"It’s progressive at times, commercial at times. It’s eclectic." James LaBrie and Static Impulse

James LaBrie
(Image credit: Press)

Prog sat down with Dream Theater singer James LaBrie to discuss his second solo album, Static Impulse, in 2010.

James LaBrie has jetlag. Just yesterday he touched down in Ontario from Tokyo, the roar of 17,000 fans still in his ears. Dream Theater’s appearance at Japan’s Summer Sonic Festival capped their 14-month tour in support of Black Clouds & Silver Linings, the first US Top 10 album of their two-decade tenure at the top of the prog-metal chain. The run included a North American leg with Iron Maiden that pulled in sell-out audiences, bucking this year’s trend for poor concert attendance. 

“Iron Maiden would be the first to admit that last time they went out in the United States the numbers weren’t great,” says LaBrie, wayworn yet affable and considered. “They went through this time and they were phenomenal. In every show Bruce said, ‘This just goes to show metal’s still alive.’ This was one of the most successful tours going through the US.” Other tours have been shortened or cancelled altogether in the slump. Many have blamed bloated ticket prices out of whack with these harsh times, and LaBrie agrees. “They finally broke the camel’s back. The economy’s crippled right now. Do they really think people can take a family of four to a gig that’s going to cost them $1,000? It’s not going to happen. We need to get more realistic. People don’t have the money to spend on over-inflated tickets anymore.”

James LaBrie

(Image credit: InsideOut Music)

Hot off the success of their own album and tour, the curtain’s down on Dream Theater for now. The band are on hiatus until 2011, but Mike Portnoy barely has time to unpack his drumsticks before hitting the road again with US metal band of the moment Avenged Sevenfold, and LaBrie himself is promoting his fourth solo album. 

Written with elite keyboardist and long-time collaborator Matt Guillory [see sidebar], Static Impulse is a powerful and, in parts, poppy slab of Gothenburg metal, bursting with big hooks, incredible musicianship and some terrifying Cookie Monster outbursts courtesy of drummer Peter Wildoer. “I’ve read people on the internet saying I’ve really changed my vocal style,” laughs LaBrie. “But that growl’s Pete not me. I’ve never sung like that in my life and I’m not about to start! Then all the background vocals are Matt. He’s got a beautiful voice and we have a great blend. It makes for an amazing contrast, gives it more dimension.” 

Work started on Static Impulse early last year, with LaBrie and California-based Guillory swapping ideas remotely via MP3s, phone and Skype. They aimed to review the heavy-yet-melodic territory of his last solo material, 2005’s Elements Of Persuasion. “We wanted to keep that and push the envelope,” says LaBrie. “We focused on the melodic structure, the vocal melodies. We wanted it to be ballsy and in your face but also memorable.

“We recorded in Sweden with engineer Jens Borgen. Scandinavians get metal, they really do. Think of Soilwork, Pain Of Salvation. They definitely get the gist of what it is to be metal and do it authentically. The Gothenburg style’s exciting, it’s an open-minded approach to music and being expressive. It’s progressive at times, commercial at times. It’s eclectic and that’s kind of what gives us our sound. We wanted to keep it organic, for it not to sound overpolished or synthetic. We wanted you to feel the guys were playing right in front of you.”

Alongside LaBrie, Guillory and Wildoer, these guys comprise virtuoso guitarist Marco Sfogli and bassist Ray Riendeau. They were handed the blueprints of the songs and encouraged to “put their signature” on it. They know how to grandstand and at times their musicianship superheats the brain, but there’s nuance here too. There’s texture and intelligence permeating the blunt-head-trauma grooves of One More Time, Over The Edge and This Is War. The choruses of I Tried and Who You Think I Am are earworm-catchy, and a romantic heart beats with a metal pulse on Euphoric. Steeped in rock heritage, LaBrie’s vocals soar, and his lyrics are fanciful here, literal there.

“Mislead came from watching the news. Oppression and corruption by governments around the world is still evident. As we go on as a race, there’s less ignorance and people are being held accountable for their actions. Governments are becoming more aware that the shields they’re hiding behind are dissolving.”

A meditation on America’s dysfunctional justice system, Jekyll Or Hyde was inspired by The Shawshank Redemption, and a sense of alienation also pervades Coming Home, a haunting, piano-led piece of quasi-musical theatre. The story idea came to LaBrie while watching serial-killer thriller Dexter.

“Dexter’s someone numb to human feelings, but through his sickness he’s able to serve humankind. I wanted to put a fictional spin on it, a man coming to terms with his emotions and feeling what it is to be truly connected to someone else. But it’s too late for him, he can’t fight the monster within. I thought, Why not? Why does it always have to be the obvious.”

James LaBrie

(Image credit: Press)

Fronting the world’s leading prog-metal band brings a weight of expectation, but it’s natural that LaBrie’s eponymous works bring out another side of him. “I’m involved with every aspect, from the writing to the artwork. In Dream Theater my inclusion in the music is sometimes writing a melody, a lyric. That’s just the way it’s been. It’s worked so far and I’m not about to break the wheel by coming in in a larger capacity. That’s a major reason for me doing my solo work, to let the people know that musically this is where I’m coming from.

“Matt’s aware of who I am, and my involvement with Dream Theater definitely seals who I am musically. That always has to be considered, right down to the title. Static Impulse describes us as a species. We are an unrefined energy, the impulse is hardwired, instinctual, mystical. We’re still in a long process of evolving. I think the lyrics are introspective and deal with this journey.”

LaBrie nourishes this spiritual side by enjoying the natural beauty of Ontario and its environs, skiing, camping and hiking. He also raves about the novel he’s just read, World Without End (Ken Follett’s sequel to his epic tome The Pillars Of The Earth), and enthuses about the music of Bigelf, Death Cab For Cutie and Portnoy’s current cohorts, Avenged Sevenfold.

“If Mike doesn’t have anything good to say about something, he won’t say it,” says LaBrie, “and believe it or not, he said that Static Impulse was the best side project any of us has been involved in. I’m so psyched about this album. We’re all gung-ho about taking it into the live environment.” 

There’s a US/European tour pencilled in for November, he says, laughing off a sigh at the jetlag yet to come. “These side projects make us grow. They make us better musicians, and Dream Theater is better for it. I think I’d become a little stagnant if I wasn’t doing that on the side, and it’s something I always intend to do.”

Grant Moon

A music journalist for over 20 years, Grant writes regularly for titles including Prog, Classic Rock and Total Guitar, and his CV also includes stints as a radio producer/presenter and podcast host. His first book, 'Big Big Train - Between The Lines', is out now through Kingmaker Publishing.