Dream Theater's latest album, Distance Over Time, wasn't supposed to be a return-to-form.
But it's hard to separate the album's triumph from the uncharacteristic fan resistance to the band's previous studio offering, the progressive metal opera The Astonishing.
While front man James LaBrie tells Q104.3 New York's QN'A that the band stands behind The Astonishing, to many fans the album was a momentary lapse of perspective from a band that has so adroitly balanced ambition and bombast for three decades.
Distance is validation of the band's post-2010 lineup and proof that The Astonishing's struggle was hard-to-predict, LaBrie refers to early in the band's career to express how Dream Theater learned to trust its instincts.
Dream Theater was firmly underground in the early-'90s before earning an unlikely rock radio hit in 1992 with its 8-minute epic "Pull Me Under." Everything changed after that, LaBrie explains.
"It provided the platform that enabled us to have a career," Labrie says of the song. "For all intents and purposes, that was a fluke! It just happened."
"The fact that we got a deal ... and [the label] was willing to put it out, when it was all about Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Guns N' Roses and Soundgarden, it was like, 'Okay, where do these guys fit? But fortunately, we fit."
Given the consistent quality of the band's work, it's hard to imagine Dream Theater not being successful. But LaBrie suggests the large scale of the band today can probably be attributed to "Pull Me Under."
Dream Theater's career goes well-beyond one song, though. The band's enduring relevance and status as one of the most important bands in progressive rock is thanks to a career driven by genre-defining albums and awe-inspiring live performances. LaBrie says the band doesn't play its lone radio hit every night because fans know its entire catalog so well that they have favorites from every album.
Distance Over Time finds Dream Theater at the peak of its prowess with the most dialed-in production in the band's history. It is a continuation of the legacy the band began building in the '90s and a wide open door for a new generation of fans to walk through.
Check out the QN'A below in which LaBrie discusses Dream Theater's endurance, its revamped process for Distance Over Time, how he dealt with blowback from The Astonishing and his thoughts on the band's place as a leader in the progressive universe.
Congratulations on the new album, Distance Over Time. I think it’s this Dream Theater lineup's best record. One of the things that really jumped out to me upon the first listen was how strong your voice sounded. Were you doing something different on this album?
Well, I went back to studying voice there. Years ago I have some vocal cord problems. Long story short, I went back to studying … and incorporated some new warmups and cool downs. It just really has resulted in me singing, I think, better than I ever have.
Even if you go on YouTube and look at this tour, the ‘Distance Over Time’ tour, and pull up any videos, you can see that I’m singing notes that I haven’t been singing in many years.
So you went back to basics?
I think that’s got a lot to do with it. Then when we were putting together this album and I was sitting down with John [Petrucci, guitars] and Jordan [Rudess, keyboards], and we were constructing the melodies and that, I just made sure that it would be extremely singer-friendly.
I just said, ‘You know, I really want to focus that the voice is also a priority and that it’s just as strong and just as integral in the composition. I think that had a lot to do with it.
It also has a lot to do with [mixing engineer] Ben Grosse and his interpretation of the band, of the music, where everybody sits. I had conversations with Ben, and he was like, ‘You know I love your voice, first and foremost, and I know how I want to go about mixing it, and if you trust me, I think you’re going to be happy.’ And I think he did a fantastic job.
John Petrucci has said Distance Over Time was one of the more collaborative Dream Theater albums in a long time, with much of it having been composed with everyone in the same room. As the singer. how do you contribute your ideas in the jam room?
When I hear something, I say, ‘What you guys were playing there, I want you to go back; that sounded really cool,’ even if they might have moved on. Or I might hear something, in the sense that they played something and I’m going, ‘I’m hearing it going into something like this,’ and I’ll sing a riff.
You have to realize that things are going down so quickly. I think it was 17 days of actual writing. So once the compositions and the arrangements are solidified…I’m constantly singing melodies and leaving the room and singing it into my phone, so I can then revisit that. …And then obviously I’m involved in the lyrics.
