Sub Pop recording artist Chad VanGaalen is a tall Canadian making quietly-odd music. The self-styled songsmith has a fondness for instrument building and antique tape-recorders, and uses them to fashion down-home, mismatched patchworks stitching together both brittle ballads and rattling rocksongs. On the back porch of his Calgary home, VanGaalen recounted his evolution from music-free teen to album number three, Soft Airplane.
When did you first start making sound?
“I was kind of a late-bloomer. I was, initially, just a casual listener; I didn't grow up with a lot of music in my home. It was only when, as a teenager, I was introduced to bands that I could relate to, like Shellac and Sonic Youth, that I even thought about making music. Before that, for me, music had always seemed like this really inaccessible thing. When you hear a Smashing Pumpkins album —or any high, glossy, overproduced record— it seems impossible to imagine yourself doing that. But with a Sebadoh record —that's more ragged, unpolished— it seems so accessible. You hear it and think: I think I could do that. So, soon after that, I taught myself how to play guitar, and I started recording on two ghetto blasters, ping-ponging back and forth, multi-tracking that way.”
Was that lo-fi aesthetic something you always wanted your own music to embody?
“The thing that I do like about those recordings is that they weren’t trying to hide. They’re saying: we were in the studio, playing these songs, recording them, this is a real thing. Keeping in mistakes, for me, is something that needs to be done, to be able to perpetuate that idea of kids listening to it and then being motivated to make that themselves."
So, you always wanted to keep that unpolished, mistake-friendly spirit alive?
“I think so. I don’t necessarily strive to keep it lo-fi —or a part of any sort of genre— but I like to keep that human element in there. The bass pedal squeaking, fingers sliding on guitar strings, bad textures: those things don’t bother me. People try and pin me down with this lo-fi aesthetic, yet really I’m honestly trying to go for the highest fi recording I can; it’s just that I don’t believe things need over-polishing. When you get down to it, Soft Airplane is a pretty hi-fi recording.”
Your songs can be quite varied in style. Are there threads that stitch the songs on Soft Airplane together?
“I think, with this record, there’s more of a common thread running through it, sonically and thematically. It’s largely a singular meditation on death; my most album-like record. But there’s more going on than that. There’s certain colours, a lot of vibraphone that links the record together tonally.”
Have you forever worked in isolation?
“Yep. That’s the reason why I feel in love with music, originally, through multi-tracking. After working for a while on ghetto blasters, my friend lent me his four-track for a couple of weeks. I didn’t know what that was —at the time, I was only 14— but after I’d used one, I knew I had to get my own. Really, before I could even perform music, I was composing and recording. I didn’t even really want to perform, that came much afterwards. And, even then, I had a bit of a bout with stage fright.”
How did you get over that?
“For a period, I spent a lot of time busking, and I did it to get over my stage fright, and to develop my songs. Those were, to this day, my favorite musical experiences. It allowed me to talk to people about my music, and get a real honest opinion about it. People will tell you to ‘f**k off’ to your face, so it’s a pretty real thing to do.”
How did you start building your own instruments?
“Just a love of sound. Pretty early on, I realized that anything makes sound, and there’s a huge history of people building their own instruments. In the modern world, all the stuff we’re throwing out has value. There’re all of these building materials that’re at our fingertips, for free. I was at college at the time, so I’d sift through the waste-bins, find scrap wood and metal, and randomly put things together. A lot of musical instruments have pretty simple form, so I wanted to find the roots of those sounds, and try and put it together, myself, from the beginning. Then, follow that through to teaching yourself how to play it, how to use it, and then recording a composition using that instrument. It was such a great lesson in sound, for me.”
Was it just about sound? Or was there something about the ideology of taking society’s refuse and making art from it that appealed to you?
“A little bit of both. I was incredibly influenced by John Cage’s Sonatas And Interludes For Prepared Piano. That got me into thinking about modern music and composition, and, naturally, the evolution of instruments. You can already see it changing so dramatically, right now, with programs and soft-synthesizers that allow you to customize your instruments incredibly. In the midst of this digital revolution, everyone’s seemingly forgotten that once the actual instruments out there disappear, you’re not really left with much.”
How did you find working with Women on their record, seceding some of the control you’d had when working in isolation?
“I’ve been approached in the past about recording people’s records, and turned them down, because it was the wrong situation. But I was already really good friends with [Women founders] Matt and Pat Flegel, and they wanted me to be as involved in it as possible. That sort of invitation was pretty persuasive. Having said that, giving yourself that much freedom can backfire as much as it can succeed; it can swing both ways. So we had as many frustrations as we had successes.”
What kind of frustrations?
“With the compositions. We were battling over sounds a lot. Pat, the singer and guitar-player, we would battle a lot over textures: I was always pushing for a more saturated, richer sound, whereas he wanted a more lo-fi, fuzzed-out sound. I think he did get his way, in the end. Recording is intimate for me, and I do get really involved, and obsessed, with it. So, we had a lot of battles, but I think it pushed us both into accepting a broader spectrum of sound. The record turned out incredibly well for just a bunch of hosers in a basement in Calgary.”