Published on March 5th, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant0
Interview: Dan Mangan
Craig chats with Dan Mangan on the eve of his tour, after the release his new album, Club Meds, which features a wholly different sound.
Dan Mangan’s new album is actually called Dan Mangan + Blacksmith, with his longtime band officially joining the fray. Their new album, Club Meds is a sharp departure from Mangan’s past records, which definitely put him back on the radar for me. It owes less to Bon Iver or Nick Drake and more to avant-garde leaning acts like Radiohead. It still sounds like Mangan, but it’s a Mangan that’s in a different place.
I call him at home in Vancouver, where he’s having a press day, doing several interview. It strikes me pretty quickly that he’s a really nice, upfront guy, as well as intelligent and easy to talk to. He talks slowly and methodically, always making sure his point is coming across. Though he’s doing a few interviews today, he still feels real, as opposed to those interviews where the artist sounds rehearsed or like they’re reading off blurbs from their press kit. This feels like we’re having an actual conversation. So be a fly on the wall and listen as Dan and I talk about Club Meds, sedation in the face of reality, and even fatherhood.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: I just listened to the new album yesterday. I have to admit that I had ‘Nice, Nice, Very Nice,’ and ‘Oh Fortune,’ but I had kind of moved on from that sound. I was really surprised at ‘Club Meds,’ in a good way. How would you describe the new sound and how it fits into what you do. How did it come about?
DAN MANGAN: Things have developed over time. I’ve been exposed to different kinds of music over the years, especially playing with the band that I play with. They all come from quite a different musical background than I do. I come from a kind of street schooled, singer/songwriter thing and they’re all seasoned jazz, avant garde, experimentalist kind of people. This cross-pollination of ideas has become really great. I’ve done the singer/songwriter thing. It’s kind of where I came from. When I was really invested in that world and in that sound, I really believed it and that’s what I wanted to do and this is kind of what I want to do now. I feel like people, if they were into the old music, they’ll still find that same thing in this music if they give it some time. I think it’s just a matter of going with your gut and trusting your instincts and not really worrying too much about what gets played on the radio, or what the label wants, or what people want to hear.
TFS: That’s musically — in terms of lyrics, I notice more politics creeping in. Is that true and intentional?
DM: Yeah. I’ve always been a pretty opinionated person. It comes from taking a whole lot of history and sociology and political science and stuff in University, which sort of spun me into a web of being interested in current affairs and all kinds of stuff. I think that when I was younger, I didn’t know how to write about that kind of stuff. It’s a little bit more dangerous, you know? You stick your neck out a little bit and you can kind of get squashed. I feel like it’s taken me pretty much a decade to come to a place of grace in terms of being able to articulate these very complex ideas about who we are and about humanity that can rub people one way or another. You have to approach them with a certain amount of subtlety and with a deft touch. It’s taken me a long time to hone those writing skills where I can touch on lots of complex issues without being too hardnosed or certain about any of it.
TFS: It’s important to avoiding being obvious and soapboxy about it.
DM: Absolutely, I don’t like the idea of the shrill, ‘I have it figured out and you guys are all idiots,’ kind of vibe. I’m much more interested in poking and asking questions about things and not trying to approach it as if I have the answer.
TFS: Sociology was one of my minors in university as well. I always joke that Sociology and the book and movie Fight Club ruined my impressionable young brain. I was no longer able to be blissfully ignorant to what goes on in the world.
DM: Such a great movie!
TFS: For sure. So, were there things going on in the world when you were writing the album, like Ferguson? Though, not actually Ferguson because that would have come after the writing of the album, but stuff like that that was inspiring some of this?
DM: There was a whole bunch of stuff going on. There was the Trayvon Martin stuff. The Arab Spring stuff. Also, I had a kid. I think that I was sort of in this bubble in a way. Especially when you become a new parent, you become really insular. You tune out the rest of the world because you’re focused on trying to keep this perfect little creature alive. So there was this interesting dichotomy of feeling this impending holy shit factor about what’s going on in the world and then also feeling this impending holy shit factor about what’s going on in your home, and seeing those two worlds for what they are and trying to make some sense of it. And also then, trying to be an example for a kid and saying, what kind of musician do I want to be? What kind of person do I want to be? If I’m going to be a musician, I’m going to be a musician that’s trying to do something that’s not artful and relevant. I think that gave me some confidence to step forward with the socio-political stuff.
