I think it was already last May when I started nagging Frank, from RoadRunner records, to get me an interview with Mike Mangini. The whole soap opera and publicity surrounding him joining the band following the shock departure of Mike Portnoy made him, for me at least, a person I really wanted speaking with DPRP.
Frank came back and delivered, with the interview setup ahead of the Dream Theater gig at Zwolle, NL on 1st February. Mike comes across in interviews and the audition video (The Spirit Carries On) as a guy a little too nice to be real, well I can assure you it’s not fake, he’s the real deal: warm, intelligent, open and caring. Ladies and gentlemen we give you the one-and-only Mike Mangini, “a dumb drummer who hits shit“…
Exclusive Interview for DPRP by Dave Baird, photographs by Dave Baird and Menno von Brucken Fock
Thanks for taking the time to speak to the Dutch Progressive Rock Page! We are not a drum magazine, so we will not be discussing shells, heads, pedals, cymbals, hardware, stools or sticks…
OK, no problem!
Mike – you auditioned against six other awesome drummers for the role in Dream Theater. Do you think they ultimately chose you so that they didn’t have to learn a new name?
(laughs) Yes! See, I do have a sense of humour!!
The strong impression that came over from The Spirit Carries On documentary was that it was between you and Marco Minneman – do you feel he let himself down with that awful t-shirt he was wearing?
Hey, he’s my friend and I like Marco wearing his funny shirts!
Well he’s a funny guy, and did a great audition, very interesting style.
I knew he was going to, in fact I know that all of the drummers there had something special
So, Mike, would it be an understatement to say that it has been a pretty good 12 months?
It is an understatement, a huge understatement in fact and the reason is because of the fans! I had no idea how welcoming they would be, and that documentary (Ed: The Spirit Carries On) I believe was the key in introducing people to my naked soul, completely being emotional and wanting to be part of their lives and this band’s life.
You came into Dream Theater on a wave of unprecedented publicity, wasn’t that a bit weird, and how do you live up to such hype?
Well I know how I do it, when we’ve finished our interview I’m going to start practicing. I keep my mind moving, I like to ‘smell the roses’ and enjoy, but not too much, I have too much to do and I just keep on working. That’s how I deal with it, I just don’t think about it really.
A Dramatic Turn of Events (ADToE) has been lauded by the critics and the majority of the fans, with many claiming it to be their best since Scenes from a Memory, or even Awake. What sets it apart from the intervening albums?
Clearly for me because it was written with no drummer involved, that’s is the difference. And what happens in that case, specifically in the case of ADToE, where I wasn’t even involved, is that the pure music writing in the band are still together – meaning John Petrucci mainly and Jordan Rudess play instruments where they compose the parts. They’ve always chosen ‘let’s do F♯ or B♭, no-one else has done that. So they’re still there and without any drummer, so John Myung and James have been able to chime in with more ideas in this quitter setting. At least that’s my view on it, because I was there of course – a more pure sense of where the writing always was and they just wanted to go back to that.
Well I guess the whole band dynamic had changed anyway?
Well John Petrucci called me and said “I don’t want you to be there, I want just us to be there” and the first thing I said to him was “Thank you”! The reason I thanked him was because I didn’t feel I had enough experience and I might have steered it in a different direction that it shouldn’t have gone, simply because I have not been in the band. So it’s better that they wrote it and now I’ve had the chance to learn and play lots of Dream Theater songs, play on the new record and learn what it’s all about. Especially paying respect to the previous parts, absolutely learning them the best I can to get a flavour for that. So, it’s a different time now.
You’ve stated that This is the Life was the hardest piece for you to record because you had to hold yourself back so much…
Yes, I wanted to, I wanted to. Anyone who practices at anything it could be tennis, soccer, it could be throwing frisbees, I don’t know, eating hotdogs, alright? For anybody that works at something, you wanna play music, you want to go out into the game and stay for that whole game. So that’s the feeling.
With that in perspective which piece on ADToE do you enjoy to play the most and why?
Phew, oh man, that’s a tough one! Let’s just say that my coordination is needed the most in the instrumental section in Outcry, that’s perhaps the one that I have the most feeling for given that I have to access some challenging moves and is satisfies me that they’re musical as well as challenging.
Have you been through the whole Dream Theater back-catalogue?
