Spotlight Regular

with Dylan Mandel

by Aileen Kyoko Haugh

Here’s the first fact you should know about Dylan Mandel – he is the heartthrob of Café Regular. I hesitate to grab your attention like that, but as a journalist it is my responsibility to report the truth. I am only half joking. Let me explain. The word ‘heartthrob’ expands beyond the physical. Charismatic, relaxed good looks, and a jokester – Dylan is one of those people who carries light with him. He often pops into the Café in the morning, travel mug in hand, a smile on his face even before the first cup of coffee, ready to crack up the baristas. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we sat down together, but I left our conversation inspired by a story that needed to be told. It is a tale of passion and hope for artists hustling in the greatest city in the world.
Dylan opened up our conversation with a smile. “I live a block away from the best coffee shop in the world. It’s the only way I can get up in the morning or live in this damn city.” I laughed and asked him to expand on his background and how he got here. Born and raised in Anchorage Alaska, Dylan was always drawn to music. He told us about the first time he encountered a drum kit as a child in Ancorage. “It was at the last shop – I remember it was called “The Horn Doctor” – when I turned to leave, and the sun was shining onto this white drumset…I saw it and something happened to me, and I told my mom: I WANT TO PLAY THAT. So I started playing drums at about 11.” Dylan has been pursuing his passion for music ever since that day. The years after college were a hazy mix of traveling, performing in bands and searching for his place in the music world. He lived in Portland, Oregon for a few years with his band until they made the leap to New York City, and the real journey into the music scene kicked off.
It didn’t take long for the band to be affected by the challenges of city life. Eventually, they broke up. The break up sent a few members away from the city. But Dylan stuck with it. “I really latched onto NY life…and now I am a little worried: where do you GO after New York?” I paused, also overwhelmed by the question. Where do you go? He spread his hands and continued, “You have to go international…NYC is such a beast! If you are having a really good day, New York is the perfect place to be. But if you’re having a bad day, the city can just eat you up. I know it sounds cliché- but it’s such a love-hate thing! But for music, this is the birthplace of pop and jazz.”
What is it about New York music scene? Dylan answered, “All the greats are from New York. There’s an eclectic group of people here, there’s opportunity to discover all different kinds of music. If you want to make it big, you move to LA, if you want to focus on becoming a well-rounded musician, I would suggest New York. You constantly get inspired here!” Dylan’s enthusiasm wasn’t surprising (after all, this is the charismatic funny guy), but where does one draw the line between reality and idealism? “Be realistic” Dylan explained, “you’re going to be playing a lot of crappy shows before you get the good ones. I took a lot of advice to heart that was given to me over the years of touring and playing and I think that’s a reason why I’ve been able to perpetuate this life of being a drummer and a musician in New York.”
He sat up and adjusted his glasses, then rested his elbows on the table. “It takes a certain type of person to hold on inside and know that you’re here for a reason. If there’s no reason on the inside and you’re here just to be here – those people don’t last very long. The people who do last in New York are really driven people typically… Or they have a lot of money. I think a lot of people get jaded or are just misguided from the get-go. The truth is that the arts in New York is a much more local scene than you might think. There’s a strong community between the musicians in New York City. Be apart of the community of New York. New York…man I love it here.”
Speaking of Community, I brought up Café Regular and his face lit up. “Drums and black coffee- they go great together!” Dylan has never been a regular anywhere except Café Regular. “I never had a community until I moved to Brooklyn, and I never identified myself with a strong community until I moved to Park Slope. The café is a community and I feel privileged to be a part of it. It’s this whole new circle of friends that I’ve inadvertently found for myself, which is really cool.” Dylan shares his studio space with two Café Regular baristas, Mario and Steven John. “Mario and Steven-John are amazing musicians, we collaborate now and I wouldn’t have found them if I hadn’t found Café Regular.”
Dylan admits that drinking coffee was never a daily ritual for him until he moved to New York. Long days and the exhausting lifestyle characteristic of NYC made coffee a pleasant necessity. Dylan laughed and went further into his relationship with Café Regular. “Even if I swore off coffee, it’s not going to be an overnight break-up, there’s a relationship I have with the café. It’d be a long drawn-out emotional abusive kind of thing.”
To evolve as a musician, Dylan says passion and humility are key. “…if you move here and try to make it as an artist, you have to be respectful and humble about the art that you love.” I asked him how he stays positive in a city that can run so hot and cold for artists. “I stay positive living in New York by playing music which is an outlet for me. Music is a nice way to just breathe. It’s a way to escape and shut your mind off. I liken it to the feeling when you take a really long drive and you’re fully aware, but your mind shuts off and when I’m done I feel like I’m reset. If you don’t find your outlet you’re going to get pent up on the inside… First it was just a cool thing that I was doing, it was cool to be into it as a young person, but now I have this way to release all this energy and all this tension from this big city living. Also, you know, black coffee.”
Nowadays Dylan is seriously busy- teaching music, back in school and playing in bands. “Often times when I’m giving lessons I will be taught something from my student that I’ve never thought about before, and that’s such a crazy amazing feeling. You’re always a student and, simultaneously, a teacher.”
Some final advice from Dylan Mandel: “Be apart of a community (preferably the Café Regular community), be open to inspiration; everyone’s always a student, everyone’s always a teacher, don’t lose the passion, have realistic goals and expectations…There’s nothing easy about living in New York, you’re going to be hustling, but fortunately I feel like I’m finally finding a balance, it’s finally starting to feel like home.”