If you were to step briefly inside the brain of CHAD VANGAALEN it would no doubt be filled to the brim with unimaginable creatures, piss drawings, incredible home-made instruments, and god knows what else. From animator to sci-fi folk musician to instrument creator to movie maker to father of two, it’s no secret that Chad Vangaalen is a man of many weird hats. I got to sit down with him and talk about discovering music, reed instruments, Moebius, and the super-power kids have.
ASHLEIGH DYE: So you seem to be pretty animation based in most of what you do and I know that comics and drawing were a huge part of your life growing up. How did the music aspect get worked in?
CHAD VANGAALEN: Well, I guess it was in High School. I was at a new High School and didn’t really know anybody and I started hanging out with all the metal heads, because they were also into drawing etc. From there I met a bunch of dudes who had a jam space. At the time I wasn’t really into music that much, but they started introducing me to bands like SHELLAC, SONIC YOUTH, NIRVANA, stuff that was from that scene happening in the early 90’s. I had never been exposed to music that sounded like people actually making music. It made me realize that anyone can do this, so I went and bought a guitar.
AD: Were you always interested in making your own instruments or did that develop later in life?
CV: That was later, after meeting all those kids in High School I kind of started getting into free music, like after I got out of High School I started listening to TORTOISE, Sonic Youth introduced me to GLENN BRANCA, and other experimental acts. From there it was sky’s the limit, as far as sound goes. I had access to a really nice wood shop at the time and I really like working with wood, so it came pretty organically.
AD: My favorite instrument of yours I’ve seen is this crazy rotating drum that has Legos all over it. How did that come about?
CV: That was the first version of that drum machine; there are about five versions of that now. I play a lot of one man band projects and I’m always missing the high hat, the metronome kind of thing. So I wanted to not have a drum machine playing that. I wanted something acoustic. So I was like “Oh, I could make an acoustic drum machine!” That one is really dead now from playing so many shows with it, as I’ve made the more updated versions it’s gotten smaller and smaller. Now it’s a flat top with removable discs so you can put different ‘beats’ on instead of having to change all the pieces.
AD: Do you have a favorite instrument that you’ve made?
CV: Yeah, I really got into making clarinets at one point; I really like the clarinet. The drummer that I’m playing with tonight was in my first band; I played alto-sax and he played drums. We played a lot of improvised music for years and years and I got really into reed instruments. Bass clarinet is probably my favorite instrument, but I can’t afford one so I got into making different sorts of reed instruments. I use this one instrument I made that I call a Barnswallow, to sort of accompany the sound. If I use a lot of clarinet I’ll throw that one in there, as a sort of phasing in-between notes.
AD: You mentioned before that you like to leave traces of human elements in your recordings, hand sliding down the neck of your guitar, finger tapping etc. Do you have the same mentality with your animations?
CV: Yeah, for sure. Depending on if I’m down-shooting and just doing straight up cell work I want it to be as bad ass as possible, I really like fluidity and morphological stuff, but I also like seeing the artist’s own mark in the work. I try and not think about it as much as I can and it tends to just expose itself. It’s harder to leave that mark with stuff like PEACE ON THE RISE, and that METZ video, stuff that’s really colorful and 2D is tri-digital. I do the drawings in black and white and then scan them in and can click fill them, which is a quicker way of working color wise, it’s the same program they use for FUTURAMA and the SIMPSONS. It’s still traditional animation, but its digital. Even though it’s on a 2D plane there are layers you can work on to create a 3D environment.
AD: There’s a lot of morphing and fluidity in your work, as you just said. Is that something that parallels your own life or is it just your preferred form of animating?
CV: I think it’s just a byproduct of my animating style. I’m working on my first full length feature right now. It’s the first thing I’ve written a script for and tried to nail down as a linear story line. It’s really hard to stay interested and focused because it’s so labor-intensive that I feel like if I know what’s coming next I get bored of it and am over it, so as far as the morphological stuff goes I’m just always interested to see what can happen. It’s not spiritual or anything, but I’m kind of blown away at what comes out of my subconscious. I try not to think of anything really when working. I’ve noticed that even a year after making something I’ll come back and I’ll watch it and think “Oh man, that’s crazy. That’s totally about this thing that was happening in my life that I was suppressing or not really aware of.”
