Interview with Mike Mangini of Dream Theater - August 28th, 2013
By Mike Bax
I can't even wrap my head around writing an introduction for Dream Theater. The band is pushing close to their third decade making music that MOST musicians can't even touch as far as technicality and craftsmanship are concerned. From a musicianship standpoint, Dream Theater set a very high benchmark on every album they have created.
A few years ago, founding member and drummer Mike Portnoy left the band. You could almost hear the internet cry, it was such an upset amongst Dream Theater fans. The band found Portnoy's replacement in Berklee College of Music professor Mike Mangini. Mangini, a long time percussionist (and perfectionist) literally jumped at the chance to be a part of Dream Theater.
The new self-titled Dream Theater album, set for release on September 24th, is Mangini's first full writing experience with the band. In this interview, Mangini talks very frankly about creating music with a band that already have their own shorthand, and how he approached the experience.
Expect North American tour dates to be announced soon. And prepare to have your minds BLOWN by this new album! It's nine songs long and touches on literally every genre the band has dabbled in over the years. It features a full-on orchestration that runs over 22 minutes in length, and totally kicks ass. There is a beautiful limited edition vinyl/cd/dvd set that will surely sell out, available on the Dream Theater website. Don't wait!!! Order it now to avoid disappointment. This is an album you are totally going to WANT to own.
Mike Bax: Congratulations on your new album. It's amazing.
Mike Mangini: Wow. Thank you very much. We are all very proud of it.
Bax: I imagine you are getting tired of being asked about stepping behind the kit after Mike Portnoy. I think you’re doing a wonderful job frankly, and I'm wondering how that felt for you stepping into that rather large pair of shoes.
Mangini: It was a split feeling. First of all, I don't mind being asked about it over and over because maybe someone will read this and it will inspire them. Who knows what good it (talking about Portnoy) can do? I KNOW it can do some good. The thing is, I was split because I know as a drummer who has made a living replacing people and mimicking - literally mimicking drummers from the times I could play the drums early on (when I was age 4) until right now - my job is still to mimic people. I KNOW that on one end of it not one single drummer can sound exactly like another drummer. So that's a little bit scary, especially with Dream Theater fans - them being so educated and aware, in particular. They are going to hear every little thing that's not quite the way that it should be. So that's a little bit frightening to me. I know that truth. I can't sound like Charlie Watts, but I'm pretty good at mimicking him. The other thing is that I feel great about it, because I have a physical ability to do it. Physically I can play the song lefty and righty, and mix up lefty and righty, which is what I do live. So the physical things aren't the issue. It's just that on one end of it I feel like it's something I can't do to ANY drummer, and that's sound exactly like anyone else. But I can still hit the drums and continue to get work the way I have been my whole life which is by mimicking people. So it's all good.
Bax: There has to be a cool factor to being the percussion teacher who left his Berklee College of Music job to join one of the best musical groups in the world.
Mangini: Really, it's fantastic because I had always intended to do both things; to teach AND to play and tour, just like a lawyer would - a lawyer that teaches at a college teaches because he is such a great lawyer in the field. But there is something about the music industry that is backwards in this respect - if you get a job as a college professor, especially a music one, then they don't want you off doing all of these other things, unless its the summer and completely time off. They don't want you to leave during the semester. They don't want to have to get a substitute teacher in, or have to make up the classes while you are gone; even that is a fight. It's just real difficult. So when the opportunity came up, you could see the smoke coming off the back of my sneakers. I just wanted to get back out on the stage because I felt like I was being withheld. And I want this to come out right, meaning I really enjoyed the job. If I was the boss there, I wouldn't want all of the teachers scooting off. If I signed up for a class, I wouldn't want the teacher going to be there only a short amount of time, you know what I'm saying? But within reason and for a good reason sometimes if someone gets a real high profile opportunity everybody benefits. So there should be a little bit of flexibility there as long as the students get what they pay for in the course material, then I think it's great. Maybe that was way too much information. (laughs) You can edit that down.
Bax: No way. I quite enjoyed that answer, Mike. I'm curious now to see if you feel your time teaching has made you a more thoughtful percussionist?
Mangini: Absolutely. While teaching at a place like Berklee, firstly the environment is of an extreme professionalism. It's really wonderful to be in a department where every single one of those percussionists is so good that it's really quite jaw dropping. No matter what anyone does different from each other, I just noticed an incredible skill level and passion from each one of those people that was working there. So THAT helped me to find the better part of myself. It also was inspirational for me to translate all of those really positive things to the students. The whole thing was just a reflection of positivity and growth. It was great.
Bax: I'm sure the most talked about song on your new album is going to be the sweeping 22 minute long 'Illumination Theory'. Can you talk a bit about how a track like that gestates into the final five-part overture that is released on the album?
Mangini: Yes. It evolved from a basic vision and plan to make such a song. So having, not necessarily a clear picture, but having SOME kind of picture that five people were able to share gave us a sort of peace such that while we started composing each part we knew what the end result was supposed to be. That allowed us to know if something was worthy of making the track or if something just didn't feel like it was right. Beyond that, once we started composing, those guys have been writing for Dream Theater way longer than I have. I'm just a tiny little piece of the puzzle here that's pretty new into their whole composition world. Those guys really know their path. I have to say that. What I observed is that there was a sense of direction and it seemed like the thing had to start out in a certain way. "What can we play that is huge?" for example. Well, I know the kind of beats that I would do to maybe reflect that, and they know the kind of chord landscapes that might reflect that feeling, so that's how it unfolds. It starts with a vision and then with the experience and know-how to put it all together. Once the first section is written and done, we get a sense of the kind of vibe that is coming next. While different band members offer their version of what should come next, one version is chosen. And then we go to the next section.
