Chad VanGaalen on the home life, animation, and unpredictability behind World's Most Stressed Out Gardener

Our interview with the Canadian musican/artist.

by Natalie Marlin

Seven studio albums in, Chad VanGaalen is still finding new and exciting ways to make music. On his most recent release World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener, the Calgary songwriter takes a number of surprising new approaches straying from his typical folk/garage rock sound — including ambient instrumental interludes and sudden mid-song shifts — that make the record a delight for both longtime fans and new listeners.

Like many who enter the album, VanGaalen saw the course of 2020 influencing how he shaped this record of songs written before the pandemic. Coming into play as well was VanGaalen’s time gardening, which saw difficulties last year due to 2020 being “a terrible year for gardening” and “terrible for the condition of the soul,” as noted in the album’s press release. Nevertheless, what resulted from that time is a wonderfully compelling new entry in Chad VanGaalen’s immense discography: chaotic and stressed out at one moment, before becoming celebratory or settling into serenity the next.

To learn more about the background behind the album, we spoke with Chad VanGaalen over Zoom to discuss his process with songwriting, animating, and putting together World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener.

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Since the album's title and the press release talk about your recent experiences with gardening, I was curious about getting a little bit more context into that. How long have you been gardening, and what makes it an activity that you're interested in?

I guess I started really seriously gardening maybe like a decade ago, when we scored a pretty sweet little zone here — so as soon as I had a place that was big enough that I knew that I'd be around long enough [to] put some honest effort into maintaining beds and stuff like that. So, like, a decade in, but definitely not a decade smarter in any way. It helps out a lot of things, for sure: your mind and just supplementing vegetables, if you can manage to do that and get it from your garden to your table. It's also just... the state of produce is weird. It's a weird thing to be buying things from California or Mexico or Brazil, or wherever it's coming from — it's having to travel a long way. So whatever you can learn from that and [supplement] your food that way... I feel like that's cool.

I imagine also the sustainability and doing it yourself also has those extra layers of certainty and satisfaction to it.

Yeah, absolutely. And you know that there's not poison being sprayed on it, and you get better at just learning how the Earth works in a sort of micro-climate — whatever your climate is. [Where I live] isn't necessarily the best climate to be doing that in, because the growing season is super short here. Like, there's still snow on the ground here. So it's kind of hit-and-miss as far as when the spring starts and how much procrastinating I'm doing with starting everything. It's a lot of work. That's another thing that I'm learning and weeding out, no pun intended: all this stuff that's a lot of maintenance. So I don't think I'm doing any nightshades this year. I'm just doing carrots, potatoes, broccoli, kale: stuff that’s kind of frost-resistant that I don't really have to keep that much of an eye on. So I’m into that. I’m into just leaving shit. Delicious, delicious shit. [Laughs]

To that end, part of what the press release goes into is how last year’s gardening influenced this new album. Can you talk more about the particulars of your last year with gardening and how that seeped into your songwriting and recording?

Oh yeah, I think it's informing it all the time. I don't know if I necessarily have any sort of thread that's running through my curation of records in that sense. I feel like I ended up pulling out a lot of the songs that were a little bit too stressed out, although maybe [those] would have made more sense. The way that I write music is more [about] consistently writing stuff. And when it comes time to put out a record, then I start sequencing. This record was already sequenced, and then the pandemic hit. And I realized that, if I was going to be putting out anything that made sense right now, I'd have to take a lot of the edge off. Or maybe not [taking] the edge off… I don’t know, there were just a lot of songs that didn’t make sense for right now. So I think that informed it more than gardening. I guess gardening informs everything. Growing stuff informs what I'm doing all this time. So a song like “Plant Music,” that cello piece — that's directly informed from what I imagine my house plants like to hear.

I actually wanted to ask about those interludes on this album, because I feel like there are more here than are typical on your studio albums and they all have these very distinct identities and sounds to them. How did those come about? And what drove your decision to place them where you did in the tracklisting?

