Dream Theater drummer Mike Mangini: "I play like a Bruce Lee punch”

(Image credit: Robert Downs)

Few drummers have had to endure the sort of scrutiny that Mike Mangini has faced ever since he beat out a squad of top contenders to fill the vacant drum throne in progressive metal’s torchbearers Dream Theater back in 2010. 

But Mangini has risen to the challenge and on Distance Over Time, his fourth studio album with the band, both the drummer and Dream Theater sound fired up. “It’s four albums in, so I’m excited,” says Mangini.

Before the Dream Theater gig came along, Mangini had played thrash metal with Annihilator, funky hard rock with Extreme, and all manner of mind-bending music with Steve Vai. 

He’s toured with Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci as part of the G3 tour, has held several records with the World’s Fastest Drummer organisation, taught at the prestigious Berklee College Of Music in Boston, and possesses a formidable level of technical ability. 

His 2013 DVD, The Grid, laid out his approach to creative improvisation and his career is testament to the rewards of dedication to mastering a craft. 

Yet, as he tells us here in a candid interview, he feels he’s in a no-win situation in which some fans will never be happy that he replaced Mike Portnoy in Dream Theater, no matter what he does. 

But that’s their loss. Mangini’s drumming on Distance Over Time is inventive, challenging and always tied to the music he’s playing. His intimidating chops and imposing drum setup are just the icing on the cake...

The band sounds ferocious on the new album!

“Thank you. For me, personally, showing up there was electricity coming off of me. For all of us. I was a lot more involved, so it was much more exciting.”

You sequestered yourselves away in the Yonderbarn in the Catskills to make the album?

“The interesting thing is I’ve been through a lot of life experiences and found that sometimes when you want to get away from something, it’s not as good as when you’re going towards something. 

“Kind of like if you’re 22: ‘I’m going to move and I’ll just get a job when I get there. I’ll figure it out.’ That’s not as good as, ‘Let’s take a minute here. I don’t like where I am, I need to go somewhere else.’ 

“Yes, we’re getting away from plenty of things, but we’re going to be hanging out together because we are a bunch of guys that get along well.”

Watching the video for ‘Untethered Angels’, your cymbals are placed so high above you!

“Here we go! The cymbals! I went to an extreme to make it so the cymbals would be louder and more clear in the final mix. That stuff is out of my hands, it’s always been out of my hands, so I was trying to do everything possible to make it so that they were as clean as could be because there is so much leakage from my kit. 

“I hit harder than people think. I don’t look like I hit hard, but I’m scientifically measured, I’m hitting as hard at 20 beats a second as at four beats a second. It doesn’t look like it, I look like a robot, but that’s because I play like a Bruce Lee punch. 

“My snare drum has been so cracking and so loud that it has distorted the overheads, yet on a record it comes out sounding different because engineers have to deal with it differently. 

“So I’m like, ‘Okay, let me get the overheads out of the way, way up. In fact, there were no overheads, the mics were underneath, aiming up to get away from how hard I hit the snare. It doesn’t look like it, I know that. With Dream Theater, I’m in the band, but I’ve been down on the totem pole as far as direction. 

“I don’t have anything to do with the final things that get done. This one, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to put these cymbals way up high.’ It’s different than if I record on my own. I’ve been songwriting on my own and engineering and producing my own stuff, so that’s different. 

“I’m a drummer hearing the drums from behind the stool. It’s totally different than anybody else. It’s not any better, it’s just different, it’s how I hear it. If someone else is on the other side of the glass or out in front of the drums, it just sounds different so it’s going to be treated differently. That’s how things are, so I tried to do everything possible to get those cymbals way, way up.”

I was asked to tune down the snare drum on the Dream Theater self-titled album. I couldn’t even play it, I didn’t like it at all, but I did it. I was lambasted for it too. Lambasted, hated, called out, ridiculed, unfairly called unbelievable names. I never once went online and said, ‘Stop calling me those names.’

In the same video, you’re playing a single bass drum in the studio, rather than two bass drums like you use live?

“Again, I’m just making changes out of necessity. I just wanted a slightly bigger sound that was completely natural in the room. I know the sound of the drum is going to leak in that setting. 

“It’s really how the drums sound right in the room. Having a single kick, it’s more about the stereo effect. I switch my feet. Sometimes, I’m leading with my left foot, sometimes with my right. 

