Hit The Lights: Dream Theater: 'Mike Is A Monster Of A Drummer'

artist: Dream Theater date: 11/12/2011 category: interviews
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Hit The Lights: Dream Theater: 'Mike Is A Monster Of A Drummer'
Mixed by Andy Wallance with guitarist John Petrucci handling production, eleventh Dream Theater studio album "A Dramatic Turn Of Events" was recorded between January and May 2011 at Cove City Sound Studios in Long Island. Paul Northfield engineered, with Ted Jansen mastering. Artist Hugh Syme designed its cover artwork. The record marks the first Dream Theater outing to feature drummer Mike Mangini, who replaced founding member Mike Portnoy in November 2010 following auditions - though the results of the audition weren't made public until April 2011. Lead track "On The Backs Of Angels" surfaced via YouTube on June 29th, 2011. Issued worldwide on September 12th and then in North America the following day through Roadrunner Records, "A Dramatic Turn Of Events" shifted thirty-six thousand units in the States during its inaugural week of release to chart at position eight on the Billboard 200. The album charted at number one in Finland, at seventeen in Australia and the United Kingdom, at nine in Canada, at two in Holland, at six in Hungary, at seven in Poland, at nine in Portugal, and at three in Italy. On October 1st at 02:00 GMT, Hit The Lights' Robert Gray telephoned an individual in production through his mobile, who subsequently handed the phone to John Petrucci. Discussing "A Dramatic Turn Of Events", the act were due to perform that night in Salt Lake City, Utah at Kingsbury Hall. John Petrucci: Hello? UG: How are you John? How are you? I'm doing well... First of all, how did writing progress for 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events'? It went really well. We wrote it in January of this year; we spent about two and a half months writing the album, just me, Jordan, John and James. Writing music for us is a really great process because it gives us the opportunity to be creative and think things through. We would get in there and focus on the creative elements of songwriting, and to me it's a lot of fun. I believe you wrote quite a lot of the album's content. Yeah. I brought in a bunch of things. The song "This Is The Life" I wrote and brought in, and we developed it a bit once I showed it to the guys. "Beneath The Surface" I wrote and brought in. A lot of riffs made it onto the album, like "On The Backs Of Angels" and "Lost Not Forgotten" and things like that. I just had tons of ideas - I always try to keep a running library of riffs that I record on a recorder. I compile them and bring them in, and that's where we got a direction of where to go when we were in there. What lyrical topics do you touch upon on 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events'? The running theme has to do with the title - 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events' - and so all the songs are about some sort of major event in the world that's happening now, that's happened in history. "Outcry" is about the uprising and revolutions going on in North Africa and the Middle East. "On The Backs Of Angels" is about the political unrest and divide in the US right now. "Lost And Forgotten" is about a Persian fighting force that died out. "Bridges In The Sky" is about somebody who's looking for a chance to be reunited with a lost part of their soul that's missing because of some dramatic event in their life. Those are just a few of them, but they're all about major events that've caused people to go through substantial changes in their lives basically.

"Fans enjoy analysing our music and looking at things under a microscope and stuff, and it shows the level of passion from the fans for what we do."

