Preoccupations @ Petit Bain, Paris

A story at the interface between Australian cricket and Canadian doom rock.

Yesterday I woke to the mildly interesting news that Indian pace bowler Mohammed Siraj struck an Australian batter, David Warner, on the helmet during a test match in Delhi. Under the game’s like-for-like concussion laws, another left-handed batter, Matt Renshaw, replaced Warner in the team.

As followers of Australian cricket know, this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. A few years ago, star batter and disgraced Test captain Steve Smith copped a blow to the head, too, during a test match against England, bringing Marnus Labuschagne into the team.

These two personnel changes had more or less dramatic effects: Labuschange has since gone on to become one of Australia’s most successful batters; while Warner’s absence from the team playing India in Delhi allowed Travis Head, the so-called Bogan Bradman, to open the batting with a modicum of success.

Today I woke up to the no-less-interesting but slightly depressing news that the Australian team had, despite yesterday’s final-session heroics by Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne, capitulated and lost the test match against India, with two days still left to play.

Cool story, right?

Between yesterday morning and today

But that’s not why I’m writing this. Because something else happened last night. I went to see a live band for the first time since our move to Paris in June last year. Yes, a band! In a live music venue! With live music!

Online advertisement for the Preoccupations gig at Petit Bain, which must have been produced and circulated before the emergency recruitment of Patrick Flegel to cover for his brother and his broken hand.

The band was Preoccupations, hailing from Calgary, the snow-bound capital of Canada’s Alberta Province. A band formerly known as Viet Cong, built from the remnants of two other Calgary bands: Lab Coast and Women. A band I’d tried but failed to see once before.

I had a history with this band. Only they didn’t know it. O-or, did they?

Who are they?

Preoccupations are an odd beast, musically: equal parts Joy Division, Gang of Four and Gary Numan. I’d describe them as doom rock, although using a word like ‘doom’ carries metal connotations I have no desire to attribute to this particular group of fellows. Maybe doom rock meets melodic robotic.

Wikipedia opts for post-punk. So, mkai.

Well, as it turns out, Preoccupations had also had some recent personnel changes. Personnel changes that carried deep significance for them and for me. But this is not the story of the interface between Australian cricket and Canadian doom rock. Sure, there are connections. It’s just that they’re not as obvious as you’d think.

Take a listen to some of their music and decide for yourself.

The story goes that, prior to the start of this European tour, just weeks ago, lead singer and bassist Matt Flegel “took an epic bail in an epic blizzard on Saturday night in Montreal” (according to the band’s sometimes hilarious and deep-emojied Facebook page). The fall left Flegel’s hand “swollen, bruised and totally gnarly”. AKA out of action.

Rather than cancel the tour, the band flew over Flegel’s brother, Patrick, to handle bass duties, with “no rehearsals apart from an unplugged hotel room sesh the day of” the first gig of the tour, on 1 February in Rotterdam. Which the band duly “slayed”. Clumsily doctored pics of the now-famous-five-piece chugging champagne confirmed the slayage.

Left to right: Preoccupations’ 2023 European tour lineup: Pat Flegel (stand-in bassist), Daniel Christiansen (guitar), Mike Wallace (drums), Scott Munro (guitar, synth) and Matt Flegel (vocals). Note Matt Flegel’s bandaged left hand slightly obscured by Munro’s hobbit-sized, Photoshopped body. Photo courtesy of the band’s Facebook page.

But there was more to this personnel change than some kind of brotherly helping hand (no pun intended). Because the backstory of the brothers Flegel (which the band’s social media channels refer to as “the Flegacy”) is the stuff of Netflix series requests. And Preoccupations wouldn’t even have existed if their former band hadn’t broken up.

Between Women and Preoccupations

The four members of Women, a Calgary-based indie-rock band, were in fact all men (or at least people who presented as men at the time): Matt and Patrick Flegel (on bass/vocals and lead guitar/vocals, respectively), drummer Mike Wallace (spoiler alert: he’s also now in Preoccupations) and guitarist Christopher Reimer.

The band released its clipped, abrasive self-titled debut on Canadian label Jagjaguwar (run by Chad van Gaalen) in 2008, while their second and final album, the grim Public Strain, appeared in 2010.

