Chad VanGaalen Diaper Island
Published May 17, 2011Chad VanGaalen is well known for his twisted, surreal take on pop music, but who the hell could've guessed he could do normal just as well? Of course, it would be lazy to throw a blanket statement over Diaper Island, not to mention wrong ― there's plenty of Chad VanGaalen's usual sonic tomfoolery, as evinced by the raucous "Can You Believe It!?" ― but there's a definite change in tone. Between Diaper Island's quirkier tracks lie ample moments of furrowed brow earnestness, as on the yearning "No Panic/No Heat" and dulcet album centrepiece "Sara." And it's in this mode that Diaper Island's highpoint of emotional resonance, the deceptive-titled "Shave My Pussy," comes; the song's goofy title belies its crushing sadness and poignancy, revealing VanGaalen's ability to imbue his idiosyncratic urges with powerful emotion. To keep balance, these introspective moments are tempered by instances of pure ecstatic release: the rollicking "Replace Me" is another album highlight and "Freedom For A Policeman" is peppered with grandiose choruses of the word "freedom" that beg for lighters live. VanGaalen's been crafting albums since 2009's Soft Airplane, but it took four scrapped records to put Diaper Island together. This fully realized result was worth the wait.
Diaper Island is less idiosyncratic than Soft Airplane in many ways. Was your aim to make a more straightforward rock record?
After [Soft Airplane], I made an electronic record, which was totally horrible from every angle; it was completely an embarrassment to music in general. And then a folk record came out after that. Well, not out, but came out of me, and it was stripped-down ukulele songs. "Shave My Pussy" was the one song I used from there on this record. Then a garage rock record was after that and the recording was really bad; I was trying to capture it really quickly and I was in a phase where I was pretty frustrated with technology, so I put no effort into making it sound like anything and it ended up sounding really bad. "Freedom for a Policeman" and "Blonde Hash" were recorded on that record, but sounded way too lo-fi to be acceptable, in my mind. [Diaper Island] came out of all those sessions, plus there were a bunch of rock songs that I re-recorded. They sounded the best, so it was easy to make a rock record. I was like, "Okay, the other ones didn't work and rock is feeling good to me right now, so I might as well make a rock record."
I wanted to ask first about the Your Tan Looks Supernatural EP. Were those songs written at the same time as the Diaper Island sessions?
No, those songs were written at the same time as Soft Airplane. Those songs were two years old, some of them.
Do you feel pressure to get better with every album, like you're competing with your past records?
I feel like I'm trying to erase my past. It's weird, everyone thinks I'm a songwriter; it's a hilarious joke to myself that people think I'm a songwriter, 'cause I got into music in the first place for music concrete and found sounds and bigger musical landscapes, rather than these compartmentalized, little snippets. That's what Infiniheart was: just a collection of ten years' worth of material that just happened to fit together. Out of that, people were like, "Let's hear another song record!" And I was like, "What?!" Soft Airplane was the first record where I was trying to write "songs" and this one is a continuation of that, where I was like, "Okay, here are some songs, again!" I don't know how long this will last; it's totally abstract to me to even imagine a song in my mind, let alone record it.
Are you embarrassed when you listen to your old albums?
How recently? When you listen back to Soft Airplane, what do you think?
I think I'm probably the least embarrassed of Soft Airplane, just because I felt like Skelliconnection was a bit of a disaster and that I was really rushed when I was making it. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't make the same mistakes. I put a lot more energy into the crafting of Soft Airplane.
How did working outside of your own studio, at Yoko Eno, influence Diaper Island?
It was nice to have everything set up all the time. That's maybe what made it sound like a rock record: the fact that everything was set up to sound the same.
Did you mix and master it yourself?
That's my golden key, actually. I took it to this audio mastering place in town and they basically turn a piece of shit into something that sounds awesome. It's super-handy to have a place in town that does it; I know a lot of people who send their stuff away to get mastered and it's nice to have local people. Mostly I worked with this guy Richard Harrow, who was a tape technician and has seen the whole spectrum of merging tape with digital, so he's really knowledgeable when it came to my hobo antics, trying to crossbreed the two. More recently, he donated a bunch of tape machines to me that he knows really well. His son is being brought into the fold now, so he's doing a lot of mastering too; they're awesome 'cause they're into it and they know tons of shit. It's not just some guy who's vaporizing the shit out of himself, playing Xbox while he's putting your album through some preset compressor program or something.
