Metal Edge, December 1997
Define crunch time… If you’re a member of Dream Theater, it goes something like this: Your fourth full-length album is scheduled to be shipped to the record label in less than 24 hours; three songs still have to be completed, mixed, and mastered; there are still studio interviews and photo shoots to be completed; and you have six weeks to select a management company to help oversee one of the most pivotal periods of your career before a September 23 release date. Did we mention the fact that three of the five band members have children ranging in age from year-and-a-half old twins to a four-month-old newborn, and there’s another child expected in winter?
If what they say about working your best under pressure is true, it explains Dream Theater’s forthcoming masterpiece, Falling Into Infinity. Joining the band in the studio that afternoon, it was tough not to get caught in the excitement when vocalist James LaBrie wrapped up the recording – especially after hearing eight of the 80-minute album’s 11 tracks, a jaw-dropping preview of Dream Theater’s most impressive collection to date. On their last night of a two-month run in a Manhattan recording studio, the band – LaBrie, Petrucci, drummer Mike Portnoy, bass player John Myung, and keyboardist Derek Sherinian – took a break from the last-minute flurry of activity (or heightened it, depending who you talk to) by sitting down to discuss Falling Into Infinity and all the trials and tribulations that accompanied it.
This album’s been a long time in the making. Was it approached differently?
Mike Portnoy: Well, the recording process for this record has been 100% different from the way we’ve done any of the previous albums. In the past we’ve always done instrument by instrument . When we’d start an album, we’d start with the drum tracks, and I’d go in, and I’d have to concentrate on all eight or 10 songs within one headframe and go in and do all my drums in a week or two. Then the guitars go, and John would have to think about all the songs and spend a week or two doing guitars. Usually, in those cases, everybody would record their tracks and split. There wasn’t much band camaraderie, or diversity of personality from track to track, because all the drums were done at the same time, all the guitars were done at the same time. So this time around, we had the approach of recording song by song. What we’re doing is coming in, picking a song, going in and recording that song as a band, focused on just that one song, and then once we get the basic tracks with everybody, then we’ll start doing all the overdubs, and the vocals, and all the extra instrumentation that goes into the song. We won’t even think about any other songs until we’ve captured everything we need for that particular song. It’s been cool because every drum track is very different sounding, every guitar track is different… Even within the same song, the sounds are constantly changing. Also, all five of us are here for two months straight. Now we’re all working together here as a band, creating the album.
John Petrucci: This album was totally experimental recording wise, real off the cuff. Whereas in the past, I always knew exactly where I was coming from, this time I had a general idea, and I would bounce ideas off Kevin [Shirley, Falling Into Infinity producer] and we’d talk about getting the right sound. I don’t think I repeated the same sound twice.
Did the changes make the recording process more enjoyable?
John Myung: Yeah, it was definitely more enjoyable because you got an idea of how the record was going to sound as you went along, whereas in the past you really wouldn’t know until the end when everything was mixed and mastered, and then it’s too late to do anything. Kevin’s been mixing and mastering as we’ve gone along and we’ve been able to sit with it for a while. If something has to be changed, we have that ability. It’s great to be focused and know what we have to do–being responsible and getting the album done, but have it enjoyable at the same time. In the past, sometimes, it would just be really cold, there wasn’t much of an atmosphere. This time there was more of a band vibe. There was energy.
Recording as a band, not individually, did you find yourselves changing a lot of the songs as you went along?
Portnoy: Yeah, but not so much as we went along. We did that in pre-production. We spent two weeks in pre-production with Kevin Shirley, and Kevin had a lot of suggestions, he made a lot of changes to songs.
Myung: Not so much that, as much as mixing, and a matter of the way certain things are EQed and what’s going on with vocal performances. Maybe there would be a bad note that was overlooked, and you could go back and cover it up.
Certain bands must look for different things in a given producer. Was Kevin what you were hoping for?
James LaBrie: I think it’s been the best. You hear about these producers that come in and there’s not really too much interaction. What the hell is that all about? Then you don’t need a producer.
Portnoy: You’re just paying big money to have a name attached to a record.
LaBrie: Whereas Kevin comes in, and he’s been completely what you’re paying the big bucks for. He’s there, and he’s saying, “Look man, I think it should go this way,” or, “It's great as it is, let’s move on.” He’s not going “OK, you record it, then I’ll mix it.” He’s there every step of the way. I’d say that Kevin’s been the first producer that’s acted like a producer for this band. Everyone else was there–one might have been a little too aggressive and antisocial in a sense, he just wouldn’t communicate well with the band, and the other one was more of a button pusher.
