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A Smart Dude’s Guide to Fitting In: 15 Minutes with Dream Theater’s Mike Mangini

By Shelly Harris, Chicago Contributor
Monday, October 24, 2011 @ 5:26 PM

“So many things are what I'd just call natural. Not just the music but hanging out off the stage.”

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It’s an hour before the opening set on the Dream Theater/Trivium gig at the Rosemont Theater in Chicago, and new Dream Theater drummer Mike Mangini is in the foyer of his dressing room cheerfully demonstrating how he keeps up with his favorite New England Patriots while on the road: an Iphone is propped up on his gear case across from the couch.

It is immediately clear that Mangini is genuinely enthusiastic and confident - pleased as punch - to be a full member and touring with America's premier prog-metal masters Dream Theater, a band that he clearly respects on all levels ... despite the fact that it has meant filling the formidable shoes of band founder and creative force Mike Portnoy, and perhaps feeling some pressure from the hard core fans on account of it.

However, although he was initially - ostensibly - one of several drummers in contention for Portnoy’s vacated seat (and it was all part of a well-publicized and filmed audition competition), it is difficult to imagine anyone was more qualified and suited for the position, or that he was ever anything less than the first round draft pick.

After all, Mangini, with origins in the Boston area - just like the band itself - has an equally impeccable professional pedigree. A virtual wunderkind on the drums when he first started playing at age 4 or 5, he went on to win many wildly varying drumming awards, while mastering diverse and eclectic styles and genres. Along the way, as his online bios will more fully elaborate, he has been the regular member (or special guest) of many bands of note, including Annihilator, Extreme, Steve Vai, Dale Bozzio, and - perhaps not coincidentally - he also drummed on various solo efforts by Dream Theater frontman James LeBrie.

However, more recently he was on the faculty at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music - at least until he was tabbed for the Dream Theater seat in recent months – and also wound up playing on the most recent DT album, A Dramatic Turn of Events, and the subsequent tour going on right now.

Despite the fact that it causes him to miss the Sunday NFL game action, Mangini is up for a mini pre-show interview, and comes off as cordial and down-to-earth, just like the rest of the band are reputed to be, regardless of a rumored stipulation that they insist on no visitors or socializing in the hour or so before show time.

Mangini does apologize emphatically for the limited time, though; it can be inferred that such limitations before shows have offended some in the past – and not just interviewers . Apologetically, and without any prompting, he later says:

"It really gets to me, because I feel so guilty, so bad, but, in the end, what if people who paid to see the show, didn't see the best show, because I didn't do what I should be doing? That's not fair, and that is my first obligation, to the people in this audience. In order for all of us to be happy - happy with the music onstage - we don't feel well if we don't get that warm up. It becomes difficult, though, because there's so many people I know in each city, either friends, family, company people, and I want to hang out, but I can't do that before the show, I can't!“

Thus, with an eye close on the clock, we cut to the chase:

KNAC.COM: You're from Boston, just like Dream Theater and you have an illustrious past - from what I've read, it appears you were practically a child prodigy.

MANGINI: Well (laughs) I remember not being able to walk ... and sort of beating on the cans! And my parents purchased a little toy, paper-skin sort of drumset when I was three.

KNAC.COM: And you were playing at family gatherings by the time you were five? You mentioned before that you had a phobia about bright lights in your face that started with that.

MANGINI: I can tell you something, the last show we did, inn the middle of my solo, I looked up at one point and there was that white light! And I forgot to play the most complex thing that I put in my solos - left side versus right side multi-polyrhythms. I don't know where I went for a second, but it really does mess with my brain a little bit ... and I just can't seem to beat it!

KNAC.COM: And you studied under a private teacher at one time yourself, didn't you?

MANGINI: His name is Walter Tokarczyk and I am the luckiest - all of us, the drummers who studied with this man -- are the luckiest people, ever! Because this guy knew how to tell us what he was telling us. He gave us a reason all the time, and he backed up what he said. He said it in a way where we understood WHY he was giving us these exercises.

KNAC.COM: You have a diverse musical background - from jazz, to classical, to metal, and everything in between - which surely must help you now with Dream Theater.

