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Escape Velocity

Chad VanGaalen: Re-animating The DIY Scene
Emily Moore , July 30th, 2009 11:21

Animator, singer-songwriter and DIY producer Chad VanGaalen talks to Emily Moore

Multi-talented Calgarian Chad VanGaalen may be best known on these shores as a singer-songwriter, but he is also a visual artist, animator, producer, builder of strange and esoteric instruments, and electronic artist who records under the name Black Mold. His third album, Soft Airplane, is a forlorn, absurdist meditation on the nature of mortality, veering from delicate acoustic arrangements to walls of crashing guitars and analogue synths. It has just been shortlisted for the Polaris Prize. Also on the Polaris longlist was the awesome self-titled debut by Women, which VanGaalen produced. He recently downed tools and picked up the phone to talk to the Quietus about death, DIY and the importance of keeping your equipment in good working order.

So it sounds pretty quiet over there. I thought I might hear some noise in the background – I hear you’re doing DIY this morning?

Chad VanGaalen: Yeah, we just bought a house and it’s a total shithole.

I heard it was a fixer-upper.

CV: I guess that’s the polite way to say it, for sure. It’s pretty old. I mean it’s amazing, it’s got a view of the mountains, and there’s a studio too, like another whole house on the property, so I’ve got to renovate that as well.

It’s like a huge double-height studio, isn’t it?

CV: Yeah. And I’ve only ever had my studio in my basement, so it’s the first time…

You’ll have natural lighting.

CV: Yeah, exactly. The next record might suck.

Haha! So Soft Airplane – where did that title come from?

CV: At the time, I was making a lot of airplanes out of Plasticine and crash-landing them with stop-motion animation. So I was just thinking about vehicles, and the fact that they’re always really rigid. It was some sort of advanced safety mechanism. The plane is exploding and crashing, but it just sort of smears and everybody lives. It’s a happy ending.

It is a kind of comical children’s version of death. And that’s pretty much the theme of the album, maybe a little more explicitly than on your previous records.

CV: Well, for the last couple of records I thought that death was kind of a hot topic. I guess I use it as an escape mechanism for my own mind. It forces you, when you’re contemplating death… like the song 'Rabid Bits of Time', the lyrics are, “No one knows where we go” – you don’t really come to any sort of conclusion, but it does put you in this space outside of yourself for a moment, which is good for me because I can get inside my mind, almost locked inside of it in an unhealthy way. So thinking about death or infinity or any of those impossible things, I use that as a mechanism. Not really expecting anything from it – just me floating outside of myself for a while, so I can actually make something.

David Byrne said something interesting about creativity, about the idea that the person who makes art is tortured and has to express these ideas through their art to get some kind of release. But he says that for him, sitting down and crafting the music is what inspires him. It comes from the doing, not the thinking.

CV: Exactly! And you can get really caught up with that, especially when you start getting noticed, and suddenly that title is attached to you. So before maybe you were just doing it in your spare time, and then all of a sudden you’re an “artist” and there’s that expectation – you can get pretty bogged down. For me, I have to slog through a bunch of crap to get to what’s good. And with animation especially, I have a really hard time preplanning anything. Most of what I do visually is a morphological stream of consciousness, so if I’m not doing it, physically, then I am getting no ideas. All it takes is for me to go down into the basement and start drawing.

Matt [Flegel, of Women] calls the animation your first love and the music second.

CV: That’s exactly right, he’s right about that. I’m a visual artist for sure before I’m a musician. It just happened that that stuff started to get popular. Haha!

So I imagine that for you, what you would traditionally call the production of a song is really an integral part of how you compose.

CV: Absolutely. That’s how I got into making music in the first place, is recording it. I never really entertained the idea of being a performer until I had been recording stuff for five or six years and people were asking me, 'Can you play these songs, actually?' And I never really had the intention of doing that. I never even thought that it was necessary. I just fell in love with having this ability to control sounds. That sounds pretentious – it’s not like I’m in control of anything, really. I started off with two ghetto blasters when I was about 14 and it actually works pretty good, just recording a drum track and then playing that back, and they had built-in microphones, and ping-ponging them back and forth until I had something that’s so hissy and unrecognisable. I learned to tweak them a little bit so I could get a better sound out of them, through auxiliary inputs and stuff like that, and then my friend’s brother said: 'You know, you should get a 4-track', and I was like: 'What’s a 4-track?'

Ha ha!

CV: So as soon as I got enough money together I bought one used, and then I couldn’t believe that everyone didn’t have one of these. It’s crazy. Suddenly you can start making bizarre things – and you don’t have to know anything about music, you just gotta press play, record. So eventually I got an 8-track and then a 16-track and I guess that’s where I really fell in love with it. That’s first and foremost the thing that I’m concerned with – the production. And that’s where I guess my process differs from somebody else’s process. I don’t know necessarily how it’s going to sound live until after it’s been recorded.

