Interview: Dan Mangan
Every once in a while, a song comes along that exudes energy and life every time it comes on the radio. It’s what Dan Mangan’s “Race to the Bottom” has been doing on alternative rock stations across Canada.
The first single from the Vancouver-based musician’s new EP Unmake is the only full-band track on the set, a throwback to his last album, Club Meds, which Dan refers to as his Pet Sounds – a brilliant work that drained him emotionally and physically. Unmake was how he healed from that exhausting and daunting recording experience.
The EP features a heartbreakingly beautiful new acoustic song (“Whistleblower”), stripped-down versions of a couple of Club Meds tunes (“Forgetery” and “Kitsch”), and a Robyn cover (“Hang with Me”) with a lyric Dan finds incredibly profound: “If you’re real and not pretend, then I guess you can hang with me.”
In this conversation, he delves deep into some of his most popular songs, including “Robots,” a track he had an epiphany about after seeing The Tragically Hip on their last tour.
Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): When you’re writing a song, what method results in the best outcome for you?
Dan Mangan: I find there are a couple of entrance points. There’s when a phrase circles in my head in a number of ways for any number of days, weeks, or months, and then that eventually becomes a song. There’s a slow permeation of the idea and then that leads into a bunch of themes and becomes a bunch of lines.
There’s then the other way, which is when I have this inkling of an idea of a melody and then I force myself to sit down for four hours and just do it all.
I had a rule that I would never force the muse in my younger days. I would follow the feeling. I would just put the pen down and walk away, and wait for it to come back. But these days, I have a kid, I tour a lot, and I’m always short on time. Sometimes I just don’t have time to wait for the muse to come, so I’ve developed things to force the muse to come back. I’ll force myself to sit down and read a couple of chapters of a great book or I’ll force myself to sit and listen to some amazing music or I’ll go see a play. I find that watching or experiencing other forms of art gets my brain in action. It makes me feel connected to the creative energies and then that tends to get things going.
Songfacts: You’ve said how when you first started writing songs, you always thought you could hear your influences in them. Can you pinpoint the song or moment when you felt like you finally found your own sound and you weren’t just emulating the artists you love?
Dan: I remember writing the song “Basket.” I don’t know if you know that song, but it’s a typical form: It’s verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus.
The ending of the song, it starts off with similar ways the other cycles of it go, but then it just takes off on a whole other thing. Breaking form was an interesting thing. I got into that for a while there. It was like, How can I make a really cool song that has no chorus? Or, How can I do a really cool song that only has one verse and then the rest of it is variations of a chorus?
Coming through the lyrics of “Basket” and getting through that song and writing it, I thought, “I don’t know any modern songwriters who have written a song like this song.” That was a big pat on the back. Like, “Cool. I think I just did something that’s me.”
Of course, I’m influenced in a million different ways by a million songs that I’ve heard and digested, but that was one of the first times I thought to myself, “I feel like I have infused this song with not just the words of the songwriting world.” I haven’t just regurgitated another song for the sake of writing a song.
It was the first time I thought, “I feel like my brain is on display. I feel like I have aptly through the socially understood medium of song taken an idea that was in my brain and articulated it in a way that no one else could have.” It was a powerful moment to feel like you’re not just participating in the world of song. You are actually using the world of song to be you.
Songfacts: Let’s talk about your new EP, Unmake. It returns to more of an acoustic sound and pulls away from the layered and complex sound of your last album, Club Meds. Can you just explain why you named the EP Unmake and why you decided to release it under Dan Mangan and not Dan Mangan + Blacksmith?
Dan: Well, it was a bit of an interesting year. We made Club Meds and that still stands as my proudest piece of work in terms of a recorded expression. I feel like it is lyrically and sonically the most interesting thing that I’ve done. I’m extremely proud of it.
I was probably a little bit arrogant about it when I made it and felt like it was so good that I didn’t care if anyone liked it. It was received well enough, but I had prepared myself that once the world heard that record, it was just going to explode, and it didn’t, really.
It was an interesting time in the band. What eventually ended up happening was that our drummer, Kenton [Loewen], who had been playing with us for eight years, decided to leave the band and did so on extremely wonderful terms. We went out and had the drinks and ended with big high-fives and hugs and well wishes. It was the end of an era. Nobody regretted a thing. It was exactly what it needed to be.
