It starts with a dream about his own severed hands running away, and it only gets stranger from there. Welcome to Chad VanGaalen's world.
The first line on Chad VanGaalen's characteristically woozy fifth studio album, Shrink Dust, is about a pair of hands, newly dismembered.
They are his, though his hands are safely intact. "Cut off both my hands and threw them in the sand / Watch them swim away from me like a pair of bloody crabs," the Calgary-based artist sings in the wavering tenor his listeners have by now grown accustomed to. "Close my eyes and dream of different skies / Stare straight at the sun and try not to cry for you."
It's classic VanGaalen: well-worn self-pity and morbid apparition spun neatly into one, set to ramshackle squiggles of folk and electronica and a melody that is a gorgeous, flickering thing. It is also one of the only songs on the album for which the lyrics emerged out of a particular experience and were not scribbled out of nothing in the studio, VanGaalen tells PopMatters. (Another is "Lila", a rollicking tribute to VanGaalen's recently deceased dog by that name.)
"I'd done quite a bit of mushrooms the weekend before, [and] we went out to the mountains," the artist tells me by phone in a recent interview. "We'd driven out to the Rockies that day and done way too many drugs and I have two children and I'd kind of cast my hands into this frozen river and had a mad hallucination: I had given my right hand to one daughter and my left hand to my other daughter as I was totally tripping." A fevered burst of reality intensified the freak-out. "I was having this moment with myself, and I look over and this other guy who I didn't know very well was vomiting into this same river. I was like, 'Fuck, man!'"
VanGaalen's songs are so rife with the surreal that I'm surprised they don't all have origins myths this colorful. They are lonely and weary hymns that are somehow not entirely downbeat. A refrain on the last album went, "Maybe if I shave my pussy then you'll love me / Baby, will you love me? / I'm really feeling ugly," sung sadly with a straight face. Yet on this record, the woe-is-me pathos serves a particular genre well. Shrink Dust is his country album, VanGaalen says, and while acoustic guitars and other folky elements have not been uncommon on previous records, this one pushes Diaper Island's punkish edge and Soft Airplane's electro-pop impulses aside in favor of a recurring twang.
That's more a stronger reflection of the songs that were chosen for the record than of the recording process, VanGaalen says: "It just seemed like the [country-ish] were just a little bit better and more well thought-out than the noisy stuff I was doing at the same time." Of his process, he adds, "When I'm recording stuff, I kind of write and record the song in the moment. If it turns out, that's awesome. Maybe it's a good song, but maybe it doesn't turn out. Maybe it's a bad song, but it kind of turns out. 'Frozen Paradise' was just improvised nonsense that I had no plans for, and I was like, 'Oh, it turned out well.' Although I don't necessarily think the song is that great, it fit in for whatever reason. Sometimes that's how I'm letting it govern itself. I'm not really pointing myself towards any genre, it just ended up being a little more mellow, folky, country stuff."
But the country feel wasn't entirely a coincidence in editing. During Shrink Dust's production process, VanGaalen fell in love with the Flying Burrito Brothers -- he bought a record as a gift for a friend who turned out to own it already -- and taught himself to play an aluminum pedal steel guitar that he bought used in Dallas.
"The idea of morphing chords on a stringed instrument was really cool," he says. "I got that lap steel around the same time [as the Flying Burrito Brothers record], so I just started putting it on top of a lot of my songs -- which I'd already tried to put slide on. And I just totally fell in love with it as an instrument."
If the guitar-driven numbers seem like unnervingly upbeat ditties set to lyrics that are more often morbid and sad, that is because VanGaalen has never learned to tune a guitar traditionally and says he has been locked into an open tuning for 18 years, ever since he stumbled on his mother's classical guitar. He'd never been aware of standard tuning. Consequently, most of the chords he uses are major chords; a friend only recently showed him minor chords.
"And then I got into this state where I'd already written too many songs at that point to go back," VanGaalen says. "I was kind of in a comfort zone. Now it's like, there's no way. I've kind of fucked myself, to tell you the truth, in the long run. It's definitely limited my musical growth. It's just not very advantageous as far as getting your hand around the fretboard."
