Dan Mangan, a Vancouver-based singer/songwriter, has been nominated for four Juno Awards. His latest album, Oh Fortune, is a tremendously thoughtful work of orchestral proportions that just earned him an award for Solo Artist of the Year at the Canadian Independent Music Awards, held March 24th, 2012. As he readied for a trip east for the Indies and the Junos, (where he is nominated for Songwriter of the Year, Best New Artist, Alternative Album of the Year and Video of the Year), Weeping Elvis talked with Mangan about the idiosyncrasies of being a Canadian artist, his contemporaries and his favorite Canadian artists.
WE: Congratulations are in order on the award nominations…Is this the first time you’ve been nominated for the Indies and the Junos?
DM: I believe it is the first nomination for the Indies, I know that it’s the first nomination for the Junos. We may have been nominated for an Indies before, I can’t remember. (Laughing) I know that’s not a very helpful answer for you!
WE: But it’s sort of a testament to the popularity you’ve gained because it’s harder for someone to find that information amongst the many hits you have accumulated on the Internet, particularly for someone on the indie side.
DM: Yeah, the Junos are a whole different sort of weirdness because it’s a level of mainstream media that I haven’t really experienced before, so that’s rather new to me.
WE: And I wouldn’t normally associate you with the likes of Nickelback and those guys.
DM: Well I appreciate that (laughing).
WE: The Black Keys are with you on that!
DM: Yeah, it’s cool, right? I haven’t watched the Junos since I was a kid but at the same time you can’t scoff at the fact that people are paying attention to what you’re doing, that’s what you’ve always wanted, it’s great, and I’m really looking forward to it.
WE: The Indie Awards in particular have a real vibe of “Canadian-ness “ at least from an American perspective, so I was wondering, are there any particular Canadian artists that influenced you growing up?
DM: Well, certainly there’s the sort of iconic classics like Leonard Cohen and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. And I think that as I got into my teen years I guess Hayden would be a big one, and well into my 20s as well. I also listened to a ton of British and American acts, and it wasn’t until I started playing more that I realized how deep the talent pool was in Canada. I remember seeing Broken Social Scene in about 2004, maybe, and being pretty blown away and realizing that there was this really vibrant Canadian music culture going on, and some of it was largely out east, but Vancouver has also had its share of great bands in the last decade. It’s really exciting. When I travel abroad I find that most people are hugely receptive to the Canadian bands. Everywhere we go, because we’re Canadian, people are mentioning other Canadian bands they like and we see posters all over the world for other Canadian bands. It seems like there’s a nice community happening and a lot of support between bands. It’s good to see. It’s not a toxic community. It’s very supportive.
WE: When you mention someone like Hayden and talk about Vancouver I also think of other bands like 54-40 and Rose Chronicles and some others…do you think the Canadian Content Requirement is a factor?
DM: Yeah, I think in terms of maintaining a cultural sovereignty, having the content requirement is a really great thing. I think that at times it’s not executed as well as it could be, but at the same time I’m just really happy it exists in the first place.
WE: How about in your own career?
DM: I don’t know. I think that I have yet to really climb to the sort of notoriety level or something like that where I’m really being that affected by in, in terms of straight radio play. But at the same time I think just fundamentally and structurally it’s very important for Canada. We’re just bombarded with media and by culture from the United States because they’re just ten times as big. So in terms of maintaining a sense of Canadian-ness or our own cultural sovereignty, keeping an iota of music, theatre, TV, film, comedy….We have this. This is ours. We made this. I think of Kids in the Hall growing up. That was very influential to me. I was obsessed with that show. I think of Trailer Park Boys. It’s not just the music. It’s across the board that it’s important for us to really honor and nurture our cultural fabric.
WE: America has definitely benefited from Canadian comedy.
DM: Yeah! The States wouldn’t have as strong of a comedy scene without the Canadian Content requirement. How about that?
WE: We wouldn’t have Wayne’s World I guess, combining the music and the comedy.
DM: Yeah, No Austin Powers, right?
WE: You lived in different parts of Canada growing up…how did that impact what you were exposed to musically?
DM: To be honest I wasn’t that plugged-in. My older sister had her finger on the pulse of Canadian music…The Rheostatics and 54-40 and The Odds and bands like that. I feel that I was a little bit unaware until I actually started entering the scene and started playing gigs and finding out about bands that I didn’t know about. And then, I made friends in the community. It’s been really amazing this past year to see Rich Aucoin blow up. When I was on my very, very first tour I was traveling alone—I had borrowed my mom’s Subaru—and I went out a day early. I went to the Tongue & Groove in Lethbridge and there were maybe 30 or 40 people at the gig. It was Cuff the Duke and The Hylozoists. Rich Aucoin, who was playing with his brother Paul Aucoin and The Hylozoists, was on tour and it was his first tour. So we met each other on our very first experiences on tour. So fast forward five or six years, and he’s got this great album out and he’s doing all these things. I keep seeing his name everywhere. It’s really neat. You kind of feel like you’re part of a generation that’s growing up together, even though we’re from opposite sides of the country, but that’s a really cool story to me, that we were both just kind of kids and we’ve both been doing our own things. I’m really excited for him.