But Kenton was the one who thought up Blacksmith. It seemed dishonest to pursue the Dan Mangan + Blacksmith without this central person. Anybody who knows Kenton or has even seen him perform, he’s a force of nature, so to take this force of nature out of the band, and then still call it the same band didn’t really make any sense. So that’s the reasoning behind the name change.
Sonically, the shift was interesting. Club Meds was basically something I killed myself over. It was six or seven months of relentless work and meticulous action. Unmake was entirely the opposite. All of those songs, the vocal takes are recorded in one take with pretty much zero editing. They were done alone.
With Club Meds, it felt like we were making Pet Sounds. It was this living, thriving thing that we just focused so much attention onto for so long that I needed to have a different kind of cathartic recording experience that didn’t have as high of stakes. There was a lot of pressure to create this opus, so to do the total opposite, which was to have a guitar and play a new song and a couple of covers, was an interesting idea.
I was taking “Forgetery” and “Kitsch” from the record, and I actually recorded a few other versions of Club Meds‘ tunes, and it did feel like unmaking it, but not in a way that I regretted – It wasn’t like you were unmaking it because you regret it or unmaking it because you feel like it’s bad. It was just letting yourself become undone. The EP could have easily been called Undone [laughs]. It’s letting it all unravel. I felt like Club Meds was building this incredible fortress and Unmake was demolishing the fortress.
Songfacts: The first single from the EP, “Race to the Bottom,” seems to lyrically fit well with songs about nostalgia from Club Meds such as “Mouthpiece” and “Kitsch.” Why do you think that theme fascinates you so much and can you talk about the story happening in the song?
Dan: Well, right now we literally have a presidential candidate whose slogan is: Make America Great Again. I wonder when exactly he is talking about. What was great? Was it before the civil rights movement? I think if you were gay or black, you would say that things have never been greater. Great for who? What do you mean by that?
I think the future and the past are equally hypothetical. I can predict with some sense of certainty how life will feel in a month. I can with the same logic remember with the same element of reality or truth what life was like a month ago. All perspectives on the past are entirely relative. The idea that things intrinsically were just better is so stupid to me because they never were. It’s all relative.
I remember somebody saying, “I feel really bad for kids growing up around iPads right now. It’s just too complicated. Life’s too complicated.” I think, yeah, but I remember being a kid and holding up a new piece of technology that was made in the ’80s and my grandparents going, “Oh, it’s too complicated.” It didn’t seem complicated to me. When you ask my three year old if my iPhone is too complicated, it’s not. It’s all relative. I grew up with a rotary phone in my house and that seems a world away, but that’s what I was used to as a kid. So now things seem complicated to me, but to kids born right now, they don’t feel complicated.
The idea that things used to be better is fantasy. It’s putting a halo on something that no one can disprove. To say, “It used to be better,” nobody can say, “Well, no it wasn’t.” It’s like telling a story that is self-aggrandizing about someone who has passed away, when they can’t tell the other side of the story.
What you’re talking about is the past. It’s a facade. I think the only thing that we even have a small tangent of reality or truth about is right now – the moment that is happening right this second. Everything else is up for grabs.
Songfacts: You said in an interview that “Whistleblower” is about “feeling emotionally volatile.” Can you expand on that thought and explain how that one came to be?
Dan: Well, that song is really about the spectrum that we all go through. One end of the spectrum is feeling super connected and energetically open and emotionally available for people. You feel the weight of the world and you take things in and you are acting out from a place of being pushed and visceral. It’s heavy. You can’t be there all of the time.
The other side of that spectrum is being robotic and numb and just feeling like you’re on autopilot. You’re going from chore to chore taking the carrot directly in front of you. You’re actively disengaged, but just going through the motions of existing and keeping yourself alive.
So both of those extremes are pretty intense in their own way and I think we flutter in between them. That’s what that song is about: it’s finding your equilibrium and your balance between those two extremes. If I have to choose to lean one way or the other, I’m going to go toward feeling things as opposed to actively trying not to feel things because it’s scary.
