When Matt Flegel walks into the bar at 4 PM on a Friday, it's not exactly packed. Coming from the venue half a block away, the Preoccupations vocalist / bassist is tall, lean and good-natured. In appreciation of the interview, I order a pair of beers from the bartender, offering my card. She pours the beer and runs the card through the machine. And then runs it another time. And a third. It's not working. Apparently, the magnetic strip has finally gone kaput after weeks of mildly faltering. I reach for another card, and she starts to ask if I have another form of payment, but it's already too late — Flegel has handed her a stack of cash. "Who cares?" he says, and we settle into a table outside.
Flegel first came into the public eye as a member of Women. Following two critically lauded LPs, the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2010. Three years and some tragedy later, new project Viet Cong emerged with a cassette EP and some considerable buzz. A full-length for Jagjaguwar ensued, and the buzz grew stronger, leading to multiple tours on the strength of the LP. But all was not well, as the band caught fire for what some saw as a racist, culturally insensitive moniker. The band took the criticism in stride, eventually soldiering on under the name Preoccupations.
With the controversy behind them, Preoccupations released their self-titled follow-up LP this year, causing a positive stir and putting them in bigger and bigger rooms across the globe. I spoke to Flegel at the start of a larger U.S. tour, discussing the ideas behind the record, his obsession with vinyl and the pleasure / pain behind becoming a "success."
Also, don't miss their new video for "Memory," viewable here and available on their new LP on Jagjaguwar.
So, things have been good for you guys. After so many years of hustling, what's that like?
Well, we're in kind of a strange fork right now where we're playing bigger rooms. And it's sort of feeling more like work. We're up at 7 in the morning and we're driving, and it's a 3 o'clock load-in time, we're playing these bigger rooms, we've got the lighting guy, we've got production and tour managers. I kind of miss just showing up to the fucking grimy basement at 10 o'clock and playing at 2 AM.
I mean, it's still fun; it's just different. And we've been doing this for all of our adult lives. Since I was 18 years old, I've been touring around in bands, and this is the first time it's been a source of income. It's actually like paying for us to be alive. Which is great, but it comes with a bunch of other bullshit. As long as we're still having fun with it, I don't really care. I think we still present ourselves as a punk band. I don't think we'll ever get too big for our britches or anything like that. We're still pretty low-key and happy to talk to everyone.
There are these kids who recorded a cover of our song “Death,” and they've been playing it. So, we got in touch with them. We're trying to get them to open up for us in Dallas. I love that kind of shit. Pumped kids is the best thing — you know what it means to be 16. Just getting super stoked about that.
What was the first band that got you stoked like that?
I grew up in Calgary, and there's this band called Choke from Edmonton. That was tech-y emo-punk, kind of? I think if I listened to it today, I'd probably hate it, but they were our heroes at the time. I remember seeing them at 15 or 16 and having my mind blown. I don't think they ever really did anything outside of Canada. They'd play all of the all-ages places — you'd just drink beers in the park and go to the all-ages show.
Those are getting fewer and fewer between nowadays.
Yeah, we've had a few on this run. But even if it's an all-ages show, you don't see any kids out.
I mean, to be fair — and this is by no means a dis — but your music is a lot more complex than most younger kids can grasp.
And I think the way the kids consume music these days is very different. When I was young, you would see the show and buy the record, and that was it. Tickets would go on sale and you'd wait in line for tickets. A record that you were pumped about that you knew was coming out on that Tuesday, you'd wait at the record store 'til it opened up. It's very different now. I don't know if it's necessarily worse, but ...
It's kind of a rare thing now — and maybe because the volume of releases is larger — to get obsessed with a record.
It's more disposable. I'd save up my allowance and I'd have a tape — like, that was the first medium that I got into musically. I'd have my tape that I'd listen to for the next two months. Like Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins: I listened to it for two months straight, and that was it. That's a classic, and it has aged pretty well, actually.
Those moments are super key, though — those moments when you get a record and you dissect it.
Yes. And I'm still like that. I use the Internet to find things, and if I find something I really, really like, I'll put it on my list, and then get it next time I'm in a record store. I still love the process of putting on a record: side A, side B. I really do love that process.
So, you're a record guy.
Oh yeah, for sure. I have three record players in my house, including one of those little portable ones for my bathroom.
What's your collection look like?
Well, I lost a huge part of my collection in a breakup last year, so I've been building it back out this year. I'm living in Montreal now, and there's amazing record store, and it's super cheap. So, I've been building it back up, and it's fun. I don't ever have anything to do when I'm in Montreal, so going to the record store is a day-killer for me.
It's one of those things that you can do for an hour or 10 hours.
