Offending Two Camps: An Interview with Controller.Controller


By Pierre Hamilton

She was supposed to say yes. Yes to hair dyed jet black, eyeliner and nail polish of the same indelible blackness, knee-high leather boots with straps and spikes, and teeth reshaped to resemble fangs. Yes to Edgar Allen Poe and yes to marathon midnight screenings of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Hunger, and The Crow. Yes to piercing, pewter, and safety pins, a love affair with Siouxsie & the Banshees, and a resounding yes to Anne Rice.

But Nirmala Basnayake, lead singer of Controller.Controller, said no. When asked if she had read any of Rice’s novels, she extends the “o” in “No” in a way that I interpret as, ‘I can’t believe you asked that’. “Not at all,” she continues. Midway through this exchange, she laughs. A nervous laugh, it pierces my ego in two places.

Maybe Basnayake was never a diehard Goth infatuated with Nosferatu, but she didn’t deny it, either. I just forgot to ask, though, can one be Goth without relishing Rice? (Goth fans please do not reply). Born to Sri Lankan parents, Basnayake is a first-generation Canadian who grew up idolizing the popular white girls in Ottawa. Hers is a tale, pale in comparison when compared with my own concocted fantasy of her past, one that leads to her stealing away from the trench coat crowd and retiring to the privacy of her bedroom. Only there can she revel in disco’s decadence, a necessary dalliance that transforms Goth-girl into vamp vocalist for a brooding band—consisting of Jeff Scheven (drums), Scott Kaija (guitar), Colwyn Llewellyn-Thomas (guitar), Ronnie Morris (bass)—that dispenses moody melancholic music that urges you to grab your dancing shoes.

“How do you explain that vampire verse on ‘City of Daggers’?” I ask.

“The vampire line comes from a web site called Found magazine,” she says. “People send in things that they find on the street… little pieces of paper with writing on them… that these people who find them see a sort of magic in. One of the things that was found was a slip of paper from Toronto [the band’s hometown] with a little weird drawing on it and it was a letter to somebody and the very last line was, ‘I am a vampire to you,’ which I thought was funny.”

That’s it. No pre-show blood-sucking rituals; no pacts with Lucifer—just a piece of trash and an artistic theft that led to inspiration. Away from the seductive red light that typically floods the stages they perform on, Controller.Controller seem no different from any of the hipsters inhabiting any of the post-punk bands dominating the music press. “As much as we all love horror and vampires and that sort of macabre stuff… we’re actually a much happier band than maybe that would paint us.”

It’s true. A visit to the band’s bio page reveals smiles and sun, repellent to most Goths. When I ring the band, Basnayake seems too eager to appease, stumbling out of a van in Los Angeles to get better reception from a ridiculously clunky Nokia cellphone. SXSW is a couple days away. The band performed at The Echo, the night before, on Sunset Blvd. After this interview, they’re going for breakfast, probably at Brite Spot, before heading to Austin.

The phone’s reception is terrible. It cackles, drops out for a few seconds, and prompts Basnayake to seek sanctuary in a hotel room she thinks they slept in the night before. She’d call me from her phone, but says they’re poor and can’t afford it. As a gig, rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t seem to pay very well.

“This is not a career,” she insists. “I mean it’s… how do I put this, we don’t earn a living doing this.”

When not touring, she temps. Someone else paints. One of them no doubt serves drinks. The commonality is this: those occupations are temporary and can be abandoned by modern-day beatniks who, like Kerouac or Kesey, are often on the road or on the bus. If they sound like the children of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, they are. A strong desire to divorce the past saturates a music chained to it. By design, the music throbs with a tug-and-pull tension highlighted by the two sides to that life, the depth of despair wrought from conformity and the freedom to transcend it all through dance.

Hazy, half-muttered lyrics dominate the murky, ambiguous world of X-Amounts, the band’s first album proper since their 2004 EP History. It’s a place, Basnayake says, where everything means anything you want it to but most of the songs are about love. Wondering which ones, well, Basnayake is reluctant to tell, preferring instead that you find your own meaning.

“I don’t want someone to feel like just because they haven’t had the same experiences I have they can’t relate to the songs,” Basnayake says. “I like people just coming up with their own interpretations, that just fascinates me.

“Mystery is always really appealing and really intriguing. It really adds this layer to any situation that is very attractive. You don’t want to put on a false sense of mystery. It’s nice to be up front and straightforward. But its not so much as I’m thinking about mystery as a lie as much as I like the idea of X being so fluid. It could stand for so much.

To the rock criticism corps, X-Amounts is just that, a placeholder. Pitchfork rated it 7.1. Stylus handed over a B. Prefix Magazine gave it three and half diamond type things (out of four). Here at PopMatters, Canuck Adrien Begrand, who reviewed their EP, offered up a five.

History clocked in at less than 25 minutes; hence, no time to get comfortable. X-Amounts, at almost 40 minutes, keeps the disco beats that propped up History, but often the whole thing tramples into monotony. In the end, the songs fail to lodge themselves in your mind the way “Disco Blackout” or “History” did.

“Clearly we’ve offended two different camps,” Basnayake says, referring to American critics who demand the band they were two years ago, when History was recorded, and the Canadian cynics who want History rewritten to reflect those two years of growth.

“We didn’t make [a record] to please anybody in particular. You can’t do that. You can’t go and make an album that you hope will please critics because then it will just be blatant and overwrought and ridiculous. So, we go in and make what me make and if people think it’s not dance-y enough, maybe there will be some remixes. And if people feel like it’s a little too dance-y and there is not enough soul searching than I don’t know, maybe we can talk.”

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