Bax: This was your first full-on writing experience with Dream Theater. Did you go into that experience with any expectations? Did you have something in your mind that you thought it might be? And did it meet those expectations?
Mangini: Well, a little bit, but I've learned that expectations are dangerous things. Dreams are great. Goals are great. Objectives are great. But to have expectations, if they are for yourself they can be ok. Even in relationships, expectations of other people can be a really bad path. I don't think that's healthy. So my expectations were that I wanted to provide the top level of my drum skills for when it was appropriate. Now I knew that there would only be a few moments where I would really be able to utilize my multi limb coordination and polyrhythms that are at the higher end of what I do. I know that this is not the most palatable thing to listen to, doing two or three things at the same time, right? (Chuckles) It takes a lot to digest that. So that was my tiny little self-expectation was that I would look for opportunities. As far as going into it, I just went into this album with my eyes wide open and my body physically ready to play. I tried to keep it simple, Mike. My eyes wide open - what I mean by that is that I literally looked at the other guys a lot. I looked at their mannerisms and I could get a vibe off of that. I also look at my drum set, otherwise I'll miss things. I'll hit the rims and split my knuckles open if I'm not careful with that drum kit. So seriously, my eyes were wide open. I used my peripheral vision and I tried to keep my mouth shut first, and then speak. It's taken me a lot of years to get that and I still haven't perfected it. It's like keeping my expectations low as far as everyone else was concerned, and I kept my expectations to myself. I just wanted an open mind and clear thoughts, so that if we needed a certain drumming angle, I could just pull it off and throw it in there. I'd try and keep my mouth shut and learn to speak when I thought it was appropriate.
Bax: It must feel good working with John Petrucci as both a musician and an album producer. How would you describe John as a producer?
Mangini: Well, I have to talk about him as a person, as he is a great, great human being. He's the kind of person you want as your friend and you know does the right thing. That's the first thing. That's the seed. From that good seed you are definitely going to get good fruit so, no matter what the guy did or wrote he would be smart and he would be great at it. So as a producer and a band mate, he is this good person with his eyes wide open as well. But also, he is strong with his direction. John had the strongest voice throughout this album being the producer and (thankfully I think that everyone was on the same page) he wasn't at odds with anyone. This was one of the few times with a producer situation where I didn't see the producer at odds with the band members. Everybody was in sync. So, being a good person; being in sync with everybody anyway, and especially having the feeling that we wanted to create the best thing ever - I don't know how it could have been a better experience. It was just amazing. Awesome.
Bax: Most Dream Theater material is so dense and layered with textures, I can't even imagine what the writing process would even look like. Can you describe in your words how some of the new songs came together?
Mangini: Yes. Ok, how about 'Enigma Machine', the instrumental song?
Bax: Cool. I like that track.
Mangini: That song came about because we all went out and had (laughs) these Starbucks drinks called Clovers. They are made from a really expensive pressed kind of machine. I think the machine costs like thirty thousand dollars. (Laughs) To make coffee… can you imagine that?! You just stick water through some grounds and it costs thirty grand.
How fun is life these days, where we can have these things? I'm a little bit hyper anyways… I just had a real powerful Clover and I drank it down like a juice. So I was singing bass lines left and right in the car - this big van-type of thing with most of us riding in it. I think everybody was in it actually. And when we got to rehearsal I ran over to Jordan's (Rudess) keyboard, and I want to be careful about this, right? The guy doesn't just jump on my drums; you know what I'm saying? I don't just want to jump on someone else's instrument and pretend that's normal. I was just in a really giggly and hyper mood, and I started playing this bass line stuff on his keyboard saying, "This is what we should do. This would make a great song." Finally he just blasted me off the keyboard and played this thing. It wasn't what I played, but he had been working on something, and that ended being the main line in 'Engima Machine'. I don't know if I maybe helped him to say, "No, I got it, I got it". He just literally pushed me aside like, "Get off my keyboard," and played this line, and Petrucci said, "That's it! That's it right there. That's what we are looking for." From there we couldn't have been a bunch of happier guys, just smiling and giggling and talking about what we were going to order for lunch. We wanted to share some food together and just talk about the tune. Initially John Petrucci labelled this thing as 'The Clover'. He named it that clearly because of the coffee buzz. Yeah, so that's that story. We just went from one section to another just having a blast, knowing that we’d be able to just rip it up and tear it up and play our instruments like we were those little kids in our basements practicing and coming up with some new mood that we just learned how to play.
Bax: Has there been any discussion as to what taking this new material out on the road might look like? Will there be new visuals done up for the tour?
Mangini: Oh my! Gosh, yes. Visually it will probably resemble the artwork, the AMAZING artwork that Hugh (Syme) did for this record. The album cover is real simple; it's kind of an outer space feel. So what I imagine is, we are going to have a look that is pretty otherworldly. The artwork itself, and the fact the record is called Dream Theater - I think that we would want to welcome people into our crazy minds. So I happen to think that this tour might present some visuals that have something to do with the Dream Theater mindset artwork and the images that spin out of that. I don't know for sure, but knowing those guys, they're going to come up with something really interesting.
Bax: Awesome. I thank you for your time, Mike. I really look forward to the release of this album and seeing you guys play live again on the road soon.
Mangini: That's fantastic. Yeah, check us out with headphones. I don't even know if you even like it or not, but at least check the album out with headphones. You are going to FEEL a bunch of guys in a room having a good time. And what you'll HEAR?? You'll hear how every little drum hit has a place, like it matches something in the music. I'm very proud of that. I would love for you to enjoy that. Thanks Mike.