Dan On A Plane : An Interview With Dan Mangan

Interview by Brooke Manning with illustration by Kristian Bauthus

I was recently given the pleasure of speaking with the heartwarming musician, Dan Mangan. Totally laid-back and full of vulnerable humour (even at an exceptionally higher altitude), I was able to quiz him on the likes of subconsciously letting go, making it as a Canadian musician, and the importance of whipped cream. So grab a piece of pumpkin pie and read on, fellow lovers.

Hey Dan! I met you at Sasquatch this year. Mutual friends introduced everyone to everyone after your set and it was hazy, and pretty lazy, but oh-so-warm. You also immediately struck me as an incredibly humble human. I had been feeling swallowed by the hussle, but seeing your performance shook me back into the beautiful surroundings that were the Gorge. How did you like Sasquatch?

Sasquatch was pretty great.. We didn’t really expect the crowd that we got – I suppose because there were so many Canadians there.. Such a beautiful setting for a festival, and overall a great vibe.. Unfortunately we missed the last day because we were playing with The Decemberists in Bend, OR, but we did get to hang there for a few days and I felt like we absorbed the general energy of the event. I’d love to go back there.. Thanks for the kind words – I find that most people I meet in bands who actually tour and play festivals and take it really seriously are pretty easy going. Most of the idiots with the chips on their shoulders don’t actually get anywhere because nobody wants to deal with them.

You exude a sense of beauty and compassion that I can totally get into. I love what you do and how you connect with the audience. When you are performing, what is your inner monologue like?

I think when I first started playing shows, I probably tried to come across in a variety of ways – testing the waters of what it meant to perform.. Feeling very aware of myself on stage.. The more I played, the more I realized that I had a better time (and the audience probably had a better time) if I was just myself. Truth is, I’ve got a pretty dorky sense of humour, and can be self-deprecating.. The goal is to get unconscious on stage – to be so immersed in the music and the moment that you lose that awareness.. It’s not always easy, but you kind of need to check the baggage at the door, and just let go. The band and I talk a lot about honesty in music, and getting outside of “what it’s supposed to be”, and getting inside “what it is”.

Okay. Look to your left. See that thing over there, what is it? Now, look to your right. Holy cow, what’s that?!

I am on a plane. To my left is a woman sketching in a journal. To my right is a guy on a laptop. Holy crap!

In listening to your recordings, I get the sense that you are very inspired by your surroundings. Is this a true assumption of me? What inspires you most, people, places, or things?

I think that’s pretty bang on. I think people who make art are like sponges. They absorb the environment around them – taking in both the individual and communal experiences of the time. I always write more music when I’m reading more books and watching good films and having good conversations. I feel like I eat up what’s around me, then digest and think about it, then regurgitate it back in my own weird paste of sound. Even when lyrics seemingly come from nowhere, they’re coming from some kind of experience. We’re all just the culminations of everything we witness and take in – consciously and subconsciously.

Do you value community within music? Is being a Canadian musician something that is important to you? Do you feel it helps define you?

I think Canada is in a really incredible time for music. We’ve had some unbelievable iconic artists in the past, but a lot of them had to move to the USA to really “make it”. These days that’s not the case. There’s a real proliferation of great ingenuity in music in this country right now. Community means a lot.. Individually, it’s really hard to get a career going in any kind of art form, but when people are supportive of each other, it’s amazing what can happen. It’s like people helping each other up a ladder one wrung at a time, rather than getting greedy about the chances you get, or spiteful about the chances other people get.

Your newest album is stunning. Can you talk a little bit about the process of making it?

