INTERVIEW: Dream Theater’s Mike Mangini & Jordan Rudess

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Dream Theater are the long-reigning kings of the progressive rock/metal scene. Prog had been relatively dormant until their breakthrough 1992 album Images & Words showed the world that music-college-level chops and post-Metallica metal aggression could go hand in hand. The Dream Theater of 2014 has undergone some line-up changes since those days – keyboard player Jordan Rudess has been with the band since 1999, and drummer Mike Mangini is on his second album with the band now – but they’ve never held back in delivering intense, multi-layered, expertly executed compositions and powerful live shows. They’re heading back to Australia in October for shows in Sydney and Melbourne (tickets here), so I caught up with Rudess and Mangini for a chat about it.

This is Australia’s first chance to see you live since Mike Mangini joined.
Rudess: He’s very settled in. It’s been a great time for Dream Theater, quite honestly. I don’t think we’ve ever had this kind of show. The energy of the band is just wonderful and it’s in a very great place. We feel that we’re offering the best show we’ve ever had, really, production-wise. It’s the biggest, grandest show. It’s ‘An Evening With…’ and we’re playing music from a lot of different albums. There’s a little bit of focus on the new album but also a tribute to different anniversaries that we have with other albums. There’s a lot of video, a lot of really cool lighting… it should be a fantastic time for Dream Theater fans and also people who haven’t checked out Dream Theater before to come and see what we’re all about.

Well judging from the Live at Luna Park DVD you released recently, you guys really seem to be having fun on stage these days.
Rudess: It’s so much fun. It really is. Speaking of Mike Mangini, he is such an incredible drummer. He’s so consistent, he’s so powerful and his energy is so uplifting that when we walk onstage it’s not only a high for the audience but it makes us feel really good. You’ll see when we get there. Obviously we need to talk about it [in interviews] but there’s nothing like the energy of the band. And I have to say that in all the years I’ve been in Dream Theater this is definitely the high point.

Mike, I first saw you in Australia with Steve Vai back in 1997… 

Mangini: Wow! Yes, I’ve been there with Steve and then at least twice on my own for clinic runs with DrumScene magazine and I’m actually gonna do some clinics after the Dream Theater tour. I’m gonna stay there.

What does a clinic with Mike Mangini involve?
Mangini: Well the clinic involves me playing and entertaining people, and then I do a presentation based on the product sponsors, gearing what I say and play towards the use of that product and why I use them, and I give demonstrations of the application of that in the music – either Dream Theater music or practicing or something that somebody might request. I usually get asked a lot of questions about the mechanics, the speed, the practicing, the pattern recognition, musical styles… people want to know how to do things, so that’s the focus.

What are the problems that people are coming to you for help with?
Mangini: Oh if you look at everything that can be played on a drum set… which I will, I actually organise that in my DVD; everything that has ever been played, everything that could ever be played and everything that will ever be played from now until the planet burns up is on one page. The thing is, once people see what is only possible then you start to work backwards so when someone has an issue it could be an infinite amount of things but basically it’s with the mechanics and the understanding of what they’re doing, so a lot of times what they can’t play is really a lack of understanding. So to answer your question, I focus on explaining what something is. It’s very philosophical a very Marcus Aurelius approach, a Roman emperor who had an amazing way of solving issues; if you have an issue with something you ask “What is it?” And it’s funny but most things are difficult to deal with when you ask that question, “What is it?”, y’know? Write an essay on what anything is, it’s really hard to do it! But that is in essence what happens. People go “I have a problem with speed; how do I get faster with my hands?” Well, what is speed? What are your hands? What are they made of? How do they work? I end up showing them that they have a lot of other muscles and a lot of thoughts that are associated with either the lack of speed or the attaining of it. And when I break it down they’re able to then achieve it when they work hard enough. That’s how I get through Dream Theater songs. I break the songs up into chunks in my head and I say “Okay, what’s next? Oh it’s this shape. What’s next? Oh, turn my head, look over here, here comes that bass part.” And I talk to myself while I hear the subdivision of time in my head because I work with metronomes so much that I can imagine sound. So I’m hearing my own voice, I’m hearing time divided into subdivisions, and I’m hearing my drums, I’m listening to the other musicians and I’m this mental zone. It’s pretty deep.

Now that the self-titled album has been out for about a year, how do you feel about it?
Rudess: Well it’s funny, people ask me all the time what my favourite Dream Theater album is and it’s hard to say because I get so attached when I’m in the middle of making them. But at this point I’d have to say that the new album is a favourite. So much love and care went into it. It’s not like I listen to it all the time; no, not at all. I put out these albums and then I kinda shelve them. But the reality of going around the world and playing it is just so wonderful. I just feel like we put so much into it. Nobody in this band is lazy at all; we’re so energised and we try to do our best work, and it’s rewarding to go out and share all the music with our fans, especially the new album which is so close to our hearts.

