As a self-confessed hermit, art nerd, and nature worshipper, Chad VanGaalen is undeniably eccentric. And if he were just a little bit more eccentric, his new Soft Airplane CD would probably sound a whole lot different.
“I’m obsessed with recording trains,” admits the Calgary-based singer and multi-instrumentalist, reached at home in his basement studio. “I live right across the river from some really beautiful train tracks, so this winter I dug a couple of holes under each side of the tracks, put microphones in the holes, and recorded the trains from underneath.
“I got really obsessed with it,” he stresses. “I started recording every single day, to the point that it was ruining my relationship on a certain level. I’d be standing out in the cold waiting for these trains, and my girlfriend, Sara, would be, like, ”˜Okay, I’m going to go now. This isn’t really about walking the dog anymore.’ ”
He laughs, and adds: “Honestly, if it was up to me, that whole album would have been just filled with train recordings.”
Train sounds do surface on Soft Airplane, serving as an eerie, almost electronic bridge between the mournful melancholy of “Rabid Bits of Time” and the Sonic Youth–inspired mayhem of “Frozen Energon”. Other peculiar diversions include a kitschy drum-machine beat lifted from a Casio SK-1 sampling keyboard, and what may well be an electric guitar “prepared” with alligator clips or other metal objects.
VanGaalen is clearly conversant with the techniques of the musical avant-garde, yet his third full-length is an oddly accessible collection of psychedelic pop songs. And while his high, reedy voice invites Neil Young comparisons––which VanGaalen scoffed at until discovering the baroque magnificence of Young’s self-titled debut a few years ago––Soft Airplane suggests that his aesthetic owes more to studio gurus like Brian Eno and Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes.
But Eno is a team player, and Barnes has an extroverted side. In contrast, VanGaalen is almost pathologically reclusive, especially when it comes to taking his tunes on the road. His battles with stage fright are notorious, and although he claims that he’s no longer consumed by terror at the thought of performing in public, that’s debatable.
“I just got back from New York City yesterday, and on the way there I was kind of puking in the Chicago airport,” he reveals. “Not kind of––I was actually puking in the Chicago airport, just preparing myself for the show in New York. I didn’t really remember what it was all about, and then I was like, ”˜Oh yeah, you’re horribly afraid of performing.’ ”
By the time he plays Vancouver next week, however, he should be fine. “If I’m on tour and playing show after show, I’m okay,” he says. “But if I haven’t played for a long time, then I kind of freak out.”
The positive side of performance anxiety is that VanGaalen has lots of time to hole up at home and write about such cheery topics as death, revenge, and, on “Cries of the Dead”, the psychos who live next door.
“We have some pretty strange neighbours, and we’ve had some pretty strange experiences, just living in this neighbourhood,” he allows, which doesn’t come as a surprise, given lyrics like “I can hear the cries of the dead/Maybe it’s your neighbour/Beating his dog in the basement.”
“I used to work down the street at the elementary school,” he continues, “and I saw some pretty horrific stuff, like crack-addicted parents bringing their kids ketchup-and-chip sandwiches at lunch with, like, shaky hands and stuff. It’s pretty crazy. On the other hand, there are a lot of pretty good kids around here too, growing up in good families. But there is that ”˜What’s hidden in your basement?’ thing going on.”
Calgary, in fact, is a looming presence in much of VanGaalen’s work. “It’s kind of like living with a stepdad who buys you everything you want, but who’s still an asshole,” he says of Canada’s oil capital. “Maybe he’ll buy you the car you want for your graduation, but your curfew’s still going to be 9:30. That’s kind of what Calgary is like.
“I was born and raised here, so I know the good spots and the bad spots, and I’ve become pretty good at avoiding the bad spots,” he adds. “But there’s a lot of bodybuilders roaming around with MP3 players built into their sunglasses, beating up nerds like me.”
That’s a horrific prospect––but if it keeps VanGaalen in the basement, cranking out his weirdly wonderful songs, it’s also a beautiful thing.
Chad VanGaalen plays Richard’s on Richards next Thursday (October 9).