For Chad VanGaalen, a subconscious mind is a terrible thing to waste. He should know — the Calgary songwriter has built an entire career out of bringing his innermost thoughts to life and putting them on display, in song as well as in art. Whatever he finds lurking in those deep recesses, it’s all fair game, the weirder, the better. If a ghost wants to suddenly leak from the ground and search for love, so be it. If VanGaalen morphs into a headless corpse, that’s okay. If the entire human race is suddenly ruled by a sinister, freedom-sucking blood machine, VanGaalen can roll with that too, because, well, the subconscious is pretty awesome.
"I love that music and art can become anything you want. They’re a window into your mind. It’s completely surreal, and I can’t even believe people do it,” VanGaalen says. "To see your subconscious mind come to life? That’s a pretty insane. I can put things in motion? I can turn a squid into a bearded Zeus head? It’s just endless what you can do.”
With this passion for inner exploration, the 30-year-old has amassed an impressive, and not to mention surreal, body of work. Since the turn of the decade, the multi-talented art grad has spilled his mind out over literally hundreds of drawings, animations and, of course, songs, garnering himself a reputation for being one of Canada’s true eccentrics, as well as one of its most notorious homebodies. With music, VanGaalen writes, plays and records almost all his songs alone, rarely leaving the comforts of his basement studio for his DIY pop, or in fact any reason. It’s an isolated working environment, no doubt, but it’s also a productive one, with VanGaalen churning out countless homemade CD-Rs, as well as three albums in four years.
His new album, Soft Airplane, marks many firsts for VanGaalen. It’s his first to feel like a cohesive, true-blue album, rather than a slash-dash collection of songs. It’s the first that he’s actually satisfied with. And perhaps it’s the first to live up to VanGaalen’s promised potential, making Soft Airplane the album you always knew he had in him but only now is able to deliver.
Though the one-man band has come out with one of his strongest efforts to date — if not the strongest — he says he had no grand schemes for Soft Airplane, no high-reaching aspirations for musical greatness. Then again, that was kind of the point. "With this record, I didn’t plan ahead on anything. I approached it by going downstairs in my basement with nothing in my head and seeing what came out,” he explains. "I felt with some of my older work, especially the last album, I over-thought a lot of stuff, and it’s better just to keep it naive. I really love that quality in music. If you put too much conscious thought into stuff, you can dissolve everything that was ever good about it in the first place.”
VanGaalen didn’t start his music career with any big plans either. In fact, he likely wouldn’t have even started one in earnest without coaxing from long-time friend Ian Russell. It was only when VanGaalen agreed to release 2004’s Infiniheart — a collection of songs culled from five years’ worth of home recordings — on Russell’s Flemish Eye imprint that music started to shape more into a long-term career than a part-time hobby.
The bizarre and very personal Infiniheart quickly struck a chord with Canadian audiences who cottoned on to its folk-tinged pop and lowbrow electronics. Before long, VanGaalen collected an impressive array of press clippings and was dragged out of his basement more and more, opening for high-profile acts like the Pixies, Built to Spill and Wolf Parade. He started seeing his name on various critics’ best-of lists and finding others like Secretly Canadian, Arts & Crafts and Sub Pop on his caller ID. Each label made VanGaalen an offer and the star-struck songwriter eventually signed with Sub Pop in the U.S. while sticking with Flemish Eye in Canada.
"I was ready to shoot myself because I really had no idea what I was going to do. I wasn’t expecting it at all,” VanGaalen says of the indie-label bidding war. "I went with Sub Pop because it was a wet dream come true. As a teenager, I always dreamed of being on that label, thinking, ‘One day, man, me and Cobain. We’re going to be cutting a record together.’”
Infiniheart appeared on U.S. shelves in 2005, and the following year he dropped its Polaris Prize-nominated follow-up, Skelliconnection. Once again, the record raked in its fair share of praise, cementing VanGaalen’s reputation as a multi-talented musician that could just as easily drop beats and avant-garde as he could some good ol’ pop and rock. Yet as the spotlight burned brighter on the songwriter, his reclusive nature became increasingly prominent and VanGaalen grew more eager to hide away in the basement with his various animation projects and song explorations than greet his growing public.
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