MANGINI: My brother would purchase records and give them to me to learn. And, each time he did that, he would say: Check out this drummer. That was always exciting to me. The Beatles - that was out of my control - that was just being played in my house. But then, it's when he started to play Blood, Sweat and Tears - and that was really some advanced drumming - and I liked it! And I tried to mimic it … and he then gave me Maynard Ferguson records, and Buddy Rich, and then I discovered Led Zeppelin on my own! (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Well, I'm sure you have influenced - and will continue to influence – other drummers yourself, but who would you say are your influences?

MANGINI: I can name seven of them, but I'm influenced by everyone from my own students to a lot of popular drummers now, like Dennis Chambers who plays for Santana, Horacio Hernandez, who is the greatest Latin drummer walking the face of the Earth! And I've literally sat down to mimic these guys in recent years. The same with Virgil Donati and Marco Minnemann - my buddies. [The latter two also auditioned for Dream Theater along with Mangini.] They were really advancing themselves with rhythm combinations and I was home making babies and things, and wasn't practicing as much! And these guys, they were constantly out there pushing it! But, my earliest influences were Ringo Starr, Danny Seraphine from Chicago - and we're in Chicago now! (laughs) And Bobby Columbo, Buddy Rich, John Bonham, Neil Peart, and Terry Bozzio.

KNAC.COM: And I noticed you've played on a couple of Dale Bozzio's records ....

MANGINI: Yes! That was just such a treat to try to play Terry's parts!

KNAC.COM: And drummers kind of have their own informal club, don't they? So, is it a healthy kind of competition sometimes?

MANGINI: Oh! Most drummers are so wonderful ... and a part of this - I don't know if I'd call it a cult, because that word sparks other connotations - but it's a sub culture, this drum clinic world! Most drummers are supportive of each other and get along.

KNAC.COM: And you had connections in Dream Theater before you ever auditioned. I mean, in addition to being from the Boston area too, you played on albums with other members of the band in the past ....

MANGINI: Yes, I'm on three albums with James LeBrie, and I was the first drummer that Mike Portnoy brought on stage to play with the band.

KNAC.COM: So, would you say that you already had a comfortable relationship with the guys even before you auditioned?

MANGINI: Well.... I'm not sure how to answer that. The reason I say that is because, with James, I've known him for 13 years, but, we weren't talking about ice hockey games in-between. I'd get a call, and he'd say, "Would you like to play on another one of my records?" - and we'd hang out for a few days, and then, every once in a while, when Dream Theater came through town, either Mike or James would invite me to the show.

KNAC.COM: Oh, so it sounds more like a professional relationship.

MANGINI: Yeah … yeah.

KNAC.COM: But, I know if Boston is like Chicago, it's really a small world for musicians as far as knowing other musicians. I would imagine it's like that in Boston. So, I would think that you were pretty much on the same page in a lot of ways, with the guys in DT. You grew up in the same area, are about the same age, and were probably influenced by a lot of the same things, and have the same mindset that would allow you to segue into the band smoothly without too much trauma!

MANGINI: Yes. So many things are what I'd just call natural. Not just the music but hanging out off the stage. Things we discuss every night, because we do hang out, we go to dinner a lot. We do feel in similar ways about a lot of things.

KNAC.COM: And, evidently, you're really enjoying this now?

MANGINI: I'm really enjoying my time because - on and off the field - it's a very natural state for me to be in. I don't have to be anybody else.

KNAC.COM: But what about Berklee College where you were teaching? That was a whole different kind of thing, wasn't it? And you were doing software engineering in one past life too, weren't you.

MANGINI: Well, I never got any degree from my software engineering. The thing is, I went to college for a year and a half, and I left for music, but ended up getting a job for Raytheon [of the U.S. Army Patriot Missile program] in the software department, and I went down to school at night and I started to accumulate more credits and Physics courses and that helped me to understand how it all works. It really was great for my brain. It's interesting, because studying all that other stuff, I was just sitting in my office one day, in the break room, and I just though, I gotta get out of here! It wasn't that I didn't like That. It was just that my body wasn't even right - I need to be onstage! Berklee was the same way. Eventually, after four years or so, I really wanted to leave. I'll never stop teaching; I enjoy it immensely… But working in a building, no matter what it is, I'm thinking I need to be on the stage! The orange lights, so I did everything I could to do it!

KNAC.COM: Even thought it means you’re away from home now?

MANGINI: Well, even my wife clearly saw that I needed to be in a band - even though she never knew me as that person, because we met under a completely different set of circumstances. She didn't even see me play the drums for I don't know how long! So, now I'm squared away, and it's good that I'm here!

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