Oct. 15, 2008 - Issue #678: It’s a Chad Chad Chad Chad World
Chad VanGaalen soaks us in his fantastic world on Soft Airplane
‘Where is the fucking imagination?” The question hangs in the air, indignant and weary. Chad VanGaalen’s words suspend themselves across the Ottawa Valley, stretch over the flood plains of Manitoba and span the rippling dried yellow grasses and immense blue sky of the Prairies, carried back to his home province from somewhere near the centre of our country by the invisible techno-magic world of waves and beams that exists simultaneous to our more mundane one.
It’s the mundane he’s invoking with such despair, a few days into his Canadian tour for his third (official) full-length release, Soft Airplane.
“Those kinds of mushroom-y, tulip bulb-y buildings that you used to see in fantastic pictures of ‘the future’—that’s the world I want. Stuff that looks like beautiful igloos or quonset huts,” VanGaalen sighs. “And why not? Why not tulip bulb-y buildings with veins that blend into the landscape? I want to believe people are better than these sprawls of grey boxes that all look the same.”
There’s something unspoiled and Capra-esque about VanGaalen. He comes off as a sincere humanist in the most fundamental sense of the term, someone who believes in the possibilities of human experience and consciousness, in our innate awesomeness as a species—that if only we could appeal to our better angels instead of the grey-box-and-reality show-loving reptilian suburban hick on our other shoulder, we’d be able to create something truly magnificent.
VanGaalen himself puts his finger on it quite nicely. “It’s like in high school, when you’re wandering around questioning things: ‘Does anyone have any artistic vision at all?’”
In innumerable other ways, VanGaalen has grown up, but he’s never quite shaken loose this innocent outrage, nor abandoned his sense of play. Unfortunately, he’s also given to spells of melancholy and pessimism, frequently drawn out when he feels assaulted by the sheer wrongness of situations and environments. He takes the impersonality of the world, well, personally.
“Maybe I’m wrong,” he scowls. “Maybe they do want these boxes.”
VanGaalen launches into a delightful, near-vaudevillian impersonation of the box-dwelling type: “I want a box! A grey box or a salmon box? Hmm ... I just want a box!”
Switching back to conversational mode, he muses, “Canada’s pretty young. We were just in Montréal surrounded by beautiful architecture and people. I think of Alberta buildings, and I think about my home in Calgary. I’d like to think it will become solar power central—there’s so much sun. All the ‘richies’ living on the hills could have solar. Or they could stay grey-box. I can see it going in either direction. It’s a weird town—there’s so much money, they think they can buy culture instead of facilitating it. And we’re headed towards a more conservative government, even. It’s fucking crazy.”
He repeats, “Where is the fucking imagination?” This time it’s more of a murmur, like his mind has already wandered off and applied the same words to a different notion.
Infiniheart was a revelation when it was released in Calgary in 2004, introducing VanGaalen’s weirdling shambolically psychedelic sci-folk world—unless you had already encountered him busking or playing in a coffee shop or at some house party and given him a couple bucks, whatever you could afford, for one of his handmade and ever-changing CDRs, swaddled in his loosey-goosey handmade artwork.
Local music-maker Ian Russell, who met VanGaalen when they were both Alberta College of Art & Design students, persisted in trying to convince him to discipline his constant songwriting and make a real record, one whose tracklist and artwork wouldn’t constantly shift. Somewhere in the process of nailing VanGaalen’s particular jello to the wall, the duo became close friends and collaborators, establishing the micro-label Flemish Eye to serve as a vehicle for VanGaalen’s music.
And then all heck broke loose: Infiniheart slipped the bonds of the Calgary scene and rippled outward, like a particularly massive stone dropped in water. VanGaalen’s intense and interlocking visions of love, death and dreaming resonated, as did his aesthetic, fed by his sonic experimentations with his Seuss-esque homemade instruments, analogue-electro mix and quailing vocals floating above the aural landscape, conjuring up emotion and imagery in scenarios that were existential and fantastically imaginative.
The prestige labels came a-calling, and VanGaalen, introspective and perpetually steered by his own private stars, totally freaked out.
“I was pretty paralyzed when it happened,” he recalls. “I didn’t expect anyone to be hearing it in general. It was hard for me mentally, as weird as that sounds.”
