Dan Mangan’s made arguably his most introspective record to date with ‘Club Meds’, but it’s also the first that sees the musician bringing his Blacksmith band into the studio. Despite the full-group mentality, Mangan’s latest sees him exploring the depths of his own conscience, while linking personal realisations with cutting social commentary.
As evidenced below, in an exclusive track-by-track guide to the record, each fragment of ‘Club Meds’ comes with serious meaning. From a horde of influences to a series of hard truths, there’s bitterness, frustration and sense of quiet calm, all linking arms in a gorgeous chasm.
Stream the record in full below while reading Dan’s guide to the LP. Catch him live this April at Manchester’s Deaf Institute (24th April), Glasgow’s Oran Mor (25th), Brudenell Social Club in Leeds (27th), Bristol Thekla (28th), Brighton Komedia (29th) and London’s Islington Assembly Hall (30th).
It’s written from the perspective of Margaret Atwood’s protagonist in The Handmaid’s Tale. The book is a masterpiece. It made me think a lot about choice. There’s a line in the song that says: “They changed my purpose”. She goes from having a somewhat regular middle-class life in America to being an impregnation slave. She literally exists to procreate for rich men. The grossest part is that everyone has to pretend that this new way of life is better, or they no longer serve a purpose and are disposed of. There are people on this planet who live without choice - forced into unthinkable forms of slavery (labour, sex, etc). Born a white male in a safe city in an affluent country, I was given countless head starts. In a world obsessed with the myth of the self-made man (or woman), it’s important to understand and accept the ways in which we’ve been incalculably lucky.
I’ve written before that this song is about feeling inundated with bullshit. There’s a lot of noise in the world. A lot of people talking. Not very much actually said. Not very many people actually listening. I’m part of the bullshit, of course. We got lucky here. I was working on a film and the director wanted to put this song over the credits and he asked his pal Dave Grohl to do some singing. So Dave sang the choruses (the “Stop! Wait! Unhand me!” part). That was surreal. I grew up listening to his bands. I think ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was one of the first songs I learned to play on guitar. I love Gord’s guitar part that kicks in half way through the second chorus. The first time we’d ever even tried to play this song, he just started ripping it to shreds at the end, and that ending guitar melody was just the first thing his fingers went to, and we were all like YESSS.
This song was a labour of love (or labour of frustration!). It took about a year to write. It was probably a decade’s worth of ponderings, and I could write an entire essay about each and every line in the song. It was very carefully and meticulously pieced together from a lyrical standpoint. I have to acknowledge that it’s a bit pissy, or self-indulgent. A bit of a diatribe. It touches on a lot of things, but a few concepts that come to mind are our need to be a part of the pack, the inevitable concessions that we make to our moral infrastructure in order to not rock the boat, our quickness to form certainty about things that, if we are truly honest with ourselves, are just simply hunches. Kenton and Johnny really smashed the bass/drums on this tune. The 7 snare hits Kenton hits that lead into the pushed first beat of the second chorus gets me all pumped up.
A Doll’s House / Pavlovia
This was a neat creative experience. A Doll’s House was a pre-existing song that Gord wrote. I loved it. I wrote a second melody line that would call/answer with his. So Gord sings his song and I sing my song and it all kinda falls into place. This song was largely recorded live off the floor. One of the four songs on this album where the scratch / live vocal track ended up just being the final vocal. I love it when that happens. Sometimes you can overthink vocals so much and end up doing 20 takes and chopping them up and “cheating”. But for ‘Pavlovia’, ‘Offred’, ‘XVI’ and ‘War Spoils’, we just kept the original scratch recording. I secretly hope that people will hear Gord playing rhythm guitar (rather than a lead) on this tune and think it’s me playing, because it sounds better than any rhythm guitar I’ve ever played!
“I could write an entire essay about each and every line in the song.”
Dan Mangan, on ‘Mouthpiece’
Another new kind of creative collaboration here. Johnny had written this bassline/progression while we were on tour in Europe. He’d just cycle it all the time during soundcheck. Immediately, the vocal melody just fell into place. I asked him to record the progression on his phone and send it to me. I plotted the notes out into a midi graph so I could re-arrange it and move things around, and the standard “bass #2” midi sound ended up sounding so great that we used it for the final recording. After the first chorus, it fades in and plays alongside the real bass, and the two instruments pan out to the L and R channels. Kenton’s polyrhythms are insane on this tune, and I love Gord’s slumbering guitar noise floor matched with his repetitive semi-African guitar lick. Lyrically, it was inspired by Milan Kundera’s explanation of the original slang usage of the word “Kitsch” in Germany in the 1800s. It’s the idea that we have these concepts or ideas that we give so much creedance to that we refuse to see the holes in them. We put ideas on a pedestal where we can’t question them. It’s as if we pulled the lynch pin from the grenade, the whole rationale for social construct would fall apart. Religion, patriotism, the roles of men/women, glorification of righteous violence, etc.
