More often than not, it’s utmost inspiring to finally interview artists you’ve been following since their very first record. That being said: this doesn’t make the act of transcribing these encounters any more fun. In time, you’ll need to accept that writing 7000-word transcriptions in a single day is part of the job. Of course, that time could easily be spent going out with friends and loved ones, watching live music, or maybe shoot some hoops in the park. But the moment you stop fretting over these things, that’s as illuminating a confirmation as any that you truly love what you do.
As I’m writing down my conversation with outré musician, visual artist and cool Canadian Chad VanGaalen word-for-word, I empathize with him a little bit. I imagine to myself what would his typical studio day be like as an animator? Well for one, it’s painstaking work – far more painstaking than the average interview transcript, mind you. “I’m always about stuffing as many drawings as I can into one second”, VanGaalen explains over Skype. “Ten seconds of animation could take over an entire day.” Something tells me that isn’t hyperbole.
These days, VanGaalen mulls about the sometimes infuriating ways time keeps eluding him. “Time is such a weird phenomenon for all of us; we’re either planning into the future or worry about the past. And in turn, that’s affecting our future. Being in the moment is always a struggle for me.” Even in the Calgary highlands, VanGaalen isn’t immune to technology’s grip on existence’s daily grind. “When I started out doing animation, it was all cell animation. I’d end up with a stack of thousands of drawings. But now, I’m doing it more on the computer like everybody. And at the end of the day, it all goes on YouTube. And I’m not left with any drawings.”
On the sulking ‘Broken Bell’, the penultimate song of new album Light Information, VanGaalen details himself drawing a portrait of his dad, guilt-tripping about visiting him “before he’s dead”. Holding the self-made physical memento of him, however, doesn’t bring VanGaalen his desired solace. Later in the song, he encounters a wall of graffiti with the message ’Suck it!’ and takes that message to heart. One of the more moving lyrics here is a lyric only Chad VanGaalen could write: “Our cells just won’t divide like they’re told”. “It’s about ageing and dying of illness.” Douglas VanGaalen painted “mostly” landscapes and, like his son, was probably fully aware of the way untainted nature sustains itself: once an organism perishes, another directly profits from it and flourishes.
Those familiar with VanGaalen’s work will recognize those psychedelic malformations, the anatomical and telluric imagery that trickles down lyrically, sonically and visually. A man who can conjure these surreal shape-shifting murals – fungi with festering mouths, phallic appendages swimming like dolphins, humanoids with celestial bodies as innards – will bristle at the idea that your corporeal human exterior can’t divide its cells and be at more places simultaneously. With that logic in mind, it doesn’t have to make sense. Plants, for example, can actually do those type of things. Which might, subconsciously, be a reason why VanGaalen has avidly taken up gardening. “Gardening has been a real effective time therapy for me to bust out of my struggles. Just watching vegetables grow, eating them, getting energy from that. That whole process… I’m completely sold on it, man!”
The affinity with growing things in soil has skipped a generation in the VanGaalen-family. Despite his wide range of talents and disciplines, VanGaalen is ever the world-weary, self-effacing goofball; especially when describing his own work. But his voice completely lights up talking about his gardening activities. “My grandma was a crazy gardener, she grew up on a farm. She had a massive garden and always invited me to help her out. My mom, being single, never really found the time to plant a garden. When I was growing up, we always reaped the benefits from my grandma’s garden. But now I’m getting back into it. I’m tapping into these flashbacks of being a child, memories of how much joy I got out of it at the time. Obviously, as a kid, you’re not really thinking ‘When I grow up, I’m going to have my own garden’. As soon as I started – my garden is about five years old now, but really established itself this year – I loved it. Every day it’s something different. Today it’s strawberries!”
VanGaalen’s mother Marise, an elementary school teacher for deaf and hard hearing children, didn’t find the time to harness his enthusiasm for growing strawberries. But she was instrumental to his growth as a creative being. “She definitely facilitated what I wanted to do creatively. I’m forty years old now, so I grew up in the early eighties. We didn’t have a TV, which was a big thing, but not so much as inescapable. I think my kids get as much screen-time as me, albeit more randomly. It’s easy, and at this point I feel we’ve established these real activities in and around the house. The kids are fine with it. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have this community of family and friends around. At the end of the day, that’s what you want. But I feel like I’m saying things that are completely obvious.”
Maybe not as obvious anymore now as in the eighties. Nevertheless, VanGaalen embraces the stability of domestic life. That hasn’t always been a luxury, as his own parents have been apart since childhood. So at forty years old, at an increasing rate, every moment spent away from his own spouse and kids wears on him. This anxiety, spawned by a scarcity of time, is palpable on Light Information. “But also, when you’re making a record, you commit yourself to being away from home for a long period. I know I’ve said it a lot in the past; with my kids growing up, I feel I’m insanely lucky that I get a lot of projects these days that involve me being home. That’s awesome, but it’s also a little bit scary for me to go out on the road and spend time away from my family.”
