah. It’s always essential that the four instrumentalists are in the same room [when writing and recording] so there’s no separation in the music. That’s not to say that my role is any less important, but as long as the music is going in a united direction, I can act as the narrator and create a dialogue between us and the fans.
That’s an interesting way to look at it. Obviously, last month marked the 10th anniversary of Mike’s first Dream Theater LP, A Dramatic Turn of Events. How do you feel about that record — and the subsequent decade of Dream Theater — today?
We’ve definitely continued to evolve, and both Distance and View really exploit Mike’s talents not only as a drummer but as a writer. I’m not taking anything away from his work on Dramatic Turn or Dream Theater  or The Astonishing, but in those cases, there was more of him being directed. His wings were clipped, in a sense, whereas now he can really express himself.
I guess that comes with the territory of being the new guy.
Exactly. What Mike contributed back then was brilliant, but now you’re hearing the whole realm of who he is as a multifaceted musician.
His newfound freedom and poise are bound to shine through when you guys tour again as well.
Absolutely. We can’t wait to get back out there next year.
Thanks to James LaBrie for the interview. Dream Theater's 'A View from the Top of the World' is out Oct. 22 on Inside Out. Pre-order your copy of the album here and follow the band on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify.
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