The cover of Viet Cong’s eponymous debut couldn’t be more apt: a stark, black and white photo of a caregiver’s nimbler fingers cutting a cast off a patient’s outstretched hand. Bassist and singer Matt Flegel was deeply moved when he first came across the image while flipping through a high school English textbook from the 1950’s. He couldn’t find anything about the photographer, or acquire rights to use the picture, so he decided to recreate it for the cover art of his new band’s first album (which was released to critical acclaim on Jan. 20).
“A lot of the lyrics on this next album are about recovery and convalescence, and that kind of thing. So I thought using that image made sense,” the frontman says, during a recent phone interview with Paste, of the cover art’s relation to the LP’s themes. One reviewer praised the “brittle vulnerability” of not only those lyrics, but also in Flegel’s delivery of them. Indeed, the Calgary bred band’s piercing post-punk rhythms, threaded with melodic hooks, are the sound of Flegel suturing his wounded soul.
But what was the cause of all that heartache? The biggest infliction occurred in February of 2012. At the time, Flegel played in a band called Women. Their sophomore LP, Public Strain, was praised by Pitchfork, Pop Matters, Allmusic and several other outlets. But the band’s prospects quickly changed after guitarist Chris Reimer suddenly passed away one night in his sleep.
“When people die it definitely makes you think, and makes you want to do more while you’re still walking around and breathing,” Flegel says, adding the tragedy helped motivate him to start a band of his own. “I didn’t see the connection at first, I think I just did it as a subconscious thing. I’ve been in bands my whole life and I’ve always written things in the past, but this is the first time that I really put a lot of thought into the words. It’s definitely a soothing thing to do for me. It eases the anxiety, just playing music in general.”
But Flegel is quick to point out that Viet Cong is far from a deeply serious, brooding band. In fact, he realizes that his most cathartic onstage moments probably go unnoticed. “I think when I’m playing live, I feel the individual lyrics get lost in the walls of feedback, and telecasters playing through twin reverbs cranked up to ten.”
In reality, the band has been anything but serious or self-conscious since its formation. After Flegel had some time to grieve Reimer’s passing, he recruited former Women guitarist and drummer Daniel Christiansen and Mike Wallace (respectively) to play in his new band. It wasn’t hard to track them down, because the trio had already committed to playing a gig as a Black Sabbath cover band.
“Mike just booked this gig as a Black Sabbath cover, which was a figment of his imagination. It was for 4/20. I’m not a big partaker, but he certainly is,” Flegel says with a laugh about Wallace’s deranged plans for the annual cannabis holiday. “He booked it, and within a week before the show he threw the band together. Danny and I already knew how to play all of Sabbath’s songs— as a teenager learning to play guitar, that’s just something you know. And honestly that cover band gig was the most fun I’ve ever had playing music, or ever will for that matter. It was extreme nostalgia, it’s wanking off on your guitar, basically, which is something you can’t do in a real band, and be taken seriously. Although we’re trying to incorporate more dual lead guitar solos for our (Viet Cong’s) next record.”
That aforementioned “guitar wanking” is far from the only masturbatory aspect of Viet Cong’s music. During a 2014 interview, Flegel and Scott “Monty” Munro (who handles synths and splits guitar duties with Christiansen) described how the band built a makeshift instrument from a 2×4, strings and a vibrating dildo, in order to create strange new post-punk notes for their 2013 EP Cassette (which was literally titled, considering its release on actual cassette tapes).
When asked if Viet Cong stuck to more serious recording techniques for their full length LP, Flegel responds with mock indignation: “We were serious when we were using the dildo. Don’t think for one minute that we weren’t.” After chuckling, he adds that the instrumentation on the album “Was more straightforward— guitars, synths, keyboards and drums. There might have been some other weird things. But we definitely didn’t use any dildos in that session. Not for recording, at least.”
Aside from the sex toy hijinks, Flegel says Munro can constantly be relied upon for a laugh or a bit of uplift. This was especially true during Viet Cong’s tour this past summer, which was so underfunded that the band members had to snooze in their car’s backseat, or in sleeping bags on the ground, in between gigs.
“Monty is honestly the most positive person I’ve ever met, almost to a determinant sometimes,” Flegel says of Munro with a laugh, adding: “We’ll be half starving on the road, in the back of a fucking car, after a 12 hour drive, and he’s just still pumped. We’ll say ‘Monty, it’s not that great right now.’ But that’s kind of one of the best things about him.”
Flegel says that upbeat attitude is even more indispensable in the studio, especially on songs like the album closer “Death,” which stemmed from him and Munro drinking and playing a riff repeatedly until it “became almost meditative” and inspired the notes for the rest of the song. Flegel adds: “Monty’s just always up for everything. It’s very refreshing to have someone like that. I have so many ideas bouncing around in my mind, and he’s just down for trying everything. We’ll sometimes spend a week trying one little thing, and half the time it doesn’t work out and we scrap it. And he’s fine with that.”
Flegel especially cherishes that camaraderie after his tumultuous days in Women. Before Reimer’s passing, Flegel suffered more emotional trauma during the band’s last performance. That gig took place at the Lucky Bar in Victoria, Canada in 2010. The performance ended prematurely, and lead to the cancellation of their remaining tour dates, after Matt Flegel got into a fight mid-set with the band’s frontman, who also happens to be his brother, Pat Flegel.
“That whole thing was definitely a learning experience. I think most of it was just mental illness coming out at the time, and we didn’t see it, because I didn’t know any better,” Matt says of Pat’s behavior during that infamous gig. He adds: “It had a lot to do with being on the road too long. Our van broke down seven times on that tour, we weren’t sleeping properly, or eating properly. We were probably drinking too much. And all these things coalesced into a breakdown for my brother, mostly. And it was just a trigger for mental illness. It was something we didn’t really know existed in him, and it’s diagnosed now. I definitely know the warning signs now, which is good. If I see that in any of us on these next tours, I’ll stop the tour and book a nice hotel for everyone, and sit under some blankies and eat soup.”
Kidding aside, Matt says he and his brother have mended ties, much like the cast on Viet Cong’s cover. In fact, Pat helped design all of the artwork for Cassette and much of the artwork for the LP. On top of that, Matt says Pat has been very encouraging of the new songs.
“I get good feedback from him, or at least as much as can be expected from him,” Matt says with a chuckle, adding: “Yeah, Pat’s really into Viet Cong’s music. I was happy that he did the art. He lives in Vancouver now, so I stop in to see him every time we play there. I’m always pretty excited to see my bro’. We worked really hard with Women, and spent a good part of three years on the road together, just going for it. I don’t regret that at all.”