Folk Fest: Chad VanGaalen breaks out

By Garth Paulson

Sometimes good things happen to good people. Sometimes the old adage claiming quality music will eventually be heard and appreciated, regardless of how obscure it is, turns out to be true. Sometimes nice guys don’t finish last. Of course, none of these are usually the case. More often than not, things do not work out for those good people, their music isn’t heard and they struggle across the finish line to be rewarded with yet another consolation ribbon for their sparse trophy case. This is reality, an eternally harsh mistress intent on kicking you around for as long as possible before leaving you to gracefully decompose.

In local singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Chad VanGaalen’s case the former is true. Having put together countless home recordings in Calgary for years, our special little secret finally started to see his fortunes change with the release of Infiniheart, a compilation of some of his finest recordings. The album struck a chord with listeners and has been rapidly gaining praise and devotion from nearly everyone who stumbles across it–even though it is hardly an accurate representation of VanGaalen’s multiple talents.

“People just started liking the pop stuff, the sort of sing song stuff,” he explains during a break in performing during last week’s Calgary Folk Festival. “Originally when I made the compilation I think there were two songs on there with singing. The rest of it was experimental, stoner rock or free jazz stuff. It just happened that people liked the vocal stuff. I have been writing a lot of pop or rock songs lately because of that.”

The vocal songs certainly have been a success, elevating VanGaalen from his basement beginnings to one of Calgary’s biggest players seemingly overnight. Infiniheart also caught the ear of management at prominent indie label Sub Pop Records with them signing him and promising a wide release of Infiniheart in August.

“Ian [Russell] runs Flemish Eye [records] and he, being a friend of mine, wrote up a grant and said ‘put together a compilation of a bunch of songs and we’ll put it out,’” he explains. “Even at that level I was pretty intimidated, or even embarrassed, because a lot of them are like diary entries and I never expected anyone to hear that stuff. Now for it to go to the next level is pretty mind boggling. I grew up listening to Sebadoh, and a lot of Sub Pop bands have introduced me to a lot of other great music so it’s crazy. If I knew that in grade 10, I would be having wet dreams every night. It’s exciting and intimidating at the same time. I’m totally overwhelmed.”

Overwhelmed or not, the sweet, intimate pop of Infiniheart has been turning heads across Canada since its release. Soon the album will reach a much greater audience than VanGaalen ever imagined, propelling him out of Calgary and into the international eye, albeit in a slightly changed format.

“They [Sub Pop] wanted to know if I wanted to release a different version,” VanGaalen says. “I’ve wanted ‘Human Totem’ off it for a while, it’s too personal, I guess. They said if you trim it down three extra minutes we can put it out on vinyl. Vinyl is like 48.5 minutes or something. I want to have enough vinyl to bathe in so I said ‘yeah, fine.’ I took off an instrumental track and ‘Human Totem.’ On the Canadian version on CD we’re going to release it with a bonus five song EP with all new songs so you’ll actually end up getting five new songs, minus two old ones. That stuff is so old at this point it’s kind of painful.”

While VanGaalen might find some of his Infiniheart material hard to swallow, most who have been exposed to it react differently. Now knocking on the door of indie stardom, something he got a taste of when he opened for the Pixies at their recent Calgary appearance, Van Gaalen is poised to leave the days of being forced to release home recordings on CD-Rs in the distant past. The re-release of Infiniheart could also be the nudge the Calgary scene needs to gain wider exposure and recognition from those outside of Alberta.

“I would hope that it would expose [the Calgary scene] too, because there are crazy bands here and not just Calgary, but all of Alberta too,” he remarks. “There’s awesome bands in Edmonton like Vertical Struts and Whitey Houston. I’m sure there’s a million of them I’m forgetting. The Wet Secrets, Fake Cops, the Dudes, I don’t even know how those guys aren’t totally famous. I think people are opening that door and taking a look at what’s inside right now.”

With luck, VanGaalen’s success can provide the impetus to ensure good things happen to some other good people besides just himself.

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