INTERVIEW AND PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJALA
Mike Mangini is an American drummer and the current drummer for the progressive metal band Dream Theater. Mangini joined the band in 2011 after the departure of founding drummer Mike Portnoy. Later that same year, the band released its latest opus, DRAMATIC TURN OF EVENTS. Mangini’s earlier playing credits include Annihilator, Extreme, and Steve Vai, among others. He’s also well known for his work as a session musician and lecturing for years at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Mangini has also written two books titled Rhythm Knowledge about his unique drumming techniques, a practice method for deconstructing and simplifying complex polyrhythms and time signatures. Dream Theater opened its 2012 European leg of “Dramatic Tour of Events” from Helsinki in mid-January. At this tour stop, we had the pleasure to sit down with Mr. Mangini and discuss the current state of Dream Theater and some older stuff as well. Read on!
I just learned that you guys have been in Finland for several days, and you’ve been practicing for this upcoming tour, right?
Right, well, it takes quite a while to get the equipment ready and what we have, a lot of new songs coming into the set. We have to learn production. We need time to tweak all that. We actually, what I’ve found when we prepare for a tour, we don’t play a lot because we’re working on the gear or working on transitions, on ideas, and we can do the video — stuff like that.
Come next April you’ll have been in the band for one year. How is everything been so far, and what’s been the best thing about playing with Dream Theater for you personally?
It’s been great. I feel comfortable with everything, you know, I’ve hooked up with everybody, but what’s the best thing is that I get to think about drums and practicing my drums more than I have in the last decade. It’s really fun for me to work harder. Now I have the time to do that.
How familiar were you with Dream Theater and their music before you joined the band?
Oh no. I never learned any. I, you know, knew them if I heard them. When I listened, I never sat down to learn their material and sit down to learn a different thing.
When you’re now playing the old Dream Theater material, do you play everything the same way as former drummer Mike Portnoy used to play those songs?
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve learned it that way. I make sure that I learn what he played, and then I feel like I can make decisions now to change some things. And some things changed, but they‘re not the main things. The only thing I’ll change now, that I didn’t do with the last tour, is that I put my own fills-in in big sections like in the “Fortunate Lives” or “As I Am” or when we did “Endless Sacrifice” on the last tour, I was doing Mike’s fills for a long time. Then I just said, no, forget it, I’m going to throw my stuff, and I’m going to go nuts. Because I think, you know, I wanted people to know that I respect the song the way it is and I liked it and I enjoyed it. But eventually, that needs to be — there are some spots I should do something on my own.
I think that when time goes by, songs will evolve more in a way, right?
In technical or otherwise, what’s been the most challenging thing with Dream Theater’s music?
Well, I think it’s — probably the WHEN DAY AND DREAM UNITE -album. The reason I say that is because the later records, there are, you know, metronome settings, you know, the tempos and then the earlier albums, it’s kind of up and down and all over the place, and it’s hard to match anybody’s feelings, you know. That’s always tough. It was like, and it’s kind of like playing early Van Halen, you know, with Van Halen records, you know, the tempos are speeding up, slowing down, just a feeling, does this, does that.
Some so-called die-hard fans said, “No. There is no Dream Theater without Portnoy,” but it seems that most of the fans have positively accepted you. What’s the best feedback you have got from the fans?
The best feedback that I have gotten is that, since the Dream Theater fans are knowledgeable, they acknowledge my skill level and passion for playing the music. But you know, as close as I can, that they’re happy and I also like it. But everyone should probably know, and if they don’t know what you should know, that even nobody can replace Charlie Watts in the Rolling Stones like nobody has somebody else’s exact feel or touch. Still, it is possible to put some passion and skill and have it come out great. That’s what I am trying to do.
Have you got any direct feedback from Mr. Portnoy himself?
Initially, he just wished me well, and that’s about it. You know, we’ve been friends for 15 years. We always hook up, hang out, and stuff, but I just haven’t seen him since it all happened because I’m busy clearly.
THE AUDITION AND MORE
Well, once you did the audition, it was made public via the Internet. Was it any, you know, stressful thing to do when you know that everyone was watching you in your work during the audition?
Yes. Firstly, it was stressful to keep that secret, and the reason we all made a deal to keep it secret is to include the fans in the surprise. What good was it if everybody knew? You know, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise. It was interesting watching it as it happened on the Internet while everyone saw it. I was crazy, and it was really fun for me. But again, it wasn’t easy because, you know, if I do or say something silly or make a funny face, I grin a little bit because it’s embarrassing sometimes, you know, anyway “laughs.”
There was a lot of speculation on the Internet that you were already chosen to be the new drummer before those auditions. Is there any truth behind that rumor?
