A Fresh Q&A with Chad VanGaalen"/>
Fans of Canadian avant-garde performer Chad VanGaalen are well aware of his quirky, approach to lo-fi indie rock. But there's various aspects of the Calgary bred, soft voiced, music singer, that you don't know. After the jump check out a Q&A on VanGaalen discussing, among other things, Soft Airplane, fatherhood, death and the afterlife, styrofoam, why he doesn't like to leave the house much, and his idea for combining rock shows with exercise.
VanGaalen plays at tonight at Chop Suey. Doors are at 9pm, 21+ Cataldo and Women are also on the bill.
Fuel-Efficiency and the After-Life.
By Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
Much is made of Chad VanGaalen's quirky lo-fi recording style, the strange instruments he invents, and the outwardly whimsical disposition of much of his music and visual art. Perhaps less apparent but equally vital to VanGaalen's work is his keen ear for sonic detail, the gut-wrenching melancholy that underlies the music, and his unique ability to put a playful twist on what is otherwise some rather mordant imagery. Yeah, he may be averse to expensive production values, choosing instead to construct songs on boom boxes and four-tracks, but he has also helped turn lo-fi into a true craft. He's not a mere throwback to Stephen Malkmus or Robert Pollard. On his three albums -- 2005's Infiniheart, 2006's Skelliconnection, and last year's Soft Airplane (all on Sub Pop) -- VanGaalen achieves the richness and grandeur of scope that defined the classic albums where recording became an instrument unto itself.
You've said that your albums are more like compilations, because the songs are drawn from different time periods, but that this one feels more like an album. How much do you think people who are familiar with your work would be able to tell that the songs on Soft Airplane were all done in the same time frame?
With Infiniheart, you couldn't really tell [that the song spanned several years], because I hadn't really released anything up until that point, and all the tools I was using were still pretty similar. But for Skelliconnection, I'd moved away from analog gear to computer over four or five years, and it was a really awkward transition for me. And I think you can really tell on that record. Sonically, it just doesn't make any sense. But then I drifted back into a comfortable spot for Soft Airplane. And thematically it's all pretty well unified. On Skelliconnection, there were these experimental piano pieces sandwiched in there. Those were the songs I was the most proud of. I was bummed out about pop music around that time, so I didn't really have as much motivation to put as much energy into the songs I should have. It was also the first record that I was making for an audience. I'd already finished Infiniheart before I signed with Sub Pop, so I wasn't making it for anyone else other than myself and my friends. Suddenly, there was all this pressure. It just so happened that people gravitated to these songs, but I wasn't really a songwriter at that time. I was more into avant-garde, noise soundscapes. I hadn't settled into songwriting. Skelliconnection was really awkward for me in so many ways, and I think it really shows.
But you were already playing for an audience when you were busking on the street in Calgary.
I've thought about going back and busking, but it would be insanely pretentious.
Well, I was doing it for the money, right? I'd quit my job and discovered that I could pay my rent just playing music on the street. Maybe it's a busker's code, but I'm paying my rent through my art now too, but... maybe for like a fundraiser or something like that it would be appropriate. But I don't know if I should put my hat down. Maybe I should. I really miss it, though. It was definitely the best time for me as a musician. Just getting that raw feedback and not knowing what was coming next. You don't have a setlist, you meet all sorts of interesting people, there's no barricade between you and the crowd, you can play for three or four hours, and you're outside.
Stage fright has been an issue for you.
That was another reason I started busking too, to prepare myself for playing shows.
How much do you enjoy playing shows? Because you're not outside, you're in a club, you can't play for three hours.
To tell you the truth, I'm not super-stoked about touring. I enjoy playing a few shows a year. I really like playing folk fests, where you are outside, and it's not just a crowd of white kids coming out to your shows. [Laughs.] It's old people and young people. I like playing to more diverse audiences than your sort of white, indie-rock crowd. But it's not that I hate playing or anything like that. And now I have a daughter too, so I don't really like leaving my house much. And it's also just totally exhausting environmentally. It's ridiculous, if you start to travel as a touring band, you're flying and driving everywhere.
It seems like all that energy that you're using to do that, are you really contributing much as you're expending?
Exactly! I just could be touring a short film and not have to be there. Are you really inspiring people to go out and do stuff, or is it just like a rock show?
It's like when bands go to Australia. The energy it takes to get there, and then to move around once you're there. Are you really doing enough for people to warrant all that fuel?
Yeah, it's fuckin' crazy. And people just think that's normal? But it's not sour grapes. I don't wanna be dissing that whole industry, because obviously it fuels my life. But at the same time, it just seems horribly impractical some of the time. I had an idea the other day: it'd be rad to retrofit 50 or 60 treadmills in a club and then hook 'em all up to a generator, so the crowd has to generate the power. And then it would also kind of break down the social insecurities around dancing at rock shows. It would be crazy to see how much power goes into fueling a rock show.
And it would give people a good vehicle to exercise too.
[Laughs.] Chad VanGaalen fans twenty years in the future are going to be tri-athletes. 'Man, we got so ripped at the show last night!'
So instead of touring, you could just go to fitness centers and play. And they would love you, because you'd bring in the people who would be paying their power bill.
Totally. You could come to my show and you could make money. We could sell it back to the city or something. 'I bought a ticket for 15 bucks, but I totally made 35 bucks that night.'
Part of the reason why you were in a more positive frame of mind for this new record was the birth of your daughter. But when you're downstairs in the basement in a totally isolated creative space, you're onsite but you're not necessarily available.
I made a pact with her, while she was still in utero, that we would be easy on each other. Whether or not she really heard it, she just seemed to adjust. We just kind of threw her into the mix. I was recording this band Women while she was being born. We both came back from the hospital, and three days later I'm recording this noise-rock band. My wife was working, so we just got the baby headphones and I just put her in a laundry basket and put her on top of a keyboard stand in the midst of five dudes jamming as loud as they could. And she slept through the whole thing. She's not really bothered by crazy noise now, so she can be down in the basement jamming on a glockenspiel while I'm working on programming beats or whatever.
You've described the new album as "a singular meditation on death," yet it has childlike and floral qualities -- not just from the cover, but the feel of the sonics are kind of bright.
What kind of perspective on death were you going for? Because it's pretty obvious, judging from the record, that it isn't simply a frightening or gloomy subject for you.
Yeah. Most of the time I just use it as a vehicle for my mind to get outside of itself, to invite my mind to think about something beyond what I would normally be thinking about. And then other ideas come out of that. North Americans are horribly repressed when it comes to thinking about death and the afterlife. We're stuck in a rut. So, yeah, the album was more of a celebration of that. But the good thing about Soft Airplane, as much thought as I put into it, I didn't really pick the songs apart as far as meaning goes. A lot of it, I didn't really reflect on. It's a record about death, but not in a bad way.
You've talked about death as a freeing event, as a way of your mind still existing on a molecular level. You reference both of those ideas explicitly on the album.
Well, it seems impossible to me that anything really disappears, you know? My friend Noel was talking to me about styrofoam a year ago, and it really hit me: this kid was throwing a piece of styrofoam away, and we were getting bummed out about it, but that styrofoam's always been there. It's just been re-organized. So you wonder what state you're going to be in once you get re-organized. It's not like energy disappears into nowhere. Maybe not, though. There has to be some instances where something does completely disappear. But hopefully it's not your mind!