Preoccupations interview: "we're all animals and we forget that; we're just constantly trying to pretend that we're not."
Last week Preoccupations released their third album, New Matertial; a collection of songs that finds the band trying out several new modes while staying true to their core sound. We sat down with singer Matt Flegel over coffee to discuss the process of creating these new sounds, nihilistic inspirations for the lyricism and sci-fi books and movies.
Obviously changing the band name was a massive pain in the arse, but it allowed you to have 2 self-titled albums, and now you've got the quite austere title for this one, New Material, did you discuss naming it something different?
Yeah, we talked about changing the band name again just to fuck with people, but we decided it was too much hassle. With the last record there was definitely a drop off in attendance at shows and general interest, and as far as the media and the press everyone just wanted to talk about the band name, the change, and I feel like that kind of overshadowed people actually listening to the record. By the end of our record cycle last time around we were back up to where we were before, so I didn't want to go back down the hill again.
Then, with New Material, people were like "what are you gonna call it this time? You actually need to come up with an album name." So I wrote New Material as a joke, fully expecting them to say "what are you really going to call it?" but nobody did.
Not even your bandmates?
Nah, they thought it was funny. I like the idea; it's like we're always referred to as "content;” it's not music it's "content" for a label, it's "content" for YouTube.
But you don't see it that way, I know you're into physical media.
Oh, absolutely! But I just like the idea of "here's some content for you, here some new material for you to have, chew up and spit out and move on to the next thing."
You've stuck with the single word track titles here, is that a thematic thing?
No, it's kind of the same idea; I don't care what the song's called, you just listen to it. I just try to sum up the mood of the song in one word as best as I can. Most of it is for us to have something to write down on the setlist, and for people to flip through and differentiate one from the next.
Yeah, it's better than having "Untitled 1", "Untitled 2" - some people do that.
Some people have, but it's a little more pretentious.
You guys had a different more collaborative creative process this time, tell me about it.
It was, in a way. We did about 8 or 9 different sessions, we didn't work in a professional recording studio, we didn't work with an engineer or producer, we did everything ourselves with all our own gear. So basically the studio was whatever room we set our stuff up in. We started in January of 2017, and then basically throughout the year any time that we weren't on the road we were recording wherever. So, depending on who was available - it could have been all 4 of us in a room working things out, playing more live off-the-floor style, or it would be me and Monty, but for the most part it was just written as it was being recorded, so everyone had more say. It's a little bit easier to talk about what you want to do when you're not necessarily making noise all the time. You have quiet, you listen back and trade ideas that way.
Do you think it changed your sound at all?
I think, if anything, this sounds more like a better product of the 4 of us as individuals than the last few have. It sounds more like the records that we wanted to make from the get go.
Are there any records that all 4 of you hold up as what you aspire to?
Mostly just production-wise, we were listening to a lot of Chrome. It's like West Coast late70s/early 80s, almost industrial, but they really use the studio as a tool. They’re just very strange sounding recordings, and that's what we were going for - slightly more industrial sounding I guess, and just trickery. Martin Hannett’s production was a huge influence also. Just trying to take a high tom on a drum and make it sound like nothing else.
There seems to be a higher ratio of less frantic songs like 'Manipulation' and 'Doubt', was that natural or conscious?
Yeah it kinda was natural. We recorded 15 to 20 tracks and ended up with 8, so at a certain point you see these 4 songs that really gel together and that is the core of the record, and you build out from there. I really wanted to make it dynamic, I wanted the last song to sound nothing at all like the first song, which I think we got, more or less. By the end of this record you kind of forget where it started, that was the whole idea.
Do you still see it as two halves, side A and side B?
Always, that's how we always think about it. That's really just for us, and a handful of record nerds out there, but nobody listens to music like that anymore.
Well, cheers to that! Because no one else does. I think generally people are listening to half a song on YouTube and then switching to the next thing.
On Preoccupations 'Anxiety' was the thesis statement for what came after, would you say that's the same with 'Espionage' on this one?
It is a little bit, but again that song doesn't really sound like anything else on this record I don't think. We just wanted to start it with a rocker, a proper rocker, and then as the album goes along you forget it started like that. But that was the first one where we finished and knew where we wanted the record to go, it best represented what we were going for.
Would you say it's a "we're all fucked" song?
They're all "we're all fucked" songs! [Laughs]
So what do you want people to take away from this record?
