AFTER QUITTING a pizza joint some eight years ago to pursue a career in music, Chad VanGaalen has built a seemingly idyllic and tranquil nest. Along with his wife and daughters—aged three and one—VanGaalen lives by a river on the outskirts of Calgary. There he has a humbling view of the mountains and a basement studio teeming with odd equipment. Everything he needs is nearby, and as such, he hates to leave.
"I live the life of Riley over here," VanGaalen says. "I get to see my kids all day. My wife works from home too, so we're always around. The grandparents are over. The sun is shining. It's pretty awesome."
My call interrupts today's work: naming songs and finishing art for the 13—yes, 13—cassettes he's about to release. Partnered with Sub Pop and Flemish Eye, VanGaalen is launching a boutique cassette label (Yoko Eno) with single tapes available online, and all proceeds going to charity.
The cassette releases represent a departure from VanGaalen's scruffy, outsider, avant-pop. While his previous albums hinted at a penchant for found sounds, blippy electronics, and noisy atmospherics, all were deeply anchored in song. The upcoming 13 releases are something else altogether. They represent a new style of musical output for VanGaalen: explorative instrumental improvisation. Until now he's held it back. Mostly recorded over the last three years, this material runs a vast gamut: There is Black Mold (noise), Raw Operator (instrumental hiphop), and _Duck Tassels_ (modular synthesis). There's even a full-on rap record.
VanGaalen acknowledges that the tapes may confound current fans. "People kind of know me as a singer/songwriter," he explains, "which was kind of a joke on myself to begin with."
"The first real instrument I played was a classical guitar that my mom had," VanGaalen says. "I just kind of tuned it up. At the time I assumed that everybody just tuned the guitar however they wanted." The tuning, which he still uses, is a deep, slinky major chord and on his latest pop recording, Diaper Island, released late this spring, it is especially prevalent. More guitar and rock heavy than his earlier lilting folk, Diaper Island's grit is the product of some creative distress.
"Diaper Island was me just sort of flailing around in disbelief that recording music, or songs specifically, was being as difficult as it was in my mind at the time," VanGaalen says. "I had a lot of problems making a record after Soft Airplane."
Upon completion of 2008's Airplane, VanGaalen buried his head in improvisational, instrumental projects and found it difficult returning to pop, especially with his newfound fatherly demands.
Unsure what he was grasping for, VanGaalen recorded then discarded almost three whole albums in pursuit of Diaper Island. The first was song based and electronic. The second was folk, and the third lo-fi. None felt right, but from the final recordings he was able to salvage a handful of songs that became the stylistic and thematic core of Diaper Island.
"The title of the record kind of sums it up," VanGaalen says. "It could've been Garbage Island, it could've been Diaper Island. It's the idea of each individual person creating so much waste over their lifetime and imagining that waste piling up somewhere. Sort of North American guilt, I guess."