Calgary's cool folk music dad talks about being super productive while still getting high, and the banal side of morbid things.
Chad VanGaalen isn’t the kind of artist who cultivates mystery or revels in adventure. On the surface he seems like a perfectly normal Calgary-born guy with a tall, lanky frame and a goofy grin until you hear his darkly psychedelic songs, almost dream-like, evoking ghosts and other worlds full of strange visions and spirit guides. He began his career by busking and performing as a one-man band but through the years he’s shied more and more from the street and the stage, now touring rarely, and has become more and more comfortable spending his days in his homemade studio, working on animations and recording and releasing albums on which he’s played all of the instruments alone. He’s also become a father two times over and has animated terrifying and beautiful stream of conscious style music videos for himself and others such as Holy Fuck and Timber Timbre. More like a man in an office trying to get his work done than he is a troubadour, Chad VanGaalen cares about whether his kids get to school on time and how many hours he can spend in his studio rather than how he might be perceived or what he might be invoking in others through his dark and beautiful sights and sounds. His fifth full length album, Shrink Dust, released April 29th through Sub Pop, finds him exploring his lush, sci-fi psychedelic country side. We talked to him about being a Dad, getting high and the banal side of all things morbid.
Noisey: First I’d like to say that I’m in awe of how massively productive you are. If I can list a few things here: You built your own studio, you build your own instruments, you record yourself and play all the instruments on your albums, you make your own videos as well as videos for other artists and on top of everything you're a father. How do you work and stay on task?
Chad VanGaalen: Fear. Pure fear. Being a father has put a lot of things into perspective, especially time. I used to be able to fuck around all day and experiment. Now I have to plan my time out. Which is kind of cool, you can even see it in my work. It used to be a lot more morphological stream of consciousness but as I get older and have more obligations and commitments I have to plan things out. When I do have time to work on things it’s chunks of 3 or 4 hours at a time so I’ve had to trim the fat a lot, especially with recording. I used to work on bigger tape machines and a lot more convoluted, superfluous things going on in the background and now I’m just like nope, here’s the song, it doesn’t need a theremin, it doesn’t need a cat screaming in the background, this is it. So it makes me pre-judge things, as horrible as that sounds.
I’ve noticed that people like to talk about how as an artist you’re a control freak. How has that quality played out as a father?
I have a six year old and a four year old. The six year old is pretty much my doppelganger so we butt heads all the time. She’s ultra stubborn. She was putting all the pen lids back on the pens when she was like six months old. When they come into my studio it manifests itself as this is a place where you can be creative. I don’t think a lot of kids get that today. The control that I’m trying to impose on the rest of the world isn’t like a normal type of control. I want a controlled environment where you can be as creative as possible at any moment. Oh, a blue jay just landed on the fence in front of me... I’m staring at two blue jays... (Silence)
You still there?
It seems like things are getting a lot more psychedelic. Maybe I’m superimposing something here but it’s like the music that you make is rising to meet the style of your animations.
Well this record was made alongside a longer animation that I’m working on now. It’s called Translated Log of Inhabitance. It was definitely influenced by what was going on. ‘Cosmic Destroyer,’ the last track on the new album, is about one of the characters in the animation. But yeah I feel like I’m getting better at integrating the strangeness that I feel into the songs and not necessarily having it be a distracting element.
Can you tell me a little about Translated Log of Inhabitance?
I’ve been working on it just over two years now. I definitely had no idea it was going to take this long. I wanted to score a sci-fi and nobody was asking me so I thought maybe I should start working on a sci-fi. Then it got out of hand. It’s about half an hour long now. There’s going to be three in the series. I’m hoping in the Fall I’ll release it. I don’t want to get too much into the plot because it’s pretty malleable right now so who knows what will happen.
I thought it would be cheesy to ask you about drug use. Asking someone who makes psychedelic work about drug use, I think, cheapens the creative power of the individual. But I saw an interview where you talked about how you smoke a lot of weed to stay focused. Is that still the case?
I still smoke weed. I’m definitely a pothead. As I get older I feel like if I smoke too much of it I don’t dream and I rely on that element of my subconscious for a lot of ideas. I feel like if I’m hunkering down and I know I need to get a lot of scenes done then I’ll smoke a bunch of pot or a bunch of hash to focus myself in because it’s fucking stupid tedious. Literally when you’re animating you’re just drawing a line over and over or colouring a hair style. Like “brown, brown,” I’m sitting there just going, “brown, brown, brown, drop shadow, brown, drop shadow...” It’s crazy. It’s like working in a factory making like one button on a cell phone. I’m working for like sixteen hours a day on the same scene and it just gets really boring. Pot allows my mind to go into that subconscious state while I’m awake but the downside is my dreams aren’t as vivid so I take big breaks in between because that shit can fry your brain after a while. And it’s not even like I smoke that much, I feel like I’m ultra sensitive to it.
You’ve described this new record as a country record.
I definitely feel like country is the main theme of it. Although on closer inspection I guess it’s not really a "country" record. I wouldn’t know what to call it. Maybe a folk record.
For me it’s more of a psychedelic folk and rock record but in the way that Neil Young approaches folk and rock where the lines are blurred and it’s not so straightforward. But I found it funny that you described it as a country record because I’ve gone through it a couple of times looking for the country influence and I’ve had trouble. Maybe elements of ‘Hangman’s Son’ is about as close to country as I could find.
Or maybe "Weighted Sin" is a little country. But I have a pretty skewed view of that in my mind. I think it’s the pedal steel that puts it in the country zone.
Who were you listening to when you made this record?
Well this record took me a long time to do. I was listening to a lot of Xenakis and I was listening to a lot of Cream, actually. I got into Cream because I never really knew what all of the fuss was about. I’m always listening to a lot of Vangelis, Bob Dylan, I love The Oh Sees. I can’t get enough of those guys, I feel like I haven’t been that excited about a band since I was a teenager. As a live band too they’re a total inspiration as far as they’re even better live. It doesn’t make any sense that they can be even better as a live band.
You mentioned how you work with stream of consciousness. Is that a technique you use still?
Yeah. As I get older I have less patience for interface so having to turn everything on, power everything up, make sure all the mics are working, do the drum check, rewind the tape to hear what the drums sound like, readjust the mic... Like, it gets a little bit daunting. So you go into it with no plan and you just erase your mind from the time you’re setting things up. You have to have that element or else it comes off sounding totally stale. Especially as one person trying to make a record that sounds like a whole band, it can get pretty stupid pretty quick. There’s nobody you can bounce your ideas off of. Out of the stream of consciousness comes some sort of unfiltered and sometimes embarrassing, for better or worse, product. Which I like, it’s a lot more vulnerable in that sense.
That stream of consciousness seems to lead you to, or the writing at least, it leads you to death and morbidity. Do you think about death a lot?
Yeah. I don’t think death is morbid though.
Well when I say morbid I don’t necessarily mean that in a horror movie sense. Like, the first song on your new album, the character cuts off both of his hands, first thing, but it’s treated in a way where it might be treated similarly in a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. It’s almost normalized or banal.
I guess I’m just using that as a vehicle to get outside of my mind. I don’t understand it and I’ve made my peace with the fact that I don’t think I ever will. But it definitely puts my mind into a place where it’s hard to contemplate anything and from there it relieves a lot of tension as far as what other things there could be. It’s the same as watching a kid being born, it’s this impossible sort of zone. There is a normalized idea of that type of horror in our lives and it’s funny to superimpose it onto yourself. It can seem pretty strange but really it’s not so strange.
Brad Casey is a writer living in Toronto. He has still not gotten a Twitter.
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