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Photo Credit: Marc Rimmer
In late 2017, I was given the opportunity to interview Chad VanGaalen in the wake of the release of his latest album out on Sub Pop Records, Light Information. During my phone chat with the musician, producer, and animator; he remained steadfastly humble – albeit humorously so – whilst we covered the many facets of his multitalented artistry.
Ryan Gabos: There’s a strong distinction between these deeply introspective or even confessional songs like “Weighed Sin” or “Broken Bell” and then on the opposite side of the spectrum, there’s these sci-fi yarns like “Host Body” – when you’re writing a song, there almost appears to be a fork in the road between the two; where does that distinction get made?
Chad VanGaalen: [laughs] Honestly, it might sound horrible, but I try not to think about it too much. If I have something already written, and depending on what comes first – I think for “Host Body,” I had that piece kicking around for quite some time as just an instrumental that I knew I wanted to sing over, I just didn’t have any lyrics for it, and so it sort of forced me… I think the cadence of the first part of the song determined the lyrics whereas a song like… whatever that song, ‘I sit and do a drawing,’ whatever that one’s called-
RG: “Broken Bell?”
CV: “Broken Bell,” yeah, um, I knew that I wanted to write a song that had to do with my parents, and I think most of the time I try and keep it away from myself specifically, as far as a testimonial [is concerned] or something like that, ‘cause it tends to get weird and kind of icky in a way for me listening to music like that. So, it’s hard for me to really just say, like, it’s not like I’m necessarily sitting down and saying, like, “Okay, I wanna write something like a science fiction song right now.” I try and take it as it comes, I try not to think about it too much.
RG: When you say that that sort of much gets icky for you to listen to sometimes, what kind of music are you talking about? Stuff that’s deeply personal?
CV: I guess for me, I don’t listen to a lot of music that has lyrics in it lately. So yeah, I guess sort of autobiographical stuff or whatever. I like lyrics to be more of a platform where people can observe it however they would like to; I don’t like to be so specific about things. Which maybe is why science fiction is good because you can superimpose yourself onto it quite easily.
RG: So you would say that a lot of the songs that come off as confessional are not autobiographical largely?
CV: Um… no, not really. It’s pretty varied depending on which song you’re talking about, but no, I definitely try to distance myself from it a bit and write for characters rather than just myself.
RG: So it would be safe to say then that there’s something to those narratives that’s beyond just a surreal plot, when we’re talking about the more surreal, sci-fi-based story songs?
CV: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
RG: How did the circumstances – whether it be studio time or just mindset – differ while recording Light Informaton as opposed to Shrink Dust?
CV: Almost not at all. [laughs] Same studio, same gear, um… yeah. Probably a little bit more time [allowed] ‘cause my kids are a little bit older and can entertain themselves. One of my kids is doing math right now and the other one is doing a craft, whereas a year ago I would have been juggling being somewhere to get this interview. So I probably had a little more time to spend, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. I feel like I made my peace with having to be pretty concise with what I do with my time, so I feel like having too much time now allows me to just trip out a little too much for my own good. I like the idea of getting your shit together – especially with me; when I go out to my studio, I can kind of get distracted by anything. I think I’ve said in other interviews – it’s definitely harder for me to write a song these days. The idea of a song is getting more abstract in my mind as time goes by, so it’s sort of easy for me to drift off and suddenly have recorded a bunch of material but it’s, like, Japanese koto music or something. It doesn’t make sense, you know? Then I end up handing something like that in to my friends and someone at the label and they’re just like, “Well… I don’t know.” But then it makes sense, and I’m like, “Oh no!”
RG: That seems fitting, because lyrically, Light Information often seems focused on the tyranny of time and loss of time. Would you say that idea plays into your new regimen with studio time?
CV: Yeah, for sure. Time is obviously kinda insane; you have this idea that it would hopefully become clearer to you as you get older, but it seems like the opposite has happened. So I feel like I’m constantly fighting through this murk to see anything clearly anymore at this point, and that has a lot to do with the record as well. It takes a lot for me to get out of my own head as well and just feel healthy about my own thoughts. [laughs] If that makes sense.
RG: You’ve said before that “Prep Piano and 770” is your favorite track on the new album. It’s not an outlier for your work, but it is surrounded by more “conventional” songs and even straightforward poppier songs – so what’s to keep you from making a full album of that kind moody, atmospheric material?
