By MICHAEL GOLDBERG
A funny thing happened to Chad VanGaalen on the way to becoming an accomplished illustrator and animator: He became a hell of a songwriter and musician, too.
“At the beginning I wanted an excuse to make these animated videos, that’s all I was trying to do,” says the affable VanGaalen, speaking over the phone from his home in Calgary, of an accidental music career that’s already spawned several full-length albums, a batch of EPs and hundreds more songs, in various stages of completion, that sit in the vaults of his home studio and may never reach anyone else’s ears.
“I was just really stoked to make this soundscape-y, really weirdo kinda stuff to go with the animations,” he recalls, his Canadian accent colored by a surfer’s drawl and lingo. “I started recording some stuff and my friend was like, ‘You should compile the ones that sound like songs.’”
That collection, 2004’s “Infiniheart” — released on VanGaalen’s own indie label, Flemish Eye — got the attention of Seattle’s venerable Sub Pup Records, which reissued it in 2005 to widespread acclaim for its appealingly dreamlike, idiosyncratic take on indie-folk and psych-pop conventions.
Fast-forward a decade, and VanGaalen, now in his mid-30s, has just issued his terrific fifth album, “Shrink Dust.”
Lovely and eccentric, its twelve songs swathe VanGaalen’s voice — an endearingly wobbly Neil Young-croon — in layers of instrumentation both recognizable (acoustic and electric guitars, vintage organs, pedal steel, harmonica, old drum machines) and enigmatic (various whirrs, gurgles, bloops, plinks and whooshes).
Kaleidoscopic 60s mod-rock, swaying tropicalia, lonesome old-school country and campfire-folk all figure into the mix, occasionally channeling mid-period Flaming Lips or “Trinity Sessions”-era Cowboy Junkies. There’s a ramshackle charm to it all, though steeped in a sort of melancholy — like a beloved-yet-ragged teddy bear kept into adulthood, barely held together by duct tape and a nostalgic yearning for the childhood whimsy and innocence that can’t ever be fully reclaimed.
“I try to find that naive sensibility in the song where it kind of feels like it could fall apart at any second,” VanGaalen says of his writing and recording process. His home studio is cluttered with an array of instruments — some traditional and some homemade contraptions (which are typically responsible for those odd noises and textures) — and he crafts his songs entirely by himself.
“I want it to feel like it’s spontaneous,” he says. “I have to capture the song that day or else it’s done. Since I’m one guy, it can start sounding contrived really quick if I overwork it.”
There are distractions to contend with, too. VanGaalen earns about half his living by making striking and distinctive animated videos for bands like Timber Timbre, METZ and Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, and he occasionally produces albums for other Canadian artists (including the now-defunct Calgary indie-rock outfit Women). There’s always other non-music projects in the works, among them a Gary Larson-inspired single-panel comic series called “Zooosh,” and a full-length animated sci-fi cartoon film he’s been making for a while that he has described as a cross between “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Strange Brew.”
“I have it so my studio is sectioned off so there’s an animation zone, an illustration zone, a jam space and then a recording area,” VanGaalen says.
“Sometimes I just stand in the center and look around and I’m like, ‘I gotta do that,’ and I take a half step and go, ‘Oh c…., that other thing is only half-done, I should probably do that,’ and then I see my dog sleeping on the couch and I’m like, ‘Oh, I should probably go pet my dog,” he laughs. “It’s crazy but it’s the best!”
Because of those seemingly endless creative impulses, and the fact that he’s married with two young kids, VanGaalen admits he’s always reluctant to go on tour in support of his new albums. In fact, his May 16 show at Milkboy marks the first-ever time performing in the Philadelphia area. He says he often does illustration work in the tour van during longer jaunts.
“It’s so stressful, but I actually enjoy it for sure,” he says of being onstage, where he’s joined by a handful of longtime musician friends who help him bring his songs to life in the concert setting. “It functions well as a live thing but it’s definitely different, maybe a little more psychedelic,” he says.
If the lack of incessant touring and self-promotion in favor of being an artistic homebody has meant having a small cult following instead of being a household name, VanGaalen is perfectly fine with that.
“I’ve kinda managed to stay under the radar a little bit and just get to do what I wanna do,” he says. “I like making stuff, and I just feel so lucky every day that this is my life, man. I can’t even believe it!”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Chad VanGaalen
WHERE: Milkboy, 1100 Chestnut St., Philadelphia.
WHEN: Friday, May 16 with opening acts Cousins and Bry Webb. TICKETS: $12-$14, and the show begins at 8:30 p.m.
INFO.: Check www.milkboyphilly.com
Follow staff writer Michael Goldberg on Twitter @mg_thereporter.