Don't Waste My Time: An Interview with Daniel Stewart of Total Control
Total Control's frontman on living down under, never forgetting the struggle, and creating a record that's not a total bore
In late 2011, a young band called Total Control released Henge Beat on Iron Lung Records, the namesake record label of the highly influential and beloved powerviolence band (check out our interview with Jensen Ward). Interestingly, the LP was not openly influenced by names usually checked by PV bands—Crossed Out, Dystopia, Infest or the like—but instead showed shades of post-punk and influences like Suicide, Joy Division and many others. Regardless of genre, it was good. Damn good.
On strength of word of mouth, Henge Beat became a bit of an instant classic, spawning fervent followers and turning focus toward the Australian scene in the wake of the dissolution of the great and sorely missed Eddy Current Supression Ring. The attention was warranted; Henge Beat is the perfect mix of angular, slash & burn garage punk, cold synth pop darkness, and reverb-heavy post-punk, all anchored by top-notch songwriting. Further investigation into related bands proved that the good songs weren't limited to one project: See The UV Race (stream a track), Eastlink (stream a track/check out an interview) and Lace Curtain (stream a track).
Three years later, Total Control welcome Typical System, their second LP of similarly advanced songwriting, fist-raising punk, and dark vibes bound to make fans of Henge Beat salivate. We streamed two Total Control tracks in the past ("Flesh War" and "Expensive Dog"), both of which are available below alongside our exclusive interview with frontman Daniel Stewart.
NOISEY: Your last record Henge Beat was extremely well-received. Coming off of that record, there were several different labels, some of them pretty major, that approached you about Typical System yet you ended up sticking with Iron Lung Records. I know where that thought process comes from, but maybe if you tell our readers why you went that direction.
Daniel Stewart: I suppose it's as simple as going back to the fact that we released our first 7” with Jensen (Ward) & Iron Lung and that we have a level of trust with him. We have seen each other every year for the last few years and played with Jensen's other project Society Nurse. We know they are good guys and that they understand what we are doing and wouldn’t have any problem with the direction of the band. So we did the first LP with Iron Lung Records and it’s pretty much the same reasons that brought us back for the second LP. It makes sense to put out a record with people you trust.
Clearly a band like Iron Lung is extremely strong in their genre. But did you feel that they as a label they were strong enough to handle any challenge that your band might face?
I like the idea with working with guys that come out of the same musical background. I suppose there hasn’t been a hell of a lot of challenges when it comes to touring with Total Control. We’re a pretty slow moving band and we don’t do a hell of a lot. I mean in some respects we do; we’ve toured every year for the past few years and released records, but I think we have long periods where we’re not really interested in being active. We don’t do a lot of press so there’s a lot of time where our record won’t sell by us actively promoting it. So really as long as they keep the record in print it’ll sell and that’s the challenge we put towards them.
I don’t think we really thought about it too much, we just thought it would be the easiest way for us to do it and not prioritize signing contracts or dealing with people that we don’t know.
Just go with who you trust.
Yeah, I think things could get really fucked if we went outside of that.
So, the idea of the name Typical System. What you’re doing, to me, is like a melting pot of a shit ton of different bands from Suicide to Screamers to Joy Division, there's even some Poison Idea sprinkled in there. Is the name Typical System is that the idea of you thumbing your nose at being typical?
The idea for the name Typical System really eludes me right now, and I don’t want to know the truth behind it. I don’t remember making the decision, I just remember someone said something, and someone else laughed and said that would make a great name for the record, and then it happened. When I think about how this band functions, we have a very retarded sense of humor, and what we do is riddled with this humor. And a lot of the people we meet, because it’s such bleak and depressing music, as you pointed out, a lot of the sounds reference dark and fucked up music, but it wouldn’t really be an Australian record if it didn’t have some aspect that completely undermined it. Australians ultimately can’t take anything too seriously including life, death, everything. It’d be inappropriate for us not to laugh at it. That would explain the name in a lot of respects. I guess I pictured English post-punk and the name sounds like it does to me.
