Dan Mangan No More Mr. Nice Guy (Oh Who Are We Kidding?)
Published Feb 04, 2015"Part of the 'Dan Mangan' thing is being this super, super nice guy," reflects the man in question. "It's not that I'm no longer nice, but I feel like the cutesy charm I once sort of leaned on isn't really a part of the equation anymore."
The 31-year-old Vancouver songwriter is referring, in a roundabout way, to his 2009 hit "Robots." With its warm'n'snuggly sing-along refrain of "Robots need love too / They want to be loved by you," the single was a breakthrough moment in Mangan's rise to become one of the Canadian indie world's most beloved troubadours.
Despite the song's popularity, the ever-bearded singer-guitarist is eager to leave it in the past and venture into bolder, more uncompromising directions.
"I feel less of a need to be liked by people," he says. "I think that's changed. I used to be kind of terrified of not being liked. I'm sure that's in there somewhere, but it doesn't weigh on me in the same way that it used to."
This reformed outlook is just one of many recent changes in the songwriter's life. For one thing, he's no longer billed as a solo artist — his new album, Club Meds, which came out in January, is the first to be co-credited to his backing band, Blacksmith. Gathered on couches at their studio space, National Park, the quartet explain that the moniker has been a long time coming.
"I think it was just time," Mangan says of the decision to pick a name. "I had been playing with these guys for a long time and it made sense." Drummer Kenton Loewen and bassist John Walsh both performed on 2009's Nice, Nice, Very Nice, which rocketed Mangan to national indie stardom, received a short-list nomination for the Polaris Music Prize, and earned Mangan a record deal with Arts & Crafts. Guitarist Gordon Grdina joined on the subsequent tour, and the full ensemble was in place for 2011's Oh Fortune.
Now that the group have a name, Mangan's collaborators are eager to clear up the misconception that they are session players.
"There've been enough people going, 'Oh, so you're Dan Mangan's guitar player.' Actually, I kind of have my own identity," Grdina asserts. "The industry is so run by individuals, and then there are hired guns. And the perception is that this person tells them everything to do and the hired guns do their thing. Whereas we've never run like that."
Unfortunately, the name change has led to more confusion about how the outfit operates, and they complain that many journalists have labeled them a "new band" despite the fact that they've been together for nearly six years.
"That's what I love about all the press we just got," drummer Kenton Loewen notes wryly. "'Dan Mangan and his brand new band.' It's like, 'Dan Mangan and have you ever done your fucking research?'"
Still frustrated, Loewen returns to the subject a few minutes later. "'Dan's new band,'" he repeats incredulously. "When I read that I was like, 'Fuck, did we get replaced?' I actually read it once and said, 'New band? Who else is playing?'"
Mangan takes the opportunity to make a cheeky interjection: "I've got this whole other crew you guys don't know about. In fact, you guys think you played on the record, but…" He trails off as everyone dissolves into raucous laughter and chatter, and the singer adds, "I went down to Nashville, I had this whole trip, I got way messed up on peyote. It was amazing."
The group's boisterous rapport is the product of countless hours spent together on stages and in the tour van. At one point in the conversation, they lightly tease Walsh about his onetime gig as a cruise ship musician. At another, Loewen and Grdina reminisce about a bawdy encounter with trumpet player (and occasional Mangan collaborator) Shaun Brodie: "I kissed him right on his mouth," Loewen remembers. "It was beautiful."
As the bandmates have gotten closer over the years, they've begun to collaborate on all aspects of the creative process. Their personalities shine through on Club Meds, which is a collision of enigmatic art rock, cloudy-headed ambience and genre-jumping eclecticism. Consider a song like "Kitsch": the rhythm section's jazz school backgrounds are apparent in its knotty grooves, while Grdina's world music influences emerge in the hypnotic guitar licks.
"We were actually aggressive with each other," Loewen says of the album's creation. "It was like, 'No, fuck you. I don't fucking want to do it this way.'"
Mangan concurs, describing the writing sessions as a time of productive tumult. "We'd fight, we'd fight, we'd hug it out, we'd get pumped, we'd walk away from it for a day and hate it all of a sudden," he says. "And then now, at the end of it all, I've never been prouder of anything I've ever worked on."
His pride is well-placed: Club Meds is unlike any of his past work, shedding both the orchestral grandeur of Oh Fortune and the affable everyman folk of his early material. In its place is a dark, moody approach that mixes organic full-band performances with hazy clouds of reverb; all the while, amorphous electronic textures bubble faintly beneath the surface, providing a counterpoint for the singer's gruff, earthy croon.
The group's overhauled sound becomes apparent in the record's opening moments, as "Offred" opens with an abstract collage of electronic rhythms, synth burbles and quirky vocal effects generated by a children's toy. Once the song gets going, lush fingerpicking intertwines atop syncopated rhythms while daggers of obliterated distortion slice through the arrangement during the spine-tingling instrumental passages.