WE: Along the same lines, are there any particular artists in your local Vancouver scene with which you have a strong affinity /relationship, or ones which you really enjoy as a fan?
DM: Yeah, there are bands like Black Mountain and Ladyhawk. Vancouver has had some bands that have kind of relocated— The New Pornographers—these days it kind of seems like Said the Whale, Hannah Georgas, Mother Mother, there are a lot of bands that are doing really well and these are all people that I sort of grew up with in the scene, especially Said the Whale whom I’ve known for ages. I’m trying to think of before us…on my second record there’s a guest appearance by a woman named Veda Hille, who, not a ton of people know who she is but in she’s a bit of a Vancouver legend so I kind of grew up knowing who she was…weird, arty, and I just adore that. I love the fact that she has never compromised her artistic vision for the sake of commercial sustainability. To me, she’s just a kind of iconic Vancouver figure and a real gem of this town that probably should be—absolutely should be—far more well-known outside of Vancouver.
WE: CBC, writ large, seems to have adapted technology very well in ways that would seem to offer indie artists exposure that they may not be getting on commercial radio. Have you noticed the impact of CBC and NPR [when you played Sasquatch upon your career]?
DM: Absolutely, yeah. I can go anywhere in the world and it seems that someone will be like, “I’ve heard your music on Radio 3.” It seems like a really incredible way that people stay in touch with the Canadian scene when they’re abroad. And in general, it’s an alternative kind of media stream. It’s not typical terrestrial radio but it’s innovative, it’s thoughtful. It’s a means by which people can be part of a community; it’s not a one-way communication thing, there’s interaction. And if you hear one thing by an artist you can listen to their entire catalog, listen to interviews with them. I know that their music page has changed recently. I really applaud Radio 3 for what they’ve done for Canadian music. I think that, actually, the impact of what CBC Radio has done in the past seven years or whatever will not be known for another 20 years. It’s a very smart infrastructure and foundational blueprint for really supporting and giving access to media to small bands. Radio 3, if they like a band that literally can play to twenty or thirty people in their own hometown…they will play that band. No terrestrial radio station would be that ballsy, so, that gives them a bit of leeway to just take risks. In my opinion, that is certainly paying off. It’s sort of like how I was talking about the Canadian community and the scene, and this really engages the listener side of that, which is an integral part of maybe why the scene is blossoming so much.
WE: And that’s sort of a classic approach, where DJs are curators.
DM: Yeah. It’s nice when you have radio personalities that are *really* in touch with new bands and actually become pals. There’s a lot of Radio 3 DJs/personalities who have been doing this a while and they really become friends with the music community. They all play in bands. Somehow they manage to hire a bunch of people who are in it for the right reasons but are professional enough to be really good at what they do but still have that credible edge to them because they come from the scene.
WE: There’s a kind of authenticity to it then.
WE: When you’re out on the road—you were just touring through Australia—how do you maintain touch with what’s going on in “the scene”?
DM: Ha, sometimes better than others. Funnily, we just played a showcase down in Austin, Texas for SXSW and it was all Vancouver bands. Of the five or six bands on the bill, I’d heard of one or two of them. Which reminds me that there was a time when I was in the bars in Vancouver five nights a week, playing shows and seeing my friends’ shows; I was constantly out and knew every band in the city. I feel like I’ve been touring SO much the last couple of years that there are actually all these new bands that have started that I don’t even know. Which is a little alarming because you don’t like to feel like you’re getting out of touch with the roots. I guess it just goes to show that you really have to be paying attention. We’ve had a lot of cool opportunities. We’ve traveled to a lot of cool places and played a lot of great venues and it’s inspiring to know that there are a ton of new bands that are all getting out there and doing that things that they want to do.
WE: I guess that would mean that you’d have to be writing on the road a bit, since you’re traveling all of the time.
DM: Yeah, certainly. This last record, Oh Fortune, was basically entirely written on the road.
WE: Does that change your perspective then? Are you looking at your influences a bit more nostalgically or with a little bit of distance that gives you a different perspective, if not a better one?
DM: I think the influences change. It’s interesting. Musically, influences are changing all the time based upon how bands I’m digging might push me in one way or another. More than anything, I look at it very holistically in a sense of: my life is changing. People, as they age, they start to ask questions about what they want out of life and I feel like my more recent songs reflect a lot of different changes that have occurred in my life, and that can only continue to happen. It’s weird. Influences are a strange thing. I really can’t say where this next record will go; at this moment I don’t really know. And that’s really freeing to me. I don’t like feeling like I’m tied to a box and I like the idea that I can go in any direction that I want. If people don’t like it, well, then they don’t like it. But, if I approach it with the same amount of intensity and passion and love that I gave to the other ones then maybe they will like it, and that would be great.
WE: Have you been writing material for the next record?
DM: Yeah, I’ve been writing. There’s a long ways to go but there’s been some new material.
WE: This is sort of a more general question…there are some bands where almost everything they write will make it on a record and they’re very tight about what they do, and then others that will throw a lot of ideas out there and then curate themselves. How do you approach that?