So you’re not just learning on an “as needed” basis, just getting through it bit-by-bit?
Well no, I actually went through everything before the recording of ADToE, again to get a perspective. I was coming into something that existing without me and prior to me, so the best thing I could do is gain knowledge. I went through everything and now, every time before we do a tour, I go back and really learn it with a sense of putting a little bit of myself into it and just paying respect to what’s there.
So in a sense I’m stepping my way through it, but it depends what that means because I could play whichever tune and learn something quite quickly to a certain level, but to me that’s not good enough, I would be questioning and unsure, and what I do is that I convert it to the language of my drum set, which is very different; and that takes me a while.
How does one go about learning and memorising such a large set of quite complex music, are there techniques?
Absolutely. The first thing I do is make a map of each song so that I don’t feel that it’s too overwhelming, I don’t feel lost. Then I go in a sectionalise things, so that if I learn a section that’s played again. I can go and learn all those sections before I learn everything in-between…
(Ed: at this point the lights in the dressing room went off and we were plunged into total darkness – this happens four or five times during the interview)
Ok… that’s… interesting!
A Dramatic Loss of Lights! But anyway, ah, there we go (Ed: the lights come back on) I map it out and do my best to use my time wisely, so if I learn one section then I’ll learn the others that are just like it, it’s easier for me. Then I look back at the map of the song and then I can put them together, and then I can start to get microscopic.
Out of all the tracks you’ve learnt then, the same question as for ADToE, which ones are you enjoying the most to play?
Well it’s going to sound a bit clichéd, but I like them all, because they’re great, they’re interesting compositions and there’s so much melody in them – that’s what separates them from regular Prog, to me. But also the drum parts are really interesting, it’s just fun, I can’t tell you one more than the other.
Actually, that partially answers my next question, because Dream Theater are a bit of an anomaly insomuch as they’re a progressive-metal band, quite challenging music for the listener they’re quite nerdy, if you like..
Well if you want to see it that way…
You know the word ‘nerdy’?
Yeah, my wife calls me that…
Yeah, mine too, but despite all that, they’re immensely popular – why do you think that is?
Because there’s so much melody in the compositions, I mean what else could it be? People need something to latch onto that’s quite simple to latch onto. The rhythmic components of progressive music is not simple, it has to be learned. The record has to be listened to many times of any band that does this, but the melody, I think that’s the difference, right there.
I would agree with you actually, you can sing along to it, perhaps not dance, but sing. How does being in Dream Theater compare to the bands you’ve been in, in the past?
I’ve been really privileged to work with absolutely amazing musicians and amazing people. Everyone’s had a different gift and I’ve been at a different stage in my life with each, for example back with Extreme I might have driven people crazy that I don’t drive crazy now – you know what I mean? I mean you grow up and you become less spoiled and you grow more appreciative as you get older. So I’m in that space of being extremely grateful and appreciative, that’s number one and number two is that I constructed that drum set that I play, but I had no-one to play with, I was a like a little kid, with no one to play with. So being in the band fulfils that in my life, hugely.
(at this point Jordan Rudess comes in the room talking and Mike asks him to be quiet)
I can’t believe you’ve just told Jordan to shut up on my behalf, thank you!
(Laughing) We do it for each other, it happens all the time!
Cool, so in fact you needed it, you had a big gap in your life and this came along, in fact like things always seem to…
Which is why I exploded emotionally…
Things have the habit of working out in life, at least that’s what I’ve noticed, if you let them come…
Yeah, that’s the difference, I’ve tried to mould too many things, you just can’t do that. Well the one thing I can mould is my drum set and finally it had a home, but it took a long time to mould it into this ambidextrous mini-orchestra!
Of course you were using the intervening years to grow a family, so it wan’t wasted time?
That’s why you get married!
So how has your life changed since you joined Dream Theater? Do you miss Berkeley?
Life has changed in every single molecule of a way for the better. I do not miss working at the college at all, I’m much more happy here. However I miss the people, I miss my colleagues, I miss the students certainly – I learned so much from them, that was an amazing experience. But I don’t miss being in a building and having to deal with traffic, and paying for parking. I don’t miss that at all.
How does your family feel about this transition?