Elsewhere, "War Spoils" is a minimal ballad nestled within horror movie rustles and creaks, while "Mouthpiece" is a barrelling acoustic barnburner that's injected with post-punk electric leads and ghostly harmonies.
"It's not a feel-good record," Mangan accurately observes. "Although I hope that it makes some people feel good to listen to it."
In the couple of years preceding Club Meds, Mangan and Blacksmith were uncharacteristically quiet. As the tour behind Oh Fortune wound down, the members focused on other projects: Loewen released an album with his own project the Crackling, and he and Grdina issued an instrumental EP with their newly-minted experimental duo Peregrine Falls. The two also played in the Arabic ensembles Haram and Qalandar, plus the genre-mashing Gordon Grdina Trio. Walsh released a new album as a member of Brasstronaut and also handled bass on the Zolas' most recent LP.
As for Mangan, this was the first time he had taken a step back from his career since his 2005 debut Postcards and Daydreaming (reissued on File Under: Music in 2007). He married his longtime girlfriend Kirsten in 2012 and the couple welcomed their son Jude in 2013.
"In a way, having a kid makes you softer and more emotional and teddy bear-ish, but on the other hand, it also raises the stakes of what it means to exist, because you have to take care of this other thing," Mangan says of becoming a father. "You're thinking about what kind of world this child is growing into, so I think in terms of having things on my chest and needing to say them, I think I'm a little bit more bold."
The break from touring meant that he had time to take on a new musical project, as he and violinist Jesse Zubot scored the 2014 British dramedy Hector and the Search for Happiness (starring Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike). The resulting soundtrack is ambitious and diverse, drawing on classic Hollywood orchestrations, avant-garde electronics, jazz and more. It's mostly instrumental, but there's also a chamber folk ballad called "Jude" written for Mangan's son, plus a version of the standout Club Meds single "Vessel."
Unlike most of Mangan's melancholically ruminating material, "Vessel" stands apart with its juggernaut hooks and thundering robo rhythms, evoking the global pop vibrancy of classic Peter Gabriel. It even features a believe-it-or-not cameo from Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl — who is friends with Hector director Peter Chelsom — on backing vocals and slide guitar.
For Blacksmith, having their music appear in a major motion picture was a surreal experience. Loewen recalls, "I was on a date when the trailer [for Hector] came on, and I said to her, 'That's me playing drums.' And she goes, 'Ha ha.' I said, 'No, no, no. That's me playing drums.'"
"How did that date go?" asks Grdina.
"Great," Loewen responds knowingly, eliciting laughter from the room.
The process of scoring a film encouraged Mangan to set aside his guitar and adopt new methods of writing and arranging. "My mind had opened up to a lot of electronic, synthetic ways of producing music, and I was really excited to fuck around with that," he reveals.
Although some of the music he worked on for the film was ultimately rejected by the director, it helped to inspire the songs that ended up on Club Meds. "All the while I was learning all these little tricks and banking them," he says.
He drew on this arsenal of tools during the extended recording sessions for Club Meds. Blacksmith tracked most of their parts in a week-and-a-half at the Warehouse Studio; after this, Mangan and returning producer Colin Stewart spent six weeks in front of the computer in the low-ceilinged, wood-panelled National Park Studio, toying with synths, effects pedals and all forms of abstract noise.
They added instrumentation from some peripheral Blacksmith members — violins from Zubot, horns from JP Carter, keys from Tyson Naylor — and even captured some of the sonic chaos from the construction site next door. As Mangan discusses the process, he gives a tour of the spacious room, pointing out synths and illustrating miking techniques.
"There was probably a time when the guys were worried that I had gone on this super electronic tangent and the band's performances were going to be lost entirely and the record was going to go off into this other place," the frontman admits. "Luckily I think I earned their trust again when it came to the mix, because we brought the drums way back up, we brought the guitar back up, we brought the bass back. Now, all of a sudden, it felt like those bed recordings, matched with countless layers of synthetic noise."
The uneasy soundscapes are a perfect match for Mangan's cryptic lyrics, which address society's tendency towards self-medication (hence the title Club Meds).
"It's sedation, but it's not just chemical sedation," he explains. "It's a statement of purposeful disconnection or dishonesty. Not levelling with yourself. Not being honest with yourself about things. Not asking yourself difficult questions because you're terrified of the answers."
The lyrics are frequently oblique, hinting at subjects like groupthink and patriarchy without offering any easy solutions. "Mouthpiece" is a particularly vivid portrait of systemic oppression, as the vocalist sings, "You'll be pummelled by the certainty of minions / It's a puppet show, a theatre of opinions."
Mangan understands that some of the followers he earned with "Robots" might not be on board for this shadowy new direction, but he hopes that many of his fans will evolve with him. When Blacksmith hit the road this year, "Robots" won't be part of the set list.
"The more we trust our gut, the more people get it and the more people stay with us," the singer says of their changing sound. "We're too old to be a hot, young, new whippersnapper band."
"Fuck off!" Loewen cuts in. "We're hot and young."