In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.
Preoccupations may be one of the only bands to get a second chance at making a debut album. Until recently, the four-piece was functioning under the name Viet Cong, releasing a renowned self-titled album that garnered the band plenty of attention. Along with that, though, the band became embroiled in a controversy surrounding its name. It ultimately decided to put the Viet Cong moniker to rest and switch to Preoccupations, giving the group a chance to start fresh—or at least give the illusion of it. Preoccupations proves to be another step forward for the Canadian band, as it gives itself even more to the nervy post-punk influences that popped up on Viet Cong. The A.V. Club spoke with Preoccupations vocalist-bassist Matt Flegel about the band’s new record, and all the nervous energy that inspired its creation.
Matt Flegel: It’s kind of funny with that song because I had a whole different set of lyrics that I don’t even really remember. I was trying to record them at our friend’s farmhouse studio in rural Ontario, and all the other dudes were hanging outside by the swimming pool and I really didn’t want to be in the studio singing. Then I had to drive my girlfriend to the airport about two hours away. On the way back from the airport I was driving and kind of dreading going back into the studio and was feeling anxious. And then I wrote all those words basically on the way back to the studio and sang them. And that’s what you hear on the record. It’s about me not wanting to record music.
The A.V. Club: Are you not a fan of the recording process?
MF: I usually am. It was one of those days where it felt kind of forced. It usually doesn’t happen that way. Usually I’m really pumped. And it was kind of like we were on some fake time crunch that didn’t actually exist. But I was like, “We need to get this done. We need to get this record done now.” And that didn’t end up being the case. We had like four or five more recording sessions after that. But usually I’m pretty excited to go into the studio, and usually it’s pretty relaxed. But that day I just didn’t want to be in there. I wanted to be hanging outside by the swimming pool getting drunk with the rest of my band.
MF: That one specifically, we had a whole separate song that was called “Monotony” with the same lyrics, but I didn’t like how the lyrics fit in with that different version. It just didn’t really work in my mind. Then we had this other idea for a song and it was basically what we ended up with. The original version was twice as fast and we slowed it down by half to make it more of a The Cure Pornography-era kind of dirge and go at it from more of that perspective. I named all the songs with one-word titles, to try to be as succinct as possible and if there’s one word I could use to describe this song, it would be this.
I was working basically a factory job a while back, maybe late 2014, and I was just in a flooring warehouse at a carpet-cutting machine, cutting lengths of carpet for nine hours a day. And I wrote the lyrics while I was doing that. While I was super pumped to be alive. It’s funny, though, because I actually ended up writing a lot during that period of time. Your body is just on automatic so your mind wanders. That was a specific one that I wrote in my brain and went and sung into my voice memo on my phone on a break or something.
AVC: Did you feel that doing that type of work helped your be more creative? You’d just have nine hours to think about songs without much distraction?
MF: I actually feel like my writing has changed since I stopped doing those kinds of jobs. I really was doing whatever shit job I could find to fulfill the rent and the bills and be able to play music on the side. I feel like it is almost a weird meditation. I was doing painting for a long time and it’s the same sort of thing. You wander, and when you’re not doing that you’re almost a little more focused on the music. Not to say that I’m not focused on the music these days. But that’s my job now. That’s what I do. And it’s a different mentality. It’s not like I’m forcing myself, necessarily, to write. A lot of that still comes from me driving around, looking at scenery going past and having an idea pop into my head. Or someone saying something funny and me writing that down and turning it into something. But yeah, those menial tasks, for me anyways, can spark a creative thought.
AVC: Do you feel any more pressure to be creative now that music is more of the focus for you?
MF: It depends. The main thing is just finding time. It’s been okay the past couple months, and I’ve been doing a lot of writing because I’ve had most of the summer off. But when you’re on the road, it’s tough to find somewhere quiet. You’re pretty much with other humans 24/7. So it’s a little bit more difficult I guess. But then the time when I’m not doing that tends to be pretty fruitful. And I’m always writing, even when I’m in a van filled with obnoxious dudes, myself included. There’s still ideas to hear or I’ll wake up and have a melody or something. It’s always kind of being in random places, also. I don’t think it’s necessarily more difficult or with more pressure. Really, there’s no one telling me I have to put a record out every single year. At all. But at this point, it’s kind of my main focus because I just want to keep it rolling, you know?
AVC: That makes sense. If you feel good with that one, we can move on to “Zodiac,” which is the next song you want to talk about. What was inspiring this? The lyrics, there’s kind of a lot going on, with a lot of grabbing imagery. What inspired you to put this one together?
MF: It ended up being a pretty angry song. It’s kind of a breakup song in a weird way. The whole zodiac thing was about people who think the universe revolves around them through the signs of the zodiac. It’s the most wordy song on the record. The most in-depth, lyrically. There’s a lot going on, a lot of repetition. It has a lot more abstract imagery than a lot of the other songs. That’s where it started, anyways.
AVC: Is astrology something you see people engaging with, and does it make you wonder what they get out of it?
MF: Offhandedly, yeah. There’s some personal references in there also but, generally, it’s about that sort of state of being. It’s just relying on things you have no control over rather than just relying on yourself.
AVC: Are you ever surprised when people respond to something that’s based more in your own personal experience?
MF: Yeah, but that’s just kind of how music is, though. The last interview I did, he was like, “Well, I could be wrong, but this is all about the name change.” And I was like, “It could be.” But at this point, after being under such public scrutiny with that, I think we could have called the band anything and named the songs anything and people would still be digging into it from that perspective. Other people totally find a different meaning. But I like to keep things relatively vague. Even for the things that people think may be kind of trite or heavy-handed, in my mind they still could be a number of different things.
AVC: Speaking of the name change, did you worry that people would think everything on this record was a response to that?
MF: I expect people to. That was kind of the focus of what people read about. They didn’t read about the details of a failed relationship that I had or anything. They read about all this other stuff that was going on.