Preoccupations: Letting the Dark Out

The tools at Preoccupations’ disposal may be constantly evolving but certain landmarks are ever-present: jagged guitars stabbing like shards of brittle glass; rapturous drums thundering through cavernous passages; intertwined bass lines dancing with playful rhythms. Formidable yet familiar, the Canadian post-punk quartet have been inarguably influential for the greater part of a decade for good reason.

Born out of the ashes of the equally legendary psychedelic noise group Women, Preoccupations grew in their own way, embracing what would later become the ubiquitous sounds of tangled, angular guitars. Grouping together a lo-fi charm, clever pop melodies, and virtuosic instrumental parts on their debut EP Cassette and (at the time self-titled) debut album Viet Cong, the band lay the blueprints that many a guitar band would look to in the years following. As their serpentine and imposing music found itself brought to even greater heights in their live shows, the group seemed primed for a longstanding and successful career.

Indeed that proved to be the case as the band found themselves three albums deep by the time the pandemic shut down almost all musical activity. As the group increasingly embraced gothic influences, moving away from guitars to textural and ambient synths, their reputation as one of the seminal post-punk acts of the modern era grew too. However, forced apart by distance and isolation, the time between releases became wider. 

While the band had spent time together in the studio recording much of what would go on to be their fourth album Arrangements prior to the emergence of Covid-19, the plunging uncertainty and inescapable boredom that the group found themselves in halted progress. Now, though, free to be in the same room together, the band have brought forward their first album in nearly half a decade: a seven-track LP that sees the band march from dulcet gothic pop to monumental post-rock.

While it has been a while since the world heard from Preoccupations, the unmistakable voice and basslines of Matt Flegel, Scott ‘Monty’ Munro and Daniel Christiansen’s nimble synths and guitars, and drummer Mike Wallace’s confident pummelling are all still present and accounted for. Across its seven tracks, Arrangements may seem apocalyptically bleak but it certainly leaves no doubts as to why the foursome are one of the most well-respected groups in modern post-punk. In the midst of overseeing the release of the album, frontman Matt Flegel joined Wax on a call to discuss Arrangements, coming back together as a band post-pandemic, and their relationship with influence.

You’re all fairly seasoned musicians by this time, having gone through multiple album cycles as Preoccupations. Does this release feel different from the others? Do you still have the same excitement as when you put out the first one?

Yeah, it’s funny, I feel like I hit a point a few years ago where I was getting so jaded but then that started to recede. I feel like constantly being humbled and having things go wrong helps. This one feels exciting because it has been so long since the last one since, you know, the world shut down for a good part of two years. 

We managed to squeeze in a little tour last year but before we got together to rehearse for that we hadn’t seen each other for over a year. So yeah, this one feels good, I’m excited. It’s been hard for everyone with shutdowns and it being so boring. I know it’s terrible to come to the conclusion that the pandemic was boring, like a million people lost their lives here, but we’re just excited to have something to do again.

How did it feel when you all got back in the room together? Did it feel like any of you had changed in any particular ways or was it all the same as you’d left it?

Five minutes into an airport pickup and we were back telling shitty jokes in the same old ways. It’s kind of nice though. It was hard when we first all moved to different cities but now it’s kind of nice because we get together and it’s like “All right, show me what you’ve been listening to for the past few months? What are you into right now?” We spend the first couple of days going through all the things, showing each other our riffs.

Did you feel like what people were bringing to the table was noticeably different? Did it feel familiar and easy when you got back into it?

Yeah pretty familiar, I mean for me I think, recently having so much time on my own, I’m coming to rehearsals with more fully formed songs than I have in the past. But that’s just been recently. This album was recorded for the most part back in 2019 and then I did the vocals post everything shutting down. It’s a different thing now, but for this album, we were all writing in the same room and recording at the same time so it was fairly cohesive.

How was it revisiting the recordings for the vocals? Did it change how you saw the songs?

It did. We had planned for another studio session to finish everything up and then travel became impossible and I was like “OK, I can just do this on my own in my windowless basement in Brooklyn…”

I mean it’s a different thing when you have endless time to work on the vocals. In the past, we usually have one day left in the studio to track vocals so you kind of cram it all in with everyone listening to you in another room. It’s terrible, it’s not comfortable with everyone scrutinizing you. I mean it can help squeeze a good take out of you sometimes but I really enjoyed the freedom of time. I can spend two weeks just working on a melody, and go really nuts over lyrics, overthinking everything just because I have the time. I don’t know if I’d do that again but it was kind of nice for a change.

