Dream Theater frontman James LaBrie on writing lyrics, how #MeToo inspired one of the band's songs

In this exclusive interview, Dream Theater's vocalist James LaBrie talks about how the band isolated themselves to record their latest album, Distance Over Time

R Prashanth Vidyasagar February 25, 2019 15:43:01 IST
Dream Theater frontman James LaBrie on writing lyrics, how #MeToo inspired one of the band's songs

American progressive metal band Dream Theater has been creating some of the most creative, complex and compelling music for over three decades. It has remained a strong force all these years, thanks to the camaraderie between the bandmates. In fact, before the release of their latest and 14th, full-length album Distance Over Time, the band stayed together in a secluded studio area.

The 10-track album is a musical riot. It plays with your senses and transports you to a realm, where you’re in for an epic ride — a ride that is emotionally driven. Ecstasy or sadness, beautiful or gloomy, all these emotions are beautifully woven into Distance Over Time. The band has always been a brilliant storyteller; the 15 million records that it has sold worldwide are a testimony to this. Not to forget their global fan base, one of the most fervent lot you can ever come across.

In this exclusive interview, Firstpost caught up with the frontman of the band Kevin James LaBrie, who spoke to us about the experience of creating new music, reliving the music, staying on top of his game as a vocalist and writing the lyrics for songs ('At Wit’s End', 'Out of Reach', 'Viper King') on the album.

Dream Theater frontman James LaBrie on writing lyrics how MeToo inspired one of the bands songs

Photograph by Mark Maryanovich

For the first time in two decades, you all lived, wrote and recorded together over a four-month period at the secluded, five-acre Yonderbarn studios in Monticello, NY. How was the experience?

We all lived together at this house, it was like going back to summer camp as a kid. The studio was only a 100 metres from the house, it only took a minute to get there. The advantage of isolating at the place enabled us to be absolutely committed to the writing and development of these songs. We wrote all these songs in 19 days. We started at 1 pm in the noon usually, and went on till midnight. We had this big place with a big backyard, we would barbecue or have drinks together, and you ultimately are always talking about music. We had no distractions or no commitments. The result is that the album is a real powerful one, it has a lot to do with the energy of being around one another.

Almost three decades of fronting Dream Theater, and now you’re ready with the band’s 14th studio album Distance Over Time. How does it feel even after all these years while working on something new?

Any artist always looks forward to their next creation. We all start getting pretty excited a couple of months before we go into the studio. We email, text or speak to each other, about the direction and ideas. It is a very anxious feeling. By the time we’re in the studio, we’re pretty pumped and ready to move forward with new music. The actual creation of the songs is very exciting, laying down the real tracks and you giving it everything you’ve got. It's infinite, it’s out there forever. It’s a thrilling ride. And once you go live, you’re reliving it. You’re able to reflect on what it means not only to you but everyone else that is being engaged with it at that particular moment.

What’s going on in your mind before you’re about to record?

Whether they’re singing their own lyrics or someone else’s, it’s up to the vocalist to internalise those words to a point where they become them. Those words have to resonate and ring true with you, in order for you to sincerely and properly convey them with proper emotions. If one doesn’t connect with the lyric, anyone can hear that. To me it’s very important that the lyric I am singing needs to become a part of me. It needs to sit right in my emotional spectrum and it needs to be something that I relate to 100 percent.

Speaking of reliving the music, do you listen to your album post-release?

I always do a few different environments for further listening, there are few different places I like to go. I just put my headphones on and get lost in the album from beginning to end. I also listen to it on the big stereo system and let them crank up and feel it that way. The other way I love listening to it is by going for a long drive while listening to it and seeing how it hits you. Because that’s basically that’s how we all listen to music. That’s a real true telling for me, if it is hitting the way it is intended to.

The band's body of work is vast. As the vocalist of the band, how do you ensure that you never forget the lyrics to the songs?

I put the words through my head continuously. For example, when you pinged me and said can you give five minutes, I said sure. Within those five minutes I did the lyrics to 'Pale Blue Dot' through my head. You know, I’ve never used a teleprompter because I feel that it’s too constricting. I want to be free on stage, to walk wherever I want and look at whoever I want to while singing those words. To me, it’s about constantly running the words through my head to the point that I have each and every one of them memorised and it’s just like speaking to you right now. To learn the lyric, you read a few lines and see if you can remember them and follow the process. Personally for me, the melody creates the memories; as long as the melody is there in your head, the lyrics come naturally.

What inspired the track 'At Wit’s End', which speaks about the aftermath of abuse?

I wrote the lyric to that. I was reading an article based on the aftermath of a woman being raped. It was a very difficult article to read. What it was stating is that a lot of relationships don’t survive after a rape incident, because the woman never feels the same. She always feels that she would never live up to what her partner or husband would expect of her, and that the same feeling would never be had again. The act itself is horrific and then it continues to kill any sense of relationship or love afterwards, because of its psychological effect on not only the woman but also the partner. A little bit of it had to do with the #MeToo movement where women are coming forward and talking about how they’ve been abused or disrespected by men who think they’re just objects. And then the music itself hit me immediately as beautiful and tragic sounding as well — melancholic. That’s what inspired me to write those words.

You’ve also written lyrics for the tracks 'Out of Reach' and 'Viper King'. Where do you seek inspiration from when writing?

Could be a personal experience or someone I know, could be something I came across in the news, something political or a book I read, or a movie. I have my own interpretation of that and want to write some words about it. Personal, read or seen. Whenever we write about anything in life, it’s about something we found very moving, whether negative or positive. If it's powerful enough, it needs to be said.

What keeps you occupied when you’re not making music?

I love downhill skiing. Actually, my family and I are going to ski in California. I love boating, camping and hiking, I like to be physical, and I love to read. That's what keeps me stimulated, so to speak.

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