Calgary musician and artist Chad VanGaalen seems highly productive. I call up his house at our scheduled interview time, and learn he needs to be called away from his personal studio. Also, he handed three albums over to label Sub Pop at once, before they settled on a collection called Diaper Island, his fourth release under his own name (he also releases more experimental music as Black Mold). And the credits on the inside of Diaper Island read: “All music written, performed, and recorded by Chad VanGaalen. Illustrations by Chad VanGaalen.”

With so much of VanGaalen’s music and presentation left to his own hands, it’s no surprise a fervent cult has formed up around him. That will surely expand with Diaper Island, his most accessible, rock-heavy release to date.

When did work on this record get underway?

I would say right after Soft Airplane (2008). A few of the songs were even recorded while I was mastering Soft Airplane.

Is music something you engage with on a daily basis?

Not really anymore. I’ve got two kids now, so I take whatever time I can get in the studio.

Are they starting to show an interest in music?

My oldest daughter is three, so she’s pretty much interested in anything. I’m definitely not trying to cultivate any sort of direction (for them) quite yet. Basically, if we’re jamming, it’s just a total free-for-all. We’ve recorded stuff together just to have a laugh.

When you wrapped Soft Airplane, did you have any aesthetic plan for your next record?

I went through a few different phases. I had a few things in mind. There was an electro-based record that I had somewhat completed, along the lines of “TMNT Mask.” Then, I had a kinda folk record that I finished in between, that I wasn’t 100 per cent happy with, though one of the songs made it onto Diaper Island. It was just kind of boring. Then I went more garage-rock, but people thought it sounded too blown out.

That’s amazing. You actually brought two other records to stages of near-completion?

Yeah, I handed in three different records and this is the one that got picked.

With so much excess material, do you keep songs around for a long time in the interest of future projects or is it more beneficial to be constantly moving in new directions?

Sorry, did you say “nude erections?”

New directions.

Oh, OK! Yeah, I think for the most part I just want to keep goin’. For this record, there were like 80-plus B-sides. Who knows what we’re going to do with them. We put out a five-song EP to benefit Japan. If it was up to me, I think I’d just put them on the internet, but the concern is alienating everyone with too much material to digest. It’s good to keep things to small doses, instead of putting out four hours of music (at the same time).

You would, however, get a few fans more than willing to sit through everything. 

Yeah. I love the Pixies, but I dunno if I’d listen to six hours of B-sides. Or maybe I would. That’s a horrible comparison, but yeah.

I know a few obsessive Chad VanGaalen fans myself. Have you run into those hardcore admirers of your work?

All the times I’ve been exposed to fanatics, they’ve been respectful. Nobody’s coming up from behind to stick their finger up my butthole. I just flew to Paris a couple days ago for press and a guy interviewing me had a scene from one of my animations tattooed across his chest. And that was kind of awkward.

You mentioned you would hypothetically release your material online. Are you drawn to the instantaneous nature of the internet?

I love the internet, and I hate it. I hate it more than I love it. Most of my enthusiasm, in terms of getting inspired about making art, has been dampened by the rate of consumption. Everybody’s got an iPOD with 100 GB, 200,000 albums — and they don’t know the names of songs. Nobody really cares, including myself. I’m enjoying silence more than music these days, just because it seems so overwhelming. I won’t say it’s totally a bad thing but it’s overwhelming.

Records haven’t become less important as a statement, I think, but it has gotten harder and harder for the average listener, and I include myself in that, to sit through 45 minutes or so of the same artist.

Yeah, our attention spans have gotten so short. Like you download 20 movies from Netflix, and you sit through one tapping your fingers like, “I don’t know if I can sit through this — did I pick the right movie?” You’re always wondering. “Am I listening to the hit single right now, or am I wasting my time?"

Did you have that in mind when you were finalizing Diaper Island? I think it’s your most immediately accessible record yet.

Not really. As I said, there were a few different manifestations before it. When I was handing the records into Sub Pop, they were expecting something better, so I pushed myself into a zone, thinking I could make a rock record. I was listening to albums at the time that were very coherent and direct. I’m not really a songwriter, but people expect songs from me. If it was up to me, I’d put out a record with two 20-minute drone tracks — but no one would listen to that.

Is the perception that indie-leaning labels like Sub Pop are more hands off than the majors unfounded?

I don’t think so. For all the records I handed in, the mentality was, “Yeah, we’ll put it out, but if you want an honest opinion, we think you could do something better.” All the input I get is completely honest, only trying to push me and make me stronger. Indie labels are respectful and that’s what keeps them around. If I wanted to make a hip hop record, Sub Pop would put it out, but I dunno if they’d put it out with a smile. They’d be like, “Alright, if you’re gonna be a joker...”

It seems their input is more personal and less commercially motivated.

In fact, I barely sell any records for Sub Pop. Every time they put out a record of mine, it’s because they want to, not because it’s going to sell. Even if I had major labels breathing down my neck, I’d still give them the finger. Flemish Eye and Sub Pop treat me like a friend, and it never seems like a chore.

So for an artist like yourself who doesn’t sell a lot of records, yet still has a strong, loyal fanbase, what is the primary means of support? Is it touring? Licensing?

It’s a combination of things. I do animation and videos — just finished one for J Mascis — and get funding through the Canada Council for the Arts. My main means of survival is grant money, from the Canadian government, and I can’t be grateful enough for that. Every time I put out a record, I get a grant. Touring brings in a bit here and there, but it’s not enough for support.

Tell me about your home studio.

The structure existed when we moved in, but it was pretty deteriorated. I put down a new floor, did some renovations. It’s like a two-storey garage, basically, like 800 square feet. I’ve got the first floor set up as a hobo recording studio. We produced the newest record by Women (Public Strain) there, but having a band there, especially one that doesn’t live in town, would be stretch. I’ve got plans to put a toilet and water in there, but right now you have to come into our house to use the bathroom. I want it to be all-inclusive, where if artists do come in, they can function completely. It’s not quite there yet.

Diaper Island will be released May 17 on Flemish Eye (Canada) and Sub Pop (U.S.).

2 Comments | Add a Comment
Nice interview. Though I do believe there is a lot of people who still enjoys to listen to full-length albums. I myself finds it very relaxing just to lie down with headphones on and listen to, for example, Infiniheart.
NUDE ERECTIONS!!!I'm sorry. I swear I gleaned more from this interview than just that bit...
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