After spending his formative years as a musician, busking on the streets of Calgary, Alberta, word-of-mouth spread about singer-songwriter Chad VanGaalen and it wasn't long before Seattle-based Sub Pop nabbed him. Since being signed to the label, he's steadily filled out his still-nascent discography with albums like 2005's Infiniheart, 2006's Skelliconnection, and his most recent, last year’s well-received Soft Airplane. VanGaalen rarely tours and when he does, he seldom stops in L.A. In anticipation of his Saturday show at Spaceland, Decider rang him up at his home in Calgary, where he opened up about dumpster diving, building his own musical instruments, and the mystery behind the track “TMNT Mask.”
Decider: You've been described as a “notorious homebody.” Is there any truth to that?
Chad VanGaalen: Well, I am home a lot just because I have an animation studio and a recording studio, and I have a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. We’re hanging out playing with boxes right now. We just got a bunch of cardboard boxes today because I got these drum machine pads. I’d like to get out more, but I just don’t have the time to. It’s not that I don’t like people, because I do. Usually, when I’m not touring, I’m at home spending time with my family.
D: So are you a bit of a control freak, what with writing and recording all your music at home, designing the covers of your albums, and animating the videos yourself?
CV: Yeah, I mean, [I'm] not so much control freak. It's just that people have bad ideas that I don’t want to put out there. That’s half the fun—being able to compose [your music] and record it. I get to learn all the instruments and play the drums, whereas if you go into the studio and get a band, all you end up doing is singing. I want to be every part of the band.
D: Do you hate touring?
CV: It’s just boring for me to play the same stuff every night. I'm not much of a performer. I find it to be pretty exhausting. It’s weird. I find performing to be kind of pretentious. It’s like, “Yo, check me out! Rock!” There are enough people rocking. It’s also exhausting on the environment. I ask myself, “Did I put as much positive energy on the universe as I took away from it?” [On the last tour,] I got myself one of those Toyota microvans and we managed to fit four people in one.
D: What were some of your earliest experimentations with music? You used to make your own instruments?
CV: I started multi-tracking with two ghetto blasters. I would record a drum track and then I’d play that back on a ghetto blaster, then record vocals and guitar over it. Then my friend’s brother told me I had to get a four-track. That’s how I started getting excited about the composition of music. All I had was a classical guitar and maybe a harmonica. Building instruments came when I was going to college when I had access to a woodshop and free scrap materials. I made clarinets and xylophones and things that I could make from scrap.
D: Why go through all the trouble to figure out how to make an instrument?
CV: I love building stuff. I love being able to manifest things out of my imagination—even if I don’t end up using an instrument. It’s more that I am a product of the Lego generation, actually. It’s like I’ve being trained to build all of this stuff. For the last five or six years, I have been into circuit bending. The act of doing it is satisfying. Turning garbage into something useful is great. It's rescuing garbage, really. I like the fact that we live in a country where our waste is like “grade A" building materials. I can search through a dumpster and find high-density foam and two-by-fours, crazy shit that’s really useful.
D: What is the story behind the song “TMNT Mask” from Soft Airplane? Are you a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan?
CV: It’s about how there was actually a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mask buried in the river; It was more of a fact than a thematic thing. I live right by a river, so whenever I get frustrated with interface, like computers or recording stuff, I go down there to settle myself. I was frustrated with humans being everywhere and as I was staring at the water, I see this Halloween mask buried under the rocks. At that moment I realized that there’s no avoiding it, so you might as well make your peace with it.