No one was more surprised and shocked than Dream Theater
singer James LaBrie
when he heard that Mike Portnoy
was leaving the band. There had been no indications and it truly caught him off guard. When the drummer took a brief hiatus to work on Avenged Sevenfold
album ostensibly just filling in for the recording dates as a temporary replacement for the recently departed Rev
LaBrie just assumed he'd be returning when the project was over. In fact, in a recent interview with Portnoy on these very pages, he never revealed anything about a desire to remain with Avenged Sevenfold fulltime and not return to DT. But Mike Portnoy is gone and Dream Theater are moving in. They're actively looking for new drummers and will return to the studio sometime next year.
In the meantime, LaBrie has released Static Impulse
, another solo album that brings him together yet again with keyboardist/writer Matt Guillory
. It is a followup to 2005's Elements Of Persuasion
[it brought a huge laugh from the singer when I inadvertently referred to that record as Elements of Confusion] and features guitarist Marco Sfogli
, drummer/screaming vocalist Peter Wildoer
and bassist Ray Riendeau
. The album was produced by LaBrie and Guillory and mixed by Opeth
master, Jens Bogren
. The album's lineup hits the road for an opening date on November 26th in Charlotte, North Carolina, and no, they won't be doing any Dream Theater songs in the set.
UG: Could we do a little bit of housekeeping?
Yeah, I'm up for it [laughs].
When Mike Portnoy, who's always done a lot of side projects, went out to do the Avenged Sevenfold record, did you sense that anything might be different with him? That things were different and that things were gonna change?
No, not at all. I mean, Mike had mentioned that the Rev, Avenged Sevenfold's drummer, [the late James Owen Sullivan], was heavily influenced by Mike and that it was the rest of the guys' decision to want to honor his memory by bringing, you know, obviously in his main influence as far as drumming. So we said, Yeah, you know. That's a great opportunity and we're not gonna stop you. I mean, obviously we all make our decisions and do what we feel is something that is a professional and sound decision, and that's exactly what it was. At that point it was all about him going there, recording the album. Initially it was just for him to record the album, and then it was maybe a few months later that he said, The guys have asked me if I would tour with them.
Did that feel a little strange?
At that point it kinda felt a little weird, like, Hey, wait a minute, our drummer's gonna be drumming with somebody else? Not that he hasn't done that; he's done that in the past. Other projects and jammed with other various musicians here and there, which is cool. So you have to put it into perspective and realize it for what it was. But there was no indication that he was unhappy with who and what Dream Theater is or represents at this current point in our lives or career. It just came about that we were enlightened to that mindset when we had our meeting in New York, which was originally scheduled for what we were going to be doing with the next album and what it was about and when we were gonna tour again. So it was only at that point that we really it was a shock. You know, it was kinda like, What? [laughs]. What did you just say?
I think it's unfortunate. You know, I just did an interview the other day and obviously my words were taken outta context. One of the questions was, Are you sad? and I said, I'm not sad. And, you know, in retrospect, yeah. Should I have answered it so brashly? Maybe not, but basically, what I was trying to say is, You know, I think it's unfortunate that he left and that this is where he is. But at the same time, we as Dream Theater and as a band, we have to think of our current situation and what our options are and our only option that we want is that we have to move onward and upward.
You know, I think it's really unfortunate that he left. I think I could've been clearer by saying, Am I sad? Well, I felt bad about it when it went down, but I can't linger in that cause life just doesn't exist like that. It doesn't afford those luxuries to wallow in our sorrow and not do anything about it, right? And unfortunately too many people just kinda misconstrued my words and said, Oh, shit, he's insensitive, he doesn't care. Bullshit, that's the furthest thing from the truth. I care about the man dearly.
Maybe hurt might've been a little more accurate?
Yeah, absolutely. But, hey, obviously when you're in this industry that's what it's all about. It's controversy and it's people twisting your words and it's rumor and it's circumspect and it's all that shit. So, whatever, you gotta take it with a grain of salt and move forward.
James, is it too early to talk about a replacement at this point?
