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Q & A with Dan Mangan

By Apartment613 on February 24, 2015

Post by Curtis Perry.

After a two-year hiatus, including fatherhood and some time to regroup, Dan Mangan recently released his 4th LP, Club Meds under the name Dan Mangan + Blacksmith (John Walsh, Gordon Grdina, Kenton Loewen, and often JP Carter, Jesse Zubot and Tyson Naylor). I was able to catch up with Dan over the phone in January, and we shared a wide-ranging discussion, from production work, to kitsch, to YouTube comments.

Apartment613: Maybe the most obvious difference with your return is the new name – who is Blacksmith; how would you describe that relationship?

I’ve been playing with these guys – Johnny for about seven years, Gord for about five years… at the beginning it is sort of a session musician thing, and they’re hired guns. And it’s developed; they’ve gotten more and more involved in the writing process and crafting songs, especially on this record. They’re just some of the best musicians out there, and I feel like the luckiest guy to get to play with them over the years. And you know, being in a band is kind of like being married… and it’s been amazing, to have music intertwined with my relationship with these guys. To be honest, we would have had a band moniker earlier had we thought of it. We needed the right time to do it – we were thriving on so much momentum for so long, it was hard to imagine trying to change the name of the band in the middle of all of it. After taking a couple of years away, it seemed then like an opportune time to do it.

The initial tracking took about ten days, and the overdubbing and mixing took roughly six weeks – was it an arduous process?

Yeah, we did the initial tracks at the Warehouse studio in Vancouver – pretty intense. Everybody felt not only the option, but the accountability to really dig in to what was going on and speak our minds, and if a song wasn’t really going in the right direction, you spoke your mind. There were some fights, you know, there was also a lot of love and celebration. That was right before Christmas, 2013. A couple of weeks after that, Colin Stewart [producer/ engineer] and I went crazy with overdubs for about six weeks in my crappy little studio – I worked for a couple of weeks, took a week off. It was a really slow process, and I think the record – the record feels very meticulous. The performances are spontaneous, but the actual placement of everything is slow.

I’ve read some reviews that say the album is chaotic, or a little bit too noisy or something like that. I think that if you give this record some time so that the songs start to make sense, so you can place the verses and choruses more easily, I think you’ll find that they are not so chaotic. Everything is in there for a reason, and it takes up a space, sonically. On the other hand, I’m so insider, I know the songs and am at the epicenter of the creative recording process – to me it doesn’t feel that crazy or experimental, but I understand if you put it up against some of our earlier work, it might be a little bit jarring.

It may be a bit of a slow burner – some of it really caught on with me pretty quickly. Do you use any (external) samples in your work, or is it your own tracks, cut up? For example, I hear something sample-y at the beginning of “Pretty Good Joke.”

That’s me – part of that is just working with wizards. JP Carter plays trumpet; we knew from the get go that song was going to be some melody and some chords, and then just endless messing around with noises, and channels, and MIDI. And JP just made that – I said “go nuts man, do whatever,” and he worked out this crazy trumpet part – which is what he’s been doing for years; that’s sort of his signature, working with reverbs and delays and loops to get the trumpet to a particular place where almost no one in the world gets it.

Certainly, it ends up sounding pretty synthetic, as it gets so cut and spliced.

And it’s not necessarily in time with the rest of the song.

That first music video for the lead single, “VESSEL“, directed by Ben Clarkson is really fascinating. One YouTube comment on the video says “my deepest thoughts and fears are expressed so vividly.”

[Laughs]

Another person says, “this song should hang in art galleries around the world, and play on repeat until the world implodes.” What do you think of that?

[Still laughing]

… Those are pretty insightful YouTube comments. I try to ignore YouTube comments because you know, you scroll down half a page, and someone’s inevitably using the word “fag” or something. But that’s actually – I agree with those comments.
I think Ben is a genius. I’ve said this before, but that video is what you want it to be. It’s eye candy at first, but every second of that video has, you know, thirty-five layers of meaning behind it. And if you could tap into Ben’s chaotic mind you could start to see some of that. It really is a dark video. It’s kind of funny, and you feel a bit uncomfortable laughing, because it’s actually really real, you know?