Dream TheaterSo what’s it like, being the drummer in Dream Theater? It’s the dream job for a lot of drummers!
Mangini: It’s been a major point in my life with the fulfilment of what I want to be and who I want to be. My path up until that point was that I had been in bands or working as a drummer and I got to the point where I really didn’t want to work for someone else and be at someone else’s whim because you’re not paid retainer sometimes, you’re hired when you’re hired and you’ve gotta look for jobs in between. I took a job at Berklee College and I started to really bloom over there in terms of learning way more things than I thought. There was so much to make me think, because I was being asked so many different things by students. I dug in and I did well there but the thing is I was taken away from what I loved the most, which was playing. And once you start to teach at a college, they say ‘This is your main gig,’ and I understand what they mean; it’s my main income. That’s what it is. But the main gig is in my heart, y’know? That’s playing, and you teach based on playing. Eventually I had to play more. I didn’t find a way to let both worlds exist – well, I did but then there were some changes happening there and then the opportunity for me to take advantage of gigs and things got squashed so I didn’t wanna live with that. I became open to getting into a band and lo and behold, the opportunity hit me. I had to be prepared for it though, and I really wasn’t physically prepared for it although I was emotionally prepared for it. I don’t know how but I somehow… no, you know what it is? I do know how: my pattern recognition is really high and I also work with very, very large, multi-simultaneous time signatures. I don’t do the typical five and seven at the same time – which is really difficult, y’know? But I’m doing stuff that is rare. I don’t know who else is doing the 19 and 18 at the same time, 17 and 21 at the same time. Usually it’s very small numbers at the same time. So when Dream Theater tested me I got everything the first time because it was only one thing, it wasn’t even two things at the same time, and it was bars of seven and six and eight and four. That’s really far below what my pattern recognition is capable of, so I was able to be a musician. In other words, it wasn’t technical to me, it was easy. No matter how that sounds, it was, and I was able to do everything the first time they asked me and make music with it. I’m still doing that to this day with them. It was a liberation of the spirit. Y’know, today the word ‘liberal’ has been completely perverted. A lot of words are perverted. ‘Choice’ doesn’t mean ‘choice,’ it means someone else is making a choice who doesn’t get a choice. People don’t look up what words mean, and the word ‘liberal’ used to mean liberation of the spirit, not liberation of the human, like human nature: “Don’t tell me what to do, don’t tell me who to sleep with.” The original word is very religious in nature and it has to do with spiritual liberation. Get away from human nature and move toward who you should be as a person fulfilling all these gifts you’ve been given. And for me it was a true liberation. And I know that’s a lengthy explanation and you’ll have to squelch my words down into one sentence instead of five sentences, but I want you to know what I mean. So for me, getting that phone call, getting that opportunity, it was liberating for my spirit, because I had set up a drum set but had nobody that let me play my drums. Really, really let me go, y’know? It was great with Vai. I was able to be a bit more myself but I was also working for Steve. And what made me really happy working for Steve was that his ideas were things that turned me on. For example, Vai was one of the few people that would tell me every note to play sometimes, but I liked that, and that’s why we got along. We got along because I liked what he told me, because he told me unorthodox stuff. And we laughed! We had a lot of humour. We came up with drum parts that were just funny. I don’t mean that it’s funny to hit the seventh note of an 11-note run, but he and I would laugh about it, that I could do it, or that he heard it in his mind. We were a team, we were like soul mates with that stuff. And now with Dream Theater it’s a sense of fulfilment that I’m in a band where there are five of us all moving in the same direction. And that’s why I cried [upon being named new Dream Theater drummer]; because I wanted liberation of the spirit. It’s part of the gifts I’ve been given. It was really emotional for me.

Well just there you’ve described the whole life, the whole internal struggle of a musician.
Mangini: Yeah! It’s like, we don’t care about money, we just want to be happy playing. But you can’t say that because that’s not how the world works. It’s not reality. So what we have to do is, look, a career is number three as far as importance in life. You’ve got things like your spirit and health and family. You don’t have to do something that in addition to providing an income makes us the happiest people ever, because we’re never going to be happy anyway, right? Not everybody’s gonna be fully fulfilled anyway. A career is something that you do. But those of us who are musicians who really want to play, it’s really a great feeling.

One last question: Jordan, you played on David Bowie’s Heathen album. What was that like?
Rudess: I had a great time with him! He was very verbally-descriptive and he was great at putting together verbal scenarios to put me in the mood to play whatever track he wanted. One day I walked in and there were two pianos, a Steinway baby grand and a really funky upright. I thought “Okay, I’ll definitely be playing the Steinway.” But no, David’s piano was this funky upright and he was having it especially tuned for this album. Then producer Tony Visconti said “Y’know what? Don’t play the upright, play the Steinway but we’ll mic the upright which is right next to it, we’ll tape the sustain pedal down on the floor and we’ll mic the resonance of the upright piano.” So there were a lot of interesting surprises to those sessions, for sure!

An Evening With Dream Theater – Australian Tour 2014

Wednesday October 29 – The Palais, Melbourne

Thursday October 30 – The Big Top, Sydney

Dream-Theater-Australian tour