BY ANDREW NUSCA
Mike Mangini is perpetually hungry, though you wouldn’t be able to tell at first glance. His cascade of ebony hair, which falls past his shoulders and ends mid-bicep, helps to elongate his already lean frame. His propensity for wearing snug black T-shirts and inky acetate glasses only emphasizes the look. When you see the drummer walking down the street, he doesn’t give off the air of a gourmand. When you see him onstage with his progressive rock band Dream Theater, there are no hints that the Massachusetts native bears an insatiably fierce appetite.
But just as the annual Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest is rarely won by a man of sizable girth, so it follows that diminutive Mike Mangini, all of five feet six inches tall and 150 pounds, can’t stop thinking about food. I’ve been exchanging emails with the Dream Theater drummer for the better part of three weeks, asking him all sorts of questions about the band’s forthcoming album, The Astonishing. There is reason to be excited: It’s the 30-year-old band’s thirteenth full-length release and the third to feature Mangini since he signed on with the band in late 2010. It’s also a concept album apportioned into two acts and supported by a tour that will bring the band to concert halls across Europe in early 2016 to play the new work in its entirety.
But every time we really dig into the details, Mangini calls upon cuisine to make his point. When I ask him about songwriting, he talks about doing it while inhaling a plate of linguine vongole. When I ask him about how his playing style fits into the rest of the band’s sound, he compares it to the secret ingredient in his mother’s sauce. (With apologies to Mrs. Mangini: It’s anchovy paste.) And when I ask him about how he approaches drum sounds in the recording studio, he gives me a thorough explanation before conceding: “I realize that I’m only part of a large lasagna.” My stomach is rumbling just talking to the guy. “I like to have a large meal that is as filling as possible,” Mangini replies when I ask him about what he eats before a gig. “Pastas. Meat. I get so hungry that I’d eat a raccoon out of the garbage while it raids it — plus the tissues he’s trying to eat.”
Mangini, 52, has good reason to have worked up such an appetite. It’s been a busy year for the drummer, busy enough that when I ask him how long it took to record drum tracks for the new album, he must refer to his digital calendar to jog his memory.
He spent several weeks in the recording studio with Dream Theater, of course. (“Drinking a vat of black coffee.”) He spent another few glued to his couch to watch his beloved New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. (“Baby back ribs, wings, seafood, beer, veggies, beer, and beer.”) In the winter, he spent quality time in his home studio, working on his leg technique, as the area around him was covered in snow. In the summer, he played drum camps in Chicago and Quebec and shows in Italy, Germany, Slovenia, and Turkey. He sat behind the kit in April for the final world tour of reunited prog-rock supergroup U.K. and, still restless, ventured out on a solo “rhythm seminar” tour in October that took him to Rome, Nuremberg, Prague, Munich, and Nicosia.
In May, Mangini wrote the following on his Facebook page: “I am hitting a lot of drums, smiling more than anyone should be allowed, and burning a lot of calories, too.” And that’s all before The Astonishing was released.
PREPARE TO BE ASTONISHED
It took only two trips to New York for Mangini to record what would become The Astonishing. It’s a simple trek for the Waltham, Mass. native: Jump on a southbound Amtrak train in Boston and hop out at New York Penn Station, where Mangini has been known to make a side trip to a nearby pizza parlor for a slice and “a beer the size of a trash can” before taking another train out to Long Island.
The Astonishing was recorded in the space of a few weeks at Cove City Sound Studios, owned by longtime Billy Joel saxophonist Richie Cannata. It’s the same location that Dream Theater recorded its 2013 self-titled album and 2011’s A Dramatic Turn of Events. The days were long to make the new album: upwards of ten hours of preparations, recording, and, of course, eating together.
But Dream Theater isn’t just any band. The group doesn’t rehearse before entering the recording studio. It bypasses the preproduction process altogether. Since guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess write most of the songs, and the level of musicianship in the band is so high, Mangini strolls into the studio having done little more than “absorbed” their plan plus the few notes for himself that he scribbles into what he calls “block forms” — numerical groupings that break down key sections of the music and serve as shortcuts for a drummer who otherwise memorizes music to play it.
Mangini says skipping these important parts of the recording process is a testament to the trust between the band’s members and their ability to serve the music rather than their own individual interests.
“How many bands exist where somebody can present a plan and the rest say, ‘I have your back. What do you need me to do?’ Think about that. The human part of me doesn’t like that. But the spiritual part of me loves it. What else is more vital, unique, and important than that? Teamwork is ‘sports’ to me. I bunted to get my teammate to third base so we could jump up and down and pretend we won the World Series. I feel tremendously satisfied saying that a ‘we’ win is a ‘me’ win. That trust brings things out of me that may never come out otherwise.”