Absolutely it is. I can tell you this much: in a couple of weeks we're gonna start auditioning. We have the drummers coming in and basically, yeah, it all looks incredible; it's all good. You know, it's just a matter of doing that process and then coming out on the other side and making the announcement, but that hasn't happened yet.
Without any disrespect intended, it will be difficult to replace Mike but not impossible. Your fans will still be there with you.
I think the important thing to remember is that still four-fifths of the band are there. And that, and I've mentioned this in other interviews, we're all quite capable of doing things individually that's musical. For instance, my solo album that's out now, Static Impulse, and various things that we've done within Dream Theater. It really is unfortunate that this man at this point, Mike, has decided to go his separate ways, but we have to accept that, and there's no doubt in my mind that Dream Theater will still go on forward and be strong and come out with incredible music. Absolutely; no doubt.
Black Clouds and Silver Linings was the last record with that lineup with Mike. It's still pretty recent history, but can you look back at it as sort of the last testament or statement of that lineup that will close that chapter with Mike?
No, I mean, I'm biased obviously. I absolutely loved the album. I think it was great. When I was doing interviews for that album I always said, The thing I especially love about this is that I think we really went back to our roots as far as who and what we were as a band as Dream Theater. We pulled upon a lot of those influences and inspirations that earlier in our career really kinda formed and created who and what we were. So I think a lot of those elements are present on Black Clouds and Silver Linings. You know, I don't even like to say that [laughs]. Like, you know, Was it a great last album with Mike Portnoy? Yeah, sure, it was a great last album with Mike. Who knows what the future holds? At this point our focus is on getting a drummer that we feel connected to both in the chemistry and personality and absolutely he has to be more than capable of playing what Mike played, which is incredible drumming. But yeah, I think it is a great testament for who and what he was. He was extremely passionate about everything that went into Black Clouds and Silver Linings, so it's a true testament as to what he was within Dream Theater.
Some of your earlier solo records like Winter Rose has been described as having a bit of that Bon Jovi thing.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Dream Theater will still go on forward and be strong and come out with incredible music."
Kill me now [laughs]. Just shoot me.
But for the day and time, the songs were really put together well. Was that the kind of band you saw yourself being in?
At the time, and obviously we're talking late 80s - that was done in '89 - the current mode of the industry musically was that. It was hard rock but very commercial sounding. Straight forward and very concise, but still great players on it. But to be honest with you, and I've said this several times in the past, my true love growing up was bands like Rush and Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and stuff like that; even Genesis. So I always had this connection with progressive but heavy kind of progressive. I remember always saying when I was down in Toronto and I was trying to develop my career and try to get it to the point I would eventually and hopefully be signed, I was always saying, If I could only find the players that were of the mindset that we could do something more progressive. More involved, more musical. And it's not that they didn't exist; it's just that we didn't happen to cross paths. And it just so happened when I was out with Winter Rose and we were out touring with Lee Aaron. I don't know if you remember her, the Metal Queen from Canada?
And we were out touring with her and she approached me and said, You know, I'm watching you every night and you've really got something going on. It never went any further than that and I was thinking, OK, that's nice; that's a great compliment. But where it did lead to is that she contacted a guy by the name of Pierre Paradis and he came to the show unbeknownst to me and saw my performance and then contacted me and asked me to do a solo album with Aquarius Records at the time. Which, you know, never materialized obviously. And then from our sitting down my initial conversation with Pierre and he was like, Oh, yeah, so what other kind of music are you into? and we started talking about all these bands. He's like, Holy shit. This is really bizarre, and you're doing this stuff? And I said, Well, you know, I'm passionate about what I'm doing here but this is something that I'm doing and I wanted to develop who and what I am as a musician and a singer. And then he actually contacted somebody down in New York who knew that Dream Theater at the time had been looking for a singer for quite some time. That's how that all came together. So it was just a matter of certain things orchestrating themselves behind my back.
The Fates Warning song, Life in Stillwater was cool.
Yeah, I love that; I love that whole album.
