Dan Mangan is a two-time Juno award winner, Polaris Music Prize nominee, and occasional Arts and Culture writer for The Guardian and Huffington Post. Recently, he released his fourth LP, Club Meds and it is pretty obvious that his expression has evolved.
At this point, I could suffocate you with dying metaphors and music journalism clichés using adjectives like “ethereal” and “reverb-soaked”, but that would just cheapen the creative process.
Recently, I had a conversation with Dan about the impact of fatherhood, the politics of fairness and what it means to walk through life numb.
Club Meds is supposed to be about sedation. Are you referring to self-inflicted sedation or circumstance?
I think what I’m talking about is a wilful blindness. I think existing is pretty intense and you know we go through various stages of protecting ourselves from that intensity by numbing ourselves to it. And sometimes that’s a chemical thing. Sometimes it can be medication. But sometimes it’s just kind of choosing to dig into things that are benign and meaningless because it helps to shield us from having to face this harsh reality of being honest with ourselves about who we are. I think you can go an entire lifetime without ever asking yourself the questions that you do need to ask yourself. It’s about self-sedation and societal sedation and just honesty on a general level. When you are sedated you are in denial, you are waylaying your responsibility to yourself for a future time. But when you are pushing your troubles away, your troubles don’t go away, they just move another day back and it just lengthens the interval before you have to reconcile.
For you how does this sedation manifest personally?
I can’t put myself above any others. I have a lot of opinions and I point out a lot of things about society in the songs, but I think the thing that gives me an ability to talk about them is that I see them in myself too. I notice these crutches in my own personality and that sort of manifests itself in various ways. I don’t know, I think that you have to be able to look at yourself; you have to not take yourself too seriously and laugh at yourself, but you also can’t be going through life with this assumption that all the difficult things can wait. For me, the times where I feel most at peace are the times when I have taken hard things on. And not just the tangible things that you have to do, but the actual weird emotional work that it takes to be a realized and mature adult is an on-going process. I find the most peace when I have done the hard work instead of saving it for another time.
Actively facing suffering instead of running away from it?
Yea, working through things, rather than avoiding them. But there is so much noise in the world. There are so many people talking all the time, and it’s really very rare that anybody says anything of substance. So I think that different people have various levels of tolerance and awareness to the quagmire of bullshit that swirls around us all the time; this vague banal assumptive crap. And so I think we waver between being very open to it and very insightful and then we go back to the more robotic, day-to-day monotony.
I think that if you spend too much time on either end of that spectrum then you are in trouble. You can’t always be living in the moment and with a child-like wonder. You have to wander between both worlds and that’s sort of what life is: balance.
You said, “The distraction was nice, but I had some work to do that didn’t involve performing.” Can you elaborate on this a bit?
I think I had some personal work to do, we were just travelling and travelling and touring and playing shows and we were so busy all the time that I think I has postponed a lot of personal development that needed to go on. You spend all this time trying to keep the plate spinning, and we had a lot of great momentum and when all of it’s happening you can’t say no. You start to worry that you’re getting all these lucky breaks and if you stop for two seconds, all of these horseshoes are going to fall right out of your ass. And whether I was one hundred per cent feeling it all the time or not, it was just sort of like “It’s okay, just go, go, go because it’s working.”
I needed to kind of sit down and spend some time with myself and think about why I was playing music. I think when I was younger I just wanted a seat at the table—I just wanted to be a part of this big magical fantasy world of being a musician. And it kind of worked, we had an audience and we were travelling and playing shows and it was starting to all become very legit. But now that we have a seat at the table, I needed to step back and say, “What do I want to do with this? What kind of lifestyle do I want to have? What kind of body of work do I want to have?” I think part of that answer is still being figured out. Part of that answer is I want to challenge myself and have a longstanding body of work so that decades from now I can say I took risks and that I continued to evolve.
Has becoming a father influenced your creativity?
Well I think that in a way it makes you a little softer, a little more in touch with your emotional side, but at the same time I feel a more sturdy duty to actually say something. When you have a kid, you’re thinking about the world they are going to be growing up in and how you want to do your part to make that world as great as possible. So, my creative output is sort of my way of dealing with the world’s woes. I feel like a bit more responsibility has bled into the song writing.
Is there any significance behind the new name addition rather than under a solo artist name?
Well it had been years of playing with the same guys and it was just getting more and more ludicrous to show up to gigs and only see my name on the ticket and my face in the newspaper. It just seemed weird because in many ways we’ve become an ensemble. We talked about it for years, adding a band name, but we had just never had the right one. So we were part way through recording Club Meds and our drummer just texted me late one night and said “Blacksmith.” It resonated with me, there is something romantic about working away in a dank, industrial place and honing your craft and figuring out how to do something with dedication and passion. Crafting tools is the same way we craft songs. So I’m really glad we added it, we feel more cohesive as a band than ever before.
It’s interesting, blacksmiths build things like weapons and armour and it almost seems like this new album is a conceptual attack on this framework that we have built ourselves into.
I think that is well put, and I think that lyrically it has sharpened things. I’m a little bit more ready to come out guns blazing. Earlier on the radio I was listening to this segment talking about first world problems and the struggle is real and all these Internet memes. And there are people who are born into slavery, there are people right now on this planet who have no choice what happens in their life and we can talk all we want about self-determination and being part of that North-American dream of being a self-made man or woman, but the truth is we have no comprehension whatsoever about how stupidly lucky we are. I am a white male born in a safe, clean city in an affluent country. I have basically been given every head start. So it’s easy to sort of assume that it’s the norm, but the fact is that many people on this planet are born into a compromised position and choice is an interesting thing. In the first song, Offred, I am referencing a character in a Margaret Atwood novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. This woman is plucked from her life and all of her choice is taken away. She is no longer a human, but a vessel of impregnation for rich white men so she could bear their children. The crazy thing is, that’s real. That goes on. So I do think that the infrastructure of our society is beautiful, there are a lot of things about Western culture that are promising, but there is also a little bit of delusion that goes along with that, like feelings of entitlement.
Do you think that situations of excess might support situations of vulnerability?
That makes sense, but I’m not a poli-sci major, and I’m not an economics major and I don’t claim to have an answer. I also can’t point the finger with too much volition. I see these problems in myself and so I can talk about them. I think the variables change, but maybe it has always been this way; the spectrum of fear and love and greed and beauty and anger. I really don’t have an endgame here; I’m not trying to change the world. But I am trying to send my smoke signal up in the air and say, “I don’t know if anyone else feels this way, but this is how I feel” and maybe somebody will see that and they will feel less alone.
Dan Mangan + Blacksmith helped kick off Indie88’s Hidden Studio Sessions. Check out their performance of “Vessel” and “Mouthpiece” from Club Meds.