I think it’s kind of taking our colonial story and poking it, saying that Canada, being as peace-loving and beautiful as we like to think it is… for me, I’m a very proud Canadian, and it’s not about not being patriotic. The most patriotic thing you can do is look for honesty in our country’s story. The worst thing you can do is just blind flag-waving and sweep your dirty stuff under the carpet. Our colonial story is kind of dark – not just in Canada, but in the States.

It’s not just white guilt, or Western guilt; it’s just looking at yourself and being honest about what your story is.

And what many of our stories might continue to be, I suppose – what’s our present situation, and that sort of thing.

Yeah.

I imagine this record would be pretty difficult to play live. What’s your strategy around that?

Well the record was finished last April, so we’re just learning how to do it now. I’ve been spending a lot of time bouncing out various sounds and samples from the record. We’re not a band that likes to play to tracks – we’ve never used backing tracks, or anything like that. So I don’t want to be playing along to an MP3. But what I have been doing is bouncing out particular sounds from the record so that they can be performed live, in a way that sort of mimics the record. And it’s a fine line, because on the one hand you want to retrieve the experience of the record, but on the other hand you want the songs to live. You don’t want it to just be a recital of something else, you want it to live an organic way on the stage. It’s war between trying to recreate the record, and forgetting the record entirely.

You recently did a film score for Hector and the Search for Happiness. Did that influence this record in any way?

I think it did in terms of my studio chops; that project forced me to develop a certain comfortable nature with Pro Tools in the studio. That soundtrack has a lot of soundscape, a lot of sort of just open, noisy stuff. So I think in working on that project I opened up a lot of doors into some electronic stuff that I previously wasn’t really privy to.

And MIDI is almost a dirty word, but I think it’s a really incredible format. What I don’t like is using MIDI to recreate something where you should have just hired a real player. I don’t like using MIDI as a fake musician, but I like using MIDI in terms of finding sounds that are kind of hard to place – you don’t know what it is – taking something that could be a mellotron backsample, and then turning that into something that sounds more like an organ.

Like imagining some instrument that would be physically impossible to play, but you can acoustically recreate it.

Yeah, and I think it’s just interesting… I’ve never been one for throwback music. I don’t like the nostalgia, the idea that old music is better than new music. I am interested in taking the influences of the best things about old music, and pushing them into the forefront of what music is right now, and what it’s going to be.

I’m really interested in production. I love the sound of an acoustic guitar in a room, but I also love the sound of really great synths. When we were making this record – it’s actually kind of an analogy, lyrically, for the record as a whole – this juxtaposition between real, frail, imperfect human performance, and synthetic, robotic noises.

The thing is that the human has to win. You have to 51% humanity. And that goes for a life, in the same way, as we kind of go between feeling human and connected, and feeling disconnected and sort of robotic.

As we were mining for different sounds, we were looking for different sounds to use. The rule for me is that [the sound] always has to elicit an emotional response. I always had to feel that sound was bringing something out in me. I couldn’t just take a kitschy, throwback, oh this sounds like the 80s or something.

And one of the tracks is about kitsch – fighting against it.

Yeah, poking at that. Nostalgia is a dangerous game. I feel like it’s a denial of the present, rather than an embracing of the past, because what you’re doing is putting the past on a pedestal. The truth is, back in the past, they’d be doing the same thing.

Yeah, like the best decade is always two decades ago, or whatever. And that’s being capitalized on so much in advertising and media.

I got in an argument once with a guy about the 60s, he was saying life used to be so much simpler, and going on about young people now. I just disagree with that, largely because some things about life used to be simpler, and some things about life used to be more complicated. My example to him was, if you’re black and gay and you were born in Missouri, you know, I’d rather be born now than fifty years ago. Things are getting better, and they’re also getting more complicated, and that’s just the world.
It’s just existing, you know, society down streams of chaotic variables… and you just try and find the beauty, because when you shut yourself off from the darkness and light, you get this terrible, apathetic middle ground.

Thanks for your time.

My pleasure.

Dan Mangan + Blacksmith play a sold out show at the NAC Theatre on February 27th, 2015 with Hayden opening.