Interview with Chad VanGaalen
by Beth Yeckley, June 6, 2011
Calgary -born, -bred, and -based musician and producer Chad VanGaalen is no ordinary Canadian Joe. Sure he’s big on human kindness, knows what Loons are, and call vacations “holidays”–but aside from that, he’s far from mild-mannered and his latest record proves it. The guy likes to rock. When I caught up with VanGaalen, he was ripping a rotten balcony off the side of his house, channeling some serious manly man (“I feel hairier by the second!”).
All silliness aside, VanGaalen’s latest album, Diaper Island, will quite possibly blow your mind (in the good way). My previous familiarity with his music was kind of one-dimensional, summoning his tunes when I had a craving for mellower, folkier, spacier musical morsels. His refined rawness of sound laced with both unique lyrical adventures and ingeniously layered compositions caught my attention (“Bones of Man” and “City of Electric Light” come to mind from his previous album, Soft Airplane). It is in his latest album, dropped just three weeks ago, that VanGaalen tears open his musical spectrum and delights with a hearty mix of rock, folk, and electronica that create a well-balanced album and a spectacularly rounded out experience.
VanGaalen’s role as a producer has surfaced in the shape of two albums by hometown band Women, first producing Women and most recently Public Strain. “I was only really interested in working with [Women] because they were friends and they didn’t really have anything in mind… I get irritated pretty fast when things are kind of nailed down. And they weren’t even really a band. They were just like, ‘maybe we could record some stuff and I know how to play guitar and I know how to play drums.’ It was more just like having fun and having a few ideas but not too many so that it was solidified into any form.”
Producing Public Strain turned out to be part of a huge transition for VanGaalen as it marked the first use of his new studio space and the opening of his doors to more bands, as well as the primer for Diaper Island. “I have a new studio space that’s considerably larger than half of a basement suite, which was where we recorded the first [Women] record in. We were kind of soundproofing the place as we were recording the record–totally experimenting, hacking stuff apart and kind of gluing it back together. So a lot of the engineering for that record bled over into my record.”
Diaper Island isn’t just the product of a new and improved space (although VanGaalen notes that “In a smaller space I found it really hard to take myself seriously making rock songs ‘cause it wasn’t really a rocking zone”)–it is also the brilliant salvaging of three records gone awry between Soft Airplane and now. “I think the difference between the two [records] is that I knew I wanted to make a record that was just in one genre. I tried to make an electronic record because I was listening to like a lot of Krautrock, bands like Cluster, Möbius, bands like that. So I tried making an electronic one and then there was a folk record; there were a couple songs that came off that. And then there was a kind of garage rock record that I didn’t spend enough time fine tuning the production because I was really frustrated with my machines at the time. So I just didn’t put the energy into it and then out of that record came a couple of songs that were refined on Diaper Island. And then I just kind of decided that all the rock music kind of coming out pretty easily right now so I should just go with and it ended up being a rock record, for better or for worse.”
VanGaalen’s knack for textures comes through on the album, and covers a broad spectrum of energies and building techniques, at times starting with the drums and layering up from there or building around the lyrics, and even improvising in the moment (“Blonde Hash” and “Replace Me”). “I approach the mellower songs more like that, maybe, where I’m kind of mapping out a place to be with the lyrics. And then the rock songs, I kind of want to capture the meat and potatoes energy; I’m more focused on sort of the sonic energy and then they can just be stupid rock lyrics afterwards.”
Music aside, it is VanGaalen’s interest in visual art and illustration that has been present since childhood–and it shows in the cover art for every album he’s made. “I’ve been into drawing since I was a kid and I totally love it and I’ll never not love it. And I’ve said this before in other interviews–I have a real sort of grumpy side when it comes to interface, and so I feel like with music it’s always like, ‘Ok, I’ve got to set these mics up, hear how it sounds and then I’ve got to rewind the tape and I’ve got to deal with this broken thing’ and it’s just like your pen is just your pen. It never f*cks with you. And then if it does, you’ve got a bag of pens, you know? (laughs) It’s just way more satisfying and there’s just way more freedom involved. So yeah, the animation side of things is where the two can co-exist. I’m slowly getting better at animation (working on his own music videos)… hoping one day I’ll have like a short film that I can tour around the indie film fest. That would be sort of my perfect world of the two kind of co-existing.”
The illustrations for Diaper Island portray scenic Canada and several scantily clad alien people, but the inspiration flows deeper than that. “I did a series of drawings of this waterfall in BC, and then I kind of used it as a template for the whole animation for ‘Peace On the Rise’ as sort of an alien planet that’s similar to earth. The video specifically focuses on these space tourists that have this empathy machine where they can suck whatever creature inside the machine they want and kind of transform into that creature momentarily and experience life through that creature’s mind. And so they travel to other planets and that’s kind of what they do for their tourism, to treat themselves for a holiday. They land on a planet and trip out on being another thing for however long.”
Although strange sounding, it’s actually a fitting theme for VanGaalen who has been recently focusing on empathy. “I think it’s the primary function of the human mind. I think that’s what really puts us in a different position than the other organisms. I mean, we don’t really know, but whatever. It feels like, to me, that it’s highly underrated as well as being the primary function of our brain at the same time.” And while this might sound a little unrealistically “feel good”, it takes on literal meaning when speaking of his hometown. “I get a lot out of being in a place where the landscape is inspiring. I get a lot out of living here, too. I need to be in a place where I feel comfortable and I can kind of pass out in a bush and nobody will mess with me. Maybe they’ll put a blanket over me, and kind of force me to wake up and get in a better zone if I’m in a bad zone.”
Inside the mind of Chad VanGaalen, there are aliens and rock songs and beavers, and a profound belief in human empathy and our capacity for it. “I feel like life is good. And I feel like people are more good than bad, so living inside of an insane universe that knowledge goes a long way.”