CONTROLLER.CONTROLLER with the TWO KOREAS , DEATH FROM ABOVE , DJ Will Munro and dj mikey apples Cinecycle (129 Spadina), Friday (March 5). $8. www.paperbagrecords. com Rating: NNNNN
Death Disco outfit controller. controller are starting to sweat. That's nothing new really, considering the post-punk posse is notorious for whipping typically stiff hipsters into a dancing frenzy during their live shows.
But this time the band's miles from the closest club. They're shifting uncomfortably in the middle of a rain forest, surrounded by croaking frogs, the low hum of insects... and, uh, a giant ape.
OK, so the ape is actually monkey-obsessed drummer Jeff Scheven sporting a bizarro latex mask, the frogs and insects are a taped feed filtering out of hidden speakers, and the rain forest is really a sweltering greenhouse in the bowels of the suburban Ontario Science Centre.
The band's gathered for a campy photo shoot.
"I need someone to mop my brow," whimpers guitarist Scott Kaija, pouting like a faux prima donna for the camera. Scheven searches desperately for a vine to swing from while the remaining controllers, bassist Ronnie Morris, guitarist Colwyn Llewellyn-Thomas and impish frontwoman Nirmala Basnayake shove each other like kids on a class trip.
Goofiness is the last thing you'd expect from rockers who've generated a healthy amount of buzz for their icy, atmospheric performances. Bathed in pools of sultry red light, controller. controller captivate crowds with a structured assault reminiscent of early-80s post-punkers like Gang of Four and PiL - rigid, snaky disco-gone-evil bass lines, sudden bursts of droning guitar, syncopated drumbeats and the sexy android coo of not-so-secret weapon Basnayake.
Not all crowds dig their onstage aloofness, but it's a performance persona that ties into their intense aesthetic. Controller.controller are all about atmosphere in private as well. At band practice a week earlier, they cut the overhead lights and cranked up hot fuchsia floor lamps and a string of overhead porch lanterns to set the mood before tearing through a set list with businesslike efficiency.
In just over a year, controller.controller have gone from playing underground loft parties to being invited to play three major cities on the cross-Canada CBC 3 tour. They snagged label interest before they'd even started recording an album, and dropped their debut disc, History, on Paper Bag Records on February 24.
A fast start for a band that gradually came together from "musician wanted" ads in the back of free magazines and friend-of-a-friend recommendations.
Although the members have been fiddling around with the genre for years, it's a no-brainer to attribute controller.controller's sudden success to the current art-school rock trend that's made stars out of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Rapture. While members reject a pat cause-and-effect relationship, the band welcomes the comparisons.
"At the time we started out, dance music was electronic," explains Morris over beers at La Hacienda post-photo shoot.
"You couldn't dance to guitars. So combining the two seemed like an apples-and-oranges impossibility. It shouldn't be that way. If you just look back a little, people danced to rock music, so what's the big deal? It still seems like in Toronto anybody who starts something comparable adheres to the notion that if you play dance music you need a synthesizer.
"That's one of the things I like about a band like the Rapture - they're looking at the power of rhythm to propel audiences. Just pure guitar-drum rhythms. You don't need to have drum machines or synths playing Depeche Mode lines."
Those dance-friendly rhythms are what most people take away from controller.controller shows - a visceral, sexy pelvic thrust propelled by the cranked-up low-end rumblings of Morris and Scheven.
So some fans might be surprised by the band's sound on History. That's partly due to the influence of Rob Sanzo, a hardcore producer who's worked with punk bands like Grade but whose interest in controller.controller stems from his long-time love of PiL-style rock.
"The difference between the punk and the post-punk movements is that people grew up. Once you learn to play, your concerns are different. Maybe it's a little less pure, a little less raw, but you're working with more knowledge and experience and maybe a little more bitterness.
"There's a parallel, cuz for a lot of these kids who are into post-punk, the hardcore scene in the 90s was their 1977. It seems like a natural progression, like history repeating."
Sanzo helped untangle Kaija's and Llewellyn-Thomas's frenetic, spiralling rock guitar riffs and unearthed Basnayake's half-spoken, half-purred lyrics. You can finally figure out what the hell she's singing about.
That doesn't mean it's comprehensible, of course. Take the odd, repeated chant "V-one-five-point-eight-five" on album centrepiece Sleep Over It. Huh?
"It's not a Joy Division tribute, although I think that's how a lot of people interpret it," she laughs. "It's a medical reference. When you're processing medical charts, instead of writing out everything the doctor's diagnosed, you enter a code, and it makes the insurance go through more quickly. You can look at a chart and know from the numbers that the patient had, say, a broken left toe. There are thousands of codes out there. It's awesome, very fascinating.
"I asked my fiancé, who was working at NYU in the health centre, to send me a bunch of sexual dysfunction codes so I could pick one with the right number of syllables. I ended up with V-1-5 point 8-5, which refers to the exchange of potentially hazardous bodily fluids. The runner-up was 6-0-7 point 8-4, which is impotence, but I thought this was funnier."
Bands repeating a word in their names is not a new thing. Take these, for example. We'll leave the triple-word bands - Wet Wet Wet, Kill Kill Kill, Yeah Yeah Yeahs - for another time.
THE THE Gadgets singer/songwriter Matt Johnson's solo project.
DURAN DURAN The 80s new wave fops took their name from a character in the film Barbarella.
TIGER TIGER Under-appreciated Seminole rockers led by the brother duo Stephen and Lee Tiger.
Mr. Mister Professional background singers went on to form a mega-selling stadium-rocking hair band harmony group.
TALK TALK Mark Hollis's 80s radio-friendly synth pop outfit.
ALARM ALARM Welsh rockers changed their name to the Alarm when the BBC's John Peel complained there were too many bands with double-word names, like Talk Talk and Duran Duran.