Interview: Chad VanGaalen

Photo by David Greenwald

Perhaps no single musician in indie rock has emerged as intriguingly over the past few years as Chad VanGaalen. While many a band would be happy to fill their press release with his backstory’s highlights — building his own instruments, quietly amassing hundreds of recordings, doing for Asimov and Dick what Led Zeppelin once did for Tolkien — it’s his music that stands front, center and mysterious. With a voice like a choirboy Neil Young and songs that merge vintage folk with drum machines and lo-fi fireworks, VanGaalen’s self-produced recordings stand apart from time or trends. He’s set to perform on Saturday at Spaceland with Women, a stellar young act whose Chad-produced self-titled debut was released last year, as was his own third full-length, Soft Airplane. In an interview conducted late last year, we talked about how his sophomore album was a “disaster,” building octopus-armed drum robots and how the hell he wound up with a dude crawling on him on Letterman — all after the jump.

David Greenwald: So before we get into the music – a while back, I posted a video of you doing a stupid human trick on The Late Show With David Letterman where a friend crawled around you like a squirrel running up a tree. Um, explain.
Chad VanGaalen: We were at a birthday party [in 2001] celebrating a friend’s birthday and my friend Mark just kind of jumped on me and [started] crawling around me and another friend was videotaping it. They went back to Edmonton that week and they sent it to Letterman.

DG: And then they had you on the show. Would you want to go back on as a musical guest?
CV: It’s probably best left as it is. It came from a pretty honest place and I’d rather be on Letterman for that than promoting myself, you know?

DG: Your new album, Soft Airplane, has a really great flow to it — were you gathering older material to put it together as with past albums or are these new recordings?
CV: For the most part it was new recordings, since [2006’s] Skelliconnection came out. It still was narrowed down from quite a few songs. I wasn’t consciously trying to make a more rock record, it just happened that those songs just turned out better than all the other ones. We scrapped a few versions of the record with different songs in it. There’s still about 100 songs.

DG: I know you’ve released some of your extra material on tour CDs and things like that. Are you planning on amassing it and releasing a big Neil Young-style archives set?
CV: [Laughs] We’re trying to find a place for all that stuff right now. I think I’m just going to put it out as a download as a fundraiser for World Wildlife or something like that. We’re going to release a Soft Airplane b-sides sometime in the next year. 50 songs.

DG: How do you end up with so much material?
CV: I’m lucky enough to have my basement as my studio so I just sort of wake up and come down here and plunk away at stuff. I’ve always had a studio in my house. Also, working like that, I also end up with a lot of garbage. That’s a lot of the reason why it’s so scattered too, because I collect a lot of instruments and make my own instruments and don’t have a direction necessarily that I’m headed towards at any given moment. I make a lot of electronic music too, so that takes up a lot of my time, sequencing and stuff.

DG: But you’ve definitely developed a style on your official releases – is the stuff that’s not out mostly in the same vein?
CV: It’s pretty all over the map. Skelliconnection had a lot of prepared piano stuff on it. There’s a lot more experimental stuff and I’ve always struggled to try and find a way to get that out there. It seems like people always gravitate toward my folk stuff which is fine but it’s also not really where I came from musically, to begin with.

DG: You mentioned building your own instruments. What are some of the things that you’ve made?
CV: I built some analog foot pedals so I could play basslines with my feet – that’s my most recent thing. I started out with clarinets and flutes and simple wind instruments and [then] a violin and some pianos, For the last five years, I’ve been circuit bending drum machines quite extensively and now I’m working with MIDI controllers that you can buy from this robotics website. Track three, “Cries of the Dead,” starts off with that drumbeat, and that’s a drum robot that I built. It’s still a prototype right now but I’m working on building it smaller, so hopefully for Europe I’ll have a travel model ready to go. These MIDIs, whenever the bass drum is set to go off on the drum machine, it actually physically punches this piston out so if I have 16 of those modularly, like octopus arms, I can play whatever room I’m playing. [In] the venue, I can just kind of tap around with the drum stick and attach one to like, a vent and one to the floor and I’ll be playing the room.

