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Dream Theater interview 

Dream Theater
Submitted by Henrik Holmgren on 2009-09-27
When an interview opportunity with a band like Dream Theater show up, you do not want to pass it up. sent long-time Dream Theater fan Kjell-Åke Nilsson to do the honours at the bands show in Stockholm, Sweden. Here is his story: He is not known for his sheer flamboyance á la David Lee Roth, or for wearing outlandish attire like Gene Simmons, but instead for providing a consistent and recognizable voice through the years with one of the most influential bands in progressive metal. I have read things on the web (usually written in all upper-case, you get the picture...) about him being the weak spot in the band. Well, clear your throats, spot-faced teenagers with low social skills, and get ready to sing along with John Myung´s bass cascades. Go figure. While Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci may write most of the songs, somebody needs to interpret and perform the lyrics, as the main song writers tend to be kinda busy doing their thing during the gigs... And to me, this man does it well. And if his 18-year stamina as lead singer of Dream Theater does not instill respect for the man, I don´t know what will. So, for the sake of objectivity, well there is very little of that. I´m a fan. Live with it. I am about to interview him about their current Progressive Nation Tour, about the band of course, but even more so about his own approach to his role as a vocalist. The interview turned out to be more of a conversation with a soft-spoken and thoughtful man. I give you: Mr. James LaBrie!
You started out in Helsinki two nights ago, and you´ve changed half the line-up since the North American tour – how do you feel about that change?
Well, you know... You´re talking about the bands, right, and not necessarily about our set list?

No, the bands.
Yeah, obviuosly we toured with Opeth before, and it is a band that we greatly respect and we admire them for their musicality and everything. We did have Bigelf with us in America and I especially love the band, I think they´re a great band. So the only new introduction for me personally is unexpecT. I am not quite well versed on their music, I have heard a little bit of their stuff, and there is no doubt about it, they are extremely unique and original. It will be interesting to see how they are received. But overall I think it´s a great line-up, I think it will be an exciting evening for all, and it is exciting for us just to be out here touring. We´ve always been warmly received when coming to Scandinavia, it has always been a great experience in Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen – you know, all of Europe has always been a great relationship for Dream Theater.

I thought that you being Canadian had some influence on the choice of unexpecT as the opening act?
Absolutely not. It has always been Mike´s decision, since the very beginning, since we started touring all over the world back in -92. He has always decided and picked the bands, and rightfully so, you know he has his finger on the pulse all the time as to what´s going on in music. He is always, always intrigued with what´s current, what´s new, what´s being said musically that is interesting, not your run-of-the-mill, even an unorthodox approach at times, compositionally speaking. So it has always faired well for the band.

That´s good! Some more about Dream Theater music – to what extent would say that personal faith, or the longing for it, plays a role in your collective process?
Well, I think that... You know, the way I interpret the words for our music, I think if anything, it is a challenge to the misinterpretation of faith, world-wide, and how faith unfortunately has taken on a very segregated feel to it. And I think because of that, it has created all of the conflict that we now and through the course of history have experienced since organized religions have come into effect. I think unfortunately people can´t accept the fact that we all long to feel that there is a higher power that is somehow orchestrating who and what and what this is that we experience... Life – being – existing. And I think because of that, unfortunately, we still haven´t evolved far enough to be able to accept and see through the fact that we are all striving for some explanation, and through our faiths, we are. But I think, lyrically, our messages are to get a better grasp on what it is that it is facilitating. Is it facilitating a deeper, richer sense of being, or is it creating more a rift and a segregated field? And I think that is what it is, I don´t think it is so much a personal quest of faith.

I´m thinking about for instance your lyrics to "Sacrificed Sons", which I think is a great song! Any chance of hearing that tonight? I know you can´t really tell me, but...
Strong possibility, I cant tell you – I´d have to kill you, hahaha! But yeah, and I mean right there, that´s the perfect example of what I am talking about. You know, do we really need to take religion as far as we have, where people´s lives are so easily exterminated? And without any conscience or any remorse, because it´s being done in the context of religion, or faith – and to me, it is the exact opposite of what it should represent. But there is a strong possibility that you will hear that song...