The cover of Women’s eponymous debut LP (2008).

In a neat piece of serendipity, I saw Women live at Paradiso the halfway point between the band’s two LPs (no singles or EPs for this bunch), in Amsterdam in May 2009 in the iconic Paradiso venue. They were supporting US ambient punk band Deerhunter, and there were not many people in the crowd at that point.

K and I had decided to get there early, however, and I’m still glad we did. Women absolutely nailed it that night, due in equal parts part to Mike Wallace’s inspired drumming and the band’s signature angular, scrawly compositions.

I’m actually stunned that, despite my firm belief K and I were the only people in Paradiso to see Women play their set supporting Deerhunter, someone else had the presience to record a portion of their set and upload it to YouTube! It’s like having access to your physical memory hard-drive: even if it’s only around one minute, that’s 60 seconds I never thought I’d get back. Oh and there’s another minute here, too.

As Women concluded their set courtesy of an absolutely shredding tattoo of drum fills from Wallace and white noise from the rest of the group, I realised that there probably wasn’t much point hanging around for Deerhunter. I’d already seen the band I wanted to see.

Then again, we’d paid good money to see Bradford Cox’s weirdo crew, so we did end up hang around. However, while we’d been almost alone in the Paradiso’s cavernous space for Women’s set, by the time Deerhunter came on we’d been pushed to the back of the hall.

Deerhunter did turn out to be rather flat that night. But the joy of discovery that came from witnessing Women tearing the indie world a new one during a set no-one else even watched remains with me still. Even setlist FM is silent!

The break-up

Anyway, that was 2009. In October 2010 Women broke up after a show in Victoria, British Columbia. The band’s Wikipedia page alludes to a fight between band members but it was really the brothers Flegel whose altercation preceded the break up.

When did Wiki links become authoritative, by the way? As Matt Flegel admitted somewhat drily during the recording of a BBC radio session in 2015: “I always take everything I read on Wikipedia as the ultimate truth.”

Flegel also gave us one version of the story of the “dust-up”:

I don’t know if it was a dust-up, I don’t know what a dust-up really means but there were a couple of punches thrown from my brother [Patrick], who’s a very skinny man. He wasn’t throwing KOs or anything like that. It was kind of just the culmination of a ridiculous touring schedule and not really noticing that he wasn’t taking very good care of himself, and kind of losing it, and in hindsight I know that we probably should have just called off the rest of the tour, given him a nice bed to sleep in made sure he ate some soup and took care of himself, but that was about it.

Matt Flegel, Viet Cong BBC 6 Radio session (2015?)

In any case, Women broke up. But a short time later an even more tragic event occurred: the band’s guitarist Chris Reimer died in his sleep on 21 February 2012. And then at some point after that, Matt Flegel and Mike Wallace formed a new band, and hence Viet Cong, and Preoccupations, were born.

Patrick Flegel, meanwhile, has since released a number of albums under the name of Cindy Lee. In 2020, Flegel offered context towards a more nuanced version of the band’s breakup in an interview with an online zine:

To play music and tour like I did when I was younger, we’d do an album cycle, I didn’t even really know what that was at the time… I didn’t enjoy it at all – I had some good times – but the lifestyle of playing 150 to 200 live shows in a year and not making anything new, doesn’t appeal to me at all [laughs].

Patrick Flegel, interview with Gimme Zine (2020)

How I missed seeing Preoccupations in Toronto

Five years ago, I travelled to Toronto, Canada, to attend a conference: the Creative Commons summit, in fact. Nice city, kind of cold. Coincidentally, Preoccupations, a band whose trajectory I had followed for some time, were also playing in Toronto during my time there, so I decided to go see them.

Now, the story of how I missed that gig, despite having bought a ticket and unintentionally catching their pre-gig soundcheck, has preoccupied me (see what I did there?) ever since. It still feels like unfinished business, for reasons that may not be that obvious, but I blame the “snow event” that descended on the city:

By the time I stumbled out of the lakeside bar it was approaching 11pm. I skated, once again, through that merciless slick stain of freezing sludge. Back to the Horseshoe Tavern. Only to find that Preoccupations had finished their set 15 minutes before I arrived.

