Entertainment Tell Interview: Dream Theater Drummer Mike Mangini Makes His Dream a Reality

Sections: Grammy Award, Music

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Mike Mangini of Dream Theater (Photo credit: Nidhal Marzouk)

Mike Mangini of Dream Theater (Photo credit: Nidhal Marzouk)

If anyone can be said to have won the rock and roll lottery, it’s Mike Mangini. The acclaimed drummer had a distinguished background playing with artists such as Extreme, Journey’s Steve Perry and Steve Vai, but after years on the road and in the studio, he had settled into a full-time teaching position at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

That is, until Dream Theater came calling.

Mangini was one of seven world-class drummers invited to audition for the coveted drum seat left vacant by founding member Mike Portnoy, who left the band in 2010.

About a month after Portnoy’s exit, Mangini was in a studio playing with the members of Dream Theater, who wisely videotaped the tryouts and made the audition process a virally popular series of YouTube videos (check out Mangini’s tryout here).

Ultimately, it was Mangini who got the call from the band to “join the family,” and his reaction was such an outpouring of emotion and sincerity that “Mangini” has become an Urban Dictionary term, defined as “To respond to a piece of good news with animated, speechless, exuberant excitement.”

Mangini made his Dream Theater debut on the band’s acclaimed 2011 CD A Dramatic Turn of Events (which earned Dream Theater’s first-ever Grammy nomination), and the subsequent tour ran over 15 months. 2013 saw the release of the film and audio from that tour, Live at Luna Park, as well as a new CD, simply titled Dream Theater, on which Mangini took part in the band’s songwriting and arranging for the first time (having played to already-recorded tracks for A Dramatic Turn…).

And while replacing a popular member such as Portnoy with a new face can be a daunting proposition, Dream Theater’s fans have been very accepting of Mangini’s incredible drumming prowess (he’s set five—five—World’s Fastest Drummer records) and engaging personality.

He even became a cartoon character—a genie, appropriately—in a pre-show cartoon depicting the band members that kicked off concerts on the last tour and is included on the new Blu-ray.

When Mangini spoke with me  in late November 2013, he was prepping for the band’s upcoming tour to promote the new releases, which will kick off in Europe before hitting the states. As to be expected, his enthusiasm for and dedication to the band is unquestionable—he “Mangini’d” throughout. We discussed the band’s recent releases, upcoming tour plans, and just what he thought about becoming a cartoon genie.

Here is our interview with Dream Theater master drummer Mike Mangini, conducted exclusively for Entertainment Tell.


Howard Whitman: You must be having the best year ever?

Mike Mangini: Oh yes, I am but the funniest thing is I have to remind myself that to have life, to have a schedule, and to have so many things going on … I make the biggest mistakes expecting that things are going to work out—that the flight’s going to be alright or I’m going to receive something on time, or I’m waiting on somebody to do something for me that’s waiting on someone else who’s waiting on someone else and all this is going to be fine, but it never is. That is the crazy part.

Whitman: When you did the audition, which we all got to watch online and on the DVD that came with the Dramatic Turn of Events album, you seemed pretty confident. Did you have a good feeling about that?

Mangini: I had the best possible feeling in the world about it. And I have rehearsed such situations, meaning that I have addressed what it is that happens in an audition, what the possibilities are in that audition, good and bad, and accounted for them on a piece of paper and literally used my imagination to try to get through every possible situation. And because of that, I felt confident that I was ready to deal with whatever occurred.

Whitman: Did you really knuckle down with Dream Theater stuff and study hard?

Mangini: Yes, I did. Yeah, I was up at 5:30 in the morning. That’s because I had a full-time job, and I had to travel to South America for nine days instead of preparing for the audition. So I had to do anything and everything possible to keep myself taking care of something—working at it somehow.

Whitman: On the DVD, when they showed up with the camera to record you getting the call, did you feel like it was going to go well?

Mangini: Absolutely! But, you know, people are people … I did, no matter what, even if I, let’s say, I had the most confident feeling that “OK, I believe that I got this.” I’m just going to say this for the record that still, you never know what can transpire behind the scenes and I was a little bit worried. I had that normal nervousness.

