interview: Chad VanGaalen
words: Fredrick Arnold
photos: Marc Rimmer
Hiking around in the wilds of the Catskill mountains here in New York I get to see a cross section of the world that so often remains unseen. These mountains, like much of New York's landscape, were carved by the world's first sculptors, the roving glaciers and their proteges the streams and rivers. The trails take me through narrow gaps in the stone, passages that have been blown into existence by the sweeping winds that taunt the mountains with their corrosive breath. I can touch the bones of our planet; the exposed hidden layers of stone that so often hide beneath the fleshy layers of soil and vegetation. Everything about their imposing solid structure suggests, to me, a sense of permanence and unchanging eternity. The fact of the matter is, these mountains will outlive mankind and over the course of billions of years will change their face, perhaps the rushing waters will render them a canyon, or the delivery of sediment will shift these mountains further south, piling its rocks onto the island of Manhattan to bury one of humanities most exciting mistakes. The world around us can feel so sturdy that choice and influence feels like nothing more than a fantasy. We use words like forever and eternity, and phrases like 'set in stone' to describe something that is unchanging. If we could take the seat of the Gods and watch the world time lapse into the incomprehensible future, we'd see something more akin to those amorphous orbs of liquid metal from the covers of mid-90's Trapper Keepers.
This is what its like to listen to the music of Chad VanGaalen; stones transform into critters and scurry off in droves -- trees shed their bark to reveal a host of wooden tricksters and just as quickly don their disguise anew. Half grim reality and half puzzling mystery world, VanGaalen's catalog is a guidebook to an existence only he can truly perceive. Living a semi-hermetic life, the Canadian polymath explores the world of his own creation through music, animation and art. With the release of his sixth eponymous full length record, Light Information, VanGaalen delves into a darker sort of a subconscious, shining a flashlight on the pale and distorted citizens of this realm. TGE was privileged to chat with CVG as he tours the world with his latest sonic masterpiece. You can catch Chad VanGaalen in Pittsburgh at Club Cafe on December 5th, as well as a number of other national tour dates.
The Grey Estates: Asking this as someone who recently traded city living for a secluded rural home in the woods -- what measures do you take to keep yourself from going stir-crazy or being consumed by overwhelming loneliness? Does this solitude feed your creativity or does the ensuing madness drive you?
Chad VanGaalen: I feel very lucky to have a river that I can go to daily for piece of mind.
I go there to swim, pick berries, hike around with my dog and hang with the deer and coyotes.
Your work is complex in that it seems to draw equally from the wonders of the natural world and the horrors of our modern societies. Oftentimes, when one seems to hold dominion over the other we will see that balanced out in the accompanying animation. Is this balance something you are carefully curating?
I don't really have much balance that I'm trying to actively maintain between my visual art and sound art. I really just try and hang on as best I can, and when I am at work on one or the other I'm Trying my best to let it be a natural as it can be. The curation of it is the part I struggle with most.
Last time you were in Pittsburgh, you said Shrink Dust was meant as a sonic backdrop to a larger animation project you were putting together; is that still in the works? Is Light Information also part of a multimedia project?
Shrink dust started off as a soundtrack for a short film called Tarboz. It later got slowly replaced on the film as more appropriate songs were recorded. The film played here in Calgary at the giraf animation fest of 2016.
There are a lot of strong yet tragic female characters in your writing, especially on Light Information. You treat them with a reverence and gritty realism that often plays so wonderfully against the surrealistic environments that surround them. Inasmuch as gender matters at all in the grand scheme of your music, why do you feel drawn to these imposing, imperfect women?
I tend to write more female characters into songs because I really enjoy imaging my self as a female. As a default I always lean on a female character as having a more interesting perspective. As well as having many strong female role modelsin my life(including animals).
Nothing in this modern media landscape is a self-contained narrative anymore. Books stretch their uninspired stories out across vapid series with the express purpose of becoming a movie franchise, and movies must share a larger ‘cinematic universe’. Do you see your albums as occupying the same fictional world? The characters and surroundings in each seem like they would make sense alongside those from any other given record.
I imagine the worlds I'm writing about in songs mixing with this world. But with my animation, those worlds do not mix with our reality. but they do make up a universe of subconscious form, a big part of it is the meditation on the form. You are forced to live in it for so long, so you better make it livable. I like to know where I am in it.
You described your last record, Shrink Dust, at least once, as a country record. I remember reading that before it came out and being more excited to hear it than any other album that year. I’m a huge country music aficionado and the thought of something like George Jones being filtered through the creative mesh of your mind seemed like it could be the most progressive and sincere thing to happen with the genre since Roger Miller. Did you have any country inspirations during the recording process and do you still feel like it qualifies as a country record?
I think my idea of a country record was a bit off the mark. Just because you buy a pedal steel and listen to the burritos doesn't make you sneaky Pete. And I guess I really just breathed that idea into it more than it actually was? Be yes looking back on it I would call it more of a mixed bag of veggies.
Around the time that Soft Airplane was released, you also snuck out a free EP of B-Sides that didn’t make the cut for the final release. To this day that remains one of the most incredible nine-song stretches of music I’ve heard. What metric do you use to determine what is worthy of making it onto your releases? Did you walk away with a wealth of orphaned tracks after putting the new record together?
I will usually torture my family and friends with piles of random songs. Sequenced together to form horrible albums but possibly nice mix tapes. This ramps up to the time of release when I slowly whittle them down into records leaving behind around 20-ish songs abandoned.
I will try and have these all up on the internet soonish.
Light Information speaks with a sort of bold confidence that feels new among your body of work. It seems to lack a lot of the anxiety and uncertainty of your previous endeavors… Not to say that, lyrically, it doesn’t touch on some shaky grounds, but the way in which it is presented feels self-aware and unafraid. In a time and climate where people are growing increasingly more manic, this record was a refreshing change of pace. Was this something you actively sought to infuse in the music, or did it come, naturally, from some place within you?
I think any calm or confidence that comes from this record may be coming from the space it was recorded in. The old cozy rugs and the 'pile of felt pens spilled on the floor vibes' it's not that I don't give a shit anymore, its just that I've stopped cleaning up after myself.
What is the best thing you’ve ever given up on and the worst thing you ever finished?
Best thing I ever gave up on was skateboarding in the skatepark.
The worst thing I ever finished was day old sushi that I knew was no good but just couldn't come to terms with throwing out something so delicious. Bluuuuuuurp.
Chad VanGaalen US Tour Dates
11/17: Valley Bar, Phoenix, AZ Tickets
11/18: Sister, Albuquerque, NM (w/NE-HI)
11/19: Hi-Dive, Denver, CO (w/NE-HI) Tickets
12/2: Empty Bottle, Chicago, IL
12/3: Hi-Fi (IN), Indianapolis, IN (w/Un Blonde) Tickets
12/7: Great Scott, Allston, MA (w/Un Blonde) Tickets