July 2024

Henge Beat

Total ControlTotal ControlTotal ControlTotal ControlTotal ControlTotal ControlTotal ControlTotal ControlTotal ControlTotal ControlText: Emma Ramsay Images: Zephyr Pavey

Be alarmed. At this very moment, the imagery and ideas of late 70s synth punk are being reworked in the suburbs of Melbourne. Total Control, whose debut LP Henge Beat is to be released this month, are bringing a unique kind of gravity back to live music, quietly redirecting people’s imaginations of what punk can be in this strange retroactive century.

As a pre-release copy of Henge Beat spins in my computer, nods to the legacy of Moog pioneers and German discotheques of EBM past emerge. Rising over the shoulders of the more danceable acts post-punk left behind, forging forward and bruising you on the way through are Total Control. Enter drummer James Vinci to talk us through this hot mess of sounds and ideas.

Emma Ramsay: How are feeling leading up to the release of Henge Beat this month?

James Vinci: I am feeling good. I will be relieved when it is out. I am not expecting it to set anyone’s world on fire but I will feel – I think we will all feel – a sense of accomplishment, and pat each other’s tushies.

ER: What are you trying to evoke with that title? Is it thematically important to the songs?

JV: It is not at all thematically important but I can’t divulge too much, and I don’t think a UV Race-style manifesto is appropriate. It’s a personal thing, innit?

ER: Tell us about the early stages of the band.

JV: We probably are in the early stages of the band now. Up until the second half of last year, we had only ever practiced three times in the preceding two or three years – one of which was the recording session of our first 7inch. In that period of inactivity, Daniel and Mikey did a few demos that came out as the second 7inch. Somewhere along the way there was a possibility of maybe playing some more shows, but around then Mikey and Dan had a lot of other stuff on so Total Control wasn’t really an ongoing concern for a long time. But then UV Race were doing an American tour, Mikey was going to play keyboard for them and I think Zephyr was going to America anyway, so one of them suggested that we play also.

ER: Do you consider Total Control to be your music project or is it more of an autonomous music grouping these days?

JV: ‘Your’ as in me? Well, I am probably more invested in the band in less important, less creative ways than my band mates. I think Total Control can just operate on a Daniel and Mikey basis, but all of us put our own indelible mark on the music and, I think, Total Control is best when it is all of us. It has evolved to the point where it is Zephyr, Mikey, James, Daniel and Al.

ER: One thing that strikes people about Total Control is the contrast between the live shows and your records. Have the 7inch releases in the lead up to your album allowed you to accentuate or expand on subtleties that exist in your sound or make up as a band?

JV: The 7inchs are just experiments, I guess, or rough ideas – adventures we want to go on. Everything is quite free, but I can’t say they are made with the express desire to expand on ideas in particular. I think, given the way new songs are sounding, we are going to have to, you know, address that whole thing about the difference between recorded and live.

ER: As a band you have an uncanny sense of rhythm and shared energy on stage; it’s super impressive and blows people away. What is it that activates that synergy between you all when you are performing?

JV: Thanks. I guess we just work well together. I seriously had given up on the idea of being in a band that I felt red hot about or even liked. But I really like playing in this band; it just feels good.

ER: People have thrown the term ‘synth punk’ at you to describe your sound, but I feel there is something a little more conversational going on within your songs, compared to music from that era. Is that something you are aware of in your music: an exploration of that dynamic between guitars and electronics, or the tension and interlocking patterns of the drums and vocals, but using quite a classic punk format?

JV: Synth punk was definitely the intent of the band but I don’t think the original idea that spawned the band necessarily needs to be strictly adhered to. If someone came up with a song that was good but wasn’t “synth punk”, then it would be a bit silly to not play it because it wasn’t synth punk. I guess synth punk means something very specific but, at the same time, kind of means nothing at all. Like, obviously a synth punk band has to have a synthesiser to qualify as a synth punk band. Oh dear, there is no point going on – it’s not like we would have any objections to being called a synth punk band, but as you say it’s probably not totally accurate. I guess we are a punk band, but what is a punk band? Public Enemy are a punk band, yeah? I digress. I know that I personally was against the idea of having a really varied body of work because that can kind of come across as corny. But I don’t feel so much that way anymore, especially considering Mikey’s sense of melody. I think it helps to give the music cohesion. When we do play, I’ve had a lot of trouble with drum machines – either they get unplugged or just stop working mid-song, they don’t sound loud enough through the PA or there is no PA. These problems have forced us to reinterpret the songs slightly. To me, this is a definite barrier that will stop us from ever being a true synth band.

ER: Why do you always play that Swell Maps song when you play live?

JV: Simple – to fill out the set! We’ve tried a few other covers but we always seem to come back to that one.

ER: I remember you once mentioning that working with 8-tracks leaves room for interesting mistakes and unplanned overlaps. Was there a lot of experimenting happening before locking down time to record the album as a band?

