Dan Mangan: What comes after Nice

I had the chance to talk to Dan Mangan for this week’s Swerve, and as is usually the case, there’s way more interview than article. There was no shortage of things to talk about — the interview happened before he took home three WCMAs, but even without that, the Vancouver singer-songwriter has had  an unarguably stellar year. Embraced by fans and critics with equal enthusiasm, he saw his career take off on the strength of Nice, Nice, Very Nice, a collection quirky folk-rock songs about lonely robots and more straightforward reflections on scenesterism and life in general. Now, with his most successful year coming to a close, we talked about lessons learned on the road and how success affects slice-of-life songwriting.*

Just so I know, where am I catching you right now? Are you still in Ottawa?
Yeah, yeah, we are in the post-chaos situation of the end of OCFF.

How did that go?
It was good. A lot of fun. It was a good weekend and I played a lot of shows.

Did you manage to catch any acts yourself?
Yeah, not a ton, actually, just because we were focused getting to our gigs and you spend so much time broadcasting that you don’t actually do a whole lot of receiving. But yeah, we did, there was kind of music happening all the time. So it was kinda cool. Good weekend.

You just wrapped up a quick round of European shows. How has the reaction been overseas compared to in Canada?
It’s been great actually. I think we really liked that. We nailed down some really great gigs to play and I guess this is the first, no, the second time I’ve been to the European continent. We played in Germany and in Switzerland and it was really amazing to see the progress of how that’s all happened since the last time and the crowds are kinda larger and everything’s growing and just in general, such a wonderful experience to go over there with a group of guys and just kinda transplant yourself in Europe for a couple weeks.

Do you think that the Polaris short list has anything to do with the change in attention over there?
Yeah, I mean, I think it certainly hasn’t hurt, that’s for sure, and I think the amazing thing now with internet and social media and the amount of attention we got because of Polaris was pretty astounding. And it’s an amazing, amazing award, and just to end up on that shortlist was very humbling and amazing.
We have noticed it, I mean, I think that award is getting quite a bit of notoriety, and other awards that are very similar to it that are popping up like the Mercury prize and there’s an Australian music prize and there’s different ones all over, and I think that especially in the indie music community there’s a real appreciation for these awards because for a long time the only music that was really publicly celebrated with awards and stuff like that was always the Grammys and that big, huge, market-dominating stuff. And it’s incredible how that has proliferated, we’d show up in venues and the poster would say Polaris shortlisted Dan Mangan from Canada or something like that. And you know, when promoters only have a couple words to describe you to the public the words that they choose are very important and we can see how that award has kind of carried and helped us out.

Was it earlier this year that there was the XM Radio Verge Music Award?
Yeah, that was actually just over a year ago. It was last September that that went down and we got a lot of press out of that as well, and obviously the money didn’t hurt for a touring band, which we basically just took and reinvested back into what we were doing.

Did the money mostly go to touring then?
Yeah, absolutely. I paid off some debts and bought a nice big van and a trailer we could take and we’ve subsequently taken that all over North America. It’s been very helpful and it’s amazing that we were about to leave for a five week tour when I won that prize money and we’d planned on maybe renting a van or something but I wasn’t exactly sure how we were going to make it happen. And so serendipitously that money had come in with perfect timing just before we left, so I think I got home and I had four days to pack and find the trailer, so it was kind of chaotic and I just went searching and looking until I found something suitable.

That being a fan prize, and Polaris being a critic-based prize – for you as a musician, is one more valuable than that other?
You know, they’re both really cool and I’ve become buddies with the people who run them both, so I’m hard-pressed to say that one is better or more valuable than the other. But it is, in both situations, unbelievable that these entities have put together a cash prize for the genre of music that I’m currently sitting in. I mean typically, artists of my nature are not in a position to win any prize, since radio stations tend to give prize money to rock bands. So it’s just kind of amazing to get that stuff on the table, and in terms of the Verge award, to get that kind of fan appreciation is amazing, and the voting, you know, you can kind of feel the love when people are tweeting and Facebooking about you and you don’t really have anything to do with it personally but they’re proliferating themselves to try and help you get there. It’s incredible.
And on the other side of the fence when it comes to Polaris, all the people who are voting are the people who write for the magazines that I tend to read anyway. And to get that validation from the kind of people who you really respect is also just incredible. Whether it comes from the fans or the critics, if you can be amongst other bands that you really love and respect, that’s a pretty amazing thing.