TFS: You had a boy, right? How old is he?
DM: He’s nearly two.
TFS: I have a 19 month old right now, so everything you’re saying resonates with me.
DM: Oh, there you go! So is that May 2013?
TFS: That would have been July 2013.
DM: Our guy was born in April.
TFS: Cool. It’s a trip, that’s for sure. It changes how I look at the world. There’s a scene in the film Under the Skin that I wouldn’t have noticed as much prior to having a kid, but seeing what happens to the baby in the movie, he’s left on the beach alone, crying as his parents drown, was like a stab in the heart. It makes me think of what you’re saying and how parenthood can change you in the weirdest ways. I think about things in a totally different way.
DM: I felt like, chemically changed. I felt like my metaphysical existence had changed (laughs). As soon as this kid arrived, all the noise in my head, the anxieties that kept me up at night went away, at least for awhile. I felt quite calm most of the time since the kid was born. I don’t know if that’s something you’ve experienced as well?
TFS: Yeah, for sure. It has completely changed the dynamic of my relationship with my wife and my whole life. Suddenly I’m rushing home from work so I can spend an hour with him before he goes to bed.
DM: Exactly. I know that feeling.
TFS: So to go back to the band, why the addition of the name Blacksmith?
DM: The band hasn’t really changed. I’ve been playing with Kevin and Johnny for seven years. And the rest of the guys about five years. I think we would have done the name change earlier if we had have had the wherewithal, or had a name, really. It was tough. I feel like through ‘Nice, Nice, Very Nice,’ and ‘Oh Fortune,’ there was a whirlwind of keeping up with the momentum, just trying to keep the plates spinning. I felt like I was getting all this luck tossed at me and the second I stopped, the horseshoes were going to fall out of my ass. After those album cycles, when we came to this point, we stopped touring for like two years. Everybody took a step back and focused on other projects, focused on their lives. When we came back to it, it felt like a new thing. This record felt like, not the closing of a previous era, but the beginning of a new era. When it comes to this band and my body of work. It seemed like the right time. It’s hard to turn a large ship, a fast moving ship. But the ship had slowed down enough that we could sort of move it in a new direction. The name comes from our drummer who thought it up. It brings to my mind the meeting point between craftsmanship and artistry. Musicians spend their lives in dank basements, toiling away with their instruments, their tools. It’s reminiscent of a romantic, nostalgic ideal of the smiths. In an age where you can learn how to build a car on YouTube, there’s something to be said for a trade. For putting thousands of hours into getting good at something.
TFS: Is there a reason why you kept your own name in there instead of just going with the band name?
DM: Probably just for the sake of not having to start over. One of those weird things when you’re in a band that has an audience. To change your name you’re potentially asking to lose that audience. And the band has a much bigger role than ever before in terms of shaping and crafting those songs, but the melodies and the lyrics are still largely coming from me.
TFS: In terms of the live show, how do you put the new material alongside stuff like ‘Robots?’
DM: What we found is that there’s some older material that we’re shying away from. When it comes to the Spring tour, we may play ‘Robots.’ It’s not going to be a mainstay in the set. If we do do it, it will be a kind of off the cuff thing because it seems like the right time to do it in that moment. But we’ve adapted some older material. The song ‘Sold,’ we play almost every show. We were rehearsing it in the classic one, two country shuffle thing that it used to be, but it didn’t seem right. It felt like we were a cover band or something. It didn’t feel how this band tends to feel now. So we changed it. It’s got this kind of slow AM radio almost southern rock feel now. The main thing with this band is that there’s a deep philosophy of honesty, spontaneity, and improvisation. We never want to feel like we’re covering something, or that we’re going through the motions and reciting things. We always want to feel like we’re alive in the music and how it’s coming across. So that means we have to shepherd people into this new era. Not in the sense that we’re like, hey, if you don’t get it, screw you. But in the sense of, we’re on this trip and we’d love to bring folks along.
TFS: So it’s less about worrying about a song like ‘Robots’ dogging you in an I Am Not Spock kind of way, and more just trying to be who you are now?
DM: (Laughs) Yeah, yeah. It’s funny. I can’t diss that song too much ‘cause it totally changed my life. But it’s not like that song was the end game for me. It was one of the cobblestones on the path. I have respect for the fact that song means something to a lot of people. At the same time, you have to listen to your gut and your gut says you’ve got to cool it on that song for awhile, you’ve got to listen to that.
