"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.
Though fame has never really been his thing, he does admit to seeking a little fortune when he first started performing in 2001. "I was working at this pizza shop and I was just sick of bosses telling me what to do and feeling like a jerk all the time. So I was like, ‘Fuck this,’ and decided to see if I could make money busking,” he explains. "I just knew I could get the party started better than the douchebag out there playing Barenaked Ladies covers — and that guy would have a hundred bucks in his hat every night.”VanGaalen practiced his street performer trade for three years in Calgary’s busy entertainment district. It’s during this time that he debuted and perfected his one-man-band set-up — something he still uses today — which involved VanGaalen behind a stripped-down drum kit, playing an acoustic guitar and offering up his wavering, ghost-like voice.
"People ate it up. It was crazy. I was making, like, $500 a night. My mind was blown,” VanGaalen says. "You got people screaming at you that you suck, or others saying crazy shit like, ‘That’s better than Skynyrd!’ and hugging you and bringing you bowls of chilli. It was such a wicked way to hook up with people on a really human level. Honestly, I totally miss it. I think of packing up my shit and going down to the street to play every single day. It was such an eye-opening experience, as far as what you can accomplish if you do something as good as you can.”
More recently, VanGaalen had another eye-opening experience: the birth of his now eight-month-old daughter, whom he says had a profound effect on the way he approached Soft Airplane (not to mention giving him another reason to stay home). "With Skelliconnection, I had a tough time trying to figure out where I was, but I feel totally grounded now and happy with what I do, more so than ever,” he says. "I feel like I’ve come out of the closet in terms of what I create and not feeling weird about it. My baby girl is a dream come true, and I just feel like my power has doubled, ultimately.”On record, this has made for a more centred and confident VanGaalen, one who’s more assertive in where he’s taking his songs and, more importantly, an entire album. Despite his distaste for planning, no longer is he content to compile a random collection of happy accidents and spur-of-the-moment experiments; each Soft Airplane track weaves into an intentional and cohesive whole. Yet VanGaalen doesn’t sacrifice any of his usual sonic diversity, as rootsy campfire songs and lush, intricate pop continue to drift into fuzz-pedal rock-outs and circuit-bending electro. But what was once schizophrenically mashed up is now seamless, and it’s all to the record’s benefit.
"Soft Airplane sounds the way I think a record should sound,” he says. "It is a lot more representative of how I work when I don’t have time restraints. I could just re-record and re-record until I was happy, which is ultimately how things should be. You shouldn’t be settling for mediocre because in my mind mediocre is even worse than just bad. You’ve consciously made the decision to live with something that’s just okay and not great, and that fucking sucks.”Like albums one and two, number three was hatched in VanGaalen’s fortress of solitude: his basement studio. For him, working in other surroundings is not an option, and only on rare occasions will he venture out to gather field recordings or to use what he calls "nature’s free echo chamber.” He prefers to hole up amongst the familiar mass of old analog tape machines, guitars, synths and countless handmade instruments. In this hermit kingdom, he could pick away at Soft Airplane at his own pace, gazing at his studio’s massive murals of desert dogs and brain-eating frogs, and of course, into that trusty subconscious.
"Working with other people is just embarrassing sometimes. Singing in front of people, that’s another sort of traumatic thing that I am slowly getting over,” he says. "The headspace I have to be in to actually get some real emotion out and to make it feel ‘real’ is pretty personal. And imagine being in a studio and they are only listening to your vocals? That’s the most embarrassing thing I can think of. It’s in the same category as going into one of those glass booths at West Edmonton Mall and singing over ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It for You,’ or some shit.”Also like his previous work, his latest is never short on imagination. For 42 minutes, VanGaalen spins psychedelic tales of molten light, poisonous heads and rabid bits of time, proving his stream-of-consciousness writing style is still in fine and working order. "When writing lyrics I try to remove myself as much as possible. The songs are often just fantasies and dream worlds,” he says. "I like tripping out on nonsense, so I try to keep it as trippy as possible. I’ve condensed the roots of my stories into lyrical themes, instead of going for Keanu Reeves dodging slow-mo bullets and shit; it’s less special effect and more dialogue.”
The album comes packing its fair share of scientifically laced imagery, but there’s no denying one of those major themes is death — something he’s touched on with previous albums but immerses himself in on Soft Airplane. Take the album’s leading track, "Willow Tree,” where VanGaalen delivers lines about hanging his lifeless head beside a willow tree and putting his body out to sea. Or "Cries of the Dead,” where he hears, well, the cries of the dead. "I had quite a few people who were close to me pass away within a close span of time, quite a few years ago now,” VanGaalen says. "I think that’s what spawned this fascination I have with death. I never really thought about it in depth until I was about 20 years old and then it really kind of locked down on my brain. Death is a kind of magical thing, where your brain tends to crystallize and your thoughts become more finite. And really, it makes you feel pretty small.”
Considering the newfound happiness in VanGaalen’s personal life, diving into such typically pessimistic waters comes as a bit of contradiction. But as he explains, in his mind death isn’t some harsh macabre-cloaked evil or gothic monotone, and it’s definitely not some ultimate end; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. "Death is just one fantastic possibility of reaching some kind of ultimate freedom,” he says. "And I’m just trying to imagine freedom on a molecular scale. I can’t imagine myself disappearing or my mind disappearing. I mean, that’s a crazy thought. So I just try to think I’ll get reabsorbed. Especially in North America we have this strange desire to prolong the inevitable and not even really think about it properly. I want to come to terms with death and celebrate it and be okay with it, which I don’t think really happens a lot.”
And really, death is just "the biggest brain bender,” says VanGaalen, adding that when it comes right down to it, it’s all about trying to find a little peace of mind in this strange, plastic world. "The best thing to do is keep it real and don’t really question yourself too much,” VanGaalen says. "Even if what you create is really lame, at least you’re not just trying to appear cool and trying to please these imaginary people who get inside your head and start axing up your brain. I think I’ve come around full circle, where I’ve just got back to having fun and trying to get ideas out there, whether they are good or bad or whatever. I have so much positive stuff happening in my life and I think it gave me the emotional strength to deal with putting a bunch of ridiculousness into the world again.”