Finding Inspiration with Chad VanGaalen

Calgary Artist’s “Country Record” May Be His Best Yet

Photo Marc Rimmer

Chad VanGaalen is the restless creative type. His excellent new record Shrink Dust is just one of many projects, including animating the latest videos from Timber Timbre and The Head and the Heart, and slaving away at a three-part science fiction animated feature.

If he’s writing a song, he needs to finish it the same day to stay focused. But Chad would rather be drawing and jamming with his two daughters.

“That’s been the biggest inspiration since I can remember. It’s been a real wake up call, playing music with my girls. It’s so much fun it’s ridiculous,” says VanGaalen.

“I wasn’t really exposed to much music as a kid. I grew up with my mom in Calgary and of course she did an awesome job raising me, but I didn’t have a studio with a skateboard ramp in the basement, and a full music studio upstairs.”

Chad’s home studio in Calgary is his playground and his laboratory, and the kind of creative space he always dreamed his kids would have.

“When I get thirsty for what they’re suddenly exposing to me I have to be careful, I don’t want to taint what’s happening to them in that moment,” he says. “Not being like, ‘Do you know why this is great?’ Just smile and shut the fuck up.”

It’s an ethos he tries to keep with his solo material, where an idea can fall apart if it’s subject to too much second-guessing.

“If you’re constantly thinking about those ideas as one person it just comes off sounding pretty planned. But if you don’t, you get this naive quality to it which I really, really, really love, and that’s all I care about when I’m sequencing the record,” he says.

Onstage, Chad’s sound is fleshed out with Eric Hamelin, Matt Flegel and Scott “Monty” Munroe. Flegel and Munroe’s band, Viet Cong, (whose blistering, sweaty POP Montreal show at L’Escogriffe Bar was one of the best at the festival last year) will be opening for Chad on the Alberta and Saskatchewan stops on the Shrink Dust tour.

Munroe and Flegel started playing together in Chad’s band, but he’s far from the jealous type.

“I’m more than happy to schedule my life around their band ventures, I’m so stoked that Viet Cong actually happened. Those guys deserve it more than a lot of people I know,” he said.

He saw Flegel and Viet Cong drummer Mike Wallace’s former group Women fall apart, having co-produced both of the band’s LPs.

Tensions rose between Women’s band members while heavily touring their record Public Strain, culminating in a much-publicized onstage brawl in Victoria in October 2010 that lead to the band going on hiatus.

Guitarist Christopher Reimer passed away in his sleep in February 2012.

“They’ve been slugging it out for so long, and just with what happened with the Women band, fuck man it was just about to happen for them and everything totally imploded,” said VanGaalen.

Shrink Dust’s opener “Cut off My Hands” captures the loss he felt after Reimer’s death. Over acoustic guitar and layered saxophone his delicate falsetto sings “Fall asleep / and disappear / pop some pills / chase your fear / she said I love you both the same before she drifted away.”

“If it doesn’t have any life to it, then it’s out. That’s usually what determines if it makes the cut or not, if it sounds a little fragile. If it sounds like it seems like it’s falling apart, but it’s not falling apart, then it makes the cut,” said VanGaalen.

“I’d rather them say it sounds bad than to have it sound like middle-of-the-road stuff. But, I mean, some of [Shrink Dust] is.”

Chad’s probably too hard on himself. Every track on Shrink Dust offers something different, while being the most cohesive, the most album-like thing he’s ever released.

He calls it his “country record” because of the consistent presence of a pedal steel, but longtime fans know better than to tag just one genre onto a Chad VanGaalen record.

“If it doesn’t have any life to it, then it’s out. That’s usually what determines if it makes the cut or not, if it sounds a little fragile. If it sounds like it seems like it’s falling apart, but it’s not falling apart, then it makes the cut.”

The production work here is also his best to date. But he says he needs to find ways to capture inspiration more quickly to keep up this trajectory.

“I’m a lot more frustrated with compressors and preamps and setting up drum mics, either I’m going into a studio for the next record, or the song structure that I’ve been working on for the last decade is going to go out the window,” he said.

Bringing his band into a professional studio would certainly be an unexpected move from a man who has spent the last decade tinkering away in his home recording space.

He doesn’t want to spend all day on a vocal take, modestly stating he’d waste everyone’s time tracking a studio record. Part of why he’s stuck with drawing for so long is that nothing technical gets between his pen and his ideas.

“The reason I got into this is that I liked to make long, soundscapey pieces of music, and I feel songs have taken me away from that. It’s a reality intricate thing, and, at least as one person, it’s a very anal thing,” he said.

“For better or worse I’ve been like, ‘I don’t want to alienate anybody.’”

But despite his talent for vocal hooks, Shrink Dust is no pop record. The record revolves around Chad and his guitar, moving from country to punk to ambient sounds — while always keeping a deliberate song structure. It’s accessible, but it’s also inspired.

Early records like Skelliconnection and Infiniheart were lo-fi and often tangential, made with an audience of family and friends in mind when he had newly signed to Sub Pop Records. So over the last decade, as more people started paying attention, Chad saw the breakbeats and prepared piano pieces fall outside of his full-length releases.

He became more self-conscious of his music, and the animations he made to go along with them.

Now Chad’s experimental side only shows up on limited cassette releases, or under the moniker Black Mold. He’s also working on something new with Seth Smith, from the East Coast shoegaze duo Dog Day.

“I’ve more or less found a home for that, but I’ve also realized the reason I started doing [music] in the first place was to introduce that life into the other songs, and to people as well,” he said.

“I’m still trying to find a balance between the two.”

Chad VanGaalen (w/ Cousins) // May 13 // Cabaret Mile End (5240 Park Ave.) // $15 advance, $18 door