Because he spends the majority of time on animation, VanGaalen often called his music a secondary occupation. These past few years, his distinctly bizarro aesthetic has found an increased rate in clientele. Artists like Shabazz Palaces, METZ, Strand Of Oaks and Timber Timbre are all proud owners of an original Chad VanGaalen. As fulfilling as that may be, doing frame-by-frame animation work behind a computer screen offers no tangible residue.
It doesn’t always elicit long-term satisfaction, VanGaalen admits. “It’s very sedentary work, more so than making music. At least when I’m working on my music, I’m hopping around, pushing faders, setting up and moving from instrument to instrument. Which I like a lot. I didn’t realize I liked it as much as I did until I started animating, which is so hard on your body. Because you literally can’t move, you’re tied to a chair all day drawing, trying to make deadlines. I’m getting pretty overwhelmed by it at this point. Now I feel that every chance I get to make music, it’s an opportunity to get away from that. I can wrap my hands around a cello, or play on a guitar and have this real physical interaction. I think that’s the overarching theme of Light Information: to find some sort of escape from technology.”
Whether VanGaalen’s finds himself at home or on the road, his struggles in managing time continue. Rabid bits of time, to quote one of his best songs, keep eating away the real moments, or even potential moments. Between lo-fi debut Infiniheart to 2014’s Shrink Dust, a tug of war drags on between two of VanGaalen’s ever-present traits; his spirited creative impulses and weighty human concerns. His early work combined oddball folk and indie rock with strange abstract vignettes, with the seminal Soft Airplane establishing his fully-formed, idiosyncratic songwriting MO. Follow-ups Diaper Island and Shrink Dust, though both excellent, did feel somewhat hindered by sonic parameters VanGaalen put up for himself.
In any case, those endearingly weird fringes are more pervasive again on Light Information. ‘Prepared Piano And 770’, a lurking meditative instrumental piece, calls back the sonic inquisitiveness of VanGaalen’s nascent work, perfectly setting up the gyrating cosmic pop of ‘Host Body’.
Instead of letting his pet anxieties and artistic impulses run amok, VanGaalen reconciles them deftly on Light Information. ‘Host Body’ and ‘Mind Hijacker’s Curse’ express VanGaalen’s concerns on the many ways modern technology commands our behavior. But congruently, both tunes explore the outrageous possibilities of the future too. “We put all this weight on technology: artificial intelligence, the internet, virtual reality. We have accepted being technology’s guinea pig, and that this is now our reality. Down the line, I’m imagining this idea of ‘empathy tourism’ in the future when we’ve become interstellar beings. You can strap in the VR and plug yourself into another organism. And that would become your vacation: you can become this organism from this other planet for awhile. Or expose yourself to some other sensory activity, only to become addicted and end up wasting away. It’s your classic dystopian sci-fi theme.”
That description sounds like a really elaborate way to escape reality, when you could simply lay your head down and dream. Except when you dream, the experience is beyond one’s control. Dreams are still mysterious phenomena within the parameters of science and nature: the subconscious generates sensations and visual experiences on its own. Not surprisingly. VanGaalen’s music has been informed by dreams in the past. “I kept a dream journal once. I definitely like to put a certain amount of emphasis on my subconscious life in my work. I have written a few songs that came from dreams in the past. ‘Blood Machine’ on my first record Infiniheart came out of a dream pretty fleshed-out. ‘Molten Light’ as well. Those two were probably the most vivid ones, in terms of melody. Which is pretty rare for me these days. It’s more common nowadays for me find myself in a certain situation that’s interesting, and transpose that into melodies I’ve been working on already. I rarely dream about actual music or sound anymore. I have no idea why. That’s pretty few and far between these days. But dreams are a pretty good way to come up with ideas, because – well, I mean, it’s probably not entirely impossible to be critical of yourself in your dreams. But generally speaking, it won’t be picked to death by the time that idea manifests itself in the real world.“
Interestingly enough, VanGaalen has been working as a composer for a fictional drama TV show called Dream Corps LLC, with John Krasinksi of The Office-fame as an executive producer. “It’s about this dream therapy institution that operates in an abandoned strip mall that went bankrupt in the nineties. So they’re working with all this equipment that’s failing. The people run the risk of getting trapped in their dream worlds while they’re in therapy. Dr. Roberts, the guy that runs the institution, goes inside your dreams with you.”
VanGaalen writes music to accompany those dream worlds, but also comes up transitional sounds and ambiance. “I’m recording a lot of stuff on cello and clarinet, as well as a few different synthesizers, which make up most of the general theme in the laboratory scenes. Once the show takes place in the dream world, it gets pretty weird. The script will be like: ‘Now they’re riding on these penis-shaped dolphins into the sunset, and we need some action music to go along with that.’”
