Tone-Questing: Viet Cong Interviewed

Before they play Field Day, singer and bassist Matt Flegel talks to Ben Graham about the influence of This Heat and Bauhaus on the Canadian post-punks' sound, finding his voice and their "dumb band name"

Photograph courtesy of David Waldman

"What’s John Foxx?"

I’ve just told Matt Flegel, singer and bassist with the incredibly good new Canadian band Viet Cong, that some of their music, and his vocals in particular, occasionally reminds me of the erstwhile Ultravox! frontman and still-active purveyor of fine innovative synth pop. It turns out he’s never heard of him, although he thinks he might have read about Ultravox! on Allmusic. "That’s awesome when we get compared to somebody that I’ve never heard before," Flegel grins, as I warn him to stick with the first three Ultravox! albums and Foxx’s solo records, and to approach the Midge Ure, ‘Vienna’ era with extreme caution.

It’s Flegel’s aching, Bowie-esque vocals and near-abstract, symbolist lyrics that particularly put me in mind of Foxx, but Viet Cong’s music too shares the same blend of cold, mechanically synthesised sound sculptures and twisting, hypnotically psychedelic melodies that Foxx often flirts with. It’s no surprise then that the singer admits to a love of Syd Barrett ("If I could ever write a melody that was half as good as his were I’d be happy. He’s definitely a big influence") alongside Sonic Youth, New Order and Echo & The Bunnymen. In truth though Viet Cong’s music – as heard on their recent, self-titled LP – tears up the rulebook, openly colliding influences and reference points (add This Heat, Gary Numan, Throbbing Gristle, Terry Riley, Pixies and Interpol among others to those already mentioned) but never settling for the kind of homage or lazy pastiche that so many contemporary bands seem happy with.

Flegel formed Viet Cong with guitarist Scott ‘Monty’ Munro in 2012, after the two of them had toured together as part of Chad VanGaalen’s backing band. Flegel was also a member of acclaimed Calgary indie rock band Women, whose story and onstage break-up has been well-documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that the sudden death of Women guitarist Christopher Reimer that same year acted, among other things, as a wake-up call, as well as definitely establishing that there was no going back.

Viet Cong’s line-up is completed by Women drummer Mike Wallace and guitarist Daniel Christiansen, who Flegel and Wallace had played with in a short-lived Black Sabbath covers band called Sweet Reef, which Flegel describes as "the most fun I’ve ever had making music". Christiansen had never toured or even left Canada before joining Viet Cong: "We’re all jaded as fuck, so his excitement and being new and fresh to all of this kind of rubs off on us, in a good way," Flegel says. "It’s nice to see someone who’s really excited to be where they are."

Flegel’s goofy, gangly presence in person belies the intensity and brooding menace he brings to his vocal performances. He’s friendly, smiles a lot and seems slightly nervous and twitchy, but speaking it’s clear he knows exactly what he’s doing with Viet Cong and what he wants to communicate. I start by asking him about the band’s influence, while also trying to establish whether Viet Cong are a democracy or a presumably benign dictatorship.

There’s a real post-punk feel to the album, and especially the darker end of that sound. Is a love of that era something that collectively the band has in common?

Matt Flegel: Not necessarily; we all listen to a lot of different music, genre-wise. I listen to a lot of late 70s, early 80s – I guess you’d call it post-punk, there was kind of a New York version of it, I think. Bands like Television, Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca coming out of that No Wave thing. They call it No Wave, but I guess it’s classed as post-punk, right? It’s kind of in the same zone. But being lumped into that genre is good because it kind of affords us an excuse to do whatever we want for the next recording. I feel like that genre covers so much ground as far as musical influence goes; from one post-punk record to the next it can be a completely different sound.

You’ve spoken a few times specifically about This Heat. I can hear it; I think you’ve maybe got a more accessible take on that music than them, but what is it specifically about This Heat, a band I like as well, that you picked up on?

MF: Well I think it’s the incessant experimentalism. They’re constantly having drastic tape cuts and the song changes completely and I really like that about it. I like how abrupt things get. I like how weird it gets, like how on that Health And Efficiency EP, one side is a pop song, it’s their poppiest thing and then it goes into this extended loop, this seemingly endless thing. And then side B is just an organ drone. So that would be the non-accessible part of their music! I really like melody – I like a lot of pop music, so I feel that kind of comes out in our songs a little bit. But I like the experimentation; I think that’s the post-punk aesthetic, taking a punk song or a pop song and deconstructing it.