So Fates Warning was closer to your vision of what you saw yourself doing?
Well, that came about because Mike Portnoy was great friends with Jim Matheos, the guitar player, who writes all the material. And I guess through talking Mike had mentioned to Jim, Oh yeah, we got this new singer, who at the time was Kevin LaBrie, my first name, and he's up in Toronto. Jim was like, Wait a second, man. Your new singer lives up in Toronto? That's where we're recording our album at Metalworks up in Toronto, a studio. And he said, You know, would he be willing to come in and sing something? and Mike said, Let's contact him and see if he's into it. And I was totally into it, you know, so that's how that all came about. Me going in and just singing that tune and singing the background stuff. It was cool.
Then in 1999 you do the Mullmuzzler record with songs like As a Man Thinks and Slow Burn. For anyone following your career, you could tell that you were branching out musically. You're kind of refining the vision a little more.
Well, I mean, there are songs like His Voice or Shores of Avalon. I know what you're referring to; you're talking about Guardian Angel, the more acoustic kind of tunes and stuff like that. To me it was more like I wanted to really approach a good hard rock, Zeppelin-esque kind of album with those dynamics being the forefront. It was stuff that I'd been hearing and the way that I go about writing is I literally walk around with a recorder. Nowadays I have my iPhone with me, so if I have any riff inspiration or any lyrical inspiration I just throw it down on the iPhone. But basically I used to carry a little recorder around with me and if I got a riff then that's how I go about it. That's how those albums started to come together along with Matt Guillory, who's my main collaborator and has been from the very beginning. So it was more of a telling of who and what I am and where I come from musically just because my involvement with Dream Theater as far as the compositions of the actual songs is very limited. You know, aside from me writing melodies here and there and some lyrics here and there, that's about the extent of it. So the solo albums made even that much more sense to me so that everyone, all the fans and beyond the Dream Theater fan base, could hear who and what I am and what I find inspiring or how I like to express myself musically.
You bring up a really interesting point inasmuch as you typically only wrote one lyric and melody per album. But was it sometimes strange or unnatural to take some of John's melodies and lyrics and apply them to these pieces of music he had written? Your approach within Dream Theater wasn't that much different than, say, the way that Roger Daltrey interpreted the music that Pete Townshend gave to him.
I hear what you're saying and ultimately it has to come down to my interpretation. It also comes down to the way that it hits me emotionally and it has to be expressed through my emotional spectrum, so to speak. And you're right about Roger Daltrey. Ultimately it becomes him and his experiences that really are able to convey what Pete Townshend was suggesting or intending. So with me it's always been, you know, when it's been a John lyric or a Mike lyric. When it's my lyric obviously I know exactly where I'm coming from and where I'm gonna go with it. But with their lyrics I would always take the song or the lyric and the melody and I would go away with it on my own for however long that might be. I need to internalize it and ingest it the way that I feel fit so that it becomes me. And at the very last moment I always sat down with the lyricist and said, OK, so I want the literal explanation as to what you're saying here or where's the inspiration come from? And that's what I do, I take all that information, I go away with it, and essentially it needs to be my expressions. Because otherwise you'd sound very contrived. You'd sound like a machine, and who gives a shit at that point? It's not even worth it.
That's exactly right. When John or Mike would present these lyrics, or really mainly the melodies to you, and you heard the piece of music, as a vocalist who wrote his own songs didn't you hear your own melodies?
Oh, yeah, without a doubt. Absolutely, without a doubt.
So was the process of songwriting you being presented completed songs by John Petrucci and/or John Myung really a collaborative process?
