Photograph by Lindsey Baker
Interview by Ian King
Opening with the sound of tape running in a silent room, a muted chord scratch and an echoing hushed vocal kicked off the half-hour kaleidoscopic grey-scale rush of Womenâs 2008 self-titled debut. By contrast, when you press âplayâ on Public Strain, their new follow-up album, youâre immediately dropped into a cacophony of reverb and feedback, before a pulsing bass note drops anchor on the sonic swell of âCanât You See.â The effect is like walking into a small club after a band has started their set â youâre thrust in, caught off guard after sitting at the bar too long, and a little disoriented.
Nascent as real band unit when Women dropped, the diverse array of songs on that record suggested that they could go forward in any number of directions. It posed a question that Public Strain confidently answers. The debutâs joy-of-discovery schizophrenia has been swapped for a more-assured exploration of textural nuance, and the pursuit of an uneasy balance between melody and dissonance. Whatâs perhaps most striking about Public Strain is the way it will bury a sugary melody in static noise, or turn calm right when it seems like mounting tension is about to break. To call it the sound of Swell Maps and Wire playing at a Beach Boys cover night in the middle of winter on the Canadian prairie would be a start, but still doesnât quite hit the mark.
Writing bits and pieces of the new songs during moments of downtime while working graveyard shift at his job, the odd nocturnal hours that singer/guitarist Patrick Flegel kept at the time put him in an edgy, altered state of mind as they recorded Public Strain over the course of ten months with Chad VanGaalen, a musician, illustrator, and all around renaissance man, also hailing from the bandâs hometown of Calgary, Alberta. I spoke with Patrick through a patchy cell phone connection and recorder malfunctions in a noisy lobby in small-town Vermont, while thunderstorms and sirens drifted by on his end of the line â fitting enough for a band thatâs no stranger to using the obscuring power of noise in their music.
LINE: In a previous interview youâve mentioned having short attention spans in reference to the first albumâs brevity. One thing thatâs striking about the new one is how much longer it is. Do you guys have longer attention spans now? How much of that was intentional?
Patrick: I donât think it was intentional. People said the first one was fractured and fragmented, and unfocused, which I donât think is necessarily a bad thing. I like to listen to something and have it take turns and do things I donât expect. Part of it, too, was that we werenât really even a band when we recorded the first recordâŚIt definitely wasnât on purpose. We donât really know what weâre doing – in a way, we take it very seriously, in another way we donât take ourselves seriously at all, so sometimes that can put a wrench in the process.
LINE: How many songs did you have going in to the studio?
Patrick: Thatâs a good question. Some of them we wrote along the way and tracked haphazardly, and others are really old, like âEyesoreâ for exampleâŚ[thunder crashes in the background]âŚJesus. Did you hear that?
LINE: Yeah, what is that?
Patrick: Itâs pissing rain, and crazy thunder, butâŚ yeah, the original demo of that song is four years old. Or âVenice Lockjawâ; I wrote that one we were on a tour break, and I was living people, so it was very hushed, and I think thatâs why that song ended up being so simple and spare. Other songs, like âChina Steps,â we wrote piece-by-piece as we recorded it.
LINE: What was the aesthetic going in to the studio again and working with Chad. Was there a plan?
Patrick: Yeah, for sure. We thought we had figured it out and that we knew how we were going to do it and [Sirens go by in background] improve on all the mistakes we made last time. As far as having it be slow, not just hitting the walls or being frustratedâŚbut then it actually ended up being way more of a disaster than last time.
LINE: What were some of the disasters?
Patrick: Oh, never being prepared enough. Not really knowing what we wantedâŚalmost having a better idea of what we didnât like. Iâm pretty bad for that. Iâll take something apart, and then Iâll hate it one day, and then love it the next, and then hate it, and then Iâll love it again.
Something that was nice about being able take so much time with this album and working with someone whoâs as patient as ChadâŚheâs an animator, so I donât know how many frames per second he does, but itâs very demanding and requires a lot of patience, so when youâre recording itâs a dream because there isnât a lot of heavy sighing. Or you could be like, âhey, letâs try this!â, and, with Chad, heâs up for anything. Even if I know itâs something he wouldnât do in a lot of situations, like, âoh, so you guys want it to sound like shit,â heâll say itâs going to sound like shit, but heâll still do it, and we really appreciate it, and it says a lot about Chad that he even finished it.
LINE: Did you end up with different versions of different songs and then comparing to see which way you liked them?
Patrick: I think happened with one song, where we changed the key. Iâm not really a singer, so I never thought about âoh, hey, maybe this is in the wrong range.â
LINE: So singing and lyrics maybe take a back seat to the music? Where do you put them in terms of the process?
Patrick: Thatâs one thing we wouldnât say, that we have a message, or that weâre trying to blow peopleâs minds with lofty ideas or anything like that. Thatâs just a separate strain.
LINE: Youâre not the new Rage Against The Machine?
Patrick: No. I wish we were, butâŚ I donât really have some huge agenda and I think up lyrics that can be pretty cryptic, and itâs just kind of whatever I write down.
We all pitch in. I usually have a skeleton and then Iâll bring it in, and usually if theyâre recording the songâŚweâll rush through the lyrics and everyone will pitch in, or just change a word here or there.
LINE: What do the songs usually end up being about? Do you ever go back and read over the lyrics and find any consistent themes?
Patrick: I do feel like they can be pretty symbolicâŚvery fractured and strung together. Iâll patch something together that makes sense to me, and then other people will chip in, like Matt will have a completely different take on it, so my lines will be punctuated by other peopleâs, and it puts a weird spin on it. You definitely get in a rut when youâre writing, so itâs nice when everyone chips in and gives it another dimension.
LINE: When you think of your favorite bands, are they usually âmusic first, message and lyrics secondâ?
Patrick: Yeah, typically. And I also like it when people leave a lot of things to the imagination. I donât like it when things are really spelled out for me. Iâll listen to other music, like Neil Young, where itâs right up front and that is an important part of it, and I do enjoy lyrics and I try to make it something Iâm happy with.
LINE: So you said earlier you were already thinking of the next record?
Patrick: Some of the other things weâre working on are more upbeat, quicker tempos. Thereâs a cruising drum machine song. Some drum machines, some strings coming and going. And then janglesâŚyou know, some more jangles.
LINE: Maybe trying to see exactly how far down the hall you can record?
Patrick: Yeah, everyone keeps saying that: âHow far in the hall are you going to go??â