The live performances of Preoccupations, the four-piece post-punk band from Calgary, are captivating for several reasons. There is the brooding presence of bassist and lead singer Matt Flegel, the tetchy, kinetic energy of guitarist Danny Christiansen, and the tinkering virtuosity of multi-instrumentalist Scott “Monty” Munro.
But the real action happens in the back.
That is the domain of drummer Mike Wallace, a manic machine of flailing limbs and boundless dynamism. With his shirt off and his bright blond hair thrashing about, Wallace is a captivating presence whose frenzied and relentless approach to the drums provides each gig with that thrilling sense of uncertainty. While it always looks like he’s about to fly off the handle and lose control, he never fails to be the anchor for the group’s captivating setup.
“I always tell myself that I need to chill out and be more calm, focus on my breathing and just relax a little,” says Wallace, whose group plays with Protomartyr at the Independent on Tuesday, Dec. 18. “Then I get, like, two-to-four bars into a set, and I just want to put everything into it. It’s too much fun. Not trying to embrace that would be a crime.”
Wallace brings that same restless zeal to his life beyond music. As a high school student, Wallace hitchhiked up and down the west coast of Canada, eager to explore the beautiful environs of his home country. At 19, he decamped to India, where he lived with Pandit Samar Saha, a famed tabla drummer.
“I would usually spend the first hour of every day just casually sitting beside this amazing musician,” Wallace says. “I would have tea and read the paper and just kind of hang out. It was the most humbling experience to have that opportunity, and that will live with me forever.”
Despite witnessing abject poverty, India captivated Wallace, and his experience there fueled his desire to see the world. From his colorful social media postings, Wallace remains a dedicated traveler, often ending up in exotic locales across Southeast Asia.
Those adventures have not come without their pitfalls. As one might expect from a fearless — or perhaps impulsive? — global wanderer, Wallace has found himself in a tight situation or two. In 2016, Wallace published an article in Consequence of Sound, detailing the five times he “almost died,” a compendium that included a brutal foray into amateur fighting, a near-fatal spider bite, and getting drugged (and possibly kidnapped) in Thailand.
Wallace says he added to that list of close encounters during a recent stay in Bali. After a day of surfing, he attempted to ride home on his motorbike. But a mishap in the mud led to him smashing his big toe on the bike, essentially cleaving his toenail off.
“I ended up in a clinic with one guy holding my leg down, the doctor pulling my toenail off, and another guy videotaping the whole thing,” says Wallace. “I basically paid $125 for a form of medieval torture.”
While he still has the nomadic itch, Wallace is mostly confined to Toronto these days (when he’s not touring or recording with Preoccupations). In his adopted hometown, Wallace usually spends his time chatting with Patrick Flegel, former lead singer of the post-rock group Women. Comprised of the Flegel brothers — Matt on bass and Patrick on lead vocals — Wallace on drums and Christopher Reimer on guitar, Women infamously disbanded after an on-stage melee during a 2010 show. Reimer died tragically in 2012, and Wallace said there is absolutely no hope that Women will ever reform for any sort of “cheesy” reunion tour.
Following the dissolution of Women, Wallace spent time in New York, playing in a series of unfulfilling projects that left him pining for Calgary, to which he eventually returned. Back home, he connected again with his longtime friends Flegel, Munro, and Christiansen for a recording project that eventually evolved into Viet Cong, a name that generated a great deal of pushback (and some cancelled gigs).
The band officially debuted in 2012 with no expectations for success, but following the positive response to their debut EP, Cassette, the quartet steadily moved upward, buoyed by strong critical acclaim and a burgeoning fanbase. Their self-titled debut album as Viet Cong landed on numerous best-of lists for 2015, and their two albums as Preoccupations (2016’s Preoccupations and this year’s New Material) have been received warmly by fans and critics alike.
Although the group initially made their name by specializing in uncompromisingly bleak post-punk tunes, they have since broadened their horizons to include warmer, more synth-based new-wave recordings. While Flegel and Munro compose the songs together and Christiansen provides the guitar histrionics, Wallace is the foundation of the group, with his versatile drumming prowess allowing the group to explore their myriad sounds.
His playing can be cavernous and booming, like on his death-march intro to “Newspaper Spoons,” but he can also pull back the reins and render soft, mutable rhythms as he does on the elegy “Forbidden.” On tracks such as “Disarray,” he does his best Fab Moretti impression, effortlessly recreating the synthetic sounds of a drum machine, but on the 11-minute epic “Death,” he is all raw human emotion, attacking the kit with a desperate energy.
“We all give ourselves a lot of freedom to explore,” says Wallace. “We all listen to such different music, and all have different influences and ideas. We have no desire to stay the same — there is no point to it. If I was playing the same songs in the same styles in the same cities every tour, I’d lose my fucking mind.”
That willingness to take risks is clearly an endemic personality trait for Wallace, and just like his penchant for wandering the world has placed him in some sticky situations, so too has his predilection for unpredictable onstage capers. During one memorable performance, he cracked his wrist on his drum kit, forcing him to play with just one hand (aided by some other drummers) for a marathon six-show session at South by Southwest in 2015. Despite his on-the-edge theatrics, Wallace insists he is making strides in his quest for more self-control.
“I remember when I was a teenager, it was really hard for me to just sit for like a full set,” Wallace says. “I would bail out, mid-song all the time. People would look back, and be like, ‘Where the fuck is the drummer?’ and I’d be sprawled out on the floor. Well, I don’t do that anymore, so I must be getting better. Maybe by the time I turn 50, I’ll be able to make it through a whole show without anything happening.”
Preoccupations with Protomartyr, Tuesday, Dec. 18, at the Independent, 628 Divisadero St. $17-$20; theindependentsf.com