Interview: Chad VanGaalen
Illustrator, musician and Sub Pop labelmate of J Mascis
This article is from 2011.
Illustrator and musician Chad VanGaalen’s no frills lo fi approach is winning him fans, including his own grunge idol J.Mascis, finds Claire Sawers
We join Chad VanGaalen at his home in Calgary. It’s early morning in Canada, and he’s lounging on his bed with his dog, and telling us down the phone how he first got into making music.
‘Ever since I was about five, I was really into comic books. For years I’d been going to this comic book store in Calgary, called Phoenix Comic Books. I knew the owner really well. He ended up building this little record store section out back, with a bunch of boutique vinyl. In Calgary we didn’t have anything like that; so it was pretty special. I’d go in and buy a comic, and pop my head in to the record store. I was more interested in leafing through the cool record covers. But the guy that was working there saw I was coming in a lot, and wanted to give me some records to “try and weird me out”.’
So 15-year-old VanGaalen began taking home Pavement, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, Sonic Youth and Shellac records. ‘Before that, I’d only really listened to whatever was playing on the radio. But after that I was completely hooked.’
Fast forward to the present day, and the now thirtysomething VanGaalen is not only making his own indie rock records, and animating his own videos, he can now consider J Mascis a friend, after the singer got in touch and asked VanGaalen to animate a video for him.
‘Yeah, as a 15-year-old, I couldn’t even dream I’d be doing what I’m doing now. It’s completely surreal.’ Mascis was a labelmate of VanGaalen’s on Sub Pop, and got in touch after a mutual friend described VanGaalen as, ‘this kind of stoner rock dude’. Mascis saw some animations of his, and asked him to create something.
‘So I sent him back an email saying, “Hey man, I really don’t know what this is going to turn out to be… I really like your songs, hope you don’t think I’m too flaky, but I really can’t tell what I’m going to make you. Hope that doesn’t sound too stupid.” And J gets back to me, saying “Awesome!” That was it; it was kind of the perfect way for me to be working. He realised what I do is kind of psychedelic, and a bit unplanned…’
The visual side of VanGaalen’s work is a swirling, trippy, cartoon blur of monsters, extra-terrestial explorers, bubblegum colours and storybook adventure. There are shades of Daniel Johnston’s hallucinogenic wig-outs, or David Shrigley’s art brut doodles, and it reveals VanGaalen’s true passion, for illustration. ‘I’ll always be doing something creative with my time. Maybe one day I’ll get bored with music, but not drawing,’ he says.
Musically, VanGaalen does not sound like someone bored with making music. Last month he put out Diaper Island, his fourth LP, and to many his sharpest and most cohesive to date.
It’s a woozy, gently-indie rock record, twanging and swooning with folk sounds, and given extra richness and warmth thanks to recordings made on a beloved old tape machine of his. The first three records he made (Infiniheart, 2004, Skelliconnection, 2006 and Soft Airplane, 2008) took an experimental, sonically pick ‘n’ mix approach, drawing together plodding garage rock, buzzing electronica, plucked ukulele and twinkling xylophone, depending on his mood. For Diaper Island however, he’s stripped back the layers, and returned to the minimalist, no-frills grunge of his teens.
‘In the past I’ve put prepared piano pieces on my records, or instrumental electronic music. For whatever reason, I want to compartmentalise my music now, without completely alienating my audience of course. I feel like the rock stuff just came really easy; it might not be as eclectic or as experimental as earlier stuff, it just felt more honest.’
In a few weeks, VanGaalen has an illustration exhibition opening in Amsterdam, before returning to Canada to collaborate with other animator friends to make a short film, hopefully something sci-fi . ‘I’m slowly but surely getting my shit together,’ he says, still with the (overly modest) mumble of a stoner rock dude.
Captain’s Rest , Glasgow, 18 Aug; Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh, 19 Aug, part of The Edge festival.