Dan Mangan on Life, Politics, and Inspiration – Interview

During the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Vancouver Weekly had the pleasure of sitting down to interview Dan Mangan after watching him conduct his last workshop for the weekend.  This particular event consisted of Dan, local Vancouverites E.S.L. and two Seattle exports The Head and the Heart and The Cave Singers.  Needless to say they were all amazing and afterwards Dan provided me with a little insight into his process and inspiration.

Is it getting harder to connect with larger crowds?

Dan Mangan: I don’t feel disconnected from the larger crowds, shows are shows and sometimes they are transcendent and sometimes they aren’t; yet even if they aren’t transcendent you still hope that they can be really great.  There are times when you have a room with only 100 people and rooms with 20,000 either one could have an amazing show, the size of the crowds and having wonderful shows aren’t mutually exclusive.  It’s not like one or the other determines the quality of the show.

If you ask my fiancé what her favorite show is she will tell you that it’s Paul Simon in a stadium with 60,000 people.  It’s about doing what you can, to musically and personally create a bond and connection between the stage and with the audience.  Hopefully one can on some level begin to blur the lines between the two.  It’s about finding the sweet spot between the clutch and gas, getting to this place where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s just about trying to find the balance between the audience and the band. Sometimes something incredible can happen and it’s about trying to make that happen every night.

Recently you participated in “Joy of Feeding” do you find that those smaller community based events are a way of balancing out your bigger Folk Festival type of events?

Dan Mangan: It’s funny because that was a situation in which it was a smaller more intimate event that was at the same time more disconnected.  Whereas at this event people are here to experience folk music, they’ve saved up their entire year’s worth of ‘getting weird to music’ and they’ve put it into one weekend.  Folk fest is an event where everyone has a sarong on and they’re like “ah! I just want to be consumed by music!”  In this situation you have an audience that is there with you from the get go.  They’re rooting for you to win because they want to enjoy the experience.  Whereas at Joy of Feeding, the event was amazing, as was the food but it wasn’t a musical event.  It was more of a community event in which many things were happening but it didn’t have the same feeling from the get go, where everyone was listening to the music and the words.  It was more like a public area that happened to have music playing.  Connecting is, in my opinion, something that one reaches for.  We are all animals and we search for that.  I feel like these connections can at times happen in ways that we don’t even understand and it’s about trying to reach that.

In terms of this year, what other shows and performing acts have you connected with?

Dan Mangan: Well the most recent show was so much fun with E.S.L., The Head and the Heart and the Cave Singers! I know all three of the other performers from various times throughout my career, either playing with them or by reputation.  Yet I had never really seen any of them really perform before.  I was so impressed with how amazing they all were.  This particular event worked because there was just enough band participation, you have to let go of your inhibition in these moments. Tell yourself that you don’t care if you look dorky and just go for it.  Those bands were there in that place, they all brought something different and no two were the same.  Plus I have to say that E.S.L. just killed it with the cello and trumpet.  They were really amazing!

Musically would you say that your songs and message is inherently political?

Dan Mangan: It seems that it’s getting more like that all the time.  It certainly didn’t start that way.  Often, you are just trying to make music and be a part of this world that is going on. You look around you at the bands that are doing really well and you try to emulate what they are doing.  In general nobody starts by being Van Gogh, there is this learning curve, and my particular experience my music has grown weirder and less accessible as my audience has grown.  I feel like now that I have everyone’s attention, I ask myself what I really want to say.  What I try to avoid are shrill political folk songs, that are really poignant in that they mention politicians by name or are overly dogmatic, it’s like that type of writing gives the opposition to your opinion something with which to discredit what you are saying and in a sense you begin to preach to the choir.  Instead one could think of their opposition as an opportunity to use language and metaphor to paint a picture for them that could perhaps allow for them to begin seeing things my way.

This shift began with my last album Post War Blues and there was this song with which I felt I was making a real stand. Now it seems like every song is like that, they all come with this political overtone or undertone.  At this point I am not fighting this urge to get my message out there.  At the heart of it I want to have a really long career and diverse body of work.  I love how people talk about how they loved Tom Waits in the 80 or 90s.  I appreciate that people have followed musicians like Tom Waits and others for their whole careers.  I just really want to keep trying to push myself and do something that is relevant to me and do something that mattes.  Music can be fun but at the end of the day I just want to make music that matters.  Candy pop music is fun, but it’s fleeting and most of the music that I love and continue to love has a weight to it.

