Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes, Swan Lake) Talks Viet Cong’s Cassette

What does it mean when a band from a conservative Canadian town names itself after Southeast Asian Communist rebels from the '60s?

When you turn your back and look away and burrow deep down into yourself, sometimes not only into yourself but also geographically working under the earth’s crust, in subterranean chambers, you set certain preconditions and parameters; the first being that you must not give a shit about what’s going on turf-side, blotting out the transmissions of trends and culture, often exploring or honoring the forgotten cul-de-sacs of other great burrowers, because in doing so you lay down the possibility that some future burrower might in turn honor you, for you work as if this is the only recognition worth hoping for . It is when you do this that you create the possibility of creating something that is worth bringing out of the depths, something still mired in the magma of I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuck, but also something worth presenting.


Viet Cong: Cassette.

Three words. It’s all I have to work with: no lyric sheet, no metaphorical title that alludes to explored themes in said work, the title referring merely to the object itself, a tour-only cassette that the band self-recorded, now in general release.

Words represent our exuberance and our desire to be understood and also acknowledged.

Is it possible that these three words express the opposite of the desire to be understood and acknowledged?

Viet Cong is a band from Calgary, Alberta.

What could be more opposite from Calgary, Alberta, aka “Cowtown,” known for its tight-fisted oil money and its reactionary heartland politics and the poet Christian Bok, and also a small cesspool of interesting-to-me alt-scum who play in each other’s bands and are represented by a good record label called Flemish Eye? What could be further from this city than the name Viet Cong and all that it romantically represents: post-colonial resistance, armed and violent communism, the jungle…?

“The East” (formerly known as “The French Orient”).

Calgary must be geographically identified as the absolute nadir of all of these descriptors. If it could, it would pave the world’s forests and jungles and construct in their deforested and pipelined wakes clusters of Dallas-glassed 20-story gas stations. We pick up on that, right: the band Viet Cong from Calgary, Alberta. That’s like the phrase “jumbo shrimp,” oxymoronic opposites conjoined to create both interest and tension.

It’s a great banner for a marquee: Viet Cong (Calgary, Alberta).

The name, I think, is worth some words because it’s gutsy and sets up listeners with the expectation and hope that the music will be the same kind of brave: not givin’ a shit, but also givin’ a shit enough to deserve your attention. Because the music itself is brave, intelligent, defiant, complex, melodic, cruddy, crusty, startlingly ugly and, paradoxically, elegant: all the things that Calgary, or that side of Calgary that hosts the corporate HQs of Enbridge, Kinder Morgan, and Sun Cor, is not.*

I am drawn to Viet Cong because of their name, and happily stick around for the music, but I’m left with a question I can’t answer: is it appropriate simply to tweeze names out of history’s folder? Will we be hearing from the Bedouins (London, Ontario) or the Black Panthers (Abbotsford, BC)?

This might seem unimportant in a strictly musical context, but it is important. Rock music, indie music, electric guitar-and-drums music, is dying because of its whiteness, because whiteness is suffocating itself. It is a great tent of death, and we must find ways out of it, though to assume that this is easy and effortless and not complex is wrong and foolish.

“But enough about that political shit,” you say — you being a web traffic analyst from Sheffield whose lunch break was just spent reading what you no doubt judge to be unfocused drivel, the kind of divergent, indulgent shite that makes your neck turn purple — “Get to the music, mate!”

The music is a goldmine of a specific set of referents that all work very well together: Drive Like Jehu/RFTC, Rock*A*Teens, Stranglers; Elegant Jangles from the Golden Era of Byrds-Jangle; crooning; harsh, jarring rumble-riffs that simulate “challenging electronic music” (CEM); witchy Broadcast- and Focus Group-like synth echoes and blips; the Velvet Underground; a frequency cut on the top-top frequencies that suggests to me that the recording was captured by a tape machine with old heads, run through something like a late-‘70s Soundcraft mixing board.