Also you covered Bauhaus on the Cassette EP. It was a really good version of ‘Dark Entries’, but there’s kind of two ways to take that; either as a statement of intent on your debut release or just something you recorded off the cuff and chucked on there.

MF: We just chucked it on there! I really like that song and it’s kind of a vocal exercise for me too. I was trying to find the lyrics on the internet and when I did finally find them it was like three pages of lyrics! He pumps a lot of words into there, so it was kind of a vocal exercise. And it’s fun taking a song and just playing it twice as fast; it’s like the goth rock anthem, or one of them, right?

Are they a band you were a fan of?

MF: Yeah, a little bit. I’m not a Bauhaus fiend, I have In The Flat Field and that’s about it. I don’t have the complete discography or anything.

The other thing about that particular Bauhaus song is that I’ve always thought it’s easy to draw a direct line from that to Sonic Youth’s ‘White Kross’. They’re very similar.

MF: Yeah, very similar; it’s just dark, punked-out music.

It’s a nice line to sit Viet Cong on: from Bauhaus to Sonic Youth, that mainline.

MF: Sonic Youth are extremely influential to me. I never get tired of Sonic Youth. And their discography is so vast that there’s always a good Sonic Youth record to put on at any given time. They have their daytime records and their night driving records. They have the partying records… yeah.

How does the songwriting work in Viet Cong? Is it a collective improvised thing, or does one of you bring songs to the table?

MF: I think it mostly starts out with me and Monty. We do a lot of messing around in the studio- it’s his garage, we call it a studio- it is a fully-functioning studio, but not the greatest gear. We spend so much of our lives in that dark, cramped garage, fucking around with instruments and trying to find sounds. I generally bring more as far as the songwriting goes. I do all the lyrics and singing and everything. But it’s become more of a band thing. I mean that’s how it starts and then we’ll bring the other two guys in and just mess around live, and that’s when it starts to form into something resembling a song, sometimes. But it can get pretty convoluted as far as the experimentation goes. We ‘tone quest’, we call it. Which is just us messing around with new equipment and drum machines that we don’t know how to use, and trying to get a drum machine to talk to the arpeggiator on this synthesiser, or writing a click on the tape machine and letting the click kind of control all the other things, and we spend days doing this kind of stuff. And it works its way into songs, I guess.

I deliberately don’t want to hark back to Women at all because I guess that’s getting a bit boring for you, but one main difference that seems apparent between Women and Viet Cong is maybe the fact that there’s more messing around with drum machines and synthesisers, even if they’re not literally present in the songs. They seem to influence the feel and the rhythms, which are a bit more harsh and mechanical than they were in Women.

MF: Yeah, well a lot of the songs start with a rhythm and build their way up. But I think it’s pretty obvious, especially on this record, that it’s a little bit more mechanical and more rhythmic, whereas the other one was a little bit more – I don’t know, it wasn’t as formed, it wasn’t as much something you could dance to. Or at least bob your head to.

Does the fact that you’re a singing bassist influence that as well, in terms of thinking about the rhythm?

MF: Yeah, I think so. I write a lot on guitar too, though. And before, when we first started out, I was writing all the guitar parts, for the most part. Danny and Monty kind of stepped back when we started, but I trust them now and they’re doing really well and so I’m kind of just leaving it up to them. Yeah but singing and bass; it’s something I’ve never really done in any band before. I’ve never been a singer in a band before either, so… I’m getting used to it. I’m getting better. I’m not where I want to be, but it’s like baby steps.

I think you’ve stepped up really well, I think the vocals are really effective.

MF: Well I’ve always been a singer but not in any sort of professional sense. I sing in my car, I sing in the tub, but I’ve never done it in front of people, aside from karaoke or something like that. I’ve never done it seriously, with my words.

But there does seem to be at least an ambition to actually sing, rather than mumble.

MF: Oh yeah, absolutely. No, I wanted to be heard and I put so much time into writing the words that I want it to be heard. I don’t want to cloak it in too much reverb to the point that it’s indecipherable. And it’s something that I’m trying to get better at and something I’m constantly working on. And I like it now. I was weird with it before. I’m starting to actually enjoy it and play into it a little more. It’s just satisfying, getting more comfortable at doing something. It’s a very satisfying thing.

There’s a sense of drama to the band, certainly on the new album; we can talk about how you’re experimenting with textures and sounds and all that, but there’s a sense of controlled aggression or an almost theatrical delivery that lifts it in almost a Bowie-esque way.

