I wrote about Chad VanGaalen in this week's paper, and you can read the article here. His show is on Saturday at the Doug Fir; he's opening for Giant Sand. I'm putting up my complete interview with VanGaalen; he was a really funny and friendly guy and had me cracking up the whole time I was on the phone with him.
Also, you should really take a look at his video for "Molten Light," which appears on his new Soft Airplane album. Seriously, look at this:
VanGaalen is also a visual artist; he did all the drawing and animation in this video. It's one of those things that I utterly do not comprehend, yet I find absolutely spellbinding.
Here's the full conversation. (Special thanks to Ryan J. Prado for his help transcribing this interview.)
MERCURY: I wanted to talk about recording techniques; I guess you do a lot of stuff at home?
CHAD VANGAALEN: Everything at home, yeah.
Do you play every instrument?
I think the SubPop page said something about it was recorded with an old tape machine and a boombox?
Um, yeah, kind of. My one kind of main tape deck is just an old JVC ghetto blaster. I use it to record all the songs as a one-man band, then either I take it from there and make it into something else, like I'll use it as a bed track, almost, you know what I mean? Sometimes I put layers over it, sometimes I don't. It's not as hobo style as everyone likes to talk it up like, like, "Yeah man! He made it on a, like, VCR! Crazy!" I'm like, "Dude. I can record."
Yeah, "It was etched onto wax with sticks and stones..." The new record has more, I don't want to say conventional songs, but there's fewer sort of zany synth experiments than the last one. Was that a conscious decision?
Well I have a side project-not a side project, just a project called Black Mold that's coming out in January that's just gonna be instrumental compositions and more kind of freaky blip-core; anything from that to Vangelis kind of ambient synth stuff. So I'm really excited about that; it's gonna be awesome. It's already finished right now. So now I have a place to put all that stuff. 'Cause when I was doing it on the other records, I always thought that was more representative of where I came from, because I came from improvised kind of instrumental music experimentation, and it just so happens that people like the folk music more than that. I always felt like it was necessary for me to inject that, but it never really worked, you know? That's why this record doesn't have any [of that]; 'cause I actually have a venue where I can put out that stuff.
Is Black Mold just you?
Yeah, just me with a modular synth and a bunch of old drum machines and lots of circuit-bent homemade electronics and shit. I like playing shows just as Black Mold because, like I said, it's hard for me to drag twice as much gear to a show just to play one instrumental track. It just always seemed weird, so people were like, "What's the deal? Where's that one kickin' track?" and I'm just like, "It's at home in my basement."
So you're gonna do that next year? Is that album gonna come out on SubPop also?
I don't think so. It's gonna come out on Flemish Eye in Canada. I have no idea what's gonna happen to it. But it's a really good record so I wouldn't be surprised if somebody picked it up somewhere. I don't think SubPop is necessarily interested in it, just cause they're like... I guess they put out Wolf Eyes and stuff like that, which is pretty strange stuff, but...
You mentioned that that's more where you came from, rather than the folk stuff. Would you say that's closer to your heart, or is that even a question you can answer?
Oh yeah, for sure. If it was up to me... I mean, there's like a train recording at the end of [the new record], then there's that "Frozen Energon" track and that stuff is way closer to my heart, you know what I mean? It's a good record, but it's not the kind of music I would listen to necessarily, you know what I mean? I'm not searching out, uh... I mean, I don't know. Maybe that's just me, but if it was up to me I would have put out a record of just train sounds. I'm obsessed with recording trains. To me, apocalyptic, overdriven train sounds on a tape machine is way more interesting than, like... [the other stuff].
Then how did, for lack of a better term, the "folk" stuff come about?
Well, my friend Ian [Russell] here who runs Flemish Eye Records...I'd just been putting out mix tapes forever of weird stuff and there'd always be a couple of "song" songs on there for whatever reason. He was like, "You should make a compilation of that and we should put it out as like a folk record, or as like an actual record." That's what Infiniheart was. That got picked up by SubPop, and that was kind of like what they wanted. So I put out another folk record, and this is another folk record. It's not that I don't like doing it, it's just funny that that's what becomes popular and then when people are kind of criticizing it like, "All those wacky noises, I don't know!" And I'm just like, "Dude, what are you talking about? It's nothing without that."
So keeping both tracks going, is that what you're interested in, like the Chad VanGaalen and then the Black Mold stuff?
Yeah. That, and then I have a side project with my friend Eric called Broken Ankles. He was originally the guy I originally started playing music with and it was just purely improvised, sort of, free music, and that record is probably coming out sometime next year as well. People will be able to be, like, "Oh yeah, now I understand." The Broken Ankles stuff kind of bridges the gap from the weirdo stuff to rock. It's more like stoner, improvised free music, injected with strange sounds. No vocals, just instrumental rock.
Do you find that vocals and writing lyrics are outside of your interest and do you do it to fill in the spaces? Are you interested in writing lyrics?
Yeah. It's fun. Like, wordplay, or whatever, is totally awesome. Out of that I came from listening to Tribe Called Quest and, like, positive hiphop, and, like, MF Doom obviously is like the best. So wordplay out of that was what got me interested in writing lyrics, I guess. But yeah, I have tons of fun doing that; when Ian put that together, and I started singing-I haven't been singing for that long, so I'm slowly finding my voice right now in these last three records and becoming more comfortable with it. Yeah, I mean I enjoy it and I love folk music too, so it seems appropriate to showcase that. I'm not really proficient at any instrument and I find my voice is probably the most versatile. Like, I'm not that good of a drummer, I'm not that good of a guitar player or keyboard player, but I feel like my voice is... I can move around with it as much as I want. It seems appropriate that I would use it for something. And you gotta sing words, you can't just be like Bobby McFerrin. Nobody comes out to your shows going, "Have you seen Chad VanGaalen scat? It's amazing! He scatted a song about Smurfs the other day that blew my mind!"
[laughing] Wow--yeah, I'm glad you're not doing that.
Yeah, you gotta kind of make words and stories, so...
Do you sit down and write a song the way I would think someone like Neil Young writes a song, where he has an hour and goes in and does it and finishes it? Or is it more of a recording process where you put some tracks down and it comes together slowly?
More oftentimes than not, it's kind of like I just sit down and write it and record it and it's done. That's where the ghetto blaster comes into play because I do a lot of stuff like that, and then it seems like... I don't even care; people call it lo-fi or whatever, but I think it's horseshit-my tape deck will kick anybody's ass as far as fidelity goes. But in that moment, it seems like as I've written a song, and then if I've recorded in that moment, I'd rather have that raw energy and emotion and have it have a little bit of tape hiss or whatever, than have this premeditated thing that's been sitting around and not being able to criticize it for however long, and then it becomes this watered-down version of whatever it is, you know what I mean? The first track, "Willow Tree," was like that. I wrote and recorded it in probably a couple hours and it was pretty much done as far as that goes, and then put other little sprinkles of stuff on it. But capturing it in the moment is what it's all about for me.
What about the live show this tour, are you going to be solo?
No, not on this one. Usually I play one-man band. It's too bad; out east I'm bringing a full band and then out west, the bass player who usually plays with me plays in this other band called Women. We recorded their record in the basement this winter and now they're getting attention and stuff so they're touring across the States, which sucks. Well, it's good for them but bad for me because they've got my bass player. So it'll be me and this other guy Eric who's in that Broken Ankles project, and he's gonna be playing drums along with, like, pieces of garbage and stuff like that.
So it will probably be just the two of you at that point?
We might pick up this violin player in Vancouver but I don't know if we'll convince him to come across the border with us or not.
Do you do much live playing?
No, not really. I don't do too much touring at all; it's kind of like my worst nightmare. I don't know. I work a lot on animations and visual art, too, so whenever I'm away from my house I just start going crazy because I feel like I'm not doing anything when I'm on tour. I'm just kind of, like, driving and driving, and then playing and going to sleep in some semen-infested hotel room somewhere. Not only is it disgusting, it's just like mind-melting. It's just kind of boring, you know? This should be okay because I've known Eric since I was, like, 11 years old, so we'll have fun.
How about performing live? Do you like that part of it?
Yeah. I like performing live, for sure. I kind of like trainwrecking. I'm totally obsessed with awkward silences at this point. I really like shushing people and then not doing anything for five minutes, making it seem like 20 minutes. It's like this crazy, like, once you get addicted to it, it's like there's nothing better.
No, I like playing in front of people. In my mind, it just seems like this horribly extravagant thing to burn all this fossil fuel driving around the continent for a half-hour performance. It's like, "Hey guess what? We just spent $500 in dinosaur bones getting here and now we're gonna spout off about a bunch of nonsense," and have some awkward silence, like, what the fuck? Bring on the holograms so I can do it from my basement.
Ideally, is that what you'd rather be doing?
Yeah, or like, we're considering buying a bunch of horses, buying like three horses. We live on the outskirts of Calgary on the edge of the mountains so there's lots of horse ranches around and stuff. It's, like, $300 to buy a horse and $50 a month to have it kept in a stable for you, which is like way cheaper than a car. And then we have these trails all throughout Canada that run through every city and all throughout Canada, and you can ride them on horseback. I'm thinking about instead of renting vehicles and vans, it would be rad to do it horseback. Like, how badass would that be? Fuckin' tassels hanging off? Like, boomboxes on the back; I'm telling you man, it would be the new... Roll into town on your fuckin' horse? Fuck!
[laughing] I don't think you could do that here in America. It would make for some interesting tour riders, probably.
Yeah, your horse would literally die. And then you'd feel horrible, because it would have been your best friend at that point. You'd be like, "I'm an asshole." And then you'd drive home in some crappy, like, fuckin' Chevy Sprint, or something like that.
Or a car that's named after a horse, like a Pinto...
One of those, like, teched-out Mustangs, like a 2006 Mustang.
There's a band here in Portland called Blind Pilot that tours by bike, but they're finally hitting the wall with that. They're getting to the point where they just can't do it anymore, which is too bad. It's one of those things where, "Oh, we love you because you tour by bike," so more and more people love you, and now so many people love you that you can't do it anymore.
Weird, man. Yeah, that guy Jeremy Fisher does it too. There's a solo guy that's been doing that for a while. Seems, like, insane, like you'd have thighs of steel. You'd be, like, walking all bowlegged into the gig with spandex and a bike helmet and Oakleys or whatever.