It's "we're all fucked" but finding comfort in the fact that we're all fucked and we just have to get on with it. For me, I like to listen to dark music when I'm feeling dark, and it usually gives me some sort of sense of relief. I don't wanna listen to the Beach Boys when I'm feeling terribly depressed, I just don't. I want to listen to something dark, and it's therapeutic that way. I guess I want people to take that idea away from [our album]. Or just enjoy listening to it.
Has this last year or so been a dark time?
It didn't start off that way, but by the time we were finishing off the record in the late summer, August and September, I had kind of hit a wall. After three years of incessant touring, just not taking care of ourselves, travelling all the time, not sleeping, not eating properly, partying too much, I just finally hit that wall, which I think will happen once you get midway through your 30s - it's inevitable.
I feel like the contrast between the music and the melodies and the lyrics is pretty drastic, and that is definitely because when I'm writing I'll wait until the very last minute to do all the singing, to finalise all the vocals. At the point when I was doing that I was definitely in a dark place, and it shows I think.
But the lyrics were written over a span of time?
They were but not necessarily specific to each song. I've never really done that, I'm not a singer songwriter. I'm not like "here's a song, start to finish, let's build around that." It's usually me nitpicking over each individual line, and usually I'll always have a melody and a couple of lines, and then it kind of evolves from there, and at the end I'm usually taking that one line and building off of that, or going through my scraps of paper and notebooks and napkins and iPhone messages and seeing what I've written over the past year. A lot of it was dark, but that just tends to be where I go. It's my outlet for that, it keeps me from going insane and killing myself. I've always used our music as that outlet.
Do people ask you "are you OK? Are you sure you wanna sing about this?"
Erm, yeah. I've been asked over the past few days "you're doing well now, you seem happy, how's that going to come across when you're singing these songs live?" But when it's live it's a clean slate, it's a perfect outlet to let it all out. We always have put as much as we possibly can into playing live, so I'm not too worried about it.
So does that mean there's no specific events that inspire specific lyrics, it's more just an amalgamation of different feelings from different times?
More or less. There are a couple on there... I mean they're all fairly personal this time around. I don't know if they're necessarily all autobiographical, but if you want to take them out of them you can.
A song like 'Espionage' seems quite political and anti-war...
I guess so, but I was thinking more in general terms. I wasn't really thinking of politics, just people generally backstabbing each other. Social politics I guess.
On 'Decomposed' the couplet "your eyes are the middle of hurricanes/ I'll follow all the way down," - is that the most romantic couplet on the album?
I guess it is, yeah!
Do you ever feel like writing more about love?
I have thought about that. I've been off of touring since September, since we finished the record, and I've been doing a lot of writing. I've got a stockpile of songs that will never make this band, but eventually I'd kind of want it to be a proper crooner record. At some point, we'll see...
Like acoustic guitar?
Yeah, all acoustic, big arrangement. I had this idea of doing a Lee Hazelwood style produced record.
I wanted to to ask about the last line of 'Decomposed': "for better or worse we are cursed in the ways we tend to be" - what are you getting at there?
It's just about futility. That's a general theme, and it has been in the past records too. Again it's like we're all animals and we forget that we're animals, and we're just constantly trying to pretend that we're not, but at the end of the day there's not much we're going to be able to do. It's our nature to fight each other and to do bad things to each other.
I get a lot of sci-fi feels out of your songs, what sci-fi has been floating your boat lately?
I tried reading that Annihilation book, because I wanted to read it before the film. I didn't love it, but I liked the idea and the concept. I think it's shoddily written, honestly. As far as film, you name it, if it's set in space, I'll go see it.
What did you think about the new Blade Runner?
Honestly... I need to watch it again. I saw it in IMAX when it came out and was mesmerised by how beautiful it was and how it sounded - the sound was just impeccable, the soundtrack was amazing. Story-wise I didn't really know what I thought of it. I think I need to see it again and do a proper judgement. But if it looks that good and sounds that good I'll probably keep watching it over and over.
You use a lot of scientific language like - just a few I've picked out from this album - "weakest magnitude," "apparatus of incredible accuracy," "rivers of radiation" - is that something you purposefully put in?
I think it just comes through naturally. I don't know why; I guess that's subconscious. I'm not into that kind of stuff, but maybe from a sci-fi world.
Another line I really love, is "the mangled masquerade interlude" - what are you thinking about there?
It's just basic poetry tricks. But everyone's got a face that they put on, and every once in a while everyone gets together and takes off their face and shows who they are.
