As artists, Dream Theater needs no introduction, but I’ll give them one anyway. Arguably the most influential progressive metal band of all time, 13 records and 50 million sales are good figures to have on your musical resume. From sweeping concept records to 45-minute long symphonic works, creatively DT have left no stone unturned, constantly pushing the limits of musical creativity and musicianship. However, as with every epic, a journey starts with a single step. Whilst 1992’s ‘Images & Words’ wasn’t the first step, it was the key step needed to propel the band into the public frame, forming the foundation for the rest of the band’s expansive career. I took time recently to chat with frontman James LaBrie ahead of the band’s 25-year anniversary tour for the record, of which it will be performed front-to-back and reminisced about where he was and how the band felt at the time of release two decades ago.
Hi, James! Where am I catching you today?
I’m at home right now, talking to you from my backyard out next to the pool.
I know you’ve been talking a lot about the Images & Words Tour. Looking back, where were you at as a singer when that record came out just after you had joined Dream Theater?
It’s hard to believe it was 25 years ago! I think as a singer I was discovering new ways that I felt defined what I wanted to be a singer. The way I would express myself through nuances and inflexions was all new. I was at a point where I was challenging myself to see what I was capable of. I started singing when I was five so I always knew I wanted to be a singer but I think at the point of recording I was just trying to put my best foot forward. That was who I wanted to be and how I wanted to sound, and it was perfect timing.
On the Score DVD, you said that was the first record you sung on?
Yeah, I’d done lots of demos with my old band Winter Rose before Dream Theater who had recorded a whole album. Images, however, was my first official album. I’d done a lot of work in the studios beforehand but I’d never had something that was released under a label.
What do you remember about the recording that has stuck with you since given it was your first time?
I remember a lot, to be honest. I remember that we were all having a great time. It’s a given we were very young and we had all been working really hard for that moment to be upon us. Now, Dream Theater had their first album ‘When Dream & Day Unite’, and if anything, that kind of gave them critical acclaim which was a stepping stone because it made the press and people that are responsible for making others aware somewhat interested. It put them in a position where eventually it led to being signed with Atlantic Records through Derek Oliver who was instrumental in doing that. When we went in to do that album, we knew this was the first album with a major label and we were stoked on the material and believed in it 100%. We were just having a good time touring when we were recording and everyone was together. We were living together in a house in upstate New York so communication was a key element in why that album sounded the way it did because we were around one another constantly and always talking about the songs and music. I think that was extremely important and responsible for the product.
Was there a sense when putting it together that it would put you on the map?
Not really because you have to remember at that point in the music industry you had Bon Jovi and Whitesnake who you would hear on the radio. Sure, Iron Maiden had a following but that was a different area, it wasn’t something that was pop-culture. With this record, it’s easy for you and I to look at Images and see its success, but back then as far as I was concerned we were gonna stick out like a sore thumb. It really wasn’t being done to that degree with a heavy sound. We did, however, feel a great vibe and we hoped that it would get a fair shake because we felt that it was a record to be reckoned with, Just so you know, when that album came out only 8,000 copies were distributed throughout the US. Was it really something that was being looked at like a big massive release? No, it wasn’t until ‘Pull Me Under’ went through the roof and opened up every possible door that needed to be opened.
How much were you actually involved in that writing?
Not much at all because when I came in those songs had been written for the most part. There was a little bit of tweaking, but if anything I just had to go in and sing it. There were some alterations to the melodies but it was pretty much set in stone. It was just a matter of me saying to those guys “this is how I wanna sing it” and them giving me the freedom that I needed to be myself.
Something I’ve noticed about Dream Theater is that you are a great band to rediscover and coming back to stuff because there is so much depth there. When you guys started touring the record, was there a sense of rediscovering these old tunes and how much you loved or hated then?
Yeah, I think the fact that you do it every night is funny because we haven’t done this since we toured the Images album. That in itself throws you in somewhat of a time warp, but I have discovered how much I love doing ‘Surrounded’ every night for example. Whenever we picked whatever songs we would play on any given tour when we decided on what to play from Images we always felt a very strong connection. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel that connection with other records, but what has happened from us doing this album every night is that we keep bringing up all of these old stories. Remembering when we were in Germany in ’92 and I got my fair caught in John Myung’s bass in the head. I had huge hair back then and John wanted to come and jam with me. I didn’t see him coming over and all of a sudden we are caught, and that keeps happening. We’ll be like “Oh my God, remember going down the road in the van and we got pulled over because Kevin Moore was doing 110 miles an hour?” He lost his licence right there and didn’t get it back for 6 months, and we had to pay the trooper $250 on the spot. We didn’t carry around that kind of cash! So we are scrambling to find money and pay him. All these stories keep coming up, and I think that’s because we are playing it every night and reminiscing about those times.
If you had your time again, would you go back to that DIY style? Is it weird touring ‘Images’ whilst being flown around and staying in nice hotels? Has this new form of travelling lost that discovery element?
I don’t think I miss touring in a van because we were guys living in a vehicle down by the river. We were showering at each venue and after each gig, we’d have to drive to the next city. We had a bed in the back of the van which I got because I was the singer, so everybody was like “You need your rest” because we were doing six shows a week. Sometimes it’d be six shows in a row. Even though we were excited and it was all new to us, we were out performing our own material from both albums. So it was exciting in that sense because we would be like “this is what is gonna hit, we need to be dedicated and give it our all.” Nowadays it’s a big machine and all these people are working around you. Like you said, you get taken care of quite well and you get a nice bus and catering and all that, but at the same time we’re now doing 3-hour shows and back then we did an hour and 15 minutes. Our fans have come to make it extremely well known to us that the only way they wanna see Dream Theater is ‘An Evening With’, so we are thrown into the same boat as Rush. I think the stuff that excites us now is just being in the studio and working on new material and a new album, and then when you’re on tour it’s being on stage. You never lose that feeling, and if you do then what the hell are you doing it for? I mean some people do it because of the money, but that’s really sad! It’s sad because if you wanna make your money doing something you’re not into anymore, that really sucks! With us, when we go out there you get such an incredible feeling. I truly think it’s the best feeling ever. I know that’s cliché, but it really is.
You guys are doing 3-hour shows and you’re older now than you were back when you started doing ‘An Evening With.’ How do you keep up stamina to do shows like that this late in your career?
A lot of it comes from the fact we are dedicated to our instruments and stay healthy. I mean if I get sick, I’m screwed, let’s face it. I know that we all have various ways of keeping in shape. Myself, I eat extremely healthy, I exercise daily, I don’t drink or smoke on the road you know? I have the odd cigar when I have time off but for the most part, I don’t touch wine or beer or anything. I do the power-walk thing every day, as well as weights and push-ups and stretches. We all warm up very slowly leading up to the show so that by the time we go onstage, with the food we eat and staying hydrated and taking vitamins and fruit, I think that lends itself to be able to still go onstage and do a 3 hour show and be engaged and have the energy and not look like we are hating life. Those are the things that enable us to keep doing it.
Dream Theater will bring their 3-hour celebration of Images & Words to Australia in September. See below for details. Tickets here.
Tuesday, 19th September – Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Wednesday, 20th September – Palais Theatre, Melbourne