By the time Mike Mangini joined Dream Theater in 2010, he was already a seasoned professional and a musician with a sterling reputation on the international hard rock and heavy metal scene; he'd been a member of Extreme and Steve Vai's solo band, and was teaching percussion at the Berklee College of Music. But his very first appearance on a studio album came in 1993, when he played on the third album by Canadian thrash act Annihilator, Set the World On Fire. The disc marked a stylistic shift for Annihilator, as they adapted and modernized their hyper-speed, ultra-precise thrash sound and went in more of a groove metal direction, while bringing in pop melodies.
We got Mike Mangini on the phone last week to ask him for his memories of the Set the World On Fire sessions and his time touring with Annihilator. As it turned out, it was an extremely important formative experience for him, and he had a lot to say. Enjoy this look back!
How did you get invited to join Annihilator? Were you living in Canada at the time, or something?
What happened was, I spent five years in one band in Boston, turning down a lot of things trying to make it work, and we finally disbanded. One of the guitarists, Neil Goldberg, got hooked up with Jeff Waters. Neil moved to Vancouver to be with Jeff. While they were recording, their drummer at the time, Ray [Hartmann], there were issues, so Neil recommended me. Within a week I was on a plane to Vancouver. They needed to get the drums done quickly. I was a day from being able to walk after having double pneumonia. I weighed like 120 pounds or something. I was so light. So I was weak, but I got on the plane and did it.
This wasn't your first experience in the studio, but it was your first time making a real album, right?
I had done quite a bit of recording. I did a demo for Steve Perry of Journey in 1991, but this was the first experience like, "Lookit, we’re paying a lot of money for this studio, you gotta learn this stuff and play it now." The experience was a pinnacle point in my career, because of my lack of knowledge of how records like this were made. I wasn’t aware that when somebody wanted a perfect drum part it had to be to the grid, not a millisecond off, as if it was a drum machine, not a human. I went in and did this, but it was my first time and I couldn't do it perfectly, but I didn’t know about punch-ins. I played songs front to back and rehearsed until I got it perfect. So the interesting thing was, how do you make a record where you don’t know the songs? Well, you can do it in sections. And we changed drum heads every song, because I’d never hit that hard in my life, and there I was at my weakest and scrawniest. But I’m so proud of that record because there are no samples. It’s one of the clearest drum sounds I’ve ever gotten on any record.
What was Jeff Waters like as a boss?
Jeff really knew what he wanted and was great for me to work with. We were on the same page. The engineer, whose name is Max Norman, had worked with Ozzy and Motley Crue and a whole host of icons and he was very helpful. He was very patient with me and taught me a lot. This was the thing that spun my head for the rest of my career. I played through a section and he said, "I think you were a little bit late on one snare hit." He played it back and I was like, "Come on." But I got off the drums and he took the two-inch tape in slow motion and was like, "This is the click (boom) and this is the snare hit (boom)." So I asked, could you tell me how late I was? By hand, he clocked it and said, "You were 10 milliseconds late." He said the human ear can only hear to two milliseconds, maybe three. It changed my life, because I realized that microscopic space was audible to people who were used to it. I used to sit at home and put the metronome on 40 bpm and see how many times I could get 10 snare hits in a row. It was like, zero. I could never do it. I was blown away at how hard it was to be perfect. I’ve spent the rest of my career doing things with timing and metronomes and stuff.
You joined the group full-time after that; what was that experience like?
It was the first time I’d toured in Europe. The first gig was at the Underworld in London. What happened was, the crowd was screaming so much I could hear them through the cinder block walls. I’d never experienced moshing – not violent, but just pumping fists, throwing hair in the air, like that.
What’s your favorite song from this album?
Let me think – you know what I like? I like the riff in "Knight Jumps Queen." It’s almost painfully double bass and heavy, but the nature of the notes and how Jeff plays it, which I think is another riff Jeff wrote and then played backwards. Also "Bats in the Belfry" is really heavy.