I suppose it’s unlikely, too, that any of us will have as much time on our hands as we did in those couple of years.

Yeah, I think so, or just the willingness to take extra time to do these things. At a certain point, I had watched all of the TV shows and all of the movies. I was doing puzzles for some reason, that was a big thing. It was nice but I was like “I’m just going to go get lost in this thing, going down the rabbit hole”. And again, I don’t know what state the world will be in the next time we finish a record. Maybe worse than it was with this one.

The lyrics on this album are fairly bleak at points. Do you think it would have always been that way or was it a reflection of the world during the pandemic?

I use songs to get that out of me, it lets the dark out of me to keep me sane. And I always have, I don’t think you’ll find a Preoccupations song from a few years ago that was particularly funny or positive. They’re usually drawing from the bleak places so I don’t think I was particularly bleak this time round.

Were there any musical ambitions or concepts you were aiming for with this record? It certainly feels like you’ve returned to focusing on the guitars again rather than basing the album on synths.

I think the one before this, New Material, we treated more as a studio record and a lot of that was me and Monty [Scott Munro] in a room. The other guys weren’t even there for a great chunk of it. This one was more of a band record, it sounded like four of us doing the thing we do. We still deviate at a couple of different points but it does sound a lot more like four guys with instruments in a room together

Have you had a chance to road test much of the material?

We were playing two of the tracks pretty consistently every night on the last tour and it was sounding good. I’m excited to dig in and figure out what the sets going to be. That’s always the interesting bit. What does everyone feel like playing, what does everyone feel like bringing on the road with them? That informs our setlist a lot, like “Oh I don’t have that keyboard with me so we’re not doing that song’ or ‘Do we wanna do all the odd tuning songs?”.

We have a one-off show in Spain pretty soon so we’re getting ready for that now.

Do you find a difference in how bands approach music in the UK and Europe versus Canada and the US?

It kind of depends on where you’re from. In bigger or more expensive cities it’s obviously different. Where I grew up in Western Canada we all had houses with basements or garages. We weren’t paying by the hour for rehearsal spaces. I was in Montreal for a while, and Montreal is cheap so everyone could afford a studio space. Since I’ve moved [to New York] it’s like everyone is paying by the hour at rehearsal factories and I’m sure it’s the same for big cities in the UK. I don’t think anyone is rehearsing in their flats in London.

So yeah, I think it depends more on cities than the country. The cheaper it is the more freedom you have usually.

I think you can really hear that in your sound, that freedom to explore and try out different ideas without constraints.

I mean that’s been a goal of ours for the past few years. We’ve put a lot of time and money into our studio space in Montreal. I’m in New York and two of the guys are in Montreal and one in Toronto, but Montreal is still home base for the band.

The studio set up there is a fully operational studio 24/7. We can make as much noise as we want so it’s pretty great. The freedom to incessantly experiment is pretty amazing. That’s my favourite part of the whole process. Just tinkering to get a sound and then you get that sound and it’s the most satisfying feeling. 

There is a fine line though between that and going too nuts though…

Do you ever pull in different directions on the way in which you experiment?

Yeah but I feel like if there ever is a drastic pull then the song just gets scrapped. Rather than try to bend it a certain way we just toss it to the side. That happens fairly regularly

How long did you spend on this album then, with the finetuning and deciding which tracks make it onto it?

A lot of time because we had the time. I don’t know how many tracks we were working with but we always try to bring it down to the 35-40 minute range so it can fit on an LP. For us, that’s usually 7 tracks. Don’t know why but that’s usually how it is… one of these days we’ll do a 22-and-a-half-minute pop jam.

So yeah, we tend to over-scrutinize on those bits. Usually, when we have enough to build an album out off I definitely think of Side A / Side B. All of my favourite records are the top-heavy Side A pop hits and then Side B is where you put the weird shit. On this one, we definitely did that. It’s certainly easier on the ears on the first four tracks and then ‘Advisor’ comes in and then it gets weird.

The whole album, ‘Advisor’ in particular, feels masterfully put together. How did the tracks all come together? Did you jam stuff out and then put it together in the studio?

Yeah, that’s how it tends to be. It’s not very often that I come in with a fully formed song. ‘Advisor’ actually came from Danny who had that weird swirling keyboard part. He sent that to me, I think it was a 25-second long voice memo he had, and I wrote the rest of the song over that keyboard part just running in the background. That one I just wanted to sound like a big room so you’re sitting in the room with us.

How much did you get to play around with the recording and production of the album?