So you attribute it to black humor, basically?
Certainly. I mean, we’re a band of black humor. The name expresses that quite well.
So, in between the two records, the last record and where you are today, you came to the U.S. at least twice. Are there any plans to loop back with this record?
No, we haven’t got any plans to play shows; we’re playing two shows in the next couple weeks and that’s it. I’m going on tour in the UK with UV Race with Al Monfort, and because the album release date was so close to my trip to Europe, we just decided to play a couple shows. We haven’t really planned anything past that because we’re not really a band that does a lot of forward thinking, so in terms of touring in the U.S. I can’t say anything about that. (laughs) It’s a possibility. That’s probably the best way of putting it. (laughs)
If you don’t mind me prying into that, it seems like you have this record coming and you’re doing a couple things in Australia. But I think from an outsider perspective the idea that you guys have this LP and there’s not this full blitz behind it… from an outsider’s perspective it could be “is there something happening? are they trying to chill out?” Is there something behind that thought process?
I can just say the actual process of getting the record out and the feeling I have right now, I’ve never felt that before. I’m really looking forward to having this record out, and I feel like it’s something that’s been hanging over me. As far as what you're talking about, there’s nothing aside from this is how we function; for a really small precise period of time we will do a bunch of things, play shows, go on tour, put out a record, and then in some respects go dormant for a while. And I think part of it is that there’s this side to the band that it’s somewhat difficult to talk about.
I think a couple times on tour we were meeting like a lawyer who wanted to represent us, something like that where this complete stranger coming to meet us. When things like that happen I’m completely ignorant as to what a lawyer would want to speak to me about that doesn’t connect with any behavior on my part that needs correcting. (laughs) I don’t deal with lawyers in my life, except when I don’t want to talk to a lawyer. So in a situation like that, I just remember feeling very overwhelmed by what other people thought we were doing, and how they felt entitled to be a part of it or telling us what we needed in some respect. That feeling of being overwhelmed articulates itself quite well as “alright, we’re gonna take a break from this and relax,” not let it become something that big.
The reason that we write/record/play the best songs we can do has always been about making the music. I guess that’s the best way of explaining it. We’re not really convinced we need to do much to promote the record because it’s really great and people are going to hear it, so we don’t need to go on tour or play a lot of shows for people to hear it. I think we’re going to have the record in all the stores and people can hear it online now. There’s not much more behind it, when I say we don’t have future plans, we really don’t have future plans.
No, I didn’t know if there was something like nefarious lurking behind there, you know? Everyone saying “oh, we got this record out, that’s the last of us.”
Nah, nothing like that.
So the new record, it seems that the complexity of a lot of the melody stepped forward quite a bit. For instance, I think that the last track on the record definitely seems like you guys, but in another sense it doesn’t sound like the rest of your output. How did the writing chemistry differ from record to record?
It’s interesting, the song that you mentioned is one of the first ones that we ever wrote, we just didn’t really record it for a long time. We played it on our first U.S tour, had like a demo recording, but we never did anything with it. I guess in some respects we took a lot longer writing the songs and playing the songs as a band, but our first record was\ put together as a combination as recorded and electronic stuff. I guess talking about the process of it we became a lot more sure of ourselves after playing so much.
Just that you gelled a lot more and got to know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.
Yeah, I think also we had been busy with other stuff that I think we definitely got better playing in general. Jesus Christ, I shouldn’t have said that. (laughs)
Yeah. The thing I’m always curious about is between Total Control and UV Race you guys got Lace Curtain, Eastlands, and several other bands. With so many different bands juggling in the air, is there such thing as a priority for any of you?
I think that whatever’s working at the time is the priority at the moment. If you have any time free you could do some other stuff with your bands, I just think that’s the way most people function as far as making music, that kind of obsessive quality of it. You just pick one and you’re obsessed, or really busy with one or two projects.