MF: I like things to be exciting, I like there to be violence in a song. I like there to be beauty in a song. I guess almost like a film, and we’re not super influenced by films when we’re writing the music, but I like listening to music like that. I feel like a lot of music I’ve listened to, it just doesn’t really go anywhere, and I always want it to end up somewhere. I think that’s why a lot of the songs are sprawling and really long, because I can say more that way. I can convey different images that way. But yeah, that’s definitely the case, because it is dramatic, I guess.

Was calling the band Viet Cong deliberately provocative?

MF: No, not at all. And I feel like such an asshole now that I know more about it. But we needed a band name and Mike blurted it out at a practice, and we went with it at the time because we thought it sounded cool. But we didn’t really know anything about it, and we didn’t know that we’d be having to explain ourselves to people the whole fucking time!

Hopefully it’ll just be this first round of press and then we’ll all get used to it.

MF: Yeah well, it’s a dumb band name. If anything I think it’s good for me because I’ve learnt more about that whole conflict than I ever would have had I not called our band Viet Cong. I feel like a lot of people are talking about it as well, and doing more research. I don’t know. There are a lot of things that people don’t know about that happened during that war, I guess. People always think that the Americans were the bad guys, or that the Americans committed all these atrocities; that’s what you kind of see in Hollywood depictions of it. But you never really see what the Viet Cong were doing to the Vietnamese people. And I get emails like two or three times a week, saying, ‘Why did you call your band Viet Cong? My father was in a Viet Cong prison camp for five years and they almost starved him to death.’ But I didn’t know. I don’t mean for it to be offensive at all. It’s kind of just at the point where we can’t really change it now.

One thing about the name is that at the very least it does position you as outsiders a bit. I don’t know if you’ll ever achieve Foo Fighters, ambassadors of the Western world status with a band name like Viet Cong.

MF: That wasn’t the intention, so that’s fine.

You won’t get anyone booking a band called Viet Cong to play at half time at the Super Bowl.

MF: Ah man, we had a tough time getting visas for the States. I think all the border guards, it’s the younger generation at the border crossings, but all the dudes who are in the offices are old guys who’ve kind of moved up to the offices, and we had a really hard time there, and I think a lot of that had to do with the band name.

Back on the subject of songwriting, I read that you wrote a lot of the album on a pretty rough tour last year. How did that feed into the writing?

MF: It was our first struggle tour as a band, where I think we did sixty shows in a tiny compact car, following another band around and they had all the beer. We made no money. We went in the hole. We played to no one. But I feel we got better as a band. And we recorded a good chunk of the record, the one that just came out, directly after that. It was ten days or twelve days after our tour. We were in the studio basically playing what we’d been playing live for the last sixty shows. We felt like we were really tight, and really just wanted to have that big live feel. Which ideally we’d do again for the next record, I think; just slowly bring some new songs into the set and then go into the studio after the tour, after we’ve played them like fifty times in a row. It’s the best practice there is. And then you’re not wasting as much time getting takes, so you have more time to experiment and mess around, which is my favourite part of being in a studio.

That surprises me that you were initially playing to hardly any people, given that Women did have quite a following and fan base, and I would imagine that people would be waiting to see what at least a couple of you were going to do next.

MF: Yeah, but no-one knew we were doing it! It was just a very last minute thing. We were asked to go on this tour and we just said yes. And really the whole purpose was to try and get better and to see if we could survive in a compact car with the four of us. And it was a test, because in Women, we couldn’t survive that. And to find that out before, if there were volatile personalities. So I wanted to make sure that we could do it, before we went and did it for real, in front of people. And we passed the test. We didn’t kill each other. I don’t think there were really any arguments. If anything we became better friends after it. A lot of people aren’t cut out for doing that, so you have to make sure.

Was the notion of finding four people who could get on together as important as musical ability in putting together the band?

I think it’s one of the most important things. Yes. Because otherwise you’re miserable, and there’s no point. I’ve been there and I’ve seen it, and it never ends well. It just doesn’t. You need some solidarity there before you even begin to think about hitting the world and playing shows and going to all of these different places and being pleasant in front of people. You want to make sure you’re getting along with the people that you’re on stage with. It’s hugely important.

Viet Cong is out now on Jagjaguwar. The band play Field Day in Victoria Park, London, this Sunday, June 7, before beginning a tour of Canada, the US and Europe later this month; head here for full details

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