Within the Australian underground, few groups command higher regard than Total Control. Why? Perhaps it’s their composition. All come from other celebrated groups, sure, but there’s a beguiling oddness to how they fit together. This roster comes led by a philosopher punk, two outsider songwriters par none, a recordist whose influence snakes through some of the finest albums of the past decade, and finally but not least of all, a tech-tinkering visual artist.
The band take things as they come. Interviews and performances are rare. There’s little interest in self-promotion nor mythology. Their output is spontaneous. Three LPs in seven years. All internationally acclaimed yet each equally obscure.
Another might be on the way soon, bassist Zephyr Pavey suggests. At this moment Pavey is the easy-going voice at the end of the phone line. As spokesperson for his friends, his words come inflected with a casual hint of larrikin charm.
But in the broader scheme of things he’s a pivotal figure. A foundational member of not only Total Control but also Terry. To leave it here would be selling him short. Along with his bandmates, he’s lent his talent to a number of interconnecting projects too diffuse to give their due, but all well worth digging into.
Pavey’s demeanour is relaxed. He’s happy to explain what brings Total Control to Vivid for the second year in a row and is excited by the possibility of a more elaborate show. There’s going to be brass.
Yet at the end of the day, this gig at the Opera House isn’t too much to fuss about. Whether playing to fifteen or at a venue which holds five thousand, it’s always about good music. Playing it, making it and sharing it with any like-minded people who might be interested. And thank goodness for that. In a society lost in a burying flow of information the idea of a creativity which endures regardless? It’s a comforting thought.
Within the Australian underground, few groups command higher regard than Total Control. We talk to bassist Zephyr Pavey about punk, brass, and Vivid LIVE.
HAPPY: Initially we were going to have a chat with vocalist Dan Stewart, but the thing with a group like Total Control is that there’s no central figure. Each member is coming to the band from a very different background ….
HAPPY: In a word or a sentence how would you sum it up?
ZEPHYR: The band?
HAPPY: The ‘overall band dynamic’ or something like that.
ZEPHYR: That’s kind of tough! I guess it’s pretty jovial you know. We’re just kind of friends who do this thing together. I think that’s how it’s kept going, it’s because we all really get along. It’s been nearly ten years or something! The dynamic is yeah, friendly.
HAPPY: When it came out earlier this year, Laughing at the System felt like it was making a bit of a joke, flipping the forks to the title of the previous album. Typical System. Do you see it as making a statement?
ZEPHYR: I don’t know. I think for both those records we kind of settled on this name – a phrase – which we all really enjoyed. The rest of it just fell into place. Typical System was totally jokey as well. We’re not making fun of hegemonic oppression or something. Sometimes the language around those things can become almost comical. When things are heavy so often there’s an anxiety to cover that with humour. But then also, we’re just this group of friends hanging out. Often that becomes an amplifier for humour.
HAPPY: Well not to get too heavy too soon but…
ZEPHYR: Oh? All good!
HAPPY: We seem to be living in a time where music listeners’ focus seems to be upon the figures. Streaming numbers, Facebook shares and things like that. What effect do you see this having on creatively motivated artists as well as the fans, zines and networks that support them? Sorry, a bit of rambling question!
ZEPHYR: No, no, no, it’s a good one for sure. For Total Control, other bands we play in and a lot of our friend’s bands, I think it’s a particular thing for this group of people. Maybe also Australia as well somewhat. Streaming, Facebook shares and things like that are quite huge, and you know Spotify playlists are changing how people listen to music, how things are promoted and all of this. But I think we just have no interest in that side of things.
I’d prefer if we had no digital release at all. But that’s not because I think Spotify rips people off. It’s just a funny format that doesn’t really work for us. The way we’ve made music for forever has always been DIY. You know it’s kind of amazing how easy those things are. I like being able to create a song and put it on Soundcloud straight away! But in terms of actually marketing it? I think we’ve never really expected to make a living from it. For us, that ever diminishing revenue which used to exist from record sales was never really something we thought to be a possibility anyway.
I guess we’ve always been interested in what is essentially a niche market. We all like Creedence [Clearwater Revival], but a lot of our favourite bands and so many things we’ve really been interested in have always been relatively small. When things are that small Spotify can be helpful, but really I don’t think it is.
It’s kind of funny. We’re kind of ambitionless in terms of ‘making it’. We’re all pretty much resigned to the fact we’re going to have whatever jobs for forever. Some of us have great jobs, some of us are in between at the moment! [Laughs] So it’s always been essentially a creative output that we generally don’t expect to support us. There’s been so many drastic changes. To all those things that are part of the economics of music. But it’s never been so much our concern!
