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Music, Life, e L’Amore: An Interview with Galapaghost

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Photo Credit: Elisa Tron

International traveler Casey Chandler is the singer-songwriter/musician behind the unusual moniker Galapaghost. He’s now based in Austin, Texas, but has an affinity for Italy, grew up in Woodstock, NY, and has previously lived in NYC. Chandler has had serendipitous music-related encounters with the renowned John Grant and equally notable Italian film director Gabriele Salvatores, as well as his musical partnership with Federico Puttili, but his main triumph is his relationship with his wife Elisa. Dive into the intriguing and delightful details of Chandler’s musical, and life, journey:

Stereo Embers Magazine: Hello Casey! It’s so great to have the opportunity to chat with you about your latest absorbing and perceptive album as Galapaghost and to see what you have in store for the (music-related and/or otherwise) future. Where are you at the moment and what are the vibes like?

Casey Chandler : Hello Jen! So I’m currently sitting on the floor of my apartment eating a bowl of cereal after biking home from work. I’m in Austin right now, but I will be traveling back to my motherland-in-law, Italy, on Wednesday (mid-September) for two weeks with my wife Elisa. The vibes are great here, but they’ll be even greater in Italy.

I absolutely LOVE everything about Italy, but most of all I miss her family. I lived with them for the entire month I recorded I Never Arrived without Elisa, since she was still working in Brussels, and they really made me feel like I was at home. Always. Her mom is also the greatest chef. I would have liked to go back for a month, but two weeks was the most amount of time that we could take off from our jobs, since ACL starts the day after we get back.

SEM: I Never Arrived is your 3rd full-length and it was released January 9th of this year. You grew up in New York state, but somehow this album was written in Brussels and recorded in Italy. How did you end up being an American in… well, not Paris, but Brussels and Torino, Italy?

CC: Yeah, I know, it seems bizarre, but it was actually the most practical decision to live in Brussels and record the album in Torino. I was having an intercontinental relationship with Elisa for a year and I just had to take a big risk, since she was the one. She had visited me for three months in Austin and I visited her in Italy for three months. So I just decided to pack all my stuff up and sell my keyboard to buy an engagement ring and a flight to Brussels (round-trip just in case she said no!). I literally showed up there with 500 Euros in my pocket and a ring. She had even less money than me, but we both found jobs and made it work. Oh yeah and she said yes.

So anyways, I worked as a manny for a year and a half, but decided to quit since I knew I wanted to record a new album while we were still in Europe. My only bandmate, Federico, happens to live in Torino and he said we could record the album for really cheap. I knew I didn’t want to record the album alone and our tastes and personalities just mesh so well that I knew I had to record it with him. He makes everything sound better. He’s a kickass mixing engineer, too. There’s also nobody else that I could spend twelve hours a day with for a month straight besides Elisa.

We recorded most of my parts in Federico’s apartment and most of his parts and all the drums in a proper studio that he works at. I recorded my previous album Dandelion in Italy as well with Federico and I think I’ll probably record every album for the rest of my life there. I made the album at about 1/5 of the cost it would have been in Austin or NYC. Everything is super-cheap there because, sadly, everybody is desperate for work, especially musicians. So I made sure to cover all of the costs for the album and pay the drummer as much as I could.

SEM: Do you speak Italian?

CC: Haha, si. Un pochino. My goal is to one day write a song in Italian. Definitely food-related. Maybe about pizza. Galapagherita!

SEM: Your debut album, Runnin’, came out in 2012 and your 2nd record, Dandelion, was delivered (Ummm, like a pizza!) in 2013, but before that you land a sweet gig touring North America and Europe with John Grant for several months in 2010. How did you connect with him, especially since you weren’t an established artist at that time.

CC: Yeah, that was definitely the perfect case of being at the right place at the right time. I decided to come out to Denton, Texas to visit my brother Jesse in March 2010 while I was still living in Woodstock, NY. It was the first year of this festival called NX35 in Denton. It was a pretty big deal, especially since my brother had recently joined one of our favorite bands Midlake, who were co-headlining the festival with the Flaming Lips. The main reason I was going out there though, was because I was chosen to play a small gig at NX35, which Jesse and I played together.

It was really special to me because it was the very first Galapaghost show ever! I had only released two EPs up until that point, so I just played a short half hour set. It was wonderful, though. It was a dream gig for me because a couple Midlakers showed up and, after the show, the lead singer, Tim Smith, told me he liked my songs. That just melted me. He was and still is one of my favorite songwriters ever. Midlake are the biggest inspiration for me, so that gave me a lot of confidence.

So anyways, Midlake were the backing band for John Grant’s album Queen Of Denmark and it was recorded at the same time as Midlake’s album, The Courage Of Others. Jesse had sent me both albums and I was in complete awe of both, but especially Queen Of Denmark. When I got to Denton, the album wasn’t even out yet, but I knew it was gonna be HUGE. It was by far my favorite album of the year that year before it even came out! So I got to Denton and we all ate pizza together at this awesome pizza place called BJ’s. John Grant and I were seated across from each other, so we talked a lot that night. He was absolutely hilarious and I just really enjoyed talking to him. I didn’t bring up the album once ‘cause I didn’t want him to think that I was ingratiating myself to him. I was only 22 and he was 20 years older than me, so what did I know? I figured my opinion of his album probably wouldn’t mean shit to him anyways.