Thank you. It took longer than any other album I’ve made.. We recorded intermittently between tours from December ’10 through May ’11. Colin Stewart was really great to work with – we had a real cohesion between us in the sounds that we like to hear and what we think feels good in music. I took on a lot of collaborators with this album, and there are so many performances that I can cherish – Eyvind Kang wrote most of the ensemble arrangements and the core band and I (Gord Grdina, Kenton Leowen, John Walsh) put in a lot of hours arranging the songs and figuring out just what we were going to do with them. When it was finished, I was so lost for perspective that I couldn’t really listen to it for about a month. Lately, as it’s almost out, I’ve been growing to appreciate it more, and I’m getting really proud of what we accomplished. It’s a special moment for me.

How does this record differ from your last? How do you feel you have grown? Do you believe that with every record, you grow more branches?

I think I used to be really attached to the idea of the folky troubadour type. It’s not that I don’t like that kind of music anymore, but I have found myself wandering further and further from it. I didn’t enjoy the box that the “singer/songwriter” label affixed. It’s been really important for me to feel like I’m growing and evolving. Part of that was surrounding myself with a band who approaches music from outside the box, and really aims for experimental expression. I’m so in awe of my band’s talents, it makes it easy to let go and learn and push my comfort zone. I think this album is a deeper listen, and probably a bit less flashy. It’s a more mature expression, and hopefully will define a new chapter in my career. It takes a few listens to really “get it” I think, whereas my last album was a bit more gripping immediately. I want people to grow fond of this album like a favourite shirt.

I find that most musicians I have spoken with tend to discover their passion for song in high school. Is this true of you? What were you like in high school?

Yeah definitely. It’s because most musicians realize in highschool that even if you’re not very cool, playing guitar makes you a bit cooler. It’s also because people are really dramatic at that age. I wasn’t a very cool kid in highschool.. I had a good amount of friends thankfully, and fortunately didn’t get particularly picked on.. I had a way of kind of floating between groups and not making any enemies. Highschool is such a joke. I mean, I understand that it’s important on some level, and that it’s a vulnerable time in everyone’s life, but teenagers need to BELIEVE adults that all the crap they think is so life-and-death is pretty menial, and that life really does start AFTER highschool. Some people peak in highschool and never feel that cool or accepted ever again, and forever try to re-live that experience. Most people get more interesting and better looking after the fact and become the envy of those who can’t move on.

What provoked you to keep on keeping on?

It’s a good question. The truth is that making a career in the arts is so stupidly hard and requires so much work that any sensibly thinking person would take a look at the input/output compendium and walk away. That’s why it has to consume you. If you look at it rationally, the odds are against you. You have to do it for the love of it – with intensity, honesty and determination. Sometimes, just having the naive optimism that allows you to do it despite the odds is really the only thing that makes it work for you.

What are you most proud of?

When I was a kid I could eat a whole box of KD.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned thus far in your career?

Be a good person. There’s no time to deal with precious dickheads.

Your energy (both in song and person) reminds me of the the hook in a really moving song coupled with a moment of complete hyper awareness to your surroundings. Can you remember a moment when you were on your first ever tour, driving long stretches of highway, listening to a tune that really scratched at your heart? Can you describe it to us?

A million songs along the way.. “Let Down” by Radiohead has got to be one of my all-time favourites, but there are so many. At least once a tour, somebody in the van will put on “Good Friend” by Plants & Animals. Perfect late night vibe-setter.

I am curious to know what artist or performer fascinates you.

I recently saw M. Ward play at End Of The Road Festival in the UK and thought he was pretty remarkable. He’s a great songwriter and his records are insane. I’ve got a lot of respect for Justin Vernon.. There’s another band Wisconsin called The Daredevil Christopher Wright that’s coming on tour with us all across Canada that are really amazing – I’m so excited to play with them. All the players in my band are in a bunch of other bands, and it’s one of my favourite things to see those bands play. I’m a lucky dude.

Thanks so much, Dan! I look forward to seeing you in the future! I’ll be in your hood soon and I’d like to buy you and your sweet a slice of pumpkin pie.

Cool. I like Pumpkin Pie. Although Pumpkin Pie without whipping cream is a little like listening to good music through crappy laptop speakers – just not the same.