DG: You’re playing with a band at your shows now, though, right?
CV: Right now. It makes my life easier not having to concentrating on a million things at once. I [don’t] have to compromise passion with Tetris brain.

DG: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get started as a musician?
CV: First thing I played was a classical guitar that I found in my mom’s basement when I was 15. I got a late start. I didn’t listen to music as a thing to do until I was probably around 15. Just probably because I wasn’t really introduced to anything good and then I was introduced to bands like Shellac and Sonic Youth and Sebedoh. That turned me on to something I could hear myself doing. I didn’t realize there was a standard tuning, so I thought you just turned it however you wanted to play, so I’ve played in this open tuning the whole time I’ve been playing.

What introduced me to building my own instruments was basically limited funds. And I got introduced to John Cage and that really took me out of my head and lead me into this group of musicians like Mats Gustafson that [were] preparing instruments. I was like, oh yeah, they’re all just things that people have invented. And living in North America, we’re exposed to so much good building material. I was going to college at the time so I had access to a wood shop and machines to build that kind of stuff.

DG: When did you start recording?
CV: I started recording immediately as soon as I got my hands on a classical guitar. I had my mom’s stereo and a ghetto blaster so I just bounced tapes back and forth. so I’d do a guitar track and record on the other tape player and play pots and pans over the top of it and bounce it back, and sing over the top of it so I was multi-tracking that way for a long time. And a friend’s brother told me, you should save up and get a four-track. So then I got a four-track and that blew my mind.

DG: Are you still recording in analog?
CV: Right now it’s all analog. One of the reasons Skelliconnection was such a disaster was that I moved away from analog and starting trying to learn Cubase. That really kind of ruined my passion for recording stuff. Too many options. It’s really hard to get good sounds, whereas with tape, it saturates when it gets to a certain level and distorts in a good way. You just get clipping when it’s digital. So I found myself just getting OK, kind of thin takes. Instead of redoing a take, I would just band-aid it with more tracks of stuff over the top over it, which ends up being this muddy soup of midrange. So I moved back to tape and remembered how easy it was.

DG: Your lyrics play a big role in setting the tone of your songs – on your older albums there’s been more of a dystopian science fiction sensibility but this album seems to focus more on natural imagery. Why the shift?
CV: Yeah, I think I had tapped that as much as I could. There were songs that were going to be on the record that were more sci-fi but I kept them out because it seemed redundant at this point. I’ve been spending a lot more time in the natural world so I’ve had about a year to canoe around and we do a lot of hiking, we’re right on the edge of the Rockies so we spend a lot of time in the mountains. It was just me being frustrated with technology and interface and looking to nature as a way to ground myself again.

DG: Are you a fan of Mount Eerie? He seems like he’d be a kindred spirit of yours.
CV: Yeah, totally. We played a show with those guys – [I] actually went swimming with him out in New Brunswick and he just recorded a record with some really good friends of mine, Julie Doiron and Fred Squire. [Ed. – 2008’s Lost Wisdom] We didn’t really talk much about [music]. Mostly we just went to the crab shack and got a bunch of food and went swimming, but he was a super nice guy. Seems to enjoy the outdoors quite a bit.

DG: Going back to your lyrics, sci-fi-wise, who are your influences? I’ve always thought I heard some hints of Asimov.
CV: I’ve definitely been influenced by Philip K. Dick quite a bit. And Solaris, stuff like that, watching like, movies like Cronenberg stuff tend to influence me quite a bit. Read a lot of Isaac Asimov as a kid as well. Mixed with my own hallucinations and dreams.

DG: The two big subjects on Soft Airplane seem to be sleep and death. Are you someone who sleeps a lot or doesn’t get enough sleep?
CV: It comes and goes, I do really love to sleep, it’s one of my favorite things to do. I don’t know if I really get enough of it, but when I do, I tend to have pretty vivid dreams and keep a dream diary and tap that a lot. I find it’s a lot more honest. On the first record, “Blood Machine” was a dream that turned into a song, and then on this record, “Molten Light.” I use it as a way to escape my own ego and my own criticism because it can be quite crippling if you’re trying to please an audience and writing poetry is kind of a nightmare for me.