Extremely great! My son is old enough to know what’s happening and he thinks it’s the coolest thing. My wife is ecstatic because I’m happy, and she’s part of this, she saw the whole process. My parents and my siblings have felt their whole lives very strongly about me, understand what I’ve been through and support it. So they’re all just ecstatic.
I know it doesn’t always happen and actually my dad never supported my learning music. He supported me going to college, because he wanted to to develop my mind, because I had very good grades and he thought it would be a waste. But checkout what he said to me, he said: “You can not go to school for music, no way, I won’t have anything to do with it!”. I asked him why and he said that, “Because you can already do it, go somewhere else, go learn something else”.
But you did, didn’t you? Don’t you have an IT Degree?
I never got a degree, but I got really close. I went to night school studying software engineering, but I quit that job to play in a band…
When was that?
Oh gosh, I worked as a software engineer from 1987 to 1991, I think we were programming in binary and octal, it was crazy!
As you mentioned, you’ve been privileged to play with some great people and three of the greatest guitarists of our time…
He’s the best right there (points to Petrucci who wandering around the room eating)
Well you’ve got to say that haven’t you. I think Vai plays faster…
(Big laugh from both Mike and John) You’re a silly person!
I’m English, it’s normal, think “Monty Python”
(now the lights go out again – maybe John hit the switch?)
Everyone has a gift that they can develop… I’m going to keep talking here, I don’t need lights to speak… and the interesting thing is that as long as each person follows their calling, as long as they stick to their guns, follow their own path then it just yields a beautiful result for everyone and there’s room for everybody.
Could you pick out any particular differences, obviously in playing style, but when you compare John, Steve and Nuno – obviously very different people, could you say something about that?
Well yeah, you can tell each person’s influence. You can tell what it is that they’ve pursued in their personal practice, you pursued things more categorically or more things specifically or stylistically, and I can hear those differences.
You spent quite a while with Steve Vai, about five years, you played on what, Fire Garden, The Ultra Zone…
Eight records actually: Merry Axemas live, Ultra Zone Live, The Seventh Song, errm, I don’t remember
That’ s OK, we can check Wikipedia later, but did you have a defining moment during that time, track, song, something you cherish the most?
Well out of that era it was definitely the Fire Garden Suite and the reason is that it had to do with the person as well. When I was in the studio, that was when I met Steve and what was really special about that, and I think it was a mutual thing, but I respected him as a composer first. I didn’t go in and try to change anything to what I felt, what I thought, I wanted. So even though I’m not a great composer like all of these guys, I still know what it *feels* like when you compose something and you want to see it realised to a point. So I had total respect and Steve’s really great at writing and orchestrating drum parts. So I had a ball doing what he wanted to be done, and it just happened to be stuff that I liked.
That was a defining moment in just feeling understood, just being understood.
I also picked out Fire Garden Suite as my personal favourite, I imagine it’s quite a difficult piece as the drums are tracking the piano parts, must have been a tricky one to nail?
Yes, and no. And I had to tell you, and all these guys will probably vouch for it. I don’t know how this is going to come out, but…
(shouts again, this time at James Labrie at to be quiet)
…what was the question again?
You were going to say how great you were, or something…
(raucous laughter) No, no, no, oh, oh my, that’s funny!
No, we were talking about why Fire Garden wasn’t so tough for you…
No, indeed, the guys will vouch for it, but I have the easiest time with the most difficult stuff. I think something inside me burns for that. I have a harder time with keeping my focus when I have to play a little more simplistic, because I’m tortured. I’m like a tortured soul, I hear things, it’s like I’m fighting myself in my mind, and in order to do that I have to believe that what I’m doing, in a more simplistic way, is the right thing. If that’s the case then I’m completely happy doing it because I know it’s really difficult to keep time, just to keep time. There’s a lot of people out there that think progressive or notey music doesn’t groove, but it’s just that they haven’t developed a certain part of the brain that needs to be developed in order to appreciate that type of music. MIT did a study on this, so I’m not speaking my opinion, this is a fact, but they just haven’t developed that portion of the brain that’s needed to enjoy this type of music.
So there are a lot of people out there who are “it’s all about the groove man, man, man, the groove, man”, but it’s not always about the groove, because they don’t know what it is. You can’t groove with something you don’t know, a simplistic groove is much more different from a complex groove, it’s a different thing. For me to be happy with the simplistic groove I need to divide and keep time in my brain, so yeah, it’s a challenge.