Myung: He was the one person that was able to work with the band musically and on a personal level, as well. With past producers there was always something missing. Some people got along really great but didn't really contribute to what we were doing, they would just operate the machines. Kevin really adds to the music, he’s changed a lot of parts around. It was a really positive experience working with him. I think this is one of our best albums to date. When I listen to Awake and I listen to this, I hear a different band.
Portnoy: Another thing Kevin did differently was, because we’ve been going song-by-song, we’ve been able to capture more of the liveness of the music, and that’s something that Kevin really wanted to do. In the past, we’ve done our albums and everything’s been so polished, and overdubbed, and very tight and…
Portnoy: This time around, the most important thing for him was for us to play and to capture us live. As much as he could keep from that take, he’d keep. He actually few out and saw us in New York in April, just because he wanted to see what we were like live, and he wanted to bring out our five personalities, see the way we interacted on stage, and see the way the fans reacted to each of us, and have that come alive on the record.
Has he brought something out of you guys that hasn’t been expressed before?
LaBrie: Like Mike was touching on before, there’s more of a live feel. Because of that, I think it’s sounding a bit more sincere, like a rock band should be. There’s more energy.
Portnoy: In the past, we would get so anal about everything having to be so perfect, but kevin loves whe there’s a little mistake here or a little glitch there, or a string rigning out, or a stick clickin, he’s into that shit, he thinks it adds personality. Now we’re starting to see that he’s right. It gives us a little bit of personality in the music.
Petrucci: He played along with the whole vibe of each song having a character individual to itself, which is, I guess, what he does. He really supported getting certain sounds for certain songs. Like I said, I don’t think I ever repeated the same thing.
Portnoy: The same can be said for the drums, keyboards, or anything. It’s funny, if you listen to this album, on the surface, it sounds like the most straightahead album we’ve ever done, the most accessible album we’ve ever done. Maybe it is from a songwriting point of view, but if you dig into the production, and the soundscape, and the instrumentation, it actually is the most involved record we’ve ever done. The creating of it has been an incredibly experimental experience. At any given moment, if you hear something, you go in and do it. It’s like, “Wow, try a mellotron there,” or a sitar, whatever.
You played parts of a few of these songs on your clinic tour with John (Petrucci) last year. Have these songs been written for a while now?
Portnoy: We wrote all of these songs throughout ‘96. We started in January and even wrote a few of them in the beginning of ‘97. Yeah, we spent a good year, year-and-a-half almost, writing all the material for the album, waiting for the technicalities of the music industry to sort themselves out and get us back in the studio.
What were the delays that slowed the album down over the past year?
LaBrie: I think there were a few elements involved. First of all, we were going through a whole transitional period with management, so that was throwing a wrench in being creative. Then, at the same time, the label was in disarray, they had just gone through the merger which we had been dealing with since the time of Awake. When we would submit material, they were so distant at that point, that anything they would hear they weren’t really hearing for what it really was. It was very hard, there was a big communication breakdown. So we had two things that we were trying to deal with at that time, there was a lot of friction.
Portnoy: Not to mention the fact that we were going through a management change in the band. Usually, we would have our manager looking after us, and our A&R guy. Through the writing and making of this record, we lost our two biggest allies who would normally look after us. It took a long time to get everyone to come to the plate and understand what we’re about before we could move forward.
In retrospect, do you think the delays may have helped?
LaBrie: It might have helped in the sense that it definitely pushed us. We definitely said, “Alright, we’ll go back, we’ll keep writing, we’ll do whatever it takes, and if things aren’t going the way we want them, at least let’s not waste the time. What do we have to lose?”
Portnoy: If we had started recording the album in the fall of ‘96, like we wanted, songs like “hollow Years” and “New Millennium” wouldn’t have even been written, so in that sense, it worked out good. It also gave us a chance to make sure the business end was sorted out. But it’s kind of strange, because now, as you’ve seen, we went from zero miles-per-hours to like 200 miles-per-hour overnight. We went from sitting around for a year-and-a-half waiting to get this record going, to all of a sudden we’ve got the green light and it’s got to be delivered in two months and we have to turn it around and have it out in fall ‘97. Suddenly we’re going absolutely bonkers trying to meet all these deadlines and finish everything up on time.
What kind of time frame were you on?
Portnoy: We got the green light around March or so, and at that point, we had already booked two weeks’ worth of shows in Europe. We couldn’t pull out of those shows, and also, I had a baby due in May. We went from doing nothing to doing everything at once. And it hasn’t stopped since.
