It’s a scene almost worthy of Spinal Tap. A band takes the stage for a headline show dressed in Halloween costumes and a fight breaks out between them almost immediately. The four musicians retreat backstage to work out their differences then eventually re-emerge, declaring that the show will be their last. A handful of songs are played absolutely awfully before everybody starts bickering again, a scuffle gets underway, guitars are smashed and the drummer announces that his career is over.
Unfortunately for everybody involved, this is no mockumentary setup but in fact the very real, very ignominious implosion of Women, once one of Canada’s most promising art rock outfits. After two critically lauded albums and nearly 200 live performances, a combination of pent-up frustration and tour-induced fatigue brought the curtains down on a band who were just hitting their stride. Having gotten together in 2007, the Lucky Bar in Victoria, BC, would bear witness to the group’s tragicomic denouement just three years later.
“I was dressed as Mr. T – very offensively, too,” recalls erstwhile Women bassist and current Viet Cong front man Matt Flegel, his lanky frame hunched over a rickety table in the upstairs lounge of King’s Cross Travelodge. “At the end of the night I was trying to deal with the promoter, all the while still dressed as Mr. T. I saw myself from the fly-on-the-wall perspective and just… laughed.”
At the time, the music press made the whole affair out to be quite a dust-up but apparently this wasn’t the case. “It wasn’t a big fight,” Flegel protests. “You know, it wasn’t Ultimate Fighting Championship; everyone covered in blood and sweat. I don’t know. My brother [ex-Women guitarist and vocalist Patrick Flegel] just tends to self-destruct with things sometimes. It’s just what he does.”
After Women broke up, everybody went their separate ways. Flegel’s younger sibling moved out to Vancouver and now spends most of his time working on his experimental rock project Cindy Lee, in which – ironically enough – he performs on stage dressed up, albeit this time in drag. “I think that’s where he’s happiest. I don’t think he ever wants to be touring around in a van for weeks at a time again, so he kind of just likes to write songs,” says the older Flegel.
Christopher Reimer, Women’s innovative, virtuoso guitarist, embarked on a brief solo career before joining indie rock three-piece the Dodos, first in a touring capacity then as a bona fide member. On 21 February 2012, less than two years after leaving Women, tragedy struck as Reimer died in his sleep of a congenital heart condition. At the time of his passing he was just 26 years old.
Chastened by the experience of their old band’s public break-up and deeply saddened by Reimer’s untimely death, Flegel and ex-Women drummer Mike Wallace took their time to return to music. The former eventually hooked up with Scott “Monty” Munro, live guitarist for Canadian indie rocker Chad VanGaalen, and the pair began bouncing ideas off one another. The pair recruited Wallace along with guitarist Danny Christiansen and Viet Cong was born.
Before we go any further, it’s probably worth making it clear that the Viet Cong name is barely connected to the controversial former Vietnamese political group of the same name. Apparently Wallace suggested it simply because “the Viet Cong were always the bad asses in the movies,” along with the fact that it sounded cool. As far as I can tell, nobody in the band has ever even been close to Saigon either. The Calgary-based foursome do, however, live under constant threat of being harassed by army veteran immigration officers every time they leave and re-enter the United States and have already “taken a lot of shit,” according to Flegel. In any case, the band needed a pretty distinctive moniker if they were ever to escape the seemingly omnipresent spectre of Women. I wonder, is there an element of frustration in all this attention being drawn towards the past?
“Oh it’s a great thing,” Flegel says, without skipping a beat. “We’ve put our time in with all sorts of different bands – I mean that was one of them of course – and if people are going to come and check out Viet Cong because of those other bands then that’s definitely something I’ll take advantage of. I don’t imagine anyone who liked [Women] wouldn’t like this band. There are a lot of similar elements. I know it’s a totally different vehicle but it’s similar, too.”
Given that touring fatigue was reputedly such a bit factor in the cataclysmic collapse of Women, I’m also interested to hear whether Viet Cong have taken any especially elaborate precautionary steps on the road this time around, especially since two out of the four original band members are still around. Anger management courses, perhaps? Group meditation sessions? “No, but I think I know the warning signs if someone’s about to completely lose it now,” grins Flegel. “It helps that we’re all pretty stable, too,” says Munro as he finally enters the fray, bleary-eyed and still jetlagged from the band’s transatlantic flight a few days ago.
“I think we know if things are getting a little too crazy and we need to take a break, you know?” adds Flegel. “Take a couple of weeks and chill out. We don’t need to run ourselves into the ground.”
