Chad VanGaalen Is Hard At Play

Chad VanGaalen Is Hard At Play
A little more than two years ago, Calgary visual artist Chad VanGaalen (hard g, rhymes with Van Halen) emerged from his bedroom studio with an album called Infiniheart, the culmination of more than six years of material recorded on a four-track using mostly instruments he built himself. It was just the latest of dozens of home recordings he’d thrown together over his years as a busker and amateur musician, and apparently VanGaalen didn’t think much of it at the time. The disc floated around among friends and family and looked destined to remain in these closed circles until long-time friend and fellow artist Ian Russell insisted that VanGaalen release it on his Flemish Eye imprint.

Soon, VanGaalen was landing opening spots for the likes of Wolf Parade, Rogue Wave, the Weakerthans and the Pixies, and accumulating a dedicated international fan base along the way, buoyed by college radio stations and music bloggers who were taken in by VanGaalen’s thoughtful, unpretentious DIY pop. By the end of 2004, Infiniheart had found its way onto countless best-of lists, catching the attention of Sub Pop, who offered to re-release the disc and its follow-up.

It’s been a whirlwind year for VanGaalen since, but with his second album, Skelliconnection, finally out, the artist has had some time to reflect on being reluctantly dragged out of his bedroom and into the spotlight.

"It was really hard for me,” says VanGaalen on the phone from his Calgary home. "Suddenly, I had to deal with my own ego. I was never planning on anyone hearing Infiniheart, so it all came out really naturally. But on this one, I spent a few months driving myself insane, thinking, ‘Oh my god, people are going to listen to this and they’re going to expect it to be better.’ You all of a sudden have expectations to live up to, and I spent a lot of time second-guessing myself, worrying what people thought, what the label thought.”

Luckily, the label proved far more patient than VanGaalen might have been in their place. "If I was Sub Pop, I would have fired me a long time ago,” he laughs. "But thankfully, bands like the Shins and Nirvana and Postal Service paved the way for jokers like me who only sell a few thousand albums every other year, so they’ve really put no pressure on me. That’s the reason Sub Pop is so successful, I think — they’re way more interested in putting out good music than how it’s going to sell.”

The label’s patience has paid off. Picking up where Infiniheart left off, Skelliconnection is a haunting collection of sober, fragile, organic pop that runs the gamut from swaying campfire folk to grungy post-punk to jubilant, hand-clappy gospel, all carried by VanGaalen’s distinctively reedy, near-falsetto vocals that evoke Neil Young as much as Stephen Malkmus.

As his furious output will attest (one source reported recently that he released two more home recordings in Calgary between Infiniheart and Skelliconnection, and he is sitting on about four more albums’ worth of material in his studio), VanGaalen finds inspiration with constant and almost indiscriminate experimentation. He began recording at home basically the moment he started writing music, first with tape decks and then a four-track, and has released more material among friends, at shows or on the street than he can remember. Soon, he began building or tweaking his own instruments to satisfy his musical curiosity.

"Mostly, I started doing it because I was broke,” he says. "I was recording and listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and Neko Case albums with a lot of orchestration on them, and I didn’t have a way to get that. At the time I was going to college and had access to an awesome wood and metal shop where the techies would let me mess around, so I started with building clarinets at first, then harps, marimbas, thumb pianos and stuff like that.”

Today, VanGaalen is getting more into the modification of cheap keyboards and children’s toys, and also continues his work on an upright grand piano that he’s been tweaking for the past six or seven years. Originally, he had planned for his follow-up to be nothing but experimental piano compositions with drum machine accompaniment. The idea was eventually discarded, though a few 30-second snippets did sneak into the new album’s track list. "It probably would have been a little too much to swallow all at once,” says VanGaalen. "So I’m easing people into it.”

While VanGaalen admits to some trepidation about Skelliconnection’s somewhat poppier sound and cleaner production values, he says he’s since come around to it and is excited about the album. In the meantime, all that writing for an audience has driven the artist back into his bedroom studio for other, more experimental endeavours, including a bizarre hip-hop concept group in which the members fall asleep listening to music then wake each other up and immediately freestyle about their dreams.

"A lot of that is absolutely terrible,” he laughs. "But it’s slowly coming together.”