If you spent all your waking hours on only one or two pursuits, just imagine how much you could get accomplished. Well, you don’t have to imagine it… just take a look at artist and musician Chad VanGaalen. Chad spends most of his life in his basement studio, recording indie-folk-pop records and creating hand-drawn animations. His third full-length album, Soft Airplane, has just come out on Sub Pop and he’s the father of a new-born baby girl. Having only recently stumbled upon Chad’s haunting music, we decided to give him a call as soon as we could to see what drives the Canadian workaholic.
You are a musician, an illustrator, animator… which came first for you? Or are you not able to separate them?
I got into music pretty late on. The later half of high school I got introduced to bands like Shellac and Sonic Youth and stuff. Before that I was just kind of listening to AM radio, so I’d have to say drawing came first. My dad is a landscape painter. So as a kid, we would go out to the mountains and paint. That has always been a huge part of my life.
Are you doing animation only for your own music videos or are you doing some other projects?
Right now I’m working on a full-length animation that I got a Canada Council Grant to do. I’ve been doing music videos to kind of pay the bills, but this is what I’ve been working towards.
Do the videos always come after the songs or do you ever draw or work on an animation and then come up with a song based off of that?
Mostly I do it afterwards, to the music. But recently I’ve been doing the animation and preliminary drawings and sketches beforehand, then synching music to it. Hopefully, that stuff should be out pretty soon. I have three animations that are finished right now that I worked on over the winter. But I don’t know when they are going to come out. They are for side projects that I’m working on—experimental electronic stuff. For those, the drawings came before the music, which is the opposite of what usually happens.
Are those still in the realm of “music video,” or are you doing them for an animation festival or something?
They are more geared towards film shorts. They’re still, unfortunately, kind of the same length as the music videos because it’s a pretty labor-intensive thing. Getting five minutes of animation is months and months of work. Most of these are old-school cell work, so it really takes me quite a while. When you’re working with a computer, you just click something and it fills in with neon-awesomeness. But when you’re working with hand-made animation, your felts (pens) go dry and shit so not only does it cost more, it’s just a lot more time. If I’m drawing something with a tablet into my computer, it’s technically hand-drawn, but at the end of it, you know, it’s just 0s and 1s. Whereas when you’re working by hand you are left with these awesome drawings, so it’s a little bit more tangible of an experience—it kind of pays off that way.
Yes, the omnipresence of computers today… where many artists work strictly in the computer and their output is a digital print, a Giclé or something like that… to me it’s always a bit strange to not have an original, handmade piece. That seems so much more valuable.
Yeah. I think we’ve been slowly tricked into that. Like on my last record, I moved out of recording on a four-track and I was trying to make my process a little bit easier. It ended up being really horrible and frustrating because stuff gets erased and it’s like the 0s and 1s trick you into being like, “I thought you guys are real!” and they’re just like, “No man, we were never real, we’re just pretending that we’re real.”
Plus, if you’re doing visual stuff on a computer and you’re doing your audio, your eyes start to melt into the back of your head and you’re spending all this time on the computer and it just kind of gets like a little bit crazy after a while, you know? Five years ago I didn’t even have a computer, and then up until last year I was doing so much work on it that I decided to move back to tape. Not for the lo-fi aesthetic, but I honestly just like working with music again, you know? It’s so much nicer to touch stuff; it’s the same with drawing.
So, I’ve been working on quarter inch tape. It sounds hi-fi enough for me, and you end up with a better sounding thing than digital. I’ve realized it’s impossible to record drums digitally, at least in my kind of humble studio. It’s really easy to capture drums on tape. You don’t need to set up compression or any sort of fancy mic placement It’s just one mic over the drums and it sounds like it sounds in the room. And if it starts getting too loud it kind of naturally compresses and saturates. Whereas digital clips and it’s a nightmare.
So how about your creative process? I’ve read that you are incessantly working on music or drawing or animation in your basement studio. Do you treat it like a job and go into the studio every day from nine-to-five, or do you go down and work when you have ideas?
