After enduring a six-month-long gag order, Mike Mangini has finally come clean about the Dream Theater audition process and the hoops he jumped through to land the coveted drum chair. With Mangini going up against the world’s most ridiculously dexterous drummers, the competition was fierce to say the least. We reached the world’s fastest drummer and former Steve Vai sideman last Friday, at his home in Boston, only hours after Dream Theater revealed Mangini as their new drummer. He graciously squeezed in our extended conversation while celebrating the good news with his family – so here is the very first long-form interview Mangini granted following the band’s announcement.
DRUM!: What did you have that Thomas Lang, Marco Minneman, Virgil Donati, Derek Roddy, Aquiles Priester, and Pete Wildoer didn’t?
Mangini: I may have been chosen for the way that I hit those drums with respect to meshing the pre-existing drum parts with embellishments of them at times when I wanted to orchestrate something I was hearing one of the other bandmembers playing. I don’t know of any other reason it could be because every one of those drummers can do something uniquely ’the best.’ By the way, I think of this as wanting to be in a marriage, not a ’gig’ in the normal sense of that term.
With regard to my sound, I took time to examine what I sound like from outside of myself on the drum set via a video camera. Based on what I didn’t like that I did and what I could now do as the result of a repaired right knee, I’ve been working on to strike with more power than it appears I am and how to not rush figures like I used to. Those things must have added up into what works for Dream Theater. I was a step ahead of everything I was asked to do. Everything. I got all those tests straight off after writing them on a piece of scrap paper – bang! – and I played every note in every song [to the best of my knowledge] along with also knowing every note everybody was playing.
In addition to jamming and getting all the tests very naturally, one difference between everyone and me may have been the fact that I played Portnoy’s parts with the infusion of the others’ parts. I played the beats Mike recorded, but I also added a triplet here and there if Rudess or Petrucci played a triplet. The core of it all is that I love what Dream Theater recorded. I still want to play the song as it is recorded. It is like preserving Mike’s legacy and I take that very seriously.
DRUM!: Did you know about the competition beforehand?
Mangini: We all found out about each other though an e-mail. And I’ll never forget when I read it because my first thought was, ’Oh no, I don’t want to know this. Now I’m going to worry about them instead of worry about what I’m going to do.’ After I looked at the list I said, ’Oh, no. This guy’s great at this. This guy’s great at that. This guy’s the best at this. This guy’s the best at that. What am I going to do?’ Blah blah blah. Then I said, ’No, I’m glad I know who it is and I’m just going to go focus on myself, things that are in my control and not question who’s coming down. I made checklist after checklist and just accomplished what I could each day.
You know what was very helpful about seeing the names? It gave me a sense of [Dream Theater’s] direction. So just knowing who was invited gave me a sense of what the band were looking for.
DRUM!: Break down the audition process step by step.
Mangini: With no warm up, I immediately played three songs: “Nightmare To Remember,” “The Dance Of Eternity,” and “The Spirit Carries On.” If memory serves me, the three songs add up to about 30 minutes. That was one part. We also jammed for a while, and then I was given time signature tests to play on the spot. One phrase would be: 2/4, 7/16, 3/4, 4/4, 5/8, etc. Not only were there time signatures through the entire phrases, but the time signatures only happened once and you would go back and repeat a main theme and then it would be a different time signature somewhere within the phrase. But the way I did it, which allowed me to get it every time, was I asked Jordan [Rudess, keyboardist] to simply give me the numbers. When they said we were going to have a test, I looked directly at Jordan and I said just please give me the numbers, and he gave me the numbers, and I played it.
DRUM!: What was one of the biggest challenges?
Mangini: Managing my immediate reaction when I realized that they were not leaving that room for me to work things out on the kit alone or warm up first. Meaning, I had no warm-up whatsoever because they were all in the room, and I was supposed to have 90 minutes in there, but then the band had to work on a soundcheck and I wasn’t about to sit there and put on the iPod and just start wailing on the drums and practice the songs, you know? I’m a classically trained musician – you don’t do those things.
The other toughest moment was when I had to open my mouth and talk [laughs]. I’m not kidding, because I was overwhelmed with joy and it’s not drum joy and it’s not just personal joy. It is joy for the future; one of reflecting their musical expressions through my drum parts. Anybody that’s ever played in a band with me, if they’ve ever accused me of overplaying it’s usually because I played their parts too. But for me even to be in the room with them was special. There was this kind of spirit carrying me through with this sort of trust in my heart.
DRUM!: Any mistakes during the song-list part of the audition?
Mangini: At the beginning of “Nightmare” I smashed one of the cymbals so hard that I disengaged the cymbal tilt. I stood up to fix it and hurried to sit down again and I didn’t seem to miss any notes, but I must have lost a step. Actually, I think I missed the splash cymbal and hit the air! In my opening drum fill, I played the Octobons instead of the snare drum. Oh well. You have to realize I was playing on drums that I have never played before that were set up differently, cymbals in different places, toms were in different place, and the kicks were spread out further than I had been used to. That moment lasted about an hour in my head, that was really about only two seconds.
DRUM!: Did you already know the songs or have to start from scratch?
Mangini: Oh, no, I didn’t know them. I’ve enjoyed their music many, many times, but I’ve never learned a Dream Theater song in my life. I was just all business about it when I got the songs. I grabbed the nearest pencil and paper and got to work. I then bought these big pencils for kids with big erasers on them. [laughs] I wrote everything out. Then I listened to them at half speed; at 75 percent speed; at full speed; at 40 percent speed before even practicing them with the slow-downer software [Amazing X] and it doesn’t change the pitch. I can’t imagine what all the people these days have for tools: lessons online, slow-down tools, zoom-in tools, multi angle – are you kidding me? No wonder there are so many people getting better so much more quickly.
