Chad VanGaalen puts metal to the pedals

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Writing vibrant and decidedly psychedelic songs, sketching graphic novels, assembling an animated sci-fi feature film, even contemplating the giant monster head he once threatened to build on top of his Calgary home, Chad VanGaalen has many creative ways of avoiding the yawning void that lies beneath our consumer society. Today, though, he’s deep in the material plane. Screwdriver in hand, he’s renovating his collection of electronic effects, but even here he’s found a way to mix low-budget functionality with the quirkily handmade.

“Right now, I am zip-tying pedals to a pedalboard that kind of slowly disintegrated over this tour that I just got back from,” he explains in a telephone interview from his studio. “The thing that I just discovered recently is that if you take apart a bike chain and use the links, you don’t have to tie everything together with Velcro. Just take the links off individually, unscrew your pedals at the bottom and take the base off, screw on the bike links to where you’d screw the base on, and then screw those links down to the pedalboard. Google ‘bike chain pedalboard’ and you’ll see how.”

He’s also contemplating a different set of pedals: the three foot controls and four knee levers attached to his pedal-steel guitar, a relatively new acquisition that’s all over his just-released Shrink Dust full-length. The instrument that poured pitch-bent tears over a million Nashville hits is hardly the sort of thing you’d expect VanGaalen to embrace, but once again he’s found a way to creatively confound expectations.

“My original intention was to use it just for improvised, soundscape-y stuff, but I ended up falling in love with it, so I put it on a lot of the songs,” he explains. “I really, really had to work on learning how to play it for this record—and there’s still no way I could ever play it live. It’s not anything that I’m that proficient on, but in the studio, if I spend a day working on it I can shimmy my way around.”

One gets the sense that VanGaalen would be quite happy to spend the afternoon discussing the tools of his trade, but we resist the temptation to delve into the arcana of strings, pickups, and computer plug-ins. His pedal-steel guitar—a BMI 10-string from the 1980s, if you must know—offers a metaphorical escape from that particular dead end, however. What attracted VanGaalen to the instrument was the way it allows him to morph seamlessly from chord to chord, so it was a good choice to debut it on Shrink Dust—an album that’s all about liminal states, psychic transformation, and the kind of virtual reality that has absolutely nothing to do with computer games.

“I don’t really feel that comfortable in whatever this permutation of reality is that I’m in at the moment,” the singer, multi-instrumentalist, and emerging studio guru confesses. “I don’t ever really feel that comfortable. So, yeah, I think that’s a good description of the record. I’m just trying to worm my way in and out of things, and realizing that there is no ‘normal’ state of things, not the way that I see it. So I try and get out of a lot of things by just kind of morphing and shifting—and that’s the way that I got into music in general, by being really into free music and improvised jazz music and stuff like that. To me, the most abstract thing that you could possibly do in music is make a song that’s under four minutes long. It doesn’t make any sense to me, so I definitely struggle with it.”

Strangely, though, the struggle depicted in Shrink Dust is mostly an internal one. Nearly every song depicts an artist who’s painfully itchy in his own skin, but these self-portraits are delivered by way of VanGaalen’s most straightforward, even folkish music yet—although improvisation does occasionally rear its noisy head, notably in the Fred Frith–approved guitar cackling that animates the album opener, “Cut Off My Hands”. Still, when VanGaalen declaims that he’s going to “start on a hole/like some feverish mole”, during “Monster”, the album’s highlight, it’s a strong indication that the artistic underground is where he’s most at home.

And that, by the way, does not necessarily mean Canada’s coast-to-coast network of punk clubs.

“I’ve definitely been focusing more on visual art these days, just to sort of keep me at home,” says the man whose next release is likely to be the first installment of his 90-minute animated trilogy Translated Log of Inhabitants. “I don’t really like to tour, and when I’m putting out music it means that I have to leave my family, so I’ve definitely tried to swing things more towards doing videos and drawings and comics and things like that. And also I just love visual art, because I don’t have to turn anything on or make sure my compressors are working and the microphones are set up. I just kind of take the cap off my pen, and if it runs out I throw it in the recycling bin and grab another pen.”

In other words, it might be some time before VanGaalen fires up that pedalboard again, so catch him while you can.

Chad VanGaalen plays the CBCMusic.ca Festival at Burnaby’s Deer Lake Park on Saturday (June 14).

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