Interview: Chad Vangaalen

Chad Vangaalen - Photo by Jeff Thorburn

Chad Vangaalen - Photo by Jeff Thorburn

If there were just one way to describe Berlin, Canadian musician Chad VanGaalen would sum it up as a place where convention is set aside in favour of a melting pot of sights, sounds and ideas.

“I wouldn’t consider [Berlin] to be visually stunning city,” he explained, stating that instead it has a lot of crossover. “But…it just seems like it’s full of, like a ton of young people, for sure. So it seems like there’s just really good energy there. [It] definitely didn’t seem pretentious at all.”

This observation is from a man who himself seems to have a lot of crossover, functioning as a musician, an artist, a sound engineer, and a family man, to name a few.

But although he is primarily labeled as a songwriter, VanGaalen prefers not to think of himself as one.

“I feel like it’s an insanely abstract thing for me to consider in the first place,” he said of the title.

This is in part, because VanGaalen considers himself more of an artist in general, than one who is concerned exclusively with writing music, as the songwriter title might suggest.

And although he has four EPs and four albums to his name, VanGaalen insisted he still doesn’t have a handle on determining what makes a good song, nor does he trust his own sense.

“Luckily I have a lot of friends that kinda tell me what’s garbage and what’s not,” he said. “It’s a hilarious joke on myself that everybody thinks I’m a songwriter.”

However, his most recent effort, this year’s “Diaper Island,” is something he talks about a little more fondly than the releases that came before it. The album, which is more straightforward rock than his past music, will also have a live set to match.

“It’s pretty much a full punk rock set,” VanGaalen said of his plan for the European tour. “[Plus] I kinda went and wrote probably five or six more punk rock songs specifically for this tour so that we could play just an entire set of that.”

Additionally, the album was the first recorded in his new home studio, located on his property.

VanGaalen said having a studio in close proximity to his house been advantageous, and is the only way he can ever imagine writing music.

“I pretty much solely write stuff in there, as like a quiet place that I can think,” he explained, sharing that he’s always used a four-track of some sort to record song ideas and progress of the writing process.

“It’s also a way for me to remember what I’m doing,” he said. “My one advantage over maybe people going into studios is that I can capture that song in the first hour that I even have written it, and I feel like that energy is, like, pretty magical and pretty key to making records.”

In fact, that moment when a song is initially born is something VanGaalen considers to be one of the most authentic aspects of making music.

“I would say I’m completely obsessed with that moment,” he said. “Which is why I could never go into a studio, because I feel like it’s such a private thing for me.”

VanGaalen estimated that 70% of the new record contains moments akin to these, where the music was naturally and spontaneously written and recorded, without much polishing or changing.

He also shared that he holds the authenticity of this kind of music in much higher esteem than music that is constantly reworked and fine-tuned, simply because it is so much more real. This applies not only to his own music, but to any music.

“I’d rather hear, like, the shittiest cassette recording of a song in its most primal state than hear some polished version of it somewhere down the road,” he said.

Having established his love of capturing the initial moment a song is born, VanGaalen also admitted that he prefers writing and recording songs to touring and playing shows.

“I mean, I don’t hate performing live, but it’s like, it’s like a necessary evil. It’s like, hey, I’m gonna drag three people around the world with me, flying and driving and turning on our amplifiers every night. Like, you know, ecologically speaking it’s a fucking disaster,” he began.

“And then, I don’t know, like I’m also really into drawing. So practically speaking, when it comes to art, just like, I can take out my pen and do a hundred drawings and send them in the mail and someone could hang them up in a studio and…creatively I could be getting my point across by burning 1/100th of the fossil fuels it would take to bring an entire band with me. And then I get to the club and half of us are sick and half of us are hungover and then we play a mediocre rock show? Like what the fuck is that?”

With a laugh, he segued into discussing his personal growth, stating that the most obvious difference between when he began writing songs and now is his guitar-playing ability, something which he never really thought he had.

“I really love guitar but I’ve never really been able to get my head around it, and I feel like I’m slowly understanding that instrument now,” he explained. “So I’m pretty proud of that.”

He also is proud of the fact that he can make a living off his art, even though sometimes is baffled as to why people like his music.

“I know that I’m definitely one of the lucky ones…I’ve managed to do a lot of beautiful stuff, in my mind, whether it’s supporting my kids, or, you know, recording bands that I love in my studio for on the cheap,” he said. “It’s still impossible in my mind for me to think about sustaining myself off my own art and that anybody even gives a shit anymore. It’s totally great.”

Chad VanGaalen plays Puschenfest tonight at Festsaal Kreuzberg in Berlin. The Friday night line-up includes Polvo, Oneida and Suuns. The show begins at 21.00.

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