The New Kid In Town: An Interview With Dream Theater'S Mike Mangini

By Jeb Wright

Dream Theater may be the most talented band on the planet in terms of pure instrumental prowess. Every member of the group is so talented it’s scary. They have built a huge worldwide following and are the reigning Kings of Progressive Rock.

In a world where Gaga’s, hip-hoppers and ditzy blondes have taken over the pop charts it is unthinkable that a Prog band like Dream Theater would have a snowballs chance in hell to release a new album that would be appreciated by the masses. When A Dramatic Turn of Events was released earlier this year, the album landed at # 8 on the charts. What makes this even more amazing is that this was the first album without founding member, drummer and fan favorite Mike Portnoy.

When Portnoy left the band it was widely believed that this would be a huge step backwards for Dream Theater. One can’t simply replace someone this important to a band. The remaining members of Dream Theater took their time as the music world speculated on who would be the chosen one.

The band was smart and went after someone with the same level of skill and perfectionism that they posses. On top of being talented, Mangini is smart. He lectured at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and has written, and published two books on polyrhythms and is a student of philosophy.

In the interview that follows, Mangini discusses how it feels being the new guy in Dream Theater and what it was like to replace Mike Portnoy. Mike also talks about how the new album came out so good and how the band’s live show is evolving as well.

Jeb: Here I am talking to the new guy.

Mike: Yes, I am the new guy. It feels like I have either been here five years, or five minutes.

Jeb: How does it feel to be a member of Dream Theater?

Mike: It is such a feeling of completeness for me. The way that I set up my drum kit is completely unique and I have never been in a band that understood how I did things. Each of the members of this band understands why I have everything set up the way I do.

I feel like a piece of me is complete. It is like when you decide to go to college, you may study business but you end up playing soccer; you just don’t know how it is all going to fit together. I have found a home for all of the craziness of my playing. I’m really a fortunate person.

Jeb: You have played with some great people in the past and had some high profile gigs. But this seems different.

Mike: It is different because everything is natural. I am talking from the things that I play, to the things that are asked of me, to the food we order, to the way we hang out and talk, and to the philosophies we share. I can’t tell you how comforting it is to be around like-minded people.

Jeb: Did you know the guys before you joined? I mean you knew James [LaBrie] from being in his band but how close were you all?

Mike: I had known James for fifteen years, but it was basically a professional relationship. We would talk and hang out but it really was really very professional. My relationship with Mike [Portnoy] was just like it is with all of the other drummers in the drum world; we all become friends and we talk about drums and drumming with each other. That was really my relationship with Dream Theater.

Jeb: You filled some big shoes in Dream Theater. Mike was a great player and a fan favorite. Were you nervous?

Mike: The nerves didn’t get to me. I’ve had approximately 46 auditions in my past and I’ve won every one of them – that includes drum contests. I won from elementary school to State in high school to drum contests to trying out for bands. I think that is because I was the same person through all of them. I worry that someone is out there working harder than me; that makes me put my head down and try harder.

When this situation came up, I was used to dealing with this type of a thing. What made this different was how I fit in. I had been practicing all of these years wondering where I would be able to use all of my skills. I had used most of them in one situation, or another, but I wanted a situation where I could use all of them. I couldn’t imagine not getting in Dream Theater.

What was different this time was that I knew I had to get into this band.

Jeb: It sounds like you’ve discovered more than a band, you’ve discovered a family.

Mike: It has got nothing to do with how it all happened. It just did happen. None of this was in my control and I am fortunate that it worked out for me. I have really made some brothers in the process.

Jeb: Dream Theater fans are more open-minded than a lot of others. Portnoy was a huge part of this band and the fans loved him. In some situations you would be a sitting duck on stage. DT fans seem to have a ‘show me’ attitude and seem really inquisitive of what you will bring to the show.

Mike: I have a ton of admiration and respect for Dream Theater. I am a huge fan of Dream Theater. As a fan, I would want them to continue after Mike left.

Jeb: I was on the fence wondering what you would bring. When I heard the new album I was blown away. The band came back with a vengeance.

Mike: St. Thomas Aquinas said that we are all a potentiality. He’s not saying we have potential, he is saying that we are something already. He looked at it like we are a spiritual being and that we have potentiality for mankind to become better. That said, we are human beings and we can use our imagination and our creativity to become better. The guys in Dream Theater are those kinds of guys.