HAPPY: I guess what concerns me when I think about it is this idea that the spirit of creativity is getting lost. Some people might say that in this current environment truly great music is becoming harder to stumble upon. Especially if you’re just some kid from the suburbs. But then I’m struggling to remember how I first came to discover DIY music or went to my first punk gig… Do you remember how you first discovered this whole different side of music?
ZEPHYR: I guess that’s why that interest has just never been there with digital. Our experience was seeing hardcore punk shows. That type of music was just so different from anything that I’d experienced. I met one or two people and it was just such an accepting community. The music itself, I was just so attracted to it. The way it operated was that these bands just played shows and they made tapes. So it’s kind of weird because it’s easier to access things now, anyone can upload music and it’s available worldwide. But then there’s so much. Navigating that is just… bloody impossible!
HAPPY: But did you always feel maybe that you were just a bit of a punk and then locking onto the live side of music was kind of ‘the gateway’?
ZEPHYR: I guess my situation is a little different to some of the other guys. My dad played in some really weird underground bands in Sydney which I saw when I was really young. I was about five or six and I went to these shows. I remember it as this kind of crazy thing, but then it disappeared for about 19 years. Then I guess I found it again. It was weird. You know I listened to other kinds of music but then when I saw this punk thing just absolutely everything about it appealed to me. I just kind of dove in.
HAPPY: How do you see something like Vivid? Total Control have played the Opera House before. As a fan, it seems like a milestone to have an element of recognition from a festival which celebrates acts which might not be necessarily industry sanctified…
ZEPHYR: Our previous Opera House show was also Vivid and a few years before that Al [Montfort] and I and Mikey [Young] and a whole bunch of other people played at another Vivid event at the Opera House. For some of us, it’s our third Opera House show! I guess our link to that from the start was that those two shows were put on by Repressed Records. They’re a Sydney record shop. We’ve got tight links with them because they’ve always stocked our records. They’ve always been really genuinely interested in what we’re doing in all of our bands.
When they said they were working with a big festival, I guess we weren’t really that aware of what Vivid was. But we trusted it because it was with Repressed. We then met [key Vivid personnel] Alister Hill and Ben Marshall. Just from talking to them we were like, “Oh wow, these guys are just really great people to work with.”
For Total Control, I think so much is knowing who we’re working with. If we get along with them, we keep doing it! I guess that event, it does feel like a really wild gamble for someone to put on a band like us. Maybe there’s some level of popularity there but to us, it always seemed like it was totally out of proportion for us to play in the Opera House. I remember thinking, “I can’t even remember how many seats are in this room we’re playing!”
HAPPY: It’s the Opera House! I mean when you were younger I bet you thought that not in a million years a punk band like Total Control would be allowed to climb onto that stage…
ZEPHYR: Totally! There’s so many of these amazing public institutions – I don’t know if ‘institution’ is the right word – but buildings like the Opera House. These state theatres and art centres. And with the Opera House, for sure, it seems like – well you know “Opera House”! It does seem totally insane to be playing there still in this kind of weird band. But then just speaking to them you realise how seriously they take music of all kinds. Once that’s kind of clear you understand, “Okay you want us to play because you like our band. That makes sense, cool!”
HAPPY: I’m not sure if the group has played together since Meredith last December. How are things shaping up for this upcoming gig?
ZEPHYR: It’s been good! We have played a couple of other shows. Just kind of smaller shows around town. Actually maybe just one since Meredith but it’s shaping up. Because we did Laughing At The System we’ve been playing together and making decisions about the record. It’s quite consistent at the moment. Probably the most consistent it’s been in the last five or six years. We’ve been getting together once a week and working on songs.
We’ve realised that at the moment we can expand things. We can have a few friends playing brass instruments and stuff. At the Opera House you have such an incredible sound system and tech team. They can make these ridiculous ideas – like having three horn players out of nowhere in a rock band – sound good. Hopefully!
HAPPY: Granted Total Control is such spontaneous group – it seems to work in bursts – what’s coming next for the band, for Terry, for other projects you’re currently working on? Or is there just anything else you’d like to put out there to the readers?
ZEPHYR: [Laughs] Well! I guess because we’ve been practising again we’ve got a bunch of new songs. Which I guess we’ll record and make into another record at some point. I think that our only upcoming plan for Total Control is to keep working on these songs.
Terry have just sent off our third LP to the label to get pressed up. So, Terry has a third LP and we’re going to Europe to play a few shows. Dan Stewart has a new tape out with Nick Kucelli (who will also be playing sax with Total Control at their Vivid show) which should be a cool one. That’s with Paradise Daily. Mikey probably has thirty other records under various other names! [Laughs] I’m not sure but I think that’s it. That’s all, probably!
We’re putting on our own Vivid show too, featuring Shining Bird, Zeahorse, Sunscreen, SOOK, Good Pash, Aela Kae, and Straight Arrows DJs. RSVP here.