Has 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events'' album title been misinterpreted in certain quarters? A lot of people automatically assume that it's referring to the band's situation - change of drummer - but the title came long after that happened. The title came as a result of writing the lyrics, and trying to figure out the common thread and common theme of the album. It doesn't refer to the band's personal situation, but refers to the dramatic events that are occurring in the world today. Was it much different recording the album without Mike Portnoy, or was it just the same? After you've been in a band with somebody for twenty-five years and you've recorded every album with them, of course it's different - we heard it for the first time without having Mike in the studio. We've been through lineup changes before and we've had new members and different members, so it's something you learn to accept and adapt to. But yeah, it was definitely strange at first though once we got in there and got comfortable and focused on writing and recording, then everything was business as usual. Speaking of adapting, what was it like to be sole producer? It was really great for me, honestly. It's something that I love to do; it's a passion of mine, and the guys really trust me in that role. I think it's something that I'm really able to put together, the right team to make the kind of album that we wanna make. I'm able to get the right performances and the right direction out of the band, and the right sonic impact out of the recording. I love to produce; it's a lot of work, but it's a labour of love and something that I really love to do. There was an article published online by a Dream Theater fan which basically alleges that the album has musical and structural similarities to 'Images And Words'. What's your response to that? I think our fans enjoy analysing our music and looking at things under a microscope and stuff, and it shows the level of passion from the fans for what we do. They look at what we're doing, and they wanna know what's going on. Like I said, with every album people wanna try to find hidden messages and new meanings, secret nuggets and things like that. People have always searched for those types of things in our music. It shows how much our listeners are strongly interested in what we're doing in a very detailed manner. But obviously, there's no truth to the allegation? We really like music. We have a certain thing that we try to accomplish musically, a certain sound that makes us who we are. The core elements of Dream Theater, of who we are and how we make music. Those are elements that are identifiable. That's what gives the band its sound, and keeps the band having an identity. I'm aware of that John, but this fan is alleging that Dream Theater simply rewrote 'Images And Words'. Obviously, that isn't the case at all? We wouldn't rewrite an album, no. That wouldn't be something that we would do (laughs). How did the track 'On The Backs Of Angels' come to fruition? The original riff actually came about in my home as I was thinking about an opening song for the album. I envisioned it having a clean guitar opening; I wrote that on acoustic in my home and then brought it in, and we just built it from there. We had a basic direction of where we wanted to go; we wanted the first song to be really indicative of the sound of the album, and of Dream Theater. It had an epic opening feel, really dramatic and cinematic. That was the direction of that song. How would you compare 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events' to past Dream Theater albums? How to compare it? It's hard to say, because every album is a different statement. Again, going back to what I said there's a certain sound that we try to keep intact and that's the identity of the band - the basic overall elements of the sound. For each album though we vary that sound and try to keep each one unique and special, so it's hard to compare. This one to me has a very good balance. I think it features all the members in a very good light, and it has a very good balance of the elements that make up our music, progressive and metal and melodic elements.

"The title doesn't refer to the band's personal situation, but refers to the dramatic events that are occurring in the world today."

What makes 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events' "unique and special"? That would come down to the songs. That would come down to the different messages that are going on with each song, and the sonic presentation. This is the first album that we had mixed by Andy Wallace, and to me he just did such an incredible job of - again - getting a great balance and doing it in such a way where it was powerful. His mix had a lot of detail and clarity and he mixes things in a very polished way, but again it retains all the power and the features of everybody in their roles. Everyone's really able to shine. You can hear everything; you can hear what the bass is doing, you can hear the different keyboard details and every guitar riff. It kind of sets the album apart. We've never had an album this clear before, so I think that sonically it definitely stands apart. Are there certain instances in the past where you felt Dream Theater was let down by a mix then? I've always been happy with our mixes. Going way, way back when we did our first album, we were very, very young and didn't have a lot of time of course to record it or mix it. If I could go back I'd do things different and spend more time, but that was the band in its early stages of its career and you usually don't have the luxuries that you're afforded later on in your career. I think there's always an instance where you could go back to an album and say "I'd change that", but in general I'm usually very happy or satisfied. Considering the amount of instruments Dream Theater calls upon if need be, does that present a challenge to mixers? I think it's challenging for a mixer because there's a lot going on. Part of my producer role is to make sure that the arrangements aren't that thick. If there's too many things going on you're not gonna get the power and the space that's necessary, but it's definitely a challenge for any mixer to come in. Unless they were there the whole time, they have to go in and weave through all the different tracks and parts and try to get a general picture of what we were trying to do with each song. It takes a lot of work, a lot of time and a lot of detail to do it. How did Dream Theater come to find new drummer Mike Mangini? We did a whole documentary on how we found him; it's part of the special edition, and is called "The Spirit Carries On". It's a movie that we made that documents the audition process and how we found Mike. I don't know if you've ever seen that, but it's really cool - that's part of the special edition of the current album. It's on there and is a sixty-minute movie. What made Mike Mangini stand out, from your point of view? It's everything mixed together; it was his tremendous playing and tremendous musicality as a drummer and musician. The way that he played the Dream Theater songs, he auditioned so naturally and comfortably. He understands the sensibilities of playing metal and progressive music and also the kind of person he is, his personality, where he is in his life and where he's from, his history, his Berklee connections. Everything just mixed in together made us know that he was the perfect guy for the job. Most drummers tend to take a step back and play in the background, whereas Mike Portnoy was a bit more in people's faces. Does Mike Mangini take more of a step back? Mike Mangini is definitely in people's faces - he's a tremendous drummer. Part of the role of the drummer in this band and all the instrumentalists is that everybody is in everybody's faces (laughs). I don't think there's anybody that takes a back seat, and that's what makes the music exciting. Mike Mangini is no exception; he's a powerhouse and he's a monster of a drummer. He's definitely not taking a step back at all; he's very out in front but at the same time he's a team player, and he knows the importance of Dream Theater coming across as a band and as a collective unit. He's really conscious of that as well, but he's able to shine in his own right on the album and at the live show. Everybody has a little bit of a different style, and everybody's gonna come across in a certain way. Mike Portnoy is definitely a very big personality and a solid player; he likes to get out there like you said and get in people's faces, and that's great. Mike Mangini has his own personality and his own approach to playing drums, and he's very alive and animated and plays with a lot of passion and conviction and power as well, so it's interesting. You have to just see the band live and see what I'm talking about, and get the picture for yourself really. Is Mike Mangini a songwriter? Does he write stuff or anything like that? He does. We didn't involve him in the writing or anything for this album, but I'm hoping on the next album that we'll be able to get together as a band and write together. On this album we did not do that though. Are there any plans to continue with Dream Theater's record label Ytsejam Records? Ytsejam Records is still going, but we're yet to determine what kind of future releases we wanna do. Right now that label is still active; we haven't had any new releases in awhile, but that's something that we can talk about. Will you oversee such releases? It's a band company, so it's something that we'll all have involvement with. It's just a matter of how we proceed. Like I said, there hasn't been a release in awhile.

