James LaBrie interview
August 12, 1999
by Steph Perry
James LaBrie, lead vocalist for Dream Theater, just recently released his first solo record. Although it’s a solo recording, the album was released under a band name: MullMuzzler. The title of the record is “Keep It To Yourself”. According to LaBrie, it’s a hard rock album that’s groove-oriented with rhythm being a very predominant force. He said, it’s got some progressive elements around it but first and foremost it’s a hard rock album. The definition of MullMuzzler off the CD liner notes: One who silences an individual’s thought before it can be expressed in any manner. James also talked about the new Dream Theater record, and the forthcoming world tour to be kicked off in North America by early October. They hope to play major cities as well as many of the smaller markets that they’ve missed in tours past. LaBrie called from his home in the outskirts of Toronto, and here’s a great sampling of our conversation.
Was it difficult to collaborate over a long distance with the other songwriters?
I think at first it was just because I knew what direction I wanted to take the music, and then I had these guys sending me out ideas musically. Having to send back my notes and then my ideas on tape, back and forth, you know, I’ve never really worked like that before. It’s always been in the same room with musicians and creating music. So it was difficult at first, but then we all got into a groove. It was just a matter of doing it until we felt good about it. Then once the basic tracks were down and we knew where we wanted to take the music, it was a matter of me writing the melodies and getting into the lyrical end of it. I produced the album as well. So I had to be really hands-on with everything. So I had to fly out to LA when we started recording the band tracks, all the instrumental bits, and we did that recording at Musician’s Institute studios. So we did all that out in LA, with Mike Mangini on drums, Mike Keneally on guitar and Bryan Beller on bass. Matt Guillory did all his keyboards and piano at another studio closer to where he lives in California. Trent Gardner did his tracks separate as well. Then all the separate tapes were sent to me and I did all my vocals and anything else that needed to be done in Toronto. It was really interesting. It was very much a learning experience for me.
You worked with Terry Brown on this record?
Terry was brought in as the engineer and he mixed the album. I first worked with Terry back in ’91, when Jim Matheos of Fates Warning asked me to come in and sing background on “Life in Still Water” off the Parallels album. I remember thinking, this guy is so cool, very level-headed, very professional, very in sync with everything that’s going on around him. I thought, that’s the kind of person I could see myself working with if I ever find the time, or if there’s an appropriate time for me to start doing my own thing. So as soon as I knew this was going to be a reality, I called him up and he was right into it.
How did you hook up with Mike Keneally?
I met Mike a few years ago when Dream Theater played the House of Blues out in LA, and he came backstage, and we were just chatting. We got along really well, and he told me how much he enjoyed the show, and how he was into my vocals and stuff. I thought he was a really well-spoken, intelligent individual, and just kind of kept it under my belt. I knew of his guitar playing, and keyboard playing, and knew that he was an exceptional talent. When I was speaking to Mike Mangini about getting him in, I said, “right now I’m just trying to think of a guitar player that’s really gonna do this thing justice and has a really cool style”. And he says, “what’s the matter with you LaBrie, aren’t you thinking?! What about Keneally!” Immediately I got in touch with Keneally and he was totally into it, and then through him and his own band, Beer For Dolphins, I really enjoyed the bass player Bryan Beller. I thought he was a very mature, very melodic bass player, and not someone trying to show you how technical he can get. I wanted somebody with a lot of feel, faith and soul. It all seemed to fall into place very nicely.
Your definition of Mullmuzzler reminds me of a quote by the author Stephen King, “the most important things are the hardest things to say”. Do you find that to be true?
Yes. There are certain parallels, I guess, between both definitions. Basically I feel that a lot of people go through life suppressing what they really feel and want to express verbally. Or they’re being oppressed and they can’t express what they want to say or what they’re thinking. It’s an unfortunate reality. The lyrics throughout this album are dealing with all the quirks and the idiosyncrasies, you know, the very precarious situations that we seem to run into often throughout life. You can either have it knock you down, or you can learn from it and become that much stronger because of it.
Do you feel that these side projects have provided any fresh approach to writing or performing for the five of you within DT?
It’s definitely kept us with all of our chops very much attuned. It’s also caused us to have these other areas of creativity release, so that when we come in to approach another DT album, it’s really added a lot of fuel to the fire. Our next record was actually just mastered today, we’re really excited about it. I can’t really divulge anything, all I can say is that I really truly believe that this is an album that we’ve been wanting to make for a while, and I really feel that fans around the world are going to be very excited about it. It’s just gonna add a whole new resurgence to Dream Theater.
How did it go in Korea? You guys played there a couple of weeks ago?
We had to play during a typhoon! Actually, when we got on stage, it stopped raining. And then when we got off stage, it all started up again! It was great. We’re very big in Korea. We went there in ’94, and it was overwhelming how popular we are there. When we went back now, it was just exciting and overwhelming once again. The show was great, even though we had to deal with conditions that weren’t very supportive of electronics. There were little technicality problems but you just have to play through. They were expecting anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 people. This was the first big rock festival ever in Korea. So even though there was a typhoon going on, 10,000 people still showed up! It was incredible. It was supposed to be a two-day festival, but they cancelled the second day. It was just relentless, the storm.
This is a little thought provoking and really off the subject, but do you feel that musicians have an obligation to be a positive influence on their listeners?
The way I look at it is, obviously you’re gonna have people out there that really have problems being appropriate or rational in situations, and unfortunately they latch on to bands that might not necessarily be people, aside from their music, that are negative. But that’s how they make their business. They’ve got this very raunchy music, they’ve got raunchy lyrics, they’ve got raunchy messages that go along with those lyrics. And they’re obviously going to attract people that are feeling that that’s something that makes them feel alive. People don’t want to be preached at or told what’s right and what’s wrong. I think the only thing you can do is you can hope. This is where I stand with it, anyways. The way that you act on stage, the way that your music comes across, if it says something positive, or if they can visualize from you something positive, then that in itself should speak volumes of good. But you’re always gonna have people that will always go to the extreme in negativity and they will always ruin it for the masses.