It usually takes a newborn infant five to seven months to recognize its own name when called. Although the band Preoccupations is comprised of fully grown Canadian men and not babies, they’ve only gone by that name for about two months now, and one gets the sense that if the barista in this Bushwick coffee shop shouted "Preoccupations" at the top of her lungs, guitarist Scott "Monty" Munro wouldn’t flinch.
Let’s not even discuss what would happen if the barista shouted out the band’s previous name, Viet Cong. The degree to which that handle made people A.) uncomfortable, B.) personally offended, and C.) litigious, ignited a tumultuous process that culminated in the christening of Preoccupations. The e-ink has barely dried on press releases for the name change, and now a band that has existed for years is about to embark on a European tour for tons of fans who have literally just heard of them.
"I think if we would’ve thought about it a little more, we would have picked a different name," says Monty, of the band’s original name.
The guitarist is prodigiously bearded to the point where I couldn’t describe his face shape. He has intense eyes and a disarming lilt to his voice, and seems perfectly at ease talking about the one aspect of his band nobody can seem to stop talking about.
If a band’s name is meant to be evocative of its sound, Viet Cong over-delivered. "Newspaper Spoons," the opening track on the band's no-longer-self-titled LP, is thick with primally pounded drums and sharp feedback, creating an instant atmosphere of doom. It’s a mood maintained through the next song, "Pointless Experience," whose title becomes nihilistic when you realize it’s a reference to life itself. Lighter spots flicker throughout the album as several songs take hairpin turns into harmonic euphoria, but some parts are grim enough to live up to a name like Viet Cong. However, it probably should’ve indeed been a name like Viet Cong and not that specific name—something else that conjures death imagery as effectively as, say, almost any of the song titles on that album, including track seven: "Death."
Many Americans and Canadians hailing from families of Vietnamese refugees were upset that four white dudes were trading off of their historical suffering—either making light of it or culturally appropriating it. These people did not keep their thoughts on the matter quiet either.
"We didn’t really consider the scope of people it was going to affect, which was our bad," Monty says. "We basically just booked a show and were like, ‘Now we need a band name,’ and [drummer Mike] Wallace said that one, and we were like, ‘Oh cool, let’s go with that.’"
The band, which was forged from members of Women and Chad VanGaalen's band, had a fairly non-confrontational first tour. They were also playing to crowds of only 20 or so people, though. As soon as Viet Cong began to attract attention from blogs for its jangly guitars, distortion, and overall vibe, notoriety around the name followed. Hate mail started coming in regularly, to the point where the band even talked about changing its name before the first record came out.
"I don’t know why we didn’t change it at that time," Monty says, his eyes suddenly tired.
The self-titled Viet Cong album came out in January of 2015. Pitchfork gave it an 8.5. Oberlin college students gave it a protest. The band was set to play a show at the school in March of that year, but it was cancelled because of the number of students offended by the name. A festival slot in Australia also fell through around the same time, for a similar reason. As the band toured the album for much of the year, that hostility never waned. They knew they had to change their name, but the issue raised a number of questions, most prominently, to what? and how?
Everybody in the band had different opinions on what to do. Some thought they should wait to announce the change until they had a new name. Others thought they had to finish out their tour, despite the protests. Ultimately, it was listening to protesters that paved the way to disavowing "Viet Cong" and buying time to settle on a new name. After hanging out, post-show, with a group who'd followed the band from Seattle to Portland to protest them, Monty and the others became convinced they could simply announce their intent to change and in the meantime bill themselves as "Formerly Known as Viet Cong."
"We knew we should actually do it, and we were figuring out what the plan was," Monty says. "Then in October we were playing the Polaris Prize in Canada, and shit was going down seriously in Toronto—that was the hotbed in Canada where people were really serious about it—like more serious than almost anywhere in America. So we just put the announcement up that week."
The band was suddenly no longer Viet Cong, but they did not know who they were exactly. What followed was six months of identity-free limbo as the band tried to work out what their name should be; one that would reflect what they felt they were about, one that sounded right, one that wasn't already taken. They texted and emailed a Russian novel's worth of placeholders back and forth. They solicited band name ideas from just about anybody who would listen, even putting up a suggestion box in lieu of a merch table while figuring out the future of their shirts. (They began selling tour shirts with art on it in place of the band name.)
Monty and Matt Flegel read all the Phillip K. Dick they could get their hands on, looking for inspiration. They went through phases of liking Future Crimes, Space Elevators, Inferior Tech, and Particle Decelerator, but none of the names stuck.
"Vidscreens was a contender for a while," Monty says, "But, like, 'Vidscreens' in a Philip K. Dick book is cool, but now everyone just has a smartphone. Like, what everybody thought the future dystopia would look like in the '80s is a lot different from how things are in this dystopia now."
Eventually, a friend of the band, Chad vanGaalen, sent over a huge list of potentials. There were jokey names (Male Pattern Baldness), names that sounded like mid-90s Pixies peers (Floating Acid Baths) and everything in between (Chandelier Hats). One of the names on the list was Preoccupations.
The band's former manager loved Preoccupations right out of the gate, and so did everybody at the label. There was some concern within the band that it was too long and might be difficult to put on a shirt, but overall it was the least objectionable idea yet. It was late March. The nameless band had just finished mastering a new album and a summer tour was imminent. They'd delayed announcing a new name as long as they could. So the band already knew they were under the gun by the time Los Angeles' Fuck Yeah Fest accidentally sent out a poster billing them as Viet Cong.
In the wake of a minor uproar in which Canadian music magazine Exclaim held a running counter on its website showing the number of days since Viet Cong announced it was no longer called Viet Cong, the band settled on Preoccupations.
"Ultimately, we didn’t have anything better," Monty says.
Preoccupations is who the band is now. New merch is on the way. Hate mail has ceased. And the previously self-titled album will eventually be reissued as Preoccupations' Viet Cong. But what's it like to make music for a respected indie outfit in the middle of forsaking its recognizability?
"It was definitely in the back of our minds throughout the recording process that it would be coming out under a different name," Monty says. "I feel like you sort of associate the band name with the sort of vibe of that band, and it was interesting recording not knowing what our name was gonna be. When [bassist Matt] Flegel and I started working on music originally, that's how it was. So it kind of felt like it was back to the beginning in a nice way. We were just like, ‘Oh, we can just do whatever now.’"
A sophomore album is a chance to either refine your sound, expand it, or reinvent yourself completely. For the members of Preoccupations, though, it felt more like making another debut album. And not just because of the name change. This time, the songwriting was more democratic. Monty and Flegel wrote almost all of the band's early material on their own, whereas the new album is a full collaboration. The finished product sounds like a Viet Cong record—atmospheric and creepy, with a swaying grace—but it also sounds like something new. The synths are more pronounced now, almost approaching John Hughes soundtrack material. The band sounds tighter overall. The sound of Preoccupations may be a natural evolution, what Viet Cong's second album would have sounded like. But maybe it's something that could have only been made with the clean slate of fluid identity.
"So, do you feel like you're Preoccupations now?" I ask, as we get up to leave the coffee shop.
"Yeah, I think so," Monty says. "But mostly I’m just relieved not to be Viet Cong."