It took Chad VanGaalen three years to finish Diaper Island, the just-released follow-up to the Calgary-based musician’s Juno- and Polaris Prize–nominated Soft Airplane. Fans won’t have to wait nearly as long for their next fix, although whether they’ll like what they’ll hear is another matter.
“As we speak, I’m working on 11 records that I’m going to release very soon,” the shape-shifting sound sculptor tells the Straight, on the line from his Alberta home. “They should be up on the Sub Pop and the Flemish Eye websites, hopefully, within the next week. So maybe people will finally stop bugging me.”
There’s a catch, of course. Several of these new releases will be made up of experimental electronic drones, somewhat in the mode of VanGaalen’s Black Mold side project. Some will focus on found sounds recorded in or around VanGaalen’s neighbourhood; he’s particularly fond of railway noises. And you won’t be able to get them on LP or CD. Instead, they’re going to materialize as downloads—or on the newly fashionable old medium of cassette tape.
“I’ve recently acquired a really good tape duplicator,” says VanGaalen, sounding like he’s just discovered a map to Blackbeard’s treasure. “So I’m kind of back to the way I was doing it when I was 16 or 17, which works a lot easier for me.”
It’ll be easier for the singer, guitarist, synth player, and sound recordist’s two record labels, as well.
“It’s always been kind of a battle with Flemish Eye and Sub Pop,” he explains. “Well, not a battle, but I’m like, ‘Okay, there’s four new records. What do you guys want to do with these?’ And they’re just like, ‘Well, what kind of records are they?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, this one’s a noise record, and this one’s a collection of train recordings…’ And they’re like, ‘Well, good luck with that.’ Not in a bad way, but they’re like, ‘We can’t put out 20 records a year.’ So I’ve always been frustrated as far as my output is concerned.”
VanGaalen’s not joking. The 33-year-old musician reveals that he wrote, recorded, and shelved three song-oriented albums in the gap between Soft Airplane and Diaper Island, which also included the release of an even more time-consuming, though lovely, production: his second child. And while dealing with the impedimenta of diapers, bottles, and small plastic ponies, VanGaalen also taught himself how to play guitar in a more conventional manner, which contributes to the new album’s surprisingly aggressive sound.
“I was kind of looking back at all the rock albums I really loved, and decided that all those people knew how to play guitar,” he explains. “So it was probably time that I learned how to do it myself.”
At the time, VanGaalen was in the studio with his Flemish Eye labelmates Women, recording the Albertan art-rock unit’s second album, Public Stain. And although the sessions were productive, they also wound up aggravating his feelings of six-string inadequacy.
“I was really envious of the fact that they were getting all these sounds with just two guitars,” he relates. “I really liked the way that it ended up sounding, so I started writing lead guitar parts and not feeling ashamed that I wasn’t going to be able to pull them off live.”
As it happens, Women’s Chris Reimer has joined VanGaalen’s band for most of its recent shows, making for a multiguitar attack that splits the difference between the Calgarian’s early idols Sonic Youth and the classic ’60s bands that have been a more recent obsession. As for how that sounds on record, Diaper Island tracks like the spooky (yet ultimately reassuring) “Do Not Fear” and the reverberant howler “Replace Me” suggest that the move to a harder-edged sound has been worthwhile, with the pigs-on-acid exuberance of “Freedom for a Policeman” a particularly kinetic example of neo-psychedelic punk.
And then there’s “Sara”, unquestionably the album’s loveliest song, and a welcome respite from Diaper Island’s otherwise hard-edged sonics.
“The rest of the record is kind of like an exorcism,” VanGaalen admits. “And then there’s the ‘Sara’ song, which is kind of like the one piece of light in there, for sure. Originally, I wasn’t going to put the song on the record, and then enough people were like, ‘No, that’s the song.’ So maybe it’s like a landing point that you can use to reference all my other material and be like, ‘Okay, it’s still the same guy.’ There’s similarities in the guitar tone to the rest of the record, but it’s also referencing all the folk tunes that I’ve done in the past.”
Sara, by the way, is VanGaalen’s wife, and it is likely that we’re going to hear more family-friendly material in future. Fatherhood might have delayed Diaper Island’s release, says VanGaalen, but it’s also as mind-expanding an experience as any he’s had.
“At this point I’m getting more schooled, as far as arguments are concerned, than coming out on top,” he says, citing his older daughter’s contention that caterpillars have “sticky hands” as one debate he was happy to lose.
“I’d already, in my mind, decided that there was no way that this caterpillar was going to be able to crawl across the fridge, because it was too slick,” he says. “Then not only does she have the right answer, but she has an explanation to back it up. And I’m just like, ‘Okay, this is way too abstract.’ ”
Abstract it might be, but is it the sort of thing that might spark a song?
“Yeah,” says the prolific VanGaalen. “And that’s a good thing and a bad thing. Editing myself is hard enough as it is!”
Chad VanGaalen plays the Rio Theatre on Saturday (October 15).