LaBrie: Which I think still worked in our favor. It gave Kevin more time to feel things out, for us to feel out Kevin, for all that to come together. I think this all is for a reason. It made us stronger as a band and as individuals, and I think the music is a reflection of that. There’s no way it couldn’t be.
All the songs were written before hooking up with Kevin, right?
LaBrie: Yeah, definitely.
When did you get together with him and start recording?
LaBrie: Pre-production started May 12, and we started recording June 2.
Portnoy: We pretty much did all of the recording in June and July.
P: Three of you have become fathers recently (Mike – daughter May ‘97, James – daughter April ‘96, with another child due February ‘98, and John P. – twins November ‘95). Has that changed your approach to music and the band?
LaBrie: I totally look at things differently, absolutely. You can’t help but be affected by it. You become more receptive to the simple things, but at the same time, you realize that there’s something that you’re responsible for. You have a responsibility now, so everything’s a bit more serious on that end, and you look at the band under a different light, too–you realize how special and meaningful that is, as well. I’m able to balance my life more, even though it’s wicked when I’m at home, because most of your time is spent with your child. I think that I’m still able to realize what that entails, but at the same time, stay focused.
How about your songwriting?
LaBrie: Yeah, I think you become more sensitive in that sense, too. I don’t know about the other guys, but in that sense, I think lyrically you might see something like that. I think that’s something more in the future for me, personally.
Mike, your baby came after the songs were written…
Portnoy: Yeah, but as if recording this album wasn’t hectic enough as it was, I’m spending 12 hours here then going home at 11 and staying up with the baby all night long. I haven’t even been able to really spend good time with her, because I went straight from the birth into the recording of this album. It’s definitely an adjustment, for sure. You have to let things go that normally completely consume you. I know before my baby was born I was completely consumed with setting the timer for Howard Stern, or taping The Simpsons or Seinfeld, or going to the movies. Doing things that were completely done for myself. I guess if I have to analyze them, they’re selfish. I just don’t have time for that stuff anymore.
Your twins are a little older now, right John?
Petrucci: Yeah, they’re in college [laughs]. The biggest thing is the time factor, really. The cool thing is that as songwriters, everything that happens to you is an influence and that’s a really, really great thing.
Your songs on this album seem a lot more personal.
Petrucci: I’ve always been writing like that, but I think life got more intense, so the lyrics are, too. I think I’m trying to write clearer now, where in the past I tried to mask it a little more and play on the metaphors. Now I’m trying to write things a little more straightforward. “Peruvian Skies” was a little bit of a play on a situation that I was made aware of, but I think the most personal is “Take Away My Pain.” I was writing that when my dad was dying.
Was it tough going from “masking” your emotions, as you said, to opening up fully with something as personal as that?
Petrucci: Actually, it’s more natural. I think the words for those songs, to me, came a lot easier. What's tough is that you have to connect with something that’s a little painful, but at the same time, for most musicians and songwriters, when they have intense things going on in their lives, the music is very therapeutic.
How about your lyrics on this album, Mike?
Portnoy: Actually, my lyrics on this album are very angry, sarcastic, and cynical for some reason. But they weren’t always like that, because I wrote “A Change of Seasons,” which was more like what John’s talking about, that was actually dealing with my mom’s death. That was an outlet that was very therapeutic as well. My lyrics on this album – ”New Millenium,” “Burning My Soul” and “Just Let Me Breath” – are pretty cynical, and basically, I think all three of them are inspired by the frustrations we’ve dealt with the past two years, a lot of record company and business and industry stuff that just frustrates the shit out of you as an artist.
“Just Let Me Breathe” jumps out at you in that regard.
Portnoy: That’s basically looking at how today’s industry makes heroes out of people that are heroin addicts, or whatever, and the idol worship that surrounds that. It mentions, specifically, two artists, but I’m not using them as bad examples, it’s more making an example of the people that put them on pedestals.”
What’s “Trial of Tears” like? I see it’s a three-parter, but it hasn’t been finished yet?
Portnoy: Actually, that was just finished an hour or two ago. Those are John Myung’s lyrics. My take on it musically is that the first part is very Rush-like, the second part is very jam-oriented, like old Pink Floyd, and the third part is the reprise that wraps it all up. The middle section, the instrumental section, is something that we’ve always had as an element in this band, which is jamming, but that side of us has never made it onto an album, so we intentionally wrote a section like that, which is really cool and different for us. It’s not so much a jam as it is a long, extended guitar solo followed by a long, extended keyboard solo, but it’s a very open, spacious, Pink Floyd-ish vibe.
