Post-punk band Viet Cong have had a rocky year, arriving at gigs to find groups of protesters or that the venue has cancelled their appearance due to social media pressure. The name Viet Cong, chosen by the band in a moment of thoughtlessness, has provoked boycotts across the US and Canada, where the band toured last month.
At first, the group brushed the controversy aside, saying that their fans shouldn’t care about the name because they didn’t. Which, of course, is a problem if you’re going to choose a historically charged name for your band; it is the name of a South Vietnamese guerrilla force in the Vietnam War, a bitter 20-year conflict in which more than one million people died.
In March last year Viet Cong were banned from playing in their home country of Canada. In September they planned another North American tour but an online petition, titled “Change your band’s name, and provide more critical thought into whatever it is that you choose”, gathered 2,681 supporters, many of them fans of the band’s music, who couldn’t stomach a name that acts as “a reminder of a history’s worth of violence and trauma to many South East Asian communities”.
In September the band published an open letter saying they would change their name, but as yet they have not announced what the new name is, so protests were ongoing last month. The letter, published on Facebook, said: “We rushed into our last band name decision, we don’t plan to rush into this one, but know that we will be rolling out a new name as soon as we agree upon one.” For now, they are calling themselves “the band formerly known as Viet Cong”.
When I meet them on the European leg of the tour, they are very defensive, about everything, including the name. Lead singer and lyricist Matt Flegel, 32, in particular seems to find being questioned about the band quite an imposition. While Scott Munro, 31, Mike Wallace, 29 and Danny Christiansen, 28, joke around, he sits as far as he can get from me, wedged underneath a staircase, his lanky frame a knot of limbs.
“It was a silly moment,” says Wallace. “We were just hyper, playing around and we just came up with Viet Cong, thought it sounded badass. I wouldn’t normally say this in an interview but we also think we’re really badass.” They all snigger. “We thought it sounded really good, as a band name,” adds Flegel.
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I ask if they have any regrets about making that spur-of-the moment decision, now they’re more widely known. “Yeah, a million regrets”, says Flegel. “I don’t know, we could have called it Holocaust.”
They burst into laughter again. “It just seems that people take things seriously,” Flegel says. “And look into it a bit too hard for a band that doesn’t give a shit and has no political connotations. It sucks.”
In 2014, the group toured the States for seven weeks, supporting fellow Canadian band Freak Heat Waves without anyone commenting on the name. Then again, hardly anyone showed up to watch them play. “There was one [gig] I’m sure in Philadelphia where there were no people,” says Munro, who calls himself Monty. “It was just the bar staff and two other bands, but no audience. We actually looked over to the bar staff and asked if we should stop.”
The tour wasn’t as demoralising as that might sound. The group took it as a chance to practise without the pressure of a crowd and they also got to put their friendship to the test by driving around and sleeping in a Toyota Echo.
“The car tour was just the litmus test to see if there was going to be any volatility in the band,” says Flegel. He and Viet Cong’s drummer, Wallace, were previously in a band called Women that enjoyed cult status on the Canadian rock scene. They broke up during a gig in 2010 when Flegel and his brother Pat got into a fight on stage. To add to the absurdity of the scene, it was Halloween, and the band were in costume. Flegel was dressed as Mr T from Eighties TV series The A-Team, when he announced that this was to be their last gig. So, what went wrong?
“It’s not really anyone’s business,” says Flegel. “He just had a breakdown.”
“It was the end of really, really long tour,” says Wallace. “We’d been on the road for months and sometimes it kicks the shit out of you.”
In 2012, Munro and Flegel were playing in an indie rock band for fellow Calgary singer Chad VanGaalen and began to talk vaguely about forming their own band again. Then later that year their former Women bandmate Chris Reimer died in his sleep, aged 26. Did it galvanise them to form Viet Cong? Munro begins to answer: “Yeah kinda like...,” but Flegel cuts him off, saying: “Not really, though.”
After a pause, Flegel adds: “It feels pretty satisfying to record something and know that’s probably going to be there after you’re dead. There’s some correlation there. I don’t know how conscious our decision was.”
Later on, we talk about how last year Flegel was electrocuted so badly his ears bled. “It was kinda scary,” he says stoically, but it inspired “Silhouettes”, where he describes feeling that it might all be over for him even though its, “much too soon,” for him to die. “I got electrocuted really badly and then I jotted down some notes,” he shrugs. “It’s my secrets,” he says. “I don’t want them to be obvious.”
It’s all there in the band’s self-titled new album anyway, a throbbingly powerful collection of songs with textured synths and unrelenting drum beats. “We’ve definitely improved as musicians, probably not as people,” sums up Flegel.Reuse content