Dream Theater—Throwing Arms Around a Memory

I was wandering around the catacombs of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s Pista de Atletismo do Ibirapuera with assorted international media when we were greeted by an amazing sound. It was between band sets during the 1998 Monsters of Rock festival and the mesmerizing, mystery voice—bouncing between the walls below—drew us closer. The sound grew louder and louder until we came upon Dream Theater’s James LaBrie, who was warming up for the band’s imminent performance. In too many rock bands, vocals are treated as an afterthought. Not Dream Theater, whose singer is as instrumental to the band’s success—pun intended—as guitarist John Petrucci, keyboardist Jordan Rudess, drummer Mike Mangini, and bassist John Myung.

Unbeknown to the progressive metal quintet at the time, the Monsters of Rock event was the end of an era. They would soon part company with long-time keyboardist Derek Sherinian and replace him with former Dixie Dregs’ Jordan Rudess, with whom Petrucci and former drummer Mike Portnoy recorded with in the side-project Liquid Tension Experiment. Dream Theater would then head into the studio to record what was considered adventurous and unfashionable at the time: a concept album. Metropolis, Part 2: Scenes From a Memory received rave reviews from stunned critics. Told in two acts, the story begins with the 1928 murder of a young woman before shifting to the present when a man becomes haunted by the crime. Twenty years later, the album not only remains one of the band’s most but popular, but it is also recognized as a genre-redefining masterwork.

Unlike Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates, you always “know what you’re gonna get” with a new Dream Theater record: stellar musicianship, pitch-perfect vocals, and amazing songwriting that consistently take listeners on unexpected journeys. This Dream Theater axiom is made more impressive knowing that unlike most artists, they continue to grow more than 30 years since forming; they continue to shine despite losing a key member almost a decade ago: drummer Mike Portnoy, who left in 2010 to pursue other musical ambitions. Their 14th studio effort, Distance Over Time (InsideOutMusic/Sony Music), released last February, is another in the band’s long legacy of classics.

Not surprisingly, the band’s current, extensive Distance Over Time tour not only celebrates their latest release, but also the 20th anniversary of Scenes From a Memory, which they will perform in its entirety. 

LaBrie took a few moments before a recent sound check to talk with The Aquarian about the two albums, the tour, the band’s legacy, and their foray into the beer business. Barstool Warrior Lager, which takes its name from one of Distance Over Time’s highlights, will be available at select shows. It will also be available before the State Theater show at an official pre-party at Fatto Americano, 338 George Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey. For more information check out barrierbrewing.com

Dream Theater have their own beer?

JP (John Petrucci) and I were [exchanging ideas] about what else we could do, and this opportunity came about. We were thinking about what to call it and threw a few song titles around before I said, ‘The answer is staring us in the face!’ “Barstool Warrior” was the perfect title.

The song is about two people drinking separately at a bar. The guy is wondering where his life is going. There is also a woman at the bar who is in an abusive relationship. They both [take stock] of their lives and decide to take control and get out of their current situation. The guy drinks bourbon, but we decided to go with beer.

How did the opportunity come about?

We were approached by Barrier Brewing who created the perfect [Pilsner lager] for us. It’s available at our upcoming shows in New York and New Jersey. You have to try it.

More than 25 years since you joined Dream Theater, the band continues to grow. Distance Over Time is one of the band’s best. Ironically, many veteran bands fall into a rut after being together a decade.

We’re still ambitious and we continue to have a great time doing what we do. If we ever fall into a rut or decide we cannot do this anymore, we will end it and go our separate ways. But I don’t see that happening for many years. We’ve been fortunate enough to be doing this for as long as we have, and we’re still going out there and totally giving it our all every night.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the release of Metropolis, Part 2: Scenes From a Memory.

It was a [precarious] time for us. The previous studio album, Falling Into Infinity, was difficult to make. I really like the record, but we were going through a transformation; a transition. Some band members needed to mature; we were about split with another [member]; we were about to change up management; and we were having issues with our record company, who wanted us to write hits. We were not and are not a hit-making band. We had one hit by accident (1992’s “Pull Me Under”), but we had to stand our ground and tell them, ‘This is who we are.’

It was also Dream Theater’s first album with keyboardist Jordan Rudess.

We were psyched about that. What better man to have coming into the band? He was the perfect fit. Scenes From a Memory was our first conceptual album, but it was a natural progression for us. We had been talking about it for some time. We could tell while we were in the studio writing and recording it that we were onto something special; something that would resonate with our fans, and it did. It still does today.

The band has covered albums during past tours, including Rush’s 2112. But what is it like performing Scenes From a Memory in its entirety each night?

It’s been a lot of fun. It is amazing to see the crowd reaction to it. It takes you back to 1999. But the show is much, much more. There is a lot going on; each show [features a huge production].

An Evening with Dream Theater, which is how the band has been billing its shows for years, features just the band; no opening acts. With the extensive touring and three-hour shows, how have you been able to maintain your voice?

I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I get enough sleep and I exercise. I do cardio and lift weights. I eat a lot of fruit and drink water. That being said, I have had off nights. I have gotten tired. It happens to all singers, but it does not happen often.

After this touring cycle, will you finally get a well-deserved break?

Well, we have gotten into this cycle where we tour behind an album for a year and a half and then we work on music for six months before getting together to record. We still don’t know what we will do after we finish touring.

There have been hints of a new solo record, your first since 2013’s Impermanent Resonance.

I have been speaking with [long-time collaborator] Matt [Guillory]. We have ideas for songs, but we are both extremely busy and it all depends on what our schedules allow. Matt lives in California and I’m up in Canada, so (logistics are also an issue). But it will eventually happen.

Any solo shows?

We would love to get into the studio and then play at least a handful of shows in major cities. Dream Theater, however, remains the priority.

Catch Dream Theater on Friday, October 11th at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey and on Tuesday, October 15th at Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Greenvale, New York