Well, at some point at the end of the night he asked me ”Hey, would you be interested in touring with me?” and I laughed at the absurdity of the question and said “Of course!” I hugged him goodbye and figured that would be the last time that I would see him for a long time. I literally had ZERO touring experience and had never played a gig to more than fifty people. Little did I know that I would be playing to 15,000 people in six months. Jesse was doing double-duty on the short American tour with John Grant and Midlake and knew that he wouldn’t be able to continue touring with both bands simultaneously.

So he told Bella Union that I was definitely capable of replacing him in the band with John. Then I got “the call” asking if I wanted to join the band to do the full European summer tour. I felt so unworthy and incapable of replacing him (since he’s a virtuoso on piano and I’m an intermediate piano player AT BEST) that I almost turned it down, not prepared to face my inevitable shame when I crashed and burned in front of hundreds of adoring fans of his. It was also a hand-me-down gig from my brother, so I was extremely wary of getting a gig due to nepotism.  I practiced my ass off two hours a day for a month learning all the parts. The catch was that I wouldn’t be able to practice with the band before the tour. At all. They were already tight together since they had been playing shows in the States for a month. The European tour was his first European tour for his new album.

My debut performance with the band would be at the legendary Jazz Club in London. My performance was abysmal and I ended up in the bathroom crying for 10 minutes immediately after the show. I knew I was done for. I apologized profusely to John and told him I would understand if I wasn’t fit for the tour. He told me “You were fine.” and that made me feel like a million bucks. That week in Denton changed everything about my life. John gave me the opportunity of a lifetime.

 SEM: I Never Arrived is rife with insightful lyrics, an introspective atmosphere, and involving instruments and vocals. How would you compare this album with your previous two?

CC: Thanks! Lyrics are really important to me. I think that’s what initially sets this album apart from my previous two. I was really going for a certain mood on this album from beginning to end. Federico played a huge role in helping me achieve that sound with his fantastic guitar work and great mixing job. I think the main difference on this album is that I really found my sound. On Runnin’ things got a bit too heavy and serious and on Dandelion I was trying out too many styles so it just felt a bit uneven. I still like a bunch of songs on those two albums, but I hadn’t quite found my voice yet.

I was always jealous of those bands that completely nailed their sound on their debut album, like Fleet Foxes or Rage Against The Machine. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, because if you wait until you write “your best album”, then you’ll never release anything at all. You’re always evolving and changing. There are some mistakes on this album for sure, but I have no interest in perfection. This album was an essential part of my journey and to agonize over making the “perfect” album would undermine the raw emotion.

SEM: Lead single “Science Of Lovers” is a quiet-fireworks lament that sounds like a duet, except I think you’re singing all the parts. On the song, you ask if it’s better to be alone than to suffer through a failed relationship where, “Every silent moment I’ve spent / picking myself apart / Every lifeless photograph is / tearing me apart.” What is the answer, or is it one of those unresolved mysteries that depends on the individual and the situation?

CC: To be honest, I don’t know what the answer is. Love is the hardest game that we play. Love is always changing. Perception is reality, so if you perceive that somebody doesn’t love you anymore, then our desire is to be reassured that they do. But what if the answer isn’t the one you want? Do you really want to know that you wasted all that time on that person? Some people are afraid of being alone. I think that was the best skill I learned as an adult. How to really be alone.

SEM: At your Facebook site, you mention that “The Secrets Our Body Keeps” is “the most shoegazey song” you’ve written, I’m assuming due to the electric guitar distortion and/or your layered, ephemeral vocals? Were you thinking of a specific shoegaze-tagged band when creating this song?

CC: Yeah, that song was really fun to write and record. I was hesitant to put it on the album because it rocks harder than all the other songs, but I wanted to put it on to make sure the album didn’t get boring with too many ballads. I was completely obsessed with the War On Drugs album Lost In The Dream while living in Brussels, so that song was majorly inspired by that. I’ve always wanted to play in a heavier band, but my strength is writing quieter folk songs, so I wanted to pretend I had a really loud band behind me for at least one song!

SEM: You are a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist and on the album you play the guitar, bass, piano, and synths. What make and model is your go-to acoustic guitar?

CC: The demos which I recorded while I was still in Brussels are strikingly similar to the final versions of the album tracks, but Federico helped take the album to the next level with his guitar work and engineering skills. He helped trim down the fat and make the songs the best they could be. He bought this incredible J-45 made in the 1950s while he was in NYC two years ago which we used for almost every song on the album. I don’t even remember how much he spent on it, but my god that thing was a beauty.

SEM: As you’ve mentioned, you’re not a totally solo artist as Galapaghost. Can you explain more how Federico Puttili and your wife Elisa fit in scheme of things?

