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By Calum Bradbury-Sparvell
Some musicians are tools. It doesn’t matter too much – you shouldn’t refuse to listen to Definitely Maybe just because you think Liam Gallagher is a bit of a twat – but it can occasionally get a bit tiring. Dan Mangan, therefore, provides something of a breath of fresh air. Perhaps it’s the way his website features videos of his band playing air guitar with hand puppets or the fact he released an album called Nice Nice Very Nice, or just that he looks a bit like Seth Rogen, but somehow the Canadian troubadour doesn’t seem like someone with the standard rock star ego.
Mangan laughs at the mention of being called ‘Nicest Man in CanadaTM’ by one national radio station, but on the back of a string of awards and an album that led The Sunday Times to call him “one of the most thought-provoking writers of his generation”, might he be in danger of losing his plucky underdog image?
“I don’t know, I mean, it’s weird, I’ve gone a long time as the underdog, and a lot of people have given me the benefit of the doubt just on that effect for a very long time, so I guess I might have to shed that kind of persona. I surround myself with people who aren’t afraid to tell me their honest opinions; if you believe the buzz and believe the hype you’re never gonna live up to it.”
He may have recently received a pair of Juno awards – “they’re kind of like the Grammies of Canada” – but Mangan is hardly resting on his laurels: as we speak he is in the middle of a European tour that has already taken him across most of the continent before he heads over to the UK next week, including a stop at the Jericho Tavern on 4th May.
“We’ve got quite a lot of touring going on this year, but it seems a little bit more sane this year; last year we did over 200 shows, which is just, ridiculous, this year’s a little bit more on the level.”
Such a schedule can be tiring – two months off this Christmas was the first such break for “three or four years” – but it seems that the difficulties of touring are worth it: “every day you’re exhausted, you’re flying by the seat of your pants, with long drives and every day travelling, never catching up on emails, and falling behind on touching base with your loved ones at home etcetera …But the band has this opportunity every night to go out on stage and just feel crazy with adrenaline, and it kind of injects all this life back into you so you’re ready to go and do it again. Getting music to be the thing that you’re actually doing as a career is an incredible thing.”
That band he mentions are more than your standard indie troupe armed with four chords and a beard, with many of them coming from experimental and jazz backgrounds. At the suggestion that they might be a bit overqualified, Dan admits that “I’m often amazed they’re still around. They’re players with a lot of opportunities in a lot of different directions and a lot of passions to explore, and magically they just keep coming back …I think part of it is that we’ve become a bit of a family too, you know – we spent the last three years on the road together and I’ll go home and I won’t see them for a week and it’ll feel super weird. I’m very happy to have this incredible group.”
The support of such a diverse and talented group pushed him with latest album Oh Fortune to try “expanding my horizons and flexing different muscles”. The record features a much bigger sound than some of his earlier more typical ‘folk’ songs, from the waltzing chamber-pop of opener ‘About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All’ to a bit more foot-stomping and electric guitar on last single ‘Post-War Blues’.
“This record was a real pleasure to make – I mean it was also tormenting and emotionally draining but over about five months of ups and downs we came up with something that I’m quite proud of; I think it’s undoubtedly my best work yet and it’s exciting to have it out into the world.
“Back in Canada we kind of hit a home run with the last record totally unintentionally and all of a sudden we were getting played on the radio and all this kind of stuff, so people would ask questions like ‘oh, you know, do you feel pressured to live up to that last record, and I was just in such a different mindset – I was sort of like ‘well that was kind of fun but, you know, let’s see if we can make something ten times better.’”
Given the emotion and intensity of many of the songs, one might wonder if it can be sustained on stage every night with such a hectic touring schedule, but Mangan doesn’t seem to see it as a challenge: “There’s a difference between reciting a song and living a song. I mean, if all you’re doing is playing the chords because those are the chords of the song then you gotta figure some shit out. You have to be open to living the song every single time you play it and hopefully what that means is that it breathes differently. Every gig could be the best gig of your life; you never know which one it’s gonna be.
“I try to make it a grand performance, one way or another. I try not to be too calculated about it. It’s more about beating the audience into submission,” he laughs, “you know, gracefully and humbly.”