Oh, no way.
At which point, do did you know that “I’m the guy!”?
That was like a week or so later, or I don’t remember. It was maybe two weeks, something like that. So 1 to 2 weeks. I actually don’t remember, but it was a while, and it was painful. It was painful for me to wait. I was absolutely not chosen; I mean, the Dream Theater would never do that. They needed to find the person that works the best for them, you know. And I have never really played with anybody in that band except that I jumped on stage once in the Six Degrees -tour. I was the first person to play on Mike’s double kit with him, isn’t that funny?
Okay, but in the late ’90s, you played with James in a band Mull Muzzler?
Yeah. We were. It was a studio band. It was a great band.
And later on, you performed on James’s solo albums.
On a few records, but we didn’t do any shows together.
I think playing with James at that point did help them to make the final decision?
Oh yes. It helped because James was able to tell everybody in the band what it was like to work within the studio. He knew I mean he saw me under extreme pressure three times, so he could base his opinion on me on three situations to see how I behave, how I act, how I play, and how I work. He got to see that he communicated his approval to everybody three times and he, you know, communicated his approval to everybody.
Since the band’s time, did you start working on new material with the band?
Let’s see – no, no, it was not written. They wrote the material starting in January when they were in the studio, and I just waited at home while I was working on my equipment, and it took me three solid months to construct the final studio drum set. That was very hard work, so I had to guess. I had to play old material and still make it my drum set, but I had to work on different things that might have to make the song’s sound correct. And I have to figure out where to put these things. You know, I have a lot of thinking.
The new album DRAMATIC TURN OF EVENTS did great on charts, and the band even got the Grammy nomination. So it seems that you have done something right with that one “laughs.”
Yes, and I think, you know, I’ve always – I think the right thing to do is to let people that are experts at what they do and let them do their jobs. Let them do the work, I mean, even with this crew; we don’t mess around too much with somebody else’s area. We give them that support and give them that autonomy and power to create. That’s what’s different. Nobody in the band is a — you know, Mike was, I guess, involved with everything, and now, none of us were involved with anything. You know, and even with the music’s writing, it was best that I let them go ahead and do it because they hadn’t worked with me before. I didn’t even, you know, put it this way, next time if I am involved in that writing process, it will be that I would have had a chance to play Dream Theater songs, and I really know what it’s like, and I didn’t have that for the first time.
SOME OLD STUFF AND ANNIHILATOR
Let’s go back in time a little bit. I remember that I first heard the name Mike Mangini in ’91.
iN 1991 I did a session with Steve Perry from Journey, but nobody heard that.
Whatever did happen to those recordings?
I don’t know. That’s in secret. I don’t know where that is. Maybe Steve Perry has in the shoebox “laughs.”
In 1993 you joined the Canadian metal band Annihilator, and I’m a huge fan of the SET THE WORLD ON FIRE album. How did that thing come about back then?
Yeah. And you know something, thank you, first of all. Secondly, that came about because the rhythm guitar – oh, the second guitarist, Neil Goldberg, was in a band with me in Boston. During the recording session, Annihilator’s drummer Ray Hartman, for whatever reason, was not able to play that material. If he was somehow Jeff, it wasn’t working with Jeff Waters, so I don’t know. I don’t know. Because I think I like Ray’s drumming a lot, so I don’t know what happened, but I was flown in without hearing any material to record that record, and man, I mean, that those — there are no samples. There’s no re-triggering. There’s no pasting. There’s nothing. I mean, I hit those drums so hard and so, you know, with the machine-like right on the time that I’m really proud of that record.
There is some great stuff, like “Brain Dance,” one of my all-time Annihilator favorites.
I read somewhere that Ray Hartman had already recorded some drums for the album before you replaced him. Did you re-record all tracks, or did they use some of Ray’s recordings as well?
I just started from scratch with a clean click. Just raw click, you know?
Well, there are many different stories about Jeff Waters and how he is to work with. So, how was it to work with Jeff, in your opinion?
Well, he is a — Jeff is a perfectionist. Okay? And he writes the material, so it’s his. I’ve always been able to allow a composer to be the composer, and I don’t get in their way too much. So I was able to work with Jeff because I respected his decision like I didn’t try too much to go against him if he suggested something to me. I usually liked it. I thought it was good. But it’s very difficult to record when, you know, one symbol can’t be one decibel different in one hit. Maybe he wants us to sound as clean as the machine. He wants it that way. You know, every hit has to be like, PAPAPA-PAPAPAPA, like the same philosophy, well, do. So, but it isn’t easy to maintain that focus, to play like that.
