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Dream job: Drummer hitting it off with prog-metal legends

by Ed Masley Nov. 28, 2011

The Arizona Republic

When word hit the streets in September 2010 that Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy was leaving the progressive-metal legends after more than 20 years, a lot of fans responded to the news with such words as “irreplaceable.”

But if the history of rock and roll has taught us anything, it’s that most people, even legends, can, in fact, be replaced.

It’s only so surprising, then, that a year after Portnoy’s defection, Dream Theater had bounced back with new drummer Mike Mangini and released “A Dramatic Turn of Events.”

Their first post-Portnoy effort hit the Billboard charts in mid-September at No. 8 and became their second-highest-charting album ever. So most fans appeared willing to accept Mangini as a suitable replacement.

Here’s Mangini on how it felt to walk into a complicated dream job.

Question: Was it daunting for you to step into this role and replace the original drummer so soon after his departure?

Answer: It wasn’t daunting other than everything is daunting for me. I have this passion. It’s almost like an athlete’s approach of trying to do well at whatever I do. So being put in the position of replacing Mike, who made himself quite popular, was preempted by the fact that I’ve spent my career going at it as an athlete anyway. Once I got in there, the things that were always important to me were still important. I tried to find the best thing to play. I tried to work with everybody and just do the best I could at every aspect of this.

Q: I was reading that a lot of drum parts on this album had been programmed in advance while they were demo-ing the songs.

A: (Dream Theater guitarist) John Petrucci programmed some drum machines. In some cases, it was a skeleton. In other cases, it was kick and snare placement, which I did mimic, because after trying different things, he had come up with what I thought was the best stuff. He gave me full rein. But he’s the guitarist. He’s also the producer. So where he put the kick and the snare, most of the time, was in a place I thought was great. I had full autonomy to come up with anything and everything. And what’s great about working with him is that both of us like the same things.

Q: Did you and John get a chemistry going pretty quickly?

A: It was amazing. I don’t like to use the phrase “meant to be” because there is such a thing as free will. We can choose whatever. Nothing’s automatic. But this opportunity was clearly meant to be.

Q: Do you feel like the new guy?

A: In some small circumstances, yeah, but that’s because I am (laughs). However, for the most part, I don’t. And the reason is I’m moving forward. I feel like I’m driving and I’ve got to pay attention to the road. I’m conscious of the past to respect it, but I can see the horizon a little bit. But if I don’t concentrate on what’s going on now, there may not be a horizon. So I’m really in the moment. I don’t know any other way to live.

Q: How did working up the older songs for the tour compare to working on the new material?

A: It was similar in that I don’t want to come into this sticking out like a sore thumb. I don’t want to join Dream Theater, a band with a 20-year history, and come into it thinking about me because this is a situation with a pre-existing history, and, lucky me, I’m a fan of the pre-existing history. Lucky me, I love the pre-existing drum parts. So that makes it easy for me to not have to try too hard to see the old songs as a different thing than the new ones. I’m not Mike. Mike’s not me. But we definitely have the same influences and the same likes. So it’s not a stretch. It’s pretty easygoing for me, coming up with comfort on the old songs and pushing new boundaries now, not only on “A Dramatic Turn of Events” but on current things that we jam on at sound check. I’m really going further with my skills.

Q: You mentioned current. Are you guys already thinking about material for a next record?

A: No. It’s just for fun. I mean that from the heart. When I get on a set of drums, especially this set of drums that I’m using, I’m a happy kid. Not just a happy man. A happy kid. It’s just immediate fun coming up with drum things that I would come up with if no one was around and when Jordan (Rudess, the band’s keyboardist) or John Petucci come up with something they’re doing at sound check, something new, I jump right in. We’re not sitting there saying, “Let’s come up with stuff.” It’s just pure fun.

Q: So you were a fan going into this?

A: Absolutely. When I heard a Dream Theater song, before I joined, what I found is I was interested. They always had something spicy, something new happening, and they were loaded with melody. The way they compose on their instruments always had melody laced in with these great guitar parts. I’m not a fan of progressive stuff that doesn’t have that kind of melody, that’s just plain notey. I’m a fan of interesting music that is progressive and has melody.

Q: So this is a good fit for you?

A: Again, I have enough empirical evidence to know free will is very real, so when I say this was meant to be, I don’t know what that means. It just feels like the opportunity was going to happen and I fortunately made decisions that made me ready to respond. The only athlete that I can compare my path to is Tom Brady, the quarterback of the New England Patriots. He was drafted very late. I’m 48 years old. I was in Extreme. I toured around the world, did this and that, and it’s almost as if I was drafted in the late rounds. But I’ve always been prepared. I’ve always been the type to study and practice. So when the opportunity got passed to me, now I’m put in the game and I’m not letting anybody get in there for a play.

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic or 602-444-4495.

Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/arizonaliving/articles/2011/11/25/20111125dream-job-drummer.html#ixzz1fK7h7gCG