Our recurring new music feature, Track by Track, sees an artist breaking down each and every song on their latest record.
On the last lyrics on the band’s third album, New Material, Preoccupations lead singer Matt Flegel snarls over and over again, “And we can’t help ourselves.” Sure, he describes the album as an “ode to depression” and some of the songs deal with the inevitability of death and the possibility of nuclear holocaust, but there’s a chance that the line actually means something else – the post-punk band’s obsession with tinkering in the studio.
Several times throughout our lengthy, beer-fueled conversation in Flegel’s quaint, new apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, multi-instrumentalist Scott “Monty” Munro seemed like he was speaking a different language. He talked at lengths about the various gadgets he used to create the band’s behemoth of a new record, their first since 2016’s self-titled effort. Recorded entirely by Munro, New Material was built on a steady diet of psychedelics, very late nights, sci-fi movies on mute, and lots of beer. There was also constant travel, as the band recorded in a 100-year-old schoolhouse in a small town in British Columbia, an Airbnb in Los Angeles, a hotel room in Rosarito, Mexico, a cabin in Montana, and Arcade Fire member Richard Reed Perry’s Montreal studio.
But throughout all of those intoxicated middle of the night recording sessions, the band maintained their constant mission to experiment. “My perfect goal for a record would be to have something that you know is rock music but you can’t tell what any of the instruments are,” Monty explains. Multiple times throughout our interview, I mistook guitars for synths and vice verse, which only goes to show Monty largely succeeded in his goal.
With the debate over their former band name finally in the rear-view mirror, the Canadian band was more than happy to explain the influences and stories behind each of New Material’s eight tracks, a bleak – but occasionally beautiful – listen. Find their Track by Track breakdown below.
Scott “Monty” Munro: I think this was the first one we did. We recorded it in a lot of different pieces. All of the drums in that whole intro, [drummer Mike] Wallace did in one take and I processed the Christ out of them a month later. We recorded the drums that day having no idea that’s how they were going to sound later. We didn’t even get to the sound until we got to Ymer, BC for the second session. For a month, we had just the raw drums and the bass.
MF: Once we got that initial sound, we kind of knew that was going to be the first song on the record. It definitely has a first song vibe. That was one of the first ones we finished and one of the first ones I ended up finishing vocals on, which I usually save until the very, very last second. It’s also one of the most punked out songs, I feel like.
SMM: That one also was when Justin [Meldel-Johnson (M83, Wolf Alice)] approached us about mixing the record. That was the track that was done at the time, so that’s the one that he did the test mix for, which was essentially the mix on the record. They did a few tweaks to it, but the test mix came back pretty much how it is on the record and that’s what led us to deciding to get him to mix the record after that. Plus, starting with rad, weird-sounding drums is a good way to start a record.
SMM: No guitars on that song. It’s actually all synth. There’s a sample of Matt playing guitar though.
MF: Here’s the thing: I wrote the guitar parts and we were like, “Let’s do it on synth, but it’s too fast to play on synth, so we’ll slow shit down and then play along with the slowed down thing and then speed it up,” which we did. When we sped it back up, it ended up sounding like guitar anyways. It was a very convoluted way to get to that.
SMM: That was the last song that we did for the record. Also, that one is almost entirely loops. The keyboards and stuff are all played over the top of it, but the rhythm track is just a loop I think for the whole song.
MF: I’m playing some congas on that song! That was a last minute vocal one too. I was kind of scrambling to finalize all of the lyrics and we tried to record some shit when we were in Mexico in a hotel room.
SMM: We used the choruses from the Mexico hotel room. Me, [guitarist] Danny [Christianson] and Flegel were like, “We’re going to finish this song today,” and then we went out and got a giant thing of margarita mix and two bottles of tequila and were just in our hotel room at a resort in Mexico. We just drank all of the tequila.
MF: On the halftime breakdown, we were trying to ape Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”. I just wanted the bridge to be very Bronski Beat. It’s one of my favorite songs ever. It’s the highest I can sing too, which isn’t very high. When I wrote the melodies, I very much was thinking about the David Byrne/Brian Eno shit, the major key harmonies over minor stuff. We’ve always got something in mind that we’re trying to create. We might get there in a different way so it ends up sounding like us, but we’re definitely looking to that kind of shit for inspiration.
MF: The New Order fist pump chorus!
SMM: The bass and drums on that song is a live take to tape, which is the only one on the record that’s like that.
MF: I had a guitar riff that sounded like OMD or something for so long. That one took awhile to break down to the basics.
SMM: We did a full other version of that song when we were in Montana that was fully electronic.
MF: We decided in the end that it was better as just a bass line with some pumping drums. I couldn’t figure out what else it needed and then finally, one night, we had a breakthrough at the studio [in Montreal]. I just picked up a guitar, played that riff – I didn’t put any thought into it at all – and it just kind of came out. That song ended up being the most stripped down of all. Again, lyrics were last minute. That vocal take was almost a scratch vocal take that I did in the studio in Montreal that no one had heard. You can kind of tell that I’m alone in the studio messing around with weird vulnerability in my voice. I was scared it was going to sound too weak, but I liked the way it sounded. The lyrics are bleak, but in my mind, they’re the most positive ones on the record. It made me feel good, which for the rest of them, not necessarily. Those lyrics for me were kind of cathartic and made me feel good by the end of it. That’s our version of positive, a song called “Disarray.” [laughs]
MF: We had the concept of doing these uncomfortable swells. It ended up relating to the lyrics in that one pretty well. That was kind of a full band effort more than any of the other ones.
