While a whole host of bands with a taste for complex arrangements and polyrhythms can be seen on the world’s stages, few of them have had a recent history as complex as the progressive metal troupe Dream Theater, whose founder member and drummer Mike Portnoy quit in 2010. In response, the Massachusetts-based band – James LaBrie (vocals) John Petrucci (guitar), John Myung (bass) and Jordan Rudess (keyboards) – turned the hunt for Portnoy’s successor into a well-publicised event, filming the auditions for a documentary and eventually recruiting ex-Steve Vai drummer Mike Mangini. The resulting album, A Dramatic Turn Of Events, appeared in 2011.
As the bass player, Myung obviously had a key stake in the choice of drummer. Asked how the vibe is different in the rhythm section now that he’s playing with a different Mike, he muses: “Getting a new drummer actually affects everybody in Dream Theater, because we all play off the timekeeper in the band. We were still getting to know one another, musically, when we went in to do the new album, but Mike Mangini didn’t seem like a stranger to me – he seemed like someone I’d known for years. You ever had that happen – you run into someone and you feel like you know them already? That’s what it was like. It was just a different vibe, and a different energy. It just felt right. There were certain things about it, a certain breadth in terms of interpreting what was going to happen. There were some really subtle, breathing-type bass parts.”
The arrival of Mangini, an affable type whose mellow persona belies the fact that he is the holder of multiple Guinness world records for various fastest drumming techniques, has been the making of Dream Theater, Myung adds: “It just felt as if we had all arrived at a certain point and that we know who we are now. We really dug in and it worked out so well. There were so many magical moments where everything came together.”
As a graduate of the Berklee College Of Music in Boston, the almost inhumanly talented Myung applies fingers to bass in ways that most of us can only dream of. Readers of this magazine don’t need to be told how advanced he is as a player, although rest assured the guy doesn’t have an ego. Although slapping clearly doesn’t have a prominent (or indeed any) role in Dream Theater’s music, we’re keen to know whether our man is a closet slap artist. “I definitely have an appreciation for it,” he nods, “but you need a different point of focus and it’s not something I need to do musically. I love listening to it, but I don’t really have the desire to do it. For the occasional thing, I can do it, but it all comes down to how much time you have to practise it, and if you have the right focus.”
For the last couple of years Myung has been playing a custom Music Man Bongo six-string, although you may have seen the occasional clip of him playing a Steinberger on the tourbus. “I carry that around because it’s easy to check into a plane,” he tells us. “Right now I have four Bongo basses, all six-strings and different tunings. We go all the way down to a low A on some songs.” Will he ever adopt a seven-string for those extra, earth-shaking notes? “That’s real interesting… I’ve never really considered it,” he ponders.
Asked about the evolution of his tasty-looking Bongo, Myung explains: “What I was playing originally was a six-string version of a standard five-string Bongo: the scale and the neck and the body was the same as a five. The neck width wasn’t quite right for me, so I asked them to work on a new one recently. I didn’t really know how to react at first, because I didn’t have much experience, but after a couple of years I saw what it was doing to my hands – and it didn’t really make sense for me to keep pushing and trying to experiment. Something had to change and it came together pretty quickly. The new one still has the five-string body, though, and that’s what I’m playing now. Everything on it is so sweet, although it took a while to get the parts together.” Like Dream Theater themselves, metaphor fans will note.