This next statement is personal and experiential, but I still want to make it: this music reminds me most of being new to adulthood, staying up very late, painting and listening to a radio program on our national broadcast network called “Brave New Waves.”

The record is called Cassette, but it’s not just a cassette. Many of us will listen to it on a computer through iT#nes, so many of us will hear exactly the same thing. But one explanation for the resurgence of the cassette is that it offers different listening experiences depending on the health of the tape deck, the status of the batteries if it’s portable, the condition of the tape heads: all of which will introduce warbles and alter the music or randomize it.

I think the spirit of the Viet Cong band from Calgary, Alberta, embraces this randomization. I think this collection of songs would sound good through a tape deck.

I think that the title Cassette refers to the sound of the record, of course, though it does not have the same narrow ceiling as a cassette. It’s fairly dynamic and not overly limited, but its obvious sonic calling card is that of analogue tape, though, importantly, not the two-inch analog tape of, say, The Dark Side of the Moon.

It sounds like economy or thrift. It does not sound opulent. It does not sound like money. It is austere.

Let’s listen to the last song, “Select Your Drone.” You probably have to get back to your job: web traffic data doesn’t analyze itself.

First point, last song: “Select Your Drone.” I said that we’re only given three words. That’s not really true. We’re given 19 words, if we include the song titles. The last song title contains the word “drone.” The word “drone” has become internally oxymoronic, in that now it refers both to the sound of hippies in moon-iconed velvet pants sitting on the forest floor peacefully strumming zithers, and also to flying remote-controlled death-machines killing people in places most of us will never see, and by most of us, I mean also the drone operator.

Which drone is Viet Cong asking us to select?

Though not technically a drone in the musical sense, the song starts out with a beat that is spacious enough to express reverb in a very effective way. The simple dim-dunk-dunk-dunk-dunk-crack clangs through a spring reverb, metallic and shiny. A guitar starts a distinct picking pattern, and to me it sounds like a Telecaster set to the bridge pickup, picking out trebly but not harsh notes for a few bars until the vocal begins. One thing I want to do is stop and point out that all of Viet Cong’s material, which is fairly disparate, not only works well as a single listening experience, meaning they tie it all together well, but it also gels really nicely as a mix within the song. The guitar and the vocal and the drum reverb are all really cohesive; it all sounds like the same space.

At the 1:42 point, a very interesting thing happens to the guitar: it jumps up an octave and flutters into a gorgeous run of sweet, Greenwood-esque side-B OK Computer-era plaintive notes, for all of 18 seconds.

This 18 second moment was all I could recall from the first few listens of Cassette, and it’s what I returned to. I imagined it ran longer, and even remarked to a friend about that gorgeous Radiohead-esque song at the end. But I was wrong, and this speaks to the economy and impact of the disparate parts of much of Viet Cong’s music: this 18-second run blotted out all of the sturm und drang that follows it.

The song takes an abrupt turn into ferocious clang-chant. Guitars that once fluttered now shriek. There’s a new beat (and there’s only two beats in the whole song, a credit to the drummer), a compressed, motorik version of what we first heard. A Germanic death-chant runs through this part.

It is effective.

The chanting and screeching end with a Velvetsy strum and then, after 40 seconds of silence, the record ends with a John Carpenter-esque synthesized elegy.

Real burrowing for pale, precious weird-gold.

It is my hope that as they emerge and perhaps enter studios that even exist above ground, Viet Cong (from Calgary, Alberta) retains some splinters of the spirit forged here, because Cassette really does have a distinct identity, something to sift through, nuggets for future burrowers.

*By “Calgary of my imagination” I mean the face that the economic engine of the region puts on the city. No disrespect to all of the cool stuff that goes down in Calgary. Props to those Calgarians who stay and work and live and make art and create narratives for their city besides the one spun by the oil magnates.


Carey Mercer is a member of Frog Eyes, Swan Lake and Blackout Beach. You can follow him on Twitter here.