SMM: We kind of got the loop going and talked about what we wanted to do, but then threw on a couple of sci-fi movies on silent on the TVs in that house and Wallace just jammed along to those loops for a long time and I just recorded it all. We went back in and built the drum part out of the jam. We were trying to get the Iggy Pop “Mass Production” bass sound and I think we did OK.
MF: Everyone’s always asking about the, “Please don’t remember me like I’ll always remember you” shit and everyone wants to know what that means, but I’m not going to tell anyone. I don’t know [if I like talking about lyrics]. You’re laying yourself bare in front of everyone – you’re throwing your diary out into the world for everyone to read, but it’s fine. This one especially was fairly personal, I guess. I had to write out all of the lyrics and I was like, “ooh” – I didn’t realize how bleak it was. I tend to always go in that direction with writing anyways, which is getting all of the terrible feelings out of me so I can remain happy and able to laugh. It’s my outlet for stuff like that.
SMM: That song was just bass and drums until the day before it got mixed. We were trying to rip off Health and Efficiency [by This Heat], but then we just never did really.
MF: One of their songs ends in this drum loop and it builds off of this loop – that’s kind of what we were drawing from.
SMM: I had my friend’s sampler and Flegel had a bunch of recordings of him and me just drunkenly jamming on these pianos. We made a bunch of samples and that’s pretty much all the stuff at the end.
MF: Those drums, you processed the shit out of. We realized as a loop, you could kind of tighten it up in a weird way and give it this weird swing that’s really hard to do live – it’s not quite in time. These guys were on mushrooms just fucking around. That rhythm has been kicking around for a while.
SMM: [At the very end], that’s just a voice memo that Flegel had of Danny jamming on synth when we were in Montana. We were in LA trying to finish this song and we were going through both of all of our voice memos to see what we had for sounds. I’ve always liked records where the fidelities are quite different are patched together out of a bunch of recordings. I always like it when it’s a little different, like digging through voice memos. I often make samples out of field recordings that I have because then you can manipulate it into something.
MF: Things that people think are guitars are synths. We get this weird satisfaction when we’ve done something in a completely ridiculous, convoluted way that we wouldn’t get if we just plugged a guitar into an amp and threw a microphone on it. It keeps it fun.
MF: This one came out of nowhere, honestly. It was the quickest we’ve written and recorded a song out of any of the rest of the songs on this. Which is funny because it’s the one that sounds like it’s the most technically complicated one, but it was definitely the fastest. We did that in a couple of days.
SMM: That one was a bit of a blur – we did that whole song in like maybe two days. Matt wrote that really technical guitar part at the beginning one day and then I split it up into two guitar parts and played it. That lead guitar part, I’ve had that kicking around for like eight years. I’ve had that riff for a fucking long time.
MF: The song’s about nuclear holocaust, just a little positive song. [laughs] There are similar vibes on “Solace” and “Decompose”. “Solace” is about the inevitability of death and finding someone you can enjoy that with while you can. That’s where the solace comes from. It’s uplifting I think.
Photo by Pooneh Ghana
SMM: This is a goth jammer. This song is sort of interesting from a production standpoint because when we were in Montana, Flegel came up with that drumbeat and the rough chord progression and then I programmed the drums and just ran them through an amp. Me, Matt, and Danny jammed on the thing on three keyboards live for like 15 minutes. We just cut it down and that’s the song.
MF: That’s us live in a room.
SMM: I did two takes when I was drunk in the studio by myself late at night in Montreal where I just listened to my keyboard part and tried to jam along to it and then listened to Danny’s keyboard part and tried to jam along to that, but those are blended in the back of it. It’s literally just us jamming along to a drum machine. We did the vocals right at the end in the Airbnb in LA.
MF: I was completely sick with a head cold and it was the last one we did vocals for. It’s absolutely the slowest song on the record. Sometimes, you’ve got to grind shit down to a dirge I think. It also wasn’t somewhere where we’d gone with the other songs and I kind of liked that arc.
SMM: I feel like it’s kind of like a tip of the hat to ’80s and ’90s goth shit, which is music that we all love. It’s definitely just Danny, Matt, and I just drunk in Montana jamming late at night. Danny played some really nice stuff there that sounds nothing like keyboards – I don’t know what the fuck he was doing.
MF: I like ending it on that note without any words. I also feel like as far as the lyrics go, they’re very weighty on this record and very lengthy. I really liked the idea of stripping everything down to two fucking chords and that’s it.
SMM: In Richie’s studio, he had this VCS3, the Eno synth. I knew that I was going to use it on the record at some point, I just didn’t know what for; it was one of those pieces of gear where you knew it was going to make its way on there somehow. Anytime there was a lull when we were working on whatever, we’d just dick around on the VCS for a minute. I really overdid it on purpose – there are maybe 15 or 20 tracks of VCS on there and probably 30 or 40 tracks of guitar and bass. All of the keyboards are back and forth.
MF: There’s just so many layers of noise that you sort of start hearing things. We’re not playing any lines at any given point at all. It’s one note of shit, but it’s sound playing with your ears.