And so it was out of a combination of meticulous self-editing and accidental circumstance that a country-tinged thematic thrust emerged -- one that brings out the downtrodden beauty that's lurked in VanGaalen's music since 2008's "Willow Tree" and perhaps even longer.
* * *
Here, loosely, is how Shrink Dust came to be. Chad VanGaalen spent three or so years working on a homemade animated feature film titled Translated Log of Inhabitants while also touring behind Diaper Island while also delving way into the aforementioned Flying Burrito Brothers and Alejandro Jodorowskyv's 1980s science-fiction graphic novel The Incal while also trying to piece together a score for the unfinished sci-fi film, which is sort of what Shrink Dust is, but not really -- it's complicated, especially in VanGaalenLand, where all creative endeavors blend together under the same sort of cracked, surreal rubric.
These days the first installment of the film is nearing completion as the artist realizes, with some frustration, "how impossible it is to do it by myself right now and what a horrible voice actor I am."
Whether, or to what extent, Shrink Dust is a soundtrack to that film is unclear, even to VanGaalen.
"It's not really like a score, although some of it does exist within the film," he says. The shakily gorgeous last track, "Cosmic Destroyer", for instance, is about a character in the film, while "All Will Combine" is a "direct reference" of sorts to the movie's overlying theme. "I'd been writing it at the same time as I was working on the film, so they were kind of bleeding into each other. It's not really directly soundtracking the film. Certain parts of it are kind of ambiently in the background, and then there's little snippets of songs. But there's never a full track."
All of these projects have been taking place concurrently in VanGaalen's Calgary home and Yoko Eno studio. He has never worked in a commercial studio, as his press release boasts, and he still plays nearly every instrument on every song, improvising lyrics, music, and eight-track production tweaks throughout the process. On Diaper Island, which bore the echoes of VanGaalen's production work with the Canadian noise-rock band Women, you could be fooled into thinking a full band was lurking in the shadows. On Shrink Dust, not so much.
"The advantage to working with myself is I can get as emotional and weird as I want to get," he says. "You almost have to have some kind of improvised element or else it just falls flat. I have to capture some kind of naïve element or some kind of improvised element to make it worthwhile."
The process of writing and recording simultaneously has to move fast, in order for the ideas to stick, but it has to be focused, so as not to sound like "a bunch of disembodied parts roaming around sonically." These days, VanGaalen only uses an eight-track deck because even a 16-track seem too overwhelming. "It's perfect, because it doesn't eat up too much time and you're really forced to say, like, 'Do I really need to put kazoo through tape echo into this distortion pedal?'" he explains. "You trim the fat before it's even there."
The process has come to define VanGaalen as much as he defines it. Still, it's growing tiresome.
"I'm getting pretty sick of it, to tell you the truth," he admits. "This was a really hard record for me, just because I'm definitely leaning towards the visual side of things these days. I've been doing [music] for a long, long time, and it's just a lot of time to spend by yourself without anybody helping you. I'm just turning into a grumpy old man when it comes down to it. I get frustrated easier and easier."
Would he like to hire a backing band, I ask? The answer is yes. "I'd love to have a band. I'd definitely consider going somewhere else." The Calgary band Viet Cong recently hired Graham Walsh, of the band Holy Fuck, to record their album, he points out. "And he's an awesome dude and a friend. So I would definitely consider taking a band out and just doing it."
* * *
I have time for one more question, and because his titles carry such vivid and yet baffling phrasing sense -- Diaper Island, Soft Airplane -- I want to know what Shrink Dust means, where did it come from. Unlike so much of VanGaalen's work, drawn from labored solitude, it was the suggestion of a collaborator.
"That was from my friend [and bassist] Matt Flegel," VanGaalen tells me. "We were trying to come up with a name; I think he was just rambling off a bunch of stuff, and he was like, 'Shrink Dust!' And I was like, 'That's just the best title ever.'"
A fitting one, too. "The more that I thought about it for this record, it does have kind of a country/sci-fi vibe," the singer adds. "And a lot of it is kind of [about] getting lost down the rabbit hole. Cinderella drinking the magic potion. Like finding some shrink dust in a hedge."
It is a bewildering and strange answer. And somehow, too, it is the rightest summation of Shrink Dust's aesthetic I've heard.