Voicing Concerns with Chad VanGaalen

Interview by Andrew Patterson with illustration by Kristian Bauthus

This year’s Halifax Pop Explosion brought Chad VanGaalen to town for two performances: an evening set under his noise moniker, Black Mold, and an afternoon slot under his own name at the recently re-opened Marquee Club. The latter led to a packed barroom at 3pm, with VanGaalen on stage delivering a typically disarming one-man show, chock full of hilariously tangential banter and new, unreleased material. After the set, we sat in a small back room, snacked on hummus and talked about crippling fears and country music.

When I was preparing for this interview, I learnt that you have kids. I’ve always been intimidated by kids so, recently, I took a job working with them to try and overcome that.

Nice. I did a similar thing for about two years. I was a lunch-lady-slash-after-school-programmer-intramural-guy.

Oh, that’s what I’m doing too. Do you have any advice for engaging with kids?

Man, kids are just scary. They’re intimidating because they have this wild energy. There’s no pretence to their thoughts, y’know? It’s just so raw. And they can see you in that way, too. All the shit you’ve managed to layer your persona with is useless against a child.

Is it different with your own kids?

No. It’s actually more extreme as a parent. When you work with kids you can leave and sort of wipe the slate clean, but with your own kids it’s just ongoing. I’m not really good at discipline, which is why I prayed for girls. I’m more of a stoner goofball, so it’s hard for me to take myself seriously. Like when I have to say ‘Don’t take those napkins and soak them in water…’, in the back of my mind I’m thinking ‘That’s actually kind of awesome’. But I have to be that guy now.

You have a band with one of your kids, right?

Yeah, I do. Or, I did. She’s not that into it so it’s kind of falling apart right now. We’re called Crocodile Teeth & The Snugglers. It’s with my oldest daughter and it’s an improv punk band.

Do you have another band happening right now? A steady group of people you play with?

Yeah. It’s the same group of dudes; Eric [Hamelin], Scott [Munro] and Matt [Flegel]. Two of them are in Viet Cong now, so we’re trying to figure out how it’s going to work. Those guys actually love to tour and I hate touring, so it kind of works out.

How do you know when you can trust someone enough to collaborate with them?

Just friends, basically. I’ve done a couple of tours with Cousins and they’re total bros now. I’d collaborate with them any day. Julie Fader is someone who I’ve played a lot with. Jen Castle. I’ve done a lot of collaborating in the past on improvised stuff or noise projects, but when it comes to my own stuff I often feel like I’m putting people through pain to have to play my own songs. I feel way more comfortable as a one-man-band, because then I don’t have to put anyone through that. I don’t like being the dictator, like, ‘No it doesn’t go like that. Yes, it’s a song about my girlfriend and we all have to play it.’ Who wants to do that? It’s fucking weird.

I’ve heard you refer to yourself as a control freak before. How does that manifest in your art practice?

In every way. When I was sixteen, I started recording and discovered multi-tracking. That’s when I realized I could make myself sound like a full band on tape. That’s where the control comes from. I can work so quickly by myself, y’know?

Is that something that you see come up elsewhere in your life, or is it relegated to your art practice? I ask because you seem like a pretty mellow guy.

Oh, I totally am. It’s just that I don’t have a lot of time that I want to waste. I’m trying to juggle multiple practices and I just want to manifest my ideas and have a finished thing at the end. I’ve been working on an animated movie for the last two years and it’s so fucking boring to be an animator. Unless you’re outsourcing stuff to Korea, you’re sitting in the same spot all day just getting ass pain. I spend about twelve hours a day animating by myself, which mostly all I do now.

What can you tell me about the film, Tarboz?

It’s almost done. It’s about twenty minutes long right now. It’s just been killing my soul.

Where does the word come from?