In general, how was it working with Extreme? By the way, I saw you with Extreme on the Waiting for the Punchline tour in Wolverhampton Civic Hall in 1995… It was soooo loud, it sounded good when you went to the toilets and shut the door… So hey, we go back a bit!
Well I mean, Nuno was spitting 132db out of his cabinets, so was Pat actually, they both were. That’s a lot of decibels… So about my time, they sort of rescue me from a bad work situation and that allowed me to feel free, but then oppositely, when Nuno quit and wanted to leave, it was the biggest disappointment to me, because we had constructed so many new songs together that nobody will ever hear and even ones that Nuno composed alone and turned up with and said “Here’s a song, let’s learn the song”. They were brilliant and I was able to play drums that was a part of me. It was a wonderful time and nobody will ever, ever hear that stuff, there’s no recording of it, well maybe on a cassette tape floating around. That’s a big disappointment that it will never live, that’s gone, gone forever.
But you did also work with Gary and Pat with Tribe of Judah?
Yeah, well everyone is going to stay friends, for ever. No matter what happens in families, squabbles and everything, at the end of the day we all love each other. We all make mistakes, every one of us, you forgive it and you move on.
Last June I saw you at the Loreley Night of the Prog festival, I don’t know if you remember that gig?
Yes I do, our mixing console broke!
Yep, you were 45 minutes late as a result…
Well lucky that we got to play!
The band gave you the honour to go on stage first and present yourself to the fans. You got a tremendous reception and this seems to be mirrored around the world. Are you surprised at the positivity?
Yes, yes. Well perhaps I should say 80% yes, because I don’t expect anything from anybody. There’s this syndrome of the quiet majority, meaning that the majority of the people that will speak up are usually negative, online and such. But actually, when you look at it, the amount of negative comments on a subject compared to the likes are infinitesimal, they’re so small. People get the impression it’s a negative thing, but when I look at it, it’s overwhelmingly positive and I would never have expected that. I think though it’s because people know that I want to be here, that I try to make it the best I can and to respect the music first and foremost.
The day after Loreley I spoke to Jordan on the phone and he had nothing but praise for you, really it was gushing. Obviously on a musical level, but perhaps more importantly for the positivity and joy you were spreading in the band and the crew – what would you say about that?
Well man, you know I open doors for them and I make sure they have everything they need and I’m always, always, always saying thank you. You know, this is a very positive environment and what we do is give everybody enough trust, we let them do their jobs. We don’t interfere too much, everyone’s a professional. That’s what’s happening now. When you see the show tonight, the lights, that’s the work of Steve Baird, that’s his work, the video is by BeJohnny Video. They are putting that artistic sense in and I think they feel supported and they’re certainly thanked because I’m appreciative, we all are.
And I’ve got to say, my tech – Eric (Ed: Eric Disrude) – there isn’t a show where I don’t turn around and say “thank you”, or “you nailed it”. I don’t know how much work that all is, but it’s not easy.
Must certainly be nice for you not to have to setup your own drums these days! You had no hand in the writing process of ADToE, but I assume you will from now on? Did that writing process already begin, albeit perhaps only through jamming? What you you believe you can bring to the table in that respect?
Yes of course, I guess we’re talking about 2013, but we’re not sitting down to compose right now, we’re just having a lot of FUN. Throwing out riffs and ideas, feeling connected and feeling comfortable with playing together. It’s so much fun and very important, and that’s what’s being established. We could probably sit down and come up with anything right now, today, but we’re just having fun during our time together.
What I can bring to the table, I believe, is an extra level of rhythmic co-ordination. You know I work very hard, differently from Mike (Portnoy) who has his own thing – all drummers have a different thing. What I do is coordination where I can play a couple of rhythms at once, but make music out of it; not make it sound like pots and pans. That’s what’s different, I can play two rhythms at the same time and the band can really go crazy, I think the band can use that.
Yeah we heard some of this on ADToE, there’s a really obvious example in On the Backs of Angels where you’re playing with two distinct patterns at the same time, one following the vocals, the other the keyboards…
Yeah, that’s right!
