Dan Mangan – Oxford- 4 May 2012

Interview and article by Aline Giordano

I ask Dan Mangan if he would kindly sign my copy of ‘Nice, Nice, Very Nice’ and ‘Oh Fortune’. Asking for an autograph is a habit that I have developed of late. I never used to. I had always considered an autograph to be rather futile and false. With the arrogance of youth, I thought I was above it and far too cool to lower myself to ask for a scribble. Being nearly twice the age now than I was when I interviewed my first celebrity I’ve had time to reflect on my own arrogance. I guess this is part of growing old. But this is an entirely different story in itself. Today, I don’t find the autograph so pointless. On the contrary, it has a purpose: it compliments the interviewing process. Dan Mangan writes on the CD sleeve: ‘Thanks for the thoughtful chat Aline!’. We then exchange a few words of appreciation of each other’s work. Earlier in the evening, I had conducted an interview with Mangan. As soon as we started chatting, it became apparent that we shared similar views and opinions about certain things that are close to our hearts.

We start talking about ‘How Darwinian’. I tell Mangan how much I love the song. If the ceremonial feel brought about by the trumpet introduction, the distorted guitar layers and the gentleness of the vocal delivery could betray Mangan’s sense of acceptance of our societal fate, at least, the title of the song is a clear statement on his position.

‘The song is inspired by those vacuous vessels of consumption. When you enter those places you feel hollow and soulless. It’s not like I think commerce is bad or capitalism horrible, but I feel like consumption does not need to be so empty. The song is a lament to the idea that there can be thought and love and passion put into consumerism and the way that we trade goods’.

Firmly on the subject of consumerism and knowing that Mangan studied sociology, I mention German sociologist Theodor Adorno’s belief that ‘taking the horrendous (war) and making it consumable’ is the reason why the mixing of politics and popular music was doomed from the start. Can a three-minute pop song like Mangan’s ‘Post-war blues’ or, indeed, Bright Eyes’ ‘Road to Joy’ truly raise awareness about the horror of war? I even wonder if the ‘politically charged’ song in the end undermines the real political debate among its audience. I ask Mangan what his thoughts on Adorno’s standpoint are.

‘The assumption that artists are for entertainment and consumption is horrible. I understand that business comes into play when you sell music. But if you record an album to sell it, that’s a lot different to recording an album because you have to. Take 1984, an incredible dystopian criticism of society sold a lot of copies because of marketing and how it permeated culture but the artefact itself was not written as a nice little story to sell copies but to say something, to have a point. There is this idea that if you’re into music you should stick to singing about love and leave the politics to those people who really know what’s going on. Nobody knows what’s going on. It’s a dialogue of ideas. I don’t choose to be political in my songs, but I think about a lot of political things in my brain that are going to end up in my lyrics. The level of standard of pop music is so low nowadays that the simple idea of singing about something that is meaningful becomes absurd. This is awful’.

To which I reply: ‘Good answer!’; and we laugh.

I then move onto ‘Basket’, from ‘Nice, Nice, Very Nice’, a song about the celebration of life, growing old, and ultimately about death. It is such a captivating song, especially live. I ask Mangan where he finds the energy and emotions to bring death to life onstage?

To which he replies ‘Good question!’; we both smile.

Mangan adds: ‘It’s a very personal song… a very sensitive song… among my more earnest songs… It’s the constant struggle of any musician… to tap into that place of sincerity… where it’s not feigned… The song is about growing old, but gracefully. It’s not like one day you’re old and before that you weren’t old. Every day you are what you are, were what you were, and will be what you’ll be’. In the vagueness of the answer, I read that Mangan is gently and courteously trying to keep the personal to the person. The song is, as the album sleeve mentions, about his grandfather. Hence, I do not insist. Instead, I tell him why I love the song so much and how it relates to my own life. ‘You’re really getting it’ he humbly responds.

Dan Mangan’s lyrics are many things; observational of a doomed society, evocatively personal, and lyrical with powerful images, often associated with fire.

‘Yes there is a lot of fire on the record. You’re right. Fire is both death and birth. It is the phoenix. It’s rebirth. It’s growth. Everything burns eventually. We all turn to ash eventually. But it’s about free will. I’m not going to let the world burn me. I’m going to burn myself. I’m not talking about suicide. What I’m talking about is ‘I’m going to be the one that decides’. The most interesting people that I know are people who influence the world around them more than they are influenced by the world around them’.

I wonder whether the fire analogies are also a way of telling his audience that he is moving away from the low key alt-country sound that made his name, to something more complex. Yes, fire is about ashes, death but also rebirth.

‘People could take this album as being very sad and melancholic but I’d hope that they can feel the joy underneath it. There’s a victory feel to the album that I’d like people to understand. Life is totally chaotic and hard but it’s also incredible, and an experience to just be’.

I could end the interview on this particular joyful note but, having already run over my allocated time, there is one topic left to cover which I am curious to know Mangan’s take on. Having covered honesty, authenticity of the artist, societal vacuousness and consumerism, I remind Mangan that he played on Canada Day at a major festival in front of Prince William and Kate. I even throw in a ‘here you were, earning your wages in front of the celebrities!’.

Mangan comments: ‘It’s a strange thing. It comes down to the fact that you’re constantly making decisions about what feels good. You have to use your gut. The music industry is just a means to an end but it’s what gets me in front of an audience I can talk to and interact with. I’m part of the machine. I know. I’m not above it. I eat the ‘sh*t’ too. The more well-known you are, the more you struggle with the idea of being followed by people who you think don’t really get you but they think they do’.

In a way, I’ve just reminded Mangan that he is caught up in a merciless and Darwinist industry, in which one either adapts to grow or is left to perish. Yet, in a way, I’ve also reminded myself that I am, like Dan Mangan, ‘eating the sh*t too’. Though I may pride myself on working for my own not-for-profit music fanzine, I too have to make difficult decisions at times. I am a self-taught photographer, wishing to break away from the utilitarian visual representation of popular music present in totalistic mass media. Yet, I do it within the confines of a wasteful society that promotes vacuous people to the rank of celebrity and trade heartfelt artefacts at obscene prices.

‘At the end of the day,’ says Mangan, ‘I’m the same person I was before. You have to have your own internal compass that is based on a feeling of self-worth. If you start to believe what’s written about you then you are trying to emulate that perception of who you are, instead of being just what you are. I focus on being a good person to people, treating the world with dignity and respect and hopefully receiving it in return… making life interesting and good not by what we have but who we are’.

It is now my turn to say thank you, Dan Mangan: thank you for the ‘thoughtful chat’.

For more details, visit… Dan Mangan’s website

© Aline Giordano 2012