"Dream Theater fans don’t know my full sound or my full writing yet, so there is a lot to look forward to!"
"Welcome to my world" are his first words as he welcomes me to his backstage room. It’s a sunny but freezing afternoon in Stockholm (Sweden), one of the 30 stops of “Images, Words & Beyond” - Dream Theater’s current European tour that celebrates the 25th anniversary of their most iconic album, “Images And Words”. The night before, the band had performed in Gothenburg, and he is curious to see what I thought of the show, before I even get to ask any other questions. Ladies and gentlemen, one of the most interesting, passionate and most notably, honest musicians I’ve ever spoken to, the drummer of Dream Theater, Mr. Mike Mangini!
I have a question! I know you have questions for me, but this is interesting: I have developed a technique over the years where I use muscles you can’t see - on the side of my body, so I’m not a very cool looking drummer. I don’t have a lot of sticks spinning and big motions. Rock drummers have this wonderful and tremendous look that I wish I had...
Well, the way you play looks pretty awesome to me!
Thank you! Still, I look very robotic, in videos especially, but I’m hitting extremely hard and it doesn’t look like it. I also have a bone condition, where bones in my arms are longer than the normal, so I’ve developed some kind of a wrist technique. So here’s my question: Last night, because I felt a bit better than the last couple of shows, as far as I didn’t have a cold, I really, REALLY hit hard. Could you tell how strongly those drums were being hit?
Oh trust me, I definitely did. It got me right in my stomach.
But I mean... really?
I know, I know, but every once in a while I will make a post about technique and I’m curious of what other drummers think. And very often I see drummers criticising, which is ok of course, but some say that I don’t hit hard and I think they are out of their minds, but then I’ve started thinking about this! But, I’m smashing the crap out of them! (Laughs)
No, no - honestly, I do play the drums and I can tell!
Thank you! I actually try a little more to look like I’m using more arm motion, but to me it’s a waste of energy. And sometimes a bigger motion takes way more power, which is a bizarre concept.
OK... Enough about me asking you questions.
Alright, so: You joined the band during a tough time (after original drummer Mike Portnoy unexpectedly left, in 2010) and people were of course wondering how it all would work out. I can imagine the feeling of replacing someone who has such a history with the band and I know that fans can be harsh, but you have really been amazing all this time, so from me, as a big fan of Dream Theater, I just wanted to say a big “Thank You”!
Thank you very much. You know, I have been careful. Some opinions are that I should not be careful, as far as: Play whatever, say whatever, do whatever. But that’s just not my nature and I understand that I just can’t play whatever I want. I’m just trying to put my spin on it. I play some things with one hand; I play some things with the other hand. I change fills, but I don’t change the air drumming fills that everyone knows – which I happen to like anyway.
I can only tell you this: Please do your own thing. We’ve listened to those songs so many times already; we don’t need to listen to them exactly the way they were recorded.
Yes, like last night - I changed enough things within “Images And Words”, but not too many. Did you think that was a good balance?
It was, but I believe that you can push it even more.
Oh OK! For example on the opening groove of “Another Day”, I play with two rides, I’m criss-crossing and I play a couple of different accents, but I can’t play with a different beat, because that would make the band feel uncomfortable. Plus, I like what was originally played!
Obviously you are here to celebrate the anniversary of “Images And Words”, but “The Astonishing” tour ended only a couple of months ago, so I’ll start from that. It’s now been a year since you released the album, for which you toured throughout 2016. I would just like to hear your feelings on both the album and the tour.
My feelings are mixed between being an observer and then being inside of it. It’s a bit like watching a sports team playing on TV, where you are not part of the game but you see it happening, and then another day you are on the team and you have a job to do with the team. That’s my perspective. And that’s because I was not a part of its composition. I legitimately did not even practise one song. I did not learn one song. I practised both Acts of the album on a four-piece drum set, just to get the feeling, but I had no idea where the drums were supposed to go and where they were not supposed to go. I was so far removed from it, that all I could do was show up in the studio and have John (Petrucci - guitarist) tell me where the drums go.
I tried different things and I ended up recording 18 songs in 5 days and then I recorded the other 12 songs in 6 days or something - it was very short, it was immediate and improvised. We would record one section at a time and I improvised it and I wouldn’t then remember any of it. So when I had to learn it, it was like somebody else played it, so it was very difficult for me. All I had to do was to enjoy the drumming part of it. The rest of it I enjoyed as an observer. For example, it was nice when I was off the drums during the show and I was listening to what was going on - because it was so nice to hear those dynamic moments, as they were so beautifully written. It was like in physics where the light is both a particle and a wave. That was me. I’ve never lived so much being a particle or a wave. And quite frankly, I was not part of “A Dramatic Turn Of Events” either, even though I write music. So, Dream Theater fans don’t really know my full sound or my full writing. Not yet! So there is a lot to look forward to!
Obviously you want to get more involved in the writing process...
Well, we’ll see how it unfolds. You understand that I’ve joined someone else’s band. I am not a producer. I’m not looked at for the main riffs. I am not looked at for a lot of composition things, even though I compose and I have a lot of ideas. I still joined some other entity, which I have done my whole career, so I know how to do that and exist within that to keep it the way people know and love it. I don’t want to come in and disrupt what people know and love. It takes time.
You said earlier that you recorded the last album in only a few days -Isn’t that in a way good though? Some argue that when you over-rehearse, then the music stops being fresh - it misses the live feeling.