Would you say that you feel like you have a responsibility with your music, a soapbox upon which you are standing and everyone is listening?

Dan Mangan: Yes! It’s like ok I have a microphone in front of me, I have your attention and now what do I want to say?  At first I don’t know that I knew what I wanted to say but now that time has passed, making and playing music has become really normal.  It’s my life and I ask myself what I want to do with this.  I wonder whether I can influence people that are apathetic about things. Whether I can influence people to watch less TV and read more books.  Perhaps nothing I say means anything.  I had an interview yesterday with some women from a social city network, and we were discussing inspiration and I said if you interview any person on the planet it will always be someone who accomplished something in their field.  If you look at accomplished people no matter what the field, they will tell you that it’s because they’ve challenged themselves to do things outside of their skill set and do something hard.

I take it like its Friday night, I‘m on stage with all of these musicians that blow me away and I have to step up my game and be, or at the very least try to be as good as they are.  At times one wishes to have the child’s eye in which you are still bewildered by things, because one can start to feel jaded all of the time.  I remind myself that having a good show is so much about letting go and telling yourself that you can do it.

How is your perception of Vancouver, home, and winning two Juno’s this year?

Dan Mangan: For a long time I thought I needed to move to Toronto because much of the media and music is based there.  However, since I started working with Arts and Crafts I know that someone is fighting for me there and I am happy to maintain that.  I love Vancouver, the way it smells, the trees, the boulevards. I’ve seen so many cities in the last couple of years that some might argue are cooler cities with more art and more going on but Vancouver is special because there isn’t a single city that is as beautiful as Vancouver.  I’ll stay for now.

What inspires you about Vancouver?

Dan Mangan: To begin with its youth is inspiring.  In a sense it’s like an 11 year old child that doesn’t know what it is going to be.  It could become this really artsy super progressive place, but it’s still in my opinion totally undecided.  My friends and I and those involved in the arts, policy and politics believe that we could really have an effect here.  For now people are still listening and it’s cool, I like the idea that I could influence this city, and not because I’m special but because I’m a part of a really large group of people that are doing all of this interesting stuff as well.  We’re embedded in the fabric of Vancouver.

What influences your music?

Dan Mangan: Well to begin with everything; but more specifically family, friends, politics…politics.  More and more I am finding things that are happening around the world, not necessarily functional events, but streams of consciousness and the way people relate to each other inspire me.  I am inspired by the way that we seem to be butting our heads against the same wall over and over again.  This obsession we have with certainty, we all seem to need to know the answer to everything.  We fight to the death to prove our beliefs with religion, politics and media.  It seems as if we feel like we always need to be right and have the answer and I think that maybe it’s better if we don’t always have the answers to all.  Perhaps if that were the case we could get along better.

If we could go back to what you said earlier about not being able to have success without trying, is there any particular point that you could look back to that determined this success you have today?

Dan Mangan: Yes, I remember being in university and playing a lot of open mic’s around town.  Once I finished school I knew that I needed to treat my music career like a job.  I had to get up in the morning, put on a pot of coffee and if I didn’t know what to do then I would try and learn how to do that thing.  I told myself that if I started a restaurant I would need to work in that place for 14 hours a day until it was successful.  You have to have that same kind of intense ambition towards what you do and by ambition I mean having an appetite for trying harder.  There was a time where I needed a website but didn’t have the money and so I learned how to make one, and then I needed to make a bio in photo shop and so I learned that too.  Every day I did that, worked every day, asking myself how to write better songs, play guitar better, how I could meet interesting, influential people that would make me want to be better.  How can I integrate in the scene? Build a community; online presence; be good at making music?  I believe that getting comfortable is akin to death, complacency is the beginning of a decline.

Who inspires you as a musician?

Dan Mangan: I have always been inspired by Radiohead, I love them as musicians and they’re my favorite band.  The thing that is so amazing about them is that they’re now in their mid 40’s, still telling 17 year old kids what is cool and these kids are listening!  It’s not just about being on top of the trends, but having an appetite and avoiding comfort; always wanting to do better.  I appreciate their business ethos, their efforts towards sustainability.  They’re one of the biggest bands in the world that don’t feel like they’ve sold out.  They balance their critical and popular sides and that’s almost unheard of.  It’s what I want to do, I don’t know if I am succeeding but it’s what I want to do.

Well thank you Dan for taking the time to chat with me, take care and best of luck to you in all that you do.

Dan Mangan: Thank you, good luck to you as well.