Whitman: Sure! And your reaction on camera was very genuine—like you were winning the lottery there, and we got to watch it.

Mangini: Like I said, no matter what I thought, felt, knew, recapped … no matter what was in my mind and where it came from, I genuinely was not going to be settled until I heard it from them and that I knew that I had that job, and everything poured out of me.

Whitman: You were teaching up to that point, correct?

Mangini: Yes, that is exactly right. I was a full-time professor at Berklee College of Music and I was a part-time international phonetician—and a fairly new father. So, yeah, I had my hands full.

Whitman: And before that, we had seen you with Extreme and Steve Vai. Can you tell me more about your background?

Mangini: My background was chock-full of experience and chock-full of personal good and bad decisions. It’s those types of things that I enjoy bringing to the students and then learning from myself. I really had to learn how to exist with others and sometimes, me or anybody that’s too inside of your own mind—the way you think, the way you see things—is good for creativeness but not for weaving in with people. So I really have had to think back on these situations to when I was a big pain in the neck for people or when I did things to help, when is it when I made them happy? When is it that I made them so annoyed with me that they wanted to set my thumbs on fire? And I have to be honest about all that stuff.

Whitman: Which brings you up to what’s going on now, which is some phenomenal work with Dream Theater. The new Live at Luna Park Blu-ray is wonderful.

Mangini: Oh thanks!

Whitman: I gave it a hearty thumbs-up review and one of my quotes in there is “Mangini is magic,” because I think it’s a really good showcase of your abilities and what you bring to the band.

Mangini: Thank you.

Whitman: You’re quite welcome. How does it feel to watch it now in retrospect, since this is the close of this phase of Dream Theater as you go into the next phase with the new album and tour?

Mangini: It was highly effective on me, and very emotional for me, because as much as I was trying to think about my ability to do justice to the drum parts, I couldn’t help but be swept away by how kind everybody was to me with their words—I’m talking everybody in the band, the crew—and how patient they were with me, how truly experienced they all are with allowing me to go through my ups and downs and to grow. And I’m just blown away by how great everybody is to me.

Whitman: And you can actually see, on the Luna Park Blu-ray, the camera catches a lot of the kinship among the band, you can really see a lot of affection onstage between all of you guys.

Mangini: Oh, it’s so real. I mean, for me, when I look at them I really do remember all of the times that they could have possibly not allowed me the time to grow, either because of my nervousness before a show or my emailing way too much, I guess, about just trying to handle so many things and trying to be prepared, and that they allowed me to express all this with patience and they can look at me and know that I am on the same mission they are. They make me feel like, no matter what happens in between, we’re on the same mission and we just want to be great at our show and we just want to be able to go to sleep at night knowing that we all did our best and tried and we were a good team.

Whitman: I talked to Jordan (Rudess) a few months back and just sensed that there is a great sense of unity and camaraderie with you in the band.

Mangini: Oh yeah! When my family members have now witnessed this, they say things to me. They say, “Michael, you are such a lucky person. You’re so watched over.” They say I deserve a certain amount of reward I guess, or joy? But nobody really deserves too much. You have to work for it. You have to keep working for it. And they really acknowledge how fortunate I am to be with these people.

Whitman: Absolutely. On the Luna Park Blu-ray there’s a very impressive drum solo. Is that a structured thing, Mike, or this more improvised?

Mangini: It was supposed to be structured. I structured one the night before which got recorded based on all of the solos that I had previously done. Well, boy, that was a mistake! Because it just felt like I was typing, that’s all I can tell you. It felt like I was typing. And the second night, I trusted myself, I trusted that everybody trusted me, and I just let go and just poured out with an improvisation. And that’s what you saw—it was an improvisation. Yes, I had played some of those things before, and yes, while I was thinking during it, I went to my database of things that either spit out of me or that I thought would be good, but it was improvised.

Whitman: It’s really great that that one was caught for that show.

Mangini: Yes! I might not ever play it again that way, and I might find tweaks in it that I would never do again, but it is real and it does have a feeling to it that I’m very happy with.
Whitman: It is very impressive, sir.

Mangini: Thanks!

