Upon first listen, Calgary’s own Preoccupations could easily have named Arrangements, their fourth studio album, Auspices instead.
Even the band’s own name change from the controversial Viet Cong to Preoccupations would have been justly apt had they settled on Premonitions instead.
Known for their discordant and often doom-laden post-apocalyptic post-punk, no previous release from the foursome seems quite so prescient — leaving the listener with the jarring realization that our current home in the Anthropocene is no longer pre-apocalyptic at all.
Despite the album’s 2022 release, most songs on Arrangements were written in pre-pandemic 2019. With lyrics like, “Enemies of the sacred line/Asleep and dreaming through a mask,” and “It’s alright, we can celebrate the evaporating Homo Sapien race/That’s racing to erase its brief and glorious existence/Lead with blind enthusiasm,” these aren’t a look back — they were written as an unknowing acknowledgement of what was to come.
What singer Matt Flegel didn’t expect was that his lyrics represented a future primed for immediacy, instead of a cautionary tale.
“It’s unintentional, and it’s funny because a lot of the lyrics I had written before I had ended up recording them and there’s definitely instances where I’m like, ‘Oh, this is weirdly prophetic.’ I’m singing about wearing masks and stuff, and it’s something that I wrote in 2019. And there’s a few of those where it’s weird that it ended up lining up with the current world status,” says Flegel.
“I think it was bound to happen at some point where all of my post-apocalyptic shit that I’ve always kind of sang about turns out to be true unfortunately. It’s not a good thing.”
The album has a distinctly militaristic theme to it, with songs like Ricochet and Fix Bayonets! — but Flegel says it’s not a call to arms.
“People have been asking me about Fix Bayonets! and I think the idea of that song was just more face to face — not necessarily combat. I guess you could equate fighting with someone on Twitter with a drone strike. Where talking with someone face to face is like bayonet warfare.”
Like many bands currently flooding the airwaves with a surge of new music after Covid caused a creative chokehold on the music industry, Preoccupations had intended for Arrangements to be released a lot sooner.
Having recorded almost all but vocals by the end of 2019, they assumed they’d be back in studio to complete the album in early 2020.
Where many bands undergoing the same process during the same timeline ultimately decided to scrap their efforts, Preoccupations chose to persevere remotely. Flegel chalks it up to a combination of boredom, impatience and a little disbelief.
“I think this whole time it’s been like, ‘OK, this can’t possibly go on and last another six months.’ So I think when we were doing it, we were like, ‘OK, we can still get an album out by the end of 2020.’ That ended up turning into 2021, and now it’s 2022.”
While guitar and synth player Monty Munro engineered and overdubbed the album from a makeshift studio in his parents’ Calgary home, Flegel says he locked himself in a windowless basement in his home in New York to finish recording the vocals — a freeing process given that he could spend a couple weeks on a song, rather than a couple days trapped in a recording booth with bandmates and producers listening in.
“I think it was the most time I’d ever had to spend just focusing on the singing and just focusing on the lyrics. And of course, everything was going on around me on the outside, you know. It’s pretty weird. I’m living in New York now, and it’s pretty weird going outside and everything’s closed, and there’s no people on the street. So I think that all probably informs the process — whether or not I intended for it to.”
Flegel says he’s pleased with how the record turned out, despite the disjointed recording process.
“I liked how it still ended up sounding like a band playing together in a room, which is important. And it’s something that we were striving for on this record. I think the last two records we did were kind of more studio projects — we were doing a lot more looping and working with sequencers, and that kind of thing. And this record, right from the get go, we wanted it to sound a little bit more like a live album where it’s just us playing in a room — which I think ended up translating that way.
“The skeletons of the songs were already recorded, which helped.”
About to embark on a North American and European tour, Flegel says the prospect of revisiting songs that were written and remained unperformed for nearly four years is a bit strange, but also a nice change.
“In the past, we’d record a record, and then we’d go on tour right after. We’d play those songs every single night for 150 shows or something sometimes, so you kind of get tired of them, or they kind of get worn down. This time around it’s kind of refreshing that the record’s coming out, and they’re old songs and I don’t know, it just seems like they’re still new.”
Given that the band has already begun recording their fifth album, with five songs nearly completed and a goal to finish up a few more before hitting the road in October, the displaced timeline and disrupted recording process has led to a streamline in vision for their future output.
“Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of more shoegazey stuff. I’ve been really into Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine, and that kind of stuff.
“This last record, Arrangements, I feel like it’s more fast paced for the most part. I feel like if you added up the BPMs on these seven songs on this seven-song record it’d be a lot higher than the BPMs on the last two seven-song records. So I’m kind of more into toning it down and making it a little bit more washy, and maybe not as hyperactive,” says Flegel.
“I think we’re just more conscious that we’re going to have to play these songs live at some point. In the past that was sort of an afterthought, and then we’d get together and figure out how to play a song, and we’d be like, ‘OK, we need three extra guitar players and someone dedicated just to synthesizers.’ So I think now we’re just trying be conscious of how this will translate live. Does this make sense? Can we play this just the four of us on a stage?”
Lyrically, however, Flegel says some things never change; “I definitely have lots of ammunition at this point.”
His pedigree as post-apocalyptic prophet remains unchallenged for now, with pinpricks of symphonic rises courtesy of his bandmates that betray his despondent lyrics — accompanying them with a paradoxically foreboding sense of hope.
“It’s still the same weak-ass stuff. Same thing,” he says, self-deprecatingly. “It’s weird, but the music is kind of where I always put all of my dark inclinations and go through the outlet that is our music. It’s just always what I’ve used music for, and it helps keep me lighter in the real world.”
(Photo Erik Tanner.)
Preoccupations perform Oct. 26 at Commonwealth Bar and Stage. For tickets please go to https://admitone.com/events/preoccupations-calgary-8207694.