As befits an artist-musician whose practice is rooted in the pursuit of glimpsing something elusive, pure and fundamental about the nature of things through spontaneous creation, Chad VanGaalen can be found, this May mid-morning, at play. Or, more correctly, wingman to the play of others.
“It’s right there … I left your pony on the table,” he’s saying soothingly as he picks up the phone. “Sorry, I’m braiding a My Little Pony tail,” he explains, drifting to a quieter part of the house once he’s assured his daughters are in their own private Equestria.
“The current generation is my favourite generation,” he says, given the choice of “vintage” Ponies. “They’re just smarter. They’re more empowered. It’s all about the Friendship Magic.” He has the distinctive GenX habit of peppering his speech with so much inflection, mimicry and dialectics with make-believe opponents that English becomes like a tonal language.
Besides Ponies, VanGaalen doesn’t seem like he’s much for the present. His music, like his art, isn’t pastiche. It doesn’t mine influences, but conveys a fusion of anachronistic and futuristic sensibilities, clarified and intensified by his private esthetic vocabulary, one that’s remained remarkably consistent throughout his career, without stunting him. Features of psychedelia, noodling and droney, are present, with the suggestion of the third eye-transcendence of ragas and other circular contemplative sounds, sharpened by the primal urgency of no wave and punk, the expansiveness and discipline of art-rock, and synthetic plasticity of electronic music. His songwriting, at its heart, is often squarely in rock and folk traditions, even when striated with disruptive gashes of noise—vocal, mechanical, electronic. Sometimes the squall of noise is the point; objects can sing in his hands, and VanGaalen can use instruments almost catalytically, the way chemists use elements. Production is approached with parallel vigour, giving the music uncanny tactility and heightening its intimacy, and occasionally amplifying the feeling we’re living in an estranged, fractured, accelerated, hyper-Babel, perennially five minutes from now, especially when his lyrics reach beyond his emotive sorrows and joys toward the cosmic; Neil Young’s silver spaceships imminent instead of in a gauzy dream.
VanGaalen also doesn’t seem like much for Friendship Is Magic, either. Infiniheart, his arresting debut—with its big themes of love, death and beyond, and dystopic futuro-mythos—felt paranoid and alienated as well as fresh, beautiful and haunting, and established him in the public mind as an outsider artist, as did his apparent self-containment as a wunderkind who not only could write songs, produce records and draw cover art, but also make instruments from scratch. Truth is, he has many long, loyal friendships, a loving family and roots in the community—a community shaped by VanGaalen’s alma mater, ACAD, the locus of the whole art-music-film-expression continuum in Calgary, churning out creative, inquisitive, reality-hungry artists in the heart of the Pipeline Cowboy Country, where kings of oil parade around affecting good ol’ boy airs and gauche bling versions of fantasy frontier life.
“Yeah, I feel like I like it, though,” he laughs. “I feel like I like living next to the demon. At least you got one eye on it. If it starts going too far south, I’ll buy a couple shotguns and teach my girls how to do some real vigilante justice, you know? I feel like at least I’m kind of prepared and I kind of know what’s going on.”
Shrink Dust, his fifth full-length release (he’s a completist’s worst nightmare, prolific to the point of madness, and EPs, cassettes, bootlegs, side projects and random recordings abound), seems to be a counterpart to Infiniheart, the other side of its Möbius strip in the “figure eight, lying down,” as he memorably characterized the infinity symbol, and miles apart from his previous record, 2011’s Diaper Island.
“To me, Diaper Island was sort of like I’d cast myself out of all the things that I was thinking about at the time,” VanGaalen says. “It was more or less just me complaining about my feeling extremely strange about living in such a weird infrastructure. Shrink Dust is more internal, sort of thoughts about, yeah, the same old stuff, life and death, and I would say it’s more personal. There were a couple tracks on Diaper Island that could’ve been on this record, but for the most part it was the most angular, stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll thing I’ve done, and then this one is probably the quietest record I’ve ever done.” He reconsiders: “I don’t know. I never really know how to explain the records because, you know, two records came out after Diaper Island, that almost nobody heard, Garbage Island I and Garbage Island II, basically sister records to Diaper Island.”
It’s been his habit to record companions for each release for years, because it’s impossible for him to seal off particular eras of creation.
“Maybe I’ll have narrowed it down to, like, 30 songs at that point, but usually when I’m cutting tracks out, I’m cutting ones that don’t seem that sincere. Maybe that’s the wrong word, but when I’m recording everything by myself and playing everything by myself, it’s really easy for those songs to start sounding pretty overworked and un-sincere. So, when I’m making the record and sequencing it, I’m really looking for songs that capture some sort of spontaneity or awkward moment, rather than just being like, ‘Oh! This’ll fit on the record ’cause it’s another electronic number!’ That also has a lot to do with why the records have multiple genres on them, because I’m not really looking for, like, a common thread; it’s more like a feeling I get when I’m listening to the song that I don’t want, that’s like, ‘Yah, that sounds contrived,’ or, ‘I was working on that for weeks and it never worked out,’ although it might be, like, a better song structure or something. Really, what matters to me is sincerity, more than sonics or anything like that.”
His philosophical stance differs from both outsider artists and the “old-time sound” crowd.
“Sometimes people mistake it for ‘lo-fi for the sake of lo-fi’; they think that’s cool, but really, maybe I recorded that song on a pocket recorder, then I tried to record it three different ways on a bigger tape deck, and it never worked out, but I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s the song,’ know what I mean?” he asks. “What happens in the moment is more important than what needs to happen in the future.”
“It allows me to feel OK about why I’m doing it,” VanGaalen says. “It’s also what I love about a lot of music. If you’re listening to a Vaselines record, it doesn’t sound like a mid-’90s U2 record—and for a reason, and that’s why everybody loves it. Wow, these songs are super-simple, the lyrics aren’t over-thought, it’s hitting on something primal, and I guess I want to feel that. I feel that’s something special. But it seems like that stuff is duly killed. And it’s also been worn through the ringer, too. There’s also people that are trying to emulate that or, on the other spectrum, there’s people like Wesley Willis or Daniel Johnston, people that are just kind of emitting that all the time, and it’s sort of being co-opted. I don’t really know how to explain that. I really don’t know how to think about it, but, you go out to a Wesley Willis show, and I feel like that’s a touchy subject in itself, but you need to pay respect, you know, really.”
Wed, Jun 4 (8 pm)
With Viet Cong
Starlite Room, $25