In these toxic times when being happy sometimes feels like an illogical refrain, having music that is not afraid to transverse the darker enclaves of life provides much-needed empathy for the soul. Preoccupations are once again creating music with exactly this audio prescription with the release of their third album New Material.
Speaking to Matt Flegel (Preoccupations’ singer/guitarist and songwriter-in-chief) on a suitably cold spring morning before the album’s release, he’s in good spirits about the record that conversely was made when he was “in a pretty dark spot”. The record’s lyrics may lurk in the shadows, but the music and melodies Matt is keen to convey stray firmly into the light as the album feature’s the band’s most hooky and hard-hitting tracks to date. Sonically, the record has the band continuing to steer against the curve as they went in actively seeking to make something where, as guitarist Monty Munro has said: “nobody knows what instrument is playing”.
The record, in-line with its does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title, also signals fresh beginnings: it was the first album the band made outside of a proper studio, the first they made without a producer, and the first to be fully collaborative by all band members. If their previous self-titled album drew a line in the sand between the band and their former ill-fated moniker, this record scorches the earth clean. Six years since their inception and with any drama in the rear-view mirror the band appear to be at their strongest; the only slight sign of any possible tension is hinted at when Flegel reveals the video for ‘Antidote’ was released by drummer Mike Wallace without his knowledge and that he will never watch it as it’s “embarrassing”.
Over the course of the interview Flegel recalls how the album came together, answers whether a film soundtrack is on the horizon for the band, and reveals ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ is his go-to tune.
DiS: On your previous self-titled album you went into the studio with not a lot prepared in advance. How did New Material come together?
Matt Flegel: Similarly to the last one. The last one we actually were in a proper studio, the four of us for a few weeks, and I think we ended up getting a lot of it done there. This time around it was eight or nine different sessions and none of them were really in proper studios. We recorded and engineered everything ourselves, so it was basically any room that we could find to put all our gear was the studio. It was all over the place: it was some remote locations, we did some of it in Montreal, I recorded a lot of the final vocals in hotel rooms while we were on the road. Basically, any time we could find to work on it we would be working on it.
When I interviewed you for the last album each of you were living in different parts of Canada. Where were you all living for this album?
Not just in Canada anymore, it’s even more spread out than that. Mike [Wallace, drummer] has been living in Bali for the past while and Monty [Munro, guitarist] just moved from Alberta to Quebec; he’s in Montreal now. Danny [guitar, Christiansen] is still in Toronto and I just moved to New York from Montreal. Just still spread out, but it’s easy enough to get together.
Graham Walsh from Holy Fuck produced your last two albums whereas on this album you worked on it yourself. Why did you decide not to have a producer?
We just wanted to do something different, honestly. We wanted the freedom of doing it ourselves. We work best when we're writing in the studio, but when you're writing in the studio and paying for the studio and an engineer by the hour it puts up some limitations and we didn't want that.
We wanted to be able to work on a particular drum sound for a week if we wanted to and not set up any boundaries. I think in the end it works, I feel like we'll probably keep doing it this way. I feel like this record ended up being like a better product of the four of us than any of the other records.
You’ve said this is the most collaborative album you've done to date. In what way has your recording process changed from when you released your debut EP Cassette?
The Cassette EP was just me and Monty playing pretty much all the instruments; those other guys came in on a couple of tracks, but it was mostly me and Monty. That was almost before I could say it was a proper band; at this point it’s all of us. That's the thing when you're writing in the studio - we'll call it studio in quotation marks, "room with gear" - you're less likely to be making noise all the time. When it's four of us in like a jam space, writing songs in that way, there’s there's less breathing room. In the studio, we can just pick apart things a little bit better, throw ideas around a little bit easier.
Justin Meldal-Johnsen mixed some of the rough cuts. What was his involvement?
He mixed it and I would get him to do it again. He basically took the songs that we wanted to turn into the record and just put an iron over everything and made it a little bit more cohesive sounding, which maybe it wouldn't have and if he hadn't done that…I think he did a really good job. It's very tedious work mixing, you really have to dig in; it’s the most boring part of the process which I didn't really want to have anything to do with at all.
In the press release Monty is quoted as saying that his “ultimate goal would be to make a record where nobody knows what instrument is playing ever”. Why did you have this as a goal for the record?
When you're in a rock band with guitars, keyboards and drums and bass everything just sounds very standard or it can. We've always worked with that idea of just toying with sound to make it more interesting and try to be a little bit more experimental. It's mostly for us, really. It makes us more interested in the sound.
We did a lot of really stupid convoluted things like replacing a guitar part with a synth, having to slow down the tape machine so you could play it fast enough, and then speeding it back up and then it just sounding like a guitar again anyway. No-one would ever know that it's not a guitar other than us - it’s like a selfish weird thing that we do.
Have you used any strange instruments on this record? I remember on the Cassette EP you used a vibrator on a string instrument which was quite inspired.
I don’t know if vibrators made it onto this one. You know what, I think it did! On a drum, though. If you've got enough reverb effects you can really make anything sound other-worldly. There’s a lot of studio tinkering for sure.
