Chad VanGaalen lives in a whimsical, colourful land.
Flemish Eye

Trumpets, dogs and cries of the dead

Publication YearIssue Date 

Being weird. It will get you beaten up in high school, laughed at in university and ostracized in the workplace. You can only be strange when you're old because then you get to be labelled an eccentric. One of the few places counted as an exception to this is the music industry, which is a good thing for people like Chad VanGaalen.

Soft Airplane, his third release, is a heaping spoonful of sugary-sweet psychedelia that helps chase down his brand of fragile, falsetto-laden vocals and idiosyncratic melodies. Unfortunately, VanGaalen is still trying to replicate his sound on the record for his live show.

"I just want it to be as weird as it can be in the recording," he says. "I still haven't found the perfect way to get that across live, outside of the one-man band. As a one-man band, people expect it to be a little bit quirkier-- which is fine, I'm all for Crazy Horse jams-- but it's not as representative of what's on the record."

A show with VanGaalen's one-man band is always an intriguing, if unpredictable, time. His lanky frame is hunched over a drum kit, his left foot playing a snare drum while his right beats out the rhythm on the bass. He'll noodle on the guitar, bust out his weathered tape player to play sounds that he's recorded from around Calgary in the middle of the set and generally do whatever his whims desire. It's always hard to figure out what's going to happen. Sometimes he'll mess up a song, something will go wrong or he'll stop playing to tell the audience a tale.

"I'm kind of into trainwrecking-- having awkward silences-- more than I am with the music," explains VanGaalen. "It allows me more ability to interact with the audiences that way. I'm way more into telling stories and talking, which I have more allowance to do. As a rock band, you're set up to have the mentality of, 'Okay, we've practiced our songs and this is how we've been doing them.' With the one-man band, I can go off wherever I want on a tangent, so I can swing it in any direction that I want to without having to say [to the band], 'Okay, we're going to play noise for 20 minutes.'"

One of his more unique instruments is an acoustic drum machine with a completely whole cloth creation: a wooden cylinder with little spokes that are flicked to make a noise, featured on the track "Cries of the Dead." VanGaalen admitted later that it was the only thing he really wanted to talk about, understandable because it's something completely unique to him.

"I just had a baby girl and I wanted to introduce her to rhythm in a more visual way," VanGaalen explains. "It's something I've been working on for a while. It's still in its prototype state of being. It hasn't evolved much because I've been too busy with other shit. I just wanted some kind of cylindrical way of organizing a beat because you can section it off into rows."

Moving on from the prototype that has been seen in a few live shows-- most people probably saw it last at the Sled Island show in the Telus Science Centre-- he's been working on the bigger, badder version of the drum machine. It's evolved from wooden cylinders on an old record platter that can only make one beat to a motor-powered metal monster that can create a whole litany of rhythms for its maestro.

"People always think of drum machines as electronic," he explains. "I wanted to make one that was acoustic and like a robot. This one that I'm working on right now is based on small DC motors powering a little steel cylinder with those modular earth magnet ramps. It's basically the best thing I've ever done. It's tons of fun."

VanGaalen is not only a mad musical scientist, but he may also be one of the coolest parents in all of Calgary. While many parents try to get their kids involved in millions of activities and spend hundreds of dollars on Baby Einstein tapes, VanGaalen's parenting style is much more focused on having fun and being creative.

"We have music lessons in the morning and I have a bunch of vibraphones and calimbas that she plays with," he says. "Then in the afternoons we have drawing lessons. It's all just ultimate fun. Whatever you wish you had in your childhood is what I want to give to her."

It makes perfect sense that there would be music playing non-stop in a house with one of Calgary's premiere musicians . His daughter has listened to many records, but she seems to like one particularly the most.

"We've been tripping out on some Caribbean dance music," laughs VanGaalen. "She has a Jolly Jumper and she really likes to dance to this Caribbean dance music from the '30s. I found it in Edmonton, randomly, but she seems to love that one more than the other ones."

VanGaalen's life may be a little bit on the odd side, but it's a life that a lot of people would probably like to live: playing with your daughter, making music and being able to just enjoy life and do whatever you want. Soft Airplane reflects that desire to do whatever he wants and the record is better for it.