Hometown: Calgary, Alberta
Members: Chad VanGaalen
Album: Diaper Island
For Fans Of: Band of Horses, Elliott Smith, David Kilgour
Since his 2005 debut Infiniheart, Chad VanGaalen has become increasingly focused and ordered. VanGaalen, who also does visual art and animation, has been “quarantining” his projects, focusing on one work at a time, and that sort of order shows up in the sonic consistency of his fourth album. Diaper Island is a more spare album than its predecessors, with emphasis on guitar sounds and a rock feel, but with the ostensible straightforwardness more misdirection than anything.
If the album title suggests some silliness, it only disguises the serious issues under consideration, including waste (in various senses). The album has its bleak moments and VanGaalen’s cloudy side shows up, but he writes in resistance to the pessimism that such reflections could produce. The violence and uncertainty are constrained by, if not something as simple as romance or peace, than by the empathy necessary to explore such concerns. In these songs, VanGaalen reveals a liberation both from and within a larger structure.
Paste spoke with VanGaalen just before the release of Diaper Island about the process that led to this album as well as sonic theft and market melancholia.
Paste: What prompted you to do such a guitar-focused album?
Chad VanGaalen: Between this record and the last record there were a bunch of failed attempts at records in between. After Soft Airplane, I started an electronic record that was totally horrible and a failure. Then there was a folk record that was just okay and maybe a little bit boring. Then there was a garage-rock record. At that point I was pretty frustrated with all my machines, so it sounded really bad, but the songs were actually not so bad. A few of those songs I pulled out of that and re-recorded them so that they’re more hi-fi. That’s what this record turned into. The rock songs seemed to be working out the best so I decided to stick with that.
Paste: I understand that you had plenty of songs recorded. Were most of them from the failed albums?
VanGaalen: None of the songs came from the failed attempt except from the lo-fi rock record, which I think I pulled three songs from and built Diaper Island from there. There were a lot of songs we were pulling from once everything was mastered, which was a total pain in the ass. Whittling it down was pretty painful this time.
Paste: And how did you whittle it down?
VanGaalen: For the first time, I really was trying to have a flow going on, trying to make it essential that you listen to it as a continual thing. It works for about the first five songs. It was just a mindfuck after that. I really like how it intros. Maybe I wanted to settle on more of a mysterious point, like finishing a poop or something. I wanted it to be more like surgery, like you’re getting put under and you don’t know why you’re in the hospital.
Paste: Thinking about the ending, I expected closing number “Shave My Pussy” to be a novelty song, but it’s actually one of the more affecting songs, and I wonder if you could talk about its origins.
VanGaalen: At the time I was writing a lot of stuff on ukelele, trying to strip stuff down and there were six or seven songs that came out of that that I was imagining putting out as an EP. They were all centered around a mental transformation and the affected nature of our minds, and weird landscapes. That came out of me feeling horrible grocery-shopping one day, watching this lady kind of fall to pieces in the line up, and everyone being completely impatient with how severe of a moment it was for her. It seemed crazy to me, surrounded by all these collagen-injected tabloids. It was a weird moment, but kind of hilarious at the same time. I don’t want to make it seem like it was the be-all and the end-all of her day, but it definitely sucked at the time. It was more of a metaphor for feeling that shitty in that moment and realizing that nobody cares.
Paste: This record was recorded in a new studio, but was it done in a different way from your other ones?
VanGaalen: The first record that was recorded there was the Women record Public Strain, so I took the recording techniques that I learned from that record and applied it to this record. I did a fair bit of tone-questing, as far as guitars were concerned. I had a pretty limited amount of space before, so in order to make guitars sound spacious, I had to process them quite a bit. For this record, it was pretty easy just to get a good rock sound from the methods I learned while I was recording Public Strain. I just kind of stole those sounds. Sorry, guys.
I was trying to get muted guitar that wasn’t too affected. I didn’t use any distortion pedals or anything. As little as I could put in between the amp and the tape machine was what I was aiming for.
Paste: I wondered if the guitar was going directly in for some of this?
VanGaalen: All the bass stuff was directly plugged into the tape machine and eq’ed. I have a magical tape recorder, a Tascam 388. It’s only 8 tracks, which is kind of awesome because it forces you to strip stuff down. “Do we really need a theremin solo in the middle of that?”
Paste: You’ve said before that you like to keep mistakes and the human element in your recordings. As you get more hi-fi, is that still a consideration?
VanGaalen: Yeah. It’s just more physical space that I’m using to my advantage. With the new studio, I can leave things set up and mic’ed all the time. “Shave My Pussy” was recorded on a four-track cassette machine. You can kinda hear it. It sounds a little bit gross even though I was trying to mask as much tape hiss as I could. Anything that I’m going to do is completely flawed only because I’m one of the shittiest guitar players I know. If any of that was to become polished, it would sound insanely bad. The complexity of it comes from the sort of hobo mentality.
Paste: That said, are you becoming more comfortable playing live?
VanGaalen: I’m getting more comfortable playing live, but more uncomfortable with the idea of touring just because I have a second child now who’s one year old.
Paste: Did having a baby influence the name of this album?
VanGaalen: Not really. It was between “Garbage Island” and “Diaper Island.” It was more of a metaphor for “I’m going to put this in a plastic bag and give it to someone to haul away.” It’s more imagining how much crap gets thrown out in your lifetime. Imagining it piling up somewhere. You’re always imagining it somewhere else. We’re going to be swimming in that shit soon. We kind of are already. It gets broken down into microparticles. It’s everywhere. You can’t see it.
Paste: Was there a more deliberate attempt at thematic cohesion, or was it more about sound?
VanGaalen: I guess the theme was more guitar. I focused on sonic cohesion, basically recording everything on the same machine and really trying to not deviate from that sonic template that was formed by the first couple songs. Lyric-wise, it all ties together as more a hopeful outcome as far as where humans are going, and the good nature of human beings.
Paste: Is the idea of freedom and control important to this album, as on “Freedom for a Policeman”?
VanGaalen: I just wanted to encapsulate the pointlessness of even the illusion of that control. If someone wants to jump your fence, they’re going to jump your fence. It’s a good thing—it preserves your sanity sometimes. I’m not even saying it’s a good or a bad thing. I have no idea about why it exists. It’s some sort of coping mechanism that’s ingrained, whether it’s some primal part of our brain or some ingrained thing we’ve learned along the way. I’ve had my skateboard taken away and smashed.
Paste: I’m sure you were engaged in highly dangerous acts.
VanGaalen: I just wanted to go to Sevs, man.