Of course, I hadn’t actually travelled halfway around the world to see Preoccupations. The flight from Copenhagen to Toronto was only eight hours in total, and I’d spent most of it drinking Canadian Club Ginger Ale and watching episodes of Kim’s Convenience (before it became not so cool to watch).

And, to be perfectly honest, I’d travelled to Canada to attend a conference, not watch an obscure band play in a dingy pub. Then again, I also hadn’t travelled to Toronto to experience a “snow event” but that did indeed happen, too. So, you know. Poetic license, it’s a thing.

Arriving at Le Petit Bain, Paris

Petit Bain [Little Bath], a barge moored on the left bank of the river Seine in Paris, on a summer day. I visited in February, so just like this but in pitch-black, ice-cold conditions.

Last night, finally, I put this particular obsession of mine to bed, travelling from the outskirts of Paris to Petit Bain, a venue housed in a barge on the river Seine in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, at the un-rock-like starting time of 20:45.

But somehow, despite the dad-friendly scheduling, I still managed to miss the first three songs of their set. I have a tendency to do this, which is annoying: most bands start out with their killer songs, leaving me to enter to filler. It happened when I saw La Luz in Stockholm, an I ended up missing the only song of theirs I’ve ever wanted to hear played live.

In the case of Preoccupations, who only played 13 songs in total last night, you do the math on how much concert time I got to actually experience. I only missed three new songs: “Fix Bayonets”, “Ricochet” and “Death of Melody”. In fact, I only realised later that they played the entirety of 2022’s Arrangements in track order.

This was a bit of a letdown to be honest, given that the band’s first two full-length releases – 2016’s brooding self-titled “debut” and 2018’s superb New Material – contain far stronger songwriting. Pity we only got two songs from that whole era last night: “Disarray” and “Memory” (although, if we’re being technical, “Memory” is an epic triptych). No “Anxiety”, no nothing.

The inclusion of four standout tracks from the 2015 Viet Cong self-titled album was nice, though: ending the night with “March of Progress” was definitely one for the trainspotters. The set hovered around the 100 decibel mark for its entirety and was as unrelenting and ferocious as I had hoped it would be, all those years ago.

The Flegacy

Maybe the most moving part of the whole night, at least from where I was standing at the back of the crowd in that barge on the Seine, was seeing the interplay between the Flegel brothers on stage. There’s something kind of biblical about siblings, once estranged, now reunited under trying circumstances.

But it was also slightly disconcerting to see a singer gesturing with a bandaged hand that you somehow knew was instinctively playing an imaginary instrument, a singer barely looking at anyone, almost affectless. By contrast, his brother, the stand-in bassist, turned away, picked out melodic lines and held his head high, chewing obsessively on gum.

Patrick Flegel (left) of Preoccupations and his brother Matt (playing bass), who temporarily joined the band on its most recent European tour. Photograph by @der.fotoautomat via Instagram.

There were a lot of beer cans thrown from the stage, to be honest. I guess that’s partly because the music Preoccupations play is more akin to a set of physical workouts than a pure listening experience. I’d hazard a guess that a cold beer after just one song would have tasted incredible. Thirteen songs, in this context, was an absolute marathon session.

Just post-Preoccupations things

After the gig, hoping to catch a glimpse of the band, I hung around in the venue while the majority of the punters queued for the cloakroom (I’d left my coat there, too, but lost my ticket, meaning I needed to wait anyway).

The vigilant security team kyboshed any hope I might have had for a souvenir set list or plectrum, closing off access to the main stage area within about 10 minutes of the abrupt end to the set (marked by the instant switch to house PA).

In the end, I left the band room and trudged up the metal steps to dry land. Then I saw Preoccupations’ drummer and a few other guys outside the backstage area, smoking cigarettes and staring at the screen of a smartphone.

It was too late for me to go back. What would I have said to him, anyway? Well, perhaps I would have started by telling him I remembered seeing him in Amsterdam, more than 10 years ago, when he played in Preoccupations’ precursor, Women.

But the story of why making that observation was (and probably still is) so important to me would take a long time to tell, and might not end up meaning anything to anybody else expect me. Then again, who ever really knows?

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