"We've never had an album this clear before, so I think that sonically it definitely stands apart."

Are there any issues as regards master tapes? Does Dream Theater have possession of the master tapes, or does Mike Portnoy have possession of the master tapes? The purpose of that label is to release things that were outside of the masters that we recorded officially for the record label, demos and live shows and things like that. It's stuff that's been collected throughout the years, and there's a ton of material. There's a ton of past material, and now that the band has moved forward there's a ton of future material from this album, this writing session, and these live shows as well, and demos as well. It's all a matter of whatever we decide to put out. How would you describe your guitar work on 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events'? How would I describe it? It's kind of hard for me to describe it. It's me. I play in a style that's deeply rooted in rock and metal, but in a setting of progressive music. I always try to be musical and play the right things for the song, and when it comes time for the solo I have to make sure that it's a very musical moment and it's a very interesting moment, and perhaps a challenging moment for me. If there's something that needs to be rocking and heavy, I make sure that I'm doing that to the fullest that I can. If there's a second that can be more beautiful and sensitive, then I try to approach my guitar playing in that way. It depends on what's going on musically, and you always have to fit and match what's happening. Are there certain guitars you particularly used on the album? I used my signature Musicman John Petrucci guitar. It's a signature model called the JP11, and it's one series of several models that I have with Musicman. I use a six-string and also a seven-string on this album. What are your thoughts on the artwork by Hugh Syme? I think it's beautiful. I'm such a huge fan of Hugh Syme. I have been forever with his work for Rush. He just did a tremendous job capturing the mood of the album, and as soon as you look at his artwork you get this feeling. He captured the whimsical, aggressive nature of the music and the cognitive nature of the music, and it's just some beautiful artwork in the packaging - he did a tremendous job. The album cover definitely makes you think, doesn't it? Yeah. I think that's a sign of great artwork, and I like a cover to be pretty simple too. The picture isn't very involved, but what I like about Hugh's renditions is that they do make you think. His artwork implies movement, it implies meaning. You want to know what's gonna happen, and it makes you have questions like; what's happening? Where is the plane going? Does the guy fall off? Why is the guy up there?... And I love that about artwork, and I love that about Hugh's artwork especially. Thanks for speaking to me John. No problem - my pleasure. All the best with Dream Theater, and 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events'. Thank you. Take care. Bye. Bye. Interview by Robert Gray Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2011
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