Psych-folk artist Chad VanGaalen is quite content to spend days in his Calgary home fiddling with Frankenstein instruments he crafted himself. After a crushingly long winter, he finally emerges to tour in support of his fifth full-length, the wildly warped Shrink Dust.
He’s a man who knows how to inject serious productivity into those miserable brumal months that take most of the Canadian year. You know, obvious stuff like recording morphological pop music, employing his young daughters as voice actors in a three-part sci-fi film he is writing and illustrating. Making art in the snow with his own urine and hiding treasures beneath a backyard canoe.
He’s at Bell House tonight, May 15th, so we caught up with him about what else he’s been up to.
I recently saw an old interview with you playing in a church and you were showing off some of the instruments you made yourself. Like a double-kalimba. That’s pretty awesome. Do you have any homemade instruments on Shrink Dust?
Probably. There’s a homemade clarinet I use all the time. When I’m using that, I usually couple it with a normal clarinet just to give it a little bit of vibration.
When did you start making your own instruments?
I started making my own instruments probably in my early 20s just out of the need… I couldn’t afford a real clarinet. Mostly harps and clarinets, some pianos, stuff like that. There’s always a lot of scrap wood hanging around. I like to build stuff. …I guess now I’m using more mechanical things. Like I’m getting into mechanical drum machines and acoustic drum machines.
I saw you tweet something about a new homemade instrument creation. The drumbot?
Oh yeah! That’s not actually new. I’ll post the new one soon. That’s the Mark One. The Mark Two is sitting in my studio right now — I have to upload [photos].
So how is this one different?
The one that’s on Instagram is the old one with the cylinder. The main cylinder in the middle is kinda governing the beats. It wasn’t very portable so it ended up getting pretty thrashed by taking to shows. So the new one — instead of cylinders, it’s discs. And the ramps — the modular beat ramp things — are on the discs so that way it can stack beats when I’m traveling with it and have a multitude of beats. I’ve got five discs right now so I can swap out different beats. It gets boring to have the same beat going all the time. But, you know what? Actually, it doesn’t sound too good. When it comes down to it, it looks cooler than it actually is.
What do you think is the neatest instrument you created yourself?
The meanest or the neatest, I guess.
Oh, the neatest! I like the idea of that double-kalimba just because it’s more of a — it’s pretty peaceful in its origins. I really like that clarinet that I have. It’s really simple. I like stuff that you don’t have to plug in. The acoustic drum machine is electric so that’s definitely a downside. I’d say in between that kalimba and the clarinet.
You’ve illustrated a lot of videos for bands like Timber Timbre and Mother Mother. How do you decide who you want to illustrate for and what you want to illustrate?
I’m not really picky about who I do my videos for, as long as they’re nice and they pay me on time. That’s about it. …I think people come to me knowing I don’t really know whats going to happen. The illustration, it’s really really labor-intensive. So if I come up with some form of treatment for it beforehand it just kills it, for me. It’s so much sitting down and drawing and drawing and drawing and you’re drawing the same thing over and over and over again — which is probably why it becomes morphological, because I’m constantly wanting the image to change. Because I’m sick of drawing the same image over and over again.
That’s part of agreement when somebody comes to me wanting a video — that’s probably going to end up changing from something i say it’s going to be to something completely different. And they’re fine with that. They know they’re going to get a good video if they give me free reign and let me riff on it however i wanna do it.
That must be pretty incredible that people have such faith in your abilities with that. You’ve been illustrating a full-length film. That’s right?
Yeah, yeah I have. It’s been killing my soul slowly.
How long has that been going on?
It’s been going on a long time. Maybe even three years at this point. I’ve obviously been having to take breaks with other video work I’ve been doing. but yeah! I told myself I wanted to do a soundtrack for a sci-fi film and no one was really asking me do it so I thought [I’d animate one myself]. But man, it’s been way more work than I’ve ever imagined. I’m a really bad voice actor at the same time… with animation, you’re really just falling in love with the voice, really more than visually with the characters. It’s all about those interactions. …I think I’m probably gonna bring my daughters into it to do a lot of the voices. Maybe a couple of my friends, too. I feel like it’s all about little kid voices, for sure.