About the latest album; on the Specal Edition disc you did covers of for instance Stargazer and a Queen medley, and I love those.
Oh, thank you!

I think what intrigued me most was how you changed your way of singing slightly, while yet not mimicking Ronnie James Dio or Freddie Mercury...
No, I´m not gonna ever try and mimick another singer!

I´m thinking about elements in your voice such as the airiness in "Lily of the Valley" and the ending of phrases in "Stargazer", that alludes to the original artists in a very nice way I think.
Well, thank you! You know, I think I wanted to bring it as close as possible to the original, but without, you know... Without being too close for comfort.

There has to be a Dream Theater twist...
Yeah right! And it´s obviously our way of acknowledging these bands and these artists as influences throughout our... you know, our upbringing, musically. To me, yes it´s cool that you touched on that, because me personally, I would never want to be a jukebox. I always want it to be: "this is OUR interpretation", ´cause what´s the sense of doing the song? You know, someone could just put on the original. If you´re gonna try and be so close to the original and sound exactly like it, there´s no purpose in it. But if you give your own twist and your own feel to it, then that is your way of saying "this is how those songs have touched ME, and this is MY expression". But we had a lot of fun doing that, I mean obviously, those bands have touched us greatly. Especially for me personally, Queen... I just absolutely adore the band, and Freddie Mercury was my all-time favourite vocalist, so it was especially exciting to me and a very emotional feel.

I do feel that your versions had something special, slight changes here and there. They were really interesting and not just a cover.
Thank you!

Another thing about interpretation: you often sing other people´s lyrics, and the latest album is mostly about personal experiences, some very intense, like the A Nightmare to Remember and the Count of Tuscany...
Yeah, right!

It´s someone elses personal experience that you have to portray in some way. How do you approach that and make it your own words?
The way of approach is since the beginning of being a singer. First and foremost, what I do is I look at the lyrics myself and I interpret them for what they say to me, personally. Then I sit down with the lyricist and I get the literal context to it. And then from there, I go back and I sit with all that information, and I make it become me. It has to be, and you know I have always said this, it has to be how it moves me personally, so that it becomes me completely. And so my interpretation, the way that I convey that emotion, has to be sincere, and the only way it can become sincere is by the way that it hits me, and what it says to me personally. So, in that sense, that is the only way that I can bring out the true essence of what that lyric is trying to say. It has to become something personal to me, and that´s the way I approach each and every song. When it is my own lyric, obviously I know exactly how, because there is something I was inspired to write about. So, that´s my method.

Another question about singing: you sometimes have to sing in odd time. Has your background as a drummer helped you in that respect?
Absolutely, absolutely! I think that it was... haha, no pun intended, but very instrumental, in having me really be able to rhythmically feel... you know, I could sit there and I could count: "1,2,3,4,5,6 – 1,2,3 – 1,2,3,4..." but to me, it would become so mechanical and so forced. So me playing drums for twelve years has definitely allowed me to easily fall in to a band like Dream Theater. Granted, I was influenced, like I said earlier, by for instance Queen, but as well... You know, Rush was a huge influence to me, Yes was huge,Genesis was huge. Pink Floyd – huge! So always listening to this kind of music, it became ingrained within me, and it became natural after a while. But playing the drums has definitely allowed me to just feel it. You know, I just completely feel the rhythmic sense, even though it is syncopated or it is odd, and not just straight-forward rock´n´roll – as much as I do love that! One of my other huge influences was Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin. I mean, the guy was phenomenal, so original. And if you listen to a song like "Since I´ve been loving you"? Hey, that´s not straight forward! That´s all over, and if you were to sit down and sing his melodies, it´s all odd time, it´s not just a straight forward approach. It´s really ingenious what he did there, and at the same time it is so incredibly, powerfully soulful. So these influences, like Steve Perry was a huge influence on me, because he was so incredibly soulful and technical at the same time. And Journey, I am sure that a lot of people just think of the song "Who´s cryin´now", but they were incredibly progressive in their earlier albums, and they´re all unbelievable musicians. But to answer your question; yes drums did have a big part in that.

