Chad VanGaalen has many fans who’ve never heard his music. That is because the multi-instrumentalist from Calgary, Alberta, contributes so much more than music to fellow musicians and artists. One of the many hats VanGaalen wears is that of animator, not only having animated his own music videos but becoming increasingly well-known as an animator for others’ videos.
It seems natural that VanGaalen, who is so intimately involved with every part of making his records, would also want to be in charge of the visuals. And why not? He is a skilled artist and a true animator in the most old-fashioned sense of overseeing each element himself in the increasingly outsourced world of animation. VanGaalen recently decided to bring his compulsive attention to detail to a bigger audience, and he has been hard at work on an animated feature, Translated Log of the Inhabitants, for a couple years now. Though, as he tells us here, the animators responsible for Adult Swim may mock his diligence, VanGaalen enjoys keeping his project close at hand-his own hand-for now.
While audiences wait for Translated Log to appear, VanGaalen has offered up a new album, Shrink Dust (Sub Pop Records), which provides a lovely and only slightly disconcerting glimpse into his mind–as accompanied by a pedal steel, an instrument that is not known for kidding around.
At Length contributor Erin Lyndal Martin spoke to VanGaalen for a status report on Translated Log, some nerding out over the Everly Brothers, and why it’s hard to try to sing like Kurt Cobain.
At Length: So, where are you in the movie-making process?
Chad VanGaalen: Oh! Yeah, ok, so yeah, uh, the last thing that I need to do now is, uh, so yeah I’ve done all the, I’ve done all the vocals, like the voice overdubs myself. I realized that I can’t hold the film up so I need to bring voice actors in to kinda redo all the voice overdubs — like, all the voiceovers. That’s probably gonna happen in the fall. And then hopefully by early next year, the first installation will be finished.
AL: So you’ve pretty much done all this yourself, right?
CV: Yeah, all myself, entirely myself, which is the problem. When you watch an animation and there’s like twelve hundred names that scroll past in the credits you’re just like, “oh yeah, ehh, you need help.” So, it’s also taken me like two and a half years to get 30 minutes done. What I’m hoping with this first episode is that I’ll be able to get funding somehow, whether it’s through a provincial grant or just through some outside party coming in and showing me how it’s really done, because I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a couple people that work at Cartoon Network and Adult Swim and they’re really surprised when they find out I’m doing the animation. They just like, “oh, nobody animates anymore, they [were] like, you just send it to Korea, and they send it back ten days later and it’s done.” My mind was blown; they’re just like “oh yeah, we just do like a few drawings, we just do the character drawings and maybe we’ll do some backgrounds but we don’t act-nobody animates anymore.” I’m just like, “what the fuck are you talking about?” So, they were equally as surprised; they’re like “dude, that’s crazy, like, that’s gonna take you like two and a half years” and then I’m just like “well, that’s how long it’s taken me” and they’re like “well, yeah, there you go. How much you paying yourself an hour VanGaalen? Like, 50 cents?”
AL: I imagine it would kinda be like heresy, for someone like you, to send it off to Korea, and be that removed from the process?
CV: Well, yeah, I mean it’s also like that. When you need to keep that creative ball rolling in the story, like if you’re working on episodes and you really need to like commit to some continuity you can really sort of chop it up into sections like that. It’s like, that guy’s doing backgrounds, this guy’s painting all the fingernails, this guy’s in charge of bringing the snacks. I can see how that works. But for me it’s like, I just like to get into that world and disappear, y’know?
AL: Did the songs on Shrink Dust help inspire the movie or did the film ideas inspire the songs, or both?
CV: Yeah, kinda both. There’s two, like “Cosmic Destroyer,” the last song on the record, is about one of the characters in the film. Some of it ended up as the soundtrack, some pieces, like as I was scoring I’d come up with some sort of droney synth part and I’d be like “oh, that would turn into a nice song” and then that ended up being “Frozen Paradise” or something like that. But I was working on them both at the same time, with the impression that they’d both come out at the same time. Then, when I realized that the film wasn’t gonna be finished for the release of Shrink Dust, that kinda transformed Shrink Dust in the process. A few different songs made it on there to kinda flesh it out, and then a few of the songs that were kinda directly related to the film got cut just ’cause I realized that they were gonna be two different things. Less of a soundtrack and more like an interpretation, like, a looser interpretation of what was going on in the film.
AL: How much does the film-making process, for you, overlap with your music-video-making process?
CV: Quite a bit now just because I do a lot of videos for bands. I’m kinda forced into mashing those worlds together more and more. Most of the time, like probably 80 or 90% of the time I’m doing just drawing cause it’s the least frustrating of all the things that I do. I don’t have to set up microphones, preamps and patch chords and computers and tape machines and play the drums and then rewind the track and find out that I forgot to turn the mics on and then get frustrated and… so then I just pull the cap off my marker and start to draw so that’s what I’ve kinda been focusing on lately. At the end of the day I get a lot of ideas from my drawings for sure, for music, at least.