Whitman: It’s a highlight, one of many on that show. It’s just a wonderful disc. So you guys are gearing up for a new tour?

Mangini: Yes we are. Can I say one more thing about the final product?

Whitman: Please.

Mangini: When I speak about the happiness and the gratefulness I have for working with everybody, this extends to Mike Leonard and his crew, this extends to (engineer) Rich Chycki, this extends to all of the people behind the scenes that did so much work and were so patient with me and just dug in and got the job done. And I just respect them all so much and I’m so grateful for them all.

Whitman: Shifting to the upcoming tour, I understand you’re not going to have an opening act?

Mangini: That’s correct.

Whitman: So it’s “An Evening with Dream Theater?”

Mangini: That is correct.

Whitman: What can we expect from this show?

Mangini: (laughs) Relief—once we’re onstage doing it—from all the prep work that we’re doing. Yes, I think you can expect to see five very happy faces, and when you look around at the crew, I think people can just look at these guys and expect to see proud, happy faces that all the work we’re putting into it is going to be worth it. That’s first and foremost. An Evening With means that it’s a very, very long show, and I am going with the flow about what would be great for the fans, based on what the guys have talked about putting into the set. So they have talked about what’s going into the set in great detail and put a lot of thought and emotion into it.

Whitman: Can you give us any clues—can we expect some stuff maybe we haven’t heard in a while from the band’s history?

Mangini: Well, yes, that’s part of it, that’s part of the thing. With the care that the guys have for the fans, yes, all kinds of questions were considered, like what kind of vibe is going to happen, what songs, and why? How are we going to pull this off? What concessions do we have to make in order to play certain things other things cannot be. What is the reason why we are doing these things, and what is the final result? It is, well, so that on average, the most fans can sit back and say “Wow, that was the best show I’ve seen them do so far.” I can’t really say we’re going to play these songs or not, because we’re trying to hold that back.

Whitman: I’d imagine we’ll get a good dose of the new studio album Dream Theater as well?

Mangini: Enough of it. The bottom line is two things: What does a fan think when they go to a show and a band hits them over the head with an entire record and doesn’t play all of their favorite songs? That doesn’t work out. What does a fan think when the band does have a proper mix of this? So that’s the dose that we’re dealing with, the balance of how much to do and what it would come across like.

Whitman: I think it was well-handled on the last tour—there was a lot of stuff from A Dramatic Turn of Events, well-interspersed with some of the classic tracks. It came off really well.
Mangini: Right. And we’re all hoping for that. I know (guitarist) John Petrucci in particular put a lot of thought into his life history and “What would be great here?” Everybody had done that, and it’s really something to sit back and see the rest of these guys put so much care into what is the best thing we can do? And why?

Whitman: So the tour starts out in Europe. When do you foresee it reaching the states?

Mangini: I was told March or April. (laughs) I do not know. My head is so buried into trying to handle my responsibilities for the production aspect of this show, and the drumming responsibilities—getting myself in shape and all that good stuff. I’m just going with the flow.

Whitman: Any modifications to your amazing drum kit, that arsenal of drums that you have up there?

Mangini: Yes. The main modification is that I’m getting rid of my two extreme bass drums. I had a huge bass drum, a bass drum #4, to my left side, and bass drum #3, to my right for dynamics purposes. I have replaced these with trigger bass drums where I can make those kick drum shells make any sound I want. And so, with the need for percussion in certain songs, I need this. That way, I don’t have to carry around a tympani with me. I don’t have to carry around a glockenspiel, cowbells or a set of Vibraslaps. I can just make these trigger pads trigger any sound I want. I’ve also thickened up the cymbals a bit too.

Whitman: Dream Theater has always been a band that’s been up on the latest technology. Any other cool gear things you’re doing?

