When Viet Cong released their self-titled debut album, critics piled into one of two camps – one, with praise for the unpredictable, raw, attention-grabbing record, and the other focusing more on the nuances and implications of the band’s name.
It’s next to impossible to talk about them without at least referring to the controversy surrounding their original name, as their shows were met with protests, cancellations and seemingly endless think pieces. They’ve since changed their name to Preoccupations and are imminently releasing their second album, Preoccupations.
Sitting down with the band’s vocalist/bassist, Matt Flegel , and guitarist Scott ‘Monty’ Monroe, before their Shacklewell Arms show, Flegel is quick to get the elephant in the room out the way, “We weren’t super pumped to be in the middle of a controversy - we were face-to-face with people with picket signs and bullhorns and chants and it got a little bit overwhelming… basically as soon as the first Viet Cong self-titled EP came out, I was like ‘I think we need to change the name’, for a bunch of reasons, but also I kind of just liked the idea of changing it.”
It’s easy to be blindsided by the controversy surrounding that time, but as Flegel points out, “We were on tour and even at shows where there would be fifty, sixty protestors outside. Those shows were still sold out, so people were still coming.” They dealt with the protestors peacefully and respectfully, “We ended up talking to a lot of people who were protesting and going out for beers after and stuff, and kind of getting the lowdown and getting some perspective, and that helped. We’re not confrontational people, we don’t want that!”
Having learned more about the implications of the name, and why people were so upset by it, they seem happy to be moving along to focus on the release of their new album, Preoccupations.
With song titles like ‘Anxiety’, ‘Monotony’ and ‘Degraded’, there’s not exactly any shying away from the issues the album tackles, which Matt explains was a conscious choice. “As far as the song titles go, that was kind of my idea – how can I summarize what this song is about in one word? And that was it, so it kind of leaves no room for questioning about it - it’s very heavy handed.”
Was it cathartic to tackle those subjects? “I think so, a little bit… I was writing a lot throughout all sorts of changes, so a lot of it is more personal when I look at it as a whole unit. I was kind of writing more about actual real life things that were happening, whereas the last record I feel was a little more outwards in a way, or outside of my head. It was kind of a little more abstract, I guess I should say.”
With the success of the debut album, Monty explains how the recording process shifted between Preoccupations and Viet Cong, allowing the band to experiment more before settling on what worked for them. “We were in the studio just trying out a bunch of things and seeing what would work and being a bit more ruthless, whereas on the last record it was like, ‘I have this guitar part and it’ll be the guitar part for this song, cool’, on this record it was a bit more like, ‘why don’t we try this instead?’. There was just a little bit more freedom to not use anything that we had if we didn’t want to.”
Almost halfway through the album, providing a division of the record into two parts falls ‘Memory’, an 11-minute track in a sea of much shorter songs, which epitomizes everything that is so special about Preoccupations’ sound and craftsmanship, in an aggressive, rousing breakdown midway through. “‘Memory’ blends three different songs. In my mind I kind of had this first section and wanted it to be like almost a DJ transition into a dance track, so we kind of messed with that one. It was a weird studio fuckery where we were like, we need to speed up the tape – we did it in kind of a strange way…” Matt explains, with Monty picking up midsentence (this happens quite a lot), “there’s that drum track in the middle where it kind of speeds up, Wallace recorded the electronic drums and we took them and sped them up on the tape machine and bounced it back on the computer then back on the tape machine, then we built the song around that part of it.”
They admit the closing drone was made after a collectively drunk six litres of wine, but the resulting song is the easily the standout track of the album.
As the recording process came to an end, the band had their last session in Montreal. “At that point we had a lot of different wells to draw from so it made it kind of easier to make a record” – and you can hear that in the record. Preoccupations sounds like the evolution of Viet Cong that their fans are surely hoping for – with all the complexities and perfect experimental noisiness that insisted on our undivided attention the first time around and that continue to make them such an exciting band to watch and listen to.
Words by Victoria Parkey