AL: Is that where “Monster” came from?
CV: “Monster” was pretty much improvised, uh, onto the tape deck. “Monster” came out pretty quick. The drawing on the front of Shrink Dust was kind of like the interpretation of that afterwards, so that’s a direct relation I guess.
AL: You got a pedal steel for this album, and used that, and, in an interview I was reading you were talking about how hard it was just to tune it and that you had to finance it. So I was curious, what drew you to the sound of that instrument and made you feel like you wanted to tackle it?
CV: I got that pedal steel, and I was using it to score a lot of stuff on the Translated Log and then I ended up putting it on top of “Cut Off My Hands” and really liked how it sounded and sort of was like, “oh, maybe I’ll put it over top of a few more of the other songs,” and slowly I realized that it was becoming the glue of that record.
It kinda just snuck in there and sort of transformed the record in a really mellow way. It’s becoming a pretty nice sort of thread through the record, so yeah, that happened by surprise, really. And by that time I had built up my chops on it as well trying to do sort of more sound-effect-y things on it, after I’d tuned it up and it was all ready to go I was like, “oh, I could actually play this like it’s normal, like it’s meant to be played.”
AL: Listening to Shrink Dust, in certain songs I hear a tenderness in the lyrics and the delivery that makes me think about love songs, but of course they’re not sappy, walking-on-the-beach-kind-of love songs. It made me really curious, what are some of your favorite love songs by other people?
CV: I listen to a lot of Everly Brothers. I don’t know if I could pick one track. Some of my favorites, like “Flight 103”(Ebony Eyes) is that what it is? I don’t know.
AL: Oh, that one. The one about the plane crash?
CV: Yeah, the one about, uh, him waiting for his loved, to fly home, knowing that she’s in the air and she’ll be there any second and then the guy coming over like the PA and announcing that the flight’s crashed. Pretty dark, pretty dark shit, but it’s sung in a way that’s just like you said, walking on the beach holding hands but it’s like the darkest shit, you know what I mean? I’m not 100% positive that they even wrote that song to tell you the truth; they had a lot of songs written for them, but it’s a pretty bizarre delivery of, uh, of a pretty strange topic, y’know? I like the idea of sort of juxtaposing the soft delivery with not–not like brutal lyrics but either surreal or dark, subject matter. Umm, what else? I don’t really listen to that much, that much of that kind of music. Patsy Cline, really love Patsy Cline, everybody loves Patsy Cline.
AL: I was a really strange kid and I loved the Everly Brothers, and I would make my mom write out the lyrics in this little blank book I had, and I would go sit on the swing and swing and sing Everly Brothers songs for, like, hours.
CV: Yeah, I mean, to tell you the truth, my favorite Everly Brothers song is, (singing) “she wants a man with lots of money and not a poor boy.” That’s my favorite one. I really, I really like their, like, garage-rippers, to tell you the truth, just as much as I love their, uh, their softies, y’know? Like, uh, like, y’know, like “Cathy’s Clown.”
AL: Oh yeah.
CV: Like, fuck that shit, you know what I mean?
AL: Are you a “Bird Dog” fan?
CV: I was, I mean it’s ok, it’s kinda like, I mean, they have a lot of campy stuff, right? But some of that stuff is also just surreal because they’re so good. Like they could be singing about cutting, trimming your yard with scissors and that, and it would be convincing because it’s just like, it’s like one voice coming outta two people, it just doesn’t make any sense.
AL: On the subject of singing, I’ve always been intrigued by your vocal style and I was trying to imagine how someone learns to sing like Chad VanGaalen? So I thought I would ask Chad VanGaalen: how do you learn to sing like Chad VanGaalen?
CV: Yeah, that was really hard for me. It took me a long time. I started probably singing, trying to sing properly when I was about fifteen, but I wanted to sound like Cobain, so that kinda threw me for a loop, as far as finding my voice. I was trying to growl and scream and stuff like that, but it wasn’t working out very good, and eventually I just started realizing that I was naturally singing in a higher register and then I kinda embraced the grandma voice. I think I kinda fell into that range and then really got comfy with it and it was just like “oh, ok, like I’m singing in a, like, I can sing up high better than….” I was having a real hard time struggling with sorta mid-rangey sorta zones. But yeah and then I really just fell in love with, singing because, uh, it was the easiest instrument to play. At that time I was just kind of beginning to teach myself how to play guitar, I wasn’t really that good at it, but I think that’s what kept me going playing guitar is that I figured out that I could sing along to it in a way that was easy for me, like the voice became the easiest thing.
Erin Lyndal Martin is a poet, fiction writer, music journalist, essayist, and book reviewer. She is currently based in Madison, WI.