On paper, the work of Chad VanGaalen can read as bizarre and maybe a tad confrontational. He describes his fifth LP, the recently released Shrink Dust, as “country sci-fi,” a record about “morphological, transformative moments,” something that was informed by an unfinished animated film. His previous record was called Diaper Island and closed with the ballad “Shave My Pussy”. A song from 2008’s Soft Airplane is named after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ disguises.
But even if we concede that a lot of this is unusual – the product of someone who appears to pay pleasantly little mind to how his label, indie heavy Sub Pop, will have to market his material – there has always been an unmistakable warmth and comfort in VanGaalen’s music. His songs drip with thoughtful, homespun details, recorded in the intimacy of his Calgary studio with instruments often of his own making. And then there’s that voice – worn and tender in a way not unlike his countryman Neil Young’s. For all of its idiosyncrasies, Chad VanGaalen’s music is remarkably easy to like. For his dedicated base of fans, those idiosyncrasies bubbling under the surface are a main part of his appeal.
Shrink Dust, VanGaalen’s first record in three years, is possibly his most broadly welcoming effort to date. Colored with a newly acquired pedal steel guitar and layers of backing harmonies, it’s a serene and unassumingly transfixing record. He attributes its extended incubation period to his forthcoming animated sci-fi. “I’ve been focusing on the film for the last couple of years. It’s still kicking my ass,” VanGaalen admitted to BYT a few weeks ago. “It’s been time well spent, but it kind of delayed this record by at least a year, which wasn’t bad at all in my mind – it gave me a lot of time to go over it and polish it.”
Between recording music and illustrating, how do you split your focus?
I bounce back and forth constantly. I’m pretty ADD when it comes to working on one thing. I mean, I’ll focus on something in the moment in a pretty extreme way, but I don’t feel like it’s healthy for me to be doing one thing, one thing, one thing. As soon as I feel like something is contrived or I’m forcing myself to do it, I’ll just switch, even if it’s just for an hour – I’ll do a drawing or something to get the insincerity out of mind.
Shrink Dust is a pretty, serene record. What led you down that road?
Over the years that it took me to make it, Shrink Dust definitely took a few tangents. There was a garage record – one of those songs made it onto the record. There was a country-ish folk record – three or four of those made it on. There was more of a poppy, jangly record – tracks like “Frozen Paradise” and “All We Combine” made it on. There were a few things pulling me in a few different directions, but that’s been the same with all of my records – I have to cull a bunch of songs in order to see what came out of it. It just happened to have turned out to be a more mellow record, and I kind of leaned on that, because I guess that I was listening to a lot of more mellow stuff at the time.
What about the pedal steel spoke to you?
I had wanted one for a lot time, just because I thought it would be awesome for improvised music and soundtrack stuff. The ability to morph a chord on a stringed instrument is super interesting to me. But pedal steels are also very expensive. They don’t really make shitty pedal steels. And depending how many pedals and strings it has, they get more and more expensive. I managed to find a used one, though. Somewhere in Austin, this guy runs a shop that specializes in pedal steel, and he sent me an e-mail saying, “I actually have a used pedal steel that’s pretty minimal.” I think it was under a thousand dollars, which is pretty rare. So I got that and just totally fell in love with it. It took me a long time to even learn how tune the thing, let alone play it as minimally as I do on the record.
A friend of mine is really into the Flying Burrito Brothers, and I picked him up one of their record when I was in San Francisco, but he ended up already having it, so I just kept it. I had never really gotten into them in the past, but I started listening and got really into it. I was like, “Oh yeah, Sneaky Pete. He’s a bit of the master.” I had listened to some Gram Parsons in the past, but had never really given it the time that I should have. He’s one of those people where the more you listen to him, the better it gets. It’s not an instant thing. There’s a subtle darkness to it.
Do you have a favorite?
“Wheels” is a rad song. That’s probably my favorite Burrito Brothers.
What’s the story behind Shrink Dust‘s cover? Do you typically use an existing illustration or make one especially for a record?
I usually draw one at the same time that I’m making a record, but for this one, actually, I drew it once the record was completed and I was mixing it.
The overall theme for the record is kind of country sci-fi. I was also making the animated sci-fi [film] alongside this record, so that was informing a lot of it. A couple of the songs are about character in the film. The inside of the jacket is a still from the movie. There are a lot of morphological, transformative moments. It’s kind of a still of what I was imagining the “Monster” song to be – this transformation. It was basically a daydream I had of the record’s general theme – an event giving you some indication of what’s happening with time.
How far along is the movie?