“I’m playing bass drums patterns, for example, in ‘Untethered Angels’. It may sound very simple but when that song cuts into the verse and I’m playing along with the guitar, you can play that part entering with the right foot, going R, R, R, and throwing the left in [as the skip note], R, R, L, R, but I played it L, R, L, R. 

“Having the single kick puts the sound in the centre. Jimmy T [engineer] and me talked about part of the soundscape for the drums on this album as being to use more of the room sound. 

“If there are two separate bass drums, you’re going to hear one slightly to the left and one slightly to the right. It’s more about the stereo sound being in the middle and a little bigger with the 24" kick but I’ve got to hit it way harder.”

What’s the secret to getting a big, powerful drum sound? Do you have to hit hard while being careful not to choke the drums?

“It’s got nothing to do with me anymore, it hasn’t for well over a decade. Players play really light and end up sounding very powerful on records, depending on how it’s treated in the final stages. 

“It’s about the final stage treatment that changes everything. This is according to taste. Look at the speed in death metal, if those drums are cranked, it’s not possible. 

“You hit a lot lighter past a certain threshold and a lot of death metal players are using their fingers. It’s not being played loudly. It’s very light. 

“I know plenty of players can hit the drums and there are a few who can really whack it and the beaters are coming back, the beater can come back far but the sound is still not transient. 

“Engineers know what I’m talking about there. To make the bass drum really have transience, you’ve got to bury the beater into the skin and hit it with force from your butt, your back and your legs. 

“There are certain speeds no human is going to hit doing that. I’m smacking it and it doesn’t look like it because I’m hitting from my hamstring and from my back. I’m not going to get those wicked speeds, I have to do different things to do that and then it doesn’t sound right if it’s real. 

“There are editors that are hired to go in and clean up every single hit, they re-trigger the sound on the top. It can be done, it’s just the final stage. This whole thing about sounding powerful has got zero to do with me. 

“I have all my raw drum tracks to a lot of records, you can hear I’m smacking the drums and the snare is cracking, the snare is so loud it becomes a problem. 

“On LaBrie’s second Mullmuzzler record I did, not only that but on one of the Annihilator records, All For You, I distorted the overheads, not the snare mic, with the snare so I know what the real deal is. This is final production stuff these days.”

You said in the past that when you first joined Dream Theater on A Dramatic Turn Of Events, you were thinking, ‘What do they want me to sound like?’ Presumably that’s no longer still the case?

“That is correct. I would love for the plain drum tracks to be released. No instrument sounds the same once you put 100 tracks over it. Tons of tracks. It just never sounds the same once you put the guitar on top of it. It just doesn’t. 

“My soul is in a lot of that but then I’m produced the whole way. I relied on John. I don’t want to change the band’s sound, these fans are used to something: ‘What do you need me to do here? Do you like this? What do you think?’ 

“A lot of stuff you hear on the Dream Theater records, I’m winging on the spot. I’m just playing. He’s like, ‘Okay, fine,’ or ‘No, try something else.’ He helped me a lot.”

(Image credit: Robert Downs)

You went to Pearl to build a new rack for this album. Your kit seems to evolve constantly?

“The latest development is a clearing of space and a lessening of stuff. I’m setting up as little as I possibly can. If anyone looks at my kit and doesn’t understand what I mean when I say I set-up as little as possible: to follow 88 notes on a keyboard, I don’t have 88 drums to play it exactly, but I do need at least something that represents an octave. 

“Mike [Portnoy]’s done that on a few songs. [Terry] Bozzio follows it more exactly. I lessened my setup and cleared up space. The cymbals are up higher, I’m playing them live like that in the video, I’m bringing it to the stage. 

“It’s a challenge, my shoulders are killing me, I’m going to try to do it, we’ll see what happens. I’ve removed the two smallest drums. I’ve had to relearn some parts, I’ve switched things around. 

“I have to play things in reverse because my 12" tom is going to be on the right side instead of the left, and my 14" tom is going to be on the left side instead of the right. 

“My 16" tom is going be on the right instead of the left and my 18" tom is going to be on the left instead of the right, so I’m relearning parts. My body is like, ‘Oh no!’ I’ve also invented something called a gong floor tom. 

“I’m moving my 14" tom and turning it into a gong. My 14", 16", 18" and 20" are all going to be the same kind of drum. They’re all going to be gong drums. I still have to set it up for the first time and try it, so we’ll see if it makes it to the live stage. I think it will.”

So there will be no bottom heads on those drums?