John Petrucci and [keyboardist] Jordan Rudess wrote most of The Astonishing as a duo; did you and the other guys ever lament a lack of input on that one?
[Myself] not so much. I think John [Myung, bass] and Mike [Mangini, drums] might have lamented a bit, but I kind of understood what [Petrucci and Rudess] were doing. I know a lot of bands and members would have been a little [upset] by it. I was okay; I knew what they were going after. We had spoken about it quite often before it was even materializing, so I knew where they were going and I knew what they were trying to achieve.
The risk with that is that you’re not getting a full-band effort … and that can be a little stifling. I still think it’s a fantastic album; I know that I polarized our fans, and I know that there was a lot of controversy that surrounded it, but I still think it was fantastic.
Getting involved in the melodies of that album and stuff like that, I think it was a real tour de force, vocally.
Petrucci has said he expected some of the backlash; were you prepared for that?
I thought that it was going to be wholly embraced by our fans. When I saw the divide, I’ve got to be honest, I was a little surprised.
So I'll be honest with you, The Astonishing didn't land for me. But as a long time fan, I appreciated the ambition of it 30 years into your career. It's a record I think I'll revisit every so often and maybe it'll hit me at the right place and time.
Right. I hear you. That's cool.
There’s many aspects to when you put together an album like that. It’s not just musically, it’s lyrically, and I’ve always said, any band that’s making a conceptual album, there’s always that … stumbling block of it getting a little too cheesy, a little quirky. That’s the risk you’re taking.
But you’ve got to stand behind it and accept it and hope that it will be well-received.
Dream Theater had an unlikely hit song in 1992 with "Pull Me Under." I think the career you've had since that is fascinating, especially considering how you don't even play that song every tour. Not many bands with one hit could get away with that. Do you remember the first time you left "Pull Me Under" out of a setlist?
I honestly do not remember. ... It might've been ... the Scenes [From a Memory] tour
It’s funny; you have a song like that where you’ve been playing it for several years … I think more now as we go on in our career, we are deciding from time to time [not to play it]. There’s several other songs that we can play and that fans will be just as excited and stoked about it.
Right. You've built up so much equity as an album-oriented band that no one freaks out when you don't play the song that made it to radio.
“Pull Me Under” was a blessing because we never intended to write a song as a single and as a hit, but fortunately for us, it did become a hit. And I think you and I wouldn’t be speaking today if it hadn’t become a hit. ... It provided that platform that enabled us to have a career.
And yet all that happened the same time grunge and alternative rock were exploding.
Exactly! The fact that we got a deal … and [the label] was willing to put it out, when it was all about Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Guns N’ Roses and Soundgarden … it was like, ‘Okay, where do these guys fit?’ But fortunately, we fit.
You're from the same generation as those bands, and your break came around the same time. Did you understand the grunge thing?
Oh yeah. I love Soundgarden. I love Pearl Jam. I appreciate where Nirvana was coming from. I appreciate where Guns N’ Roses was coming from. …I think there was a common respect within our band for those bands. I think it just wasn’t who we are and what we were about. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t appreciate it.
Dream Theater is an important band in modern metal and hard rock. How do you feel about the band’s de-emphasis on having openers on tour?
I think right now, doing the evenings with just feels right. Yes, it’s asking a helluva lot more from each and every one of us. But at the same time, we’re having a great time. We’re all very regimented [with our preparation].
But there’s a lot of great bands out there! It’s funny because the other day I was thinking I really want to take out Periphery again; I’ve always loved those guys — TesseracT. There’s so many great bands out there that are young and creating their own sound and their own niche, musically, that I respect.
So, basically, you guys have to do a cruise.
Yeah, that’s been thrown at us. I don’t think we’re there yet (Laughs). I don’t know. I know a lot of bands do it. Possibly.
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