Freak folk

Posted by Devin Friesen, FastForward Weekly on 24 July 2014

cvg inside

Josh Naud

"It has become pretty strange over the years, my habits as how I make stuff and get things done."

Strange. That’s a good word to describe Chad VanGaalen, a beautiful weirdo who’s been creating music in Calgary for over a decade. From busking on 17th Avenue S.W., to performing at the Calgary Folk Music Festival (this year being his third appearance at the festival since 2005), to releasing albums on Sub Pop and producing music videos, VanGaalen has established himself as not just a Calgary treasure, but also an internationally acclaimed artist.

Songwriter, illustrator, animator — all of these titles apply, but trying to neatly categorize VanGaalen is a pointless endeavour; he spans genres and forms while remaining instantly recognizable. He describes his newest album, Shrink Dust, as his “country” album, albeit “country” as imagined in VanGaalen’s restlessly creative world — one could just as easily describe it as psychedelic folk, sun-baked pop, or as I’d like to suggest, sci-fi porch music.

“The studio I have in the backyard right now is split between the animation studio, with a modular synth studio on the one side for noise stuff, and then I have a drum kit surrounded by guitar amps that’s more of the ‘songwriting zone,’” says VanGaalen. “Usually when I’m recording, I don’t really go in with anything in mind. I’m just going to start tinkering on something and, depending on if I start with drums or synthesizers, or whatever, it could end up being a dance song, or a country song, or a noise track, rock track, whatever.”

This approach is evident across Shrink Dust, which VanGaalen admits took longer than usual to piece together.

“Shrink Dust was a lot more scattered and all over the place, it was really hard to even see it at all. Like, ‘Where Are You?’ is more of a noisy dance track, and there was maybe a [full] record of that in there. And then there was a record of more country, folky songs. Then there was a record of ‘Frozen Paradise’ — poppier, cleaner sounding pop/alternative tracks, whatever you want to call them. And then there was a bunch of straight-up electronica that actually sounded horrible; that stuff probably won’t even make much onto the B-sides,” he says.

“I was really looking into a lot of different genres, and most times I won’t worry about that — but none of it was convincing me that it needed to be one record.”

VanGaalen has been known to build his own junkyard instruments, as well as teaching himself how to play whatever he needs for a particular song or album. For Shrink Dust, he acquired and then figured out how to play pedal steel guitar, which turned out to be the thread necessary in stitching his new album together.

“I was using [pedal steel] more for sound effects on [sci-fi animation project] Tarboz at the time, but I put it overtop of one of the songs — I think ‘Cut Off My Hands’ — and thought, ‘oh man, I should just go back and put it on a few of the mellower folk songs.’ Then I ended up kinda putting it over everything, and realizing like, this is gluing everything together. It’s a mellow thread of pedal steel that sort of runs through everything.”

The pedal steel certainly adds new dimension to VanGaalen’s oeuvre, featured most prominently on the airy “Weighted Sin” and laid-back, harmonica-inclusive bent of “Hangman’s Son.” If Shrink Dust really is his country album, these would be the tracks that prove it. VanGaalen, however, is too restlessly creative to be pigeonholed into one genre, or to engage in tacky, obvious genre hopping for the sake of it. Take “Monster,” which merges country stomp with burbling sci-fi synthesizers, as VanGaalen sweetly sings: “ripping my eyelids a little bit wider are two prying hands that grew out from my shoulders,” and somehow makes it all sound downright lovely.

Naturally, with his studio at home, the recordings pile up. Last year saw the release of eight cassettes via Calgary-based label Flemish Eye, unleashing a floodgate of B-sides, leftovers and experiments. Venturing into the deep end of VanGaalen’s recordings yields everything from electronic noise (usually via his Black Mold alias) and ramshackle rock, to sweet pop and folk diversions, with songs often just as good (if not better) than those on his albums proper.

“I think there’ll be two [new] cassettes — there’s at least three records worth of B-sides on [Shrink Dust],” says VanGaalen. “That’s usually how it works. Garbage Island 1 and 2 were the sort of crème of the crop that came off Diaper Island. To tell you the truth, I think Garbage Island 1 is better than Diaper Island, when I go back and listen to what I was trying to get at with that record. For whatever reason, I feel like those B-sides were a little more coherent than the B-sides that will come off Shrink Dust, which is why Shrink Dust was a little bit harder to make in the first place.”

Beyond music, VanGaalen is noted for his distinct illustration and animation work, including music videos for himself and others, such as J Mascis, Shout Out Out Out Out, and Timber Timbre. VanGaalen’s visual style is darkly playful and often surreal, with subjects frequently twitching and morphing into restless new forms — one look at the cover of Shrink Dust, and one can easily imagine the goopy movement. For the last few years, however, VanGaalen has been devoting most of his time to a longer-form animation; namely, a sci-fi narrative centred on a character named Tarboz.

“Really, I just wanted to score a sci-fi movie. I didn’t want to have to do everything myself, but then I got wrapped up in it and didn’t realize how much work it was.... I thought I was going to be finished the film by the time Shrink Dust came out, but it didn’t happen that way. So, a lot of the ideas that I was working on, or working towards, kind of went out the window at the last minute. I was just like, ‘fuck, I’m not going to put this film out until probably next year!’”

It’s not the long hours of manual animation causing the delays (“I love that part,” he tells me), but rather the finishing touches. The script is written and the animation is done, but now he needs more voices.

“I’ve been doing all the voiceovers myself, which is where it’s been falling apart. I feel like, at the end of the day, how you’re bonding with a character in an animation is based on how good the voice acting is. It’s like, South Park, it doesn’t have to be crazy animation, but you love those characters because they’re hilarious and the voice acting is so good. You could have a stick moving around on a screen, and if it’s like, Zach Galifianakis, you’re going to love that stick. But if it’s me, and I’ve never voice acted before, and suddenly I’m doing like 40 different characters, at the end of 30 minutes you’d just be like, ‘Seriously? Come on, hire some of your buddies to get drunk and do some voices, man. Don’t try to do it all by yourself.’”

While VanGaalen tends to do tons of work on his own, his backing band is notable in its own right, with Scott “Monty” Munro and Matt Flegel currently throttling indie rock by the throat in Viet Cong, and percussionist/junkyard electronics whiz Eric Hamelin on drums. Munro and Hamelin are both mainstays in Calgary’s experimental/free improvisation scene, often appearing on Bug Incision bills with projects including the Bent Spoon (Duo/Trio/Ensemble), Fuck Off Dad, and No More Shapes, amongst other one-offs and collaborations. Flegel was also part of the much-loved post-punk group Women, whom VanGaalen helped with recording and production.

“I feel so grateful that I’ve managed to have the same band for years. They’re my bros. I play them the songs, and they’re higher level musicians than I am, so they’re just like, ‘he wrote this song five years ago, but in a different order,’” VanGaalen says, laughing. “I don’t have to worry about teaching them simple four-on-the-floor beats or three-note bass lines. Monty is my guy that looks at me when we’re onstage and goes, ‘Dude, it’s here, then it’s here, then it’s here.’ He’s teaching me my own songs constantly. He’s a bit of a life support system on tour.”

When asked if he’d go full Gram Parsons and lug the pedal steel to the Calgary Folk Music Festival, however, he laughs brusquely.

“God no. No way! Live, I like to move around a bit more,” he says. “We kind of supplement by playing slide guitar, and playing different instruments in places. Live, it’s definitely more of a straight-up rock show, or that’s what it’s morphed into over these last couple tours.”

Of course, with VanGaalen, “straight-up” anything is anything but.