“That’s right. Those drive engineers insane. We’ll see what happens. I’m a flexible person. When I did A Dramatic Turn Of Events I was flexible with what was needed in the band. When I’ve joined any band, I’ve been flexible.

“I’ve answered to a greater calling, I’m not all about what I want to do, me, and how I play. When I did the G3 tour I asked the engineers, ‘Do you want me to raise the cymbals? Do you want me to change anything? What do you want me to do?’ Every new engineer I work with says, ‘Wow, you actually ask me what I think?’ 

“I was asked to tune down the snare drum on the Dream Theater self-titled album. I couldn’t even play it, I didn’t like it at all, but I did it. I was lambasted for it too. Lambasted, hated, called out, ridiculed, unfairly called unbelievable names. I never once went online and said, ‘Stop calling me those names.’ 

“I found it to be a challenge, that’s all I ever said about it. I enjoyed that I was challenged, I don’t diss it in any way. I have nothing negative to say about it. Yes, I said I didn’t like it on a personal level, but what I mean is I didn’t necessarily like having to re-do how I played because the drum head was looser. 

“I didn’t necessarily gravitate to the sound so much because I like the snare drum tuned higher and all that, but I understood that it was just a different idea. I went with the flow and what was really cool about it was learning something from it. 

“Let me say something, all those comments dissing it were extremely hypocritical because Images And Words is totally resampled with a lower-sounding, thicker drum. Completely. 

“Many records have a real low-sounding snare that sounds similar to that record, so it’s not a bad sound. I just went with the flow. I’m just speaking the truth about that.”

And you’re mic’ing the cymbals from below?

“I have the microphones underneath, so I’m getting more clarity, but I have recorded drums at home with that kind of mic’ing and patched them on records that nobody has heard, but if someone else gets hold of it, it comes back and I can barely hear my cymbals. 

“When I mix it, the cymbals are as loud as they are for real. The cymbals are louder than the kick drums in reality. If you sit behind a drum-set, you know it’s true. Cymbals are louder than bass drums when you’re sitting on the stool. 

“If the bass drum is muffled a little bit it goes ‘dook’, but those hi-hats make you deaf. Most drummers are probably deaf in the 3K range, like me. Legitimately considered deaf in that range because the decibel loss is so great. 

“I’m mic’ing accordingly and my cymbals are up high to make it easier for other people to deal with it so I can get more clarity and really be heard with what I’m actually playing. If those cymbals aren’t really loud, you’re not going to really hear what I’m doing, you’re not going to hear my feel. 

“A drummer’s feel is with the notes that are in-between, not these big kick and snare drums that go ‘boom!’ and ‘bang!’ That’s not where the feel is. Those are on the grid hits, it’s the stuff in-between that gives a drummer their feel and if you can’t hear it, how the heck are you going to know what the real drummer’s feel is? 

“That’s only going to happen if the ghost notes or the in-between notes on the other instruments are loud. If they’re not loud you’re not going to hear them and if you can’t hear them you’re not going to know they’re there. That’s just the way it is.”

Yeah, I’m under a microscope. I’m adjusting to that but I’m not going to let it dictate so that I change my set-up again

People get obsessed about the drumset you use with Dream Theater, but you used a much smaller setup with John Petrucci on the G3 tour, for instance?

“That was a four-piece kit and I loved it. I’m really carrying my true self into these environments. At least I’m bringing it, it doesn’t mean it’s always communicated because I’ll never make my own sound live or on record unless I do it. 

“I’m never going to be able to do that live because I can’t run out front, but I do take myself into it. What I mean by that is I feel like I’m the same guy as when I’m home by myself but when I’m out in a studio recording a record, I feel like people are coming into my home saying, ‘Stop having fun. Whoa, what are you doing? Why do you need that?’ 

My response is, ‘Why is it your business what I need? Or, ‘Well, you need ‘x’ amount of drums to do this’. Actually, no, I don’t. I choose to span the range of the keyboard or guitar instruments on the drums so I can match it. 

“I choose to orchestrate in that fashion. I don’t need to, I like to and there’s a difference. I feel like I’ve always been tapped on the shoulder, ‘Hey, you can’t do that!’ Yes, I can, and watch me. 

“For example, the Trashformer cymbal. ‘You can’t bend a cymbal like that!’ Oh yeah? Armand Zildjian said it was his favourite effects cymbal and then it got made because Armand Zildjian got my prototype. 

“He’s like, ‘This is great, this works, it sounds insane, let’s bend a bunch of cymbals.’ The cable hi-hat – ‘You can’t do that, you can’t criss-cross them like that.’ Watch me do it.