The line in the song that says, “All this suffice to say, I’ll come back from being away, get complacent and unawake, back to my senses,” is tongue-in-cheek because what it’s saying is “back to my senses” means numb. So, don’t worry, I’m feeling it all right now but I’ll go back to being numb and complacent and unawake because it’ll be easier on everybody including myself. It’s just taking the piss out of myself for being emotionally too attached to things.
But it’s also saying, “This is how I feel,” and I think people feel that way, too. I think articulating things through song is a good way of letting people know that they’re not alone. So if I write about something that I’ve experienced and somebody goes, “Oh my God, I feel the exact same way,” then both of us are connected, and when you feel connected to people, you feel understood. You feel a sense of purpose.
On a darwinistic sense as an animal connection, it’s basically the heart of everything that we crave all of the time. It’s the heart of love, the heart of ego. So I think that’s why art prevails: because it helps people in a fairly intangible, magical way feel more connected to each other.
Songfacts: Like you mentioned, there’s an acoustic version of “Forgetery” on the EP featuring Tegan Quin from Tegan and Sara. Can you describe the evolution of that tune and what inspired it?
Dan: The song came from a specific experience. I was having a moment in, let’s say an altered state [laughs]. It was this intense moment of feeling utterly gracefully and peacefully connected to everything and in a place of egoless existence of just being peacefully bewildered and pleased by all existing things, and that’s a really great place to be.
You think to yourself, “Oh my God, I’m just on cloud nine here. This is amazing. I’m just going to feel like this all of the time. I just figured out life. All I have to do is feel like this all of the time.”
But it’s like a slippery fish in your hand. It’s in your hand, but the second you squeeze your hand to hold onto it tight, it slips out and it’s gone. The song is about that: “What I’m wishing would linger seems to leave me.”
The title came from my great aunt Marguerite. She used to say, “My memory is totally shot, but my forgetery is bang on.” I thought that was so clever so I took it for the chorus of the song, and that’s the idea: We’re bound to forget and that’s okay.
I think that’s part of the process of being okay with existing. It’s coming to a place where you understand that there’s going to be ups and downs and that you have to be okay with the downs too and embrace them just as much because they will teach you something.
So the song is about all of those things. It’s about the regret of forgetting the beauty and also the importance of going through that cycle of ups and downs over and over again and how that’s all part of our process.
Songfacts: And then there’s also an acoustic version of “Kitsch” on the EP. Why did you want to re-work that song and what’s the lyrical tale occurring in it?
Dan: That song was inspired by a book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. It’s an original explanation of the meaning of the word “kitsch” as German slang in the 1800s. We now think of ‘kitsch’ as being tacky, but that’s not necessarily how it began. Basically, kitsch was slang for the word shit. So what it was referring to was this principle that you can’t look at the halo of something without looking at the shit. He explains it in a fairly vulgar sense of if we are created in the image of a God, then that God takes shit [laughs].
So you can’t just look at the side of something that you want to see. You have to look at the whole round object and understand that there are parts of it that you don’t like. So when you put a halo on concepts – gender roles, religion, nationality or pride – or you put a halo on any topic – anything that you hold dear like the relationship between a father and son or a mother and daughter, what it means to be married or what it means to be single or what it means to be a free spirit or what it means to be an artist – if you just put a halo on something and say it’s untouchable – “that is special and that is perfect” – you immediately close your eyes to the truth of it, because the truth is that nothing is perfect.
So the song goes through concepts:
Ladies in dresses
Whores in the bedroom
It’s the sick and twisted male fantasy that we want classy ladies out in the world that make us look good, but in the bedroom, men want subservient women who please all of their whims. It’s the typical bullshit of male ego.
Old boys in board rooms
The safety of sure doom
You think about the utter glee that people who believe in the rapture would feel when it’s all going to end because they “know it’s their time.”
It’s this tongue-in-cheek thing:
Call it old fashioned
Call it nostalgia
Just call it something we can all die to
It’s this idea that there are concepts worth dying for, which is a pretty big deal. So it’s just taking the piss out of it.
What’s the other line?
Boys in the trenches
We always support our troops. We should support our troops because those are real people, but we take these particular facets of our society and we make them holier than anything.