And this is something you’ve alluded to in interviews that you spent your wilderness years training yourself to be independent in each of the four limbs, mind and voice. Can you elaborate a little on that?
Research. Research, introspective thought and searching all the time. But that’s where teaching is so important, because if someone is paying money to get advice from me then I don’t think I can’t go to sleep at night if I take the money and can’t answer the question. So I really worked hard to try and think through how things worked. Because of that it keeps me in that mode where I’m thinking and learning: how can I do this, how can I tell anyone else how to do this if I don’t even know what it is? So that’s where it comes from, I hear my voice in my head, constantly telling me. It’s like a multitrack in there: clicks that don’t exist, and voices – my voice, not someone else’s! Once it’s someone else’s voice then they can put me in a white coat, OK?
Anyway, I’m just trying to listen to my body and pay attention.
Actually, talking of clicks, another thing I noticed on the audition video and also at Loreley is that when you’re playing, one very distinctive thing you’re doing when leading the band back in after pauses is that you’re clicking your sticks. I recall it on both The Dance of Eternity and Ytsejam. It that something you always do, something you’ve put in while you’re learning the ropes with the band?
It was very instinctive, very intuitive. But you know, it’s really interesting that you say it, because when I saw that happening, when I watched the audition video I actually thought “what am I doing there? I’m clacking wood together in the middle of a tune!”, but clearly I didn’t do that on purpose, well I guess I did do it on purpose, but I didn’t think about it, it’s just something in my nature to keep everything together. Using my eyes and watching everybody and making sure everything’s in the right place.
Yeah, the first time I saw it, I thought “what was that?”, but then next time you’re looking for it and you want it to be there – the human mind works in strange ways…
You know, I started doing it, it’s going to be in the first song (Ed: Bridges in the Sky). It’s just a way to keep everybody glued in, me too! It’s almost validating that I’m going to be OK, I’m in the right place, everything will be fine.
Don’t panic, it’s all gonna be good.
Oh, to absolutely try to identify their love. What is it that you love the most about a certain kind of music? And the reason why is because that drummer will then question the mechanics they need for that particular music, but they will ultimately find out that they are the mechanics for all kinds of music. Therefore, what’s important is to choose that music which they love. Where students get steered into a wall is when they’re forced to learn music that they hate and even though it’s good for us all, it’s not right right away. You need a teacher who will say “I know you like heavy metal, but I’m going to teach you jazz. However, I’m going to listen to your heavy metal and see what relates, so here we go with this jazz exercise, but you can use if for the heavy metal like this…”.
But most teachers don’t do that!
When you were growing up, what drummers and bands inspired you the most?
Well I can give you the order, the first was Ringo & The Beatles – that was before I was 4 and up until about 6. I was performing already when I was 5, that was Beatles music. Then Blood, Sweat & Tears and the band Chicago, those two bands simultaneously with all the horns. Then Buddy Rich was the fourth inspiration to me, then John Bonham was the next. Neil Peart from Rush and Terry Bozzio.
So those seven – I didn’t just get inspired, I learned their whole catalogues. I learned everything that they played on, to the best of my ability.
So there is a bit of Prog history in there, a little bit…
Oh yeah! I mean it was amazing doing a tour with Eddie Jobson from U.K., what I learned from that record! You know, that’s the guy on the album covers, and I’m looking at him, and I’m playing his music, and he’s my friend.
He’s a monster isn’t he…
I love that guy! You know what an impact he had on me? I had knees surgery in 2009, you know, it was very difficult for me to make the leap, but my family supported me, my wife supported me to get back into a band. Eddie asked me to do that with U.K., and he really helped me to look a little more professional. I would have worn sports gear – football pants and white socks, spandex shirt… and he got me to look more theatrical and professional. He also inspired me about things I was good at – he would pull me to one side and tell me things that he liked about me, “man you should do this thing that you do in your solo”. He supported me, what a genuinely amazing human being he is. He’s so secure and so loving that he would care about me that much. I just love that guy, I’m so happy that that happened to me.
I must admit that it’s the first U.K. album that does it for me – I always consider it as the birth of Dream Theater type music. Bruford’s drumming is just amazing.
Oh yeah, I love it and Bruford was a huge influence for me too, but I’m giving you the first seven! Hey, this day and age, most drummers are an inspiration.