Yeah, exactly. I needed to replace, like, classic ones that I lost, and then I'll just sift through the dollar bins. I've gotten some pretty good gems lately.
What's your favorite LP that you own? Also, what's a recent acquisition?
Most listened-to record — it's tough. I've been listening to that Bulgarian folk singer thing that 4AD put out. My brother got it for me for Christmas last year. As far as new bands, I love that Protomartyr record from last year. Killer dudes. We were just in Detroit, and we ended up going back to Scott [Davidson]'s place, the bass player. It's a three-bedroom house, and they've got the basement all decked out for music. Two of the bedrooms are dedicated solely to pinball machines, six of them. And yeah, a wall of records.
I really got into Total Control from Australia — I think that one came out in 2013, but I just got it last year. I'm usually a little late to the game. When I'm at home, I listen to a lot of classical music, like Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff — the darker stuff. I get my rock fix on the road.
There's a bunch of ambient passages on the record. Do you think that's where it comes from? Listening to Steve Reich or something?
Yeah, for sure. That was the best show I saw last year. Steve Reich did a show at Massey Hall, and they did Music for 18 Musicians, and it was fucking mind-blowing. So amazing. I must have listened to that record a million times. I always kind of just thought of it as an ambient record, but then you see it live and it's so complex. The physical connotation kind of changed how I listen to it now.
The latest record has some of the same tones and ideas that were explored on the Viet Cong record. How much of that material existed in some form before the album existed?
It was kind of a different process this time around. I think we did five or six different sessions where we recorded a ton of shit, and I had to kind of sift through it all. The first session we did, I think we ended up with 90 minutes worth of music where we ended up using one and a half songs — that "Anxiety" song and the first chunk of “Memory.”
It was all fresh — we were writing most of it on the spot because we were so busy last year. We did 180 shows and were kind of getting tired of playing the same set every night. So, basically, any time that we had off, we just [went] into the studio. We did a couple of pro studios, but the stuff that I was most pumped about was the stuff that we did on our own. We just rented a place in Calgary, and Monty [Munro, guitar / synth] brought his gear in. As much as I like working with Graham [Walsh] and a proper engineer, I feel like the stuff I like the most is what we do on our own. It's less [of a] pressure situation; it's not $200 an hour, so you can mess around. We'll take five days to figure out a drum tone or whatever. It's a little more free as far as experimentation goes.
So, you do write in the studio.
Yeah. For the most part. I mean, I'll always have ideas. So, it's not necessarily always from scratch. But that's how this came together anyway. The Viet Cong self-titled record was kind of more of a band thing where we jammed it out and ended up with all these songs. Then we toured around playing those songs for quite a while before we went into the studio. And then, by the time we got into the studio for that one, it was basically our live set. I think it turned out great — it was kind of an energetic record. This one is different, but in a better way, I think. It has more sonic breadth, I think. It's just different, which is I think is a good thing. We're talking about trying to find time in the next little bit to do some more recording. I think I want to scrap the professional recording thing and just do it on our own.
We have a bunch of leftover things from the sessions for this last record that might make their way onto the next record. I have a stockpile of things to come back to. Basically, for me, I always think about a record as side A and side B, and which songs make the most sense grouped together like that. So, once you get a chunk of songs together, there is a song that doesn't exist yet that needs to go to complete that side. So, either you write something or maybe you have something that you recorded years ago.
That's really interesting that you think of records in those discrete chunks, unlike most people nowadays.
There's so many records for me where "it's the B-side," like that's the side that I listen to. It just makes more sense. That's probably a product of me growing up listening to records in that way.
How do you feel about this kind of singles culture that we live in right now?
I'm not sure how it works, really. I don't really subscribe to it. I take records as wholes. I don't really know what people are doing. I know it's all about streaming. Which is convenient and awesome and it's at your fingertips, but I've never listened to music like that.
So, you don't do a lot of streaming on your own? Let's say that Total Control comes out with a new song today. You're going to listen to it, right?
Maybe. I'll probably listen to it in a year from now. I don't look at websites for music. I just never have. Or even print media for music. I'm not against streaming or anything like that. I feel like if I wasn't in a band, then maybe I'd be more into reading about music. But I want to keep myself distanced from reading about it. It's probably self-consciously purposeful, I think. I don't really care what musicians have to say. I don't want to read a fucking interview with the band that I like. It's going to make me hate them.
Totally. And there are some bands where I don't even like their music, but I'll read pieces with them all day long.
It's different now. I don't know. Bands aren't cool anymore. Bands aren't like fucking groupies in their hotel room with a shark, or shooting up or anything like that. I feel like that kind of died with Cobain. It's all very kind of clean and professional now. There are no bands renting out an entire hotel room floor and just like partying all the time. It's not as interesting.