‘Espionage’ was the first track released from the record and reviews of the track drew comparisons between you and Factory Records, new wave and post-punk. How do you feel about still getting those comparisons? Do you ever get frustrated?
I don’t, if you want to throw us into the particular genre I prefer it was post-punk. I feel that's such a vague term…Joy Division is considered post-punk, but so is Wire, and Wire and Joy Division don't sound anything like one another at all - maybe at some points they do. But, you know what I'm saying it's just a pretty broad. I feel basically to be post-punk just means you’re experimenting a little bit more.
You’ve said the album is an ode to depression and self-sabotage.
It was definitely way more personal than anything else I've ever written. I don't know if it was necessarily intentional at the time that I ended up finalising all the lyrics and singing all the vocals - I was definitely in a pretty dark spot. I think it works out fine because I was in a dark spot, but I was also working on a project and making art and it afforded me an outlet. Some people pay for a therapist and I guess the music is more than therapy for us.
Are you more creative when you're in a darker headspace? Do think you could write about lighter topics?
It’s just the state I’ve been in for the past few years. I would like to think that I'm not always going to be, but I also do think historically a lot of the best music or a lot of my favourite music and ours has probably come from a darker place.
I’m always envious of people who can be productive when they’re depressed as it can hard to do the simplest of things, like getting dressed.
I always feel bad for people who go through depression and anxiety and don't have a creative outlet - it’s such a useful tool to get through that. It can be a slug sometimes but I think at the end of the day the satisfaction you get out of seeing something that you had, maybe just an inkling of an idea, come into fruition - it's worth getting up in the morning for it.
In the press release you say this record is the most up-tempo thing you’ve done, which could seem contradictory when you consider the lyrics.
Definitely not the lyrics, I don’t remember saying that. Melodically it sounds at first glance maybe brighter and hookier, but I think once you kind of dig into it there's a lot of underlying layers beyond those initial hooks that present it as a pop song or something poppier. I really like that contrast of brighter melodies with super dark lyrics.
Your records have always had tracks with incredible hooks. ‘Espionage; is incredibly catchy, there’s always been something quite pop about your music.
I listen to a lot of pop music so subconsciously that's always going to come through a little bit. I work a lot on the melodies as well; I put a lot of effort into trying to make things I’m going to want to hum later.
What's your favourite pop song at the moment?
Last year when we were on the road all the time I was listening a lot of just classic 80s. I'm gonna say ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’.
Have you had much downtime between albums as it seems like you’ve been back-to-back releasing record and touring?
We didn't give ourselves any downtime last year whatsoever and I feel I definitely hit a wall by the time we were finishing up this record. We were in-between tours and basically any time that we weren't on the road, we were working on music together last year, maybe just for lack of better things to do. There was no pressure to make another record from any anyone on the outside; we just felt like we had a lot of ideas that we wanted to get out.
On each of your albums the last track always seems like a very definitive bookmark to end the record and ‘Compliance’, the last track on this record, has the same effect. Is it a deliberate decision to end your records in this way?
For this one it was, I really wanted the end point of the record to be absolutely nothing like the starting point of the record. I wanted people at the end to forget what the first song even sounded like, to be totally in a different place, have this arc. I really like the idea of having something very simple, but very pummelling and then have it build to a point and then sound like the record was melting almost.
The album artwork and the video for ‘Antidote’ are very minimal. What are you trying to convey with the visuals you've been putting out?
I have nothing to do with the visuals. I didn't even realise that the video [‘Antidote’] had come out. I did not okay that…I think that was our drummer who put that together. We were all together in the same city for a couple of days and we did it as something to do one night just for fun, mostly. I didn't think it was actually going see the light of day, but apparently I did.
Have you seen it now?
No, I will never watch that. It’s embarrassing...I filmed a music video [‘Disarray’] in Devon a couple of days ago; it's just me, just as an experiment, to put myself out of my comfort zone. That one at least I’m involved with and we'll see how it looks.
It's one of those things that you just need, but I don't watch music videos. I understand that people often consume music just through YouTube - that's how they listen to music and I get that and I get the need for it - but that's not my own personal favourite way to consume music.
When I spoke to around the time of your last record, you said you were working on a soundtrack to a short film. What’s happened with the soundtrack?
I think that’s still on the cards…me and Monty have also just been asked to do a soundtrack for a full-length movie, which we're going be working on in March and I'm pretty excited about actually. It's like an indie film. This dude from Calgary where we're from just asked us and it's a very dark movie, so he I guess he just thought of us. It will be in film festivals and stuff for sure.
You're coming back to the UK this June for a tour and last time you had quite an impactful light show. Do you have anything planned for what you’re going to do?
We haven’t really gotten there yet. The first step is trying to figure out how to play this album live, it's going be different. I have a feeling we're going to have to switch a few things up.
What do you want people to take away from the new album when they listen to it?
For me when I'm feeling down I always want to listen to downer music at the end of it I always feel a little bit better, so I guess that.
New Material is out now on Jagjaguwar. For more information about Preoccupations, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.
Photo Credit: Pooneh Ghana