Features | Interviews

Chad VanGaalen

By Scott Reid | 15 April 2004

Having just released his excellent debut, Infiniheart in January, Calgarian singer-songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist, all around musical MacGyver Chad VanGaalen has been keeping busy working on new material and preparing for an upcoming tour.

Recently, I had the chance to do a little Q&A with VanGaalen in an attempt to learn what we can about this still relatively obscure (something that will soon change, if my argument over the years that talent eventually supersedes any lack of distribution holds up) talent. Shedding some light on the construction of his stunning debut, as well his discussing his influences, his side-project Broken Ankles and his ambitious recordings of epic sonic landscapes, Chad helps us understand some of what's behind the most promising Canadian record release so far in 2004.

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CMG: Infiniheart, from what I understand, was cut from hundreds of songs down to the album's final 19. Was the process of picking which would make it on the album a difficult one? Did someone else help you with that?
VanGaalen: Yeah it was like pulling hundreds of teeth and it started out as an instrumental album, but people really like the singing so. . . yeah and [Fake Cops drummer and head of the Catch and Release label] Ian Russel helped me pick songs. It was nearly impossible. . . I almost backed out all together.

CMG: What kind of significance does the title have? It seems to take a different context in a lot of these songs; lyrically, it seems to deal a lot with death and defeat. At times, even like a testament to what we're willing to live through and keep coming back for. Is there a sense of optimism in it or just stubbornness?
VanGaalen: What to do with infinity in every direction? It's like when you're young and you are looking forward to understanding things (life, time, where we are) as you get older, but it keeps folding itself over and over, etc. . . truth becomes something different. Fear of death, no fear of death. . . and life the same, afraid of life. . . laziness, synthesized telekinesis. . . we wanted a boring future so that's what we have, no romance, no contrast.

CMG: Have you been or do you plan on touring for the record, and if so, how do you plan on performing the songs live? With a band to flesh them out or more of a solo affair?
VanGaalen: Yeah, we are gonna tour this summer. Eric Hamelin is the guy I have been playing with forever but he moved to Victoria so I'm back and forth from there writing stuff with him. Plus my friend Noel Webber will play keys and maybe I might have a horn section. If I'm lucky.

CMG: Is Infiniheart your first release on a label? If so, is there a reason you've waited this long to have something out there or just the way things happened to turn out?
VanGaalen: Well, I was never really interested in playing shows or thought any one would be that interested in it enough to put it out. . . so yeah, it just kinda fell in my lap in a really nice soft way rather than canning me.

CMG: Did you look back at some of the older songs you'd written and feel the need to rework them for Infiniheart or did they go on "as is?"
VanGaalen: There were two songs that I redid for Infiniheart, the rest were as is. But yeah a lot of the material is old and I have moved on, so I don't really play a lot of those songs at all anymore.

CMG: I understand that three of the album's songs were newly recorded for its release; if so, which were they? Do they reflect the newer material you've been working on?
VanGaalen: "Clinicly Dead" was redone as a rock song, "Red Blood" is new and "Traffic," too. Due to the popularity of the rock stuff I have been trying to understand what it is about rock and where I wanna go with it, the newer songs are kinda what I'm still doing as far as rock but. . . I have rebuilt a piano and retuned it and am mostly composing stuff for prepared instruments, but there's not a big audience for that out here.

CMG: What can you tell us about your other project, Broken Ankles?
VanGaalen: Well, Broken Ankles is a project that started seven years ago as the Wool Nipples and it's with Eric Hamelin on drums. At first it was strictly improvised music. . . I play sax and reeds and horns and samplers and all kinds of shit and Eric is a drumming mad man so it's really energized. Then we started doing 3-4 minute long rock improvs and playing shows and people thought we had songs but we were just hooligans.

CMG: You seem to experiment a lot within the freedom of solo bedroom record, going as far to even make your own instruments. Do you find it easier to get exactly what you need out of a song in this setting? Also, what kind of recording setup were you using on the record?
VanGaalen: Well its all I know, so yeah I can press record and know how its gonna sound, and I feel like I finally can do what I want as far as production in my room. Plus it's private and I need that to capture the energy of the songs. I used a Tascam 424 porta studio and good mics for a lot of it, but I try to change the set up of every song so that it doesn't get stale in the headphones. So, too many recording techs to describe.

CMG: I hate to pull out the cliché influences question, but your record manages to inhabit such an autonomous feel that sounds familiar without easily leaving many clues as to what really inspires you, musically. Any thoughts?
VanGaalen: John Coltrane's Interstellar Space with Rashid Ali, John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, Steve Riech's Electric Counterpoint, Glen Branca, Sun Ra's My Brother The Wind, Directions in Music, Isotope 217, Velvet Underground, Grassy Knoll, lots of hip hop. I don't really listen to much rock or folk so it's weird that that it's what I do. It's mostly free music I love.

CMG: The three instrumental/found sound focused tracks seem to stick out; have you composed a lot of these kinds of tracks or just to compliment the predominantly singer-songwriter feel of the record?
VanGaalen: Yeah, if I were to do it again, a lot of those would be off and a longer piece would be in the middle to break it up. The thing was is that all my instrumental songs are usually quite long -- 15-20 min -- so I tried to chop them and find a place for them to live with the folk shit, but it kinda back fired and sounded kinda hacked up.

CMG: There's not a lot of biographical information out there; anything you feel interesting or relevant to share? Anything that might shine a light on the music you make or where you're coming from?
VanGaalen: Well I wanted people to be able to enter the songs as themselves and relate, not for it to be about me specifically. Although there is a lot of journal entry stuff floatin.

CMG: There's a lot of variety on Infiniheart -- are there any styles that you've delved into that, because of space limitation, didn't get showcased on the album?
VanGaalen: Yeah, mostly I record and compose symphonies with the instruments that I build. The songs are very visual and are land scapes. I just finished doing a swampy up in to foothills kinda thing that's a half hour.

CMG: Calgary isn't universally known for its music scene; do you think working there has helped/hindered you in any ways? Any other local artists we should be looking into?
VanGaalen: I've been lucky to be able to travel a lot, so Calgary to me is a place where I record everything that I write abroad. But yeah, as for local stuff Falcon Hawk will make you dance.

CMG: Anything that you've been really into lately -- a book, album, movie, food, TV show, etc?
VanGaalen: Eggplant curry. YUM!

CMG: Lastly, if you could have anyone cover one of your songs, who/what song would it be and why?
VanGaalen: I would have my father sing "After the After Life" because it's about him and he doesn't even know it.