Usually, one would find a band´s beat being constructed by drums and bass. I feel it is different with Dream Theater. How would you describe the backbone of the beat in Dream Theater?
I would say... to me, what I´ve always felt is more of a guitar and drums interaction. It is very predominantly the element of the guitar and the riff and the power and the sonics in the guitar that really set the tone. Obviously, I´ve always felt that the painter is Jordan, coming in and giving all these textures and dimensions that are so unbelievably and audibly profound. It´s just so deep, but at the same time I think that Mike, in the way that he approaches drums, he knows when to groove and just lay down something that´s solid and create this huge backbone. But at the same time, he´s also extremely creative in the way that he uses his entire set, more like Neil Peart, and I know that he is incredibly influenced by Neil, especially when he was younger. And that´s the way that Neil always hit me, as, you know... It´s something you can feel, like it´s pushing forward and it´s moving along. It´s like a locomotive engine, but at the same time, there´s all these dynamics happening drumwise, and that´s what gives it that extra flair, you know? But to answer your question, I think that it is not so much the bass and the drums, to me, in Dream Theater, that are really interplaying with one another. To me, it´s more the drums and the guitar that are really feeding off one another and creating that huge wall.

Great, I will listen for that! Another more personal question; is there an event or person that you feel has been deeply influential to you as a person or as a singer?
Well, yeah, I mean Freddie... Freddie Mercury obviously. But you know, Steve Perry was incredible for me, growing up, as well as Lou Gramm, Robert Plant, Ian Gillan, Rob Halford, I mean, even Nat King Cole, you know? When I grew up, my father was always into listening to jazz and music, and listening to singers of that era that had more of a velvety, kinda crooning touch, and I think that that also helped me in the way that I try to be, in my lower tones, try to be very... evocative so to speak, you know? Definitely, those singers were huge influences on me growing up. I just liked the way they approached the song, the melody, the power they gave it. Even being extremely subtle but still being very dynamically powerful. And so, those singers really kind of hit the sweet spot for me, yeah.

Yet you have your own very recognizable voice.
Well, that´s the other thing, too. You know, it´s funny, because my father... he sang all his life. He used to sing in a barbershop quartette, he would be singing in a church choir, and he always said to me – and I still remember as a kid of ten years old – he said "Find your sound. It is great to listen to all of these other singers, but if you´re serious about this – find your sound. You gotta be you if you wanna say something." You know, and I thought – ok... actually, he dared me to sing along with all these other singers, and he would say: "You´re trying too hard to sound exactly like them. Don´t do that. Sing like them, but also do yourself at the same time." And it´s something I´ve carried with me my entire life now.

Ok, one last question: if you had the choice, what would be the perfect venue for Dream Theater?
What would be the perfect venue? Hmm...

Is there one?
Yeah, Madison Square Garden in New York. I think that that has to happen at least once in our career. Just because that´s where the band is from, that is our home.

And you have never played there?
We´ve never played there. We played at the Madison Square Gardens Theater, which holds six thousand people, but we never played in the actual arena.

That´s a shame!
Yeah, that´s a shame. I think it´ll happen, I think it´s just a matter of setting it up, and making it a reality. But I would say that definitely, that place is a must. We have to do it. And that would be a very memorable and pinnacle moment of our career, undoubtedly.

Oh, it is bound to happen, it has to happen.
Oh yeah! Well, it had better! Maybe it will happen if we go away for five or six years and then come back and do a reunion, haha! You know, but I don´t see that happening for a while.

Allright, we´re done. Thank you so much for the opportunity and all the best for the gig tonight!
Thank you very much!