At some point in their careers, many artists release a self-titled album. Obviously, more often than not, it’s for a debut, but not always — see: Metallica, Beyoncé, Blur, St. Vincent. Much more rare are two eponymous LPs by the same artist (Weezer have had four, differentiated by colors). One way to do it is, of course, to change your band’s name, which brings us to Canada’s Preoccupations, who this week release their ostensible self-titled debut. Except it’s not.
The foursome’s actual first album — a collection of driving, raucous post-punk put out under the ill-advised handle Viet Cong — came out 18 months ago. While the record got plenty of love, the racially-charged name did not, and as 2015 wore on, the band became the target of incensed protests (#shutdownvietcong, as they became known), op-eds and gig cancelations. For Matt Flegel, Mike Wallace, Scott (Monty) Munro and Danny Christiansen, the name became a self-inflicted albatross that distracted from the music and dragged on longer than it needed to — the band announced a year ago that it would change its name, then waited seven more months (until April of this year), to reveal that it would now be called Preoccupations.
The band is more than ready to put the preoccupations of its first album cycle behind it with a new release that marks a change in more than just name. Unlike its predecessor, Preoccupations was crafted with less pressure and more time. While there’s still plenty of motorik drive, there are more synth-y flavors, such as the record’s magnum opus, the three-movement suite “Memory,” which includes a soaring guest appearance from Dan Boeckner (Divine Fits, Wolf Parade), a shimmering, New Order-esque midsection and a hypnotic, ambient coda.
All the album’s nine tracks have direct, one-word titles — “Degraded,” “Fever,” “Anxiety,” “Monotony” — a deliberate move by Flegel to pithily sum up chapters in what was a tumultuous year for Preoccupations. What’s in a name? Plenty, when people are hurt by it, and the Canadians are eager to return focus to their music. Flegel has even offered — jokingly, most likely — that they might put out each album under a different band name, seemingly a marketing nightmare. Billboard talked to the singer from Montreal while the band had a short respite from the road.
So you’re in Montreal these days. The band began in Calgary, but everyone is now scattered across Canada?
Matt Flegel: Yeah, we’re all living in different cities now. Monty’s the only one left in Calgary. Danny’s in Victoria, and Mike is in Toronto. So we’re all across the country.
Your sprawling track “Memory” has a guest appearance from Dan Boeckner. How did he end up on there?
I had the lyrics and I had the melody and from the get-go I knew I wanted there to be another voice on there. We had kind of made friends with Dan a little bit over the past year. And we knew that he was in town and wanted to get together, and I was like, “Hey we’re in the studio. You should come sing on this track.” So he was just there, and we just left him in the vocal booth for a couple hours, and then he came and found us. And he said, “Okay I think I got something.”
Recently you’ve been playing “Memory” back-to-back with your other 11-minute-plus track from the Viet Cong record, “Death.”
Yeah we have. I don’t know how long we will. I’m sure we’ll be switching it up on this next tour. “Memory” is basically like three songs in one, and I think of “Death” as like three movements also. So that’s basically the last 25 minutes of the set or whatever, the second half of the set basically. It’s kind of like we’re playing six songs. There’s just no space in between them. [laughs]
By mid-2015 the name controversy just hung over the band. Additionally, you and Monty both had relationships break up. Was there ever a point last year when the future of the band was in question?
No, we never got that down on ourselves. We were so busy that it was kind of hard to tell what was going on, and we’re not really on social media or anything like that. But we knew, obviously, that something was wrong when there were people showing up at our shows with picket signs and megaphones. And there was a whole Internet battle going on, on the message boards and stuff. But we tried to stay away from that. When it came down to it, were trying to get to our shows on time and play our music in front of people who wanted to hear it. And that’s really our job. The point is to make music.
In the wake of all that, it’s easy to read into a song title like “Forbidden,” or the lyric in “Memory” where you say, “You don’t have to say sorry for all the things that you failed to do” — or even the name Preoccupations — and view them all as low-key commentary on the events of the past year.
I kind of like keeping everything vague, and keeping things simple as far as the song titles go. And the name Preoccupations, it could mean that, but it could also mean a lot of other different things. But that wasn’t what came to mind immediately for me. I think at this point, with the amount of public scrutiny we’ve had, we could have named the band anything, or given the song titles any name and I think people would still be looking into it, no matter what.
Those one-word titles, “Anxiety,” “Monotony” — they are coming from very specific experiences?
Yeah. “Monotony” was about me just working a shitty warehouse job where I was cutting carpet every single day for nine hours. I was in a big warehouse just literally cutting carpet over and over again for the entire day. “Anxiety” was about me — we were in the studio, I was working on lyrics, trying some singing, and I had no lyrics to that song. I was trying, and things were making me anxious, and I was driving my girlfriend to the airport, which is about two hours away from the studio, and on the way back from the airport I just wrote those lyrics on that drive. So those ones are a little more obvious and a little more personal. But “Memory” is about someone forgetting who they are, forgetting who you are, basically someone’s mind just slowly deteriorating. And that was the whole, “You don’t have to say sorry” — like, you just weren’t yourself at that point.
I tried to talk to you last year while all the name drama was going on, but was told you weren’t up for interviews. Was there a point where you just stopped doing press?
One hundred percent. Absolutely. I was over it. It just seemed like at that point there was nothing that we could have said that was right. If I had it my way we wouldn’t have announced the name change when we did, we would have just waited until this record was done and about to come out before we talked about anything at all. And I feel like we just needed to have that done before we could like move along and—we were just really worried about the music first.
So you wouldn’t have announced you were changing the band name last September?
Yeah, well it wasn’t really my choice at that point. I think that a lot of people we worked with were getting pressured, and it kind of just bubbled up—which is fair enough, because it put them through a bunch of bullshit. But basically, as soon as the first record came out, the self-titled Viet Cong, January of 2015, we were ready, I was like, “Okay for the next record let’s change the name.” I was thinking about it before any of that stuff happened.
You said somewhere that you actually toyed with the idea of putting out each release under a different band name? Or was that just a joke?
It was half a joke, but now that I’m thinking about it, I’m like, “Well there’s nothing stopping us.”
It would definitely make it challenging to promote. Every time it would have to be, “former known as…”
Formerly known as, also known as, previous members of…
So how’s it going now? There’s no confusion for fans?
Honestly, I haven’t noticed too much. I think word travels pretty quickly on that there Internet. News is pretty instantaneous. Actually, there’s been a couple points on this last little tour that we did where people would be like, “Hey, Viet Cong! How’s it going guys?” And we’re like, “We’re not called that anymore.” And I don’t know if they said that just because they’re not used to the new name. But I mean, I don’t expect people to know immediately that we’re called something different. I feel like once the record drops, that will help a lot.
Although you’re spending a lot of time in the U.S. as we approach this insane election, I would imagine it’s nice to know that when the tour is over you get to go comfortably north of the border and be done with it.
[Laughs] For me, I’m just kind of tired of hearing about it. I mean it’s front page news up here too, and it seems like such a drawn-out process. Just get it done with! I have no idea. I mean, I am not an expert on American politics, but it does seem like kind of a dire situation. I’m sure you guys will get the lesser of two evils. We’ll see. I mean, you’ve had shitty presidents in the past, we’ve had shitty prime ministers up here. The economy goes up, it goes down. But I hope for you guys’ sake you don’t have a racist bigot in charge.
Preoccupations’ self-titled album is out Friday, Sept.16. The band begins a North American tour on Sept. 28 in Vancouver.