CV: Well, I put out really small runs of albums like that that don’t get reviewed, unfortunately… um, or fortunately? For whatever reason, good or bad. In the past, on a record like Skelliconnection, I think there’s three prepared piano pieces on that one? I like the idea of an interlude where you can take a break from what’s going on. Unfortunately, [“770”]’s the only one that made it on this record. There were a bunch of them that I was sort of choosing from at the time. Sequencing is also a really hard thing for me, so I don’t know. I love that piece because it calms me down. The album itself represents somewhat of a negative space in my mind, so I felt like I had to balance the energy on the record with other realities that exist in my life and “Static Shape” is sort of the other end of the spectrum, as far as feeling positive [is concerned] and reconciling that within a proper rock or pop song. But I also feel like the prepared piano piece – which it should have been called “Valdez Bell;” I kind of slipped up naming it. I also have problems remembering names of songs and naming songs… ugh, yeah. It’s a mess. It’s a mess over here in my mind. [laughs]
RG: What’s the significance of “Valdez Bell?”
CV: There’s a bell that’s bobbing in the ocean outside my uncle’s cabin that we go to – he’s got this little tiny cabin on an island out in the west coast – and this bell’s always bobbing and wringing, so that was kind of what I was thinking of. It’s a pretty peaceful sound. Originally, I had named it that and then it got put into my computer named something else and then it ended up on there as “Prep Piano and 770.”
RG: That’s funny that you say it’s a calming piece for you because it makes me think of a John Carpenter score.
CV: Oh, okay. Yeah, yeah, for sure. I mean it does sort of wear at you a bit. Somewhat menacing.
RG: You mentioned that sequencing matters a lot to you, and while it’s easy to see how this album represents a negative headspace for you, it does end with “Static Shape,” which is a really fun number, and I understand your daughters sang backup on it?
CV: Yeah, that was my younger daughter singing into an app called FluxPad, which I think was made by the Mouse on Mars guys? You can just play with the sample afterwards and we were just messing around with that, and I think Esme’s singing the chorus with me.
RG: It seems like a very celebratory song. Were you consciously bookending the song to give it a positive final note?
CV: Yeah. It happened in a really organic way where I was just strumming that song in the house and Esme was singing it with me and she was like, “Dad, you should turn that into a song,” and so I went to the studio I think that night, really loosely recorded it, and then forgot about it, and then I think she was doing crafts in the studio or playing outside or something and I was going to erase a bunch of tapes to make room to record over it again and I realized I hadn’t dumped that song down, and I had all my mics set up – which is super rare, because I do try and get my kids jamming with me and stuff, but you know, kids just wanna do whatever; I don’t ever wanna be like, “C’mon man, let’s make songs like that.” That’s not what I wanna do, but every now and then, we’ll have a good jam session. The mics were set up and I was like, “Esme, come in, your voice sounded so pretty on that, come sing on it.” So it just worked out perfectly, but at that time, I had already submitted the record and had to phone Tony [Kiewel] at Sub Pop like, “Dude, you’ve got to get this song on the record,” ‘cause it did represent to me… it’s not like the album is an exorcism or anything like that, not like I passed it in a bad way, but it was really something I needed to get out of my system. Ending it on that note just felt right to me in the moment, I was like, “We gotta do it,” so they phoned the record plant and told them not to press it. I was super excited.
RG: You were saying that you don’t wanna force your daughters into the studio – do you ever have to remind yourself that you’re a father first and not a bandleader?
CV: I feel like I just wanna offer [the prospect of jamming] up and just create a really cozy atmosphere for them to be able to do whatever they wanna do. But at the same time, you have knowledge of “jamming,” and you always want to be listening. Sometimes it’s about communication. It’s a live and learn thing – I do go into my kids’ school and volunteer in the music class, so that’s taught me a lot about how to hang out with kids and instruments. Super inspiring stuff. But also, you know, wrangling a child’s mind into something that’s so buried in tradition… drums are a good starting point, I would say. Vibraphones, drums, anything percussive. The prepared piano is great because none of the notes make sense, so I feel like a lot of the kids that come to my studio to hang out and jam often gravitate towards that because they press a key and it’s hooked up to a bell or something and they’re just like, “Ugh, thank god,” you know? The intimidation of having to mix notes… and then suddenly everything’s out of tune; they’re like, “This is amazing. I can punch it with my fist, I can smash it with my hand,” and I’m like, “Yeah, dude!” So I feel like that approach is where I’m at these days. But they also like to run around and it’s one of those things where it’s like, is [jamming] more fun than playing Frisbee in the summertime? Not really.