The abbreviated process presents interesting challenges around continuity. Mangini says he relies on the expertise of drum tech Eric Disrude, engineer Richard Chycki, and guitar tech Matt “Maddi” Schieferstein (plus his own ears) to nail down equipment selection, preferred tunings, and microphone placement and keep it in line over the course of the recording. “On this new record, I had a little more time with Rich, and we tackled my interest in getting my hi-hats and ride sources to stick out more. I used tunings from the previous tour. This time I chose clear Remo Emperors on the toms and tried a Powerstroke 77 on the snare so I could tune it a bit higher without getting a ‘ping.’ I tried a lot of snare heads before picking the P77.”
Otherwise, it’s up to Mangini. Unlike previous albums, The Astonishing features only acoustic drums, with the exception of one Roland TM-2 drum trigger module, used for a hi-hat sound that Mangini had piped into his ear monitors alongside a loud click track, his own drums (slightly “wet” kick and toms, just a hint of cymbals), and his bandmates’ instruments, directed to one ear or the other for clarity. For the new record Mangini laid down about two songs per day, 28 in all, recorded in two trips in March and May. Though he occasionally reviews his day’s work, he depends much more heavily on Petrucci to ensure that he’s locked in with a song’s vision.
“I record in sections with Petrucci behind the glass producing. On Dream Theater, we kept a lot of my first takes of chunks of songs while we were all in the room. I don’t ever know any songs in full — with vocals and everything — so we settle on the best part and leave it. It’s about being trusted to hit the nail on the head when it comes to realizing John’s story coming to life with music. That’s important. So I don’t try too hard or too little. I could easily just limp through a more open, epic kind of piece because so many safe ideas seem like they’d work. I play things that sound simple but also don’t go too far in taking away the focus of the song, just by staring at my drums and going for it. It is really the use of the cymbals in an ambidextrous way that is so much more difficult than it could ever seem until you sit at my kit. You’ll know my pain and my joy if you do.”
Mangini is referring to “Dystopian Overture,” the second of 23 tracks on The Astonishing and the album’s big, opening salvo. The song is a perfect example of the orchestration of Mangini’s drum kit and veers between energetic bombast and quiet interludes that challenged how the drummer interpreted Petrucci’s vision through his instrument.
“I am literally choosing the pieces of metal on the kit that follow the frequencies of the music lines. That may not impress anybody who can’t see my kit from where I sit and hear the differences between the left and right hi-hats, Oriental types, and crashes. It’s hard to hear the pitches with 772 tracks all going to a stereo mix, I know. You have to listen to my tracks at no more than 75 percent of the speed to get what I’m saying as the parts flow and their shapes make sense.”
Mangini cites the parts of several songs as favorites. “Moment Of Betrayal,” which opens thunderously, drives intently, and midway through turns into a staccato showdown among the members of the band, shows off his musicianship. “The Gift Of Music” is a more straightforward and approachable track that combines “raw heavy metal” with “great melody.” And “A New Beginning” reflects a series of happy accidents that Mangini committed during recording.
“All in all, I’m thrilled with the bulk of the album. That’s a miracle given that I’m essentially playing blind most of the time, for two hours of music.”
Once a year, Mangini travels north to Canada for respite. There, he holes up in a house with four fellow drummers whom he collectively calls, with a little inspiration from the Book of Revelation, the “Four Angels of the Corners of the Earth”: jazz-funk icon Dennis Chambers, Cuban dynamo Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, Puerto Rican percussionist Giovanni “Mañenguito” Hidalgo, and until his passing in November, longtime Santana percussionist Raul Rekow.
The grown men take bunk beds and adjacent rooms like it’s some sort of summer camp. Mangini calls it “kids mode.” The quartet makes food, drinks beer, laughs, and carries on. Most importantly, they talk for hours about drumming, trading tips and teaching each other the things they’ve learned since they last saw one another.
“We go on and on about the depths of joy from playing the drums and we share our perspectives with each other. We all end up going to dinner and sitting together for each drummer’s ‘clinic night,’ but we then stay awake until at least 4:00 a.m. partying, playing percussion, hitting the table, looking at videos of all kinds of drummers, and not stopping until we can’t keep our eyelids open. We do this for five or six days straight. Horacio’s clave doesn’t stop — ever. I need days of recovery when I get home. My stomach and face literally are fatigued from smiling, yelling, applauding, bantering, and laughing. Ask any of them.”
The annual tradition has helped Mangini discover the differences between styles of Latin music — Brazilian, Afro- Cuban, and so forth — and allowed its funky feel to seep into his playing. This may come as a surprise to casual listeners of Dream Theater, who know the band more for its mathematical precision than its swing. But for Mangini, it’s a way to stay sharp behind the kit, find new paths to desired sounds, and push his limits with some of the best percussive professionals in the industry.
“I could never play with as much feel as I do now without their patience and help. Gio would slowly play stuff until I got it. Raul told me to make him feel whatever stuff I was spitting out. Horacio played a palito the right way and made me get it. Dennis would make a certain kind of face at me that changed how I play. It’s just mind blowing how communication of spirit is not always with words.”