Yeah, the level of musicianship is just phenomenal these days.
Yeah, because they have all my books! Plug, plug, plug…
Oh, what’s your book called Mike?
Rhythm Knowledge (Mike goes digging in a cupboard and returns with two books). Here, these are for you. These are about how we behave as humans, it’s a behavioural system and yes, drums are involved, but it applies to everything.
Oh thanks! I’ll take a photo of that and put it in the interview…
Yeah, and what people will say is “Oh, he’s not musical, he’s a machine”, blah, blah. But look, I’m just trying to do it any way I can. I’m a flawed human being, I make a lot of mistakes and I need all the help I can get to help me be happy.
So you did pay some attention to the Prog scene before you joined Dream Theater, so it wasn’t a total shock, but now that you’re playing in a Prog band are you finding that women are less attracted to you?
No, there are more women showing up to these shows actually, and it’s nice to have that female base that’s willing to listen to the record 5 to 10 times to allow the brain to formulate it. Again, this is science, you cannot listen to a Prog record out of the box and just immediately like it, because it’s an uncomfortable experience, it takes work. But once you do, once you make those neural connections in your brain, in your mind, man it’s like you can’t live without it any more!
Well if you like a Prog record on the first listen then it means it’s no good!
Well probably means that your brain’s already wired. Listen, I’m quoting science. Don’t listen to me, I’m just a dumb drummer that hits shit, but these guys are scientists, I trust them.
Talking about hitting shit, are you still officially the “fastest drummer in the World”?
I don’t know, I probably still have the fastest 15 minute foot record or something… You know, when I set that record, I was woken up at 7:00 in the morning and just sat at the chair and tested the machine. If I actually tried to do it then maybe I’d get all antsy, I don’t know. It’s a lot of fun though.
But hey, the “world’s fastest drummer” – I’m the world’s slowest drummer at getting into their favourite band! I’m the world’s slowest drummer at making the most money, I’m the world’s slowest drummer at learning certain songs…
But you got there in the end…
Yeah, I got there in the end!
OK, one last thing… In what areas of drumming do you consider yourself to be strong and where would you like to improve?
I think my best asset is that I think I’ve broken down all there is to learn into learnable categories and I have a full picture of everything there is to play, and thus I have learned drums categorically, I have tried to learn a bit of everything with either chops, or timing, or feel, or styles, or phrasings or dynamics. I’ve tried to learn a bit of each category and I think my best strength is that I went far with all of these things. But I’m still a person with individual tastes and I do prefer certain kinds of music and that, I must say is… for example, if I auditioned with all that knowledge and skill for a band I really didn’t like or a kind of music I didn’t like then I bet you I would not win that. Somebody else that has it from the heart, that’s probably less mechanical would get it because their heart is in it.
That’s what I think
That’s great. So you’ve got a gig to play, you’ve been an absolute gentleman. Thank you Mike Mangini.
Thank you, hey wait a bit, since we’re in Holland, Dank u well!
Up & Coming Dream Theater Concerts – Europe
8 Feb – Clyde Auditorium – Glasgow – Scotland
9 Feb – O2 Apollo – Manchester – England
10 Feb – Wembley Arena – London – England
14 Feb – Sportzentrum Tagerhard – Wettingen – Switzerland
15 Feb – Liderhalle – Stuttgart – Germany
17 Feb – Budapest Sports Arena – Budapest – Hungary
18 Feb – Gasometer – Vienna – Austria
20 Feb – Palasport – Pordenone – Italy
21 Feb – Mediolanum Forum – Milan – Italy
22 Feb – Plaevangelisti – Perugia – Italy
24 Feb – Palau Sant Jordi – Barcelona – Spain
25 Feb – Palacio Vistalegre – Madrid – Spain
26 Feb – Coliseu dos Recreios – Lisbon – Portugal
29 Feb – Rockhal – Luxembourg – Luxembourg
19 April – Olympic Gymnastics Arena – Seoul – South Korea
21 April – Mata Elang Indoor Stadium – Jakarta – Indonesia
24 April – Orix Theater – Osaka – Japan
26 April – Civic Hall – Fukuoka – Japan
28 April – Aichi Arts Center – Aichi – Japan
30 April – Yokohama Arena – Yokohama – Japan