“Just imagine all the soldiers that marched up these steps,” muses Dan Mangan, as we navigate a sinister grey staircase that once swarmed with Nazis. This is the Medienbunker, a WWII-built tower so ominously impregnable that the post-war allied forces eventually just gave up trying to blow it up.
Nowadays it’s home to music shops, radio stations and – near the top – Uebel & Gefährlich, one of the mighty Reeperbahn Festival’s many fine venues. It’s here that we meet Mangan - and guitarist Gordon Grdina of backing band Blacksmith - whose album ’Club Meds’ is one of the year’s lost treasures. Mangan isn’t widely known in the UK but he and Blacksmith recently won a prestigious songwriting award back home in Canada, while his songs also received a more dubious honour: they’ve been fashioned into a musical, Are We Cool Now, currently running in Vancouver. But is it cool?
Of more concern longer-term, Mangan has partnered with acts like Feist and Stars’ Torquil Campbell to form #ImagineOct20th, which is actively drumming up support to oust Canada’s long-incumbent Conservative government at the upcoming election. The way Mangan describes Stephen Harper’s regime, our interview location – the rooftop terrace of an indestructible far-right stronghold – seems increasingly apt.
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Let's begin with the big issue: how does this musical work?
Dan: I don't know man, I haven't seen it yet. I mean, musical theatre. I have no clue.
Gordon: My mom just texted about that – "Do you know about this?"
Dan: Are they gonna go see it? Gordon: Yeah, I'm pretty sure they will.
Dan: Oh man. I feel like my songs have a particular voicing, so to hear them in a narrative might be weird.
Is it an ego boost?
Dan: It was flattering, sure, just getting a note from the director saying "we wanna put this together, workshop it, do we have your permission?" So Gordon, you didn't quit the band when you heard they'd done a musical of his lyrics?
Gordon: Well, I haven't seen it yet.
Dan: The thing about it, the guy who did it, I've seen his work before and it was very good. When we say 'musical,' immediately we're thinking costumes and dance numbers. But I know the type of theatre that he does and it's small wacky independent theatre. He did a thing called the Craigslist Cantata.
Gordon: It's a very insular audience anyway; the people who'll go see it are big fans of yours already.
So on this latest album you’re billed as Dan Mangan and Blacksmith, rather than just Dan, although this band’s been together a while?
Gordon: We were gonna do it on [previous album] ‘Oh Fortune’, but we couldn’t come up with a name that was any good. But this felt like it was more of a commitment, and we were more involved, in the writing stages.
You all won a big award recently, for songwriting?
Gordon: Yeah, we got a Western Canadian Music Award for Songwriter of the Year. We’ve won a lot of them, but awards don’t mean anything. Let’s just say that some shit has won those awards before.
Dan: It doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate it though. Creatively, you have to reconcile the idea that it means nothing at all, but for your career, if you’re being introduced in Lithuania and someone says ‘winner of two awards’ or whatever, people immediately go “ok, this is gonna be better than my cousin Larry.” It gives you this weird legitimacy. And it extends your record cycle, because there’s another reason for people to take interest in you. It took me a while to get into the new album, then really grabbed me – which I always think is the sign of a great one
Dan: I think so. I hope so. When I first started sending it to friends, at first it was like [unsure voice] ‘ok, cool, its different...’ but it grows on people. I think the record has legs. We got some really great press right out of the gate, but then it felt like it sunk into the internet, there’s so much music out there. We were kinda hoping it would just explode, because we felt really strongly about it, but we’re still pushing it. It’s a complicated record, but I think it’s our strongest work.
I listened to your breakthrough album, ‘Nice Nice, Very Nice’ (2009) a lot too – then you made a pretty dark one in between...
Dan: What was funny, ‘Nice Nice…’ came out about six months before that massive Mumford and Sons record, and we got so much press lumping us in with them. I never felt that was an accurate thing, but I think for the next record the label were ready to cash in: ‘Get us another record like that, we’ll sell 10 billion!’ Then when we gave them ‘Oh Fortune’, they were like ‘okayyy..’ But that record in Canada ended up being even more successful. It was the first time we got on rock radio.
Now you’re part of a pretty high-profile collective putting on these ‘anti-conservative’ concerts?
Dan: Yeah, well, we have a shitty government right now and there’s an election coming up. We were playing summer festivals and every conversation eventually got to ‘what can we do?’ It just feels so futile sometimes. So a big community of artists have gotten together and started this hashtag concept, called #imagineoctober20th – imagine what a breath of fresh air it would be to wake up and have a new government. We’ve had 10 years of this ridiculous government.
10 years. One more and you’re in Thatcher territory.
Dan: Yeah, it’s just been fraud and scandal and more scandal, election fraud, destroying all the environmental laws, treating all the aboriginal people with complete disregard.
Gordon: Muzzling scientists.
Dan: Literally just shredding and deleting hundreds of years of science on, like soil levels, the chemical makeup of the Great Lakes, deleting all this data.
Gordon: They’re trying to push though all these oil pipelines. And his base is in Alberta, the biggest exporter of oil.
Dan: The ridiculous notion that they’re fiscally on top of things, after seven consecutive deficits. They’re just bad in every way. They’re the most dishonest, least transparent government in Canadian history.
So how have they survived?
Dan: There’s a vote split on the left. So the majority of Canadians vote progressively, but split their vote, then the Conservative party wins.
Is there anything you can actually do about it?
Dan: There’s a bunch of different websites where if you punch in your postcode it tells you who to vote for – who has the best chance of beating their local conservative candidate. That’s what we’re sort of pushing – strategic voting. Vote for the candidate most likely not to be a Conservative. So we’re holding concerts, a bunch of us just started a website, threw a hashtag online. And invited people to plan their own events, we’re putting them up online, trying to kill electoral apathy really.
It can’t hurt.
Dan: I felt that if I didn’t do something, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. Even if they win another term, at least that I’ll be able to sleep at night knowing that I tried.
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Dan Mangan and Blacksmith’s album 'Club Meds' is out now. That anti-con website is at www.imagineoct20th.com
Words: Si Hawkins
Photo Credit: Shimon Karmel