RG: I was gonna ask how you came into prepared piano, since it’s a pretty niche style. My knowledge of it is pretty limited to Jim O’Rourke on the Grizzly Man score-
CV: Oh, cool, I didn’t even know that. Does he have a grand [piano]?
CV: Oh, man, see, that’s the dream. ‘Cause then you can lay stuff out flat on the strings. Mine’s an upright, so you have to physically get stuff to hang on the harp because it’s vertical. But I dream of having a grand piano to fuck with, that would be crazy… I guess I could just lay it on its back. It’d be weird to play though. You could play it with your knees. [laughs]
RG: So how did you stumble onto prepared piano?
CV: I got a piano donated to me… it’s gotta be 20 years ago now – and I really fell in love with Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano by John Cage. I got a copy of it – I think I heard about it on Brave New Waves back in the day when Patti Schmidt was doing that. Yeah, really fell in love with that and the concept of it, and started preparing my piano. I started doing a bunch of duets; I had it set up in an art gallery for this Mountain Standard Time exhibition where I invited people to come into the gallery to come do duets on the prepared piano. I put casters on the bottom so I can roll it outside, so it’s been through rainstorms and people thrashing it and it still lives to this day, I don’t know why. It’s just super fun. People wanna throw pianos away these days, so they’re pretty easy to get and they’re beautiful instruments. Pretty insane.
RG: You’ve always had this murky, bottom-of-the-well production value that your music embodies, and it’s a touch that you bring to others as well. What led you to develop that sound in the first place?
CV: With the Women records, we were learning as we went with that project. We were kind of running everything through a Space Echo that didn’t really sound… good. [laughs] We knew that by doing that, you could kind of smear things together. But I’ve been working with the same equipment for 15+ years now, so, I’m happy that I can just get stuff done quickly now. Obviously, I’m still trying to learn stuff, but for me, it’s just about capturing something quick, which a lot of the time means it sounds bad. [laughs] So, in post-production, that usually means running something through a Space Echo. So that may be a lot of it. But I like that distant psychedelic vibe from putting it through delay pedals and stomp boxes and stuff like that.
RG: So a lot of it is a timeliness thing, but you’re obviously attracted to the timbre of it.
CV: Oh, yeah. I don’t like things to sound too good.
RG: Do you feel like you’re sought out now as a producer to cast that aura to someone else’s work?
CV: Not really. I get a few people asking me to do things, but I mean it’s pretty intimidating. I did give it my best shot [to branch out] with the Alvvays record and I felt like, honestly, they may have been better off in a different studio. I mean, those songs are so good. With the Women records, we were just a bunch of friends that were like, “Let’s try and make a record.” There wasn’t really pressure. But with the Alvvays record, I really wanted to try and do the best job that I could, but at the end of the day, it’s my garage and a bunch of broken tape machines, you know? I can only make it sound so good. And when I say that I don’t want it to sound too good, it’s sort of my coming to terms with what I have and what I know. But I am trying to get it to sound as best as I can. I mean, most people will send me their demos and they sound amazing. Like, if I could make a record that sounds that good, I’d probably be doing better than I am. For real. People send me their demos and they sound way better than anything I could do. And I’m grumpy in the studio; I don’t like setting up mics and… micing drums? God, if there is a hell after all of this, man, Satan will be whipping me with a patch cord and making me set up drum mics. I fucking hate it. [laughs] Usually it’s one mic pointed at the bass drum, and that’s it. That’s about as fancy as I get. Like I said, if I can get the essence of the song down and record that really quickly, I’ll take spontaneity and realness over production any day.
RG: Really? You mic it at the bass and you take that for the whole kit?
CV: Yeah. Mostly. A condenser mic sort of waist-level pointed at the bass drum. I also do a lot of overdubbing. If I can capture the song, like, the skeleton of it really quickly, then I’ll just mic it really loosely and later if the kick isn’t fat enough then I’ll listen back to it and manually tap in a bass drum on a drum machine. A lot of the songs have a drum machine combined into them just to fatten it up or flesh it out a bit. I don’t worry about it too much in the moment because I am fairly limited with what I have here, it’s like, a bunch of [Shure] 57s. And that’s a funny thing too, trying a new mic out. I remember going through a period of time where I was like, “Okay, I gotta get some real microphones, grown-up mics,” and I always come back to 57s. Maybe I’ve worn a notch in my ear at this point where that’s what I wanna hear.
RG: Is there any artist in particular that you would want to work with on a record?
