Dan Mangan is a very, very tired guy. When he picks up his phone, he has just woken up in his bus as it pulls into Saskatoon, and as he puts it, his bunk feels like a coffin.
It’s been 10 years since Mangan released his first album. Four LPs later, the Vancouver singer-songwriter has cemented a legacy as one of Canada’s premier alternative artist, with his melancholy melodies and world-weary vocals becoming as revered as they are imitated. Mangan’s greatest talent as a musician is his ability to craft messages, no matter how big or small, into every one of his lyrics; in 10 years, his work has drawn from Darwin, Vonnegut, cultural consumerism, and our love affair with technology. Through this, Mangan explores social flaws, hypocrisies, and ultimately, what it is to be human.
In 2015, Dan Mangan has officially attached his name to his band, Blacksmith, and the resulting record is Club Meds; a layered, echoing piece that takes notable steps away from his previous work. Acoustic riffs are covered in light, chiming arpeggios that add an eerie calmness to the chaos that rages below them… Even the album’s artwork—an island in a troubled sea—seems to imply the inherent juxtaposition within this record, and within Mangan himself. Sonically and thematically, it’s one of his most impressive works to date, and it hints at a Dan Mangan who is in a constant state of change.
We had a chance to call Dan Mangan as he was waking up on the road to talk about the monster that is Club Meds, the plays of Henrik Ibsen, and how you graduate through levels of Kraft Dinner consumption.
Hey Dan! What’s going on right now, as we speak?
It’s dark, I’m in my bunk, and it kinda feels like a coffin. And I’m trying to keep my head close enough to the wall so that my phone can stay plugged in, because it is at 1%.
If it makes you feel any better, I had an interview very recently where a guy had to spring across an airport to do that. I really do appreciate it.
Sign of our times.
Club Meds dropped around two months ago; how has the reception been so far?
I think it’s been good. It’s hard to say, because I try not to read all the reviews, although I do read a bunch of them. It seems to me that the people who get it really get it, and the people who don’t get it might never get it.
I understand that this album was a collaborative effort with Blacksmith—how did this differ from how you normally approach a record?
There was more accountability across the board. Everybody had the responsibility to keep up when we approached every song, so we would never close the door on something until everybody felt happy. A lot of these songs came up fully formed, but a lot of them just started out as melodies or even a few words. Once we thought of them a bit, they started to take form– the song crafting revolved around how every song would begin and end.
You’re someone who tries to challenge themselves on every record; what component of this album took you the farthest out of your comfort zone?
I think that each record I’ve made has gotten a little more “out there”. With this record, someone that kept coming out was the battle between human and synthetic. A lot of tracks started very imperfect and human, and then after those were done I spent about 6 weeks layering and layering all sorts of synthetic audio, and used a lot of newer technology that I previously wasn’t privy to. This album was kinda a juxtaposition between those two audio worlds.I think there’s a lot of technology that I previously didn’t know how to even use that I ended up using on this album.
In the echoes of the track “Vessel,” we hear the line “It takes a village to raise a fool,” which is a theme that comes up in pieces throughout the album. What are you addressing in that line?
I think it’s like, nobody gets off scot-free for all the bullshit. We’re all fools, too. Its taking the piss on the old saying “it takes a village to raise a child”. And it’s sort of saying, look; we’re surrounded by bullshit and idiots, and the joke is that it’s all of us.
There’s been a lot of pretty graphic violence in the news recently, but social consciousness seems to be fading; was that a theme on this record?
Definitely. The news is chaotic right now, and I think it always is, but the record is about how we cope with that. And one of those ways is just through distraction, and I think to some extent we need that. But this record is also about trying to be awake and trying not to be willfully blind, and especially not to ourselves– to be honest with ourselves. I write about society, but I also write about myself, and all the inherent contradictions and hypocrisies in myself as well– even while soapboxing, I see how I am very much apart of the issue.
This album was partially recorded at the Warehouse near Crab Park; did your surroundings influence the themes on this record?
Well, the bulk of the record was recorded in my crappy little studio. I don’t know if the Downtown Eastside specifically influenced it—it’s definitely part of the experience of recording in the Warehouse. But I think the DTES could be a mirror for a lot of things happening in the world right now.
Regarding the track “A Doll’s House,” I have to ask; was that track inspired by the Henrik Ibsen play of the same name?
Absolutely. That’s a song that Gord wrote, and I just thought it was gorgeous. It was definitely inspired by the play. I then wrote a secondary set of vocals that basically mirror his lead vocals—we kinda do a call and answer throughout the whole song, but he basically wrote it. We sing it together. It’s a weird one. It was written more or less about the end of relationship.
Important question: is it true that when you were young, you could eat an entire box of Kraft Dinner?
Yeah, but I had to graduate to that level. I started with a quarter of a box, and worked my way up. You can do anything you set your mind to.
A lot of musicians go through some pretty horrible names in high school. Obviously you’re using your real name now, but what is the worst name you’ve ever performed under?
As a joke one time, I performed at an open mic as “the Mugicians.” As in “Magicians” and “Musicians.” It was pretty bad.
My last question is… what’s next?
We go to Europe after this tour, and then we go onto summer festivals, and we’re kinda back at it. We’ve had some time off here.