“Love for the home team” is another line. I remember being in Manchester once and being like, “What do you guys think of Liverpool?” Everyone was like, “Booooo!” and then I went to Liverpool the next night and go, “What do you guys think of Manchester?” and everyone goes, “Booooo!” The two cities are literally 40 miles apart. It takes an hour to drive between them. It’s like, really? Are you that different? I don’t think so [laughs].
It’s this idea that something that is the other is bad and something that is us is good.
The song is basically just picking apart a lot of these different concepts that we like to put halos on.
Songfacts: And you’re often inspired by literature. Why do you think that medium resonates with you so much?
Dan: Well, I was an English major in university and that got me into novels, but I read a lot of books as a kid. More than anything, being an English major made me more appreciative of authors and what an incredible feat it is to just finish a novel, let alone a really brilliant one.
I think books are just a great ticket to get you outside of yourself. You can not be you for a second and live in the shoes of a character, which is a special thing.
More than anything, I just get so overwhelmed with characters in books that I feel compelled to write about them. “Offred,” the first song on Club Meds, was written from the perspective of the protagonist from The Handmaid’s Tale. “Rows of Houses” was written from the perspective of Gordie Lachance, the protagonist in Stand By Me, which was based on the Stephen King book. I think that sometimes I just get wrapped up in it and then the song idea comes out.
It’s funny. I don’t necessarily think I look to books for ideas, but sometimes when I’m in the process of reading a great book, I just think about it all of the time. It’s hard to read a book like The Handmaid’s Tale without thinking about it when you’re not reading it. It’s a pretty psychologically daunting book in a really beautiful and insightful way. Even to write such a dystopian 1984-esque novel from a female perspective was such a brilliantly defiant thing because no one ever did that. As if women also don’t experience a dystopian apocalypse. We know about Winston. We know about all of these other characters from this dystopian novel, so it was like, finally. So that was such an interesting thing.
I feel it’s slightly appropriating or sexist for me to try to write from that perspective, but it was an exercise that I wanted to try. I wanted to dare because I felt like Margaret [Atwood] did such an incredible job of describing her reality that it was kudos to her for putting that perspective in my head because she’s such a master.
Songfacts: What is it about Robyn’s “Hang with Me” that made you want to cover that song for the EP?
Dan: [Laughs] Well, it’s funny. I played that song for my wife and she was like, “That’s not a good song. You should cover a different song.” I was like, “No! There’s something in there!”
Robyn has this brilliant way of saying a lot with not much. The words are so stupidly simple. When she says, “If you’re real and not pretend, then I guess you can hang with me,” even though that sounds like something an 11-year-old would say over Instagram, it feels like it’s the whole world in there of like, “I just don’t want any bullshit.”
Basically, what she’s saying is if you’re not going to put any more bullshit in my world, then we can hang out. Even though it sounds kind of arrogant to have your whole song like, “Well, if you do this and if you do that, then you can hang with me,” it’s also standing up for yourself and saying, “Listen, I just don’t want to be surrounded by half-truth and presumptive ideas about who I am or who I’m not.”
So I think there’s something vulnerable about saying that. There’s something beautiful about that statement. It sounds like she’s being blunt or callous in a sense, but to say it is actually a vulnerable act.
The other thing about it, the song basically says, “Okay, we can hang out, but don’t fall in love with me because then it’s all going to fall apart if you do that.”
Basically, what that is saying underneath it is, “I can’t handle love,” which is a huge statement. It’s a huge statement to say, “I can’t handle love and I’m going to fall apart and we both will if you do that, so just keep it simple.” It’s terrifying to hear someone say they can’t handle love, even if it’s completely inferred and not implied. Maybe that’s not what she means at all, but that’s what I take from it.
I also just love the melody [laughs]. There’s something satisfying about singing, “If you do me right, I’m gonna do right by you,” in the melody that she sings. I just think it’s a great, well-written song.
Songfacts: Judging from various interviews, you seem to have mixed feelings regarding “Robots.” Can you just express what that song means to you now?