Tarboz? It’s just a made up word. It actually comes from Zardoz which is a sci-fi movie with Sean Connery where he wears a diaper and rides around on a horse on the beach. I really like ‘zardoz’ as a word and I wanted to come up with something similar. Tarboz is the first episode in this bigger piece that I’m proposing. It’s the pilot of this thing called Translated Log Of Inhabitance. There’s a graphic novel that accompanies it, which is basically a D&D catalogue of the characters that appear in Tarboz. It’s fully fucking nerded-out. I’m doing all the voices for the characters right now, but I suck at it. It’s a nightmare. I feel like the success of programs like Futurama or Adventure Time is based on how much the viewer falls in love with the characters, which has a lot to do with the voices. So I’m trying to recruit some voice actors.

Do you have anyone in mind?

I have a few people that are on board right now. Jason Lee is into it. And then there’s a few people tied to Sub Pop through Flight Of The Conchords. I don’t really know how that stuff works. I was talking to Eugene Mirman, who does some voice work for Bob’s Burgers, and he told me that he just goes in and does the voiceovers and then they animate it. And I was like ‘What?! I have it all backwards’. I’m just sitting in front of a screen with microphones and synthesizers trying to make sense of stuff.

Have you seen [Seth Smith’s debut film] Lowlife?

Yeah, it’s so fucking awesome. Live action is a completely different medium; a whole different animal, but I really admire Seth for the way he approached it. You don’t see a lot of films where people are really having fun with it and being so experimental with cinematography. I’m sure it’s not the way you’re supposed to construct a story visually, but it really works.

You’ve got a record in the can as well. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Yep. It’s being mastered right now. It’s more of a country record, kind of.

Country music seems to be on everyone’s brain these days.

I guess it’s more of a folk record. I don’t know if I can pull off country. Like, it’s not the Carter Family or anything.

[laughs]  Right, of course.

I got a pedal steel, which I’ve always wanted but could never afford. I found a good deal on one and once I got it, I started rampantly devouring every cool band with pedal steel. Like Flying Burrito Brothers, the tightest, sickest songwriters.

They’re so good! I think I stayed away from that band for so long because the name is so awful.

I know, it’s crazy. And you see the record cover and think ‘This is going to suck’.

Yeah, there’s the one with the rhinestoned burrito on it. It’s brutal.

Well they all had the crazy custom outfits and stuff.

You work in so many mediums, do you manage to find a place for all the ideas in your brain? Do you feel like you have a good economy of ideas?

I don’t really like to think too much about what I’m doing. That way, it doesn’t compromise that naive quality that makes someone like Daniel Johnston so good, y’know?
That’s why this animation is killing me. It requires so much forethought and I resisted that for so long. I was just trying to freestyle the whole thing and that totally failed. I’ve improvised animation in the past, for music videos, and that works because it’s short format and there’s no dialogue. But with film, you just end up alienating your audience. You’ve got to build characters that people will fall in love with or it’ll just end up being stoner nonsense. Which is cool, too. I love stoner nonsense, but if you want the thing to be palatable and be able to transmit ideas, then it requires some forethought. Obviously, people are going to watch my videos now and that’s in the back of my mind. That demon’s the fucking worst.

You gotta stay away from that thought.

Yeah, it’s fucked.

Speaking of which, I wanted to ask you about an exchange we had years ago. It was just after Infiniheart had been re-released by Sub Pop and you were playing in Halifax. I was really into that record at the time, particularly the track ‘Human Totem’, which got cut from the re-release. I assumed that the label cut it, but then I talked to you after the show and you told me you were totally embarrassed of it and had it removed. Does that kind of thing happen to you a lot? Like, you put something out into the world and then feel embarrassed that people are consuming it?

Oh my god, all the time dude; with Infiniheart  especially. Those were songs I was writing for myself, some of them I wrote when I was like 18.

But now that you have more exposure and you have that demon in the back of your mind, does it happen less frequently?

Oh no. I would say it happens more frequently. That’s something I’m battling on a daily basis. I try to keep it out of my psyche, but I listen to a lot of bands and I’m constantly exposed to that culture, which is so critical. It moves so fast now. It’s a voracious beast that chews things up and spits things out so fast. So it’s hard to remember sometimes what the point is. Like, I’ll spend two years making this movie and then people will see it and then just forget it? I end up weighing it all out, but that’s bullshit. I’d be doing it anyway and at the end of the day I have to remind myself of that.