CM Talks Drums With Dream Theater’s Mike ManginiThursday, November 21st, 2013
Mike Mangini in the drummer in progressive rock icons Dream Theater and he has also drummed for Steve Vai, Annihilator, and other well-known acts. Mangini is on the faculty at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and the creator of the Rhythm Knowledge System. Having spoken to him about this, CM is pretty sure that he is a genius.
You can read more with Mangini and our other panelists in the CM 2013 Percussion Panel feature in the November/December issue of CM.
CM: What is in your main kit and how do you like it positioned?
MM: I break my kit down into modules because otherwise, to an onlooker for the first time, it looks like I just have a lot stuff that’s set up just to have, it but it’s not. My live setup is broken up into modules that allow me to orchestrate the music more like an orchestral drummer, beyond just a groove drummer or guy who plays the beat. So my drummers are setup with multiple tom toms, two snares, multiple kick drums sounds, and multiple cymbal sounds. The reason for these four quadrants is that in each quadrant I have a spectrum of higher and lower pitch noises that allow me to reflect the music a little more accurately to my ears.
CM: Are you very particular about the tuning of your drums?
MM: Yes, I am very particular but within reason. I’m not a lunatic about it because life is too short, but each drum does seem to settle. Any drummer who’s been through the tuning realm for years knows that a drum can settle in a range and drum hits have their range. As long as I am in the range and the sweet spot is there, then that’s about all I ask for.
CM: What is your practice regimen on the road?
MM: By regimen is to absolutely practice. My pre-show warm up is a practice and once in a while I am getting in a habit, when I can, of doing a little bit of work in the hotel room on multi-limb coordination. The reason why is because I can’t play it. I have to go very, very slowly and it doesn’t matter what I hit. So I can be in a hotel room to go through some new configurations but I have to practice because Dream Theater is so high-end that if I am not practicing, then I am going the other way. If I don’t keep at it then I am going to get worse, so I have to maintain it.
CM: The new self-titled Dream Theater record is the first you’re involved in from start to finish – from songwriting to finished product. What do you bring to the band that may be different for the band?
MM: There is a big difference… well mostly. In essence, I enjoy what [Mike Portnoy, former Dream Theater drummer] played, I am a very big fan of it. That’s first. Another thing that brings me so much joy in what he did is I think we both have similar influences and we both like the same things. Me going into Dream Theater means going into a band where we like the same kinds of things but what I bring that is different is the way that I orchestrate on the drums because I play ambidextrously and I kind of match frequencies a little more exactly. I have a few more things in my kit that were designed for the higher end of the keyboard and some things for the lower ends, like smaller drums and bigger drums. So the difference is in my orchestration and how I am tying in the music to the drums.
The other thing that I do is that my coordination allows me to appear as if I am in one time signature with one limb or one part of my body while the rest of it appears to be in another one. So those are the two different things; I can play polyrhythms and I orchestrate a little bit more orchestral-y.
CM: How are you able to play those polyrhythms?
MM: I have dedicated decades of my life to constantly trying to reach a feeling that makes me feel that I am in balance with who I think I am supposed to be. In other words, I believe that I am in touch with gifts that I was given and a path that was set out for me as a unique musician. Decade after decade, I accrue new levels of reaching this thing and this potentiality. St. Thomas Aquinas called us all “potentialities.” Beyond just having potential, we are potentialities, meaning we show up to the world and are given certain gifts, each of us, and it’s our job to recognize what they are and try to reach them.
But my whole decade-to-decade has been in deep research. At one point I studied cognitive science at a very, very deep level to make myself a better teacher so I understand people better and understand that sometimes people work differently. The other thing is to understand what I am capable of. I’ll end this briefly by saying that studying cognitive science proved to me, showed me, that the human brain is capable of paying attention to one thing but still doing a couple other things really fast. Kind of like how a computer can have several programs open, so because of that model I know what is real and what people can achieve. That has been one of the key things on my path is that cognitive study.
CM: It sounds like you approach drumming from both a very spiritual and intellectual level. Where does that come from?
