The first time I’d spotted Cape Town-hailing songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Emile Van Dango was at a festival, as the guitarist for The Plastics. While his guitar stylings suited their sound perfectly, there was no camouflaging this character capable of pulling off a cravat beside a bunch of t-shirt-donning dudes.
Shortly after Van Dango had piqued my attention, I was introduced to his solo project, Yellow House, with the release of his 2016 single, “Control”. There was something warm and immediately comfortable about his simple progressions over which he layered thoughtful lyrics, carried by infectiously floating melodies.
Four years, a couple of EPs, and a litter of intermittent singles later, Van Dango reaches out with the news of his debut album, Mania/Post Mania, and subsequently strikes a nostalgic chord that, once again, does well to pique my attention.
I have so many questions for Van Dango but a “Day 200 of Lockdown” notification lets me know to start there. Conveniently timed as he went into the final production phase, after two years of writing, lockdown allowed him the focus (read: guilt-free self-indulgence) to finish up his work without the slightest distraction.
“I usually live a pretty secluded life when I’m deep into a project anyway, and it can leave you feeling like you’re meandering on the outskirts of society,” he explains, “[But] with the world on hold, it was galvanizing for me to feel like I could be so fixated on my work whilst not fearing that the world is passing me by.”
He mentions “The farm” more than once, and I’m confused that someone as meticulously manicured as him should have any business out in the country. He laughs as he readies to clear up my confusion. “I come from a long family line of modest farmers on both sides of my family. So, the love for nature’s open plains runs deep in my blood. Beneath all the cultivated sophistication and vintage synthesizers lies a mouth harp wielding, tobacco snuffing country boy.”
Van Dango fascinates me with memories of visiting his dad in Limpopo as a child, exploring rivers and lakes by day, trawling pubs by night — Papa Van Dango took him along to all his gigs, his earliest musical memories.
He relives a more recent memory of using his guitar as his passport and I’m hanging by his every word. “I flew over to The States for a secret recording project at the end of last year. I ended up staying alone in New York for a month, doing nothing with my days other than strolling around downtown Manhattan, listening to Leonard Cohen and the Velvet Underground and falling in love with people on the subway. I pretty much lived off of black coffee, bourbon and pizza slices and drained all my savings on Greenwich Village jazz clubs”.
The more I listen to him speak, the more I realise that his debut album, Mania/Post Mania, is a collection of stories of a life spent actually living, actually doing, and actually creating. I wonder where he was, emotionally and physically when he started writing the album.
“I started writing this album while living out in the garden route. This plot of land I was on had a little storage hut in the thick of the bushes,” he explains, “I treated every day’s writing session as a religious activity and would dress in my formal attire each morning before making the 30-yard journey over to the hut. Once inside I would burn imphepho (sage) and beat an old cow hide drum until I felt I was entranced enough to write.”
Van Dango spent months writing in isolation but, once he’d returned to the city, he decided he needed an external influence, seeking out old friend and long-time band mate, Pascal Righini (The Plastics, Yum Yuck) to help craft, produce, and make sense of his musings, and I ask what Righini brought to the album.
“Over the years, Pascal and I have shared studios, tour vans, hotel rooms and many drinks across the globe. I got to see first-hand the way that his mind worked and the way that he viewed music and art. I knew that we had the same fundamental views, but that we differed in very subtle ways,” he explains the depth of their relationship. Van Dango gives due credit as he explains, “It’s the shared foundation that made pulling in the same creative direction easy, and the subtle differences in style that helped to strengthen all of my blind spots. He is a deep well of creativity with a textbook case of perfectionism.”
I comment that the album is Yellow House as dark as I’ve heard him, and he grows sombre as he concludes, “It took two years of living out gains and losses to get the record done. It’s a documentation of the cyclic, intertwined nature of mania and post mania that battle it out for control over our existence. The conflict between the frenetic and the calm. The chaos and the antidote.”