CV: I think Gary Larson, the Far Side guy; he’s a jazz guitarist and I’ve always dreamed of putting out a 7” with him where we cover each other’s songs or something like that and then on the 7” we do a one-panel comic strip. That would be pretty awesome. I talked to Sub Pop about it, like, “Could this actually happen?” But I feel like Larson stays out of the public eye on purpose, so I don’t know if it would ever happen, but man, that would be a dream come true. He’s definitely a hero.
RG: As a pitch, I personally would love to see you do some work on a Freak Heat Waves album.
CV: Oh, yeah! Freak Heat Waves? Those guys are amazing. Although, I think my friend Arran Fisher recorded their last record. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe they recorded their own record. Anyways, those records sound good though, and that’s the problem, I don’t know if I’d be doing anyone any favors. Just from a production standpoint. Maybe as a collaborative effort, for sure, I could see that being awesome. Yeah, I’m a big fan of those guys, they’re amazing. I don’t know what’s going on with those guys lately. I think those dudes are all in Victoria now. I’d love to do that but I don’t know how much steam I have left for some audio-based thing. I’d much rather do some visual art collaboration. Maybe like, Kim Gordon? Kim Gordon and I could do some watercolors together. I wanna sit down at a coffeeshop with Kim Gordon and just play some drawing chess. I would take that in a heartbeat as well. Just the conversation – just to hear a real word come out of her mouth would be kind of amazing. [laughs]
RG: You could also do something like the Raymond Pettibon and Mike Watt Ear Wax show, where Mike would play bass and Raymond would paint whatever came to mind.
CV: Oh, my god, yeah! Totally. Amazing. I love that, I saw Neil Young do something like that where he had a painter on stage. I feel like he played Primavera so long ago, but whatever year that was, he was there doing that on stage where he brought a painter out and all the big screen TVs were projecting what this guy was painting. It was totally hippy art. It was super rad. I was crying, I was weeping.
RG: What comes more naturally to you inspirationally nowadays, animation or music? And do you find that they’ll necessitate one another, given that you’ve animated a lot of your music videos?
CV: For sure with the animation, it kind of has to go hand in hand. I’m always inspired to draw. If I could get away with that more, I think I would. I really just like doing a drawing that doesn’t move. I love illustrating until the day I die. There’s nothing wrong in my mind when I pick up a pencil and have a piece of paper, like nothing’s gonna fuck with me. Whereas with animation, as software gets more dense and interface gets more frustrating – it’s also just exhausting to sit in the same place, it’s super sedentary. So if I’m spending six weeks, eight hours a day trying to finish a video piece, my body’s fucking wasted after that, it’s not good, it’s not good. There’s a reason nobody knows animators, because they never go hang out with anybody because they’re fuckin’ animating. So, although I love it and I feel so lucky to be able to do it and that people give a shit, I would love to just be a painter or just do drawings and hang them up. I gotta get more courage to do more stuff like that. With music, like I said before, it’s getting harder for me to write songs, so maybe I need to get more confidence to put out the more abstract stuff and just be at peace with that. But yeah, the two go together hand in hand for sure, whether it’s getting inspiration from other art that I’ve seen or other art that I’ve made. They’re definitely woven together pretty tightly.
RG: And I’m sure there’s nothing like the satisfaction of seeing a project come together after so much toiling away, like your sci-fi film Tarboz for instance.
CV: [laughs] Oh, man, I take it you haven’t seen it. Have you seen it?
RG: Not yet.
CV: It kills me inside to watch that thing. It was an experiment and I feel like I’m way smarter and stronger now and I will never try and make a short film based on no idea in my mind. I really just wanted it to be an exercise in subconscious thought, and it fucking killed me, dude. I will never ever fucking do that again. It was crazy trying to pull half-hour animation… yeah, it was insane. Other animators I know were like, “You’re stupid. Don’t do it. Don’t do that. You’re still working on that? Why are you still working on that?”
RG: Did they say you were stupid because of the lack of direction?
CV: Oh, yeah. Totally. With anything that you make, you’re never satisfied. I feel like it could’ve been so much better. I’m at peace with it. I Tarboz’ed myself for two years now and, you know…
RG: I like that you’ve made that a verb now.
CV: Yeah, man. Don’t Tarboz yourself. Not worth it.
RG: Well, like they say, an artist’s work is never completed, only abandoned.
CV: Man, I should have walked away from that thing right from the get-go. I think the thing that started it was me just writing the word “tarboz,” literally. I should have just walked away. Hopefully it’ll be up, I feel like I put it up and now… I don’t know if someone’s gonna debut it, some sort of website – I don’t know what’s going on, but it should be up within a week.
RG: I’ll keep refreshing the page.
CV: Okay, sweet.
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