It’s a good thing there are some more calm and collected personalities around nowadays, too. On the band’s first major American tour last year, Munro didn’t even have a space in the van to sleep. He was forced to slum it outside every night instead, in what could have surely been a one-way ticket to an ill-tempered disaster. “I kind of liked sleeping out there though, honestly!” he insists. “I had some really good sleeps on that tour. I usually put a sleeping bag on some grass and it was warm out since it was Texas in September. It was nice!” I suggest the rain-soaked pavements of Northern Europe in winter might make for slightly less accommodating camping spots, but it turns out Viet Cong are prepared. “Since that tour we’ve bought a giant van and it’s got like bedding and a TV with a VCR in there with Predator on. We’re driving it out to Europe, it’s fully amphibious,” Munro announces triumphantly.
“It’s our hobo mansion,” says Flegel.
An amphibious hobo mansion is certainly a major sign of progression for a band who until recently struggled to find themselves an audience, with crowds of fewer than 10 people not uncommon on previous tours. “Nowadays it’s completely different, though. Last time in America there were some shows actually with no people,” Munro recalls with a degree of incredulity as we all collapse into fits of laughter. “I mean, in Philadelphia there were literally no people, just the other band!”
Sounds like that thought experiment about the tree falling in a forest.
“I mean, they’re keeping the bar open just so you can play,” Flegel says. “So it ends up being just like practicing. We played, though, yeah.”
Having released a seven-track EP earlier in the year, Viet Cong are gearing up for the release of their first, self-titled album on Jagjaguwar in January. At a push, stylistic parallels could be drawn with the fuzzier, more dissonant moments of Women’s final LP, 2010’s ‘Public Strain’; songs like ‘China Steps’ with its single-chord refrain along with the sculpted atonality of ‘Drag Open’. But Viet Cong’s new record more accurately represents both a big step into the future of guitar-orientated rock and a lingering glance at the distant past of British post-punk, New York no wave and the avant-garde.
New single ‘Continental Shelf’ is a hulking, crunching mass of gnarled guitars and thunderous drums that channels the likes of Bauhaus and Joy Division but manages to retain the pop sensibility of Interpol; Flegel’s vocals having more than a hint of Paul Banks about them. Album closer ‘Death’ is a sprawling 11-minute epic that, while ostensibly more accessible than the single from the outset, soon launches into a fierce, Sonic Youth-inspired orgy of guitar and noise before climaxing with a relentless series of rhythmic stabs and yelps. The record can be quietly beautiful too, as on the meditative synth coda to ‘Newspaper Spoons’.
The progression even from this year’s ‘Cassette’ EP is startling, with the new LP sounding a good deal fuller, moodier and also hinting at some sort of epiphany of darkness having recently taken hold of the band, yet Flegel isn’t so sure there was any overarching thematic vision involved. “It’s just kind of where we ended up as a band, with the four of us,” he says. “When it was just the two of us – Me and Monty together – we were still trying to figure out how we wanted to sound.”
“Then once we started jamming…” says Munro.
“Right!” says Flegel. “With the four of us it kind of just went in that darker direction and it has a lot to do with just what we listen to generally I think.”
I’m particularly interested in hearing what Viet Cong spend their days listening to, given that on the aforementioned EP, the band took to playing some of their instruments with sex toys. “Oh yeah, one of our favourite tricks, the old vibrating dildo,” Flegel laughs as he scratches his chin.
“You put it over the guitar pickup and it just goes, ‘Waaaargh’,” Munro adds, flailing his arms in what’s hopefully an inaccurate approximation of a vibrating dildo. Lamentably, the dildo didn’t manage to make it onto the new record. “Although I think eventually for the live setup, the plan is that we’re all going to be playing vibrating dildos,” Munro reassures me.
Viet Cong have invested a good deal of time in listening to British post-punk (“This Heat were hugely influential on us,” Munro says animatedly). In previous interviews the four have also been categorical in stating that they feel more of a kinship with bands from these shores than anybody from North America. “I don’t know why really. Most of the best music comes from here though,” Flegel opines. “If people think we sound British I take that as a compliment.”
Munro is even more convinced: “All of our favourite bands are British!”
Throughout our time together, Flegel and Munro are also at pains to fill me in on the incongruously genial Canadian post-punk scene. “We recently played with this band Fountain, from Victoria, BC,” Flegel remembers.
“They’re super nice and wholesome though,” says Munro. “Two of them are cousins, or siblings maybe. Anyway, they had to leave the show we played super early because they had to get up early the next morning to go home and have lunch with their grandma.”