To be honest with you, not so much. There were a couple of instances here and there throughout the years where I'd be saying, Well, you know, what do you think of this? Or unless I actually wrote the melody from beginning to end. With their melodies there might've been a slight bending or nuance or inflection here that I suggested and that we went along with. But for the most part it was just a matter of me just making it sound natural within the context and the parameters of their melodies that they wrote. But absolutely every one of the songs that I heard I already had a melody in my head. Absolutely, there was no doubt about it. And that's something that comes extremely fast to me. When Matt and I are writing, I literally have to have the recording, when I play a riff or even when I sing a riff, I need to go back and throw a melody over it immediately and I don't wanna forget it or I don't wanna miss out on that being something. But that's the way it's always been and I'm very confident in that aspect. With lyrics, when I'm writing lyrics, that's a bit more of a lengthy process. There are instances where it's instantaneous and I can write a lyric as fast as my hands will move, but that's very rare. For the most part it's something that I will work on for a good three or four days before I feel confident enough to say, OK, that's exactly how I want it to be said.
You've brought up Matt Guillory here a couple of times. Obviously he's a key figure in your solo work. The experience of working with Matt on songs is entirely different than what you've experienced with John and Mike in Dream Theater?
Well, absolutely, because it's a 50/50 situation. With Matt and I, everything comes from us and everything is balanced and everything is equal. Right down from the writing to the producing to the artistic impression; any visuals or imagery that's going on around our albums, it comes from both of us. So it's something that's a collaborative effort in every sense of the word. And from the very beginning it was a chemistry that we felt immediately. I was able to throw ideas at him and vice versa and it just felt very natural. It was a very easy process, which is how it has to be. If it feels forced, obviously, move on and go on to someone else. But it was like that, and I think over the years when I go back and listen to Keep it to Yourself, the first MullMuzzler album, and then I hear where we are today, to be honest with you some of those songs [laughs] I'm just not there anymore. I can't, yeah, I'm just like, Shit, I would never write like that right now. That's not a bad thing. If anything it just shows that I think that we've grown as a unit, Matt and I, and that we evolve and our music represents that evolution. You know, that we're progressing and that I think our songs are becoming better and there's more of an intensity to them. There's more of an impact from upon initial listening.
So by the time of Elements of Persuasion do you think it's getting a little closer to what we hear on Static Impulse today?
Yeah, absolutely. Elements of Persuasion, I think there's a lot of foreshadowing in there as to where we wanted to go. You open up with a song like Crucify, or you hear a song like Pretender, songs that definitely have that whole vibe that we wanted to become heavier as a band. One of the things that I liked in Elements is that there was a lot of diversity and dynamics. I mean, going from a song like Alone, which had all these techno kind of influences in there but at the same time hard and heavy hitting. Or even Undecided. But then you go into a song like Smashed which is very atmospheric.
Smashed had a great feel.
Thank you. And the whole lyric about oppression and how people are misunderstood, basically. Which I like to continue that theme even into Static Impulse. But as a whole you can definitely hear those influences that we wanted to obviously cultivate and bring them more to the forefront. We definitely did with Static Impulse.
Could any of the songs you wrote for the solo records have been presented to Dream Theater?
I mean, a song like Crucify, sure, that could've been a song. I've never really even thought about that. It's crazy, you know. Like here I am five or six years from that album, Elements of Persuasion, or even any of the MullMuzzler albums, and I never even really looked at it under those terms. I always thought that it was a complete separate entity. Just like you said, granted it's the singer and there's the similarity. I think there are slight similarities with the progressive elements in some of the songs on MullMuzzler and obviously on Elements of Persuasion. I think that's where the similarities begin and end to be honest with you. And as far as any of these songs making it on to a Dream Theater album, I don't know. Even a song like Slightly Out of Reach, I couldn't see that song being something on a Dream Theater album. Not in a million years. Even though we might write a song like Forsaken or something which is in a similar pattern as Slightly Out of Reach but at the same time it still has that Dream Theater signature. I think Slightly Out of Reach had a different feel and a different style, you know, musically. There are similarities just in the elements that we might pull some of our inspiration from but I think there's still enough separation that they each are entities of their own.
The new band are really remarkable. Marco [Sfogli] is a pretty astonishing guitar player. Peter [Wildoer] and Ray [Riendeau] as your rhythm section are incredible musicians. Matt [Guillory] is an amazing keyboard player and writer. Were you looking for a certain kind of a guitar player? Someone that could play like John Petrucci? Or somebody who didn't play anything like John Petrucci?
