The man is cold.
Your Skin Freezes in Less than a Second
A few months back, I happened upon Chad VanGaalen’s self-illustrated video for "Clinically Dead," from his Sub Pop LP, Infiniheart. And I was like, "Shit! This is great. It’s like The Shins before they went all hi-fi!" - though it sounded much colder than James Mercer & Co. I researched this Chad fellow online, and listened to more songs. They sounded even more frigid. So I asked,
"Why is this dude so damn cold?" Then I found out he was from Calgary.
I interviewed Chad backstage at the Mercury Lounge back in November, during his first headlining tour, and before he was nominated for this year’s Plug Independent Music Awards. He will be performing at said awards this month in New York City.
Well how would you compare Calgary and New York City, if you could compare and contrast at all?
Umm...ehhh...I don’t know if I could do that. Well, the way Calgary is compared to New York City is that it has as much sprawl going on, so as far as how big it is in size, it’s the same size, which is kind of crazy.
Was there much of a music scene – other people making music to latch on to...?
Uh, not really. I didn’t grow up around music. I grew up with my mom, and she had, like, the Hair Soundtrack, and stuff like that – and she didn’t even listen to it, people gave them to her or something. So I didn’t really grow up with much exposure to good music. And it’s pretty hard to get – I mean more and more bands are coming through Calgary now just because they’re getting better guarantees, and Calgary’s pushing one million people now so it’s getting – it feels more like a city now. But, there’s not very much going on in Calgary. I mean, there WASN’T much going on in Calgary. Now, there’s more kids there and it’s a crazy oil town, so we get a lot of Americans moving there from Dallas. So, there’s a lot of crossover between Dallas and Calgary.
So is there a Texas subculture in Calgary?
Well there’s a huge Cowboy subculture cause it’s "Calgary" or "Cowtown" and we got the stampede – that’s our claim to fame. And lots of cowboys live there.
So despite the fact that not a huge amount is happening there, you think you’re going to stick around?
Oh yeah. I mean, the place I live is probably about a half an hour drive out of the Rocky Mountains. So, I can’t ever imagine myself living too far away from the Rocky Mountains. And its winter time. I couldn’t really live anywhere where there wasn’t snow six months out of the year.
And that’s becoming more and more rare...
Yeah, it’s kinda crazy, cause Calgary used to get a huge snowfall and we get this thing called the Chinook, and there’s only two places in the world that get it and it’s a thermal inversion. It’ll be like minus 30 Celsius which is like – your skin freezes in less than a second if it’s exposed - and it’ll go from minus thirty to plus 20 Celsius in a day. So it’s like warm air coming from the west coming over the mountains hitting cold air from the north, and people are wearing t-shirts and stuff. But it’s happening more, so now it’s like these back-to-back Chinooks, and everybody loves it, right? But when I was a kid it was like lockdown, you didn’t fuck around. You’re like burrowing tunnels through the snow to get to school and stuff. And it’s just not –
That’s an exaggeration, right?
You opened for the Pixies...
Yeah. That was awesome – that was crazy. There’s a pretty funny story that goes along with that. I had my tickets – and just by the way the Pixies are probably in my top three bands of all time. I went through like four Doolittle tapes, and that’s what taught me to splice tapes and make looping tapes after that – that’s what got me inside of the cassette tape. And then I guess praying to God every night for them to reform into a band finally worked. So, they’re coming through town, and I got my tickets. And so my friend slash girlfriend slash best friend, who I hadn’t seen in like a year, was coming into town from Montreal. And it was her birthday the day of the show, so I was like, whatever I’ll just get rid of my tickets, cause there were just too many things going on that day. So I decided to get rid of my Pixies tickets – god knows why. Anyway, I get rid of the tickets, and then I find out she’s coming the day afterwards so I’m pretty choked and I’m trying to randangle myself another ticket in the meantime. And I get this phone call. And this guy’s like, "Yeah Chad, we were just wondering if you want to open for the Pixies." And I was like, "Oh yeah, you know I got the vibrating pussy anus and I’m forwarding it to your Mom’s house." And he was like, "Hey, I’m trying to book a show here. I don’t know what you’re talking about." So then I just started freaking out. And also the Calgary Flames were going into Game 9 or whatever and they had made it into the playoffs. And I think they beat Vancouver that night, so everyone was just going crazy. So it was like a double whammy. So, yeah...it was awesome.
Did you get to hang out with them backstage or anything?
Yeah. I didn’t get to talk to Frank. But, I got to talk to Kim the most. And made them all special little thank you things, you know. I didn’t want to overwhelm them with the fan thing cause I’m sure they get it like crazy. But I definitely wanted to let them know, cause they probably have the biggest influence out of any band that I could probably think of.
Are you getting tired of talking about Canada to music journalists?
No, I love talking about Canada.
Well, cool, that’s good. I don’t have any other questions about it, but...how do you feel about the cold?
I love the cold. I’m totally used to the cold.
And the hot?
I don’t like the hot. No, I don’t like the hot.