You’ve said in other interviews that your favorite thing about Nice Nice was the performances other people contributed to it. Do you think that given the year that you’ve had here, will that effect your ability to get some more people on the next album?
Yeah, it’s funny, we start recording in December for the next album and I’ve really been thinking about who I’d like to ask to be on the album and I have some pretty wild names floating in my brain right now, and it’s fairly ambitious people to be seeking out, but we’ll see what happens. And I love the idea of collaborating on albums. I’ve got a fantastic lineup of musicians in my core band right now and just playing with them has been a lot of fun. But on top of that, to bring in people to do cameos, the nice thing now is you can do it completely over the internet. I mean, people have home studios so you can just send files back and forth and make it happen if need be. I’m kind of approaching that aspect of the album with very ambitious goals in mind, but at the same time the heart of the matter is just to try to make a really great record, and whoever ends up being on it is kind of secondary to that.

Are there any particular lessons that you’ve learned in terms of song-writing, performance, promotion or anything like that that you’ve taken from all those experiences?
I think that just spending all that time on the road and we’ve been incredibly fortunate with the press and getting some attention, and you constantly learn little things. You make little mistakes all over the place and you kind of reflect on them and think “If I’m in that situation again, this is what I’ll do, instead of what I did.” And I think that’s an important part of growing up as an artist and as somebody who all of a sudden over the course of the last little while is more and more entering the public cultural fabric. You’re always a little bit, I don’t know—the more people know who you are, the more vulnerable you are, in a sense.
There was something nice about being a completely honest and absolutely unknown artist a couple years ago. But these are the things that you dream and ask for, you can’t really be all of a sudden upset when they start happening, and you just have to choose how you reach the goals that you’re looking for. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some really amazing people who I would kind of call my idols, and most of them have been the most gracious, lovely people and it really shows that there is grace at the top. I think that’s the most important lesson in all of it is to maintain your sincerity and your ability to be a real human being.

Going back to what you were saying about how it was kind of nice to be anonymous a couple years ago: when you’re sitting down to write a song now, does it cross your mind that there’s an audience of thousands of people out there who are going to be hearing this?
Yeah, a little bit. It’s funny, I feel like I’m writing different songs now than I used to and I feel like I’ve gone through a progression of writing about myself, and my own paradoxes and hypocrisies and reflecting those back on society and I kind of get the feeling that for my next album I’m writing more from the perspective of other people, that I’m trying to wander a bit in my songwriting and trying to lyrically try new things. And in terms of that, I’ve had a little bit of success with radio, and that came completely unexpectedly on songs that, when we recorded, we never talked about radio, we never thought about radio, it wasn’t really part of our process. So it kind of happened by accident. On one hand, you kind of feel like “Oh man, do we need to write songs that are appropriate for radio?” and on the other hand, you feel that if it happened by accident before, hopefully it can happen by accident again. But it just can’t really enter the creative process, you just have to hone in on the sounds and the vibe you want to be getting across, and if people like it, and if people who put songs on the radio like it, that’s kind of icing on the cake.
That’s a long-winded answer to your question, but the short answer is it does affect your thought process, but you try as best as you can to not let allow it to effect your process.

I saw on your Twitter feed that Johnny Marr showed up at one of your shows in Manchester…
(laughs) Yeah, that was awesome. I played in Manchester back in July and I had the privilege of opening up for Broken Social Scene and Johnny Marr has a son named Nile Marr who is also a musician and who has a project on the go. He’s a young kid, he’s about 20 and just the sweetest dude, and he came to the gig and we kind of got to chatting and he enjoyed the show. And so this time around, we go to the gig and lo and behold this time Nile is there again and this time he’s brought his father of Smiths and Modest Mouse and Cribs notoriety, and the two of them are very sweet, real human beings; there was no air of rock star going on in the bar, they were just very cool, very low key.