“‘Why do you have four hi-hats? You don’t need four hi-hats!’ Actually, in order for me to switch sides and have one closed while my left foot is busy I need one on the right side that’s closed, I need it because I can’t close both sides at the same time and keep my feet on the kick drums too, I’d need four feet. So I’m going to do it anyway. 

“What about setting up the drums the way I do, perfectly symmetrical? This is not partially symmetrical. It’s the only one you have to be able to play fully lefty as efficiently as you do righty to do it. Not hit something with your left hand, it’s not sticking a floor tom on the left, it’s not putting a step hi-hat on your right side. 

“It’s completely and utterly, totally reversing it in your brain and the reason I do it is to play music in the way that I do. I don’t always have to have it. For G3, I didn’t even want it. I chose not to. 

“I wanted a nice little four-piece kit that was easy for setup so I could see and I could take drum parts in my mind where I was hearing things and convert it to a small kit as a challenge. It was fun.”

You replaced a revered member of Dream Theater. Do you still feel like you’re under a microscope??

“I’m in a no-win situation in Dream Theater on some level and that’s okay with me. Apparently, I can’t get away with going along with many fans that don’t like that it’s not the original line-up. Maybe I wouldn’t like that either if I was a fan. 

“For me to publicly say, ‘I feel bad for you guys,’ and apologise, ‘Gee, I’m sorry, your favourite guy left, I’m really sorry about that,’ but to then hear crap because I’m nice about it? How can you give me crap? It’s just the truth and I’m not being humble, I’m just telling the truth. 

“Yeah, I’m under a microscope. I’m adjusting to that but I’m not going to let it dictate so that I change my set-up again. I’m not going to let it dictate so I don’t choose to play all of Mike’s original parts. I made a couple of changes last tour and I got wind that a bunch of people hated what I was doing in some of the songs. 

“But if I match him exactly, people hate that too, they call me creepy. That’s why I say a no-win situation. If I match the part exactly, let’s just say that even the live tempos were time-coded out perfectly to exactly how he played the records, every one of them, I matched every drum and I set up my drums like him, I mean I’m in a no-win situation there – that’s creepy. 

“And if I change it completely, then I know what the response to that is – I can’t play his parts. I can’t win. All I can do is just do what I think is right and tell the truth, and what I think is right is that his parts are very correct and musical and I like them a lot.

“I don’t think that’s a sin that I really like a lot of Mike’s parts. I have the right to not like everything, to change some fills or some main beats. I just want to change them and that’s just the way it is. I have that right and I’m not going to let anybody dictate it to me because I’m under the microscope. 

“I think that it’s proper to play the parts the way they are recorded, I like them, I’m going to be different by default. That microscope is the truth and I’m handling it in the right way, I think. I’m trying to do the right thing and when I say the right thing, people change the definition of what they think is right or wrong, but I think it is correct to play the songs the way that people know them. 

“I think it is correct to do as good as I can, to play as much of it as I can in a mimic kind of way and I think it is correct to change some things that I feel would be appropriate, like drum fills that aren’t the standard ones. 

“For example, if anybody jumped into Dream Theater and changed every single fill, when people are air-drumming that’d take away a lot of the fun for fans, so I’ve got to play some of them. 

“Some of them I like, some of them I don’t. Some of them, I’m like, ‘I’m changing it,’ or I’ll play it leftie just to keep myself occupied, just to do something that puts my heart into it. 

“If I play everything, I’m a creep, if I don’t, I can’t do it, and that makes me bad for some reason. I’m just being me the way I want to be me, hate it, love it, not care, care, whatever. That is what it is, but when I join bands, I’ve got to respect the music first.”

Do you miss the academic world from your time at Berklee where you could explore your art free from commercial considerations?

“The answer to the question is: it depends. I miss what you’re talking about. I do like sharing, I like being an influence on people one-on-one. I miss that aspect, I miss absorbing myself like I did with Latin rhythms learning from my colleagues and peers where I had a chance to actually understand what I wasn’t playing right about the Latin swing. 

“I learned it from Horacio [Hernandez] doing drum clinics, so if I wasn’t in those environments, I never would have learned it. I needed to be out there with the best guys doing it, but I also needed to be in the school environment going back and forth with students and having books for reference and time to sit and study and talk about this. 

“Yes, I miss it in that way. It’s not the same salary and the unfortunate thing about it is when people teach at a college, they should be equally out there in the real work environment, like a lawyer who has a law practice and then teaches on the side. 