Sounds like they employed the right guy for the job. Working on Dream Corps gives VanGaalen a fresh outlet to write music, one with fewer limitations, and new incentives to utilize the many experimental compositions he accumulated over the years. Unlike the meticulous process behind his animation work, he can be more perfunctory in his methods, which has been a welcome change of pace. “Truth be told, I actually really love it. I can fill up a file folder with all of the weird stuff I’m working on and it ends up being a perfect match for the show. Because the show itself is pretty weird, and not only that but Daniel Stessen, who created the show, basically tells me that the weirder the music, the better.”
Even better yet: working on music for the show allows VanGaalen to finally be productive at home without ending up chained 24/7 to the computer. Additionally, his music doesn’t have to be this cathartic all-consuming headfuck, but a healthy outlet to alleviate other stresses. Like growing vegetables, VanGaalen simply enjoys the act of writing, producing and playing itself over the end result. “I feel like my studio is my real instrument. I can maintain this established workflow, that allows me to move very unconsciously and fluidly. Now I can close my eyes for a little bit. To escape into that world has definitely become a treat. I’m bringing that back full circle working on Dream Corps, LLC. The people I work with give me a general theme for me to sit on, and I can just let my mind run loose. I’ll send them a mono track off of a broken tape machine, and they’ll be like: ’Whoa, this is perfect!’”
After stating how much pop music “remains a mystery to him”, almost by happenstance VanGaalen wrote his most radio-friendly track ever in album-closer ‘Static Shape’. He even got a little help from his own daughter on that one. “‘Static Shape’ was a funny one because I was playing the main riff and my daughter ended up humming the melody along. I wasn’t expecting to do anything with it. The song got recorded as a rough cut. I was erasing a bunch of tape to make room for more recordings and I found this old recording of ‘Static Shape’ on there. My daughter was playing in the backyard; it was perfect timing because I had everything queued up. I knew she’d been humming the chorus along, so I asked her to come and sing on it. It’s tricky, because you can’t force kids to do anything they don’t want to do. Also, they don’t have much patience when it comes to setting things up, like mics or reverb-effects. Next thing you know, half an hour passes and they’re like: ‘So this is what you do every day!? This is super tedious!’ So I made sure everything was ready to go.”
There was one slight problem, however. “By the time the track was finished, the record had already been handed in and submitted. So I had to call Sub Pop to beg them to include ‘Static Shape’. So I frantically asked: ‘Where is the record!?’ and it was literally sitting on their desk waiting to get pressed. And I was like: ‘So who’s at that desk? Let’s phone that desk!’ They were nice enough to phone the record plant and wait on the master. We got it submitted just in time. All because I figured my daughter would trip out on it, selfishly as a dad.” He laughs awkwardly. “Yes, I know… one of those moves!”
And thus, Light Information bookends on a lighter note, unlikeShrink Dust, which closed with the ‘Cosmic Destroyer’, a desolate strummer mired in resignation: Caught in the motion of endless rotation / Makes you feel ill, it makes your guts want to spill / When the world in your head is the world where you live. That spell would not have been broken with that empty regret VanGaalen paints in ‘Broken Bell’. Leaving the listener with bitterness would have fulfilled ‘Cosmic Destroyer’s foreboding burden. Thankfully, VanGaalen’s rapid about-face was sparked by a spontaneous moment he shared in the studio with his daughter. A moment not unlike the times when his grandmother showed him how to harvest vegetables, or when his mom encouraged him to play outside instead of watching TV.
Once VanGaalen was given the choice to enjoy the physical world he inhabits, he eventually did just that, busking streets as a one-man band. And now that freedom of choice is passed onto his own offspring.”I’ll often ask them: Do you want to watch a movie or go fishing? And you’re always going to want to go fishing. Or go swimming, or ride a bike. I feel like those are the promises you make to yourself because you get real enjoyment out of them. At the end of the day, there’s a tangible outcome to these activities. Whereas the internet can only be so real. This is always the case, and obviously, this is just how I personally see it.”
On the wistful ‘You Fool’, an album highlight with its gorgeous chiming guitars, VanGaalen expresses no inner regrets, but a tentative optimism instead. “Nothing changes / That’s the deal”, he sings, taking heed to the promises he made to himself during his salad days. “As a kid, I used to think: ‘Oh, it’s all going to become less complicated going forward.’ The ideas I hold about certain things will spread themselves out nicely, and superimpose themselves on top of a little more knowledge. But that has not been the case. It just ends up becoming wilder all the time. In adulthood, you end up forgetting the promises you made to yourself. Even if it’s just buying a vehicle, for example, being on tour constantly or digging up dinosaur bones. I guess me enjoying my garden relates to that as well: I owe it to myself, to make the promise I made to myself come true. Because I feel it weighing on me on a daily basis. But yeah, I managed to dodge the bullet somewhat. That sensitivity to time, feeling that clock ticking on you all day long, that’s not a good way to live.”
Light Information is out on 8 September via SubPop. For more information about Chad VanGaalen, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit his official website.
Photo Credit: Marc Rimmer