I think certain things we have down. There are tried and tested things at this point. We know how to get a kick drum sounding good, we know this mic in a hallway will get a certain reverb, we know certain things. But the most fun I have is when we get a little stoned and we go ‘How can we get this guitar to not sound like a guitar?’ I want people to listen and not know what it is. We’re constantly fiddling around just to keep it fun. It works sometimes, most of the time it doesn’t but it keeps it all fun. I love doing that kind of stuff.

Do you think of how things will translate live when you’re in the studio?

For this one, we made a conscious decision. We weren’t building up in loops. We did that on the last record and when we came to figuring out how to do it live we realised it was impossible to do it that way but we ended up playing it a different way. Sometimes, I like that better.

This one we were very conscious though, like “Can I play this from start to finish in one take?” There was more of that. That was on Monty though, he’s the one who needs to play everything live. I just play bass and sing and then Monty’s got a guitar here, he’s got keyboards there, he’s got bass pedals and he’s getting worn out on all of it so he’s like “Let’s just make it a guitar part here and call it a day”.

Speaking a bit more broadly, outside of just this album, it’s no secret that you’re one of the more influential bands in what’s become a very broad post-punk umbrella. How does it feel knowing that your work has gone on to influence and inspire internationally?

It’s funny, I don’t really realise that. I don’t really listen to much new music but my wife does. She books a venue here in New York and she’ll be like “Come check out this band, they’re fans of yours”. It’s pretty fun to see these kids inspired by our stuff. It’s nice that that kind of stuff is gaining traction now. I feel like there were a bunch of years where it was a person with a laptop on stage and that was kind of it. Now, guitar bands are going strong again which is great.

It’s weird though, I don’t take it well when kids come up to me like ‘ahhh’, I’m not cool around that kind of stuff. But it’s nice! It’s satisfying that something that you did is listened to at all, let alone influencing someone to pick up the guitar and write a song. It’s amazing and incredibly fulfilling. It’s weird and I don’t know how to deal with it when [people come up to me] but it does happen every once in a while and it blows my mind.

Speaking of influences what are you listening to either new or old? What influenced this album as opposed to the other ones?

You can hear the obvious ones. When the album opens up you can be like “Ok, this is a Glenn Branca record” and then a lot of other influences are pretty obvious. ‘Advisor’ was me in a Spacemen 3 wormhole, I just wanted to be in space with droney two chords that sound huge. 

Right now I’m listening to the cheesier end of 80’s rock like INXS. Mostly I just watch the documentary about them. But yeah, a lot of shiny, polished 80’s rock.

Anything new that’s really blown your socks off?

There are a few kid bands right now and it’s blowing my mind that these kids are still in highschool. This band Horsegirl that my wife was showing me are playing here soon. That’s one where like they’re 16/17, still in highscool. I was in bands at that age but I wasn’t playing world tours, I was playing Jimi Hendrix covers at the local shitty pub. I’m like what are these kids gonna be doing in five years, ten years?

I don’t really listen to a lot of new music though unless I’m out at a show. Mostly I stick to what I know and love and it doesn’t get boring to me. When we go back on the road, that’s where I listen to new music. We’re pretty adamant about getting local openers where we can. It’s important getting young or newer bands opening up for you. That’s how we started in Calgary, we would get so pumped getting an opening slot for a band coming to town. It didn’t happen a lot though.

I feel like at the end of tours I have a list of 50 things to listen to and I come home and go through my notes of recommendations.

Speaking of being a kid, how does it feel looking back at where you started to where you are now, multiple albums deep into a successful band?

It’s crazy that we’re still doing this for whatever reason. I imagine we always will because if we were to have stopped we would have stopped at this point There are a lot of reasons to stop but we never did. It’s fun to just play music with my best friends, I still get excited, and as far as I can tell they do too.

It is different now, we’re doing this record without a record label backing it so it’s a different experience but we’re old and we’re taking the reigns, doing it ourselves. It’s usually the opposite of how most people do it.

How does it feel to do it DIY again?

It’s DIY to a certain point. We’re doing it ourselves but we essentially set up a record label. We hired people to do the marketing, we hired people to set up interviews, we’ve got radio people and we’ve got a distribution company. We’ll see how it goes. It’s our money up front but we know where the money goes for once. Talk to me a year from now but it seems to be going well!

The people who liked us before will like this one. That’s status quo for us and if nothing else happens to us beyond that I’m totally fine.

Words: Varun Govil // Photos: Erik Tanner

Preoccupations’ album ‘Arrangements’ is self-released on September 9th. Stream and buy the album via Bandcamp here.

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