Shrink Dust, the fifth full-length album from Calgary freak-folk experimentalist Chad VanGaalen, opens with the lines: "Cut off both my hands and threw them in the sand/watched them swim away from me like a pair of bloody crabs/close my eyes and dream of different skies/stare straight at the sun and try not to cry for you."
Lyrically, Cut Off My Hands poignantly describes the hopelessness one feels after someone close to them dies -- but the song's power lies in its arrangement. At its core, it's a warm, affecting acoustic tune -- but there's a discordant (and near omnipresent) squall of meandering horns hovering over it like a particularly vocal group of seagulls, casting a shadow on an otherwise sunny melody. It's not annoying, exactly; it's just there. In the background. All the time. Kind of like grief.
The song was written for Chris Reimer, VanGaalen's close friend and member of Calgary's much missed noise-rock outfit Women, who died in his sleep in 2012 from complications due to a heart condition. He was 26.
"Chris passing away was really sudden," VanGaalen says quietly over the phone from Colombus. Ohio. "I felt lost in space emotionally. It's taken me a while. It's still taking me a while."
Another loss is lovingly documented on Shrink Dust, which came out on April. Lila is ballad that tugs on the heartstrings, written for his 12-year-old rescue dog, Lila.
"(Her death) marked a period of time for me -- especially me and my wife; she had Lila when I met her," VanGaalen says. "(Lila) had recovered from cancer the year before that, and we thought she'd live forever because it was such a crazy comeback. It was a strange headspace to be in."
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And VanGaalen is certainly someone who lives inside his head -- which, judging from his work both as a musician and a visual artist, is a weird, whimsical place (follow him on Instagram if you're not already). Everything he creates is simultaneously inclusive and alienating, beautiful and grotesque; as a Pitchfork review also noted, this is someone who elected to call the most breathtakingly lovely ballad on his 2011 album Diaper Island a name we can't print in the newspaper. VanGaalen knows when to pull a listener (or viewer) in, and when to push them away.
While making Shrink Dust, VanGaalen was also working on a feature-length animated sci-fi film called Translated Log of Inhabitants, which he's described as being "like Bob and Doug McKenzie in space."
"I was picking away at songs like I would normally," he says. "But I think some of the tracks informed the animation and vice versa."
The film, which he hopes to release later this year with an accompanying graphic novel, was incredibly labour-intensive, with VanGaalen hand-drawing it in his sketchbook and scanning it into his computer using a program called Tradigital. "It basically almost made me insane," he says.
Recorded entirely by VanGaalen at his home studio, Yoko Eno, Shrink Dust wasn't intended to be the soundtrack for the film in a traditional sense, but it shares sounds and ideas -- the result of coming from the same brain at the same time.
The addition of pedal steel, which gives the record its countrified, spaceman-cowboy vibe, is one example. "I got it so I could make spacey background noises for the film and it made it onto the record," he says.
In true VanGaalen form, he taught himself to play the notoriously difficult instrument. "I don't know if I did it properly," he says. "It took me a while to figure out how to tune it. I think there were a lot of country songs that came out of it, but less than I imagined made it on to the record."
Not surprisingly, VanGaalen approaches projects with a surplus of ideas.
"I kind of just make batches of stuff," he says. "It's hard when you're recording everything yourself. It's hard not to make it sound overworked. For me, that's what makes the cut -- whatever doesn't sound laboured."
So how does he know when to walk away? "Oh man, when it starts bugging me," he says with a laugh. "Or if it sounds stupid. It's a pretty fine line. Even if songs are working out, I have to walk away to not ruin them, if that makes sense."
In addition to the five solo albums released under his own name, the prolific multi-instrumentalist has also made genre-spanning records as Gem Clouds, Garbage Island, Black Mold, Dub Tassels, Raw Operator and Inventions of Science, to name a few. VanGaalen has also opened up his home studio to other bands in the Calgary scene, recording both of Women's well-received albums. But he stops well short of calling himself a producer.
"I don't feel comfortable there," he says of that role in the studio. "I feel like most of the time I don't know what's going on and I kind of like that. I can guide their sword, but I like people to have come up with their own ideas. I just have to make people feel comfortable. I don't have to direct. In my own stuff I do, but when other people come in, I'd rather get a good idea of who they are and try to represent that as accurately as I can. One of the things I like about recording music is that I can be aimless. I don't feel like I can be aimless with other people."
That said, now that VanGaalen is dad to daughters, aged six and four, he manages his time differently.
"Kids are a crazy thing," he says. "The time I do have I spend more productively. I actually have to focus. I have to, not premeditate, but I have to know where things are headed."
He also makes music with his daughters as both Crocodile Teeth & The Snugglers and Banana Bread. (There was even a brief campaign to replace "Chad VanGaalen" with "Banana Bread" as his official recording alias.) Much the way he would with any young artist, VanGaalen lets them lead the way.
"I feel weird pushing them in any direction creatively, because I don't want to be the kind of person who does that. My oldest daughter loves to draw. We used to play a lot more music, but now it's drawing. And climbing."