"I think the important thing to remember is that still four-fifths of the band are there."
Someone who could encapsulate anything and anywhere we wanted to go. He had to be diverse enough and musically enlightened enough to be able to understand where and what we're trying to do with any given song or with any given direction that we're going. We needed a guy that was really extremely versatile and extremely proficient on his instrument. But I think one of the things with Marco is that he is extremely musical. He has an uncanny ability to be able to sink into whatever it is that we're writing or wherever we're going with a particular song and feel that he's been a part of it since the very beginning. I mean, rhythmically the guy has an incredible rhythmic sense. Then he can just dive into what you're doing and really bring more to the forefront. What the tempo needs to be or what the feel, the rhythmic feel, needs to be. One of the most incredible things he ever did for me, not that everything he does isn't incredible, was when we were doing the song Slightly Out of Reach. Originally we had another guitar player in mind to just come in and do the solo. For various reasons that just never came to fruition. What happened was I was sitting there going, Well, Marco, cause he was there in the studio with us, I hate really springing this on ya at the last minute but do you have anything for this song? He goes, Oh, yeah. I already wrote something. I go, What, you already wrote something? But you didn't even think you were gonna be doing it? He goes, No, but you know, I play around with all the songs that are a part of this album. So I said, Do you mind sitting down and letting us hear it? He goes, Yeah, why don't you push record. I think you're really gonna like it. I swear to god what you hear on the album is the first take.
That was one of the best solos on the record.
Yeah, that's what he played, and we all looked at each other with our jaws on the floor going, What the fuck just happened? [laughs]. But that's the kind of guy he is. He's just an amazing player. And stylistically are there a lot of similarities between him and John Petrucci? Well, of course there are, because John Petrucci is one of his biggest influences ever, and rightfully so. John is one of the most unique and incredible guitar players around today. And at the same time Marco is also very much into Steve Lukather. He just absolutely loves him. So as a musician he's just so well rounded and so intuitive. He just understands things and is really able to take so many different approaches to a song if you want him to. And he's capable of doing it instantaneously. He's just a phenomenal talent, and he's always listening to music. He's always jamming. You know, I've been around a player of the caliber of John Petrucci. But John will go backstage and he'll warm up. Whether it's an hour or 45 minutes before the show. Marco picks up his guitar two minutes before the show, walks onstage, and plays like he has been playing all day, you know? And I'm like, How the hell do you do that, man? He goes, I dunno, it's just always been this way. It's just like, Holy shit, dude.
That really tells you a lot about the differences in the mental makeup of John and Marco.
Yeah. It's just, you know, John is just so focused and so deep when it comes to playing the guitar. Marco is just somebody, like, it's an extension. Like, Oh, yeah, that's right. I need that to be able to say what's going on inside. It's just there. It's really crazy.
Does playing with these guys bring you to a different place, emotionally, as a singer?
I'm always doing that. Like I said, Matt and I were writing all the music so the music's kind of formed. Then to bring the other players in and say, We need your personality. We need your approach stylistically to really bring these songs to another level. Each and every one of them did that. With me, definitely, when I'm doing a solo disc, for all those intents and purposes as far as a solo disc, it really is James LaBrie and Matt Guillory and Ray and Peter and Marco [laughs]. Because it's all of us who really make it happen. But I'm always looking for ways to express myself and give my voice something different. I always wanna offer something different and feel that I've gone into uncharted waters as far as what I'm expressing vocally. As well as where I wanna bring it melodically and where I wanna bring it lyrically. It's a way of people understanding me more as a person and as a musician.
Can you talk a little bit about what the recording process is like and recording a vocal?
The way that we did this one was the other four guys, they actually flew to Sweden and recorded their tracks with Johan Ornborg, an engineer in Varberg, Sweden. They recorded all their tracks there because basically by that point Matt and I had all the songs fully written. It was just a matter of them getting in there and jamming as a band and then actually laying down the tracks. Individually and collectively in some instances. And so all that was kind of done with me. I was actually on the road in South America, touring, while they were in the studio and then there was, like, daily audio files being thrown my way so that I can hear exactly where everything is going and if anything didn't feel right.
