Dream Theater's James LaBrie Can Out-Run Bruce Springsteen
As the prog-metal mainstays bring their epic live show to the Hudson Valley, we caught up with their far-ranging frontman
After nearly 30 years, Dream Theater's got things down to a beard science.
Photo by Jimmy Fontaine
This isn’t Dream Theater frontman James LaBrie’s first rodeo, to borrow a cliché. It’s why, despite being in the midst of a rigorous touring schedule, he’s awake, lucid, and up for the task of talking to journalists at an hour when many of his peers would be sleeping off the aches and pains.
Although as fans of his nearly 30-years-and-running band will attest, there’s little trite about the venerable prog-metal outfit. True to form, their latest live undertaking is a national trek—arriving at Port Chester’s Capitol Theatre October 22—in support of the epic, double-disc concept album, The Astonishing, which debuted earlier this year at number 11 on the Billboard 200.
LaBrie, who’s logged a quarter-century as Dream Theater's lead vocalist, spent a few minutes getting us up to speed (metal-subgenre citation very much intended) on the band’s bold ambitions, Game of Thrones parallels, Bruce Springsteen-worthy endurance on stage, and the live audience’s remarkable enthusiasm for keeping up.
Everyone talks about Bruce Springsteen doing nearly four-hour shows, but it got me thinking, "Hey, he's not the only one."
It’s been the norm [for us], I guess like it is with Bruce, just due to the nature of our music and the kind of fans that we have. They come to expect that we make it an evening, an experience. We’ve been doing two-to-three-and-a-half-hour shows for the last 20 years. Unless we’re on a festival tour, obviously, where the longest you would play would be a 90-minute set. That seems a little bizarre to us, a little quick, whereas most people would say, “No, that’s it, an hour and a half,” and that might even include the encore.
Are you surprised your fans continue to demonstrate the stamina to be on their feet for several hours each night?
You know, it really is interesting. Our fans, the demographic is anywhere between a 15-year-old and a 65-year-old. You would think that the fans that have been with us for the past 26-plus years would be saying, “I’m not going to go in this venue and stand on my feet for the next three hours,” because that’s exactly what happens from the moment we hit the stage until we’re done in the evening. That’s what kind of makes this tour a little different for us. It's soft-seaters throughout, some arenas here and there, but for the most part people are sitting down throughout the show. When we started this tour and saw everyone sitting down, it was a little hard for us to get over that, even though we’ve always dealt with that when we’ve played in Asian countries. But we get them to stand up near the end of the night, and you can just feel the electricity throughout the room, because it’s almost like they’re anticipating when they can let it out.
Do you get to a point when you’re recording an album like The Astonishing where you wonder why you're doubling down?
We think that every album, because the kind of music we’re asking from one another to collectively make is never a small feat. We kind of realize, “Here we go again.” We’re really pushing the envelope because we want to keep reinventing ourselves while at the same time retaining that identity that our fans have come to know. But because of the kind of people that we are and the band that we are, it’s become the norm that each album we create is somewhat challenging throughout the tour, this one especially. In a way, it’s thrilling to me, because that’s what makes it exciting to go onstage. I think each and every one of us needs some kind of challenge to rise to the occasion. That’s the spice of life, that we always want to better at who and what we are.
Is it a luxury that metal fans to be less fickle about trends and more loyal for the long haul?
Right, and it’s funny, because it's a very bold statement to do an album like this, especially with today’s environment where it’s a quick fix or a hit here and there. It is a concept; the only way to truly appreciate it is beginning to end. That being said, it’s not impossible to sit down and hear a song here and there throughout the album and appreciate it for what it is. But because of the nature of this album, it does tend to polarize your fan base. It is more of a theatrical approach. I guess the progressive heads would be delighted, but our metal fans, quite a few I would think are saying, “Oh my god, I can’t wait until they come back out with an album that I’m used to,” where there’s a marriage between the two. But you know, we have to do things like this when we feel this is who we are at this particular moment. I think even though it’s polarized, some of our fans are saying, “You know, I’m having a hard time accepting this album for everything that it is from beginning to end, but I still appreciate what it is they’re trying to say.” So you’ll see them there, but you’ll see that there’s consternation going on. It’s like, “Okay, wait a minute, they need to come back out and play their greatest hits.” But at the end of the day, I think that we’re seeing across the board that everyone is quite thrilled with this, and if there’s any band that is expected to do something of this level, I think it would be a band like ourselves.
Pop culture seems to be catching up, now that the mainstream geeks out over things like Game of Thrones.
Exactly. It’s funny you said Game of Thrones. We’re all into Game of Thrones, so I think even something like that is, to a certain degree, an inspiration to want to do an album like this, with that kind of storyline and interaction with the characters.
How do you make sure you're synthesizing all the right elements with an album of this scale?
We actually discuss it for quite some time before going in. It’s usually while we’re out on tour, while we’re all together and we’re talking about what should be our next move and where we want to go with this. Those preliminary stages are vital to what eventually becomes the music. And we’ve had [Dream Theater co-founder/guitarist] John Petrucci acting as the producer for 15 years now. He’s been taking on that role as well as being a member of the band. He’s very diplomatic, and he realizes that it’s a privilege. I think, at this stage in the game, it’s very immediate when we know what’s working and what’s not working. It’s a matter of maintaining throughout the entire process a strong communication with one another. When you’re in a creative environment it becomes intense. Nowadays, it’s just a matter of being immediately honest with first and foremost yourself, then one another. I’d say if anything, the process has, for a while now, been quite enjoyable.
Dream Theater's social-media accounts aren't overly personalized. Are you relieved you don't really have to focus all your energy on that?
I guess to a certain extent, we have established ourselves to where we really don’t have to continue to put ourselves out there. It’s kind of comforting, I would say. With that being said, we do have our [personal] sites, Facebook [pages], and Twitter accounts, and let our fans know what’s going on personally with ourselves. I only like to reach out when it’s something relevant to who and what the relationship started out as. I’m not trying to become best friends with five million people. To me, that just doesn’t make sense. Our fan base around the world knows where they can tap in to see what it is that we’re up to. But yeah, it’s a good place to be.