Published Jan 09, 2015Though Dan Mangan began his career as an acoustic troubadour, his role has gradually evolved to that of a band leader. His new album, Club Meds — out Tuesday (January 13) through Arts & Crafts — is his first to be co-billed with his band Blacksmith, and the group tell Exclaim! that its creation was a highly collaborative process.
"There've been enough people going like, 'Oh, so you're Dan Mangan's guitar player.' Actually, I have my own identity," says Gord Grdina. "We got that a lot. The industry is so run by individuals, and then there are hired guns. And the conception is that this person tells them everything to do and the hired guns do their thing. We've never run like that."
The lineup formed more than six years ago; drummer Kenton Loewen and bassist John Walsh both played on Mangan's 2009 breakthrough Nice, Nice, Very Nice, while Grdina came on board soon after, during tour support for that record. Although they didn't pick a name until recently, they've long considered themselves a proper band.
"It was nice to have a situation where now we're like, 'Okay, we'll have a name,'" Grdina reflects. "We were going to do it on Oh Fortune, but we just couldn't come up with an actual name we all liked."
Having chosen a formal moniker, the guys were eager to get their hands dirty on the new LP. Mangan explains that the writing process for Club Meds was a time of intense yet productive creative clashes. Some of the songs were penned by Mangan and then brought to the group, but others came from more direct collaboration: "A Doll's House / Pavlova" was composed by Mangan singing his own lyrics over a pre-existing song by Grdina, while "Kitsch" originated from a bass line that Walsh often jammed during soundcheck. A few parts came from scrapped material originally intended for Mangan's recent film score for Hector and the Search for Happiness.
"We were actually aggressive with each other. It was like, 'No, fuck you. I don't fucking want to do it this way,'" Loewen remembers of the process.
Mangan agrees, recalling, "We'd fight, we'd fight, we'd hug it out, we'd get pumped, we'd walk away from it for a day and hate it all of a sudden. And then now, at the end of it all, I've never been prouder of anything I've ever worked on."
Club Meds is a creative leap forward for the singer, who first made his name with straightforward tunes like the cute 'n' cuddly sing-along "Robots" and the plaintive folk ballad "The Indie Queens Are Waiting." His new material avoids stripped-down simplicity, instead draping the frontman's cryptic poetry in blankets of reverb and distortion, with arrangements that favour world influences and jazz inflections over raw rootsiness.
The bed tracks were captured over 10 or 11 days at Vancouver's Warehouse studios. From there, Mangan and returning producer Colin Stewart worked on the songs in the vocalist's National Park Studio, spending six weeks meticulously adding swaths of overdubs, electronic textures and amorphous noise.
"There was probably a time when the guys were worried that I had gone on this super electronic tangent and then band's performances were going to be lost entirely and the record was going to go off into this other place," Mangan admits. "Luckily I think I earned their trust again when it came to the mix, because we brought the drums way back up, we brought the guitar back up, we brought the bass back. Now, all of a sudden it felt like those bed recordings, matched with countless layers of synthetic noise."
Often, the results evoke classic-era Radiohead, as the cloudy-headed arrangements add a sinister element to Mangan scathing critiques of modern life. Lead single "Vessel," on the other hand, evokes the radio-friendly infectiousness of Peter Gabriel, with its robo-piano riffs and a surprising cameo from Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl on backing vocals.
After such careful crafting, Mangan is finally ready to let Club Meds loose into the world. This moment — of finally sharing the fruits of the band's insular creative process — is reflected in Blacksmith's band name.
"Something I love about the Blacksmith image is the idea of spending days or weeks forging one unique, singular piece of instrument or tool and then giving it away," Mangan muses. "It's like the idea of doing that with a song, or your life, or anything. You worked to forge this thing of beauty and then it's gone, out of your life."
You can stream all of Club Meds over here on Exclaim.ca and see the band's upcoming tour schedule here.