I just felt like maybe people — or at least myself — needed a break from lyrics. I find lyrics really directional, and that’s a good thing and a bad thing. I [didn’t] really want to be complaining about this stuff that we already get bombarded with constantly. I just wanted a little bit more breathing room. And I work on a lot more instrumental pieces like that than I do songs.

“Earth from a Distance” is an interesting example, because it does have hidden lyrics in there. There's that choral part where I'm singing in the middle of it that I chose to bury and reverb and turn into more of a... not like a Gregorian thing, but more like an Enya thing where you don't really know what she's singing, but you're like, “Yes! Nice!” But those pieces were really special to me and it was the right time for me to put those on. To tell you the truth, I'm the most proud of that stuff — if I can get outside of the song for a second. I’m glad that people are responding to it in a positive way. That was what it was for in the first place.

Another element that really stands out on this album are these songs that have unexpected turns. You’ve done that once or twice before on tracks like “Freedom for a Policeman,” but there are two very distinct examples here with “Spider Milk” and “Nightmare Scenario.” How did those songs come together, given that they have these big shifts?

I think that was more informed by my kids more than anything. Aside from my partner, they’re the litmus for a lot of stuff. I think they were like, “Yeah, you’ve done that like a million times. You've written this song with different lyrics,” or like, “Isn't this the same song?” I think I also realized that a lot of the songs that I love do take that turn, and I saw the opportunity.

I think with “Nightmare Scenario,” it was different than with “Spider Milk.” With “Spider Milk,”  that just sort of happened naturally — where it gets celebratory at the end there and gets away from the weird narrative. With “Nightmare Scenario,” I really liked the beginning of that song. That song had been sitting around for maybe a couple years and I really didn't know what to do with it. And I just kind of glued this blues rock jam that I had in my head [to it]. I was like, “Oh yeah: ‘Nightmare Scenario.’ I don’t have to continue on with this sort of ‘90s poop beat vibe that was going on.” I was really trying to dig into those Sonic Youth records I love and that sort of Steve Shelley approach, and maybe even a Psychic Hearts approach, and I just didn't really know where to go with it. So it just sort of sat there for a while. But “Spider Milk” — that song just came out really quick, and that’s what it was.

Did you always have the sense that “Spider Milk” was going to be the opener? It kind of has that effect of signaling that different approach right from the get-go.

Yeah, it was definitely always the first track. I'm not ever really that excited about any of my sing-songy songs. But I was with that one, so I was really excited to showcase it. That one just turned out right, as far as lyrical presentation [that’s] non-directional [but] still conveying the emotional state. And it’s also just really short. I like it when a song feels like it's five minutes long, but it's only two minutes. So I was really excited. It rarely happens with me that I can please myself in that way with a song.

Continuing on what you were saying about your kids’ responses being a litmus test, there’s the beginning of “Golden Pear” with what sounds like a home recording of one of them. Did that take a similar approach?

No, that was actually my youngest daughter Pip! She was literally just coming in while I was [recording]. I was not able to remove that from the guitar take, and so that was just left in. To tell you the truth, I’m sure I was staring at her like, “What’s going on? What are you doing?” But then I realized that moments like that are the moments I love on records anyway — where you get those sort of real things happening. So it just ended up staying in there. It wasn’t like a home recording that I slapped in there — it was her actually interrupting me. I was glad that the door was unlocked, because then it would have been: [imitates banging on the door]. At least it was some sort of voice in there. But that's what happens: honestly 50% of my songs have either my dog coming in and going [imitates dog going “woof”] and wanting to walk, or my kids coming in and telling me it's time to go or something like that. It's life.

One of the other songs that stands out is “Nightwaves,” just because that’s one that I empathize with, being cooped up and having more time to scroll through a seemingly never-ending barrage of terrible news. What was the context for how that song came to be for you?