It always felt right even though you weren't actually there in person?
Yeah, because Matt for the most part, he's like a musical director. So I didn't even have to worry about it. He was in the studio and he knew exactly where him and I had to go. We wrote this stuff for 14 months, you know? We both knew. We had the blueprint, or he had the blueprint going into the studio. The other guys had already been sitting with the music for a while before entering the studio, so they were extremely close to the material. So it was just a matter of executing it and really feeling as if the guys were embellishing on the parts and making it their own, so to speak. So with me down in South America, I was given the audio files and so I was able to monitor it from there. There might've been a few instances where something had to be altered very, very slightly, but nothing to write home about. Once that was done, then it was just a matter of myself going into Iguana Studios in Toronto and recording my parts. I worked with an engineer; it was just myself and the engineer in the studio. No one else cause that's the way I wanted it. It would be me going in and doing a track a day, a song a day. Then forwarding those files at the end of the session to Matt so that he could hear them, just in case he was thinking, Oh, well, you know what? What about this inflection? Which never came up, cause like I said, we were really decided on where this had to go and how it had to feel. So that's how that process went. It was just a matter of me recording all the tracks and getting down the vocals part. I'm not sure if you're aware of this, I'm sure maybe you are, but then Matt, originally I was going to do most of the background if not all of the background vocals. I kind of threw it at Matt, I said, You know what? cause he has a great voice, I said, I think you should be doing all the background vocals.
So Matt is doing all the vocal backups?
Yeah. I said, I think you have a great voice and it'll just thicken and add more dimension to the voice and the vocal tracks. And we knew that we had a really good blend just from doing demos and stuff like that. I said, You know, let's bring this out on the album. There's no reason, if it works amazing on the demos why wouldn't it work amazing on the album? And at first he was like, You sure you wanna do this? I said, Absolutely, and he did a fantastic job. He's got a great voice. Originally I was gonna do all the parts that Peter [screamo vocals] had done, just me singing more with a rasp.
Yeah, and then it was Matt who brought up, Hey, you know, we're doing these songs and we're bringing this to such an extreme metal kind of direction, why don't we bring it all the way? And I was like, for a split second, I went, Hmm, I dunno. Ah, OK, sure, let's entertain that and let's see if that's even a possibility that we can do. Surprisingly we were fortunate enough to have Peter, who does a brilliant job of singing in that style. I think it just added more dimension to the vocal department and I think it added an amazing contrast between my voice and Peter's voice and it just brings an unexpected feel and expression to the songs. The way I look at it is, when there's vocals of that type, I look at it more like an instrument than I do as the conventional or the traditional sense of singing, you know? And that's what we wanted to do, we wanted to really add something that really brought out the expression a bit further; just made it a bit more extreme as to the direction.
You worked with Opeth's producer Jens Bogren? Obviously you're a fan of that band and his work with them?
You know, it took me a while to kinda come around and listen to those guys, but once I did I could really appreciate where they're coming from. Mikael Akerfeldt, he's got a great musical sense to him and I think they're music is so dynamic; it's so powerful. You know there's other Swedish bands like Soilwork and there's Darkane, which Peter is from. Then there was Dark Tranquility and In Flames, you know, other great bands. Messhugah, another great band. Then there was Therion and Catatonia. There's a lot of great bands. I even like Killswitch Engage, which is an American band obviously. I like that kind of stuff where you're bringing in these [different kinds of vocals], which is difficult for a lot of people to wrap themselves around. I have to be in the mood to have to want to sit down and listen to that stuff, but I have an extreme appreciation for where these bands and these musicians are coming from. And I think if you really sit down and listen to this music, for the most part, these are great musicians. These guys can play and they're writing great pieces of music. Unfortunately a lot of people can't get past that throaty wall or that screaming metal wall. It's really unfortunate because the music itself is absolutely incredible.
