“Everything Is Ridiculous”: Talking with Matt Flegel of Viet Cong

01/28/2015 1:48 PM |
Photo by David Waldman

“I think everything is ridiculous, is basically my philosophy,” says Matt Flegel. Going by his dark lyrics for the Calgary post-punk band Viet Cong, straight-up nihilism would have been another strong guess. If the end of Flegel’s previous band, Women, was one source of his bleakness, that’d be understandable. An onstage fistfight with bandmate and brother Pat in 2010 put that band on hiatus, thus nixing a European tour. And the tragic death of guitarist Christopher Reimer the next year precluded any chance the band had to continue. But despite all this, Flegel seems good-natured and bright about his second run at success, and is hardly the caricature of a tortured artist. And it’s perhaps because of his experience and perspective that even Viet Cong’s career-boosting “Best New Music” nod from Pitchfork was met with an even, matter-of-fact affability from Flegel: “Our manager was pumped.”

Harsh noise and driving rhythms give Viet Cong admirable toughness, but strong, sly melodies let them be lovable; the band’s sound is fully-rounded. “It’s supposed to come through just enough,” says Flegel. His urgent vocals often resemble the golden wails of Spencer Krug in his Wolf Parade prime. But because he was a supporting player in his previous bands, Flegel didn’t think of himself as a singer at all until just recently: “I was a by-myself-in-my-car-belting-it-outer.”

The new band’s first efforts were compiled last year as Cassette, a slight-yet-kickass cool-guy rock EP that was only posted on Bandcamp to scrape up the modest income stream needed to supplement an aggressive string of tour dates. The band’s proper self-titled debut is more challenging and aggressive, but further considered and consistent too. It’s the first great rock record released in 2015 by an artist whose roots don’t stretch back to the 1990s. Ahead of another months-long Viet Cong tour that starts this week in New York City, we talked to Flegel on the phone about himself and his band. It’s totally his new favorite thing to do.

Though you played with your drummer Mike Wallace in Women, Viet Cong started with you and guitarist Monty Munro. At what point was Mike brought back in?
He was off on one of his spirit quests. I think he was in India? (laughs) He came back and was the obvious choice. I wouldn’t want to be playing in a rhythm section with any other drummer if I didn’t have to. We’ve been playing together since we were pre-teens.

It does seem that in this band, an intensely locked-in rhythm section is really what makes the whole thing go?
Yeah, I think almost all of the songs start with a rhythmic component. The first thing I’ll have as an idea is some sort of rhythm, for sure. It’s not very often that I’ll play something on guitar in its entirety and bring that in to the fold. It usually starts from a rhythm.

Are you guys all way into old krautrock records?
I for sure am, Danny [Christiansen, guitarist] and Wallace are for sure. Monty has learned a lot more about that kind of music over the last couple of years, just us showing him things in the van.

There’s something about a band holding it together that long that starts to seem really unhinged. If they keep up the same rhythm for ten minutes they seem like maniacs.
Oh, I know. When me and Monty started getting together we didn’t have a drummer, so we’d take turns and just do takes where you’re not playing over top of anything, you’re just trying to get a drum take down. Doing ten minutes of four on the floor after a while starts to sound really psychedelic. It’s one of the most difficult things to just keep something that simple going for so long. You wouldn’t think that because it’s the most basic rhythm. It starts to shift around in your ears after a while.

Did you consciously want to tour pretty heavily before making your debut album?
That was more or less the case. We did 60 shows, and the purpose of that for me was just to push it, to make sure we could get along in a confined space for a set amount of time. I’ve had experience in other bands where, you know, personalities were clashing and things happened. It was kind of a tester tour. I just wanted to get good at playing our songs live, and I think it’s the best practice. Even if you’re not playing to anyone, which we weren’t a lot of the time.

That’s changing quickly, though?
Oh yeah, the response has been ridiculous. We’re getting emails that we’re selling out all these shows. They’re not gigantic venues, but the number doesn’t have to be huge for that to be huge. Reviews are one thing, but seeing the audience reaction, or seeing one dude who’s really really pumped in the front of the crowd. (laughs)That’s what I get the most excited about.

And what does that one dude typically look like?
It’s usually, you know, a barely legal. (laughs) That sounds so disgusting. It’s usually a 19- or 20-year-old dude, or a 21-year-old dude depending on where you are. He’s freaking out and spazzing, making everyone else sort of pissed off, because he’s running into people.

Women were also a very well-thought-of band. Does it feel different to you to go through this sort of rush of press attention a second time, this time as the frontman?
Oh yeah. I have to deal with all the interview stuff and all the emailing and all those kinds of things, which I didn’t really realize was going to be so intense. Not my number one favorite thing to do in the world, talking on the phone to strangers about myself. (laughs) I’m trying not to take myself too seriously, which has never really been a problem anyways.
I imagine, due to the lyrics, that you’re given a lot of prompts to be deep about death and the heaviness of the world?
That’s kind of what I naturally write about. I use it as an outlet to keep myself lighthearted, and have some humor when I’m not writing music. It’s kind of me getting it out of my system, almost? I feel like people think I’m on the brink of suicide or something. A lot of it, I find just funny, it’s just so over the top dark.

But a lyric like, “If we’re lucky, we’ll get old and die,” it’s dark, but it’s also kind of optimistic in a weird way?
I didn’t think it was a completely desperate thing to say. It’s kind of slightly romantic.
Well, it is the best-case scenario.
Yeah, and that’s hilarious!