(From left to right): Mike Mangini, John Myung, James LaBrie, Jordan Rudess, and John Petrucci
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.