Total Control

Total Control on Nietzsche, Aussie’s Underground and “Horrible” Supergroups

Robert Ham

By Robert Ham

on 07.02.14 in Features

Typical System

Total Control

File under: Bedroom new wave, rubbery goth rock, broken-down garage-pop
For fans of: Shocking Pinks, Killing Joke, Thee Oh Sees, These New Puritans
From: Melbourne, Australia
Personae: Daniel Stewart (vocals, various instruments), Mikey Young (guitars, keyboards), Al Montfort (guitar), Zephyr Pavey (bass), James Vinciguerra (drums)

When Daniel Stewart and Mikey Young met in 2008 to collaborate under the name Total Control, their aim was to move past the self-imposed boundaries of their other projects (Stewart sings in the hardcore band Straightjacket Nation; Young is the guitarist for garage punkers Eddy Current Suppression Ring). The resulting work — a series of small pressing 7-inch releases — forced agitated noise-rock to rub roughly against motorik pop and Suicide-inspired darkwave.

Expanded to a quintet two years later, Total Control’s sound became more restless and more expansive. The songs on their debut full-length, 2011′s Henge Beat, allowed long instrumental passages to stretch on endlessly, kept in check by a taut and spirited rhythm section. It was a bleak record, too, with Stewart depicting end-of-the-world scenarios and succumbing to future panic, fueled by his study of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Philip K. Dick.

The band’s new album Typical System is a perfect evolutionary step forward. Stewart’s view of humanity hasn’t improved any (“The bough was weak/tired and broke/defeat,” he sings on “Black Spring”), but the production quality is a marked upgrade, and the instrumental performances feel more present and passionate. The fact that all five members of Total Control split their time with a variety of other musical projects (among them, groups like UV Race, Eastlink and Lower Plenty) only makes the clear, composed vision of Typical System feel that much more remarkable.

Robert Ham spoke with Total Control vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Stewart about the group’s shape-shifting sound, and being haunted by his literary influences.

‘There’s no way that anyone I like or respect feels comfortable being referred to as being in a supergroup.’

On the underground rock scene in Melbourne:

The only thing that’s pretty definitive is that most people play in more than one band. And there’s no real stylistic precision to a lot of it. The booming economy of the last decade has afforded a lot of people the chance to play in bands and, as a result, maybe they’re being more adventurous with sounds than they might have been two decades ago.

On Total Control being considered a “supergroup”:

It’s a horrible word to have said about anything you’re involved with. There’s no way that anyone I like or respect feels comfortable being referred to as being in a supergroup. Especially in Australia, that kind of egotism is really frowned upon. The first time I was asked about it, the label that put our CD out here asked offhand if they could use the description for a particular store in Melbourne and I thought it was funny when he said it. I never expected anyone else to use it. It’s really preposterous.

On becoming the band’s singer:

It kind of was by default. When the actual idea of this thing developed it was just me and [guitarist/keyboardist] Mikey [Young] in his bedroom just making songs, and I was singing so I had to write the lyrics to sing. He doesn’t like to sing anyway and I’d done that playing in Straightjacket Nation.

On writing lyrics for Total Control:

I really wanted to have a different approach. With Straightjacket being a more ’80s- and Japanese-influenced hardcore band, it’s very precise, and the ideas are pretty narrow and ignorant. It’s been an absolute blessing in my life to have it there, but with Total Control, I wanted to experiment with writing lyrics quite differently. I’m depending on stuff that I’d been dreaming about or reflections that have come out of experiments with psychedelics.

‘I never have just one obsession. I’m capable of carrying a few at once and allowing them to spill into each other.’

On the influence of Nietzsche:

I’ve been trying to get away from it over the last few years, realizing that the link between the way he thought and the way he went crazy are pretty strongly connected. That wasn’t a path I wanted to go down. That being said, I don’t know anyone that’s seriously read him and attempted to understand that hasn’t found that he won’t leave. He’s a guest you invite into your life and he’s always whispering doubts into your ear.

On his current obsessions:

I never have just one obsession. I’m capable of carrying a few at once and allowing them to spill into each other. I traded my obsession with Nietzsche with an obsession with Death in June, the Kinks, Yukio Mishima, the Romanian writer Emil Cioran and the French writer Maurice Blanchot. And T. Rex. A lot of T. Rex. In a lot of respects, Marc Bolan became this figure of light in my mind. Every time I felt like I was becoming too deep into Mishima — I read something like four of his books in a row over a two-week period at the start of the year that just did my head in — afterward, I just cleansed myself listening to a lot of T. Rex. I think Marc Bolan is the ultimate in balancing out that darkness, just listening to him and picturing how happy he was.

On the band’s many stylistic shifts:

That came from this idea that we never wanted to decide what we wanted to sound like. We were just going to make music together and whatever it sounded like was what we were doing. The massive leaps really reflected what we were listening to at the time. The focus is less on writing and playing songs that can be played live than just making songs that we think are listenable so as a result, we do a lot of that electronic stuff on record that we haven’t had a chance to do much of live.

On not playing live often:

We’re always quite busy. [Guitarist] Al [Montfort] plays in something like six or seven bands. We all have to work as well. None of the music that anyone plays sustains them financially or affords anyone the time off. We don’t prioritize as a live thing, I suppose. We get the most out of short sharp bursts of concentrated productivity.