Let's talk about some of the music on the new record. Euphoric was really interesting; it contained many different elements and kind of has it all.
The way that came about was Matt came to me and he had this kind of groove, which was a little part of the verse and then a little part of the chorus. Like I told you earlier in the interview, immediately the melody came to me. I started singing this melody to him and it was like, Hey, if you're looking at this as a verse, this is a melody I've got. Hey if you're looking at this, and I know you are, as a chorus, this is the melody I've got. And he's like, Holy shit, hang on a second. So it was really something that we both immediately vibed on and put together, and while we were putting it together that lyric came to mind that I wanted to write about. Just somebody meeting their soul mate; just really being over the moon so to speak on them. Completely absorbed by them and thinking that everything was contingent on how they felt about them and that was their foundation. So that's basically how the whole process came with that. It was a matter of me throwing a melody back to Matt and Matt going, I know exactly where I wanna go musically. Him throwing me something more and then just building it from there and then putting all the other sonics around it so that the instruments really brought to the front that whole purpose, or that whole emotion that needed to be that tune.
That's such an unexpected melody you created. It's so hard to be surprised in this world when you've heard everything, but that's what struck me.
"Obviously we all make our decisions and do what we feel is something that is a professional and sound decision, and that's exactly what it was."
Thank you, that's great. To be honest with you, when I'm writing melodies, I'm not even thinking of that initially that, you know, is this something that's been done? Which you're right, you know, most of it has been done. How much further can we go with this? [laughs]. But I think it has to ultimately come down to How does it feel? Right? Are you moved by it? No matter what that emotion might be. If it's a heavy metal or an aggressive song, is that what you're feeling? Are you feeling like you can take on the world or that you're feeling like you're getting all caught up in an emotion that is really heated and hot blooded? Or are you feeling like you should be more melancholy or whatever that particular moment is dictating. I think it needs to feel true; it needs to feel real. I think you need to go with that and more than likely it's gonna be the right move.
This is not meant to be derogatory in any way but it always seemed like, Man, it would be really cool to hear what James could bring to this Dream Theater song rather than singing one of the other guy's melodies or lyrics. In some respects it seems like you were even held back a little bit.
I know exactly what you're saying. The thing is that in any given circumstance you have, you know, with Dream Theater you have five people in the band. It becomes something and it became something that, Well, this is the way that we've done it from the beginning and this is the way it should continue. And, sure, does that mean it's kinda dissing and not allowing my involvement or some of my recipe or ingredients coming into the compositions? Yeah, absolutely. It wasn't so much a diss, but it was like me thinking, Well, what can I tell ya? If you guys are all gung-ho on continuing to write like this, then I have to respect that. To me, ultimately at the end of the day I was happy where it went. It wasn't like I was saying, Oh my god, I'm really compromising here. This is bullshit. I could've written so much better. I would've written different, but it might not necessarily have been better.
Which is precisely why you do solo albums. To get your own creative ya-yas out.
That is why I do my solo stuff. I need to get this outta me. I think that I would probably go mental if I hadn't started when I did, in '99, start coming out with MullMuzzler albums and then eventually Elements and this one. It's just a way of me kinda keeping things balanced and keeping things sane, as a musician. I think any musician would say the same thing. You can only be what you are within one band to a certain extent where you feel that there has to be other avenues that can really allow you to be truthfully who you are and at least, if anything, satisfy your own curiosity and your own artistic impressions.
Coming Home is a beautiful ballad. Does a song like that have any connections to, say, Sacrificed Sons which I think was sort of the last piece of music you brought into Dream Theater. They are both kind of piano-driven ballads and you sing in that very clear resonating voice you sometimes use.