DM: I’m definitely more on the throwing out a lot of ideas side of things. Yeah, it’s funny. Some bands will just rehearse and rehearse and rehearse and then go into the studio and just play the songs and find the good takes and there’s the record. That’s never been my approach. I feel like the live shows and the record are two entirely different things, and I love to read about one matching the other. But I am worried about knowing that the album is a large-scale expression of whatever is going on my head. The last record took five months to make, but that was a really healthy process for me. It was my favorite record, so I think that “slow” is my method and really just exhausting all ideas. I like the idea of just spewing out tons and tons of small ideas and seeing what works, what sounds good, seeing what sticks and working from there.
WE: Are you sort of ultimately searching for 10, 12, 14 songs that maybe have an overarching aesthetic to them, where it’s more of a cohesive document?
DM: I don’t know…I kind of feel like that can only help, to have that cohesive identifier, just in terms of if it’s been written over the course of a couple of years. When I’m writing I’m not trying to thematically trying to write a bunch of songs that fit into any one theme. But naturally, they just seem to kind of do that.
WE: Where you are in your life at that time…
DM: Yeah, sure. I think there’s a reason why I listen to Neil Young’s more recent work; there’s a lot of nostalgia in it. A lot of “I remember this. I remember that. Here’s where I am now.” And that makes sense that this is what he’s writing about. I think that although it’s important to identify yourself as a musician because that’s what you’re doing, and I suppose people need a label for that, but before we’re musicians we’re people. Music is the way in which we are able to express ourselves and get our ideas out of our heads about how we’re experiencing things as people and interpreting them through music. I think that whatever is going on in your life can only influence your music. It would be impossible for it not to.
WE: Along those lines it brings to mind a somewhat tangential question…is Neil Young still a Canadian artist?
DM: I don’t know. There’s a big American flag behind him in the “Harvest Moon” video.
WE: I think he left when he was a teenager.
DM: He’s been in the States for what, 40 years? I don’t know, maybe part of our cultural identity needs to cling onto him to show we show that we have some big hitters or something.
WE: It can also be where you’re from, no?
DM: Is K’naan a Canadian artist? He’s a Canadian artist to me. It’s weird, but it’s also where you put your roots down. Oddly enough, his roots aren’t in Canada, but the “roots that he couldn’t decide” were in Canada. And this is another thing, because times are changing. There was a time when as a Canadian artist you had to go to the States to “make it.” And just the nature of the industry now and the nature of the music community; you can be a thriving middle class musician making a living out of music and staying in Canada. And that, to me, is exciting. I don’t like the idea that you have to go down to L.A. or New York to “make it.” It’s really cool that these days it’s less necessary. Things are more international, and you don’t need that big huge major label deal like you used to. Just more of an opportunity to do what you’re doing from anywhere and as long as you’re touring, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.
WE: I think that’s becoming truer in the States too, where you don’t have to be in Brooklyn or LA, you don’t have to be in Silver Lake or Williamsburg.
DM: Yeah, the biggest indie music artist in the world right now is from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and still lives there.
WE: Last topic…your video nominated for the Juno (“Row of Houses”), and the unique aesthetic in general that your videos have. I’m curious about the process behind that and how involved you are in putting your vision out there when you’re working with artistic partners.
DM: Yeah, I’ve typically been quite involved in the video making process. That may not mean that there are videos that I’ve produced, so much as that there are a lot of long lengthy conversations with whoever is creatively involved. I feel like the video can be an expression of your expression. I don’t like typical videos that are, “here’s a band playing with some funky lighting.” Those kinds of funky videos are less inspiring to me. I like videos with a bit of narrative, videos that explore those ideas. Thus far I haven’t done a lot of video involving lip-synching or anything like that, so, it’s cool I enjoy making them and enjoy finding unique ways to present them.
WE: There’s a sort of aesthetic line that seems similar between the videos for “Road Regrets” and “Row of Houses.” Did you work with some of the same people?
DM: It’s exactly the same team, and interesting that you point that out. There’s an animation studio in Vancouver, called Blatant Films. They’re just good dudes, and I don’t know how they do it, but they really know how to put together interesting animation. “Road Regrets” was a 3-D Pixar-esque car driving around and “Rows of Houses” was all green-screened where they took footage of us and made it look more animated and then made the animation look fairly real so it all kind of blends somewhere in the middle.
WE: It almost felt like a video game sort of technology, that feel.
DM: Yeah, totally. It’s a little bit surreal, there’s an aspect to it that looks almost kind of like acrylic paint, so it doesn’t look digital it looks kind of fibrous or like it has a texture to it.
WE: I also felt there was a sort of Edward Hopper feel, a sort of austere loneliness to it, particularly in “Row of Houses.”
DM: Mmmmhmmm. And in “Road Regrets,” we’re really rooting for that car. There are no other cars in the video…so it’s sort of on a lone journey. In “Rows of Houses” it’s sort of like they’re surrounded, these kids are surrounded by all this growth, but notice there’s not another human being to be seen. They did a really good job; we talked at length about how these videos should feel and I really am happy with what turned out. They did a fantastic job.