Dan: It’s interesting. I was at The Hip concert Sunday night [in Toronto]. It was so amazing. It was so great. It’s such a gift to Canada to go and do this tour. But they didn’t play “Courage” and they didn’t play “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” and they didn’t play “Wheat Kings” and they didn’t play “50 Mission Cap.” I left going, “Ugh! I’m so bittersweet about this whole thing because I really wanted to hear those songs.” And that epiphany in my brain made me go, “I should just play ‘Robots’ every show” [laughs].
What a weird thing to be conflicted about this song that just continues to be a popular thing. I’m so grateful for that song. It changed my life. Every 65-year-old or six-year-old who tells me that’s their favorite song, I’m like, “That’s amazing!”
The truth is that I rebelled against it for a while and said, “I don’t want to play that anymore,” because I started to feel like a monkey. I started to feel like it wasn’t just a song. It was the expectation of antics that came with the song that it was going to be bigger and more ridiculous and a wilder sing-along than it was the time before.
When we performed it, it got that way. It became, Okay. Time to play this song and now everything’s going to become a carnival. It’s just going to get crazy. Maybe I’ll invite someone on stage? Or maybe I’ll crowd surf? Or maybe I’ll wander to the back of the bar and pour myself a pint? There was this ongoing thing about that song about what would happen at the end of it and that would be the most memorable moment of the night. I guess I felt like I had written all of these other songs that I felt were actually more insightful and more mature, but people just wanted the other song. I took that personally. I was almost hurt by it. “Oh, you just want to hear the fucking singalong.”
Now I’ve come around to the other side where I’m just really appreciative of it. I’ve been able to enjoy it more lately and have fun singing it, so I’m less conflicted about it now than I probably was a couple of years ago.
Songfacts: What can you recall about writing “Road Regrets”?
Dan: Oh, that was particular. I was on my first American tour. I was illegally playing shows in the States and didn’t have a visa or anything. I drove my mom’s Subaru down there. I was making 30 dollars a show.
I had gone down totally alone, driving for a week straight trying to get to South By Southwest where I had this showcase. I was young and South By Southwest was such a huge deal. I was so certain that I was going to get discovered there [laughs]. Everything was going to change if I could just get to this showcase.
I hit this horrible patch of weather after 10 hours of driving. It was getting late, I was in west Texas around El Paso, and I still had so much driving to do. I pulled over to a Motel 6 and got four hours of sleep and then I got back into the car and started driving again. After you’ve been driving alone for six straight days for 10 hours a day, you’re slapping yourself in the face to stay awake. You’re trying to sing really loud songs to keep yourself engaged. You go a little bit insane.
I remember there was this terrible storm going on and the windshield wipers were going mad. I started to worry that I was going to get swallowed up in a tornado, so I started going, “I know tornados are in Kansas because I’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, but do they happen in Texas too? I can’t remember!” So it was just having this experience of being out there and being crazy and just totally being at my wits’ end in the pursuit of this fantastical dream of being a professional musician.
I was in the car where the lines came to me:
We drive until the gas is gone
And then walk until our feet are torn
Crawl until we feed the soil
Film the whole thing
So it’s a cheeky thing. Here we are out on the road. We’re supposed to be having this fantastical time and we’re going to film it all so we can put it on the web and people can see it.
The whole thing is such a weird and ridiculous thing, but that song came directly out of that experience.
Songfacts: You’re a musician who puts a lot of thought into the lyrics. Do you have a favorite lyric of your own that you’re particularly fond of that maybe always moves you when you sing it?
Dan: I do have some favorites. Actually, there are some favorites from the really early works, too. From the early days, one of my prouder pat-on-the-back notes was in the song “Tina’s Glorious Comeback.” The line, “If all this was easy, it wouldn’t matter how it ends.” Especially at the time, I felt like that was a little feather in the cap.
There’s a handful on Club Meds that I’m proud of, too. I think “Mouthpiece” has some lines:
I want to breathe in all the ashes of the books they tried to burn
I want to feel the pages in my skin and understand the words
It’s one that I always sing with determination. I can always feel those words bubbling up in me. Or in the song “XVI,” there’s the line:
We’re dying of boredom, there’s nothing to do
See, if you hate the man, the man hates you too
There’s a few and sometimes you don’t know where it comes from. It’s like anything you’ve ever experienced gets compartmentalized somewhere in your brain and then in this moment of lucidity it works its way back onto the page.
