Growing up, Dan Mangan was not one of the cool kids, but he’s earned the respect of scenesters everywhere
Downtime is something that’s become a precious commodity for Dan Mangan these days.
The 26-year-old singer is currently watching his just-released, impressively eclectic second disc, Nice, Nice, Very Nice, turn into a full-on sensation. As of last week, the record was the most-downloaded singer-songwriter album on iTunes Canada, edging out Serena Ryder and the Great Lake Swimmers. In his hometown of Vancouver, you can’t turn on local FM radio without hearing the whiskey-burnished, campfire-ready singles “Robots” and “Road Regrets”, both of which deserve every bit of the considerable attention they’ve been getting. The spinoff of this has been a deluge of interview requests, not just on these shores but also abroad, which can be explained by the fact that Mangan spent much of the past four years touring Canada, Australia, the U.K., and America. And the recognition doesn’t stop there.
Interviewed outside Gene Café on the hipster breeding ground that is Main Street, the singer finds himself approached in the middle of a wide-ranging conversation that covers everything from the genius of Radiohead to the dangers of Borat to why Jon Stewart is smarter than Michael Moore. A tattooed 30-something walking by steps up cautiously, a small child in tow.
“Can I interrupt?” she asks sheepishly. “Um, I’m a big fan. I Facebooked you recently. I know that’s embarrassing.”
All this is a big change from the less-than-rabid initial response to his 2005 debut, Postcards and Daydreaming. Looking back to that time, Mangan realizes that he entered the music business as a DIY guy who, ironically, had no clue what he was doing.
“I had no idea what a record label did, no idea what a distributor was,” the easygoing singer says with a laugh. “Now it’s a lot of days on the computer, which is making me realize that this is becoming a full-time job.”
What’s endearing about Mangan is that he simultaneously does and doesn’t seem to fit in with the Main Street crowd. On the one hand, he couldn’t be more in love with the likes of Bon Iver. On the other, he didn’t grow up obsessed with the kind of acts that stud the rosters of Asthmatic Kitty.
“The first CD I ever bought was Aerosmith’s Get a Grip,” he recalls. “I was, like, 10 years old, and I remember adoring that record. As much as Aerosmith is the furthest thing that I’m into now, I can’t disregard the fact that I fucking loved that record. And I also can’t be too cool to mention that I loved it.”
Not to downplay the cultural significance of late-period Aerosmith, but Mangan’s reference points for Nice, Nice, Very Nice (the title of which was inspired by a Kurt Vonnegut line) were considerably more progressive. The short list is topped by the likes of Chad VanGaalen, Bon Iver, and Radiohead.
“For this record, I think I kind of turned the corner from listening to strictly roots music to listening to a lot of indie rock and indie pop,” he says. “It then became about branching worlds together. There are a lot of one-two bluegrass bass lines on the record, but at the same time I don’t feel like it’s a bluegrass record. There are a couple of songs that are really mellow and guitar-vocal-heavy, but I don’t feel it’s a sappy singer-songwriter record. There are a couple of punk-rock fills, but it’s not a rock ’n’ roll record. I really don’t know where it fits in.”
That question is more easily answered than Mangan might think. Postcards and Daydreaming got him pegged as a vaguely over-earnest singer-songwriter in the Damien Rice mould. Nice, Nice, Very Nice—which is one of the great records of the year, local or otherwise—finds him lighting out for the same territory as ornate-minded originals like VanGaalen and Sufjan Stevens. Folk-pop doesn’t get much more disorientingly gorgeous than “Robots”, a golden sing-along where woozy horns eventually give way to a sent-from-indie-rock-heaven choir. “Sold” works a vaguely retro Dixieland-jazz vibe, while the winningly downcast “Fair Verona” throws drama-drenched strings and brass into the mix.
For all of Mangan’s experimenting on Nice, Nice, Very Nice, the album also fits into the singer-songwriter tradition, in that he’s not afraid to mine his personal life for lyrical inspiration. The beautiful and bittersweet “Basket”, which starts out with spare acoustic guitar before blossoming into something truly grand, grew out of spending time with his aging grandfather. Trainspotters will get a good idea where he hangs out from “Pine for Cedars”, in which he name-checks such haunts as Bean Around the World and Slickity Jim’s Chat ’N Chew.
The heart-meltingly fragile “The Indie Queens Are Waiting”, meanwhile, addresses his inner nerd. Despite his sudden celebrity status on Main Street, Mangan didn’t run with the cutting-edge crowd in his teens. The son of a lawyer dad and ex-minister mom, he was more into Dave Matthews. Anyone who aspired to be one of the Main Street–style cool kids in high school will therefore relate to lines like “Bus down to the local record store/Buy something to make you like me more/Indie queens and tattie’d east-side punks/They are listening, always waiting, and are you watching?”
“A lot of people have taken that song as a big middle finger to the city’s indie crowd, and it’s not,” Mangan says. “I’m part of that crowd. It’s just an observation—it’s a simultaneous embracing and criticism of indie-music culture. I love that culture and I’m constantly trying to be on top of my game and know what’s hot. We’re all listening and waiting and watching to see what’s next, but that song is not a big thesis statement. It’s just a rambling of being 20-something and spending a lot of time in coffee shops and trying to be cool.”
Which raises the question “Just how hip is Dan Mangan?” With almost no time to himself these days, he’s pretty much the Vancouver indie scene’s current It Boy. But cool? Well, not by the standards of the scenesters who hang out at Gene.
“I was never the coolest kid,” Mangan confesses. “I always had friends, but I wasn’t that cool.”
He then sits back and laughs. “I still don’t think that I’m cool. Especially when I come to a place like this, where everyone here has way more fashion sense than I do.”
Dan Mangan plays sold-out shows at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre this Friday and Saturday (August 28 and 29).