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A rare interview with Total Control 

On rehearsing, recording and surviving outside the system

Alister Hill

Total Control are unintentionally mysterious. A five-piece band from Melbourne that belts the lines of rock 'n' roll, post-punk and new wave, the group attracts such intense scrutiny purely because they bypass the stifling laws and assumed lores ingrained into Show Biz 101. There is no manager, no publicist, no booking agent, no social media, scarce record distribution and sporadic performances at best. They are entirely self-sufficient, playing and recording when they wish or when there is a break from their many other creative endeavours (including over 10 other bands, film scoring, zine-making, graphic design, photography, uni degrees, mastering records, and the odd day job to make rent).

Inviting us into their secret practice space as they prepare for their Vivid LIVE performance, the fine line between fooling around and refining songs echoes the simultaneous humour and intensity threaded throughout this year's Laughing at the System and its sister album, Typical System (2014). Since their last Opera House performance at Repressed Records’ 15th Anniversary on the Northern Broadwalk, Total Control have regrouped, returning to perform inside the Joan Sutherland Theatre this June for a full set accompanied by two saxophonists and visuals by 'Luxury Vacuum' director Eddie Clemens. 

Closing the roller door to discuss the ins-and-outs of the band in a rare moment with every member accounted for, here is Total Control discussing Total Control in their own words.

“... we have a very good relationship creatively, where we’re able to still be adventurous, or just sound psycho and ridiculous and absurd, and keep pushing ourselves...”

 

Daniel Stewart (vocals, synthesiser)

Total Control in their Melbourne studio. Image: Ryan Cookson

“You don’t want to start making garbage, and just be convinced by that mutual fear of saying no.”

 

Daniel Stewart

The following interview has been edited from individual discussions

Daniel Stewart (vocals, synthesiser): When we’re all together we recognise that this is a specific thing. We’ve been doing this for almost 10 years, so we have a very good relationship creatively, where we’re able to still be adventurous, or just sound psycho and ridiculous and absurd, and keep pushing ourselves in that respect. We’re also really good at telling each other ‘no, don’t do that’ or ‘that’s going to sound good’, we have pretty good instincts still. You don’t want to start making garbage, and just be convinced by that mutual fear of saying no. It’s good to have a creative relationship with these guys, it’s been the most fruitful, challenging and rewarding experience of my life.

Zephyr Pavey (bass): To do it full time would be kind of weird. I’m not sure how much of a life span it would have if it was full time. Being full time in a band in Australia is pretty particular, and you just want to move overseas where things might be a bit more viable. It’s just not of interest. Mikey lives an hour and a half away, we don’t hang out that regularly unless we have something we’re working towards, whether it’s a show or recording.

James Vinciguerra (drums, drum machine): The thing about bands is they’re just bands. They’re just people. They’re just dickheads. I’m not saying we’re dickheads or anyone else is a dickhead, I think the reason why we come back and play together is because we have a laugh. We like to joke together.

Mikey Young (guitar, synthesiser): The newer record is more humorous in general, its maybe more overtly humorous. Maybe sometimes people thought we were some scary, ominous band but I think that seems to have disappeared and people find us a little friendlier now. People seem more cheery and come up to us after shows and buy us beer, stuff like that

Daniel: We’re very intensely serious at times, and then completely ridiculous. Like absurdly… Just personally when we interact with each other we can go from being quite caring and tender towards one another to remorselessly teasing each other. I think a lot of the times when we write songs, if it makes us crack up that will make us try it. If someone suggests something that is insane and ridiculous – like playing a part 3.5 times or doing a key change – those are the kinds of things that make the songs. 

Mikey: On the records it doesn’t matter if James and Al are the only two people who play on one song or I’m the only person who plays on one song, it doesn’t have to be the full band thing, it’s just whatever works. In fact it’s kind of better if it’s like that over 10 songs, it gives the albums a bit more diversity.

Daniel: Often recordings will be put together by one or two people. We did the last record (Laughing at the System) over a really long period of time. We did a basic tracking of the rock stuff, and then sprinkled stuff into it over the course of months. Sometimes songs will just come together with people sitting at home recording stuff then sending it through to everyone asking what do you think of that. And that’s a real strange way to make a song. When we actually have to get together to rehearse it and play it live, that’s when the actual song coheres. 

Total Control in their Melbourne studio. Image: Ryan Cookson

Al Montford (guitar): We invest so much in the recording. I love recording, I think we hold something near about those recordings and try to recreate them live. But you can’t sometimes because there’s three guitars doing different things and we don’t have three guitars. 

Mikey: When Al sends me sax parts there’s always like six saxes, everyone throws a bunch of layers on those recordings. Even when there’s two saxes they kind of blend in and sound like synths and is extra noise to build those parts that we did on the record anyway. If anything it helps make it easier to recreate how we imagined it anyway.