MM: Man, it comes from family and friends. It comes from things in my mind that seem to make sense. On a spiritual level, there is so much that makes sense to me that I see it. I easily accept certain things that can’t be proved because to me they can be proved just by a visual. In other words, when something makes sense to me it makes sense because I see the shape of it.
I was into very deep mathematics for a while and was able to see, believe it or not, geometry or calculus. I get shapes in my head. Don’t ask me where it comes from but those shapes are the same ones that ended up being proved to be true, like these Möbius strips, these infinite curls. I knew what that was before I even knew what it was. Know what I’m saying? It’s sort of a gift. Can I operate a child’s sippy cup? No. but I can visualize shapes pretty well [laughs]. I’m serious. It’s funny the things that we can do and the things that we can’t do.
CM: Through your career you’ve played in the studio and live with a number of groups and musicians. When you’re playing with a new group for the first time, what’s the main thing that you have to keep in mind?
MM: The main thing that I keep in mind is what I see. In other words, the human eye, the speed of light is the quickest thing, once I hear something it’s kind of too late. It’s too late to react. With the use of my eyes, I am constantly, constantly, looking at the different players to see what their fingers are doing and using my peripheral vision to look at the shapes of my drum set.
And if you look up the show Time Warp that was done on me, you can see it online, when they put me at 5,000 frames per second and they zone in on my face, you can literally see my eyes moving at a really, really fast rate, moving to where I am about to hit. So I have trained my eyes and the most important thing I would ever say to anybody to help them if they wanted to just be a little bit more successful playing with people for the first time is you’ve got to look at them. It seems to make it easier to hear them and I don’t know how to explain that.
CM: You’ve created something call the Rhythm Knowledge System. Could you give an explanation of what it is?
MM: Yes, rhythm knowledge is two-volume book system that is based on human behavioural change. In other words, when I go into a practice room I intend to either recall who I already am by just playing music and having fun and being musical and creative, or I go into that room to come out better when I leave. That means I have a lot of repetition and a lot of work to do.
The first volume explains how human beings work as that relates to human behaviour and as that relates to being a drummer. So if you want to be a drummer that wants to make a change, you’ve got to do it according to how we are made, otherwise you are fighting nature and these changes will not occur.
The second volume breaks down about anything and everything that could ever be played into five major systems working from the inside of the human body out. The first system is in the mind, it’s in counting and developing it in a dialogue. The next system is with the limbs and the next system is using a binary-based counting system to fit your limbs into and then to fit into time. If you use binary, like on/off, on/off, on/off, then grouping of 11 aren’t so confusing anymore and grouping of five aren’t so confusing anymore. I am just being brief here.
Another system takes and changes the rate inside a beat so people get used to doing a triple feel and a four feel. But I use every number between one and 20, not just three and four. And finally, instead of using stickings, I use binary zeros and ones to permutations. So if a person wants to get different limb combinations, they’re not just stuck with their hands, they can do any limbs.
So that’s it; volume one explains human behaviours as a person before you’re a drummer and then volume two allows you to learn the correct way, the quickest way, which is not from the outside, which is what most people do, the music first, but from the inside out. From your inner dialogue to, ultimately, a musical expression.
CM: How long did it take you to formulate this system?
MM: To really formulate the system was about a decade. Honest to God, and I am being dead honest with you here, I thought it was it going to be one year and one year only for me to get it down, out of my head and to type it out and then to have one of my students to co-write it with me. We did that in more like three years. But really, I had put some years into beforehand. So the answer to your question is three years.
CM: You reached a level of drumming proficiency very early on that is beyond what most people could ever expect to do, but do you remember a lesson early on that allowed you to take the next step?
MM: I remember being around three years old, I set up cans on the ground because when I looked at LP records, I understood the sound of what I was hearing based on the shape. Like some of the drums you can make triangles and squares between the drums and cymbals. I always remembered the shape, and then, even when I didn’t know how to read music when I was a young adolescent person, I remember learning by seeing the shape of the drums. And it is the easiest thing because you don’t even need to read music that way. That’s what stuck out. The other thing that I can tell you is always knowing. I just always knew that I knew what to do. I don’t know how to explain it but I had something inside me that just knew.