Famed frontman of Grammy winning prog-metallers Dream Theater, James LaBrie is set to uncork his long-awaited new solo outing, Beautiful Shade of Grey on May 20 through Inside Out Music.
LaBrie's first solo record since 2013's Impermanent Resonance features Eden's Curse's Paul Logue on acoustic rhythm guitar (both six and twelve string) and acoustic bass, guitarist Marco Sfogli on the leads and solos, Eden’s Curse Christian Pulkkinen on keys and LaBrie's own son Chance on drums.
LaBrie sat down with Metal Injection for a deep dive into the serendipitous new record, his thoughts on recording and collaborating with his son, his take on Dream Theater's recent Grammy win, reflections of his time with Canadian glam metal outfit Winter Rose and much more!
I know the collaboration with Paul was very important for this record, but in terms of the actual idea to finally dig into a solo, was that kind of competing with Dream Theater's A View From the Top of the World? Was it a pandemic project? Where did the initial spark come from for a new solo record?
Well, it was a serendipitous situation, so to speak, I had been speaking to Matt Guillory over the years since we had done Impermanent Resonance back in 2013. So we kept thinking by 2015, 'hey, let's get our heads back together and let's start writing and working on another one!' And then it was 2016, '17, '18, '9, time just has its way of slipping by. So I started thinking, probably by late 2019, that I wanted to do a solo album and I started entertaining the idea of doing something completely different. But it was just in the recesses of my mind that it'd be something to do that would challenge me and maybe just flip things up completely.
So it just so happened that Dream Theater had done their last show in Glasgow on a European leg on February 23, 2020. And the next day I'm at the Glasgow airport and lo and behold I hear my name called out and it's Paul Logue. And he was at the show the night before, so he was at the Glasgow airport waiting to go on a flight down to London and I was going back home.
Back in 2011, I had recorded a song with his band Eden's Curse. It was a song called "No Holy Man," and at that point I started to inquire. I talked to Paul when I was recording that song and I said "who writes this stuff?" And he said "well, I'm one of the main composers." And I said I love it because it reminds me of classic rock. That era, even though it has great pop sensibility, but it's also contemporary.
So anyways, fast forward and it's freakin' ten years later and we bump into each other and he says "hey, man! Are you still serious about maybe you and I getting together trading ideas and doing an album?" And I said "yeah I am!" He said "well, there's this talk about this virus shutting down the world. If that happens and we're both at home, do you want to start writing?" I said absolutely. Sure enough, March 15 the world shut down. So that's really what was the catalyst to getting this off the ground. And at that point Paul said "well, I've got a ton of ideas" and I said "I got a ton of ideas!" and we just started trading audio files back and forth. So that's how that came about.
Paul and I started working on Beautiful Shade of Grey before Dream Theater was in the studio starting to write A View From the Top of the World. So it was all prefaced to anything Dream Theater was doing because we kind of just took some downtime and tried to figure things out. What are we going to do next? And then we figured what the hell? We can't sit around forever. Let's get back into the studio. So in the meantime Paul and I were writing. But one of the first things I said to Paul was I wanted to do something a little unorthodox here. Not that it hasn't been done before, but I wanted to really pay homage and a big nod to the classic rock era. My biggest influences back when I was a kid were Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Queen, Aerosmith, stuff like that. I was listening to that as well as listening to Rush and Yes and Pink Floyd and so on and so forth. So to me it was just something to say let's do something!
It was literally we started writing songs with acoustic guitar and vocals. And then at one point I went "you know what? I think we're going to overstay our welcome with writing an album like this." You can only sit around a campfire for so long with an acoustic guitar and sing songs, right? Sooner or later it's like okay man, let's move on, whatever it might be. So I said "I think we're going to have to do this full ensemble." We need a band and we need to make this more an ensemble where we can expand on the soundscape and the sonics.
And so at that point, he had mentioned let's bring in Christian Pulkkinen for keys and piano. I said "yeah he's a great musician. Let's bring him in." And Christian was great because he created a lot of the atmosphere and a lot of those orchestral moments like the strings and all that stuff. I said then we got to bring in Marco Sfogli because there's not many others like him. And I know for somebody to be able to play all the solos on acoustic, that's what separates the men from the boys as far as I'm concerned. I knew Marco would rise to the occasion and do it justice. And he did. And then Paul actually was the one suggesting bringing my son in, Chance, to play drums, and I knew Chance would definitely smash it out of the park. So it was great. Basically the whole catalyst was Paul and I bumped into each other and having that conversation that we'd been talking about from time to time over the years. And then it slowly materialized into writing and recording Beautiful Shade of Grey.
