This month, two-time Juno award winner Dan Mangan + Blacksmith release their new album, Club Meds. Working alongside longtime producer Colin Stewart (Ladyhawk, Black Mountain), the album takes a deep dive from both a lyrical and atmospherical perspective, combining layers of acoustic and synthetic instrumentation with poignant conceptual themes. Pro Sound News spoke to Mangan about the creative process that ultimately led him to Club Meds.
Left to right: Gordon Grdina, John Walsh, Dan Mangan and Kenton LoewenON REMAINING IN STUDIO MODE:
Right before we went into the studio to start working on Club Meds, we had just put the finishing touches on a movie soundtrack [Hector and the Search for Happiness]. That was a really intense project that took many months and many long days. So in a sense, I was kind of in ‘studio mode’ already before we went in. I was already spending hours with no sunlight, and my studio chops were already firing well before we began working on the record.
ON MARRYING THE ACOUSTIC AND SYNTHETIC:
I feel that each record makes the previous one seem amateurish by comparison. Musically, this record was very collaborative, more so than any other I’ve ever done before. Kenton, Gordon and Johnny were a really crucial part of the song formation, and the crafting of how each song felt. Sonically, there was a nice marriage of both acoustic and synthetic instruments. All the bed tracks were acoustic tracks: very human and imperfect. Then there was a process of two or three months that consisted of layering more synthetic sounds— things that came from MIDI sequencers, synthesizers or drum machines. The basic rule was that we could only use synthetic sounds that still elicited a recognizable emotional response. So we wanted to include the electronic world in the record, but not let it be dictated by it. It was nice to have the electronics be more of an afterthought rather than the infrastructure.
ON TURNING CONCEPTS INTO SONGS:
Lyrically, I feel like this is a much more focused record than before—I had more to say on a political scale. I like the idea of writing about humanity in a timeless kind of fashion, and believe the quagmire of human jealousy, greed, love, beauty and everything else that existed for Shakespeare still exists for us now. I became more articulate in being able to process these kinds of ideas and concepts, and bring them into song form. I think having a kid also raised the stakes for me: It made me softer, and in other ways, it made me sharper and more concerned about the world that my family lives in.
ON WORKING IN THE WAREHOUSE:
We recorded at the Warehouse, which is a beautiful studio here in Vancouver that is kind of renowned as being Bryan Adams’ baby. In the modern day when many large commercial facilities seem to be having a hard time making money, this place has been a staple and has always been around. That’s where we recorded the basic tracks for the guitars, drums and bass. On about three of the songs, the vocal take was recorded through a classic RCA 44 ribbon mic, with no overdubbing or editing. There are other vocals on the record that that took 15 takes of cutting and piecing things together though, so there were some struggles too. After we did the band takes, which basically consisted of the four of us as a quartet on the floor at The Warehouse, we did a lot of the overdubs in my own humble rehearsal space/studio.
Then we spent two weeks at Colin Stewart’s [co-producer] studio, called The Hive. Colin and I work really well together and almost finish each other’s thoughts. We also have a very similar sonic palette: generally, if something is hitting him in the gut, it is hitting me in the gut too, so it makes our working relationship very easy. Except for the three songs with complete vocal takes that we did at The Warehouse, all of the vocals were recorded at his studio, and they were the very last things we recorded.
ON CREATING “CACOPHONOUS NOISE:”
I love the power of MIDI. The sounds that the companies are making are getting better and better. I will typically use MIDI to try to make new sounds that are completely unrecognizable. For example, at the end of “Vessel,” I took a classic contact Mellotron sax patch, which alone, sounded horrible. But then we ran it through a crystallizer and a whole bunch of Sound Toys until it became this crazy, cacophonous noise. We took whatever sonic input we had and just ran it through gear that we could twist knobs with, trying to introduce a performance element into whatever we were doing. This gets back to the whole marriage between the synthetic and the human, which ended up being an important part of this record.
ON GETTING LOST WHILE MIXING:
I find mixing to be excruciating at times and I always go through an existential crisis asking things like “Are we the kind of band that mixes vocals loud, or are we the kind of band that mixes quiet?” “Do we want big, huge rock drums or more subtle ones?” What I’ve decided about that whole process is that if you don’t go through these self-doubting challenges—and those moments that you feel lost and destroyed by the process—then you may not be trying hard enough. If everything happens too easily, something might be wrong.
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