Yes! It’s good - all of it is good. I’m not going to say it’s a better approach than my preparation - it’s a different approach. Nothing is better than me having plenty of time to nurture music and take the drums to an advanced level. Nothing will ever top that for me, but improvising means I do things that are different and on their own are really cool and I would have not done them otherwise. So all of it is cool - it’s just different forms of expression.
Comparing the show last night to what I saw a year ago, as I was in London for the premiere of “The Astonishing” tour...
(Interrupting)... You were in London? Those were our first shows! I am lucky I got through any of those shows - I had no idea what the heck I was doing! What did you think?
Well, I was in both shows. I could tell that the first one was a typical “first night of a tour” but on this occasion of something completely new for you. But then the second show was just mind-blowing.
That’s what’s god-sent about being in this band. It’s that we can adjust that quickly. My favourite sports teams are the ones that can make adjustments in the locker room for the 3rd period of a hockey game, for the second half of a football game etc. The ones that maybe didn’t do everything right in the first half but came out and won the game. But it was scary; there was so much pressure but in the end it was also so much fun.
My question would be then how does it feel to be back with a “normal” show?
It feels SO much better. I love this tour so much more, I definitely do. But last year was just a different thing. It was a very “gutsy” call doing that tour.
A couple of weeks ago you posted a clip of you practising on one of the songs from “Images And Words” and more specifically practising on this ONE SECOND of a song. I guess you don’t have to practise that much for each and every second, but then how much flexibility do you really have every night?
I have moments of flexibility. But one thing I’ve noticed about human nature, from the rest of my bandmates and from myself, is that we don’t want things to be much different. We set those moments of improvisation. We literally know when each of us is going to play something different every night. But to do that in other spots... It’s freaky! Because it throws you to something you are not used to. That’s the way we are, because we are into the milliseconds! That’s how our brains work, so I try not to surprise my bandmates, unless it’s in sections that we are aware that each one is going to try something a bit different. It’s like last night; there is a section during “Learning To Live” that is very complex and I really need to play the exact part from the record. And last night was the first show that I played something a little different and I just felt that it sounded like the worst mistake ever haha! It’s just some places where I shouldn’t do stuff. But it’s not like that for every second.
When I was playing with Extreme, or even Steve Vai, there would be one moment in the guitar solo that I would copy and orchestrate exactly - to the feel, to the note, to the key signature. Everything! I just find those gems in the songs. In “Metropolis” for example, when the guitar goes like this (signs a shredding guitar part)… I’m sorry but I HAVE to play a descending fill - I am not going to play the fill from the record. I’m sorry but it doesn’t match it “tonally”, so I have to do what I want.
As someone who wasn’t part of the recording but has to play the whole album every night, what are your thoughts on “Images And Words”?
Well, I have lots of positive feelings. First of all, I am very grateful that Mike (Portnoy) created some great drum parts. I’ve said from the beginning that I wouldn’t be in the band if I didn’t like his style and what he did and how creative he was. Plus, he was part of the composition process – he was there, he was producing. Even though someone else came in and messed with his drum sound (referring to producer David Prater), I happen to like it. I am grateful when I play it. I am thinking sometimes “wow, that’s a cool drum part”. I am also grateful that they had “Pull Me Under” (hit single at the time it was released, in 1992), because it afforded the band a career. I think about those things and I am grateful for them.
Can you believe that it’s been 6 years since you joined the band?
It’s actually almost 7!
True - I guess we found out that you joined a few months after you actually did.
It was 6 months later! Even my family didn’t know for those 6 months. I’m not joking. My wife knew and that was it. And one person who I had to ask for two $35,000 drum sets. It was that one person that I had to trust. And that was it! It was very difficult. My students didn’t know (Mike was teaching at the Berklee College of Music at the time), my colleagues at Berklee didn’t know. That broke me to pieces. I hated that. I look back at that time and I’m angry as hell that I was not able to tell my students. I am still angry about that, but of course I am also happy because it created a big surprise for everyone else. It was a sacrifice but it made me lie to people and I don’t like to lie. Actually I didn’t lie, but I didn’t answer when I was asked whether I joined Dream Theater, which to me is kind of like a lie. I hated to be in that position to be honest with you.
Do you miss teaching?
I miss the relationship with my students. I miss the learning I was able to do from their perspective. I miss being able to save them 10 years of time. I was able to create a connection between people who were different; they had different musical styles, different belief systems, different ideologies, different likes and dislikes. We were taking the knowledge that we had for each thing, and put it to use to learn something new. And I was learning what they knew. And I miss having an effect on people. They had the opportunity to relate to someone different than them – someone who had a different religion, a different ideology, a different philosophy. One liked Jazz and one liked Speed Metal. They thought they were separate from each other, and the way I taught them was to bring them together. Music transcends all these things. But! I had to have knowledge. I had to have knowledge of Jazz. They had to trust me that I had knowledge of Swing music, even though I am not known for that. There were people coming from different religions, so I had to study for their religions. I had to relate to them, so that they would feel that I was someone they could talk to. There was no debate, there were always relationships. So I miss that and I miss my colleagues too. Do I miss working in a building? No! But as I get older I might want to go back and do that job again.
You talk in a very passionate about it - that tells a lot about your teaching.
There was an online evaluation and I finished in the top 1% of the whole country, which was a big deal for me, as you cannot please everybody. But I was able to affect people positively. No one is perfect. But in general, I learned from my students, which is interesting.