DRUM!: Did you take any liberties?
Mangini: If anyone was to just see me play or look at audition videos or something they might say, ’Hey, man, I thought you said he played every note exactly as written,’ because maybe I hit a different cymbal or something – I don’t know. I hit everything I thought was the right thing. If I hit a hi-hat versus a splash, hey, I’m sorry. That’s because my hearing at 3K and up is limited and I am on a waiting list for hearing aids at this time. I practiced a million hours a day when I was a child and I had a stereo blasting. My stereo system speakers, those were my headphones, no earplugs. Maybe I learned to put toilet paper in them because my ears started to hurt, but you put 30 years of that into the mix and your ears are not going to take it.
DRUM!: Did you second-guess what you played after it was all over?
Mangini: I was running through the jams and tests in my mind afterwards, and although I did have a quick thought of ’Man, I should have done this; I could have done that.’ That quickly went out of my head because then I calmed myself down thinking, ’Wait a minute. I just nailed it, shut up and have some food.’
The waiting part was awful in this Twilight Zone kind of way. I almost threw up between classes at Berklee – probably that was during Marco’s audition, as I know what time he auditioned and that is the time I got ill. And I was really wrecked because I wanted it so badly. I had a lot of heartfelt reasons for wanting to do this, not that the other guys didn’t, it’s just that I didn’t know where they’re coming from.
What was hard for me was thinking about my life without [Dream Theater]. Those four guys made me feel comfortable and [after it was all over] I missed them because it was a classy move for them to treat everyone so well, actually. So it was painful for me, because I didn’t tell anybody – not even my parents or my siblings knew that I won the spot, but they knew I auditioned, which made it worse for them. When they asked me, I just went mum, I went completely silent on everybody. And so it was extremely difficult. But before I got the call from them saying that I indeed won the audition I got white hair on my head.
DRUM!: Were you involved in writing new Dream Theater songs?
Mangini: I was zero involved in it. It’s the four of them. This new material is stuff that they’ve never had the opportunity to do without a drummer. My involvement is going to be worrying about the drums and backing this band. I have too much work to do, you know? I’ve been off the stage as a full-time job for much too long. I just want to sit on a drum stool. I want to see those orange and magenta lights reflecting off my drums. I want to hear the crowd. I want to play drums – that’s what I want to do right now. That’s all I want to do. I didn’t want to get involved in anything at that time. If I have strengths to offer the band, those will show themselves in time.
DRUM!: Any new songs that were especially difficult?
Mangini: The one where I put the most amount of psychotic, two-things-at-the-same-time type of drumming would be track six [still unnamed as of press time]. While multi time signature shifts were going on, I was playing in a time signature that was completely different from those with one limb on one side of my body. And I was really hitting the drums. I’m very proud of it, but they liked it musically. I wouldn’t do it just to throw it in. I didn’t do it for that reason. I did it because I had a mathematical joy out of it. Oh, my gosh, it would be amazing to play in 7/16 here, but yet it’s changing time signatures 18 times or something.
When I got [in the tracking room, guitarist] John Petrucci just bled his soul through mine and into the drums – it wasn’t me. I mean, it was me, but he brought out of me this intro to one of the songs and it was actually so hard to come up with the best possible thing with all the choices I had in my mind, that I didn’t do it all by myself. I did it with John Petrucci, so it was really something. So that kind of established the protocol for our relationship, which was wonderful. I was just like, “Man, I don’t want this to be about me. I’m not happy with my [input] alone. Sometimes I can’t get away from me. I want this to be about us.”
DRUM!: Will you miss teaching at Berklee?
Mangini: I’m grateful for it, had a lot of great times and I’ll always miss a ton of people I worked with there. Put it this way: I got along well with a lot of people there for a reason, and I felt honored to be a part of that awesome Percussion Department. I’d take a ride in there to hang out in a heartbeat when the chaos slows down. I really want to add that I am so proud of the students that I had, especially in my last semester there. They would never think this of me, but [some people] might think I thought, “Gee, I got a new gig. See you later.”
Students for the last few years knew I was missing the stage. Still, they need to know that I did not tell my parents that I won the audition until a week before the documentary appeared online, so they, or anybody should not feel left out of the news if interested in it. My students didn’t impose on me. I need to stress “my.” They didn’t poke at me, or cross boundaries. That doesn’t mean everybody, in and out of Berklee, spared me.
I say the following to contrast how classy the students were: In one case, a visitor that I never even met walked up to me while I was minding my own business, and busy, where my boss was about nine feet from me and another faculty was next to him. The guy interrupted what I was doing – the kind of person that gets too physically close – and says, “Hey, man, congratulations on getting some gig, what, Dream Theater, I think? Cool! Yeah, man, so what are you going to do about working here?” What an intrusive, rude, and boundary-crossing thing to say when I am at the place of my employment around people I care about. I didn’t even get “the call” at that point. Additionally, I suffered a few instances of my getting intruded upon in different forms, very few, but I wasn’t surprised; they’re probably the ones always hitting “Reply All” all the time.
On the flip side of some suffering, the students knew that the Dream Theater drummer audition was going down because the news of their search was public, but they respected my privacy suspecting that I would get a call to audition. Who auditioned was private for months afterwards. I was so impressed with their strength. I love them a lot for that. I was torn about having to not tell them once I knew I was the guy. I didn’t want to say anything to them in part because I didn’t want it to interfere with our studies, because no matter what you say, it changes things. But on the other side, I wanted to tell them screaming at the top of my lungs with joy saying, “You see? The methods, they work!” Well, I used to say that a lot anyway, but winning this audition helps validate some things.