In Conversation: Chad VanGaalen and Seth A. Smith

The artists and friends talk home recording set-ups, family bands, and animation.

Chad VanGaalen is a Calgary-based songwriter and producer; Seth A. Smith is a filmmaker and one of the founders of Cut/Off/Tail Productions, and a musician with the band Dog Day, whose album Present came out last summer. To celebrate the release of VanGaalen’s new record World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener — out tomorrow via Sub Pop — the two friends hopped on the phone to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor 

Chad VanGaalen: I live a pretty singular sort of creative life where I don’t bounce anything off of anybody, ever. It’s a good way to really run some ruts deep in your brain folds.

Seth A. Smith: There’s strengths and then there’s weaknesses, you know. I do find there’s a certain strength in everything coming from the same creative force, and it’s really in sync and there’s no miscommunication. But then after a while it gets boring. There’s something really magical about how other people interpret things.

Chad: Yeah, it’s infinitely directional.

Seth: Yeah. Everything I write with Darcy [Spidle, Seth’s Cut/Off Tail collaborator], it’s like we’re making two different movies in some ways. That’s kind of like the way I like making art. I never like making art that’s like, “This is how it is, this is the explanation for it.” It should be a conversation with whoever is receiving it, I guess.

Chad: Yeah. Like I said, on my end it’s a conversation with myself, which gets pretty weird after a while.

Seth: Yeah, but you’re good at it. You can do many different voices, I’ve noticed. 

Chad: [Laughs.] I’m trying, man, I’m trying.

Seth: I was watching TARBOZ the other night, and I was really impressed with how you can slip into different characters so easily.

Chad: Yeah. That was a real experiment in just my own sanity. Hard learning! I really thought it’d be great to make a like a sci fi movie but, man, when it comes down to it, you really just need time and no interruptions. You’re a dad now — has that changed your work ethic in any way? 

Seth: Oh, yeah. I think just as time goes on, I feel like you get less and less time, and time becomes more precious. Which is kind of cool, though, too, because you don’t have the time to just mess around as much. At least, I feel like I’m a little more focused. Like if I’m spending time on something, you know, it’s gotta be business time, let’s get it done.

Chad: How are you during this pandemic, time wise? Do you feel like you’ve been more creative or what?

Seth: We’re pretty relaxed here. I mean, it’s definitely been pretty freaky. I miss seeing people, but me and my family live in the woods — as far as you can get away from the city without going too far — so we’re still hanging with our neighbors and going for walks every day. It’s been cool but it is weird. We released a Dog Day record during this time. That was different, being a musician, releasing music when you can’t really play it. I don’t know, I haven’t been really interested in doing, like, live Instagram performances.

Chad: I know, man. I’m getting ready to like. Yeah. I’ve been putting together a live show for April and it’s so much work. I’m doing it myself. It’s crazy, man. It’s just multiple camera angles, and then stitching all that stuff together. I’m hanging iPhones from, like, shoelaces to get moving shots and stuff. It’s horrible, it’s like seasickness. 

I mean, I don’t know, I feel like everybody is probably really sick of, like, 4K live concerts and they want a frayed edge. I drew a face on my foot the other day and I thought that was pretty sick to show that off. 

Seth: Can you send that to me?

Chad: I’ll send that to you for sure. 

I wanted to ask you, because I was walking my dog this morning and I was listening to Present. I just want to say — and you already know this — I’m a huge fan. You’re, like, top five favorite bands of all time. If people don’t know this, your wife [Nancy Urich] is in your band and she writes a lot of these awesome songs. “Mind Reader” is such a good track. Are you hitting a slinky, or like a fence in that song? 

Seth: Oh, there’s a sound effect in there. 

Chad: What is that? 

Seth: You know, I have such a poor memory when I’m doing this. It’s like war, and I just don’t — it’s lost. But that was recorded during the same time Nancy and I were doing sound effects and Foley for the movie Tin Can that we’ve been working on that’s like a sci fi, medieval, kind of heavy metal type of movie. We’d been using a lot of metal, like bells — actually kind of inspired by those weird instruments you used to make. You were just tying a bunch of strings to things and turning cranks. So I think that sound probably came from that. We have a suspended piece of sheet metal that we were playing around with.

Chad: What’s the process of your recording? Because these records always sound so fucking good. 

Seth: Oh, thanks. I’m glad you think so.

Chad: I feel like it definitely stepped up with Present. Back to that song “Mind Reader” — that’s like a fat drum sound for a Dog Day record. It’s pretty tight, it’s pretty compressed.