AD: You’ve talk about being very influenced by Moebius and The Incal, which I just finished reading and can totally see in your work. The plot is so fast, you flip ahead ten pages and you’re in a whole other world.
CV: It’s totally circular, too! I like the fact that Jodorowsky lets the chaotic elements inform the story telling. The Incal is a weird one, it’s just pure nostalgia for me. As soon as I saw Jean Giraud’s work I was blown away. I realized that this guy was so far beyond anything I had already been exposed to. The American comics that were coming out in the 70’s and early 80’s were so dominated by super heroes. I feel like European comics really nailed that sort of subterranean, post-apocalyptic future-world. It’s like they were seeing what the future was going to be in this crazy sort of rock and roll way. It’s still so organic too, like people are still wearing shitty hats in the future. Those human elements are still there.
AD: Exactly, like all the shifty elements of human existence are still present. John Difool, the guy hired to find the Incal is a greedy, gambling man addicted to prostitutes! [Shifting gears] How did your creative lifestyle alter once you became a father?
CV: Time just gets more compartmentalized and compressed. I used to be, well I am still a stoner Dad, but I have to pick my times to do things, now. To tell you the truth, it came at a really good time when I needed that focus. It started getting old getting baked and seeing what happened, having kids forced me to take things and time a bit more seriously. I feel like I’m a lot more focused than I was.
AD: That’s great. It could have very easily been the other way around and been the thing that really slowed your practice.
CV: It was really overwhelming to begin with. The growing pains were crazy. It kind of takes me a long time to work on things. Like I’ll get a lot done, it’ll be nothings getting done, then all of a sudden a shit ton of things will get done because I’d be working on five different things at once. That amount of time is totally unnecessary, though being able to trim the fat made me a better person.
AD: Do your kids inspire a lot of your animations?
CV: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a crazy hoarder of drawings. I feel a lot of guilt around that, actually. My daughter is like a super drawer. She’ll just sit down and draw for four or five hours and I just shove food in front of her. Her mind is totally unafraid of what it produces. I show her videos and she’s just like “yeah I’ve seen you do that character like three times now, you need to make it so they’re outside more. Don’t they ever have any fun?” I feel like Jim Henson did that, once he had kids that’s when he got really focused. That’s when Dark Crystal got made, that’s when his studio really started taking off.
AD: Yeah, kids just tell you what’s up and keep you on your toes.
CV: Exactly, she’s just telling me exactly how something makes her feel. I try not to suck too much of that out of them, I don’t want to be a Vampire. Whenever I watch her draw I just think that I would fucking kill to not have this little voice in my head contradicting what I’m doing or critiquing myself. I don’t do it to the point where I’m paralyzed, but kids just don’t care.
AD: Do all of the creatures you make exist in the same realm?
CV: No, some of them do, but not all. The PEACE ON THE RISE guys exist in the same universe that I’m making this film in.
AD: Rad, that’s what most of SHRINK DUST was inspired from, right?
CV: Yeah, they definitely inform each other. The last track is about one of the creatures in the film. They were going on at the same time so there are about three songs that relate directly to the movie plot wise, but they aren’t in the movie. It has its own score. I’m going to put that out as its own thing once the movie is done. I think a lot of people think that SHRINK DUST is the score to the movie.
AD: This can be the disclaimer: SHRINK DUST is not the score to your movie. Did you record SHRINK DUST alone like your other albums?
CV: I did, I’m a crazy control freak about that kind of stuff. I’ve been working on the same tape decks for 20 years now, so it’s so quick. I know exactly what it’s going to sound like. I don’t think I could ever get into a vocal booth and passion sing on command. My studio is right there too, so why wouldn’t I use it? Also I need a lot of time to warm up to things, I would be thinking too much about money and time. My time in my studio is free, in Canada I can apply for a grant to make a record and I’ll get however much money which just does to me subsisting.
AD: I read a couple reviews that claim that this sounds like your most confident album so far. What are your thoughts on that? It’s kind of a weird thing for someone to say about someone else.
CV: To tell you the truth, I’m amazed that this album even happened in the first place. I don’t know how I feel about the songs, I still think DIAPER ISLAND is my favorite one. It was really quick. It came out much faster than this album. SHRINK DUST took a lot of time. I was sifting through so many songs that weren’t good, and by the end I couldn’t even really see what it was anymore.