Around this time last year, controller.controller were widely regarded as Toronto’s new “it” band. The “it” title, currently held by Death From Above 1979, helped controller.controller to become one of the city’s best live acts, opening for Franz Ferdinand and playing in NYC’s CMJ hype-fest. Being an “it” anything, however, can carry some limitations – and controller.controller have since dropped the “it” from their name.
With this year’s well-received debut History out now, and a follow-up release slated for 2005, controller.controller guitarist Scott Kaija gave Torontoist the exclusive dish on what’s new with the old “it”-sters.
You just finished a tour with The Organ.
Yeah we just finished a big tour. In terms of length and number of shows it was our biggest ever. I think it was twenty-two shows in three and a half weeks. We started in New York with CMJ and played around the states, then came back to Toronto for about two weeks. But it was still like being on the road because we played so much around here, like Hamilton, Buffalo, Detroit, Waterloo, Peterborough…
How is playing in Toronto compared to the rest of the universe? Do you like playing here better?
No. We played a lot here last year. I don’t really have fun playing here. I mean, it’s not horrible or anything. I really have fun playing in cities like Hamilton, Kingston, or the East Coast. It’s like people there are less jaded in a way. They go to shows and are genuinely excited to see bands. In Toronto, it’s like there is always something going on, so that excitement is never really there.
Maybe a little more pressure playing in front of the hometown.
No, I don’t think it’s more pressure. It’s the feeling you get from looking out at the crowd…Toronto is totally different. Like I remember we played the Paper Bag Records anniversary party at Lee’s Palace a few months ago. The place was totally packed, and I remember looking back and just seeing all these people standing still, staring or politely applauding. I mean, I think everyone enjoyed the show. When we played a show in Kingston, the kids just went crazy; uninhibited dancing, jumping up and down, sweating…I’d rather a crowd like that.
At first it was really cool. We were playing these off the beat and path-type places, and there were a lot of people who were excited about us. Then we started getting press around Toronto, and the mood shifted a little. People would start coming to shows to check us out, just to see what all the fuss is about. That’s when we knew it was getting serious.
I heard you were signed to Paper Bag Records before they ever heard you play. Am I wrong?
Our very first show was at Sneaky Dee’s, for the Ryerson magazine called Function. We played four songs. Then we played another show, mostly just to friends. We were friends with Amanda from Paper Bag, and I think she checked us out at one of those shows. But yeah, Paper Bag wanted to sign us without even hearing a demo. I think they just saw us live. They committed to it based on our live act I guess.
How do you like being on Paper Bag?
It’s sad that Amanda left, but it’s great. There are a lot of good things to being on a smaller label. I can just phone up Trevor and talk to him. But I guess there are limitations too. They’ve got like six bands, and there so much work to be done.
We get along with all the other bands, we share rehearsal space with Magneta Lane and we are good friends with the Uncut guys. There is definitely some commmradery there. We’ve done a bunch of shows with just Paper Bag bands.
It’s kind of an “it” label of Toronto.
Uh, yeah I guess so.
I’m sorry. I can’t believe I just said that: An “it” label…I guess I‘ve been reading too much US Weekly or something.
Well it’s true. Lots of people talk about them, and they get great press. They’re a little higher profile then other labels in the city.
Why is it that so many people pay attention to Paper Bag bands over others?
It’s tricky for me because I’m so close to it. I’ve seen Magneta Lane and Uncut so many times that I’ve lost some perspective. Paper Bag really deserves the credit though. They tend to only work with artists they really believe in. They never signed anything just because they thought it would be successful. The three of them – or two of them now – are really behind everything on that label. There’s a lot of work that goes into a record, so they really have to be.
I used think that labels like Drake City, and Touch and Go and Matador were almost infallible. I thought anything they put out would be good, but I guess I just got disappointed too many times. But when something new comes out on those labels, or Merge, I’ll still check it out. And that’s good for labels like Paper Bag. Like if someone buys our record and likes it, they might be inclined to get Magneta’s record or an Uncut record. And vice versa. It works to expose artists to wider audiences.
Let’s talk History. What does it mean when your lead singer Nirmala Basnayake chants those numbers and letters in “Sleep Over It”? (vee-one-five-point-eight-five)
It’s a code for having the potential for transmitting venereal disease. Just when the band was forming, Nirmala met her now husband who’s in medicine. And I guess it’s easier to have codes than to describe things like that. Nirmala is so humble and soft-spoken and quiet, and then she listens to the music and comes up with these great lyrics. Colwyn (Llewellyn-Thomas, guitar) wrote that song, and when were playing it in our space it was so loud. Then Nirmala started shouting something, and I think it just came about. And you can ask her what it’s about and she’ll tell you. It’s just like…”Nirmala, you’re brilliant…”
How are you going to follow up History?
History was basically the first six songs we wrote. We recorded after about six months of playing together. Now half of the songs on the new record we’ve already been playing for a year, so those songs are tighter. We’re able to recognize our strengths better, and we all know each other better. I’m glad people responded well to History, but I feel like we didn’t really know what we were doing. Now I think we do.
Like last Sunday, we went in to practice, and finished a song from beginning to end in one night. It was really fulfilling. It’ll be a different record – hopefully an evolution.
I think the songs on the new record will probably sound more…concise, more straightforward…we just know each other better. I don’t want to say “poppy,” but something like that. We’re not really trying to get on pop radio or anything. As clichéd as it sounds, I would just like to make good records.
It’s still really early in the recordings to know how things will turn out. Things tend to take a life of their own during recording. When you have five people, six including the producer, throwing all these ideas in, it builds up. It’s like a snowball rolling down the hill, and things just keep adding on.
How do you know when to stop your snowball from rolling down the hill?
Well, usually there’s some fucking deadline. Like we want to have this out by April, so we have to finish by the end of January.
controller.controller play the El Mocombo on Dec. 31, 2004. Also, keep it locked down on CBC3 to hear their recently recorded live-in-studio session.