Seth: Dog Day, you know, it’s kind of a format that we stick to. It’s like a certain type of music we like playing. But within that format, we try to make a different sounding record each time, and this time, I think Nancy and I had been listening to a lot of ‘70s music, like ABBA. Just the flat drum sound we would kind of do.

Chad: Yeah, just crushed out and dry. It was doing it for me. It was fat, fat on the bottom, man. 

Seth: We don’t have a fancy studio, we literally just have a basement. Any time a snare hits, you hear it through the forced air heating shaft. [Laughs.] We basically just put blankets on everything to try that out, and it was kind of neat. How about yourself? What’s your studio sitch like over there? Is it a home studio or do you have a separate building?

Chad: I do, I’ve got a garage — that’s kind of why we got this place. The place that we were living in before this, where I had a basement studio, was getting sold, so we were looking around for houses, and then this house popped up and it had a two story garage. It’s awesome. It’s the same sort of situation — it doesn’t have high ceilings or anything, so the acoustic sounds might be limited in some way. 

I’m getting so lazy with how I mic stuff now. I found a spot in the corner where I now have a large diaphragm tube mic, and it just lives there and I do everything on it. It’s off to the right side of the drums if you’re sitting down, the floor to side at about shoulder height, and [I discovered] I can do guitar in front of it, I can do vocals in front of it. Even when I play drums beside it, it manages to capture it, like, better than good enough. I just feel like I struggle with more than two mics on a drum kit, just because of logistics. 

Seth: The fewer things you record with— 

Chad: The fatter. It’s just like you’re taking up all of the wavelengths with it. I don’t know how people do it. I talked to the drummer in my band [Lab Coast], Chris Dadge, and he’s also a engineer and producer — he’s really teched out with his drum mics. He’s like, “Oh, yeah, top and bottom this, and Glyn Johns on this.” And I’m just like, “Damn, man.” I just feel like I don’t have proper phase knowledge in my mind, really, so I’m just flipping those switches and hoping something pops out. 

Seth: I mean, I just learned how to use a compressor, like five years ago. 

Chad: What kind of compressor do you use? 

Seth: Oh, I don’t know. I just use whatever I can. Actually, we do a lot of digital stuff. Now I have piles of reel-to-reel machines — I used to want everything to be warm, I wanted to use these fancy mics. Now I just use the same mic for everything, and I’ll mainly just record on Logic.

Chad: Yeah, and EQ it up. I feel the same way. You get tricked by that tone quest, where you’re like, “Look at that photo of him in front of his gear! Check out what’s going on in the studio…” 

Seth: I think it’s like a mythological thing. 

Chad: Today it is, because you run digital. I didn’t really realize about channel strips — that’s what I’m kind of bugging out about now. It’s like, you get a mic pre and you have the EQ on it, and that’s all you need. A couple good mic pres with EQs built into them. Once you get that, you’re like, Oh, man, I always want this. Why don’t all mic pres have EQs built into them?

Seth: I’m not even at that stage yet, I don’t think. [Laughs.]

Chad: That’s unbelievable, man, because those records just sound fucking phenomenal. 

Seth: Well, likewise. I was listening to the new stuff — some sounds of metal in these new tracks that I’m digging. I think “Samurai Sword,” I heard some cowbell kind of stuff.

Chad: There was some junk. That was, I ripped all the old copper pipes out of my basement right before the pandemic, and that’s it. I ended up making a bunch of metallophones out of it, because it’s fucking gorgeous. Throw that shit on — honestly, man, throw most stuff on Styrofoam and it’s just like—

Seth: You mean like physically throw it on a piece of Styrofoam?

Chad: Yeah, physically throw whatever on Styrofoam. Actually, the sculpture tech at the art college here showed me that, Scott Bullock — he was like, “Dude, just get thick Styrofoam” — like the high density stuff that you throw in like your garage door, like that pink sort of solid foam is really good. Sometimes it’s blue, depending on what brand it is. 

Seth: OK, yeah I know the stuff. 

Chad: Yeah. Then maybe some soft foam just over top of that, so it grabs and shit isn’t rolling on it. I got into lithophones, like collecting resonant rocks a few years ago. And so I’ve slowly been building this huge table full of resonant rocks. 

Seth: What’s a resonant rock?

Chad: Like, you know when you kick a stone on the beach, like a long stone? Usually they’re long and thin, and they make almost like a wooden [sound]. 

Seth: So you have a rock collection of rocks that make sounds. Interesting.