Well, it’s about an alien, right? That obviously has to be by a little kid.
Yeah, exactly! And what’s cuter than giving a little kid asinine script to read? You can make them say anything — and for certain my wife will be proofing all this before we bring it into the world.
Could you tell me a little about the plot line?
It’s kinda like intergalactic flavor-y, really. Of some sort. And benign evil, mixed together. Really I just wanted some sort of plot line that would expose some sort of evil in the universe that wasn’t really pointed in any direction. Kinda like how I feel humans kinda exist on earth
Would you mind reminding me the name of that film, please?
It’s called Translated Log Of Inhabitance.
And it’s starring an alien.
It does take place in an alien world, yes. The first episode is called Tarboz, and that’s named after the main character in the story.
How did you get into using reclaimed materials?
To tell you the truth, honestly, Calgary — where are you calling from?
OK. Have you ever been to Calgary?
No, I haven’t.
OK. It’s like —
I hear it’s really pretty?
It’s really pretty. It’s close to the mountains, there’s lots of wildlife around… there’s also quite a bit of oil money here. There’s houses getting ripped down and re-built constantly. There’s an abundance of fir… it’s an old wood. You can’t really buy fir wood as a building material, it’s usually all pine and spruce. But fir is really really hard. It turns almost like concrete over time. It gets harder. So there’s a lot of fir that I’m constantly reclaiming because there’s a lot of houses — whole neighborhoods — that are getting ripped out and it’s perfectly good building material.
I just built an entire addition off my studio. My 6-year-old helped me go Dumpster diving. We got all the windows, everything to frame it, shingles — 95 percent of it was reclaimed. …Either I do a midnight mission with my van or else I ask someone with a Dumpster in front of their house if I can just jump in there…
My [wife] basically burns all my garbage when I go away to tour. When I come back, I’m like, ‘Wow, the backyard looks so clean! Where’s my scrap lumber? Where’s all those scrap parts?’ She’s like, ‘Yep, it’s gone. Burned it.’
So how are you going to hide the actual treasures on tour this time?
(laughs) I have my places now. I have a lot of my garbage in my studio. …I have a canoe in the backyard where I have been hiding a lot of trash under. I’ve got a bunch of eavestrough in there right now.
What’s under there right now?
Some aluminum eavestrough. One of my eaves is falling right off the corner of my house right now and I found a bunch of garbage eavestrough and I wanna reroute that over my lawn somehow.
Forgive my ignorance, but what is an eavestrough? What… is that?
Oh, it’s like — the eaves of your house. A soffit — do you know what a soffit is?
So when the roof comes down, like if you imagine right at the edge of the roof… it’s a gutter! Maybe you guys call them gutters?
There you go.
So you have a bunch of gutters under your canoe?
Hide them. Mostly just because they’re fragile.
What are you drinking to make all these piss drawings in the snow?
I was getting really sick of the winter this year and it’s been in the back of my mind to try to make a coffee table book of pee drawings in the snow. Because at least in Calgary our winters are really long. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a kid. …At this point really I think it’d just be a zine. I’ve been doing for a couple of years but just recently I thought I should post this, people will think it’s really funny.
You’re getting into some pretty advanced shit there.
To tell you the truth, I was getting kinda aggravated because [my friend] was like, ‘No one’s gonna believe that!’ So I got my wife to videotape it. And then I posted that. Now people are like, ‘Come on! That’s fake.’ I’m like, ‘Whatever, man, you guys are obviously commenting from non-Arctic regions.’ Because everybody here in Canada knows about the piss drawings.
Other people do it too? Have you talked to other people about it?
No, I’m just assuming. I’m assuming everybody knows. I shouldn’t say that, I’m just assuming that they do.
Chad VanGaalen plays The Bell House Thursday, May 15.