Interviewed: Chad VanGaalen
by Nick Carling
Chad VanGaalen looks physically shattered as he ushers me into the venue’s back room for our interview. He cracks open a couple of beers for us, and it soon becomes apparent that his large frame belies a calm and relaxed Calgarian gentility: “Man, this city is freezing. You can trust a beer to warm you up though”, he offers with a subtle smile.
VanGaalen is a man whose bow holds many strings: he is predominantly known in Europe as a singer-songwriter, but he is also a visual artist and animator (take a look at the videos for his singles), producer (the brilliant Women’s self-titled debut and follow-up Public Strain) and electronic musician (Black Mold).
I begin by asking him what has brought him back to Europe, just six months after his last trip this side of the Atlantic, which was in support of his latest LP, the delightful Diaper Island. Turns out it’s the imminent release of a split-LP release with anguished experimental synth-enthusiasts Xiu Xiu that has dragged him back across the Pond. “I don’t really like touring, so the tours are getting shorter and shorter”, he adds.
Indeed the circumstances of this tour are far from ideal – close friend Christopher Reimer of Women sadly passed away just a matter of weeks ago. Add that to the fact that Chad is a stay-at-home kind of guy anyway who doesn’t enjoy spending time away from his family and, well, I can understand why he doesn’t come across as too spritely. He is, however, very engaging.
We move on to the subject of song-writing, and he reveals that his daughters are a huge influence, before making a somewhat surprising admission: “I’m in a band with my 4 year old – we make improvised songs, straight-up”. We both smile. “Seriously, though, you’re forced to remember what makes music good at that point, ‘cause nothing can possibly be over-thought or pretentious when I’m with her. Even if I start playing something sad, a sad sounding riff or something on my guitar, she’s really sensitive and will start crying, saying “dad, that’s too sad!” and that’s even without lyrics. She says “let’s not do that”, so we move onto something different. You know, she’s such a litmus.”
So it seems the content, as well as the name of Chad’s latest release, has been influenced by his kids. I suggest that Diaper Island is a more cohesive album than its predecessors, with analogue synths largely replaced by straight-out guitars and more of a consistent musical theme. He nods softly, then pauses before answering: “With Soft Airplane I faffed around a lot with noises, but with this one I had just finished recording Public Strain [for Women], so everything was set up in a guitary way. In fact I had actually recorded 4 LPs in between my last two, which were just, erm, not good, so I was pretty frustrated at that point and decided to take a break, then recorded the Women record and in the process was really inspired by guitar based stuff.”
So does he feel a responsibility to keep making music? “Yeah, I still write a lot for myself, and coming back to what I was saying about my daughters, I still feel I can get into that zone where I’m just like yeah, there’s something real happening – maybe that’s why in the past there’s been so much genre crossing, ‘cause I don’t mind if it sounds like a dance record as long as there’s something I can feel there. One of the four unreleased ones is a dance record, actually. You haven’t heard it, because it sucks!”
Coming from such a modest man, I find this hard to believe, but steer the topic of conversation towards Chad’s real passion: visual art. He reveals that he has begun work on a full-length animated film; it’ll be a few years before anything surfaces though: “I’ve been lucky to be able to use my music to promote my animation work. I’m gonna finish another record, then take a year off to focus on the film.” He is also busy recording people in his studio, along with making videos for other bands (last year he made the video for J. Mascis’ single ‘Not Enough’).
It’s clear that Chad wants to get this film right. Is he a perfectionist with everything he sets his mind to? “With animation, definitely, but music is different for me – I primarily work on an 8-track tape machine, and I don’t normally do much in the way of editing; so it’s capturing moments which is the heart of it. With a drawing, I feel like I know the system better. It seems like a less volatile thing. I just need pen and some fucking paper, and can get right on with it. But it feels that when you get to that point with music, when you’ve set everything up in the studio, you’ve got such little time left. I just don’t have patience to go back in with music, but I do with drawing. I’m the grumpiest asshole when I have to untangle the cables in my studio!”
As for influences, VanGaalen has always read a lot of graphic novels. His dad, who was “basically a stoner artist”, introduced him to the likes of Robert Crumb. As a kid he was obsessed with drawing. “The comic book shop I went to opened up a vinyl section and the guy there was like “Seriously, you want this and this, and ended up giving me Girls Against Boys and Brainiac and a whole pile of awesomeness. That was my introduction to music.”
Those of you worrying about hearing no more trembling vocals and lush soundscapes from Mr VanGaalen, fear not. In December he released a bunch of cassettes featuring a variety of previously-unreleased material, and of course there is another album in the pipeline.
Before heading off to get ready for what turned out to be a spell-binding performance, he mused, “I do love it [music] and will do it for long as I can. Even with the animations, I’ll still be writing music for them.”