That polyrhythmic playing — for example, using his right hand to play a pattern in a 19/8 time signature while his left plays in 17/8 and his mind thinks in 4/4 — is something Mangini has been working on (or in this words, “suffering through”) for some time. He doesn’t “count” long passages so much as “keep track” of them by breaking the phrases down into binary bits, like “chicken wings with two bones,” he says.
“I use binary thinking to extend small chunks of two, three, and four into a grouping of, say, 19, and then feel the small chunks as accents. I can pretty quickly recognize any grouping between 1 and 20.”
Mangini says he hopes to bring a little “habanero spice” on the road when Dream Theater sets out on its next tour. He’s looking forward to it. “Reaching the folks that haven’t been reached,” he says. “Seeing more women and kids at the shows.”
But there’s much to be done before he ever sets foot inside the airport. Because the drummer improvises so much in the recording studio, he must backtrack and slowly learn what he made up on the spot for the purposes of broadly replicating it on tour.
“It is brutal unless I stare at the kit and slow it down,” he says. “I eventually will have to spend two days per song, minimum. Then rehearse all of them several times in chunks. Then several times as a whole show. Eventually I see the entire set as one ‘song.’ This is cool for me because I might save a move for just one song and make the whole show a series of unique drum events.”
As we continue to discuss his live tendencies and his excitement for the band’s upcoming “The Astonishing Live” tour, Mangini says something rather curious: “Don’t get near me three hours before a show or you’ll get electrocuted!” I press him on what he means by such a statement, with the presumption that he’s not Bolt, the X-Men character who absorbs electricity to get stronger.
“I start to electrochemically and emotionally change anywhere from a few hours to minutes before a show. Outside of the band and crew, or the normal meet and greet and sound check, I don’t like being forced to meet or hang out with anybody. I want to — I enjoy meeting people and trying to make them laugh. It’s not that I want anyone to feel as though I don’t want them around. I just need my full attention to prepare my mind and body for the show. I have a pretty violent job. I get an involuntary ‘fight or flight’ reaction. My body puts itself in this mode to prepare for the stage. My mind goes into an adrenalized state.” It’s as if Mangini was presented with a plate of linguine vongole.
It’s football season, of course, and though Mangini has plenty of DT work ahead of him he’s looking forward to planting himself in front of his television to watch Tom Brady take the New England Patriots deep into the postseason, as has become the team’s tradition over the last decade.
The team’s success this year (undefeated 90 when I speak to Mangini) reminds the drummer of the one time when his rabid Boston fandom and his day job collided. Mangini, fresh off the tour supporting Steve Vai’s Ultra Zone in 2000, had just returned to his hometown to teach at the Berklee College Of Music. The Patriots were good that year. Real good. By January, it was clear that the club was going all the way to Super Bowl XXXVIII to play the Carolina Panthers. Forget drumming: There was little chance that Mangini would be doing anything that night but watching Brady launch torpedoes into the end zone.
But then a friend, the drummer from local New England band The Catunes, made a request: Could Mangini fill in for him at a gig on Sunday? Mangini was unrelenting. There was no way he would play on game day. He declined three times before realizing that the gig was not during the Super Bowl, but at the Super Bowl — specifically the Patriots’ afterparty in Houston, where the championship game was held that year. It was the perfect intersection of Mangini’s personal and professional lives. Before he knew it, the Boston drummer who bleeds red, silver, and blue was on stage celebrating a New England win by playing covers of contemporary pop songs. He was ecstatic.
“I don’t think I really knew one song I played, but I played them like I owned them. I went from feeling badly about initially saying ‘no’ to a buddy asking me to fill in to ending up as a part of the Patriots experience while I hit drums and enjoyed bashing a beat to an Audioslave song like nobody’s business. I never tried to bust a cymbal playing ‘Cochise’ as hard as I did that night. It was fun. Forget paradiddleadoodlesat 4,721 bpm — I wanted to break things!”
Whether Mangini’s football team will go all the way this year remains to be seen. But it’s a certainty that the drummer will be playing more clinics, learning more songs, shooting new videos, driving his son to various activities, going to church on Sunday, and oh yes, crisscrossing the globe with Dream Theater in support of The Astonishing. It’s a packed schedule.
“If I can take care of my body and ravenously hungry self and not work the next day, then I could mingle and party until the sun comes up. I’d love a rockstar life of playing, then getting myself together, then laughing and having a few beers with people and throwing darts and eating stuff. I’d even go to a strobe light drum ’n’ bass club and light Sambuca on fire as if I was with my family. Then I’d sleep until 3:00 p.m. the next day. This is the 2000s, though. Tours have to move quickly. We almost always have to rush out of the venue to get sleep, to drive, to fly, et cetera. I have a huge responsibility on my shoulders. I’m not there for a social visit. I have to do my job by giving concertgoers the very best show. I need all the sleep I can get.”
But first, Mike Mangini has to eat.