Do you feel like rock 'n' roll is dangerous anymore?
No. Not at all. Which doesn't make it better or worse necessarily, but I think there's less to grasp. I mean, maybe it's out there, but you don't see it or read about it. People are just more safe in general these days. Which is better for everyone's health. There aren't a lot of young musicians dying anymore. There needs to be more young musicians dying. [Laughs]
Let me turn that on its head. A good song should not only be nice on the ears, and maybe easy to sing back, but also should make you question your ideas and beliefs in general. That's what good art is in general.
Right. Which can be created from a safe, sober place as easily as it can be from a dark, drunken place. We're definitely not that safe. We like the idea of challenging music, and we subscribe to that. We've been doing this for so long — we know that we're going to be playing 200 shows in the next year. So, we want to also make it interesting for ourselves to be playing these songs every single night.
I guess that's the thing: Music is the only media where things are becoming more and more scrubbed clean. For instance, a swastika or a rape scene or some other atrocity is more accepted in film or visual art or another medium, probably because subtext is more easily conveyed. I'm not totally privy to why you named the band Viet Cong, but some deemed that problematic.
"Problematic" is a word that's been thrown around more than it used to be. We make music and that's it, really. And people need to understand that. We're not trying to stir up a controversy. And I was fine with the protest groups and Vietnamese refugees who came over here in the '70s. Totally fine, and they have every right to be pissed off and offended about that. But also we're just playing music, and we're decent, friendly humans.
But I got pissed off when it was a group of twentysomething white dudes protesting. It's not your thing. It's not your fight. It's like a weird kind of self-righteous, "look at me, I'm doing this thing, I'm a good person" stance that people take.
Do you see parallels between what’s going on and, say, the PMRC fight in the U.S. in the '80s? The battles against Ozzy Osbourne, 2 Live Crew, Judas Priest?
People aren't even listening to the music. I've got lyrics that are way more offensive than the band name ever was. People don't care about that — it's what's on the cover, it's what's right there. I mean, the U.S. right now, what you read in the news every single day ... it's fucked. It's not real things that are being talked about. You've kind of lost the point of this whole thing.
And it's a very North American thing. When we go to Europe, people don't give a shit. They focus on the task at hand; they focus on the real things. I feel like it's getting a little too easy to have a public opinion. And I don't know whose fault that is. I blame the journalists. [Laughs]
What's your ideal Preoccupations situation? Is it touring? Is it writing?
It's touring and writing. Touring keeps us fresh and keeps us better as musicians. And the more shows we play, the better we get. But my favorite place to be is in a shitty basement with a reel-to-reel track and some gear, and getting stoned and drunk and fucking around. That's my favorite place.
Do you like these long stretches of tours?
I like it at the start, and then usually halfway [through], I miss my girlfriend and my bed, and being able to go to the grocery store and cook food in my house. That kind of stuff. But it depends where you are, too. You get those stretches where it's like a nine-hour drive, and you end up in fucking Flagstaff, Arizona. It's somewhat disheartening. But I still like doing it. I still love playing shows. And even when I think that I don't and I'm bummed out at soundcheck and feeling disheveled, we play our set, and immediately afterwards it's an adrenaline boost, for sure. It's great. I still love all aspects of music.
Which gets harder and harder for people to say the deeper they get into this.
Yeah. I don't see this happening in the foreseeable future, but as soon as I'm not having fun with it, I'm going to quit. And I don't see it happening, but there's no point. There's no point just going [through] the motions because you're there.
You guys are definitely at that point where you can turn this into your career. You're making money, doing bigger tours with bigger production. Are you able to live as a musician?
Yeah, as of now. I mean, I live in Montreal, which is a pretty inexpensive city. I am not rolling in dough or anything, but I'm comfortable and I don't have to do other work.
Obviously, you and I know the tale of the band guy / coffee shop employee.
And I've done that for most of my life. Worked a plethora of mind-numbing, terrible fucking jobs. I've done it all. And it's funny, because sometimes I miss it. I worked as a painter for a bunch of years. I worked in a warehouse cutting carpet, and some of my best ideas came to me when I was going through that monotonous fucking grind. It's in those moments that your mind is allowed to wander and gets in that zen mode. And I miss that.
And with this job — if you want to call it a job — you're in the van for eight hours a day. There's no such thing as a perfect job. But I'm happy, and we're fucking lucky. I have no complaints whatsoever. And as long as people still keep coming out, we're gonna still keep doing it. I mean, it's totally satisfying. Some days it's more of a grind, but I have no complaints.