You left the band just one year later, but later on, you’ve played on several Annihilator albums like METAL and ALL FOR ONE. Do you still keep in touch with Jeff Waters?
Yeah. Yes. Yeah. We are doing great, you know.
THE TIME WITH EXTREME
After the Annihilator thing, you joined in band Extreme.
Yes. Extreme. That was a lot of fun.
About your time with the band, what are the best and worst memories from that era?
Well, the greatest memory is that I felt like they had saved me from a different life as they pulled me into the life that I wanted. So I was grateful, you know, and the worst thing is that we had worked on a lot of new material together, either, you know, in soundcheck together or then Nuno just brought some material in. And the saddest thing is nobody will ever get to hear that, and I thought it was the greatest stuff ever, ever. It was — it would have been very, very different, but it would have been, you know, it would have, it was Extreme but with me doing my thing, my real thing on it. It was just so great, and it never got recorded, and that’s it. It’s just gone.
The album you recorded with Extreme, WAITING FOR THE PUNCHLINE, how do you like that one now afterward? I wouldn’t say I liked it too much….
Well, it depends on how you view it. I mean, I’m only on three songs. You know, Paul Geary is on the rest. There was a little bit of turmoil so that maybe that comes out on the music, but, you know, there are songs like “Evelangelist” that I think unbelievable. I like a lot of it, I do, but you know, anyway, it’s just an opinion.
In a way, you did join Extreme a little bit late because the band had already lost some of its popularity?
Oh yeah. It wasn’t an easy time.
That was in the mid-’90s when hard rock was overall on the downhill.
Later on, you did continue to work with the Extreme guys. In 1998 you played on Nuno’s solo album SCHIZOPHONIC, and you also played in Gary’s band called Tribe of Judah in 2002.
Yeah. Those were fun recordings to do, I mean, the tracks that I recorded on Nuno’s record. Those were done on a tiny electronic drum set in the dressing room. So that’s where that came from. You know, just like the little ride of rides cymbal, snare, and the bass drum. You know, the TTTTTTTT very simple straight-ahead beats. And then the Tribe of Judah stuff. I’ve got to — that was the Tribe of Judah was the beginning of my usage of multi-high hazard snare drums. Because one of the composers, the keyboard player Steve Ferlazzo, who’s now playing with Avril Lavigne, Steve composed some drum machine parts that I thought sounded great, so I wanted to kind of mimic those parts on the record.
I met Nuno last year when he was in Finland with Rihanna…
He said if I see you, say HI, so there you go, “laughs.”
BITS AND PIECES
Between the years 2002 and 2005, you did a couple of world records, you know, the fastest drummer thing. Can’t hesitate to ask how you are doing with that thing nowadays?
Well, I don’t practice that, so I don’t know how I’m doing. You see, I practice it for a little while because it was a lot of fun to do that, and actually, the best part is that I learned from the other contestants. You know, there were even some of the younger kids who could enlighten me because you can always learn. So I thought it was a great learning experience.
Another thing I was thinking, have you’ve never been listed on those best drummer polls, etc., like on Modern Drummer?
When I was playing with Steve Vai, I appeared in some of those polls, and that was it.
Do you think that playing with Dream Theater will help you get back there? “laughs.”
What kind of position will make you happy?
With that stuff, I don’t know. I don’t have too many feelings associated with it. Although I appreciate it, who wouldn’t? You appreciate it. People vote. Okay, you appreciate it. It’s okay if I’m – it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter the position I end up in a way because a lot of those drummers are my friends. I don’t wish to finish number one with my friends. So let one of them win “laughs.”
By the way, how is your teacher’s career doing in Berkley?
No. No. I resigned. As soon as I knew that I was in this band, I put a resignation letter right away.
Do you have plans to do more drum clinic tours in the future?
Oh yes. Yes, but we are busy. So I will fit them in between. I’m busy in between legs right now cause I, you know, I learn extra songs and I have to practice quite a bit too because I had knee surgery, you know, and I lost a lot of muscle in my upper legs. It’s like, my knee is okay, but it’s the muscles around that take 2, 3, or 4 years to build up because I let them go so far. It’s not that I had surgery that takes three years to repair. That’s not it. There was a simple kind of surgery. It’s that the rest of the muscles had died – atrophied.
Alright, the last question, after this European tour is done, what’s next to the plans?
Oh, touring in South America, I would assume. You know, wait a minute, no, no, we have. I’m sorry, we have Japan, Korea, and then Indonesia. And then I would assume South America, but I don’t know those we don’t have dates, so I don’t know.
Okay. Maybe that’s it.
It’s very nice to meet you.
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