And in 'Manipulation' there's the lines "trading lives for existences/ a screen door to a warmer war/ it always ends with a flare inside a sphere"...such great imagery, but I don't know what you're talking about!
Holy shit man! I don't even know if I remember what I was talking about on that one.
Does that happen a lot? You write something down and it sounds cool even though you don't really know.
Yeah, that was kind of last minute stream-of-consciousness writing. I don't know how much thought I put into that one. "Lives for existences" is pretty straightforward I guess. And again it all kind of comes back to that basic idea of pretending that we're not animals.
Do you see yourself as an animal?
More and more I try to.
How does that help?
It doesn't really! It helps me take things with a better sense of humour I think. And just taking things a little bit less seriously. People get a little too caught up in things that don't matter in the least, at all, in the grand scheme of things. I don't see it in a defeatist sort of way, that's just how it is and it's pretty funny.
At your shows, especially when you play something like 'Death' you help people bring out their animal side; do you like watching the crowd when you play?
Yeah, it's funny. At some point I realised people were actually into [‘Death’] and it kind of blew my mind because the whole point of that song was to pummel people out of the room, and that's why we always play it last; “last song, let's see who actually wants to go through with this!" And slowly you see people trickle out and leave to catch their trains. But at this point it seems like people are expecting us to play that song, it's become something people want to go see.
Is 'Antidote' aimed at anyone in particular, or any specific group of people?
Not really. That one kind of switches pace half way through that song and goes into this machine drone, and I had "information overdose," that was the one phrase that I built that song out of. It's basically just about having endless information at our fingertips, but not really doing anything with it at all, not really using it in any kind of relevant manner. If you want to know something you can look it up and then you immediately forget it. It's one of those things that could make everything better, and make people smarter, but it seems not to.
I like the drum effects in between the verses, and then that end bit you're talking about kind of sounds like the voice of information.
Yeah, that was the idea! I wanted it to be Kraftwerky, I wish I had a German accent for that last part. That one was very much about trying to make it sound like a machine, I wanted the whole song to sound like a machine. We were trying to play it live off the floor and we realised that we couldn't get it to spring the right way, so we ended up just making loops of drums because if you loop it you can cut it off by just a few milliseconds and it gives it this really weird robotic swing that couldn't really exist if you're plying it live... so we'll see how we'll pull that one off live.
Do you want to play all of these songs live?
I think so. We'll see. I think we'll have to switch up a lot of the sounds. A lot of it I'm not even playing anything on the recordings, so I’ll have to just be singing or playing other instruments. We're going to be switching it up a little bit, so I'm sure that'll effect some of the songs we used to play. And we might bring back some of the songs we don't play.
Maybe 'Throw It Away'?
Eh, probably not that one. [Laughs]
That would be weird to see you walking around with just a mic, you'd be getting towards your crooner mode.
Yeah exactly, I'd have to start dressing nice. I could still keep the bass strapped on while I sing...
I wanted to ask about the line in 'Solace' "we need disaster relief/ and, finally, consolation prizes today."
It was about a funeral energy - there's a bunch of that on the record. Basically you go through your whole life, and it's like the last 15 years of an elderly person's life where no one really gives a shit about them; their family doesn't really give a shit about them, and they die in a home. Then they'll hold a wake, and they'll have speeches saying how great their lives were and how much they loved them, and that's kind of the prize. It's like "well there you go, you had a great life!" But really we never really cared about you.
Was there a funeral you went to that inspired that?
Yeah, there's been a couple.
And then 'Solace' is also an apocalypse kind of scene, where it's like everything's about to end, try to find solace in the last few minutes with someone that you love, basically. Just deal with it and find solace in the fact that you have someone to spend your last legs of life with. That was the idea with that one.
How about the last line in 'Solace', "grow another habitat," is that after the apocalypse?
Pretty much, yeah.
You got any favourite post-apocalyptic movies or books?
[Cormac McCarthy’s] The Road is pretty hard to beat. As far as general starkness and bleakness I feel like that's maybe the bleakest book I've ever read.
They did a good job of the movie too.
It was underrated, honestly! I feel like it kind of flew under the radar. I thought it was great. Good soundtrack too.
And then in 'Doubt': "with doubt we comply/ they ask and we supply" - what kind of actions are you thinking of when you talk about what we supply?
Again just going through the motions of whatever this life is without thinking too much about it, which is what most people do, especially in the first world. We've got everything we could possibly need and we just go through this mechanism. We exist, but no one really lives. The same kind of concept.