Chad: Yeah, I’ve got a pretty big rock collection. I’m getting doubles of notes now, if that’s even possible. That’s not even possible, dude.

Seth: That’s like unnatural, you know. I mean, rocks are just so individual. It’s interesting, because I did the same with Tin Can with metal, like copper and silver goblets. I just raided all the Value Villages because I was trying to make a bell collection — because you hit them and they sound like a beautiful bell sound. And then I started realizing, you know, none of these are the same. I was actually finding some of these were tuned to certain notes, which I found really interesting. So like, when you do a toast with them, it’s actually hitting a key or something, which kind of blew my mind. But I kind of didn’t like it, at the same time, because I was trying to get away from a musical sound with them. So then I just started hitting them with hammers to get a bunch of overtones.

Chad: Like you’re damaging them to make them dissonant?

Seth: Yeah, they were cheap, so. And so that was kind of neat, hitting two of these goblets together and hearing these notes form like a chord together. 

Chad: It’s weird how we process sound and those wavelengths, and how when the combination of those waves coming together is so obvious to us — it’s neat. It’s really cool. It’s just melody and harmony. Obviously we’re both musicians, and so we’re both pretty obsessed with how that affects our moods. It’s cool, man. 

The one thing I feel like is kind of unfuckable is like music. Even though it’s getting fucked constantly by, like, Spotify and all this corporate nonsense. But when it comes down to it, it’s still weird how it manages to translate into emotion through the air, through, like, vibrating particles. It’s still such magic. It’s just so fascinating how beautiful it is, whether it’s coming from nature, or whether it’s coming from yourself determining when it’s going to happen through rhythm. It’s a beautiful thing.

Seth: Yeah, there’s a lot of magic still in it. How certain sounds affect you is something I’ve learned doing movie soundtracks, just learning about non-linear sounds that kind of waver. They’re almost like codes for your ears to tell you you should feel anxiety now, or a calming vibration. There’s a lot of YouTube stuff where it’s playing in a certain frequency that’s like the vibrations of the earth, and that should calm you.

Chad: Right, like alpha waves, beta waves. 

Seth: I remember [when we were doing sound for] The Crescent, [I would] actually record Woodrow when he was a baby, when he was crying when I was changing his diaper. The vibrations of a baby scream, just like on a primal level, you have to react to that. You have no control.

Chad: I feel the same with my dog! Like when my dog wants to go for a walk and he’s just like, [Makes a whimpering noise.] Like, just letting out the faintest “fwhee.”

Seth: He does the dog whistle. That’s what I’ve heard it called.

Chad: Yeah, like out of his nose. Exactly. 

Seth: I took a workshop with a woman who did the sound design for Game of Thrones, and she would use the dog whistle to subliminally kind of make you feel a certain way.

Chad: Really? Unbelievable! It’s got to be like deep in our brain, too, because obviously we have this part of our brain as a dog brain, just because of our teaming up with them over the… I don’t know. They just found it an ancient puppy corpse that’s, like, 18,000 years old, perfectly preserved. 

Seth: Yeah. And there’s the thing where a dog’s behavior kind of tunes to your behavior, and your behavior tunes to your dog’s behavior, so you kind of become a little bit of a dog yourself, you know?

Chad: Yeah, it’s true. It’s cool. 

Seth: Do you incorporate your dog into your music, or your other forms of art?

Chad: I do. I used to have a dog that was pretty vocal. We’ve had a few huskies, and I feel like huskies are just really vocal dogs in general. And my dog before Ben was also a husky mutt, and he was really vocal. He would just kind of come in and out of the studio and bark and, like, let me know what was up if somebody was here. So that just kind of made it in through like, I didn’t want to retake — like, I got the perfect guitar take, and then Truman comes in and he’s just like, [Barks.] And then he runs back up and I’m just like, “Whatever.” I think that stuff’s awesome. 

I also like love — a lot of the times now with kids, they’re running in and they’re like, “Dad, Esme stole all of the plasticine!” And I’m, like, trying to get emotional on the microphone. I’m just like, OK, that’s kind of cool in the middle of this introspective, like, death track. Like, let’s have some comments about plasticine.

Seth: Yeah. It’s nice to involve your family in your work too. Work is so all-encompassing and takes all your time.

Chad: I’ve always dreamed of a family band, and I always had that in mind. My kids love crafting, they love drawing and they’ve always sort of naturally gravitated towards that. Obviously they have jammed with me, but they didn’t naturally gravitate towards that. And so I’m always kind of begging them — I have to beg them to come to the studio, which is so weird because if I was a kid—

Seth: Maybe it’s a good thing. 

