Interview

Total Control Are Back And They’re Funnier Than Ever

Ahead of their VIVID performance at Sydney's Opera House, vocalist Daniel Stewart discusses the band's new record 'Laughing At the System'.

by Lachlan Kanoniuk
09 May 2017, 3:02am

A tidily constructed brick fireplace flickers underneath a canopy of fig trees as bats and possums jostle overhead, warring for their share of fruits. You can see it serving as a reclusive hideaway, a place to set up a record store for those daring to traverse through the bush on a day long hike. But yeah, we're in inner-north Melbourne, the hike is a couple of steps from the front bar of A Fan's Notes, with Lulu's behind an alleyway door leading out to the bat versus possum battleground.

Daniel Stewart has been operating Lulu's, a small-scale record store set-up with the Cool Death crew, since October 2015 alongside duties as drummer for UV Race, and vocalist for Straightjacket Nation and Total Control. Coinciding with the 2014 release of Total Control's second LP Typical Systempossibly the best album of that year – the band's last Melbourne show to date took place at Hugs & Kisses. It was a bit of a farce, with punch-ons in the crowd and a general shithouse vibe throughout the night. It was a volatile flashpoint, but Total Control have always managed to regain a sense of balance – between new-wave and post-punk, side project and primary focus, the underground and feature album on the national youth broadcaster, taking the piss and getting serious.

Having a spell from setting up Lulu's for the weekend, Daniel sits down to talk about the upcoming Repressed Records' 15th Anniversary performance at Sydney Opera House, and reveals details on the next Total Control release due later this year.

Noisey: Has Total Control changed since Typical System was released?
Daniel Stewart: Definitely. When Typical System was being put together we had three guitarists. Then one of them left: Dave West, who does Lace Curtain with Mikey Young and James Vinciguerra. That was a pretty important change, getting back to the core group. He joined in just before that, and left just after. We had those two tours in 2015. We did the States with all of us, and Europe without Mikey, doing it all electronic. That was a challenge, and something we wanted to do for ages. I kind of got busy with other stuff, Terry got a lot busier, Mikey got busier with his mixing and mastering. Everyone just kind of did that, and after those two tours we just wanted to slowly start putting together a record, whenever we came to it. Doing demos here and there. We started getting a bit more active with that. We were asked to do the Opera House show, so it just kind of came together for us. We're putting together a 12 inch, and that kind of just shows where we're at. It's not as strong a statement as an LP. The momentum that kind of drove Typical System and the touring slowed down a bit, and it just kind of took us a while to figure out what we wanted to do. We just today finished the vocals on the new record, it's an eight–song 12–inch called Laughing At The System.

Is this record thematically linked with Typical System?
Kind of. It's a bit funnier. Like me and Mikey were talking today, we both found Typical System quite funny, and I guess funny is a weird word to use for it, but it has always been that side to the band. And it's a bit more apparent on this one.

It's there on Typical System cover art with the crow and seagull attacking the Pope's dove. But if you look at it not knowing the context, it's doesn't come across as a humorous photo.
It's awesome. It's such a sick image. When it was suggested as the cover, it was really funny. I'd seen a couple of the photos from it, but I hadn't seen that one, with the three birds in it.

Do you aim to create art that amuses yourself, even if other people might not draw amusement from it?
Not really. That's a bit to introverted and narcissistic, I suppose, if we wanted to do that we could just keep that in the band. I think it does resonate beyond that, I'm glad it does, but I wouldn't want it to be just about having a laugh with ourselves. I guess I just always saw punk and post punk, there's certain strands of electronic music that came out in that era that I identify with, kind of try to carry through. It always has this kind of vicious humour attached to it, and that side of what we're doing is a bit more apparent now than on Typical System. Often when we talk about the band, and when we're approached, it does focus on the quite dark and depressive tone of it, but I'm a bit more excited to talk about the other stuff, that stuff is a bit overbearing to chat about.

To touch on that more serious tone, the political side of Typical System augments the record just as much as the humour.
In order to be coherent at all, you need to have a good balance between being able to take things seriously and being able to take the most serious things and being able to laugh at them, reducing them. To have the frivolities, and useless luxuries, and holding them up and taking them quite serious.