Songfacts: Is there a song out of your whole discography that you’re especially proud of that you wish got more attention from people?
Dan: Hmm. [Long pause] Probably. [Long pause]
It was basically overlooked on Club Meds, but I’m strangely proud of the song “Pretty Good Joke.” I like the recording of that song and the lyrics and the sardonic tongue-in-cheek nature of the whole thing. It was a real feat to record. It ends up entirely not where it starts. It goes from this LCD Soundsystem burpy drum machine thing into this down-on-the-bayou James Jamerson bass line.
I feel like that song is such a weird collection of things. I made it second last on the record. Maybe it should have been third and it would have got more attention.
I’m also proud of the song “New Skies.” It’s the last song on Club Meds. It doesn’t really ever get requested at shows.
Songfacts: Out of all of your songs, what one do you think has been misinterpreted the most?
Dan: Hmm. [Long pause] Kind of like “Rockin’ in the Free World” being played at a Trump rally? [Laughs]
Songfacts: Yeah, just lyrically misunderstood.
Dan: I don’t know what “Robots” is to people. I don’t know if it’s just cute or if they sense the underbelly side of that song. It doesn’t matter if it’s misinterpreted on some level because if the point of good art is to be somewhat subtle then it’s not going to catch everyone. If you make everything really on the nose so everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about, it’s often not as strong.
One lyric that is often misinterpreted that is funny is in the song “Road Regrets.” I say, “The cost is more than what you get paid” and many times I’ve seen on Twitter people quoting, “The gas is more than what you get paid.”
The funny thing is that, “the gas is more than what you get paid,” makes more sense with the song. It’s kind of a better lyric. If people are rewriting it or singing it that way, it makes more sense. You’re like after the fact, “Oh, maybe I should have done it that way.” It’s funny.
Songfacts: Are there any songs that the meanings of them have changed for you since you first wrote them?
Dan: [Long pause] Yeah. “Pine for Cedars.” I wrote that song about my then-girlfriend who’s now my wife. Our life now is very different than it was then. We lived in this tiny 400-square-foot apartment. We were so broke and just barely making rent every month. We were both working serving tables.
We were in the beginning courtship of a relationship, working nights so we would be up until three or four in the morning every single night. It was a real special beginning of us getting to know each other.
So now that song is a specific memory to me. It always brings up an image in my head of that time and how that was such an important moment, whereas at the time, I was writing about the present. So now when I play the song, it seems like the present but in my head I’m talking about something that was. So I guess just in the sense of time passing, that song. But structurally or semantically, not so much.
I’m trying to think of other songs. It’s interesting to see what songs stay in the setlist. The most requested song of mine is not “Robots.” It’s “Basket.”
Songfacts: Yeah, it seems like a fan favorite.
Dan: I have rarely in the last 10 years done a concert without playing that song. Very rarely. Maybe if it was a 30-minute set at a rock festival. It’s like, “Okay. Let’s just stick to the big bangers.” But I have played that song almost every set of the last 10 years and it’s the most requested. Yeah, I think “fan favorite” is the word. The people who know the deep catalog, they come back to that one.
Songfacts: And you originally wrote that about your grandfather, right?
Dan: Yeah, it was a bit of an ode to him. I wrote it about two weeks after he passed away.
It’s amazing that song. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to someone around 50 who just buried a senior citizen parent. At the merch table after the gig, they’re talking about how that song was a cathartic song for them to hear. It’s totally amazing.
The most rewarding possible thing that a songwriter or an artist of any kind can experience is to hear firsthand from the mouth of somebody else that they don’t know the weight or gravity or intensity that something they’ve made has brought out in somebody else’s life. It’s simultaneously flattering and humbling. It makes me so thankful that I’ve been so lucky to be able to do this work.
With all of the people in the world and all of the suffering and all of the things that people are forced to do for lack of other alternative, the fact that I had a subsidized education and got to go right into a life of playing music for a living, what a stupidly fortunate place to be. And then to be able to experience reading that kind of letter written to you over Facebook or talking to people after a show, it makes you feel very small in the universe in a really powerful way. It’s beautiful. It’s the most rewarding thing.