Dan Mangan is well aware that his latest batch of songs presents a challenge to some listeners, and he’s okay with that.
Credited to the Vancouver singer-songwriter and his band, Blacksmith, Club Meds is heavy on brooding atmosphere and marked by unexpected textures. The album has garnered nearly universal critical acclaim since it came out on Arts & Crafts in January (accruing an aggregate score of 80 on Metacritic.com), but some long-time fans have been a little slower to warm to it.
“I had gotten this Facebook message from somebody who was, like, angry about the new record,” Mangan says when the Straight reaches him in Ottawa, where he’s talking via speakerphone alongside bandmate Gordon Grdina. “All I said to them, in a very benevolent way, was ‘Just listen to it three or four more times, and I think you might get it.’ And then they wrote me back a week later, and they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, sorry. It’s wicked. Don’t worry about it.’ ”
Those who do as the tunesmith suggests and give Club Meds a chance to lodge itself in their brains will most likely come to the conclusion that not only is the album “wicked”, it’s also Mangan’s most sonically adventurous effort to date. And that’s saying something, given that his last outing, 2011’s Oh Fortune, boasted arrangements brimming with everything from chamber-pop strings and horns to finger-blistering six-string fretwork. Oh Fortune was a major leap forward from Mangan’s 2009 sophomore album Nice, Nice, Very Nice, a more straight-ahead but still immaculately crafted collection of folk-flavoured indie-rock songs.
Club Meds is a different beast altogether, with songs that defy any and all attempts at categorization. Consider “Vessel”, which builds from an off-kilter piano loop into a thing of anthemic beauty with intertwined chants set over a hammer-of-the-gods backbeat. Then there’s the bleak “War Spoils”, which is carried along by slow, oceanic swells of what sounds like distorted brass; and “Forgetery”, which anchors its haze of swirling atmospherics with an insistently funky shuffle.
When he’s pressed to come up with a catchall description of the music found on Club Meds, Mangan settles on “postrock”. That’s as good a label as any, but it shouldn’t be taken to mean that the 31-year-old tunesmith—who had a significant indie hit a few years back with the insanely infectious “Robots”—has sworn off writing songs with hooks.
“I think that, in a sense, it’s still pop music, but ‘pop music’ means different things to different people,” he notes. “That could mean Katy Perry to one person, or that could mean anything that isn’t atonal. Genres are weird.”
In other words, feel free to describe Club Meds however you see fit. Just don’t call it a solo record. For the first time, Mangan has chosen to give his collaborators equal billing, with the cover crediting the LP to Dan Mangan + Blacksmith. The core members of Blacksmith—the ones who are in all the photos alongside Mangan—are Grdina (guitar), John Walsh (bass), and Kenton Loewen (drums). Auxiliary personnel include keyboardist Tyson Naylor and trumpeter J. P. Carter, both of whom are on the group’s current tour. (Violinist Jesse Zubot is not, since his current gig with the Polaris Prize–winning Tanya Tagaq is keeping him understandably busy.)
“It was getting strange,” Mangan says of touring as an ostensibly solo artist. “We were showing up places and we felt like a band, but it was just my name on the ticket and just my picture in the magazine or whatever.
“I’ve been playing with some of these guys for seven years,” the affable singer continues. “We probably would have done the name change earlier if it had made sense. I think that for a long time we were just constantly breathing off the fumes of what we had just done, and there was this sort of plate-spinning. I know I’ve used that analogy before, but it was like constantly trying to keep everything balanced and everything going because there was all this momentum. Things were always going well and we kept getting these great opportunities, because, you know, it’s hard to say no. It’s hard to sort of turn a large ship that’s moving pretty quickly. So after having a couple of years in Vancouver when everybody was able to focus on other things, and when we came back to working together, it just sort of felt like the right thing to do. You know, we talked about it a little bit and I’d say, ‘Well, you guys have to think up the name, because it can’t come from me. It has to come from you guys, and I just have to really connect with it. I have to really like it.’ And so Kenton texted me in the night one time, saying ‘Blacksmith?’ And it just made sense on a lot of levels.”