Another song that had been sitting around in a pile of electronic ones! I had this cool voice going on in my mind, kind of like Girls Against Boys — serious in a weird way. I needed to get into a different character for that one. It sort of demanded a weird sort of fake seriousness that I wasn't really ready to deal with at all. And then with the doomscrolling reference in the chorus, that's what kind of set it off. That was one of the sort of the curated pandemic songs where I was like, “Yeah, this one now suddenly makes sense.” Because, like you said, we all are feeling that burnout from the bad news, and that dopamine just starts dripping when that stuff starts coming down the pipe. [Laughs] Unfortunately, that’s how that song was made. I felt like that chorus came into my head and I was like, “Oh, it's for ‘Nightwaves.’” Because it didn't really make any sense before that. Before that, I think I was just fake cool singing overtop of it — like the male version of Kim Gordon. I feel like she knows the necessity of that and that’s kind of what we love about it. But in order for myself to get there, because I'm not anywhere near as cool as Kim Gordon, I need to really mold that shit. [Laughs] I can't just put those boots on and start walking. It takes a while.

You’ve been alluding to this a bit, but I’m curious to hear more about your curation process for what makes an album. You have a tendency of putting out an album every few years, but there’s a number of different bonus releases and EPs and cassettes. And with your Bandcamp recently, you’ve started putting out releases like Lost Harmonies, which was a shelved album. How do you typically take from the songs that you're working on and compile them into an album?

I guess I’m sort of looking for a thread. With Lost Harmonies, that was more just electronic things. I mean, “Nightwaves” could have been on that. There’s no real rhyme or reason, other than that I’m satisfied that the track sits well or makes some sort of sense. I think Shrink Dust came out as one record, and that’s pretty rare for me. Now, it’s like in between time and the songs make less and less sense to me. So I’m super apprehensive and get really twisted up with sequencing, because that’s not really the way I listen to music either or necessarily what I want in a record. But I also feel sensitive to alienating people so much that they would not really be able to make sense of it. So this record is special for me because of that, because I feel like I'm getting this sort of universal acceptance [that] it's okay to not present [myself] that way all the time. I feel like, with a Chad VanGaalen record, I don’t know if I’ve necessarily painted myself in a corner with it. I appreciate being like a folk artist and being recognized as a folk artist because that's super special. But also… I play a lot of flute. [Laughs] I love playing flute. So there’ll probably be a lot more flute.

And those [non-proper album] records are really special to me too. Lost Harmonies was a big deal for me. And those B-sides records that come out as cassettes for the proper albums are a big deal for me too, because maybe those are the records that I wish I was brave enough to put out in that moment, [even though] they might seem a little unfinished. I guess, in my mind, I’m always tripping out over what sounds like a “finished-sounding record.” And [my] idea of it is based on nothing really. It’s based on my own anxiety around [whether] people are going to be like, “Well, you could’ve put a little more effort into that.” But it doesn't really matter in the end: it's my own goblin on my shoulder, just going, “You put the mic in the same spot every time?!” It’s my own personal battle. [Laughs]

One component of your recording and performing process that’s always interested me is your usage of modified or DIY instruments to get these specific sounds that you wouldn’t be able to get from standard instruments. How much did that come into play with this album? And do you have a favorite one that you’ve been using, either for this album or recently?

I love that, that’s really important to me. I find it fascinating. You can do anything with anything these days, and it’s really fun to make something out of nothing. There was that sort of homemade glockenspiel copper pipe thing in “Samurai Sword.” And I’ll kind of pepper in some stuff in the background. I think the lithophone made it into “Samurai Sword” as well.

