by Johnny Kosmos
Dan Mangan is one of those artists that always seems to be challenging and pushing himself with each new record he produces. You can always tell when an artist is truly living life or just going through the motions. In the six years Mangan took off from touring, he lived a lot of life. A year of rest turned into two kids, a marriage, multiple film and television scores and plenty of time for reflection. All of the above have changed the man and the artist. “It just took a lot of time. Back in 2012 the phone wouldn’t stop ringing; we were stuck in this positive feedback loop.”
Years of childrearing and domestication presented a steep learning curve for a man who had spent years on the road. “Your kids don’t care about all this cool stuff you do. They just care about how you are as a dad.” Rock stars aren’t rock stars when they’re at home; they’re just dads. During this time, Mangan wrote the experimental Club Meds with Blacksmith and scored the incredible Hector and the Search for Happiness, as well as a number of other films and TV shows.
On his latest release, More or Less (2018 Art & Crafts), Mangan remains himself, but with a greater sense of focus. “I came to the realization I wasn’t done. I had more songs in me, I had more I wanted to accomplish,” he says of his return to the business of making music. “That whole process took years.”
When Mangan decided he was finally ready to step back into it he contacted producer Drew Brown and the wheels were in motion. “Took us nearly two years to get all of the people together that he (Drew Brown) wanted. During this time Drew encouraged me to keep writing, by the time we hit the studio I had all these new songs that weren’t in the demos.”
Was it worth the wait?
Mangan seems in awe as he states, “I had the same rhythm section, playing through the same microphones, in the same studio, with the same hardware and the same engineer as Sea Change (Beck 2002 Geffen).” Their influence on More or Less is apparent right away. Upon first listen, the album evokes a sense of gentle reflection; it’s much more stripped-down than Club Meds (2015 Arts & Crafts). It’s not exactly a return to his roots, but more of an acknowledgment and transformation he’s gone through. This is still very much a Dan Mangan record, but this a new Dan Mangan. “We all have our heroes. Joey (Waronker)’s cases said ‘Roger Waters’. Jason (Falkner)’s cases said ‘Beck’. These guys work with the best of the best. When I first got to LA and went into the studio I was nervous, like, ‘What are they going to think of me?’” Mangan confesses. “But they just trusted Drew. They were so nice and really gave themselves to the material. By the end, they were saying, ‘Great songs, man!’ None of us is impervious to flattery. Having this affirmation from people that I admire so much, I felt like I was getting my groove back.”
Mangan’s groove is definitely back on this album. The subtlety and vulnerability in the vocals bring the listener into a very personal space, one filled with stillness and the musical equivalent of sitting and staring. “You need to reserve space in your mind that’s just for you.” Mangan says, “I don’t meditate, but I try and be bored for a couple minutes a day. If you can be peacefully okay with yourself just sitting it will make you better prepared to deal with the never-ending stream of bullshit.”
There was a full on stream of bullshit when he first started recording More or Less. While out for dinner his first night in LA, his car was robbed of everything except his guitar. Laptops, hard drives full of the demos he was about to track, his passport. Everything. “I spent the whole next morning trying to find my stuff and get my passport reinstated. So, I went into the studio, do one take of “Lay Low” and Paul McCartney pops his head into the studio!” Mangan continues sarcastically, “Of course, when Paul McCartney hears my music it’s not the finished product, it’s the first take of the first song I’m doing with my new band. He gave me some suggestions, but then we scrapped everything he heard. My Mom was devastated when I said we didn’t use any of Paul’s suggestions.”
“What the hell is wrong with everyone now?” a line from his song, “Troubled Mind” is fitting on days such as that (and in the grander context of humanity as a whole). “People are an equal amount of fucked up, always. There’s so much to take in now, so much information, so much pain, so much going on all the time.” Mangan says of society, “It’s up to us to be informed citizens, so we’re not just passively distracted.”
There are lessons being taught everywhere, every day. You just need to pay attention and take risks.
The day Mangan decided to take a break from touring he got a call from a producer to score a film. “Every time I’ve scored something I’ve learned about a deficiency in my musicality that I’ve overcome,” he says of the experience. “And you come out the other end and go, ‘Aw, man, I didn’t know I could do that.’ It’s a beautiful thing when you know you can still surprise yourself.”
When it came time to prep for the tour, Mangan enlisted Don Kerr (Rheostatics), Jason Haberman and Michael Brian.
With an all-new gathering of people behind him, Mangan took a couple weeks to rehearse in Toronto. He found that time and this new group gave a breath of fresh air to his previous work. “It was injecting all this new personality into the old material. We started to think, ‘What’s the best way we can deliver these existing melodies and songs in a live context?’”
Reinventing yourself in the tireless pursuit of relevancy is daunting and exhausting. While no doubt an intimidating endeavor, it’s a good thing Dan Mangan keeps trying because we missed him. Welcome back, Dan.
Dan Mangan performs February 12 at the Vogue Theatre (Vancouver).