Grdina elaborates: “When we were coming up with the name, we were talking about ideas and concepts. Kenton and I were on my porch talking about craftsmanship, and the idea of that getting to the point of an art form, and that we’re actually honing something and building it and making it work, which is what we feel like happens with the band. Often Dan will come with a song, and then we’ll look at it, listen to it, play it together, and then we’ll try to shape it into an arrangement—kind of craft that into a song. So, it’s basically that. Also, that concept of forging something out of metal made a lot of sense.”
“Gord listened to a lot of metal when he was a kid,” Mangan chimes in.
“That’s right,” says the guitarist. “So all I’m trying to do is get more metal into Mangan’s songs.”
With the possible exceptions of the amped-up pulse of “Mouthpiece” and the brain-melting guitar solo that arrives in a flurry of woozy brass at the climax of the closing number, “New Skies”, there’s nothing particularly heavy on Club Meds. Grdina may have developed his chops by bashing out Metallica covers as a teenager, but he’s taken a lot of other influences onboard since then. With his eponymous trio, the guitarist plays a spiky and intense strain of jazz, and with the 10-piece Haram, he explores and expands upon various forms of Arabic music. It’s worth noting that Loewen is a member of both bands, and that Carter and Zubot play with Haram. This isn’t a huge scene, but its members do have outsize talent when it comes to improvising.
According to Grdina, he and his Blacksmith cohorts brought some of that skill to bear when recording Club Meds with producer Colin Stewart. “Some things were actually worked-out parts,” he notes. “A lot of things happened in the studio and were improvs, and they become essential parts of the song. So those kind of happened, but there’s still this sense of openness and freedom in the sense that you can kind of go anywhere you want to when we’re playing live. For me, that has to be there. I can’t feel tied down to feeling like I have to play a certain role. I want to be able to, at any point, shift gears or change the sound or change things in the way that I want to—while being respectful of the song and what’s happening in the room at that moment. So there’s quite a bit of improvising that goes on in the course of a live concert.”
Mangan isn’t shy about heaping praise at the feet of his esteemed collaborators. “They bring this juxtaposition of fierce knowledge, in the musicality of things, as well as a wild abandon of playfulness and improvisation,” he says. “I’ve known, in my time as a musician, a lot of bands that had people in them who, more than being ‘musicians’, were ‘people in bands’, you know? They played enough to get by and wrote some songs, and if that band failed or crashed and burned, then everybody would sort of go their way and do other things. Whereas these guys are musicians, in terms of their dedication to their instrument. They will be playing their instruments until they die, regardless of whether they’re in a project that seems to be doing well or not.”
Fortunately for all involved, Blacksmith is doing very well indeed. As of this writing, Club Meds has been in the upper reaches of the national college-radio chart for seven consecutive weeks, and the band is playing to packed houses all across the country on the current leg of its tour, which ends this week with a pair of sold-out hometown concerts. After that, it’s off to Europe for much of April.
These guys are keeping busy—but not too busy. Mangan is wary of getting burned-out, which very nearly happened during the Oh Fortune tour, necessitating an extended period of downtime. “For me, personally, it wasn’t the Oh Fortune cycle that was pushing me over the edge, it was the Oh Fortune cycle put right on top of the Nice, Nice, Very Nice cycle, which seemingly never ended,” he says. “And then that on top of years of travelling alone. It was sort of a compound thing for me. And having had this break gave us a lot of life. And we’re also a little bit smarter about how we’re touring. We used to sometimes be out for seven or eight weeks at a time, but Gord’s got two kids, Johnny’s got a kid, I’ve got a kid. So being away for three weeks is pretty difficult.”
When the musicians finally reconvened to work on the material that would become Club Meds, it was with a renewed sense of purpose that quickly became a thrilling rush of creativity.
“We got together a handful of times to rehearse new tunes before we started recording,” Mangan recalls, “and I remember walking away from those rehearsals going, ‘Fuck, it feels great to play music again.’ ”
Grdina concurs, and throws in a Blues Brothers reference for good measure: “It felt a lot like when Jake and Elwood Blues get to the church, and Jake jumps down and starts saying, ‘I’ve seen the light! We’ve got to get the band back together!’ And they were doing back flips and stuff. It was exactly like that.”
Dan Mangan + Blacksmith play the Vogue Theatre on Friday and Saturday (March 13 and 14).