And do you feel like the cold influences your music at all?
Oh yeah, I mean you feel totally, at least in Calgary, you feel totally insulated there. And now I’m living in kind of a nice house, well it’s not that nice, but I’ve got a space. And, I haven’t left my house in three weeks. And I just left to come here, so it’s crazy.
Yeah, it is like ‘woah.’
So, all of the songs from your album...are pretty old.
Yeah, they’re getting pretty old.
So is that getting a little weird - you playing all these really old songs that you wrote in your bedroom?
Yeah, it’s kinda weird. It was kinda weird when it first came out because I never expected anybody to ever hear it, so that was kinda weird.
You freaked out about it?
I freaked out about it. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do at first.
You weren’t sure if you wanted to release anything?
Well yeah, then Ian convinced me that it would make me into some kind of weirdo if I didn’t release it.
Well, that would be an odd decision.
Yeah, well a lot of it was just sort of diary entries. Cause I was traveling a lot of the time, and a lot of it was just songs to my friends and stuff like that. So it’s like showing your diary to somebody, you know, it’s like a nightmare. Anyway, you get over it eventually. And I didn’t even know half the tunings of my guitar for most of these songs so I had to relearn them, and then perform them live. So I was vomiting before I had to play shows and stuff. And then I started playing on the street and that’s what got me over my stage fright. So, it was this crazy process, where it’s like, are you SURE you want to DO this, cause now people want you to DO this. And I was like, I don’t even DO that man!
Well, I guess if it came to vomiting everyday, then not releasing the album wouldn’t be such an odd decision. And you’re on Sub Pop, of all places, so how has that changed your mentality?
Um, that really freaked me out at first. And I think it did change a lot of the ways that I was thinking about making music. Because then I started making these ROCK songs. Thinking I had to keep writing songs, like I couldn’t just trip out and do whatever I wanted. And I was doing a lot of hip-hop at the time too, right before this started to get popular.
As an emcee or making beats?
Just doing everything, as an emcee, making beats. Yeah, there’s an EP that got released in Canada that had some hip-hop stuff and Jazz stuff and some more experimental things that I was doing. So then I felt this pressure, like, that music is what I do now and that’s what people want to hear and I wasn’t sure if people were going to like the other stuff or think I was some sort of fraud.
So where are you right now with that line of thinking?
Right now it’s like I don’t even care anymore. I just wanna – I’ve been going back to my old jazz records again. Finding more inspiration through the stuff – now that I’ve got that stuff out of my system I’m sort of going back to the place I was before Infiniheart, which was more of a comfortable place for me and more of an inventive place. Because I don’t really think the album is like, that great. I mean it’s alright, but it seems like I was really happy with what I was doing and the space I was giving myself and just really excited about making music, because I didn’t come from a musical background so I didn’t feel like there was anything I couldn’t do. Nobody was looking at me or expecting anything. So, I wasn’t an indie rocker or a hip-hop artist. So now I’m just like, if people don’t like it, people don’t like it.
People don’t even know what the hell they want anyway so...
Well exactly but I started getting this complex like, "You’re on Sub Pop now" and everybody’s like "You’re on Sub Pop now!?"
Well, hell yeah, I mean it’s very – you ARE on Sub Pop now and that definitely changes things. But, on the other hand, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a good thing.
Yeah, it is a good thing.
Yeah, it’s a GOOD thing. It’s great. Not that you need a pep talk from me, but you could be on some little label, or you could not be on anything.
Yeah, exactly. And the great thing about that too, as far as Sub Pop is concerned, people look at them as this label and they’re doing really well right now and putting out good stuff. But, above and beyond all that, it’s only because those people are awesome - the people who work there. They haven’t ever been weird about anything and I’m the one who’s been weird about it so they’ve put up with a lot of me not phoning for a month and a half ‘cause I’m weirding out on the east coast of Canada.
Okay Chad, I’m going to wrap up with some absurd questions – some stupid music journalist questions. But it’s fun –
Yeah, yeah –
It’s all meaningless, so you might as well try to have some fun with it, right?
So, if you could play music with anyone alive or dead who would it be and in what venue or context?
Hmmm...Well, I would probably play with Eric, my friend. I haven’t seen him for months and months. He plays drums on "Traffic," and I grew up with that guy so and I miss him like crazy right now. So, I’d probably play with him and if I had to pick a dead guy I’d pick my friend Ivan. Passed away a couple years ago from Cancer and he gave me his amp and guitar before he passed away, a couple days before he passed away. And the three of us had a band together until he died, but it never really came together because we were always fighting each other and I was making Ivan play through this horrible Solid State amplifier, so he’d always walk out and be like, "I can’t do it!"
What was the name of the band?
We were the Wool Nipples, and then we put a more improvised punk rock band together after that called the Broken Ankles. So Ivan Sellers and Eric Hamelin in Calgary, probably in my ex-girlfriends basement would be the venue.
What do you want out of life?
A German Shepard crossed with a Black Lab.