CC: Well, I’ve probably harped on Federico enough during the interview up until this point, but both him and Elisa are the ones who really pushed me to do the whole music thing. I met both of them in the same week in Italy and they’ve both believed in me from the very beginning. Even when there were times that I didn’t believe in myself and wanted to give up on music. Federico is the one who told me that we should record my new album in Italy and advised me to get a press agency after I released the album. Everything he did for me, he did because he believed in the music. He never asked for a cent for recording and mixing the album, even though I gladly would’ve paid him for it. He never asked for any money when we played shows together, but of course I gave him what I could. I have no desire for fame or money, but it would be nice if the album made enough money just so I could pay him back for all that he did for me.

Without getting too sappy, Elisa is simply my muse. Most of the time at least. I had written a bunch of songs about her on Dandelion, but I think the most honest song I ever wrote for her is “Vitamin D”. I wanted to write a love song that wasn’t corny or bullshit. I dreaded the day that she would see all my flaws and weaknesses because I, like everyone else, basked in the days when I was perfect in her eyes. We all wanna run when our flaws surface. But love without flaws is not real love. That’s when I truly knew that it was real. That our imperfections are what made our love real and honest.

SEM: Speaking of which, I think Elisa designed the album cover art. What is the meaning behind the image of the kite flying in the sky, but its string being held down by an anchor? I’m guessing it’s the balance between being grounded and being flighty, but how does that tie to your batch of songs?

CC: Yes, she designed the cover art. She actually designed it years ago and I always connected deeply with it, before I even knew her. As I was writing the album, I just realized that that image fit perfectly. It’s quite literal since I felt like I never truly arrived in Brussels, but at the same time I was at home wherever Elisa was. I knew I wanted a really simple cover for the album. Each song kind of has that tension that is represented in the cover art. I wasn’t going for a concept album or anything though, since half of the songs are just stories and have nothing to do with my experience in Brussels at all. After writing five songs about my experience in Brussels, I said all that I needed to say about it.

SEM: So you are now based in Austin, Texas. Was this relocation music-related? Have you been able to attend or perform at SXSW?

CC: I moved out to Austin for the first time in the middle of the John Grant tour in July 2010. I mainly just needed a change, since I really didn’t like living in NYC. I had visited Austin twice during SXSW and loved it, so I moved out here with an ex-girlfriend of mine. We had no friends or family out here though, so it was really starting new. I moved out here in part because of the music scene, but mainly because it was just an awesome city and the people were so nice that I thought maybe we had accidentally driven to a desert in Canada. I have played at SXSW every year since I’ve lived here, except for one year. I’ve never played an official showcase though. I guess you kind of need connections and maybe a label for that.

SEM: What do you think of the music scene in Austin versus what you experienced in Italy?

CC: I have to say that I definitely do MUCH better in Italy than I do in Austin. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a bigger fish in a smaller pond in Italy, since it’s rare for Americans to play in smaller cities in Italy. Especially Americans that play folk music. My type of folk music isn’t popular at all in Italy, which kind of works in my favor, since there aren’t many people playing my type of music either. It’s the only country in the world where I can say I actually have a “fan base”, albeit a very small one. It’s weird, really weird, but I love it.

It’s incredibly hard to make it in Austin or anywhere else in the U.S., especially when you’re a solo performer who doesn’t play cover gigs. It’s pretty hard for me to get more than 15 people out to a gig here in Austin even though I play almost every week and most shows I play in Italy are to at least 75 people. The music scene here in Austin is just so saturated with amazing musicians that I’m not bitter about it at all. I know that on any given night I’m playing a gig, there are probably 50 other shows out there that are fantastic. The main problem is that I have no hype here. I actually have some hype in Italy. I’m honestly perfectly OK if I only ever “make it” in Italy though. I could tour there endlessly. So many good people and such good food!!

SEM: You have even more ties to Italy, with a song from Runnin’ being featured in Oscar-winning director (for Mediterraneo) Gabriele Salvatores’ film Il Ragazzo Invisibile. Salvatores also specifically asked you to write the title song of the film, which is on its official soundtrack. How did these honors come about?

CC: So, on my one and only tour of Italy back in January 2012, I was fortunate enough to have one of the screenwriters for Il Ragazzo Invisibile show up at a gig. He really liked my music and passed it on to Salvatores, who liked it as well and decided to feature “Never Heard Nothin’” in the movie. He also asked me to write a title song for the film, which was a HUGE honor for me. I mean for somebody that has a very small fan base this was MASSIVE to me. Just the fact that somebody important dug my music was a big deal to me, but using my music in a major film?? It still blows my mind. It was definitely the biggest break I’ve had since John Grant.

SEM: Galapaghost is such an imaginative moniker. What was running through your mind when you came up with this name? What ended up in the reject pile?

CC: The name Galapaghost came from a Kurt Vonnegut book that I was reading at the time called Galapagos. A super-strange, but hilarious and brilliant book. Originally, I wanted to just call myself Galapagos, but it was already taken, so I came up with Galapaghost instead. It was very fitting with my music, since I’m kind of a lone wolf with my music. Not such an easy name for people to pronounce though, especially for the Italians! Mi dispiace.

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