Mangini: Yes. Before I say that, I can tell you that all the guys are into this. I mean, (keyboardist) Jordan Rudess is right in the middle of so much of our look and the video end of it, the technology aspect. I can’t imagine what this guy’s doing in his weekly routine, how many hours he’s putting into this show, as well as the other guys too, what they’re doing. But I know that Jordan is really putting time and effort into this—a lot of hours, a lot of emails, a lot of thinking, and a lot of work, taking up his time. I know it is. I know he’s working so hard for this. On my end of it, my technology has to do with trying to find out what devices onstage can help maybe see the set list better or be connected to any video equipment. From a drum point of view, I’m incorporating electronic drums, although I don’t like that term—just electronically driven drum sounds. I’m also really deep into the wood construction, the technology, of making these drums. My company, Pearl, uses this thing called SST technology, where they weave the plys of wood into each other to make them stronger, so that they can mix woods. So my drum kit has taken a lot of thought, a lot of months, a lot of work, with Mike Farris—the artist relations guy at Pearl—and many, many, many other people at Pearl to come up with the ultimate mix for me. For example, the drums that I will be using on this tour are actually a mixture of four kinds of drum sets that they make, based on my history, based on how the shells respond, based on the last tour, based on the tour record—a lot of information. It’s really a lot of work that we put into it.

Whitman: So, will there be a new cartoon for this tour?

Mangini: (laughs) Jordan is the wizard. He’s the guy in the middle of this, you know? Petrucci is heavily involved with the ideas. (Singer) James (LaBrie) and (bassist John) Myung always have something to chime in and say, or could completely change the game in one fell swoop with one idea, very much so. Throw ideas into the pot and any of the five guys, any of us, could just come up with something. Even one of the crew guys could nix an idea, because “Well, we can’t do that live,” or “Maybe we could do it this way,” or “Maybe we should do this,” or “Nah, I don’t think that’s very cool, I think this is better.” Anybody could chime in. Yeah, it’s really cool seeing all of this unfold.

Whitman: How did you like being a cartoon character? Did you foresee that when you took this job?

Mangini: (laughs) You know, I didn’t foresee that. And I feel that I’m very purple-y. I didn’t see myself so purple-y and blue.

Whitman: You’re a Genie, right?

Mangini: Well, that makes sense. I get that, and I think that’s funny. I love anything with humor.

Whitman: That was always a highlight, so I was happy that the cartoon was actually on the Blu-ray.

Mangini: Oh good, good, I can’t wait to get it.

Whitman: It’s a bonus feature.

Mangini: Oh, cool.

Whitman: But the opening is so dramatic, with “Bridges in the Sky,” the Tuvan throat singing intro. That one’s going to be hard to top, but I’m sure you will.

Mangini: I’m sure too. But we have a lot of people helping us, and a lot of people with autonomy to be creative. So it’s an exciting process, and especially when you hire professionals and get the help of professionals and actually let them be that professional and do what they want.

Whitman: This being a longer show, I’d imagine you’ll have to really physically prepare for this swing?

Mangini: Oh (sighs) … ugh. That’s all I have to say. U-g-h. And the answer is, yes, of course I do.

Whitman: Because your job is the most physical one of all, right?

Mangini: Well, yeah. And I have to be the rhythmic spine back there, so that’s some mental pressure. And I also know a lot of fans are out there taking notes every time I play an older song (laughs).

Whitman: Indeed. In approaching some of the songs from before you were in the band, are trying to bring your own flavor to it rather than just emulating what’s been done before?

Mangini: Yes. I’ve made a change where I have found a way to reflect the older drum parts but in a way where I can still, let’s say, play them half-lefty and half-righty, which allows me to sort of change cymbal sounds when the band changes key signatures. It adds a nice effect to the key signature change. I also am matching some of the lines a little more spot-on than the album versions as far as which drums or cymbals I’m choosing to hit, meaning I like to match the frequencies of the riffs being played. And instead of a standard drum fill, I like to melodically play what is being played by everybody else. And with some of the open drum fill sections, I’m definitely going for it this time and just doing my own thing.

Whitman: It seems like the fans have really accepted you in the band and like the different things that you bring to it as well, rather than just trying to recreate what’s been done before.
Mangini: Right. To a point, if I play it too exact, that’s a little creepy, you know what I mean? But I want to uphold the greatness of those drum parts. I want the fans to be happy that they’re hearing what they’re used to. And I also like to put a bit of a twist in it, so I can just feel a little bit self-expressive and also maybe even take it to a place that excites the band and the fan.

Whitman: Kick it up a notch, right?