Actually, no, I didn't feel any connection with that. If you're meaning musically, it does have that atmospheric, kind of cold, solemn kind of feel to it. Definitely in that sense, I gravitate immediately to songs like that. I always have. So in that sense you are correct; there are similarities. Lyrically actually, that song Coming Home was loosely based on a show that I love, Dexter. Yeah, about this vigilante serial killer, but the way that I'm writing it is him actually coming to terms with his emotions and becoming more human. Then putting a little twist: writing my own episode that he is caught and that he is asking for forgiveness for all that he's done, because at the end of the day he has become a human being and he has learned how to love and he's just asking for forgiveness. So basically that's what that lyric is about.
On the other side of this is Jekyll or Hyde. That's the heavy guitar riff song. Do you even think in the back of your mind, when Matt or Marco hear it, God, I wonder what kind of riff John Petrucci would've come up with?
No, actually I don't, just cause I'm focused on who I'm associating with this music. When we did Over the Edge, there was a bit of involvement with Marco. He was coming in going, Oh, you know, I hear where you guys are coming from with that and I know you're pretty much done, but I'm also hearing this. What do you guys think? And we're like, Oh, shit. Yeah man, if anything that's enhancing the whole feel and that's enhancing the power that we want behind the song. When we are writing the music it's either Matt's interpretation is the first thing that's coming to mind when I'm riffing something or when I'm singing something melodically. It's him that I'm associating everything with.
Do you play an instrument?
No, I don't play guitar or piano or anything like that. It's crazy, it's very old school but the way that I get all my ideas across is either I'm going [sings da-da-da, da-da-da] into a tape or I'm actually singing a melody barebones, you know, and throwing Matt my ideas like that, and it's always worked for me. I mean, my son's playing guitar now and he's like, Dad, can I start teaching ya, and I'm like, Yeah, you know what? You better. I gotta get down to where I can play rhythm guitar very comfortably and sit around the camp fire and sing [laughs].
Or what happens is you learn guitar and then you never write another song again.
Yeah, right? [laughs]. Hey, wait a minute, this is a great writing tool. Why didn't I think of this earlier?
So you guys go out on the road for a solo tour in November. That must feel pretty cool.
Yeah, we're all extremely excited about this. We threw this together really quick because the label was approaching going, We feel strongly that you should get out there. You should really get behind this thing and really make it something. And we were like, Well, OK, you know. I was really thinking that. I thought I'd just sit back on my laurels and wait until Dream Theater goes into the studio again. But it started to make more sense with me so we got in touch with a great booking agent and we put it together. We're looking forward to it. We're working on the set list right now. It's gonna be good. They're clubs that we're playing. It's all clubs so it's gonna be small and intimate, but I love that environment as well. I think it's really cool to connect and be that close and in the face of your fans. So it should be cool.
Would it be ridiculous to do Dream Theater songs?
It would be. Well, I did a little bit of a tour behind Elements and I didn't play any Dream Theater then. I know that other artists have done it when they go out on a solo tour and they go, Well, yeah, we're gonna play a couple of songs from my main band, but to me I just wanna keep it separate. I have a lot of songs in the solo catalog that can make for a very exciting and musically fulfilling evening.
At some point we can expect another Dream Theater record?
Absolutely. At this point we're planning on going in the beginning of January and hope to be out touring next June. We'll probably start over in Europe doing all the big festivals throughout the summer. Then as far as an album, we might be out touring before the album comes out. Which isn't a bad thing. I mean, Maiden just ended up doing that on their last album. They were out touring it and promoting it before it even came out. I think in today's world it doesn't really matter anymore. If anything it's just great promotion and it gets everyone excited because we can start sneaking in some of the new music. And for obvious reasons everyone is gonna be extremely curious as to what that new music is.
Do you think with Mike Portnoy now gone and a new drummer joining that the writing process might change?
There's definitely that potential, no doubt about it. I think we won't know until we're actually in the studio and seeing how this flows and how it works with the new drummer. But I definitely think that there's gonna be more verbal communication going on. More so than it was in the past as far as with me going, Well, you know what, if we're doing something new here with another drummer, we better start doing something new in other areas. Which means being more accessible as to the ideas and the energies that are coming from other ones in the band. So yeah, definitely, I think there's a lot that could be happening.
Interview by Steven Rosen