So do you enjoy playing live?

CV: I do now. To begin with, it was a total nightmare. I was playing one-man band so I was playing drums with my feet, and guitar and harmonica all at the same time. I was only doing it because I couldn’t afford to hire people to play with me and I didn’t really want to put people through it either. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I definitely knew that I didn’t want to be pressing play on an iPod and playing guitar along to it. That was my ultimate nightmare. And I also wasn’t really comfortable playing live. But now I feel good about it.

I’ve heard you didn’t listen to much music as a kid – that it seemed like quite a remote world to you for a long time, and you couldn’t imagine a normal person being able to make music.

CV: Yeah, I got into it late. I listened to AM radio as a kid, but I wasn’t really that turned on by it. And then I got a Tribe Called Quest album and I started listening to a lot of hip-hop, but it still wasn’t like a main thing for me. And then when I was 14 – I’m kind of a comic-book geek and the comic-book store in my neighbourhood branched out into a record store. And the guy who was working there, Wes, gave me a Shellac record and a Sonic Youth record and a Sebadoh record and I fell in love with it. It was the first time that the sound was really exposed, in the production, where I could hear that it was just a bunch of people making this stuff. It had a sort of unpolished edge to it and that was really inspiring to me. I still veer towards that. A lot of people say it sounds lo-fi but I think they’re misinterpreting, because I think it’s as hi-fi as anything else. It’s just that maybe there’s a few more creaks and cracks in there. Which I think is good – there’s an unpretentious element to that that I really like.

With your record I think it’s more accurate to say that you go to a great deal of effort to pitch it at a particular level of polish, or unpolish. It’s very deliberate.

CV: Yeah, there was a certain amount of restraint for sure. It was the first record that I consciously made an effort to make it a coherent album. Before, I was resisting even the notion of having it be one thing. I’d have, like, experimental prepared piano tracks back to back with an instrumental dance track or something, and it didn’t work. I wasn’t doing anything but alienating whoever was listening. So I grew up a lot in between records, and realised what I was doing wrong, I guess.

Matt says he felt like, making the Women record, they took you back to a rough, dirty aesthetic that you had already explored and moved on from.

CV: Yeah, we had battles. There were things that I had to get over with myself. I’m a total control freak.

But they are as well.

CV: Yeah, but those guys are also amazing musicians. They can do things that I can’t do as a performer, or as a musician. But then Pat [Flegel] wasn’t a singer at that point. None of them was comfortable singing, and that, for me – that’s the only instrument that I really have control over, is my voice, so I found that… that’s where we were a little bit sensitive about stuff. But since then Pat’s turned into this amazing singer. And I’d never recorded a band before! So five of us in this tiny basement studio – most of the time we were just horribly depressed and wondering what the hell we were doing.

And you’ve known Matt for years but Pat was a really big fan of yours – do you think he found it hard to work with his hero?

CV: Well, the weird thing about that is that it’s totally flipped. I’m their biggest fan now. They’ve had such a huge influence on how I think about stuff. And that record was really challenging. It was super challenging to record. It was challenging for them because they didn’t know what they wanted to do. It was challenging for me because I didn’t know what they wanted me to do – but it still worked.

And they’re the first band you agreed to produce – Matt calls them your “experiment”.

CV: I don’t think so. They don’t take enough credit. The only reason I agreed to record them is because they’re total sweethearts. And they’re insanely talented. It wasn’t my experiment at all. If anything it was all of our experiment. People think I know what I’m doing, but I’m kinda… with this next record I think they need to learn how to record themselves as well. You’re talking about fragile vocals and stuff like that. I get to that space by being by myself, and not having to put myself in that situation in front of an engineer. I think they need to know how to run all that gear eventually. It’s a lot to learn, so I think that’s what we’re going to do with this next record. We’re going to use it as a workshop to learn how to run a tape machine properly.

That’s very fatherly of you.

CV: Ha ha! Well, they really are hellbent on recording on tape, which I think is completely nuts. I like it on some stuff but man, it’s a crazy beast. If stuff breaks down on you, it’s not like a computer where you can get it fixed in a day. Like, who fixes a tape machine motor in town? Nobody. You’ve got to send it off to Texas or something. So you really have to maintain stuff all the time. It takes a lot of effort… and, see, I don’t even know if they would notice, that’s the thing! It’s crazy! I’m gonna put a laptop inside an old tape machine and I’m not gonna tell them. They’ll be like, 'See, Chad, it sounds so good on tape' and I’ll be like [sighs] 'Yeah, sounds so good.'

You’ll be like, “I have something to show you.”

CV: Yeah. “Guess what. It was Pro Tools the whole time.”

Soft Airplane is available through Sub Pop. Snow Blindness Is Crystal Antz (Black Mold) is out on October 13 on Flemish Eye Recordings