Chad: I don’t know, man. I would love it. Like Esme, my oldest daughter, has a beautiful natural singing voice and she’s singing all the time, like humming and making up songs. So I got her out into the studio to do some harmonies on a song the other day, and I was just like, Oh, it’d be a dream come true to just have that on tap. Because like I said, I live a pretty lonely existence as an artist, and now even lonelier because I can’t have my band to jam and stuff. With Nancy, you have that on tap right there. She’s like, you know, collaborator for life. That’s really cool. And is she co-directing these movies as well? What’s her role in the movie side of stuff?

Seth: In the movies that we’ve made, she’s acted as the producer, I’ve acted as the director. In this last movie, she also handled a lot of the sound effects and Foley, that was her department. We actually don’t usually do much of that at all, but with this sci fi where we had to create a new world, it was like huge.

Chad: It was crazy, man. I got to say, Tin Can was ridiculous. 

Seth: Oh, yeah. It’s not out yet, but yeah hopefully soon. 

Chad: Yes, you gave me a secret code. It just looks like so good. A lot of the stuff, I didn’t understand how you even did it, like with the painted backgrounds and stuff. It’s like hand-painted backgrounds, is that where you doing? Like miniatures? 

Seth: I’m really into [Ralph] Bakshi, like animation from the ‘70s, the original Lord of the Rings animations. He’s so inspiring for me.

Chad: It was so scary.

Seth: Yeah, it was the scariest cartoon. When I saw The Lord of the Rings one when I was, like 12, it just totally freaked me out.

The new video that you put out — I was wondering if it’s a pilot for a Thrift Drifters TV show?

Chad: It is. I mean, I would hope. I was working on on this show called Dream Corp LLC for three seasons that was on Adult Swim for the last few years. My friend Danny [Stesson] wrote that and then I did the sound for it. I came up with this idea for Thrift Drifters, kind of hoping that someone’s going to be like, “I want you to make a show about The Thrift Drifters.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I know.”

Seth: Just make it happen.

Chad: I go about stuff like completely backwards. My friend Danny, if it ever does turn into anything, hopefully he’d be writing everything. Similar to what you were saying, I’m not a writer. I can kind of envision the world — like I really enjoy worldbuilding, and imagining the characters. When I was a kid, there was like heavy D&D vibes at my even at my elementary, [and] I was always the kid that would you’d call on to come over to, like, draw the character. So I’m really into that.

How long did you how long did you work on Tin Can?

Seth: Oh, jeez. I mean, it’s usually about a year writing the scripts with other projects in between and a year to think. It took a long time because, you know, you shoot it in a month or so, or less, but then there’s preproduction leading up to that where you’re just planning it all, trying to figure out how you’re going to build all the sets and trying to write.

Chad: And you got you got Brandon Cronenburg on that! 

Seth: Yeah, he kind of acted as script editor. There’s some weird stuff, and it’s all stuff we like, but sometimes it’s not for everybody. It’s nice to bounce that through a few filters. Generally the problem [is], a few people will not understand their plots, which I kind of like, because then it kind of begs for rewatching. 

The difference between making movies and making music for me is just that movies tend to be more for public consumption, and you have to have this kind of mass understanding of it. Music, I just find people just tend to like it or not like it, and they don’t have to understand it.

Chad: Yeah, it’s weird, too, because I find with anything visual, it’s just absorbed so quickly now too. Especially with animation, I’m working super hard and intensely to make that happen as just one person, and then it just gets digested instantly because people are just insatiable these days. They’re just like, “How many of these are there? Do you have a whole, like, season of this? How many seasons?” It’s like “What are you talking about, man? I wore my fingers to the bone for, like, five minutes of this.” 

Seth: Yeah. How long does it take to do like a video like “Samurai Sword?”

Chad: Something like “Samurai Sword” is like with lots of backgrounds, which I’m tending to focus on more now, because it’s always nice. It’s weird with digital animation, because it’s just gone and you have nothing left at the end. You know, if I work completely digitally, then it’s like, there’s an electromagnetic pulse and it wipes out all the data. And I’m like, “No, seriously, I was an animator. Before I was the guy that brought you kindling, I was an animator. I made these animations, you should have seen them, man.” But it’s like at least with the backgrounds, I have to remind myself to always make something physical, because not only does it get me off the screen, I have something — I have these plant backgrounds left over.

Seth: Those are really beautiful.