I use that stuff constantly. I'm constantly thinking about garbage that I find and what I can use. I just recently made a bunch of junk mobiles for people. [One of those] is just random steel that I found in my back alley. But my favorite one is like a stone xylophone. Whenever I go out wandering, I bring a backpack with me and collect musical rocks, if I’m kicking rocks around. I’ve been building up that lithophone for years now, to the point where I have maybe 100 different rocks. I feel really proud of it. There’s a few things that I feel proud of, and that’s one of them. Because it’s just rocks [that] have been here for however long. I’m maybe gonna knock some vibrations out of them, and that’s a real honor. There’s few things that are that simple to me that just work, and I don’t have to worry about it. There’s no stress involved with me banging on a rock. When the time comes, I’ll just dump them out off the back of my fence and into the alley again, and that’s that. It’s amazing, it’s incredible.

I Imagine it’s also cool just to get those rich sounds out of sources that are unconventional.

Yeah, exactly! That stuff is all around us. I feel like, once you see it, you can’t stop seeing it. And it’s a great obsession because it’s not like ordering crap on Amazon or filling up your car with gas or any of these things that slowly stress you out over time. It’s one of those things that gives you a real sense of okayness, which is rare these days. Just bang on rocks! If they crack in half, who the fuck cares! Get another rock! [Laughs]

I wanted to devote some time to talking about your visual art, because that makes up a large inseparable part of your work. How did the album cover come to be and what made you want to pair it with this particular album?

I’ve been drawing those noodle heads for a while. That’s directly influenced by vegetables — I’m always pulling up roots at the end of the season. Kale roots are really interesting to me, just those natural forms. And for whatever reason, I got obsessed with organizing those wormy curves. I don’t even really think I nailed it that well in that drawing specifically. It just ended up being more interesting to me than the other album art that I was considering at the time. Organizing those worms, for whatever reason, is just a nice [way] to turn my mind off. Facial recognition is also a thing that I'm obsessed with as well — the moment you start recognizing something that's being abstracted as a face is really weird. Suddenly, there’s that moment where you get the facial recognition and then you start bonding with it. And that's how a lot of the noodle heads grow. I don't even know what their face is going to be. And then suddenly, the face comes out and I'm like, “What?!?!” This was the nicest version of that. I feel like there were some creeps in there. There was some creepy shit going on. And this was the friendliest noodle head out of that series. [Laughs]

The video that just came out for “Starlight” is one that I find is especially interesting because it has a distinct style involving Super 8 footage and circular drawings that’s not present in any of your previous videos. How did you plan and execute that video?

Oh man… that was a nightmare scenario right there. I kind of panicked — I was right in the middle of doing video work and I knew that video was due, and I didn’t want to make it seem insincere, but I knew that I didn’t have that much time to spend on it. Then I found these VHS tapes in my basement, [which] I’d cleaned out, and pulled out my TV that has a VCR attached to it. I started watching [them] and they were heartbreaking to me and really special. [They were from] when I was cleaning out my grandmother’s garage, [and] I found a suitcase packed full of Super 8 videos and black and white 8mm videos from when my great-grandparents were in South America and the States and all over North America. So I transferred them immediately [to that VHS tape], just because I had a Hi-8 camera at the time [and] I could.

So I found that tape again — I hadn’t seen that tape for maybe like 20 years — and I was like, “Oh, I can use this for the ‘Starlight’ video.” And then… it was just kind of boring. So I gave myself three days and I found this function on my animation program that morphs one drawing into another drawing, and was like, “That thing is crazy! That looks really good, actually!” I liked how well it worked with simple line [drawings]. Like, I put a lot of work into morphological nonsense, but this thing just does it. So I was like, “Okay, if I do it on the beat, I can alpha layer [those tapes] in and still use that in the background,” because I liked the sunny beach notion of it. Every time the snare hits, [I would] do another nonsense drawing, and it was just stream-of-consciousness. Like, whatever: double snake head into Lamborghini Countach into… I don’t fucking know, another Lamborghini Countach! But I knew that I had to keep running on it and that I only had a few days to do it, so that one came out really quickly. And man, it could have been a steaming pile of shit. But it’s funny how much time I spent on the “Samurai Sword” video just laboring over it and totally enjoying myself at the same time. And then the “Starlight'' video was just like panicked, panicked bad ideas piled on top of each other until it was okay. [Laughs]

On that note, the “Samurai Sword” video introduces this concept of Thrift Drifterz that you’ve said you wanted to explore more. Can you talk about what potential plans you might have ahead there?