He’s apologetic, here—VanGaalen’s no fool, and he understands he is a lucky man, to be able to create as a kind of “musical intellectual” for a living, but in many respects he’s living someone else’s dream. He could give two shits about fame, meeting “Important People”—or, horrors of horrors, being treated like one—feels icky and, unless he gets absorbed in the experience of making music, he’s even rather awkward on stage.
“Jagjaguar were super nice, too. So was Secretly Canadian. All of them were pretty great, but Sub Pop gave us the most latitude,” VanGaalen explains. “They said, ‘You don’t have to tour, we don’t have any input, whatever you want to do is fine with us.’ It was sweet; pretty sweet. And they really wanted to team up with all of us.”
Meaning also Russell, who eventually became the musician’s full-time “people,” doing everything from sometimes lending his crisply powerful drumming and other musical skills to live shows to overseeing album art and design to taking care of the day-to-day beeswax of the label and shepherding VanGaalen through his hectic schedule, which has lately expanded beyond music to re-absorb his art practice in a series of animations that give his illustrations a vivid moving life and explores the same kind of emotion and imagination-charged synaesthetic wonderlands his songs do.
”He kicks my ass sometimes,” VanGaalen chuckles. “To tour, to do interviews, that stuff I would never do otherwise. But Ian makes my life easier for sure.”
After a re-release of Infiniheart through Sub Pop in 2005, Skelliconnection appeared in 2006. Although it did well and earned critical nods and a Polaris nomination, VanGaalen seems dissatisfied with it in the wake of the recent release of Soft Airplane.
“Skelliconnection had songs on it that predated Infiniheart, even,” he notes. “I was overthinking a lot of stuff. It came off as pretentious, maybe.”
VanGaalen confirms Soft Airplane’s songs reflect the stability and freedom he’s had the past couple years, culminating in the arrival of his daughter with his long-term partner earlier this year. (Russell welcomed his own firstborn son shortly afterwards.)
“It’s been pretty crazy the past few years, but my creative relationship has been more coherent, I guess. I’m not as scattered as I used to be,” he offers. “This was the first record where I was consciously trying to make an album—a common thread that ties all the songs together, maybe, just even feeling like it represented me at one unified time. The others were really collections of songs. This is the first time I haven’t been pulling out songs that are eight years old—it’s about me now, thinking about stories now.”
Soft Airplane is much warmer and sunnier—despite recurring dominant allusions to death and some moments of anxiety and tension—than either of his previous records. Although he brings up the taboo topic of shuffling off the mortal coil in no fewer than four songs, he doesn’t yoke it to bereavement and absence, but links it instead to peace, connection to the living and an eternal suspended moment of imagination. “No one knows where we go when we’re dead or when we’re dreaming,” he sings on the elegiac second-last track, giving them a sort of equivalence as the song collapses into the fading clatter of a retreating train.
“Yeah, I’ll never achieve the kind of permanence—I’ll never go Cobain now,” VanGaalen says with a wry laugh as he talks about his young family, crystallized around the gurgling newness of his daughter. “I feel a lot more positive about everything. Still, I’m a pretty paranoid guy, and I still get frustrated easily. That’s all there too.”
He adds, “It’s hard to get behind what I wrote 10 years ago, and to feel like it applies to me now. It’s also hard to play that stuff live, so I think it’s a good thing to have this album out. I’m still kind of like that, with novelty, where half my set is totally new stuff. That’s good; it makes me excited to play and makes for a better live show. Performing can feel bad and weird, like when you ate an off burrito, but it can feel good or magical too. And lately, it’s been the latter more often.”
VanGaalen’s also chuffed to be bringing his “drum robot” to assist him in his one-man show here. “It’s analogue-based, a prototype. I don’t fly with it, but in Edmonton you’ll see it. I used it on ‘Cries of the Dead.’ It’s an acoustic drum machine, with robot arms and MIDI controls.” He goes on to describe an ambitious project he’s developing, one that will turn a space anywhere into sonic treasure hunt. “I’ll be able to play the room!”
Fucking imagination? Why, you’re soaking in it! V
Fri, Oct 17 (7 pm)
With Library Voices, Clinton St John, Meatdraw
McDougall United Church
$20 for WCMA festival pass
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