Were you a Smiths fan at all when you were growing up?
I totally have gone through periods of really adoring The Smiths. I don’t know their entire catalogue, I’m not somebody that’s delved into everything they’ve ever done but there’s a handful of Smiths songs that I think are just absolutely genius. In fact, I’ve actually covered and recorded a Smiths song a couple years ago for a little EP that I was giving away at a record release, maybe for my first record. I was giving away this little burned CD-R of a couple of cover tunes, and that was one of them. So I do have a special place for some Smiths songs. They’re a pretty iconic 80’s brit-pop band.

Given that your last album title is a Vonnegut reference, have you been doing much reading on the road? Are there any other authors that have been catching your attention lately?
I was just complaining the other day about how I’d been on the road for months and I hadn’t really opened my book in awhile. And I think it has to do with every moment of spare time is spent trying to catch up on email and sleep, and it’s funny, when I was a kid, I just read constantly, all the time, and I didn’t really have any responsibilities to anyone. And now, sitting down and reading a book for more than 20 minutes seems like the most gluttonous thing when it should be a very healthy, recharging thing. But I’ve been reading a Ray Bradbury book called Fahrenheit 411 [Fahrenheit 451 – ed.]. That’s the most recent one, I guess. I’d heard of that book, I mean it’s a great classic, but I’d never actually picked it up and read it, so that’s my most recent find. Before that, Kurt Vonnegut put out a book a couple years before he died called Man Without a Country.

The essay collection, right?
It was not really an essay collection so much as it was… it wasn’t really formulated into long form, it was a collection of thoughts, more than anything. I think it’s the closest thing he ever did to a memoir; he never did an official memoir, but I think everything he did was a little bit autobiographical. And that book, it’s very short, and absolutely brilliant. It’s one of the most inspiring and incredible 200 pages of reading that I can imagine. So I kind of just polished that off before coming on this tour, and I lent it to a couple other guys in the band, and its been proliferated throughout the band, and it’s one of the most incredibly poignant and on the mark, intelligent assessments of society today that I can think of.

I have to say, he’s been one of my favorite authors for probably, since a girlfriend showed his work to me…seven years ago now?
No way, I had the exact same experience when I was sixteen. My girlfriend at the time gave me a copy of Cat’s Cradle and halfway through reading that book I was like “This is it. This guy is speaking my thoughts and my opinions in this most incredibly articulate and brilliant way.” And he’s so cheeky, you know? So cheeky. I can’t get enough, he’s got to be my favorite writer as well. And I’m happy to hear that there’s another Vonnegut lover.

One last question before I let you go, I think this is your third time this year coming through Calgary?
We did last October at The Gateway at SAIT. Did we go there in the spring?

I thought that there was a February show
Maybe that was at SAIT, in February.

That’s what I thought it was, and then Folk Fest in the summer.
Yeah, that’s right, we played with Aidan Knight at the end of January and then we did the Folk Fest.

Have you started to build any traditions for when you come through Calgary? Is there anything you like to do when you get here?
That’s a good question, because that does totally come up, like every time I’ve gone to Peterborough, I’ve eaten at the same restaurant, and every time I’ve gone to such and such city, I end up going somewhere. I think every time we’ve gone through Calgary it’s been such a blur. When we were there for Folk Fest, we spent the entire time on site on the island there, so there wasn’t a whole lot of exploring going on. But you know what? There’s a really good Thai wrap joint that I’ve visited on numerous occasions on 17th. Do you know the one that I mean?

I think so, there are two right across the street there, there’s the fancy one and the hole in the wall one.
I don’t know which I would call fancy, but this one is in a strip mall almost, and it’s cheap, like $5 for a big Thai tofu wrap or something like that. And I can’t say it’s exactly fine dining, but it has been quick and we have stopped there on numerous occasions.

(Fun fact: This video was shot in Calgary by CIFF programming director Trevor Smith, with cameos from members of The Summerlad/Ex-Boyfriends and the Fast Romantics)

*Extra thanks to Nicole Boyce for transcribing this.

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