There are three episodes. The first episode is pretty much done. It’s about 23 minutes long. Those three episodes will focus on characters inside of this world. Hopefully, it’ll be out by this fall, but I don’t really want to say for sure, because it’s just been killing me. I didn’t think that it would be this much work. It’s getting to the point where it’s ridiculous. I’ve had a lot of video work that’s taken me away from it too. Over the past few months, I’ve been doing music videos, which is good, because I needed time away from it. It’s been two years that I’ve been trying to make this thing, and it’s just like, “What the fuck?”
Is there any hierarchy of your interests? When you first started releasing music, it seemed like something that was more of a side project vis-a-vis visual art.
I wouldn’t call it a side thing, but I’m definitely less confident as a musician than I am as a visual artist. I’ve always felt like a bit of a hack. It takes a lot for me. Even though I choose to write a lot on guitar, I never really feel that confident with it. I feel pretty scared when I have to play live. Going on tour is always sort of a mission. I just feel a lot more comfortable as a visual artist, because I don’t have to put myself out there physically in a space. And I’m definitely more of a studio guy – I consider myself more of a producer than an entertainer. I feel more comfortable behind a tap machine recording stuff than I do live in front of people. Figuring it out on the spot is always really intimidating for me. I’m always shitting my pants when I go on tour. The way that I write stuff on the record, I’ve never actually played these songs. They existed for one day. I write the songs as I’m recording them in order to keep them feeling fresh and genuine and not contrived. Having to reproduce it and figure out how to play it live is a mindfuck.
From the production standpoint, are there any bands that you’re working with? Have you been involved with Viet Cong?
I was trying to help out Matt [Flegel] with Viet Cong. He’s been trying to put that together for a couple of years now. We were trying to lay down drum loops and do a bunch of shit at the beginning of it, and I think some of that made it onto the record. But other than that, Scott [Munro] – the guy who plays bass with me, and is in Viet Cong as well – started engineering a lot of the record by himself. I lent them a bunch of tape decks. I had a grant to work on that film at the time, so I really didn’t have time to work on it.
But it was the same thing as with the Women band – I thought it was really important that those guys learn to record themselves. It’s this empowering thing. They ended up going to Graham Walsh of the Holy Fuck band, and he fleshed out a bunch of stuff too, which was awesome.
But, yeah, I did very minimal stuff with them. I mean, I’d love to record them properly, but I don’t know if I could do them any favors at this point, as far as representing what they’re doing. I feel like they should just continue trying to do it by themselves, because it’s such an empowering thing, even from an economic standpoint. If you can record yourself, then a) you get a more intimate recording, and b) you don’t have to work with a clock ticking away.
The record is dedicated to Christopher. Is that Christopher Reimer?
Yeah, that was my friend Chris Reimer from the Women band. That was a dark time, for sure. That was a real surprise, obviously. No one really knew about the heart condition that he had. It still seems totally surreal. I don’t know if anyone has fully come to terms with it. There are a few moments on the record that kind of reference that. It was going on at the time that I was making it. There was a lot of shit that was going on. My dog, Lila, died. There’s a song on there for her as well. There’s a painting of her in there. I made that about a year before she passed.
It seems as if the people who are into your music and art are especially so – that you have a real cult following. Is that something that you’ve sensed?
You know, I’ve been told that before. I don’t feel weird about it. I’m just thankful that anybody is really into it anymore, to tell you the truth. I feel thankful for that. I definitely put a lot of energy into it.
It’s cool to meet people who are really into the visual side of it as well. I’ll get a bunch of zine nerds out at shows, and they’re just like, “I don’t really like your music that much, but I love your drawings!” That just warms my soul to hear, because I do put a lot of energy into that at the end of the day. I feel like people are pretty honest about that. I love the nerds. I’m a nerd too. I geek out on that kind of stuff – if I’m really into something, I’ll get totally obsessed.
Who do you geek out on?
I’m completely obsessed with Jean Giraud – “Moebius” – the guy that did “The Incal” along with Jodorowsky, and stuff like that. But, specifically, Moebius is my hero as an illustrator.
Geof Darrow would probably be the modern equivalent to all of the “Hard Boiled” stuff that Frank Miller did. Although I’m not a huge Frank Miller fan, I really love the “Hard Boiled” series. I remember as a kid staring at a one page for like three hours, just being like, “How the fuck does he draw so fucking small?” I tried so hard to draw get that small and when finally I could draw that fucking small, I figured out that Darrow works on pages that are two feet tall and foot-and-a-half wide and fucking shrinks them down. I was just like, “Man, I’m that fucking idiot? He’s not actually working that small.” I remember that totally blowing my mind, and being like, “Fuck you! You fucker!”