TFS: You scored the Simon Pegg film Hector and the Search for Happiness. What did you learn from that? How did it affect the writing and recording of ‘Club Meds,’ if at all?
DM: Oh, man, I learned a lot. That was an intense and expensive and difficult project in some ways, but it was so rewarding. Working with Jesse Zubot was a great experience. The guy’s a genius and a total nut. He’s become such a dear friend. Working with the director was great. He’s a wonderful guy. A clever whimsical guy named Peter Chelsom. It was interesting. Coming out of recording that project we started recording ‘Club Meds,’ about four or five days after we wrapped that soundtrack. I’d been in the studio for months working on soundtracks, so I feel like I have a bit of studio mojo going on. I had opened up my mind to a whole bunch of new sounds. I’d really gotten into working with Midi and synths and stuff on the soundtrack. There’s a lot of padding, a lot of held, extended notes and stuff like that. I think that stuff really made its way on to ‘Club Meds,’ influenced the way I was soundscaping things
TFS: Kind of a gateway. So, how did Dave Grohl come to appear on the album?
DM: Ha, that was luck. Peter, the director, he’s quite close with Dave. So we went down to Los Angeles to show the film to Dave. I got to meet him and go to his house and stuff. It was a total trip. ‘Sounds Like Teen Spirit’ was one of the first songs I learned how to play on guitar.
TFS: Did you get to check out the Neve board from Sound City?
DM: No, he has a little studio in his house, which I saw. But the Neve board is just down the road, I guess. So I didn’t get to see that. But Dave’s a great guy. I can’t claim that we’re best buds or anything; I think I was kind of in the right place at the right time. He liked the song. So I sent him the bed tracks and he did a bunch of recording overtop of it. He cameos on stuff all the time. He’s a really sneaky guy like that. We had to be really careful about how we approached in, in terms of, we have this major superstar on our album. We can’t just flog that and ride his coattails.
TFS: Yeah, it’s more of a cool detail anyway, really. It’s not like Dan Mangan fans and Foo Fighters fans necessarily line up either.
DM: Yeah, it’s a slightly different demographic. That said, if they wanted to take us on tour with them, I wouldn’t say no. (Laughs). I think it’s cool that it’s not Dan Mangan and Blacksmith featuring Dave Grohl. His voice is quite affected. There’s a ton of reverb on it. Like you said, it’s a neat detail that kind of makes its way out of the woodwork. Did you know that’s Dave Grohl on that song? In a way, that’s almost cooler. Like, did you know that Phil Collins played drums on that ABBA song? Okay, I’m making shit up now, but you get what I mean.
TFS: I want to go real deep, real quickly, and then I can let you get on with the rest of your day. But going to the theme of ‘Club Meds’ and the idea of sedation in the face of reality, as you’re calling it. Going back to the Fight Club thing, is that the idea? That we’re going to watch American Idol instead of caring what’s going on in the world? They keep us distracted with the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world? Is that what you mean by sedation, or am I completely getting that wrong?
DM: No, absolutely, I think you’ve got it. I mention in the liner notes how it can be chemical, it can kind of be behavioural medicine. It can be narcotics, over the counter. It can be booze, all kinds of things. But it can also be the quiet, wilful blindness to everything. Life is chaotic and complicated and difficult, so I understand the attraction to turning off. More than anything, this album isn’t about, wow, we really fucked up and we failed and we’re terrible. It’s more about, if we can be honest with ourselves about our failures, then we will come to accept ourselves a little more deeply and find more compassion and more peace. It’s funny, because the album is more about sedation, but in discussing sedation, it’s also about being awake. You know? And like Fight Club, it’s like waking up. What’s that line in the movie? “Had I been asleep? Was I awake?” He’s talking about the photocopier thing, a carbon copy of a carbon copy. I think we all fight that compendium of the mundane tasks of day to day domestic life, and then all of a sudden we feel connected and in tune with the world. It goes back and forth. The record is sort of this ongoing war between the synthetic self and the honest self and the human self. Hopefully the human self wins more often than not. I think that that sort of ongoing debate is juxtaposed on the record through the matching of frail, imperfect human performances with these layers and layers of synthetica. The humans win in the end.