Preoccupations: regroup and forge forwards
“No, it’s totally fine. I’m awake. I’m ready.”
It’s 11am in Montreal, and Matt Flegel has just woken up. Last night, he was out drinking “till the wee hours” with Preoccupations guitarist Scott “Monty” Munro, and now he sounds slightly dazed, if not a little, well, preoccupied.
“This is, like, the most boring shit ever,” he interjects, as I attempt to press on, “but there’s meant to be a guy that came today, to come spray our couch? I’ve just bought a new couch, and there was supposed to be a guy that came today to put a seal on it or something. So that’s my domestic nonsense…”
Having the luxury of lying-in at home – let alone the time to fret about upholstery – is something of a novelty for Flegel. By his own account, his band played over 200 shows in 2015, under their then-moniker Viet Cong. Yet, when probed about the period, Flegel has no complaints about being under pressure or over-worked, and he seems philosophical about, and accepting of, the realities of the life he’s chosen.
“It’s what we’ve all done since we were young,” he reflects. “Like, I’m 34 now, and we’ve been playing in bands since we were teenagers: for better or for worse, it kinda just seems to be one of those things we’ll do, regardless. I don’t know why we put ourselves through this bullshit, but we definitely seem to think it’s worth doing. Like, it’s hard to maintain relationships when you’re on the road, but I’m in a fresh one and we’ll see how this goes. I’ve already fucked up the couch thing, so…”
In the past five years, Flegel has weathered more than most musicians. Formerly the bassist with cult art-rock outfit Women – playing alongside his brother Patrick, guitarist Christopher Reimer and Preoccupations’ drummer Matthew Wallace – the group disbanded under acrimonious circumstances in 2011. Shortly afterwards Reimer suffered a heart complication and died suddenly in his sleep, aged 26. Flegel and Munro formed Viet Cong the year after, bringing in Wallace and guitarist Daniel Christiansen to complete the line-up.
Viet Cong’s self-titled debut was recorded with Holy Fuck’s Graham Walsh in rural Ontario. Capturing the harsh chill of their surroundings, and variously inspired by personal tragedy, WWII propaganda films, Naked Lunch, and Flegel’s heroes Swell Maps and This Heat, it proffered a visceral, grayscale strain of experimental post-punk, characterised by industrial synth drones, heavily-processed guitar feedback and brutal percussion. It received almost universal acclaim but, shortly after its release, controversy began to rumble around the band’s name. Denounced as culturally insensitive by Vietnamese and American communities for their use of the name given by Western sources to the National Liberation Front during the Vietnam War, criticism snowballed online, promoters began pulling shows and the band started receiving hate mail. They have since publicly apologised for the offence caused, and for their own naivety, and are now forging forward under the Preoccupations banner.
“It was a strange thing,” Flegel sighs, reflecting on the period. “I’m not really on social media or anything like that, so I didn’t really grasp what was going on until we were getting actual humans protesting at our shows… We never intended to be at the centre of an online controversy. When it comes down to it, we’re four dudes playing in a band and we never intended to piss anyone off or hurt anyone. It sucked though. Honestly, it really did.”
Running in tandem to the furore they faced on tour, members of the band were dealing with the collapse of long-term relationships and setting up new homes in different cities, all the while attempting to record their eponymous second album. In light of the difficult circumstances in which it was created, it’s unsurprising that the lyrical tone of Preoccupations is every bit as dystopian as its predecessor. As listeners, we’re repeatedly dislocated from reality, drawn into the action through Flegel’s use of personal pronouns, and instilled with a creeping sense of dread through violent language and disturbing imagery.
“Lyrically, this one’s maybe a little bit more personal,” Flegel explains. “There’s definitely less inspiration from the outside. I think it’s kind of terrible how heavy-handed some of the lyrics are but I just went for it, you know? I wanted to just lay it out as blunt as possible.”
Of all the tracks on the record, Fever appears the most obviously drawn from personal experiences (in particular,
the lyric, “Waking up to watch you walk away”), but Flegel can pinpoint Anxiety to a specific moment: “I was dropping my girlfriend off at the airport in Toronto, and on the drive back to the studio I wrote the lyrics. It’s about being in a situation that you don’t necessarily want to be in, or you’re not necessarily comfortable with being in, but you still have to do it.”
Preoccupations were very much out of their comfort zone writing on the road. Though they returned to Walsh’s studio for a session, Flegel refers to the recording process as “scattered”, and recalls “five or six different sessions, in different places, in different cities.” In hindsight, Flegel believes this approach was beneficial: “We definitely didn’t have a vision when we first got in [the studio], so we just kept writing and recording.”
In addition to fresh recordings, they pulled ideas from their formative period. And though they were ruthless in scrapping material this time round, Flegel hopes some of the discarded sketches can be repurposed further down the line. “I like having things on the back-burner and things you can revisit and re-edit,” he explains. “We definitely have a good arsenal of that kind of stuff at this point.” The result is an impressively varied record that extends from the three-part sprawl of Memory – which boasts an eerie, This Heat-esque outro – to the twitchy, muscular Stimulation – which is reminiscent of The Cure circa Boys Don’t Cry.
When I infer that – in light of the past 18 months – they might not tour this record as heavily as their first, Flegel is quick to correct me. “We’re not completely jaded yet,” he laughs. “I came into this band being used to volatile projects – people lost their minds, and people died. When we put this band together, we knew the sort of people that we wanted to have in the band. We all still get along. Like, we’ll get off a three-month tour and then go on vacation with each other. It’s a strange life to have when you’re in a different place every single day. But I still love it.”