Yeah, I mean… call me up and give me money, and I’ll make Thrift Drifterz. That’s what it’s really about. I want to make a show where those people are running a thrift store, because I love thrifting and repurposing stuff. I feel like that’s really important and is going to become more important in the future. And I want them to be running that thrift shop in a way that they’re discovering how they can maintain a business without damaging the nature around them. It’s like a West Coast vibe where they’re just buddies and having emotional conversations and hanging out. It’s probably a bunch of nonsense, but I like the idea of it.

And then I sort of built it into [this video]. I was like, “Where would I get a samurai sword? I gotta go to the thrift store. Oh fuck, I’ll go to Moonie’s Thrift! They totally have a samurai sword hanging out there!” And then I put “Samurai Sword” on the record and had a bit of a panic attack because, without the video and without what was in my head materialized as an actual thing, I was worried that it would come off as too much of a kids’ song. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it was just sort of the outlier on the record — it came out really quick and I just slapped it on there at the end. I called up Tony [Kiewel] at Sub Pop and I was like, “Have they made the record?!” And he’s like, “Dude, it’s ready to get made. What’s going on?” This is a thing that they have to suffer through with me all the time. I’m like, “I’ve got five more songs and I think they’re gonna be good!” “The record’s already been made!” But luckily, he phoned the record press place — or maybe he was fucking with me at the time — and stuck that on the record. And a week later, I was horrified. But then I finished the animation and it all worked out. I had the time to work it out like how I wanted to obsessively work it out. So thank goodness for that, because that shit can get embarrassing. Like you write something in your diary while you’re under the influence and present it at the open mic, and then you’re just like, “Oh my god, what’s going on? ‘Samurai Sword’? Who cares?” But then, in context, it all makes sense.

To wrap things up, tying what you’re talking about sending things off and having them done, I had seen you mention in another interview that you have another record planned out for June already. Are you able to talk about that at all?

Yeah, basically all the stuff that didn’t really make sense on this last record really makes sense on another record. So it’ll be pretty similar, I think. I think it’s good… maybe it’s good, I don’t know. I’ll have to take another look at it. There’s a few more guitar solos I maybe need to put in overtop some stuff. And like I said before, there’s sort of a list of things I have to iron out before I feel okay about songs, and a couple of those songs that I took off this record were either a little bit too similar or just redundant in a way. But now that I’ve had time and new songs have filled up those spaces… I think there were about four more songs that came out after this record [after] “Samurai Sword” got things going in a more stripped-down folky direction that I find harder and harder to do as time goes on. Those songs that are really simple and [have] a storyline — a few more of those fell out in the months afterward and then filled in this new record that’s going to be called Full Moon Bummer, which I’m pretty excited about. I don’t know what we’ll do for that record, whether it’s going to be a physical release or Bandcamp. I’m loving Bandcamp and all the things you can do on Bandcamp for fundraising or not having a physical copy out, and still have this sort of exposure where people are actually going to listen to it. Whereas I don’t even know if doing that thing even makes sense on Spotify anymore, unless five billion people are listening to it.

That definitely tracks, especially given how the trajectory has been going in the past year with the greater attention on Bandcamp and a lot of the in-person aspects of the music industry being sidelined.

Yeah, exactly. Who knows. I don’t know, it’s hard for me to navigate as a 43-year-old who’s used to listening to full records in sequence. All of that is too wild. Territory is wild. [Laughs]

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World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener is out now on Sub Pop and Flemish Eye. Stream and purchase the album here, and tune into Chad VanGaalen’s livestream performance on NoonChorus this Thursday, April 8th at 7 pm ET/PT.