Chad: I have something that I made. You’re building something physically beyond just working inside of the screen. But it probably takes me… I can probably do about a minute every two weeks. It probably takes me about two months to do four minutes, which is which is pretty fast, I gotta say. And that’s after 15 years of figuring out what my process is. 

But if you’re rushing me — like, I’ve had jobs where nobody really understands that, they’re just like, “Hey, Chad, we want you to do a music video, we needed in three weeks.” And then they hand me a six minute song. 

I got asked to do that Sun Ra video, and they said that they needed it, but it could have been so much better. They’re like, “Yeah, we need it, how long is it going to take you?” And then they hand me a song that’s, like, 12 minutes long, and I’m like, “Of course, I’m gonna do a Sun Ra video, but I can’t do a 12 minute long video because that would be, like, a year of my life. So I could do a four minute excerpt from it and I could get it to you in six to eight weeks.” But then they didn’t end up using it for another almost year after I’d finished it, and I was like, Oh, my god, man, if you were to just let me pick away at this for a year, it would have been so much more.

It’s just so weird how, at least in the world of entertainment — I feel like Sub Pop is one of those labels that actually does stuff on time, and they really have this good schedule of stuff and they let people have enough time. But oftentimes with people that I’ve worked with, it’s like, they say they need it and then they don’t release it for six months after they say they need it. And I’m just like, Man, if he would have just given me an extra month on that. Like, a month is a big deal.

Seth: That’s the part I always struggle with, whether you’re applying for a gallery show or writing a grant — coming up with this idea for something, and then it doesn’t even happen for a year later. And by the time that it’s a year later,  you’re thinking about different things.

Chad: Yeah, it’s bizarre. Trying to legitimize it through some sort of lens is always a struggle for me, because it’s like, what are you reacting to? Especially now — I’m insanely privileged in that I even have a space to create this stuff. And like you’re saying, even just as a parent, time becoming different and that feeling of that. Because I feel like during this pandemic, I’m sure whether you’re frontline or staying at home taking care of your kids, time has just become this amorphous blob of like, “What week is it? What year is it? Like, where are we anymore?”

Which is kind of what it should be like — more like when you stare at a tree, it’s like, “Oh, there’s my clock. It’s still has snow on it. That chickadee that was dead on my fence is now just bones, so that means it’s time for my video to be done.” 

Seth: Do you have a certain time of day where you have the best creative energy? 

Chad: Oh, man. Lately during all this mess, it’s just been hit or miss. Like, whenever I can can do it. Usually in the morning now, I’m kind of more on the schedule of just when my kids need to be picked up from school. My day is kind of divided into sections now, but by nature, I am a night owl. So I do feel like once the sun sets and everything’s quiet and everybody’s peaced out, I can kind of get down to business.

Seth: When you write music, do you find it’s something that you have to be totally alone to do? Or can you just, like, steal a riff picking up an acoustic guitar in the living room?

Chad: Yeah, anywhere, anything, really. It’s weird to write songs anymore, like I feel like really weirded out by songs. This record — what a struggle.

Seth: In what way? 

Chad: I don’t know, in certain ways it was just like a solo flute record, and then maybe only one of those songs made it onto the record. It’s just weird. It’s like pressure to make rock songs. But then you listen and then that’s what it ends up turning into, this sort of collection of songs. Which I love doing. I guess I’m more weirded out by, like, words these days.

Seth: Words are tricky. 

Chad: Yeah, words are tricky, man. Just trying to write poetry.

Seth: So for you, the words come after?

Chad: It depends. If I have a story in my mind, like “Samurai Sword” — songs like that that are kind of like linear storytelling will just sort of come out. That one just kind of came out as like a joke on myself, because it’s almost like a kid’s song, like a kid’s show vibe to it. I kind of liked it because it doesn’t take itself so seriously. Sometimes you just start taking stuff a little bit too seriously.

Seth: You gotta laugh at yourself. Well, you and I should do another collaboration. 

Chad: That’s right, man let’s plant another seed.

Seth: The reason why you’re the world’s most stressed out gardener is because we planted a Seed of Dorzon and it never grew. [Laughs.]

Chad: Oh, yeah, that’s right!

Seth: We gotta make the Sprout of Dorzon or something.

(Photo Credit: left, Sebastian Buzzalino)

Chad VanGaalen is a Calgary-based songwriter and producer. His new album, World’s Most Stressed-Out Gardener, is out March 2021 via Sub Pop. 

(Photo Credit: Sebastian Buzzalino)