Images: Mariah C. Tiffany
"Thanks to all the Australians," exclaimed one of Total Control's guitarists (or bassist — I wasn't counting strings), two songs into a raucous, high-energy set. "Thanks to Donald Trump. Thanks to ISIS. Thanks to Goebbels. Thanks to Uber. They're all Australian. Everyone's an Australian." On Thursday night at San Francisco's Rickshaw Stop, thanks to Total Control and Royal Headache, everyone was indeed an Australian.
The Rickshaw Stop is one of the city's most intimate venues, comfortably fitting about 200 people and feeling a bit like a cattle car when crowded much beyond that. Shaped like a long, narrow rectangle with high ceilings and walls draped in red velvet, it has just enough character to make an impression, but not so much that it distracts from whoever's on stage. Bands tend to play Rickshaw Stop when they’ve reached a certain threshold in their career — I've seen only a handful of acts here, but the artists (Geographer, The Soft Moon, and Jessie Ware) have never played such a small venue since. My feeling is that both Total Control and Royal Headache will soon be joining this club.
Opening for the Aussies were local band Pow! and Philadelphia's Watery Love. Pow! were sweet, synthy and fun, leaving a good impression although I only caught the tail end of their set. Watery Love were, charitably, perhaps the most punk band performing on the bill, insofar as they seemed to care not even a bit about what they sounded like. Frazzled, manic guitar work accompanied tone-deaf shouted vocals about guys doing guy things like drinking bourbon and saying cuss words and (attempting) to have sex with women, which made the whole thing feel like a weird display of maleness as performance art; the heteronormativity was cranked up so high it was more than a bit homoerotic, the musical equivalent of men whipping each other with wet towels in a locker room. Thankfully, they didn't overstay their welcome.
Soon after, Total Control took the stage, and in a matter of moments, the place was rammed. Front man Daniel Stewart cuts a lethal figure: clad in an Adidas track jacket with pushed-up sleeves, trim jeans, and closely cropped, buzzed hair. (Later on during the show, he took off the jacket and revealed a vintage, faded Cher shirt, so he's probably just a big softie after all.) Wasting no time, he throttled the mic and glared at the audience, and by the end of “One More Tonight”, the crowd was hooked.
My love affair with Total Control began on the sweaty, packed, fogged-out dance floor at a now-defunct post-punk and minimal-synth party here in San Francisco. Every month I'd go, and every month I'd lose my shit to the same tune — a short, synth-heavy ditty that somehow perfectly paired techno and punk. Turns out it was Total Control's “Paranoid Video”, their third 7", which happened to be published by a small San Francisco record label (synchronicity and all that). To my chagrin, I didn't get to hear "Paranoid Video" live (though they did play “Total Control” off their very first 7", so the really old stuff isn't verboten).
As a live band, Total Control leans heavily on the latter half of their synth-punk equation; in fact, the only electronic element in their set was a hilariously puny synthesizer that Stewart occasionally wailed on. Nobody seemed to mind, myself included, and when they belted out “Retiree” towards the end, a pit broke out front of stage. They finished with a long, extended jam featuring a couple guests (one on sax, one on a bizarre analog-synth-cum-guitar-looking-thing), that had everyone wanting more.
After a short break, Sydney's Royal Headache took the stage. At first I was suspicious: would Royal Headache's earnest, heartfelt jams be able to follow up the ferocity of Total Control? Within a few minutes, Shogun, the band's vocalist, ripped off his shirt and answered my question. Whereas Total Control's fierceness speaks to a kind of exhausted neurasthenia, a let's-pop-some-pills-and-burn-the-world-down kind of aesthetic, Royal Headache's fierceness is borne of feeling, too much feeling. Royal Headache is fierce because they care too much. Watching Shogun gallivant across the stage, belting out lyrics in his beautiful, expressive voice, I felt like I was watching a classic British power-pop act reincarnated as an Aussie punk band. My only complaint is that the set seemed to end just as soon as it began. With no encore, the Headache left the stage, the lights went on, and the crowd began slowly shuffling outside, single-file.
For a moment, we were all Australian.