Photo by Erik Tanner

How Preoccupations ricocheted back into the music world

An interview with the former Calgary band, now split between Montreal, Toronto and NYC, about their brand new album Arrangements.

Sometimes, you have to leave the comforts of home to find your way in the world. In the case of Preoccupations, it’s safe to say they’ve found it and then some.

The Calgary post-punks’ fourth studio LP, Arrangements, is officially out today on longtime Calgary indie label Flemish Eye; also home to Chad VanGaalen, Yves Jarvis and the Besnard Lakes. None of Preoccupations’ four members live in Calgary anymore, however. Frontman Matt Flegel is now based in Brooklyn, with two other members based here in Montreal and another in Toronto.

While the onset of the pandemic hit the band in varying ways, Flegel was in New York — the belly of the beast in America during COVID’s earlier months — to start with, before he and his then-fiancée drove all the way to his parents’ house in Montana (Alberta’s border state). Though his folks couldn’t drive down due to border closures, the plan was to hunker down out there for a two-week period. Of course, this later snowballed into three months.

“When we got there, it was like COVID was a myth,” he adds. “They saw our plates and they were like, ‘Is it as bad as they say it is out east?’ We were like, ‘Yeah, it’s pretty bad! It’s rough, man!’ It was like it hadn’t happened.”

Most of Arrangements — a cleverly-named, musically-related title not unlike that of its predecessor, 2018’s New Material — had already been put to tape by the end of 2019, so the album likely would’ve been released by the end of 2020 had COVID not hit. 

Though Flemish Eye will be releasing the album in Canada, it took some time for the band to decide to self-release it internationally—“more or less” due to their difficulty in finding a label, according to Flegel. Later joining forces with a team specializing in label services and marketing, Preoccupations secured a distribution deal for the album.

“We had a few [record label] people who were pumped on it, but because of COVID, a lot of [their] releases bottlenecked,” he continues. “By the time when we were shopping around, it was like, ‘Yeah, we would love to put this out, but it’s probably not going to come out until end of 2023.’ We were like, ‘Okay, let’s explore other avenues.’” 

The band’s ties to Montreal are strong. As mentioned earlier, two members are based here, and their self-titled 2016 sophomore album — the first after renaming themselves from their controversial previous moniker, Viet Cong — was also recorded in Montreal; even recording the song “Memory” with Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade fame.

Guitarist/synth player Scott “Monty” Munro also has his own studio in Mile End, where the band convened in late 2019 to lay down tracks for the album. Flegel says this process was a “quick and easy” one, while previous album cycles had been harder for them to find their groove with — or, as he puts it, you have “20 ideas for songs, and none of them really match up.”

Compared to previous songs that would get picked away at and not get finished for a time, the batch of songs heard on Arrangements came together quickly — in part because they were already somewhat realized. This being their first album made in a “fully functional studio” also helped. 

“We’ve recorded bits and pieces of the previous records on our own. But by this point, we kind of had everything functioning,” Flegel says. “We know we were spending a lot less time tinkering around trying to find drum sounds or guitar tones because we already kind of knew what we were after.”

“We got most of the tracks done there. The plan was to take a break for the Christmas holidays, and then come back in the spring. By the time we ended up making that plan, the world had taken a turn for the worse.”

Since he was away on vacation in Mexico with his family when the WHO officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, Flegel beelined back to Brooklyn. He and his bandmates would check in with one another, deciding to push back plans to finish the album by a month before later realizing we were in this for the long haul. 

The band then made arrangements (har har) to complete it mostly from their homes. Munro in particular was holed up at his parents’ house back in Calgary, where he and Flegel exchanged tracks with one another remotely. 

“He basically engineers the records for the most part, so he was giving me a lot of technical advice,” Flegel says. “I’d never done digital recording before. I was trying to figure that out as I went along. He was guiding me through it.

“I’d do some takes and send them his way, he would say yes or no. I’d record my own harmonies, and then he’d record harmonies with his voice. He’d be like, ‘Yo, I overdubbed every single guitar track with this baby grand piano in my parents’ basement. Let’s just bury that in there.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, fine.’”

From Arrangements by Preoccupations

Preoccupations will also be bringing their upcoming tour in support of Arrangements to Montreal on Nov. 22. When asked what about the city inspires the band since they’d laid down the tracks here, Flegel credits its cultural density, with something seemingly happening in town on any given night. 

“It’s funny, because it sort of has all sides, and maybe more of an edge than some of the other big [Canadian] cities,” he says. “There’s this more blue collar edge — it’s not super affluent. There are areas where it is, but it’s not as noticeable as it is in a city like Vancouver, or Calgary, even. That keeps the grit attached to you. I think we all appreciate a little bit of grit.” 

Full disclosure: I, too, am originally from Calgary, and our chat therefore got off to a pretty mind-blowing start. As it turns out, Flegel and I grew up one neighbourhood apart from each other in Southwest Calgary. Although the scene there — which also includes Crack Cloud and Sunglaciers nowadays — has definitely evolved from the days where Nickelback-esque butt-rock bands were in fashion locally, Flegel admits that he’s been pretty removed from the Canadian oil capital’s music scene in recent years.

“When we were young, there weren’t a lot of bands playing the kind of music we were playing,” he says. “There was a big punk scene and a big metal scene, and we grew up going through that, but we didn’t end up playing punk or metal… Hopefully in Calgary, it’s less intolerable, misogynistic bar rock. There was plenty of that going on [there] when I was growing up, too.”

Though it contains only seven tracks, Arrangements boasts some standouts in particular: lead single “Ricochet” is a delicious slice of glittering post-punk, centred around an R.E.M.-inspired guitar riff that’s also somewhat similar to the Police’s “Message in a Bottle” and Martha and the Muffins’ “Echo Beach.” 

The ominous-sounding “Death of Melody” is a reverb and distortion-heavy meditation on the frustration of not being able to identify a tune stuck in your head, while the slow-burning “Advisor” takes listeners for a nearly eight-minute ride with a brooding, string-heavy first half transitioning to a faster, bassline-driven second act.

When asked how these seven songs sum up where Preoccupations are currently at musically, Flegel says they “kind of just fell into that order,” and that a couple other songs were developed for the album, but didn’t quite fit.

“That’s usually the case with most records we’re working on,” he says. “Once you get a chunk of three songs that you can see running into one another, then the record starts to take shape. These ones just made the most sense as a Side A and Side B… For all the records we’ve made, I think of it that way—almost as two wholly separate sections.”

Given how live music has largely resumed despite our COVID reality, bands like Preoccupations can start mapping out plans again for touring and making new music. Their upcoming North American tour will begin in mid-October, with a European tour planned for after the Christmas break. The band have also been tinkering with a handful of new songs, which Flegel will be returning to Montreal to complete. “Another session, and we might have another three songs — close to another album, probably,” he adds. 

“We’ve got about a month of shows in Europe. We’re trying to plan some Latin American tours, because I’ve been really pushing for Latin America. It’s something we’ve never really done in the past. I imagine we’re going to be pretty busy doing summer festivals and round two for North America and Europe. I think we’re all ready to be busy again.” ■

Preoccupations play Bar le Ritz PDB (179 Jean-Talon W.) on Nov. 22, 8 p.m., $26. For more, please visit the band’s website.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.