ABOVE: TOTAL CONTROL. PHOTO COURTESY OF KARL SCULLIN
In the broadest sense, Total Control is a post-punk band. And indicative of a happening, ideas-driven music scene like theirs (Melbourne, Australia), the members of Total Control—James Vinciguerra, Zephyr Pavey, Mikey Young, Dan Stewart, and Al Montfort—are involved in a dizzying pile of active bands and projects, about 20 all told. (Guitarist David West, pictured above, is no longer in the band.) Among them are Young’s critically lauded art-garage-rocking Eddy Current Suppression Ring and Stewart’s ’90s-hardcore-focused Straightjacket Nation. But Total Control is something quite different and beautifully its own.
On Total Control’s second album, Typical System, the band plays an ever-shifting game of genre checkers, countering elements of the mentholated-cloud synthpop of vintage Gary Numan and the melodic, haunted charge of early Christian Death with the battery-on-the-tongue mania of The Fall. Being in multiple bands while holding down a job at a fruit stand, singer Dan Stewart had a brief but edifying chat with us about growing up all over Australia, what it means to be dedicated to your obsessions, and what he’d do given the opportunity to connect with an absolute stranger.
DAVID JACK DANIELS: Hi Dan, thanks for taking time to sit down with me.
DAN STEWART: No sweat!
DANIELS: So let’s jump right in: Do you ever find yourself intentionally misrepresenting your band to people in hopes of avoiding a conversation?
STEWART: Complex! We have lacked a coherent idea of what the correct representation of the band would be, so every misrepresentation manufactured to avoid uncomfortable conversation can mutate into something that needs explaining down the line!
DANIELS: [laughs] I’ll have to remember that justification the next time I’m asked what I’m doing with my life. So, what’s in a name? Why “Total Control,” which is also the title of a song by [L.A. New Wave group] The Motels? Was there something particular about it that you felt embodied the band’s vision?
STEWART: I’ve spoken often about the image of [Motels’ front woman] Martha Davis in a cloud of cigarette smoke in the “Total Control” video as an early erotic awakening. Her droll and monotone delivery is obviously a vocal influence. And at the time, we were intrigued by dark/cold/minimal wave, and Absolute Body Control also had a song called “Total Control,” but ultimately it was a name of such audacity that we needed to work hard to earn it.
DANIELS: Something I always wonder about bands is how their families react to what they’re doing. Usually, it seems, they’re very supportive or just kind of blindly aware of one’s involvement in music. Are your parents superhip and nonchalant about their son making a place for himself in music?
STEWART: I have a very strange family. They are not at all hip. They live in a small town in Tasmania that has a penny-farthing race down the main street every year. I can listen to Roxy Music or Ultravox with my parents and feel something that evades description.
DANIELS: Penny-farthing race—does that somehow involve people in straw hats, baby’s breath?
STEWART: Baby’s breath! [laughs] Sorry to say, but I think the participants are your usual leotard-and-aerodynamic-clothing wearers, only perched atop monstrous bikes. Serious stuff!
DANIELS: Is that where you grew up, Tasmania?
STEWART: I really grew up all over Australia: Canberra, the capital; Tasmania; northwestern Australia, which is the desert; and Wollongong, an industrial shithole south of Sydney. And for the last decade, I’ve lived here in Melbourne.
DANIELS: Do you feel all this moving around, and the change of landscape, influenced your writing or aesthetic?
STEWART: Certainly. I feel like growing up all over Australia obliterated any sense of identity I could have developed as a child in a “place.” I went to four different high schools, and the relative rituals of each gave me a hell of a lot of distance from my peers —plenty of space for music and reading and obsessions with sex and death …
DANIELS: One gets the sense that Total Control is very much a band in the truest sense—that it’s collaborative, since most of the members play multiple instruments and are in a bunch of different bands. Is the material on the new album mostly one member’s, or was it more a group effort?
STEWART: It’s collaborative. Some songs on the album were written by one member and brought to the group, so to speak, to be interfered with and defiled—excluding electronic songs, which retained their studio sanctity.
DANIELS: I guess Total Control is pretty representative of Melbourne’s music scene, that it’s incestuous—lots of bands, few players?
STEWART: Yes, absolutely. Most every band I like in Melbourne has members busy with other musical projects. There’s a need for a clarity of vision in each project that would be complicated by an overindulgence of influences or ideas. And you meet people with a similar obsession who have a spare half hour a week, and there it goes.
With Mikey, James, Zephyr, Al, and I, we’re all involved in other musical projects, the list of which is fairly heavily weighed down by Al, who plays in seven active bands.
DANIELS: Seven!? That sounds maddening. Have you ever thought, “Why keep doing this; why keep playing music? Why not just buy some really cool pants and go for a nice long walk instead?” Or have you reached a point in the trajectory of your musical career where you think, “Oh, shit. I actually have to do this now?”
STEWART: I’ve never felt anything but an obsession beyond my control, an incapacity for restraint! You can’t pick your obsessions. Well-dressed long-walkers probably live longer and have a healthier bank account and lustrous skin tone. I’m in the attic of my house spending my day off from work at a fruit-and-vegetable market discussing one of my bands with a stranger. Life is full of joy and wonder!
DANIELS: [laughs] Well, I know you’re busy with all your various projects, but before we go, would you mind answering a few very specific and seemingly random, but perhaps very telling, questions?
STEWART: No, I don’t mind. Shoot.
DANIELS: If Total Control were a painting, what would it look like?
STEWART: Magritte’s A Blow To The Heart, heavily pixilated.
DANIELS: If James Brown were looking down from Soulville on a Total Control show, would he be dancing, or would he be all, “Tsk!“?
STEWART: The performance anxiety radiating off me with every terrified movement would disgust him, but he’d have respect for the seasick rhythm.
DANIELS: Do you ever fear becoming too Brian Eno-y?
STEWART: No, I don’t find Eno that compelling a character. He’s clever, but has little charm. [Bryan] Ferry, however, has both. I fear not becoming Ferry enough!
DANIELS: How would you feel if you heard [Total Control’s song] “Expensive Dog” coming from the stereo of an expensive car?
STEWART: That would be funny. I would feel good. I’d get in. I’d go for a ride. I’d learn about rich people’s high-quality stereos.
DANIELS: Imagine getting on a transit bus and just riding, and when the route is finished, the driver looks back at you. You give him a knowing nod, and the two of you go off and maybe watch a ball game on a static-filled TV in an old-man’s bar over a sandwich and beer. Do you ever consider something like that happening to you?
STEWART: That’s a lovely image that I’m certain Fred Exley would have stumbled onto quite often. I’d like to open my life more to encounters with strangers that weren’t overtly sexual, or a mutual punishment, or a bewildering chasm of misunderstanding. A conversation, a connection, a shared drink and a meal: You paint a beautiful picture, Interview!
TYPICAL SYSTEM IS OUT TOMORROW, JUNE 24. FOR MORE ON TOTAL CONTROL, VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE.