If it were entirely up to Chad VanGaalen, his third album, Soft Airplane, would sound a whole lot stranger. "I'd been putting out mixtapes of weird stuff," he tells me. "There'd always be a couple of 'song' songs on there and my friend Ian [Russell, of Flemish Eye Records] was like, 'You should make a compilation of that and we should put it out as an actual record.' That's what Infiniheart was, which got picked up by Sub Pop, and I put out another 'folk' record [Skelliconnection], and now this is another folk record."
Characterizing the expertly crafted, wholly convincing songs of Soft Airplane as folk, however, is a bit misleading. While the record begins with the effortlessly graceful banjo plucking of "Willow Tree," it confidently traverses all kinds of musical ranges: "TMNT Mask" plops bit-synth arcade noises alongside a forlorn harmonica solo, and "Bare Feet on Wet Griptape" jabs with a pummeling guitar chug, a heap of sonorous echo, and a soaring pop chorus that bests Lindsey Buckingham at his own game. Meanwhile, VanGaalen's experimental tendencies rear their head in the distorted train sounds on "Rabid Bits of Time" and the noise explorations of album closer "Frozen Energon." "That stuff is way closer to my heart," he says. "To me, apocalyptic, overdriven train sounds on a tape machine is way more interesting."
Synth and noise experiments had brief moments on VanGaalen's previous two albums, but they've been largely put to the side. "I have a project called Black Mold that's instrumental compositions, from freaky blip-core to Vangelis ambient synth stuff. Now I have a place to put all that stuff. When I was doing it on the other records, I always thought it was more representative of where I came from—improvised instrumental music experimentation—but it just so happens that people like the folk music more. I always felt like it was necessary for me to inject that, but it never really worked, you know?"
VanGaalen plays each part on his records, tracking with a decidedly homemade setup in his basement. "My main tape deck is just an old JVC ghetto blaster," he says. "People call it lo-fi or whatever, but I think that's horseshit—my tape deck will kick anybody's ass as far as fidelity goes. It's not as hobo-style as everyone likes to talk it up, like, 'Yeah man! He made it on, like, a VCR! Crazy!'"
The basement is where VanGaalen feels most at home. "I don't do too much touring at all; it's kind of like my worst nightmare. 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."
He's only half-kidding, but VanGaalen is looking forward to this tour, particularly because he'll be accompanied by lifelong friend Eric Hamelin, who's also part of VanGaalen's other side project, Broken Ankles. "I like performing live, for sure. I kind of like train wrecking. I'm totally obsessed with awkward silences at this point. I really like shushing people and then not doing anything for five minutes," he jokes. "No, I like playing in front of people. But it just seems like this horribly extravagant thing to burn all this fossil fuel driving around the continent for a half-hour performance. Bring on the holograms so I can do it from my basement."