'Doubt' is the last song with words on the album, so the last line of the album is "we can't help ourselves" - did you do that on purpose?
I didn't, but it ended up that way and I thought it was a suitable last line for the record because it sums up everything; "why are we making this record?": Because we just do it.
You end with the instrumental 'Compliance'; you said earlier that the titles don't mean that much but you must have had a reason for naming this one 'Compliance'?
Again I kind of thought those last two songs as sort of the same idea, but I kind of wanted to have a cut off there. And originally 'Doubt' was called 'Doubt and Compliance' but that's too many words, so we couldn't have that. It's like at the end, just complying.
Was it always built as an instrumental song?
It wasn't to begin with, it started off with a kind of intricate proggy interlocking guitars thing, kind of more like 'Solace', and I wasn't into it and I knew that I wanted it to be the last song, and we started to strip things down and take them away until we were left with two chords. It was just me and Monty in the studio and I was just like "let's try and put as much as we possibly can into two chords without saying anything, let's make two chords sound as big as we possibly can." I wanted to hit the peak and then just totally disintegrate, I wanted it to sound like the tape was falling apart and melting.
That song, to me, is most well captured by the cover art. How did you end up picking that cover?
Our old high school buddy Mark, he did the album art for the last record also, and he just kind of gets it. I gave him one sentence, I said "Soviet brutalist architecture" and he sent me that 3 hours later, in a rough form, like "yep, there you go."
Why did you say "Soviet brutalist architecture"?
I just thought it was a good image for everything that I was talking about on the record. This stark, "why are we building these things?"; it's like this weird utilitarian building that exists because we need to give people somewhere to do these things. I just liked the idea of it.
Have you always self-produced your music?
We've had engineers before who've helped with that sort of thing, but this time around we thought "we've got the equipment, let's just try and do this on our own." Not paying someone by the hour gives us more time to mess around in the studio, it just made more sense. I think we'll keep doing it this way, it seems to work better.
And you had 9 different sessions...
Yeah, 9 sessions; we were at my parents' cabin in Montana; we were at this old early-1900s schoolhouse in a place called Ymir, British Columbia, a super small mountain town; we did a lot in Montreal at a couple of different places; we borrowed a friend's studio where we had to bring our own equipment, and another friend's studio who actually had a bunch of awesome equipment that we ended up using a lot of; I recorded some of the vocals in hotel rooms... it was all over the place. It's odd that it sounds as cohesive as it does.
You've been filming a video for 'Disarray' down in Devon - how was that?
I hate making videos normally, but honestly I had been on a plane the entire day before and was basically all day of me just walking around a beach in Devon and it was nice. It fogged over, it looked very Martian. We'll see how it turns out. Honestly I did it to try it.
We've mentioned books and films a lot, but are there any more specific things that relate to this album?
When I'm recording, when we're working on a project, it's very difficult for me to read anything or to listen to other people's music, I just can't get into it. Basically until I get the test pressing of the vinyl back and I listen to it, that's the last time I'll ever listen to it, and then my brain just opens up like "OK, I can move on now," and it feels great.
So while you're in that process what are you doing? You don't unwind?
I just obsess over whatever we're doing. I don't usually unwind. We get pretty obsessive. I just find it hard; if there's other music playing I just shut it out. Same with reading, I couldn't read anything for months. I just can't focus on it.
Does that frustrate you?
It's slightly frustrating I guess, but that doesn't mean that I'm not drawing from things that I've read or listened to in the past, just at the time I can't do it. I don't know why that is.
While you're working on the album do you tune yourself out from news and politics?
Yeah. I took a big break off the news around the whole American election, because that was all I was reading about and I just got sick of it, so I fully just took a break, which was really nice! It's nice just to be ignorant of all the facts. I'm back a little bit now, I don't know, I guess so.
How do you feel about Canadian politics?
I don't really care too much. Things have always worked pretty well there; we've never had celebrity politics, it's never been a thing in Canada and it kind of is now. Justin Trudeau is a face, I don't think he's done anything, but he makes other countries think that we're doing OK, so that's something.
Let's finish on something positive; what excites you about putting out this album?
Honestly, everything! I'm very excited to get back with the guys and make more music and get on the road with this. I know we're going to get together for rehearsals, and I know what's going to happen, we're going to mess around making new music and then there'll be two days before we have to go on tour and we'll be like "Oh shit!" But I'm really excited to get out on the road with these songs.
Preoccupations’ new album New Material is out now.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 26th March 2018.