Is it a mix of feelings recording with your son? On one hand there's that pride factor that the music gene is carried on, but also this is your work. Is that a weird mixed bag?
Well you know, there were moments. Chance was actually the one that got this going. He was like "OK, the pandemic's hit, let's start to build a studio in the basement. What the hell else are we doing," you know? So we kind of did some renovation. We had a bedroom down here and all this other stuff going on and so we just utilized the time and Chance brought in some friends. I got all these audio guys to make sure that it was properly done. But anyways, Chance was the engineer. He was recording all my vocals and it was great.
When he was doing his drums he was like, "Dad I don't want you around because I don't need you staring at me when I'm playing on these drums, I know what I want to do." And we had a lot of conversations of where I wanted him to go and what mindset I wanted him to be in for the drums because I was very specific. Think Larry Mullen from U2, think John Bonham from Zeppelin. Because simplicity isn't something that's simple. The word infers that, but it's the exact opposite. To be simple in music and to be powerful and to resonate, that's the brilliance of it. Not everyone can do it.
And so I told him this is the mindset for the album and I want you to be able to support that 100 percent. So it was great because he did. He wrapped his head around that. It was amazing because when we walked into the studio we were two musicians working together and there were moments where it was kind of like I'd be slinging down my vocals and I'd say "this is bizarre, man. Chance, this is really crazy." Like, here I am working with you on this album. And I said "I remember hanging onto ya in my freaking arms as a baby and here we are now!"
He was 23 at the time and he's 24 now. But it was just a great experience because when we were in the studio he was just being a full on 100 percent musician like he is with his band Falset. He's in a band called Falset and they just released their second single from their album. They have videos and everything out there, so when you have the time to check them out, they're an amazing band. Great singer, Zach Copeland and their music's amazing and they really have the potential to go somewhere. But anyways, it was a great experience. There were moments of that "wow, this feels crazy and strange and surreal." But it was all for the right reasons because he once again rose to the occasion and he did it justice.
Dream Theater's obviously the mothership and there's going to be pretty relentless touring over the next couple of years. Would this be that type of project that you can ever see performing a one-off live or a few select dates when time permits? Or because of the moving parts and the different people involved you see it as just being too complicated.
Everything that you're saying there holds validity because it's true. There's many moving parts. There's everyone's schedules, everyone is busy with this and that and they have their gigs and so you have to coordinate. And it's not an easy feat, but interestingly enough we have been talking and we have been discussing that possibility. I think what we're seeing at this point … because like you said at the very beginning, Dream Theater is the mothership and we are going to be touring extensively for at least the next year or so because we always do. And so it's a matter of me finding that window of opportunity where it's all, OK, Dream Theater isn't doing anything for a couple of months. OK, so let's get this thing out for maybe two weeks here, two weeks there.
So we're talking about the possibility and where it's leading to at this time presently is that maybe next May, in 2023, we could do a couple of weeks. That might be like a week through the U.K. At this point we're thinking about a week through Europe. And then can we do a week where we'd be up in Canada and select dates a week down in the States and see what happens with this because this begs to be played out live. All this stuff could be so powerful with the full band there.
But we want to go a little step further. And so we've been talking to some promoters and stuff like that. And this one promoter had a brilliant idea and he's actually been doing it with artists over in Europe. And he said "I see this. I want to bring you into churches and cathedrals and I want to bring you into castles." But he goes "what are you thinking in terms of capacity?" And I said "Well, listen. The music begs to be intimate, it begs to be in a very personal type setting." And I said "500 people, a thousand at the most." And he says "Well, that's going to go like frickin wildfire, pancakes flying off the grill."
He goes "I totally see that. And if that's the kind of thing you want to do, I could see that being huge in that setting and in that facility." I said "OK, that's what I'm thinking. Let's do 500 to 1000 people and no more." I said I'd actually like to keep it around 500, to be honest with you. And he said "Wow, that's really cool that you're thinking that, I thought you'd want to be in the bigger rooms and big theaters?" I said "No, we're going to lose the whole point of it all," you know? So that's what we're talking about. So let's see what holds. I hope we can put together that type of an outing, but there's logistics and everything else.
I have to throw out a congratulations for the GRAMMY Award win. That's a pretty surreal, very weird thing to say in 2022. Obviously, it means a lot in terms of celebrating the work you guys put in. In 2022 what does a Grammy mean to a band like Dream Theater? It's been well documented in recent years that the GRAMMys haven't been kind to rock or metal.
I think that they're evolving. I really do. I think that the GRAMMYs, let's face it, everybody's read about it. Everybody's read about what people in general think of it. And I think that's what's happening with a lot of these awards shows, whether it be the GRAMMYs, the Emmys or the Academy, I think that what's happened is that the GRAMMY Academy started thinking "hey, you know what? We have to be more inclusive of what music should represent." And that is everything. It's not just pop culture, it's not just who's being heard on the radio. It's much deeper than that. And so I think that they started thinking that, look, there's all these different styles of music and we have bands like Dream Theater that are very eclectic … They represent so much when it comes to music and what it means to experiment and push the envelope and just be free, creatively free and liberal.
Let's face it, we were nominees in 2012 and 2014. So you know, here we are again. And I think the GRAMMYs just said come on. These guys are a force, a musical force to be reckoned with, and we need to respect that and I think that it's going to send a strong, clear message to everyone else out there that we are inclusive to everyone that is out there. Look at the category that we were in. We were up against Deftones and Mastodon and Rob Zombie and all those. Those are all great artists, man. They've been around for a long time as well and they deserved it just as much. But I mean it gets to a point where like, OK, let's listen to that song that was submitted and what's in that song? And you have all this technical prowess. But at the same time beautiful, strong song construction. Then you have a beautiful melody and then the lyrics and all that stuff. So you know, it's a combination of what is the statement here? And it's a big statement. And so I think it's affirmation that finally we're being recognized for who and what we are and what we've been since the beginning.
We've always done things on our own terms. It's like, like it or not, if it hits great, if it doesn't, so what? At least we're doing what we feel is what we think best represents us and it's our best foot forward all the time. And if it happens to resonate then great. And if it doesn't then it was our decision and we're the ones to blame for it if it becomes a failure, which, that's just not going to happen. And I don't mean to sound arrogant, but what I'm saying is that we do things and we've been doing this for like 30-something years now and we know what works and we know who we are and to maintain that identity musically and to still push forward to be absolutely creatively free to do whatever we feel is best. And that's what makes Dream Theater who we are.
Being a fellow Canadian, I'm always curious about Winter Rose. Any prevailing thoughts from that era of your career?
Here's the thing, I moved down to Toronto when I just turned 19 years old, you know? And I got in this band, I got on that band and we were doing Zeppelin or we were doing Foreigner or we were doing Kansas or whatever. And finally I came across this guy, Rich Chycki, who actually when I was in Dream Theater, he went on to become an engineer with us and mixed a couple of our albums and stuff like that. And we're still great friends and brothers and stuff like that. So Rich and I stay in touch from time to time.
But you know, it's funny because when I met him and he had worked with Sebastian Bach, who went on to Skid Row. And I remember going into this and thinking first of all, the players in the band, they were all great players. Rob Laidlaw on bass, Bruce Dies on guitar, Rich was on guitar, Richard Chycki. Then we had Randy Cooke on drums, a frickin' amazing drummer, you know? He's still down in L.A. as a big session player, Randy and he's played with some of the notable artists he was with were Five for Fighting. I think he did three of their albums and stuff like that.
So going into a band like that I remember thinking when I was in that band with Rich it was all about writing melodies and the right lyrics and Rich was involved in that big time too with the music and the lyrics. And I remember thinking this is what it is. It's like a glam hard rock band, but at least we can make it so it's cool and it doesn't have to be sappy and goofy and sugar coated in all this shit, you know? And it was cool because that was the CD that Dream Theater had received and that music and they were like blown away and they were like "Holy shit, who's this guy singing? We gotta get him down here!" And then the rest is history.
I remember going out on one particular tour. We were all with Lee Aaron and Lee Aaron was referred to as the Metal Queen at the time. Lee and I would talk at every show. And she goes "you know, I love what you're doing out there!" She'd be on the side of the stage when we were on stage always watching and really enjoying what I was putting out there and projecting out there.
So unbeknownst to me, and I don't know if you know the story, but she took my CD. She asked for it and I gave it her copy and she hit up Aquarius Records. It was a big Canadian label at the time and they wanted me to work with Aldo Nova [begins singing the lyrics to "Fantasy"]. It was a big hit back in 1982, I believe. And I said no, I'm going to stick with Winter Rose. They're like "what do you want to do? We can offer you a great deal." And I said no. And then unbeknownst to me, Pierre Paradis from Aquarius sent my tape down because they were affiliated with MCA Records at the time, who Dream Theater was affiliated with through Mechanic. And then that's how that all started, because he heard that this band down in New York with great musicians had been looking for a singer, even though they'd been working with one guy for about eight months. They were looking for a singer for the last two years and then boom, they got my tape and that was it.
* James LaBrie's Beautiful Shade of Grey is out May 20, and is available for pre-order here. Dream Theater's Top of the World Tour continues throughout 2022! Stay tuned for part two in our interview with James LaBrie where we talk the 30th Metalversary of Images and Words!