The way I look at it with Mike is that Mike’s interest was spread out into other areas besides the drums. He was into production and press and all kinds of stuff. My thing is the same as Jordan Rudess’, John Myung’s and John Petrucci’s, we bury ourselves in practice and that is why this record came out like that. Five of us guys who think like that are all playing together.

I didn’t compose on the record but I played. You have four people practicing their own instruments, and one guy trying to reach that one note, and they are using their imaginations and creativity to become better, and that is why the record came out the way it did.

Jeb: You have to listen to the entire album.

Mike: My parents are 80, and they listen to the album and realize how great it is.

They don’t understand how difficult it is to switch to a 9/14 time signature after playing 4/4, but they understand how great it sounds. This is really the best thing I have ever been a part of.

Jeb: Were the guys in the band aware that this music, as it was being created, was this good?

Mike: The feeling is the same with the record as the show. Everyone is really digging deep. The source of that is that we are really gracious to each other.

We went out to dinner to celebrate my one year anniversary of being in the band the other night, and President George Bush was at the same place eating with Barbara. When the Secret Service guys put him in his wheelchair, after he was done, he treated them wonderfully. He said, “Thank you, that’s perfect.” If people are working for you then you need to open the door for them, once in a while, and by the way he talked to them you could tell he is that way. Everyone in this band is that way. Everyone may be tired from a long trip and a bumpy bus ride, but the reviews show what I’m trying to say, and that is that everyone is kicking butt in this entire organization.

I am trying to tell you the reason why it is like that – the reason the album and the show are that good -- is because there is a good plant coming from a good seed.

Jeb: Progressive Rock is not supposed to be in the Top 10 in this day and age. When this album charted that high it makes one wonder how Dream Theater can get normal people to listen to such complex music.

Mike: Dream Theater comes from a melodic sense; we are very progressive and melodic. The band has always had great melody.

Every once in a while, I read that a fan didn’t like the last few records, but they really like this one. There is nothing wrong with those records, and I almost find myself defending the albums. They are all amazing records because of that melodic sense. I have done my homework and I can tell you why people like this record. I have published two books on polyrhythms and I was a teacher for eleven years. What is happening is that there is a part of the brain that needs to be exposed to time changes, literally. It has to be exposed to it or it can’t compute it. Lady Gaga is in 4/4 but she has a ton of melody, so it makes sense that she is as popular as she is. Dream Theater also have the melody, but we also have a ton of time changes.

Research studies in polyrhythms have proven that no person is able to understand polyrhythms, not even in the simple stuff that Sting writes. Dream Theater is way more complex than Sting. Science understands this. People are not going to understand this until they listen to it a bit. Once they listen to it, then it starts to rewire their brain.

A lot of polyrhythms are making their way in to the public consciousness and I think it has made the public ready for Dream Theater music on a very large scale. My name is Mike; I hit things for a living. I am just somebody that is living life and trying to be happy. For my students, I studied the human mind and how people retain things and this is how I got introduced to all of this. I find it to be amazing and I find it helps me in my search for the truth.

Jeb: Is that why Dream Theater is able to be complex but still be very emotional?

Mike: It is all part of it. It is also a timing thing. It’s 2011 and Dream Theater has been around for a long time now. Dream Theater is responsible for making this kind of music popular. These guys are unmatched as a unit with the complexity of what they write and how far they go.

Jeb: Last one: I grew up a huge fan of the band Kansas. Every now and then I hear Kansas in Dream Theater. Would you agree?

Mike: I don’t know; I’m new. The rest of the guys, including Mike, created this music, so they would have to be the ones to answer that.

I think progressive music does have a lot of time changes and when I think of Kansas, I think of song and melody. I think when Dream Theater goes nuts with the time changes and the solos; they always come back to the melodic. I think it could be the math of it. I think that is what you’re hearing; that’s just my opinion.

Jeb: I am very glad to spend this time talking to the newest member of Dream Theater. I know you have to get ready to play tonight. Any final thoughts?

Mike: I appreciate how everybody is being so welcoming to me. The bottom line is that my heart is in the right place. I have worked very hard to be able to play at a certain level. One thing that I can’t change is my love for the music and my brotherhood with the guys. I appreciate the people and I am grateful. I am just going to go for it and take everything each day as it comes and see what happens next.