Dan Mangan: On History Lessons, Canada vs. America, and Selling Out
Dan Mangan: The album's been living in my brain and the minds of the band for a very long time. It's nice to finally have it out in to the world. Once the record's released, you can kind of stop worrying about it because now that it's out there, people are going to make of it what they will. You can't control it anymore.
Sometimes, when you're done with an album, you're so over it because you began it so long ago. It's like a different chapter in your life. Is that the case with this album?
Yeah, we started it over a year ago. It's funny -- right when we were done tracking it and we were going to get it mastered, I was so incredibly sick of it, and I could not listen to it for about two months. I just ignored it and forgot about it. Then, as we started wrapping up for the release, I was in a position where I had to listen to it again. I started to really enjoy it with a different perspective. Now, I'm really excited. I'm sure it's a pretty cliché thing for a musician to say, but I can't wait for the world to hear it.
Why did you choose "Oh Fortune" as the title track?
I spent some time looking at pictures of ticker-tape parades. They used to happen back in the 1920s in Chicago and New York. If they were celebrating with a parade procession down the street, they would throw [these long strips of paper from the tall buildings]. There were these little machines, way before the Internet, that would spit out stock quotes. So during these parades, they would take these spindles of ticker tape and throw them out the window. Becuase they were really light, it looked like streamers down through the sky, and you could picture, because of these old 1920s settings, the ticker-tape parades and paper falling from the sky during these momentous occasions. I was thinking about what happens when a society stops fumbling around in whatever they're doing and pays attention to what's important that's happening.
To me, that's what "Oh Fortune" was speaking to. In particular, I was thinking of a parade held for Gertrude Ederle, who swam the English Channel in 1926. She was the first woman to do it, and she ended up totally destroying the previous record, which was held by a man. She came back to New York, and they held this massive party for her. For one moment, she was the biggest celebrity in the United States. I thought [that story] was so charming.
Throughout our time, we have these events that cause us to pause and think about what's really happening in the world. It could be the assassination of JFK or Martin Luther King Jr. or 9/11, or it could be something really amazing. I'm from Vancouver, so it could be something like when we had the Olympics in our town. It was this totally distracting thing. Everyone paid attention to it. Then there's the uprising in Egypt. It's amazing, huge events that really define our society in how all of us remember those events happening.
It's cool how history-based the themes to Oh Fortune are.
You know how you can feel nostalgic for something you've never experienced? In college dorm rooms, you'll see pictures of Audrey Hepburn and stuff like that. Nobody in our generation was alive when she was on top of her game. But there's this idea, this deep understanding of what it was, even though we never experienced it. That's just fascinating to me. I love the idea of nostalgia and what it means to hold the past dearly. You have this almost disregard for the past and the future.
Of course, fast-forward 10 years, and we'll look back with the same force of nostalgia. We're so quick to dismiss the present and think it's stale compared to the past.
How would you say that Oh Fortune is different from your previous two albums?
The first record I made, I feel like I was very young when I made it. I was basically just farting around and seeing if I could make a record. It's very just solo guy-with-a-guitar kind of vibe. Then I spent of time traveling the world, touring. I wrote some new songs, so that by the time I got to the studio, they were already finished, formed. I invited some musicians to record them, and the people who were on the recording ended up being in the band. Now there's more of a band feeling to it. A lot of these newer songs were arranged more collaboratively.
When speaking of this new album, I'm not really sure how to classify it. For me, personally, it was a very important step. [My band mates] helped me move forward.
What are some of the reactions you've gotten from taking this new direction?
It's interesting. A lot of people have been have been excited with this direction. A lot of the reviews have mentioned it's a very different record than the other two. Some are cautionary saying that if you really liked the last record, this might not be for you, but a lot are saying that it is the right move. The thing is, I know for me, personally, it was the right move. It's what I wanted to do.
With the last one, we made a record that people really enjoyed. We went from playing in tiny little clubs to playing in big theaters in Canada, and we had songs on the radio. It was a real life-changing experience, but we couldn't have predicted it. We certainly didn't engineer the album to be that way.
When we were approaching this record, I just couldn't look at it from the perspective of "Let's make something that works just like the other one did." We had to come at it from the perspective of doing what we honestly, sincerely wanted to do. If people like it, that's amazing. If they don't, then bummer.
That's the way to do it. It's hard to change as a musician without being called a sell-out or losing fans along the way.
Yeah. There are going to be people who like your new stuff but didn't like your old stuff. And there are going to be people who really like your old stuff and see it as "You changed. Why did you change?" All of my favorite bands have changed as they've gone on. That's the career that I want. I want it to change as I do as a human being. I'm totally not the same person I was two or three years ago.
Why make the same album over and over again? It's a waste of time.
You're setting yourself up to be bored onstage and feel monotonous rather than excited onstage.
What do you draw from when writing your lyrics?
I seem like a really slow songwriter. It takes me a long time to get things done. I write things down all the time: little thoughts, overhearing what people say. There's a lot of charming language that goes on day-to-day in people's dialogues in conversations that they may not think are actually very poetic. I don't write directly, but I'm always thinking about songs. I mediate myself to not force it.
Nice, Nice Very Nice received a fair amount of acclaim internationally. However, it didn't so much in the States. Is that something you're hoping will be different with Oh Fortune?
We had a really good run in a lot of places. Especially in Canada. Things really blew up these past couple of years. Obviously, it would be nice to come down to the States and play big theaters. You can't predict it. In general, I hope for things, but I don't have high expectations. I like feeling victorious and excited without feeling disappointed, so I tell myself that not a lot will happen, and if it does, that's really great.