It's nice to have a personal connection and faith in them.
Yeah, exactly. You can sit down with them and be like, "No, I kind of wanted this one to sound crappy" and they're like, "Okay, whatever."
Why Diaper Island?
It's kind of a metaphor for life. It could have been garbage island; I feel like it's the quintessential metaphor for North American life, like, "Hey, I'm just going to put this in a plastic bag and then give it to somebody to throw away." The weird thing is, we're staring directly at the garbage unless there's a garbage strike. I feel like it's this abstract place: "Where does that stuff go?" "It goes to Diaper Island."
It's far away somewhere where North America doesn't have to care about it.
Yeah, exactly. Put it on a barge, float it out to somewhere where the people are so poor they'll sift through our waste. We're definitely going to crash into it one of these days and get a nose-full of our own shit.
You design your record sleeves. How important to you is the album as a singular artistic statement, with the songs, the album art and sequencing?
This one was maybe more of an encapsulation of one thing than the last records. On Soft Airplane, the artwork was just stills from an animated short that I did, and I don't know if that was the best idea. It certainly was the worst record cover of all time. This time, I was a little bit pickier when it came to how I was going to represent the album cover. I can remember growing up and waiting for, like, [Sonic Youth's] Washing Machine to come out and being like, "Oh, man, it's going to be so good," and then listening to the whole thing and looking at the cover and laughing at it. But now that's less of a ritual.
But the record might never die, thanks to a group of enthusiasts, right?
I guess so. Either way, I've definitely tried on this one to keep it as tight as possible, thematically. The video for "Peace on the Rise" is kind of a further extension of the album cover, which is a waterfall I drew out in BC.
The album artwork is beautiful. What's fascinating, for you, about the connections between visual art and music? Because you also animated the video for "Molten Light."
Yeah, that was kind of the first time I decided to try a linear story going through a song. The connection used to be pretty loose, almost non-existent, just because I felt like I was a drawer more than anything else. I tried to keep the two separate. I've been animating a lot lately and I've been finding that I really enjoy merging the two, so that's the perfect zone to be working in. Eventually I'll have a short film out of it in the next few years that'll finally fully encompass everything.
Like an animated album?
No, just a film. Just a story. Not set to music. I feel like what I'd want to do with sound, in a perfect world, would be to score science fiction movies and never tour and just work on soundscapes and stuff. I've been waiting too long for somebody to ask me to do it, so I feel like I just have to ask myself to make the movie: "Hey, do you want to work on scoring this film?" "Sure, I'd love to work on scoring this film!" "I'll pay you nothing!" "That sounds great!"
You pay a great deal of attention to detail in your albums, to your art and to your lyrics. "Shave My Pussy," for example, is a tongue-in-cheek title for a song, but it's a pretty song, and the title isn't as much about shock value as it is about juxtaposition.
For the album, it was between that song and another that was kind of similar – both were about cutting hair. "Shave My Pussy" was just me, waiting in a grocery story line-up feeling disgusted and insanely depressed, listening to Celine Dion and watching this woman struggle with life amidst the tabloids and collagen injections and photographers around her, just wanting people to chill the fuck out.
It reminds me of what you talked about with the album title and North American excess, the idea that shaving your genitals is important to being beautiful.
Yeah, it's this sad realization that you can maybe transform yourself somehow and then fit yourself into some sort of box so that you can work within that. Think about how crazy and abstract it all is and how we move through it without thinking, like: "Yeah! Seedless watermelon, fuckin' eh, man! Why's there need to be seeds, right? They're annoying!"
Is there anything you consciously avoid when you're writing songs?
Uhhh... racism. No, when I'm writing songs lyrically, I feel like that process is very difficult, since I don't really do much reading. The poetry side of stuff seems pretentious, to me, very quickly, so I try and keep it a little bit broad. I definitely don't like it when artists force their opinions across so bluntly with lyrics, so I like to keep the lyrics free enough that people can apply them to their situation. I'm not going to sing a song about Stephen Harper being a fucking dickhead, right?
Right. Lastly, it's Friday the 13th today. Have you taken any precautions against evil?
Against evil? I am evil, so I've locked myself inside of a tarring container. I'm all gluey and sticky right now. I'm trapped. (Flemish Eye)