Canadian illustrator, sculptor, musician and producer Chad VanGaalen hasn’t had much of a break in the last few years.
Content for a long time as a visual artist, someone heard some of the recordings he had been making in his makeshift basement studio in 2003 and thought they were better than the handmade/hand-drawn treatment they were getting. Before he knew it, a collection of VanGaalen’s scattered compositions was being released as his debut on the Canadian label Flemish Eye, and the album, Infiniheart, was picked up by Sup Pop Records shortly after. It’s been quite a whirlwind ever since. VanGaalen has released three more of his own full-lengths for Sub Pop, and one of more experimental material, under the moniker Black Mold, for the influential Seattle label. He’s created all of the art for his albums and videos, as well as the art and animation for artists like Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, Guster, and Holy F---. VanGaalen also served as producer on both albums from fellow Canadian indie darlings Women. His latest offering, Diaper Island, takes its cues from that last trip to the studio with his fellow countrymen and incorporates much more of a guitar-driven sound than VanGaalen has ever done before. I recently spoke with the multi-tasking artist -- and father of two -- from his home in Calgary about the new album, a new studio, his role as musician and how he manages to keep up with it all.
Scott McDonald: Diaper Island definitely has some new sounds on it. Result of the new studio?
Chad VanGaalen: The first record I produced in the new studio was Public Strain -- the Women record -- and having a real space for the first time, I was actually able to get some good guitar sounds with very little between the amp and the tape machine. And I really liked how it turned out. So, I guess, part of it is just plain laziness. I also had another kid in the meantime, so I was like, "OK, let’s steal a lot of the production notes from the last record."
SM: It does seem far more guitar-driven.
CV: Well, I’ve always been pretty jealous of the rhythm- and lead-guitar parts, and I’ve always been scared to do more of it because I’ve never been able to do that live. I’ve never had two or three guitars going on. But on this tour, there’s no bass; it’s just three guitars and drums. So the timing is right.
SM: It also seems like the new record is more, for lack of a better word, streamlined.
CV: I had a lot of time with the other records -- maybe too much time -- and I’m definitely quarantining the sounds now. I’ll be putting out a couple of drone records at the end of the year, as well as an instrumental, synth-rock record. In the past, maybe all of that would have been appearing on one album in a jumbled fashion, and I just feel like when I’m making that stuff now, I want to focus on one sound. And I feel like it’s been hard to properly represent all of that in the live setting anyway.
SM: How do you represent all of the different sounds live?
CV: We whittle it back to the song. There’s a lot of singing and harmony, and lot of times that will be a synth line or something like that, but it definitely doesn’t sound like the records. It’s far more rock & roll live. I’m sure that sounds pretty boring, but that’s what it is. I mean, we were carrying around things like acoustic drum machines and all kinds of miscellaneous noise-making devices for a long time, but that just got tedious. I don’t want to be just pressing a button or something. Ultimately, that’s the worst thing you can do. Then, there’s no growth, it’s just the same thing every night.
SM: Is the new record indicative of the direction you’re going, or do you feel like a return to your lo-fi roots is possible?
CV: I definitely think there’s a digression needed. At least that’s what’s in my mind right now, with the ideas that I have. As I get older, I’m simplifying everything and trimming the fat. And it is going backward in time. The most hi-fi that I’ll ever be has probably already happened.
SM: Especially with a family, it really seems like you have a lot going on.
CV: I’m actually glad you said that, because it does feel like a lot. I’m totally in love with visual art, first and foremost. I’m totally comfortable doing it. Music for me is ... well, first of all, I don’t know who the f---decided that this was a good idea, but it is so hard. It’s just so very hard for me to maintain it. I never imagined myself a musician, so it’s been pretty daunting for me to legitimately be like, "Hey, this is who I am." Visual arts are way easier for me, just because I’ve been doing it for so long. And producing is just … I don’t know … I just go at it. And it helps when the people you’re working with are your friends. But I couldn’t go into some big studio. I’ve just been working on that equipment for the last 15 years, so I know how to use it. But it’s a lot. And throw two kids into the mix, and it really is a lot. But I’m a visual artist, and this winter I’ll be doing at least a couple of paintings and probably a little sculpture.
SM: I hope that doesn’t mean no more music.
CV: That there are people who like what I do is the only reason that I’ve kept the ball rolling. That is … well … it’s just incredible to me. I never imagined that anyone would ever care. I’m completely flattered that anyone is out there listening any more.