“You can’t be in a full-time band and be in a college at the same time, so some balance has to happen there. There isn’t a system of substitutes. 

“Oftentimes, what will be said to a teacher is, ‘The student signed up with you.’ No, the student signed up for the material. Making things personal is not the way to do it. Being personal means trying to say the student signed up to the teacher who is distinctly different from the material and the curriculum. 

“To say, ‘You can’t leave, you’re supposed to be here for ‘x’ amount of weeks, you can’t go out and be missing for five of them because the student complains.’ I can’t exist like that given that I need to be out there in the real world to get Horacio’s take on Latin and then take it back to the school. 

“I need to be on a magazine cover so students recognise me and go to the school because the teachers are more famous, but they can’t be more famous if they’re locked into the school completely. And they’re more and more locked to the school. 

“And then there’s the burden of pay. How is a teacher to be paid enough to do this full-time when they can’t even supplement their income unless they’re out there gigging, which kills them because their schedules get weird? 

“This is a really tough balance. I would not want to be running a college trying to manage this. It’s a difficult call, but there is a balance to it.”

You were closely associated with the World’s Fastest Drummer for some time. Is that still part of your practice now?

“No, it is not. I need to say, there is no World’s Fastest Drummer, I never thought that I was, and I definitely know that I am not with many different aspects. There are so many different mechanical things to be done on a drumset in so many different ways. 

“I will only claim one thing about my whole involvement with it and something I really do like and I’m most proud of and that’s the bare hands World Record because that says a lot. 

“I was trying to say something with that, I was trying to communicate that people who wanted to have more power and be better at the drums could use that as an example to say that can really be done. 

“Those speeds can really be played with a bare hand as single individual hits without bouncing or anything. That’s all I was trying to do with that. 

“I think Jotan Afanador has the fastest single strokes in a minute. He’s the guy that finished at 1199, but he actually broke 1200 before me, it’s just that at one point, videos weren’t allowed. 

“Jotan was there before me and Jotan is much cleaner than me. I don’t even like my hand records. My hand records are all-out muscular, they’re not even clean drumming. It’s all muscle. 

“Tom [Grosset], the new kid, his hits are much cleaner than mine too. I think that with the WFD, it was bad timing for Jotan, but I’m going on record here that if I have any say, Jotan is the number one because he did significantly into the 1200s and he did it clean. 

“So, no, it’s not part of my thing. What’s part of my thing and always will be is what went into the bare hands record. 

“Look at what George Kollias and other people are doing. George is playing flat out completely 100 percent faster than me in every way. Would he be faster playing bare hands and hitting at full volume? Probably not. 

“But that’s different. All-out endurance, speed, my god, I wouldn’t even pretend to try to want to play anything he does. I can’t even carry his underwear, so I don’t even want to be put in the same thing as those guys. 

“If you count my muscle spasms, then I can play 300bpm pretty strong at times. Musicianship is a different thing, but I give credit where credit is due.”

How do you want to develop your technique moving forwards?

“My path going forward is that I’m evolving in many ways at will. I don’t evolve by any kind of randomness or accident. Every bit of it comes from will; will is the source. It’s something very real, probably more real than the flesh and bones. 

“With my will, I’m evolving on a path as a drummer and as a songwriter. I’m evolving to be much more comfortable being under a microscope and I want to help people and share my path. 

“I am honest. I just want other people to be honest too. I want people to know the truth. My path is to communicate what I’m really playing and doing, that I’m trying to grow with how I deal with working so that other people who want to work as a musician know that they have to succumb to greater goods. If you play in someone else’s band, learn the music. 

“I’m evolving as a drummer. I’ve been improvising so much more in the last decade, I’m playing with more confidence with that improvisation. 

“I’m also playing a little differently now with the Dream Theater stuff. Yes, I’m adhering to the parts but I’m not going to worry about what I change or what I don’t change. My drumset is always evolving, I’m trying to reduce some things, but there are things I need and I’m evolving where I don’t really care what anyone says or thinks. 

“Don’t like it? I’ve got a job and I’m the one in a magazine, so if you don’t like it, go ahead and be that guy in the magazine and say what you think. 

“You can call me out if I’m speaking anything that’s not true, or you can call me out if you don’t like it, that’s fine, but at least offer something that’s positive because people read these words and we have to try to help each other out and get through a lot of trials in life. 

“We have to help each other out. I think that’s really the bottom line here.”