There are similarities between Louie XVI and Marie Antoinette locked up in Versailles while France rioted - hungry and desperate, and the disparity in understanding between the Occupy Wall St movement with the actual people at the top of the financial towers who steered the ship straight into recession. The uber-wealthy have no understanding of real suffering, just as those who actually suffer in poverty often forget that the richest among us are still human beings. It’s not class war, it’s just class chaos. Rats in a bucket, scrambling to be on top. This song plays out like a letter home from a Wall St. banker. His family is like “The TV says you guys fucked us! Did you fuck us over?” and the banker says, “Well, yes, of course we did, and we will continue to. But it’s complicated.”
“The uber-wealthy have no understanding of real suffering, just as those who actually suffer in poverty often forget that the richest among us are still human beings.”
This was a stream of consciousness. Over a period of time, I’d just been writing down phrases that I thought were interesting in my notebook. After a while, I just added them up and started singing them like a bullet point list. At first, I thought this song might just be a segue on the record - like an intro to a song or something, but the more I got into it, the more I liked the idea of it standing alone. I do like how the drums at the top of ‘Forgetery’ drop overtop of the ending of this song, however. This song is definitely the least standard “song” of the bunch. It’s more like sound design.
My great aunt Margie used to say, “My memory is shot, but my forgetery is very sharp.” I had this amazing experience on mushrooms once. I was, for a moment, completely and utterly connected and at peace with the entire universe. There was no truth or falseness, there was only perception and the question of willing to accept perception, or to to deny it. Acceptance led to beauty and wonderment. Denial led to conflict and anger. And then, as quickly as the feeling came over me, it was gone. It’s a slippery fish. As soon as you’re aware of an honest moment, it slips away and we go back to our internal discussion ABOUT the moment. Complete unconsciousness is the same thing as total consciousness.
I love how Gord goes all ‘Black Hole Sun’ with the wandering guitar line on this song. When I was 19, I worked at a summer camp in Massachusetts. Four out of my ten campers had to go to the nurse once a day to take a pill. They weren’t ill. Their parents didn’t know how to handle them and were too busy or emotionally disconnected to actually just talk to them. I couldn’t believe how badly these kids just wanted to be loved. I mean, I know their parents love them, but they were like sponges to water the second you actually just listened to them. But sedation isn’t only chemical, and I didn’t set out to start a war with pharmaceutical companies here. I just think that even though it seems easier to bury your head in the sand, the fog of self-delusion is much more miserable than the chaos of clarity.
“I love how he put the happiest lyrics over the saddest music.”
Dan Mangan, on Lou Reed
Pretty Good Joke
“Nobody gets it. Fake a laugh.” I hated pretending to get a joke when I was a kid. The joke here is how serious we are. In all that ever has been or ever will be, the entire existence of humanity is a flash in the pan. It doesn’t mean we can’t be important to each other, but I do believe we need to check our ego at the proverbial door when it comes to our importance period. Anybody who has witnessed a birth has to admit on some level that we are simply another animal. I can’t remember who said it, but there’s a great quote from an astronaut talking about how from space, the follies of humanity seem so silly - as in, all the crap that keeps us from being compassionate and kind to each other is so menial. This song was really hard to record at first. We tried for about eight hours and just couldn’t get it. We never use click tracks and like to get our recordings live off the floor, but the nature of the song was so robotic that we had to come back the next morning with a midi sequence to play to. I’d sit in the control room and get the guys to just do different things. “OK now play in 3/4… OK now Kenton play some non-drums percussion… OK now Johnny gimme some super relaxed bass mojo…” etc. Then we pieced it together after the fact with a billion layers of synths and sequencers.
I have to admit some influence from Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ here. I love how he put the happiest lyrics over the saddest music. I wanted to leave the album with a tongue in cheek suggestion that, despite all my ridiculous opinions and ranting, things are okay, they will be okay. They will be totally fucked up, but it’s our job to accept it, and find the beauty in it anyhow. I love the interplay between Johnny’s Hoffner bassline and Jesse’s octave-dropped pizzicato notes. It’s daunting but also so playful. Gord rips the choruses, and JP Carter slays the trumpet. I also like how it doesn’t resolve. It would have been the common conclusion to just let the song fade away on a bed of feedback and leave it at that, but I like how before you get an “end”, it throws you for a loop again, and at the end of the album, we’re left with noise and drum samples, which is just how the album starts. It’s a cycle. Everything is connected.