It sounds like people aren’t quite grasping the punk thing back home, I say.
“Well there are super aggressive punk bands too but nobody wants to listen to their shitty music,” Flegel deadpans as Munro chuckles away in the background.
Lyrically, Viet Cong owe much to the industrial obliteration of Thatcherism being played out under the rainy grey skies of Manchester and a clutch of other equally disaffected towns and cities in the North during the mid-eighties. Bands like the Chameleons, Joy Division, the Sound and Gang of Four; bands borne out of an environment where music was the only remotely viable salvation from a lifetime of drudgery, or worse. “Just the general bleakness of being alive,” as Flegel succinctly puts it.
In some ways, sifting through the wreckage of 2014’s post-crash economy, it seems like little has changed. Presumably Flegel has taken notice?
“Yeah but it’s funny with the songwriting, though, because I don’t know how intentional a lot of it is,” he admits. “It’s kind of stream-of-consciousness sometimes and we end up somewhere with it but I don’t know whether I know where we’re going to end up when we start writing the songs. I mean as bleak as some of the lyrics are, they’re still meant to be taken with some sort of humour, I think. I’m not that dark a person.”
Just as his English post-punk forebears channelled their anguish into their music, Flegel’s verses concern themselves with tangible adversities, having emanated from some pretty miserable personal circumstances. “Writing the record, I was working at a really terrible job for a flooring company, where I’d just be at a carpet cutting machine for nine hours a day,” he says, grimacing at the recollection. “I just do a lot of writing in my head before I put pen to paper and in my mind I was just, ‘Fuck this, everything sucks!’ I wasn’t thinking super sunny thoughts, you know?”
With the exception of Flegel, everybody else in the band is still just about managing to hold down a job. Christiansen is an architectural technologist, designing things like flooring trusses. “He’s the head designer at some place but somehow still has less money than the rest of us,” Munro marvels. Wallace earns his crust painting houses while Munro delivers cupcakes, which he tells me with what seems to be genuine pride.
Flegel quit his job a few months ago. “Yeah, man I’m so poor,” he says, shaking his head before drooping it towards the table in mock defeat. “But just scraping by, you know? Trying to just work on music, trying to write the next record… Trying to save my hands too; it was really doing terrible things to them and I was getting, like, cysts in my fingers and on my wrist and stuff.”
All of which begs the question: how does a concertedly independent band like Viet Cong ever make a decent fist of it in the music industry, at least without selling out in spectacular style? Even then, global pop juggernaut Taylor Swift recently hauled her songs off Spotify because she wasn’t getting paid enough. Is there not a risk that some artistic concessions will eventually need to be made in the name of commerciality?
Flegel and Munro seem relatively sanguine about their financial prospects, even if they don’t profess to have all the answers. “I think we would have picked something different to do,” laughs Munro. “Plus, I don’t know how ambitious we actually are in terms of being money makers in the music industry,” Flegel says. “I mean, I’m as bad as anyone else for ripping things off the Internet. Usually if it’s a record I like though, I’ll stream it then if I really like it I’ll go out and buy it.”
Munro cuts back in: “You can go to a show, too. You know, at least pay a band to see them play or buy a t-shirt or something too – like, there are other ways.”
Hopefully the new LP will at least go some distance towards bringing Viet Cong their just desserts. In the meantime, today the Canucks seem cheerful enough, in rather sharp contrast to their music. Wallace bounds into the room as we’re wrapping the interview up, complimenting me on my NWA ‘Straight Outta Compton’ t-shirt before saying that he might steal it. “Where is that little squirrel fucker?” he asks of guitarist Christiansen, who’s apparently still fast asleep as we approach midday. Wallace seems like good fun.
In any case, I say before waving Flegel and Munro off to their photo shoot, given the choice between staring at spreadsheets day after day or playing in a touring rock band, most people would probably plump for this, right? Even despite the hardships, the on-stage altercations and the endless nights watching Predator on VHS in an amphibious hobo mansion (actually, that last one is probably an incentive). “Yeah, our office is the lounge of the King’s Cross Travelodge,” Flegel jokes. “We have a new record which is the statement as far as our lives go. Like, we’re all living well below the poverty line so you kind of wonder why you’re in a band sometimes but it’s a good way to be poor yet still get to travel around, meet people, have fun and play music.” Or as Munro rather eloquently puts it: “We’ve managed to live way better lives than we’ve deserved.”