Mangini: That’s what I’m trying to do!

Whitman: When I was talking to Jordan, he made a point about how you had musical input on the new CD Dream Theater, whereas with A Dramatic Turn of Events, the tracks were in place, were structured when you came in, so you were playing to what was laid down. How was it to participate on the writing and arranging ends of things on this one and getting some writing credits on it as well?

Mangini: It was a good experience and I refer back to the earlier question that you gave me about my history with Extreme and Steve Vai and stuff like that. I, as a songwriter—and when I say that, I mean as a person that sits at home trying to write a song with all the instruments going through that process and developing a sense for how difficult it is—I took that into the session with an ability, I think, to include myself where I thought I was welcome, and to exclude myself where I thought the guys should do what it is that they do even if I had ideas or not. And that’s a primary thought for me, because, while John and Jordan were creating the bulk of the chordal landscapes for the tunes, I sat back on an iPad and a keyboard, literally learning what it is that they were doing, trying to get some insight into how they do what they do, rather than just sitting there or just chiming something in just for the sake of it. When I had an idea, I tried to communicate intelligently, and once in a while, suggest an actual note or play an actual thing, but it was very few and far between, because it’s what they do, you know? It’s as if I knew not to walk over to someone else’s instrument and say “Hey, John Petrucci, here’s a riff. I’m going to call it ‘The Dark Eternal Night.’ Check it out.” I mean, how can I ever come up with a riff like that? How can any drummer do that? So I had to look at what the borders were, and I had a very, very great time making my suggestions and not minding one little bit if they were used or not. I just wanted us to be happy and I wanted the song to come out great.

Whitman: I think it benefited from your input. There’s wonderful music on the Dream Theater CD—as well as on the last one.

Mangini: Yeah, it was fun.

Whitman: It’s a great album. It’s a killer one-two punch of Dream Theater and the Live at Luna Park set—wonderful product you have coming out.

Mangini: Well, I’ll tell you what I hope you get and I hope listeners get. I hope that everybody escapes the initial thinking process about everything that’s there and just allows themselves to feel. Because I think if everybody allows themselves to feel, then they will experience beauty of music, which is that it is a language, and us guys in Dream Theater had feelings and that these feelings are really there in the music. I mean, we were going for it. We were going for it. And I hope that that’s the feeling that people get is that we were going for it, together.

Whitman: That’s a great way to put it. That’s what it sounds like.

Mangini: Hope so. We were all on the same page. We all had the same mission and we all had the same intentions and almost the same heart and mind. It was cool.

Whitman: Some of the other guys are involved in other projects. Jordan has his CD with Tony Levin and Marco Minnemann, Levin Minnemann Rudess. Are looking to do anything on the side, like a solo project or a grouping with some other musicians?

Mangini: I wasn’t, because I felt like joining this band meant that I had musicians to work with. For example, I have a lot of song chunks, a lot of demos, a lot of work that I’ve done, and I thought “Wow, I would love these guys to take some of my ideas, no matter what, and just do something with it.” But what I have learned is that the band really kind of does things together, and if I was to offer something, it would have to be extraordinary and be something that already fits the mold. So now, I’ve changed my tune and by default I would like to use these ideas at some point. But only after I do my work for the band. And once we’re on the road next year, then all this work, all this preproduction work I’m doing for the show, and preparation, will be finished. And I will be able to concentrate on bringing my ideas into making them a reality. Also, because I have now remodeled the top of my home, so I have a nice-looking area to have a B-room studio and my drum room is great, and I have all the equipment that I think I could ever need, so I’m kind of ready to do this now.

Whitman: Your family doesn’t mind the volume of the drumming from upstairs?

Mangini: I think they prefer the volume of my drumming as opposed to the volume of my voice meddling into their everyday lives with homework and all kinds of things.

Whitman: So let dad do his work!

Mangini: Yeah! I think my parents were, and probably still are, with me —they’re happy when I’m busy in a room creating and working rather than being someplace else.

Whitman: Any final thoughts, Mike?
Mangini: Tomorrow is a new day to work. That’s my attitude. We’re just moving forward and doing the next thing and doing the next thing and doing the next thing. That’s it.

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