JV: That is more applicable to stuff that I make at home on the 4-track with drum machines. Some of those I send off to Mikey, who makes a song around the beat, which so far has had some pretty good results. One of the songs on the album was made that way. There wasn’t a great deal of forethought put into the recording, all the band stuff we just did in one day. Just knowing how much we needed to record in that day was a little nerve-wracking. I did think about recording a lot and had some ideas of things I wanted to do over my drums, some of which worked, some of which didn’t. But the band is very experiment-friendly I think, which is a good thing.

ER: Who mixed and mastered the album? They’ve really made the music sparkle.

JV: Mikey Young. I don’t mean to piss in his pocket but he has vision in spades. Going back to the last question, he arranged whatever experimentations were captured in the studio and added some more, and the end result is – yes – a very good sounding album indeed.

ER: ‘Carpet Rash’ is one of your longer songs. The tone of it is a little different to most of the other tracks. I think it offers something dense to hold onto on the brutal island of rhythm and energy the other songs create live. It also ends up being the throbbing core of the album. Tell us about the writing of that song.

JV: The length of the song is quite confrontational. Like most of the songs, it was given life as an electronic demo on Mikey’s computer. When we first started practicing it, I remember trying to replicate the austerity of the demo version by putting a cymbal on the snare and playing quite stripped back. Fortunately though it didn’t really work out as I am not a very machine-like drummer and it went against the heavy emotion of the song. It took a while for it to come together as I guess most songs do, but when you are playing the song it’s obviously a different experience to a person watching it who could be bored out of their brain by the length of the song. I played that song to Deni who sings in the Perth band Mental Powers and for him it was a low point of the album as it had too much of a “Fitzroy swagger”. Oh and also, there was a funny review in the local street press in Melbourne that said it sounded like it crawled out of Brandon Flowers’ (from The Killers) jock strap.

ER: What aesthetic, era or artists are you drawing from with the typography and design for Total Control? What elements of the music are you trying to uphold with the visual impact of the sleeve art? It’s very distinct.

JV: Honestly, I’m not trying to uphold anything. If anything, the band has provided a convenient outlet for me to explore a certain aesthetic that I have slowly and lazily cultivated over the last few years. It’s probably a composite of all the things that I like put together, filtered through me. I think the methodology is kind of similar to what happens when I make stuff for the band on 4-track. Yeah, I am definitely NOT an accomplished graphic designer. I guess I am inspired by a lot of things. I am really into typography. In fact, that is pretty much all I like. Karl Nawrot is someone that has a lot of impressive work and he doesn’t consider himself to be a type designer, [it’s] just something that he dabbles in. I think some of the type he has made in the last few years is very impressive and a lot of people, I think, are inspired by it whether they know it or not.

ER: What would people be surprised to find in your record collection?

JV: I don’t think there is anything surprising. I don’t really know any Stooges or Velvet Underground songs.

ER: Describe your current staple winter jacket.

JV: Two jumpers and a blue and red ski jacket that is starting to get really grubby, and the zip fell off the other day.

ER: How were you received in the USA last year? Is this when the record opportunity came up with Iron Lung Records?

JV: It went really well. I think we were all shocked by how well it went; we weren’t, like, swimming in accolades or anything, but just playing felt so good. At least it did for me anyway, but people seemed pretty into it which I am sure helps. It was a good time. One of the high points was watching Point Break in New York City with Marcus from the UV Race and then walking to get some food. On the way back to where we were staying I noticed Marcus wasn’t beside me anymore, so I looked back and saw him talking to a guy that looked familiar and it turned out to be Keanu Reeves. Iron Lung released the second Total Control 7inch in 2009 and they also did an Eddy Current Suppression Ring 7inch around the same time. I think they were probably always interested in doing a Total Control album. When I say ‘always,’ I mean after they did the Total Control 7inch – not that they were born with the knowledge that, some day, some how, they would release an album by a band called Total Control. Iron Lung (the band) have toured Australia twice and Jensen from Iron Lung has been here with another band. I think he also came to Australia for his honeymoon last year. I think most of us would have had contact with them before Total Control existed.

ER: How did you invitation to play All Tomorrows Parties Festival in the UK come about?

JV: Someone from Les Savvy Fav or their label got ahold of some of our music, and they asked us to play.

ER: What are your most pressing plans for Total Control this year?

JV: We are recording some songs for a record this weekend, possibly making a video clip, releasing a 12″ of a recently uncovered band from Perth from the early 80s called Division 4 and then playing more shows in America and Europe at the end of the year. Hopefully we will make it through that and record more songs.

ER: The band name. That Motels song is so heart-achy….

JV: Yeah, it’s a Mikey and Daniel thing. I am more partial to ‘Situations’ by Yazoo or ‘I.O.U.’ by Freeez.

ER: Any final words?

JV: Zephyr our bass player is exhibiting some of his photos in Sydney, 12th -14th August at China Heights gallery in Surry Hills.

Melbourne’s Total Control release their Henge Beat LP this month on Seattle based label Iron Lung Records.

Total Control

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