I suppose one quality about a lot of the bands around here is that it comes down to one or two people being heavily active, and taking care of all aspects, but it doesn’t ever get too tyrannical where one person is the driving force and everyone is just hanging on. A lot of the good stuff happening at the moment is just a product of the bands playing together a lot and working really hard. Probably the best band at the moment is Soma Coma. And they’ve been a hardcore band for a few years and the last few times I’ve seen them play it’s just been phenomenal and that has to do with just seeing their strength as a band just develop.
I think Moses (from UV Race) might have given me that tape.
Yeah, he put the tape out and he’s also putting a twelve inch out soon. You know he also plays in UV Race, so it runs pretty inbred (laughs)
Absolutely. So, one thing that I would definitely love to touch on is the idea that you are a Noisey contributor and a writer as well (check out a recent interview with Ausmuteants). Its kind of funny because now you are in the hotseat and the tables have turned from when you interview bands, which I think is really interesting. So as a journalist, there are a few overarching concepts that I’m very interested in exploring with my subjects. What are some of the things you’re interested in, and how do you apply that to yourself as a musician?
Good question. The individual often just expresses the most convenient explanation for what is most likely 100% instinctive behavior without a real plan. So I guess in that respect, I’m kind of shocked at the extent to which I’m capable of making narrative out of something I just stumble into. So yeah, I guess in one respect I’m always interested in how other people do that, how they take time to understand what obsessions overcame them and in some sense directed them into making music.
Maybe it's outsider perception, but it seems like Australia seems to be flourishing musically. You touched on Soma Coma earlier, but who do you feel are some bands that are on the come up? Second question, Do you feel like since Australia is an island and a lot of the cities are spread apart, that a lot of the bands don’t fly in there, the fact that that doesn’t happen, does it create some kind of feeding frenzy from within?
Yeah, I think maybe a decade ago it became a lot easier for bands to tour Australia and make some money because the Australian dollar got a lot stronger, and bands could come here and tour and make a lot more money. Ticket prices started going up because bands would come out here who weren’t too regarded at home, and make a profitable tour. As consequence of that, a lot of the bands that were coming out were really low-quality compared to compared to the local bands, and a lot of the local bands recognized they were doing something quite strong in light of how bad the bands that they were supporting. I definitely noticed in some respects this sense of confidence that Australian bands were because they were exposed to so many more bands that were lazy, and they didn’t really play as much as a band did here. It’s quite a generalized statement I know, but there became this point a few years ago where there was this sense of strength to Australian music; touring over seas and seeing a lot of bands, there was just something powerful going on. In Melbourne, it’s a pretty easy place to make music in. There’s a lot of places for bands to rehearse, there’s a lot of venues around. As a consequence, there’s still a lot of terrible bands, also there’s a lot of really cool bands and they're probably… I’ll just name some I like at the moment. There’s this band called Dribble that I really like, them in this band called Gutter Gods and they’re a hardcore band that played their last show like six months ago, and it was really excellent. So Dribble are kind of crude punk with a nice side to them. It sounds a lot like the earlier, American punk stuff I liked. It’s really aware of early New York Punk. There’s this guy Justin Floor who plays in ZOND who are really good. Really heavy, really loud. He plays sort of dark solo industrial techno stuff that’s really impressive. This group called Flat Fix like weird disassociated house music that’s odd really good. Russell Street Bombings is Al and Zeff, they’ve been working on that record for years, and it’s finally coming out on smart guy.
It seems like Al’s in a thousand bands, I mean you guys are all in a thousand bands. His bands have come up like five or six times, and I knew he was in all these other ones too.
Oh yeah, Al’s incredible. Al’s in a hell of a lot of bands, and it’s pretty easy to explain that the bands Al’s in are the good bands in Australia. Everything he does I love, obviously. Honestly, I could reel off a hell of a lot other bands, but that should do. It’s a really good time in Melbourne to be a band. The labels to pay attention to would be Cool Death, and they put out a lot of the good new punk and hardcore stuff. And there’s a label called Archaic that’s doing some great techno/noise.
