“Now or Never” — How Tragedy Inspired Preoccupations

The Calgary group formed following the tragic death of a friend.

In 2012, Scott “Monty” Munro and Matt Flegel were playing in their buddy Chad Vangaalen’s band, content to support their project while noodling around on some of their own ideas in their spare time.

There was little urgency to change — they were longtime friends with Vangaalen, a fellow member of Calgary, Alberta’s lively music scene, and their side project could hardly be considered a fully-formed musical project.

Then tragedy struck. And things have not quite been the same since for Munro and Flegel.

On Feb. 21, 2012, Christopher Reimer died in his sleep. Just 26, he had been the guitarist in Flegel’s former band, Women, a dearly-missed post-punk group that broke up under acrimonious circumstances in 2010. Munro and Flegel were planning to incorporate Reimer into their musical endeavor, with the hope that the talented guitarist would be the missing ingredient to their two-person stew of musical notions. With Reimer gone, Flegel and Munro were inspired to act decisively, pledging not to take their time or talent for granted.

“When Chris died, we realized that we had to make moves — it was now or never,” says Munro, whose band, Preoccupations, will play Rickshaw Stop on Monday.

Newly inspired, Munro and Flegel recruited Mike Wallace — a former drummer in Women — and Danny Christiansen to round out their new group. Wallace and Christiansen, who were playing in a Black Sabbath cover band at the time, leapt at the idea, and the foursome branded their new group Viet Cong, a controversial decision that drew much unwanted attention to the band over the years.

After releasing two well-received albums under that moniker, the group wisely opted to rename themselves Preoccupations in 2016. In March, the quartet released their fourth album, New Material, and they are in the midst of a major national and international tour — miles away literally and figuratively from those cold Calgary nights, when Munro and Flegel had little inkling that their group would blossom into a full-time operation.

“I was playing in a bunch of different groups and I quit them all when this project took off,” said Munro, a multi-instrumental maven who plays guitar and synths for Preoccupations. “I knew this group was special.”

For a band firmly planted in the post-punk camp — no one would mistake any contemporary influences in this group —Preoccupations dabble in a surprisingly wide palette of musical offerings, a range that is felt most noticeably on New Material.

“Disarray” is a beautiful new wave piece, featuring shimmering Johnny Marr guitars and mellifluous vocals from Flegel, the group’s vocalist and primary lyricist. Album opener “Espionage” is a rousing call to arms, shifting from metallic industrial elements to breakneck punk pacing, “Manipulation” is a haunting drone piece, and “Compliance” is a claustrophobic shoegaze masterpiece, with every square inch of sound laden with feedback and dissonance.

The new, adventurous approach of the album is the logical next step for the group, whose debut release Cassette, was a scrappy collection of spiky guitars and brooding synths. For each successive album, Preoccupations have built upon their foundation, challenging their comfort limits without abandoning their DNA.

“For this album, I was really trying to play all the parts of all the instruments,” says Munro. “We wanted to really play around in the studio and explore new sounds and new avenues.”

While New Material is the group’s most restless album, it is also their most assured. None of the songs feels half-baked or tokenized, despite the band’s inclination to pursues avenues outside of their normal wheelhouse. The recording is a mature, adventurous, and timely album from a group effortlessly moving into its prime. In short, it is nothing like the half-formed idea that first bloomed years ago in the Canadian hinterlands.

All the pitfalls, controversies and heartbreaks have strengthened the bond of this band—not frayed its fabrics. The four members of the group are undeniably close—their onstage banter and playful group interviews are indicative of a genuine appreciation for each other, and bely the somber material of their albums.

“We are all buddies,” says Munro, who has known Wallace and Flegel since they were teenagers and has a side musical project with Christiansen. “We might freak out on each other occasionally, but there is nothing but love between us.”

Tragedy drove Preoccupations into creation, but as the continually rewarding trajectory of their career has proven, tragedy will not be necessary to sustain them.

Preoccupations with Moaning and Club Night, Monday, May 14, 8 p.m., at Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St. $15; rickshawstop.com

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