DG: There’s a big shift in tone lyrically between, say, “Cries of the Dead” and “TMNT Mask.”
CV: It’s weird, I kind of wish I didn’t name it “TMNT Mask,” it doesn’t really have anything to do with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I don’t even really like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — it’s not like I don’t like them, but for that song, I was really frustrated again by interface and technology and I live across the street from a river and I often go there to escape from my own brain. There was a halloween mask, a TMNT mask under the rocks staring back and me and I realized, nothing’s unnatural, all that technology, resisting it or feeling anything toward it besides acceptance — letting it drive you insane isn’t really the solution. So that was an actual event that happened.

DG: Tell me about working with Women, who are out on tour with you – I’m a huge fan of that album. Was that the first production job you’ve done?
CV: Yeah, that was the first time I’ve recorded anybody. They didn’t want to go into a big studio and get a gross sound going on, they were looking to more experiment and take a lot of time. We spent three months doing it so that would’ve equaled about $30,000 that would have gone to any other studio. They invited me in as a collaborator more than just a producer. I didn’t want to just be turning knobs and pushing buttons, I would be bored, so they said, ‘Yeah, we want you to sort of guide our sword as far as how we should be approaching things.’ The demos they brought to me were mostly just Pat, the singer, making demos on Cubase. They sounded really horrible and he wanted to maintain that horrible aesthetic. We sort of fought about that quite a bit because I didn’t want to –- like, songs like “Black Rice” are obviously amazing pop songs and he even wanted to take those further and further away from what they are into noise realms.

DG: You’ve also done some music videos and animation and work in other mediums. Do you think you’ll keep making records?
CV: I don’t know if I want to move away from pop music, but I really want to get into scoring stuff. I’m working on a full-length animation right now which is perfect actually because animation allows me to score and combine the visual arts with that. And that’s sort of loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story that he never finished writing before he passed away, “The Owl and the Daylight.” He didn’t write it at all, he just had a conversation with someone [about it] – that’s really the only evidence of it. I’d be interested in making more movies, producing movies and kind of getting away from touring.

DG: Would you want to do live action? Like the Flaming Lips’ Christmas On Mars?
CV: Mostly animation. I’d be more interesting in scoring – I just recently scored this Vancouver film and I do skateboard videos but I don’t know about making live action myself. I really have no background and I’d have to learn a whole bunch of new stuff. I’d be like 50 before I got started. Ultimately I’d want to make it science fiction and that would involve special effects.

DG: And a big budget.
CV: Totally. With animation you can do all that and it’s so cheap.

DG: Your animation reminds me a lot of R. Crumb’s style. Are you much of a comic book guy?
CV: I read a lot of graphic novels. I’m a big fan of [David] Shrigley. When I’m taking a poop, I’ll read a couple pages. He’s pretty amazing if you want to laugh your ass off. Of course like Crumb, my dad was totally into underground comics when I was growing up so I got exposed to a lot of Crumb. That’s leaked into my subconscious.

DG: It sounds like you got to get up every day and play music and make art – I know when Skelliconnection came out, Infiniheart had sold something like less than 1,000 copies. How does this all get funded, if you don’t mind me asking?
CV: To tell you the truth, music videos really help me out. And in Canada we get a lot of grants. Like that full-length animation I’m working on right now, they gave me 15 grand to do that. Sub Pop treats me really well and so does [Canadian label] Flemish Eye. My rent isn’t too crazy and we live a pretty simple life so —  that’s a lot of reasons why I build my own instruments still. Everything’s pretty modest here, my expenses aren’t too crazy. Now that I’ve got a good animation set up and a studio for recording, all I’m really spending my money on is tape and that’s about it. Felt markers and supplies.

DG: So no big mansions in Beverly Hills or anything like that.
CV: No, fuck no, man. If anything, we’re probably going to move further into the mountains.

Chad VanGaalen – “Clinicly Dead”: mp3
Chad VanGaalen – “Willow Tree”: mp3

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