James: On recordings there is always some form of other instrumentation that isn’t guitars and drums. Nowadays music people are way more open to trying things, it just happens. If we’re starting to do drum machine stuff, it’s probably logical to integrate the stuff that’s also on the recordings like saxophone in the live setting. Saxophone has been used a lot in Al and Zeph’s other band. And Al uses it heaps in his solo stuff. 

Al: Some songs are fully formed riffs and have all the parts, most of them somebody has a couple of riffs and we bully each other into putting a key change in.

James: I don’t know anything about key changing but that was very odd. Certain things like having key changes and bridges are usually no nos. 

Mikey: There’s songs Al writes that could have easily slipped into The UV Race or Terry but once we get a hold on it they turn into our songs, and likewise with anything I write, there’s tunes I’ve written that have gone to other bands of mine and the other way too. There’s no clear cut lines of ‘this is a Total Control kind of thing’, things just blend into each of our projects and it’s just wherever it ends up.

Zephyr: There was a period of inactivity from Total Control so we just had nothing else to do. We like hanging out and making music so it always works out that way. Sometimes we double up on things. Terry came about because it’s with Al and I’s partners. There were a few Total Control shows where they came along, so we just started our own band!

Al: They’re all separate, but you learn stuff from your other bands. How to talk to people, how to figure out stuff. That’s important.

Daniel: I think that everything feeds into each other. A lot of ideas I get from writing become Total Control lyrics, or just the experience of making music makes you a bit more disciplined creatively and helps me become a stronger writer. Experiences like today where you just have to get in a room no matter how wretched you feel, and I feel pretty wretched, it makes you a bit more like a workhorse. 

“Sometimes songs will just come together with people sitting at home recording stuff ... [but] when we actually have to get together to rehearse it and play it live, that’s when the actual song coheres.”

 

Daniel Stewart
Total Control in their Melbourne studio. Image: Ryan Cookson

“I’ve had some of the best experiences of my life playing live, but I think the lead up to playing live freaks me out a little.”

 

Mikey Young (guitar, synthesiser)

Zephyr: It is funny, it’s an odd thing having these bursts of activity. Total Control is quite particular because there is so much more popularity. We’re playing shows almost every weekend with our other bands playing to 100-200 people at pubs and then to have some humongous show at the Opera House is pretty dramatic. It’s surprising and weird!

James: The most surprising thing is when people say nice stuff.

Mikey: We like jamming a lot, I think we all just don’t want to play a show unless it’s really interesting. Obviously the Opera House is interesting, and a total privilege. I think all five of us just need to write back and say that sounds cool. Probably the reason we don’t play that much is not often all five of us write back and say ‘alright that sounds cool’, there’s usually a reason why someone thinks it’s not a good idea or everyone’s too busy. It’s not like we don’t want to play, just everything doesn’t align all the time to make it happen

James: We get asked to do stuff at a reasonable amount, but for whatever reason people can’t do it or don’t want to do it. It just depends.

Al: It has to be something everyone is into. 

Daniel: We want to do something special for the Opera House, it’s a good motivating force. The last time that we played was so rewarding but we had to finish early, and we definitely felt the fact that we’re playing inside this time is a different thing as well. The symbol of the Opera House in my mind has always been Sydney and something I’ve always found quite atrocious to look at and also quite beautiful. It’s just a different experience… It’s mental. It’s not like it’s a pub down the road, it’s a huge thing. Getting ready for it, also knowing how clear it’s going to sound is pushing us to get a unique and interesting set together for it. It’s just an exciting time for the band.

Zephyr: The actual playing was a bummer, not to be able to play for the full time and getting right into it at the point when we had to stop. It was amazing, the communal lunch room is a favourite of mine as well. You know, democracy. Everyone is eating nice snacks, all staff and performers as well. Playing snooker or something, it’s great.

James: Playing at the Opera House is pretty wild. It’s good. The Opera House is a beautiful building designed by a Danish person.

Mikey: I’ve had some of the best experiences of my life playing live, but I think the lead up to playing live freaks me out a little. There’s a lot of… even a gig like this is great but there’s a lot of ‘why did I say yes to this?!’. I stress out a bit in advance. The shows are always great though. With practise, especially with big shows, we practise all these old songs to get them right because we don’t play that often much. I’d rather just practise and work on new music all the time but, that’s the thing that I like about being in this band, just hanging out with these dudes but also creating new things.

Daniel: It’s kind of wild that it’s been 10 years already, I would like to think that we’d continue to have experiences like today. Playing music together, laughing how ridiculous Mikey’s face looks when he’s playing saxophone. Impromptu jam gym techno songs from the ‘90s, and then come together and put a song together that is made up of absurd suggestions that somehow become practical. I hope the form of what we continue to do continues to be inspiring to us.

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