A Conversation with Preoccupations

Preoccupations are as industrious as their sound is industrial. Born out of the ashes of Calgary-based Women, former members Matt Flegel (bass, vocals) and Scott Munro (guitar, synths) formed a new band, Viet Cong, with Daniel Christiansen (guitar) and Mike Wallace (drums), releasing a cassette and the eponymous Viet Cong over the next couple years. The releases, full of cold, visceral post-punk, were met with critical acclaim, not only within Canada, but around the globe.

In 2016, the band changed their name to Preoccupations, quickly releasing yet another album, the once-again self-titled Preoccupations. This release, while just as brooding as the band’s previous collections of songs, was more subtle, meditative and antisocial. The centrepiece of the album is “Memory,” an 11-minute epic that slowly transforms from a classic Preoccupations track into a triumphant gothic anthem, before devolving into a long, synth-driven drone.

The band is currently touring California – including twin performances at Coachella – before returning to Canada to perform a number of east-coast shows, including a set at Ottawa’s Zaphod Beeblebrox on April 29. Before their return to the north, frontman Matt Flegel took a moment to speak with Ottawa Life.

Ottawa Life: With the new LP came a name change. It’s a lot darker, and features more subtle hooks than the Viet Cong LP. From what I understand, you went into the studio with less preparation than you usually do, but were you seeing the name change as an opportunity to reinvent yourself as much as you did?

Matt Flegel: Not as much an opportunity as a kind of excuse. I feel like it sort of allowed us to maybe fuck around a little bit more, go in different directions. But I think we would have probably done that anyways, even if we had kept the name. I don’t think it was consciously a decision that we were making.

Your live act seems to have a kind of improvisational feel. I’ve heard “Death” stretched to twice its recorded length. “Forbidden” has that early fade that suggests further experimentation in a live setting. How much improvisation usually comes about in the studio?

It’s all kind of trial and error when we go in. It’s not very often I have a finished idea. Every once in a while, I’ll have a song that is kind of written all the way through, but generally I bring in little pieces that I’ll bounce off the other guys, and they’ll bounce things back. So the finished product is more the improvisations than the original idea that I had.

On the topic of studio work, Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, Operators) is featured on “Memory,” on what is maybe the brightest, most melodic point on the entire album. How did this collaboration come about?

It was pretty random. We ended up finishing the album in Montreal, finishing up vocals and doing all the mixing and stuff there. We got a call from Dan asking, “Hey, are you in Montreal?” We said, “yeah, we’re in the studio; come sing.” And he was there in like two hours with a couple bottles of red wine. I already had the lyrics and the melody written, and I knew that I wanted it to be [sung by] another voice, and he just happened to randomly call us up. It wasn’t premeditated at all.

On the topic of “Memory,” usually your lyrics are pretty abstract and impressionistic, yet on this track there seems to be a stronger narrative going on. What is the background to the lyrics?

It’s about somebody close to you that lives in their mind. “Memory” is a little more personal than I usually get with my lyrics. I usually go more abstract, and that one’s more based on things that had happened to me in the years previous. I think that the lyrics are still pretty abstract, but I guess I didn’t do a very good job [in that sense] [laughs].

Your brother Pat designed the inner sleeve for both the eponymous Viet Cong and Preoccupations albums. On top of this, he was a part of Women, now a part of Cindy Lee. So art is something that both of you flourish in. Did you grow up in an artistic home?

For sure. Once a week my dad would have all of my uncles over for drinks, and they would play all the old hits. There was always music going on in our house. We were 11 or 12 years old when my dad cut off the cable television and bought us each guitars. We hated it at first, but cut to half a year later, and we were playing guitar non-stop. It kind of backfired on him, because it was loud all of the time in the house from then on in. My mom was more into visual arts, and she sang a bunch too. All of our friends in the neighborhood too were into music too, so we were definitely surrounded by art growing up.

You have previously described the new LP as something that came out of sheer exhaustion, a pretty tense moment for the band, and it certainly shows. Though I wouldn’t say that the darkness present on it is a new thing to the band: it seems present on the last LP, on Women albums. Is music a purely cathartic outlet for you, a place you go when you need to just release your anxieties?

Absolutely. That’s its main purpose for me. It keeps things pretty lighthearted in everyday life for us. It kind of just weeds out all of the darkness and all of the anxiety. It helps out with our everyday perspective, keeps us happy, kind of like a religion.

Is there a medium for you that acts as a release for more, positive, celebratory emotions?

It’s always celebratory after we play a set or finish a record or cut a song. The music itself doesn’t convey that celebratory emotion, but it certainly comes after the fact.

Preoccupations is known for being pretty industrious when it comes to releasing music. You’ve put out two LPs and an EP in the past three years. Is there more music on the horizon?

We had four months off in between December and the end of March. We’ve been playing around with stuff for about half that time. I would say that we’re maybe about 60-70% done the next record. I think the idea is to have it in the can by the end of summer.

Any hints you can give on what to expect on the next record?

It’s hard to say right now. I think I have the basic idea of what I want it to be, but it’s… weird sounding [laughs]. The songs are a little more concise, a little less sprawling. We’re going stranger on the actual songs, but I think the songs are also a little more pop-leaning. Classic A-B-A-B song structures for a lot of it. But we’re throwing some weird sounds in there, for sure.