When you guys did play the U.S. it was with extremely select, well-curated set of bands that were all sort of but not quite in-line with what you do. I have seen you play with Raspberry Bulbs, The Men, Destruction Unit, Crazy Spirit, etc etc. Is that idea important to you? Every single gig hits hard?
Yeah. I guess it should be pointed out that we’ve always done this ourselves, and we don’t have a manager or anyone involved in that sense. So when it comes down to when we do play a show, we do that because we want to play good shows with good bands and we don’t need anyone else involved in that. It’s really the only way we know how to be a band, we couldn’t work on a label or anything.
Let me turn that on it's head for a minute. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that a band like Interpol comes knocking and were to call you guys and say “I want Total Control to come out with us and tour the U.S.” Is that something you would even be interested in entertaining?
Absolutely not. Cause if we’re playing with Interpol, we’re not playing with Crazy Spirit. And that’s the bands we’d want to play with. We don’t need to support anyone, like we don’t need to play someone else’s shows on that kind of level. I’d imagine they would not enjoy having us around (laughs). We’re just not a band that works well outside of a small room. It’s just ultimately music made for a really loud compact group of people. The thought of being in a stadium, I don’t know.
I think it’s less the idea of, I think what I was going for was less the idea of playing a stadium and more the idea of not playing with Interpol and instead playing with fucking Forward or Zyanose.
Right. Every time we play, we try to make sure there’s one band we want to play with. It’s a waste of a night, honestly if there’s not. (laughs) I hate being at stadiums.
Clearly a lot of people think that’s antithetical, like “oh fuck yeah I want to play with U2 so that way as many people can see us as possible.” And clearly, that makes sense but on the other hand is it because you guys are more interested in writing good stuff and playing banger after banger after banger than you are with growing the band?
Well yeah, I don’t think that “growing the band” would ever come into consideration outside of our personal relationships or the sound of the band. Growth of the band like our exposure or being able to connect with a U2 listener, that stuff, well for one thing no one ever talks about it. No one is ever “hey, you reckon making some attention to grow the band?” That would be so mercilessly mocked by the others. We just don’t think like that. When I’m exposed to people who do think like that or people asking me about growing the band, I just don’t relate to that. It’s not a question I think about. It’s my job to think about far more important things. That’s a job for someone we couldn’t afford to pay, and ultimately wouldn’t be able to connect with or discuss without there being a kind of conflict.
Ultimately we’re just kind of dumb about that kind of stuff. I’m sure people think about this kind of stuff at like conferences and in weird meetings. That image of someone sitting in a room learning to grow their band on their iPad, that’s a pretty powerful image. That’s kind of tough to deal with.
You’re more concerned with your creative process and playing the best shows and writing the best songs because your time is limited.
Let’s say you hand me Typical System right now, and I go off to a room for an hour to listen to it. When I come back, what are the things you hope to hear from me?
I guess it’s difficult because when I know anyone’s listened to a record I’ve been involved with I become quite embarrassed. If it’s a brutal criticism I’m embarrassed, if it’s a lovely comment as well.
You just want to feel like listening to the record wasn’t a waste of their time. If someone said “listening to the record was not a complete waste of my time,” I would feel like I’ve accomplished something. So many records or what we write and read are a complete waste of time. I would hope someone who read this interview wouldn’t come out of it like it was a complete waste of time. No one has time for anything.
The only sign that you’re talking to someone who’s an adult these days is if they don’t tell you how tired or busy they are because they’re adult enough to know everyone’s tired and busy. You just hope when they listen to the record, they don’t feel like it was yet another soul sucking moment where they were 30 minutes behind. All we can really hope for is to not waste each other’s time.
What’ve you got coming up with UV Race?
We’re about to tour in Europe for a couple of weeks. We’re 2/3 of the way through our second film, a sci-fi film. It’s pretty sick, and our next record is going to be a soundtrack for that. As a band we’ve kind of decided we’d make movies, and then the soundtrack to that movie would be our next record. I think it just makes sense, the band itself, our dynamic is so cinematic.