Myung: That song was like a therapy song for me, where I was just doing writing exercises and going back over what I wrote and puzzle together what certain things mean. If something had a lot of energy I’d save it, then try to piece it together with something else. It was a real therapeutic song for me to write. You definitely have to write a lot of extraneous words until you come across something, then you have to be inspired by something to want to use it.
From a songwriter’s perspective, what’s the advantage to writing a three-part song, as opposed to three songs?
Petrucci: I think in Europe you get paid by the length [laughs]. It’s just fun to do, it’s the way we write.
Portnoy: It seems that all of our longer songs are the ones that are collaborated on, while the more focused and shorter songs are the ones where one person may have a stronger vision.
Petrucci: You know what it is? It just comes natural to do it that way. It’s kind of like stream of consciousness, there’s no real plan and whatever happens next, happens. It’s really a lot of fun to write like that. A lot of the bands that we listened to when we were younger wrote that way and it was probably ingrained in our head. Another cool thing is that sometimes when you write a song you can hear things several different ways, and if you write a longer song, you get to play those different ways. Like in classical, how they take the same thing and make variations on it? You get to do that in longer songs, come back and play in a different style. You can play out all the nuances. You don’t really have to make a decision as to one way to take it, you can take it all ways and make it work.
You mentioned earlier that Derek brings in a real “rock” feel. Do you all contribute something different when writing?
Petrucci: We definitely have elements that are individual to each other, but at the same time, there’s a cool, common group of bands that we all like, like Rush and Yes, and Pink Floyd and Zeppelin.
In “Burning My Soul,” who does the voice box?
Portnoy: Actually, it’s all three of us! I’m whispering, and [Derek and John P.] are both going through voice boxes.
And John [Myung] is the silent one?
Petrucci: We couldn't get him to put the tube in his mouth. [laughs]
How did Doug Pinnick [of King’s X] get involved on “Lines in the Sand”?
Petrucci: We were trying to get that chorus. We tried a couple ways of doing it, and we ended up with a call and response, to have a group thing, then have an improvised kind of answer. And we said to James, “Go for the Doug Pinnick vibe. Think of what Doug would do.” Then it was like, “We should get Doug Pinnick to do it!” And Mike knows him.
Portnoy: We were in pre-production and it was like, why don’t we just call Doug and have him do it. So we called him, and he came down.
What are you looking at tour-wise?
LaBrie: The album is coming out September 23, so I think the best situation would be, if everything works out accordingly, that we’d be out the first or second week of October in the States. We definitely want to concentrate on the States right up until Christmas, take a little breather, then come back out after Christmas and maybe do another four weeks in the States, take a little bit of a breather, then go out and do Europe and the rest of the world. September 9 through 16 we’re going down to South America for a couple shows in Rio and Sao Paulo. We’re playing venues of like 3-4,000 people.
It seems like the American market is more receptive to heavier music than it was a few years ago.
LaBrie: I think so, too. I think even the music as a whole out there, you’re seeing that things are getting more back to basics., more back to just good music. I think the actual rock ‘n’ roll thing is coming back.
Portnoy: What a concept, huh?
LaBrie: For so long, it was just trends. “Man, let’s get on the alternative wagon,” “Let’s get on the thrash wagon.” I think now people are just going, “Wait a minute, just give me some good music. I don’t give a shit what the genre is, just give me something good.”
Portnoy: But I think we’ve still got somewhere to go. If you look at the charts right now, how many rock acts are on the charts? It’s all female vocalists or R&B artists. The only time you’ll see anybody in the Top 20 is if it’s a superstar, like an Aerosmith. There’s still definitely some work to be done in getting the music scene back.
LaBrie: We realize that there’s still a lot of work to be done for this band, regardless of what’s going on out there. I truly believe that our forte is the live environment, and that’s what we’re willing to do. We’re willing to go out there and sweat it out and do a year, year-and-a-half touring and go into a lot of arenas in the world that we haven’t touched. We’ve been talking lately about Malaysia, Indonesia, stuff like that. We just want to get down and get into more parts of the world and at the same time, definitely concentrate on the States a lot more than we did with Awake. Awake we did one two-month tour, and the rest of the time we were in Europe and Japan and just concentrating over there. So definitely this time, we want to make the U.S. become more of the focus, as with the rest of the world.
So more attention on America this album?
LaBrie: I think balance is more the thing.
Portnoy: We don’t even want to tour Europe until ‘98. We’ve been there, done that for the past couple of years. It’s time to get back and start playing America.