Do you feel any expectation of Total Control from outside of the band?
There always has been since we started, and it might have been the way that we approached things. Marketing or promoting the band as little as possible, letting other people draw their ideas out of it. The kind of connections we got with other bands, particularly from the success of Eddy Current at the time, produced those kind of expectations, and gave a bit of weight behind it. It definitely was there, and definitely was felt, but I feel like we've handled that quite well, and didn't let that dictate how we make music and how we present ourselves.

Were there lessons learned at the last Melbourne show at Hugs & Kisses?
We'd never really had a good time playing in Melbourne. Not just from that show, but just the few of the other venues that we'd done, and the shows that we put on ourselves. We never really did it in a way where we afterwards felt like, "Oh shit, that was cool". And part of that was the collision of Eddy Current fans with Straightjacket fans with UV Race fans with people who heard us on triple j. You know, connecting with underground that we've come out of, and hardcore particularly developing a far more violent presence at the time, really just didn't work at that club. In some senses, we've kind of decided we'd play Victoria, but not Melbourne. It's not like we're not going to play in Melbourne ever again, but we just got to be a bit clever about how we do it, so we don't put ourselves in a position where we're bringing together a whole bunch of mates that never would get along if they were in a club together anyway.

Do you feel like that leaves you without geographical identity? Is that even important?
Mikey doesn't even live in Melbourne, so we can kind of be: "We don't even live in Melbourne, with are a Victorian band," but we've never strongly identified with being part of the Melbourne scene. Probably because most of the shows that we play haven't even been in Australia, they've been overseas. We haven't really contributed strongly to that, in terms of playing shows or being actively involved in the underground. For that reason I don't feel like we suffer from a lack of geographical identity.

Do you think you benefit from it?
No, I don't think we benefit or suffer from it. I think a lot of people in Melbourne who did come to the shows that we played, and either saw us, and we personally sucked, or the show was just a bad experience. People are pretty happy to travel. It kind of makes it interesting for us, also, because in doing all those other bands, we've played every venue in Melbourne to death. It's kind of cool to see other parts of Victoria. I've wanted to do it with other bands, but it just hasn't happened, really.

The upcoming Sydney Opera House show, how are you feeling about it?
Pretty stoked. We've been jamming every week. I'm just excited to be back in the room with those guys. I see them around all the time, but just to be singing again feels really good. We didn't really have anything planned. We had an offer so we could play in Japan, with Big Love offering to put out this record. That was all we really had on the horizon for ages, and then this offer came through. At first I was just like, "Yeah, that sounds cool, playing at the Opera House," and when we agreed to it, and that was the point when I allowed myself to get excited. We've had really sick offers and we had to turn them down, because of disinterest, or logistically it couldn't work with other band responsibilities. But everyone was behind this, and suddenly I could watch Thin Lizzy or Stevie Wright and get excited about it. This is the geographical location that you could explain to most people in the world and they'd recognise it. Plus it's really important to celebrate Repressed Records' 15th anniversary, and look at the fact that the record store has been so supportive of underground Australian music for so long.

Is that something you're trying to do with Lulu's? You're doing shows out the back here.
Yeah, it's a little more kind of low key. We definitely want to provide a physical space where you can get records and tapes that are coming out at the moment that we think are important, and have those bands play out here, and sit around that fire, and listen to… well what they're playing now is Cream, but before we listened to a new tape from Kraus from New Zealand who played here a few weeks ago. Tom Hardisty from Woollen Kits' new tape just came out. So just have a place where you can sit with other people and listen to this new stuff is pretty sick.

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Total Control perform the following dates, including Repressed Records' 15th Anniversary with Severed Heads, Lucy Cliche, Miss Destiny, and more, as part of VIVID Live.

Friday May 12 – Barwon Club, Geelong VIC Thursday June 1 – Repressed Records 15th Anniversary at Sydney Opera House, Sydney NSW Friday June 9 – Theatre Royal, Castlemaine VIC

Images: Amy Hill

Lachlan Kanoniuk is a Melbourne writer. Follow him on Twitter.