Chad VanGaalen

Chad VanGaalen
"I haven't been able to use it that much," Chad VanGaalen confesses somewhat sheepishly as he leads me through his labyrinth of a basement to his studio/practice space. It's a bit of an understatement. VanGaalen is in high demand these days, as anticipation builds toward the Sub Pop release of Infiniheart, an album already much adored by music fans and critics in Canada after its 2003 issue on Flemish Eye. In the past two weeks alone, the Calgary musician and artist spent time in Seattle meeting with his new record label to iron out the details on the upcoming release, before joining Sarah Harmer for a brief jaunt down the west coast of BC.

He seems happy to be re-acquainting himself with his recording studio, a room that reflects his many talents. Art drawn by students at a recent after-school program he led hangs on one wall, and his paintings and drawings are pinned up haphazardly around the studio. Clearly, though, VanGaalen is known for the music that emerges from this room, currently scattered with tangled cables, keyboards, drums and discarded four-track recorders.

There are a variety of reasons why his music — first released to the general public on Infiniheart, the Sub Pop version of which will include a limited edition EP containing four songs new to Canadian ears — strikes such a chord. VanGaalen's unique songwriting and the intimacy of the CD are consistently near the top of the list; both are qualities that he is acutely aware of. "I don't like to revise — you sort of get stuck, I think. I'll have a lot of really crude ideas to begin with and there will be that energy," VanGaalen says, emphasising the last word before continuing, "but I find that if I start fine-tuning I'll just lose it. Even if the lyrics don't make that much sense, I'll make sure the spirit is there and keep that intact above anything else."

This spontaneous creativity and the restrictions of the instruments he was using led him to begin forging his own instruments. VanGaalen is clearly at ease as he picks up his handmade violin ("It's more of a quasi banjo, or ukelele," he says as he turns the instrument over in his hands) or gives an impromptu performance on a finger piano constructed from the tines of a lawn rake and a couple of slats of wood. "I like finding things around me that I could make sound with," he says simply.

VanGaalen's recording process expands on his capture-the-moment ethic and is one that, as with so much of his success, flies in the face of the "proper way" to do things. "When I'm in recording mode, I'm here probably five hours a day, at least," he says, looking around the room. "And three to four hours of writing before that; that's how I make a lot of the songs, where they're sort of improvised and loose." This approach has been cultivated over years of home recordings that resulted in scads of CDRs packaged in handmade covers and sold in Calgary record stores. Having been introduced to the likes of Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra by a high school friend and musical partner, VanGaalen has never been one to deconstruct and re-build songs. So much so that his material is sometimes foreign even to himself.

"A lot of the songs even off Infiniheart I don't know how to play; they existed for two hours and that was it. I've relearned how to play ‘Clinically Dead' and a lot of the simple stuff, but songs like ‘Warp Zone/Hidden Bridge' were just crazy samples I would get slowly going and then press record for three minutes and blurt out some vocals over top of it and that was that," he explains, beginning to laugh. "So now I have people coming up to me at shows saying things like ‘Play "Pizza Party!"' and I'm like ‘What the fuck is "Pizza Party?"' and they say ‘You know! "Pizza Party!"' and then they'll start singing it to me and I'll just be like ‘I don't have a fucking clue what you're talking about!'"

While musicians across the country continue to lay down track after track in Cubase or Audition, hoping to achieve that perfect song, VanGaalen is clearly not enticed by the notion of endless tracks and banks of virtual compressors. "Originally when I was starting out I used two ghetto blasters; I would record one guitar track and then rewind it and press play and then do one vocal track [recorded on the other tape deck] and then rewind it and press play and just ping pong back and forth and end up with the hissiest fucking shit you've ever heard." He moved quickly to four-track, then eight-track, a machine he used for several years.

"I got a hard disc recorder, an Akai DPS 12, and totally used that every single day," he says enthusiastically. "And just recently I got a Powerbook," he groans, his excitement vanishing, "and I haven't been doing any recording on it at all! It's hard for me to get my bearings on it because everything is so virtual and I'm so used to twisting knobs. It's just not as satisfying," he sighs, perking up slightly as he adds, "I'm mostly doing animation on the computer, so I don't feel so bad about buying it."