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Split Dimensions: Inside Astral Swans & Chad VanGaalen’s Solar Experiment

The two Calgary-based experimentalists explore the different dimensions of DIY-home recording in a genre-bending psychedelic romp. 

by Grace Gearon

Photo by Sebastian Buzzalino

When experimentalist Matt Swann—better known to their fans as Astral Swans—lived and worked in a 16th-floor hotel room at the Residence Inn in downtown Calgary, they found inspiration in their loneliness and allowed for the resulting lo-fi, personal soundscapes to capture the intimacy of the creative process. Their idea was to playfully explore the eccentric and unusual set-up of bedroom recordings in a hotel suite, with no budget, minimal gear and just allowing the process of isolation to sonically shape and define itself. But this was not the beginning of their love for raw and hallucinogenic soundstheir lifelong passion started almost a decade ago where they collaborated with many artists along the way. One of them was fellow Calgary experimentalist Chad VanGaalen.

“I made these songs, literallyI used drum machines as opposed to drum kits, layered bass and guitar over too, which I had to play very quietly in my hotel room. The music really reflects the medium itselfthen combined with all my influences,” says Swann, who connected with RANGE to chat all about their collaborative EP with VanGaalen, Split

When Swann and VanGaalenmet back in the late 00’s in their hometown, the artists both connected over their love for psychedelic noise and DIY experimental recording. This then resulted in their first collaboration in 2011, the band Extra Happy Ghost!!!. “I was playing in a punk band at the time and putting out a bunch of home recordings looking for musicians to translate them into a live performance,” says Swann. “Chad heard my music through that.” Over the following decade, they would grow in their friendship, share stages together and further ignite their enthusiasm for weird and trippy shrines through their collaborative work to come. 

Naturally, this led the pair to work together once again on their upcoming six-track EP Split, featuring three songs by each artist where they create a musical constellation of outlandish and otherworldly tracks. VanGaalen is a seasoned explorer of the strange and enchanting universe of both self-producing and outsider indie-rock music. With a penchant for the weird and wonderful, this zeal has taken the form of eight studio albums on the legendary Sub Pop records, with hundreds of recordings still unreleased, alongside huge successes as an animator, illustrator, and designer. Combining these experiences, VanGaalen has a zest for creativity and a keen eye for the extraordinary. “When I think of people in the indie-rock, experimental world, Chad is one of the masters and someone I really respect and admire. This collaboration just made sense,” says Swann.

“When I think of people in the indie-rock, experimental world, Chad is one of the masters and someone I really respect and admire. This collaboration just made sense.” 

— Matt Swann

On Side A, Chad VanGaalen’s contributions were recorded in his studio, Yoko Eno, at various points intime. Within each song, you’ll find a unique blend of freaky space folk, with lyrics that transport you to surreal dimensions and a sonic atmosphere that is undeniably haunting. In the opening track “Earth People,” VanGaalen takes us on a sonic voyage into the unknown in what could be perceived as the inner workings of a spaceship, evoking a sense of otherworldly beauty. The main soundscape is filled with mechanical whirrs, electronic blips, and futuristic reverberations, immersing the listener in an interstellar atmosphere. Adding to this ambiance, the high-pitched echoes of the looped backing vocals evoke an eerie and ethereal quality, reminiscent of the way we might imagine aliens communicating to us. 

In tracks such as “I’m Sick,” VanGaalen delivers a raw indie-rock and folk concoction with a sense of urgency, creating an asserting and impactful experience. The song’s arrangement politely begins with a classic harmonica and acoustic guitar sound, which then intensifies to a melting pot of sound, warping into a trippy, gritty and vibrant territory. VanGaalen’s passionate delivery grabs the attention of the listener, leaving no room for indifference while exclaiming ‘Sick, sick, I’m sick.” On his third and final track “Frogman (feat. Alex Edkins),” VanGaalen kicks things off with a dynamic prelude of syncopated drum patterns, creating anticipation and excitement. We hear hypnotic rhythms and exotic scales, all enveloped in a swirling soundscape of mechanical and mystical psychedelia. Amidst the scratching and scraping of these futurist tones, we hear the saxophone emerge and contrast the mechanised sound, creating harmony in this genre-defying track. 

While Swann is naturally inclined to collaborate on musical projects with kindred spirits like VanGaalen, who share their fervour for self-production, their enduring breadth of inspiration has been with historical trailblazers who trod a similar path. “I’m drawn to visionaries who make unconventional production choices and are fearless in their authenticity,” They say. This passion has kindled an enduring interest in home recording and experimentalism, inspired by artists such as Daniel Johnson, Guided by Voices, Ursula Bogner and other 90s grassroots artists that have the ability to immerse themselves in their work. “I will always cherish my time in studios with seasoned professionals,” They say. “Nevertheless, I do like the hazards and mistakes that come out of the seclusion and lonesome artistry of DIY recording.” 

“I will always cherish my time in studios with seasoned professionals,” They say. “Nevertheless, I do like the hazards and mistakes that come out of the seclusion and lonesome artistry of DIY recording.” 

“I do like the hazards and mistakes that come out of the seclusion and lonesome artistry of DIY recording.” 

— Matt Swann

Astral Swans’ Side B of Split features two originals which were penned and recorded during the residency at the Residence Inn, as well as a cover. First we hear “Shine the Light Inside,” an eerie series of satirical affirmations from an AI to a tech billionaire whose rocket had gone off course. “I was thinking of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” where an astronaut loses their way in the vastness of space, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels to our current post-pandemic era,” They say. “This whole new tech-billionaire class and the absurdity of them starting space programs. I was just imagining one of their rockets going off course and an AI loaded with self-help speaking to them. It’s also supposed to just be fun.” In this track, we hear the drums and synths create a rhythmic, heartbeat-like suspense that grows gradually and intensifies the sense of anticipation. The song peaks with a psychedelic sax freakout from Polaris Prize long-listed artist Jairus Sharif, layering bold, abstract and innovative free-jazz that produces discordant and unconventional sound. 

In the classic dropout anthem “Same Old Story,” Swann calls out for an escape from capitalist realism. We hear an upbeat and catchy melody that is bound to be in listeners’ heads for days, with drums that propel the song forward with a strong and dynamic beat. Swann’s side ends with “Filler,” a cover of the track by straightedge hardcore group Minor Threat, rearranged into a slow, hallucinogenic vision. Swann swapped out the explosive and anarchic elements of the original into a soothing, psychedelic sonnet, almost like an intoxicating lullaby. “I have those hardcore roots. I used to go to a lot of hardcore punk shows as a kid, but I am not a hardcore musician,” They say. “I just wanted to reimagine the song in a way that was fun and entertaining for myself – and hopefully others too.” 

Alongside collaborating with other artists that they connect with, Swann finds themself searching for inspiration through art across all mediums to feed back into the creative process, whether that means visiting art exhibitions, watching films or going to performances. “I often find myself in pursuit of a universal and transcendent beauty, a beauty that has the power to awaken my senses and elevate me beyond the confines of the ordinary and the cruel physical world,” They say. “For me, music serves as a conduit to access something greater, something that extends beyond the limitations of the egoic mind.”