As Total Control drummer James Vinciguerra wanders down a street bordering Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market, he does little to relate the taught and scattered percussion he brings to the band. A low buttoned shirt into track-pants and scuffed gym shoes, he looks more like a slightly worn out baker than anything resembling a dead-eyed art punk.
Along with the rest of the band — Al Montfort, Mikey Young, Zephyr Pavey and Daniel Stewart — Vincigurrera has returned Total Control’s vivid and crackling sounds to the fore of the Australian music community. Laughing at the System, their new EP, is an unpredictable meshing of bleak comedy and resignation dipped in punk, ambience, and art-pop.
Vinciguerra spoke with Rolling Stone about the process of bringing the band back, playing their biggest show ever at Meredith Music Festival, and reckoning with violent fans at gigs.
How was the process of writing or working on it for you?
Over the span of like three years, we got together maybe twice, as a band, to do stuff. And then we all split and did little bits and pieces ourselves here and there. It was just a thing that we did. It’s probably evident that it’s not something that’s particularly laboured over, y’know?
Is there someone that makes it come together? Or do you all share a desire to return to it?
I think there is a mutual desire to do things. But y’know, after we put out the last album particularly we played a gig in Melbourne that was just …fucked. I think that impacted negatively on it. That said, we wouldn’t still do it if we didn’t want to; but it does take someone to say ‘let’s get together at this point in time…’
Who was that?
I guess we all kind of did it, we’ve all done it at some point.
So even if you got burnt out at one point, the desire to continue never went away?
I think maybe some people got burnt out. But I think just generally we had to do other things.
ALTER, the U.K. label that released Laughing at the System, describe it as “earnestly neurotic; deeply commanding though bleak” — how do you feel about the record?
[Laughs] Wait, what?
I don’t know about that. I’m not removed enough from it, I’m creatively and emotionally intertwined with it. I think it’s funny and weird, but [pauses]…let me put it this way, I totally understand why people would hate it.
Do you feel like that comes from just how diverse it is?
The idea was for it to be an EP and not an LP. When we talked about it no idea was really stuck to.
Were there a lot of conversations prior to recording?
It’s not really something that was discussed, it’s just something that kind of happened. I chose the sequence, but I don’t even really know how to answer the question; it’s just dumb, it’s a dumb record.
Do you feel you could have constructed the record to be more Total Control?
I think how it turned out was how it was always going to turn out. Nothing is really thought over too much with this band.
Why “laughing” at the system specifically?
I can’t even remember how that title came together, but my personal interpretation is…sometimes all you can do is laugh. Things feel so fucked right now. The things that are happening, they’re not funny, they’re totally absurd; as in, how have we even gotten to this point? [The title] is almost a slight dig at ourselves, and even though we’re a quite left-leaning band, we’re still very privileged people, we’re part of the problem. So, I think anything else would be false.
In the past, you’ve worked with predominantly European designers; Baets, Nawrot, Svensson — how did the artwork for Laughing come together?
That was my friend Wei Huang. He’s interesting — I came across him because I used to go to graphic design talks. I didn’t know Wei at the time but he would be one of the few people to ask questions, and they were very specific questions. He struck me as the kind of person who recently discovered what a horrible place the world is — I think he’d had some revelations about capitalism. He now lives in Switzerland, working as a type designer, which is good, because graphic design culture sucks, but there he’s a total outlier. He’s just a great person and an oddball, and he did that cover two years ago.
From listening to the record, the influence from other Total Control member’s other projects is obvious to me. Zephyr and Al with Terry and your work under Trevor. Do you feel Total Control is become more of a diverse mixture of those outside creative expressions or do all of you still see it as a singular thing that you work towards?
It’s almost a myth that it’s just Mikey and Dan. There are more Al songs on this one. I would say Al and Mikey write most of the songs but there has always been a lot of input from everyone. It’s always been a unified collaborative thing.
How does that work, meeting up so infrequently, but keeping it so collaborative?
We’ve always met up infrequently, that’s the thing. We definitely e-mail each other a lot — but as a band, we’ve never been full-time, ever.
Was there a period after Typical System when you thought Total Control wasn’t going to come back; that it was done?
Yeah [pauses] I think so. I mean, personally I feel lucky…
How do you mean?
I like being in the band. It’s really nice playing with them — but when [Typical System] came out, we were all going through changes, or had to deal with life.
Do you ever struggle with the cult-like element of the band?
I personally used to but I don’t think anybody else cares. Music’s a funny thing. The answer is no, not anymore. We want to try and not do dumb shit like suddenly make our shows really expensive or whatever.
How was Meredith for you? Was that the biggest crowd you’ve played to?
I think so? I mean, remember we played at Golden Plains five years ago — and people did not like it. So, there was pressure to not be shit. Playing after ESG this year was a crazy lead in, and we were given a crazy time-slot, like we did not deserve that time. But I think we did okay.
There was an article published by Junkee recently that raised concerns about the crowd during your set at Meredith, the writer mentions that punters were choosing to leave due to the “bro-y” nature of the crowd and what they referred to as a crowd with “little respect for the space of others”, how do you feel about those concerns?
It was hard for me to see what was happening, but it definitely looked like something was going on. It looked a bit too rowdy. I read the article, and I wrote to the person that wrote it, and we had a good conversation. I didn’t necessarily disagree with what they said. We (the band) don’t like it, but also its hard to know what’s going on sometimes, especially when you’re concentrating on not fucking up your set.
None of us really vibe on that shit at all. We played in Hobart the week before and everybody was having a nice time, and down there people can express themselves in a way that isn’t stupid.
Do you feel that fans moshing at a show — given new understandings and feelings about personal space at gigs — need to reflect on that?
For sure. People can have fun, and you can bump into someone or whatever…I don’t know if I even want to weigh in on this too much, but it can be hard to regulate your crowd.
I think that there is a place where we can all meet in the middle. People can tone down their actions [pauses] but my personal opinion is sometimes people are fucked, they’re totally fucked, and act like absolute idiots, and when I see it I just think “why are you here?”, but sometimes people are a bit quick to jump to the conclusion that someone is a meathead.
That Melbourne gig in 2014 that you mentioned, where there was some violence, did that experience change the way you guys wanted to approach playing live in the future?
That kind of thing only ever really happens in Melbourne, to that degree. For god’s sake…did Mikey punch someone? It was bad. There were altercations with the band before and after! It was so negative and dumb, and I had friends in the crowd and they were saying that there were people there who were just fucked. It bums me out if we bring out a darkness in people. Maybe Dan writes a certain type of lyric and that attracts a certain type of person and they think “I can really vibe to this.” I don’t know though. I really don’t fucking know.
Laughing at the System seems like it’s leaving the door open for something bigger in the future, is that true?
There’s definitely songs [ready]… but I don’t feel like I could say what we’ll do. It feels like the world is going to end anyway, so who knows what’ll happen.
Top photo: Total Control (Vinciguerra second from left). Credit: Traianos Pakioufakis.