I feel like I’m blessed in a way… in that I have a studio in my house. I just find it insane that I have the technology to make an animation in my house, as well as record the sounds so it’s super exciting to me. I’m kind of addicted to it. I also feel that you need to keep that energy up if you’re animating. Like I said before, I’m working 24 frames per second, so that’s twenty-four drawings for every second of animation. That’s a shit-load of work, and if you stop and break that process, your muscles atrophy.
I find that once I sit down and I start doing it, then things just happen no matter what. If I wait to be inspired, it ends up being a fairly bad idea most of the time. I think more interesting stuff comes out of the subconscious when you just sit down and don’t think about it. It’s not that I don’t put any thought into my subject matter, but it just seems like if I just sit down and let things go, more interesting stuff happens than what I could come up with pre-thinking.
I guess that comes down to whether you have the talent to do that. Some people would do that and come up with utter crap.
Oh, I come up with utter crap all the time. I mean, you have to trudge through and get to the stuff that’s good. But believe me, I’ve got suitcases full of utter crap.
Do you have any tricks or methods for spurring your creativity or getting it going?
It seems like there is always something positive that comes out of just doing it—like Nike, you know. They really hit it on the head with that one. Even if I have to work through some bad ideas, I at least find out an interesting camera move, or figure out something new technically. Like, if I made a bad drum beat, maybe I found a really good drum sound by putting it up in the rafters or putting it under a carpet; maybe I found something interesting along the way, you know?
So with your stream of consciousness lyrics, can you bust it freestyle?
Can I bust it freestyle?
Yeah I can bust it freestyle, like… You gotta point your guitar and a heavy metal hair-do. Gold Camero with the spoilers for the airflow. When I’m out hunting I’ll be pulling back the crossbow. Customized arrow, poison tip…
Nice. On subject matter, many of your stories have mythological characteristics to them, with very haunting imagery. Where does that come from?
I use death, or the end of consciousness, as a way to trigger insane thoughts. Contemplating death is a pretty impossible thing to begin with, so a lot of interesting things come out of it. It seems to me like one of the beautiful things about life is that there’s this unexpected, unexplained mythical realm. I mean, to me, it doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t seem possible that there would ever be an end to the energy or life force that you have. It’s got to go somewhere. It can’t just like disappear. I mean, maybe it does, but that’s what I mean—just thinking about it spawns these ideas and gets my imagination going.
So, making a living doing music and art, basically following your passions (that I’m sure you would be doing as hobbies anyway if you had a regular nine to five job)… do you feel that you’ve hit the jackpot?
Yeah, I honestly feel so lucky that Flemish Eye, Sub Pop, and my family have given me the opportunity to do what I do. I would have a pretty hard time explaining myself if it wasn’t for the people who are behind me, pushing me, giving me a bit more credit than maybe I deserve. I just lucked out in a lot of ways. So it’s my dream come true, basically.
So it’s not so much a master plan, as it was you just living your life and meeting the right people and the right things coming together and realizing the talent that you had and helping to share that?
Yeah… I mean I work really hard at it and I really love it, but it just so happens that I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to do it. I know a lot of my friends are a million times more talented than me and they’re still plugging away.
Well, congratulations that’s awesome. Back to a music question. You use a lot of traditional folk instruments and style, as well as more rock oriented stuff and even some electronic stuff. Do you ever feel that you have too much to choose from and it’s hard to pick a direction or a style? Like, some artists will cut down the tools that they have so they can actually get stuff done.
Yeah, I find that’s sort of the biggest struggle I have. I’m in love with everything, and it can get kind of muddy after awhile. I struggle with having no sort of limitations. I got introduced to playing music through an improvised scene. It was an experimental, stream of consciousness thing. So on this new record, I really tried hard to do something that was coherent, and not so schizophrenic.
What is your electronic project called?
Black Mold. That record’s finished so I think Flemish Eye is going to put it out in about a month and a half. It showcases more experimental, electronic stuff and found sounds.
That’s awesome that you have so many interests that you are able to pursue. Not enough time, probably, to do all the things that you find interesting.
Yeah, no it’s true. I’m home all day now too because I just had a baby girl. I’m a full-time Dad now, which is another awesome thing I should probably mention…