controller.controller: The Wavelength Interview

Sounds like: Blondie take speed, meet The Slits in a dark Toronto alley, and they settle their differences by dancing.
File next to: !!!, The Rapture, Six Finger Satellite
Playing: WL15 Night One, Friday February 13 @ Sneaky Dee’s.

controller.controller are…. controller.controller! C’mon man! These dance-punk darlings anchored a burgeoning early-aughts scene that brought some sweat and celebration back to the basements, bars, and eventually, “big rooms” of Toronto, only to dissolve like so much mascara just as the party was getting going.

Tightly bound and bulwarked by the tightly fitted Lego blocks of bassist Ronnie Morris and drummer Jeff Scheven, bisected by the gamboling guitars of Scott Kaija and Colwyn Llewellyn-Thomas and thoroughly weaponized by the warhead of vocalist Nirmala Basnayake. Yeah, them. controller.goddamn.controller are back after eight years away and they’re playing at Wavelength’s 15-year anniversary festival! We caught up with an ever-increasing number of members as they prepared to rehearse some songs they haven’t played for quite a while.

Where are you guys, right… now?

Scott: We are in a rehearsal space. About to rehearse. For Wavelength. Back in the day we had our own rehearsal space that we had access to all the time. This is more of a “rent by the hour” thing. There’s a number of different rooms. When we’re able to get together, we come in for a couple hours, and… yeah, rehearse.

What’s that been like? The “jam space” is a really intimate environment. Is it easy to find that same vibe in a more transient setting?

Scott: Ahh, it’s been fine, I mean, in our old space we had… stuff up on the walls, and our own gear… and…

Ronnie: Red lights.

Scott: Right, red lights. Here, you’re using rental amps and drums, so it’s a little different — mostly though, you just dim the lights — and turn it up. Honestly, mostly it’s been more about learning songs that we wrote 10 years ago. Which is not necessarily as easy as you might think it’d be. We’ve managed to remember… most of them.

Can you still find the intimacy, in a space that maybe isn’t as intimate anymore?

Scott: I think you make it intimate. The problem I always found when we started to play after getting our own space was we would get comfortable with how that space sounded — you set everything up and can hear everything just how you want to hear it — but then you go on tour on for three or four weeks, and you might be playing a shitty basement, you might be playing a theatre stage, whatever — and every time we would play a show, it would be radically different. I like that now when we rehearse, we don’t always have the same room — and you’ve got to be able to go into any sort of space and make it sound as good as it can with whatever you have.

Ronnie: We’re also pretty old, so we’re not so picky anymore.

Nirmala: [laughs] It’s not hard for us to connect though — the first time the five of us, all five of us, got together again, we just spent half the time kind of catching up and joking — that’s what makes it easy to play. Not the space so much. Good friends. Jokes. Many jokes. Bad jokes.

Scott: Also, we’re surrounded by heavy metal and cover bands. It’s great to hear what the kids are doing these days.

Ronnie: Soundgarden was next door last week.

Nirmala: They sounded a lot like Soundgarden. I can’t verify that it was Soundgarden.

Ronnie: Soundalikegarden.

So it’s been easy to get back that old magic?

Nirmala: We’re so used to having to rely on each other to get through a show.

Scott: Exactly, that’s a big part of my memory of controller. That time we played a show in, I think it was St. Louis — Jeff had to get up, mid-show, go into the dressing room, throw up, and continue the show.

Ronnie: There was lots of throwing up.

Nirmala: All flu-related, let’s be clear. We were… pretty good kids.

I dunno, that sounds pretty rock’n’roll to me.

Scott: [adopts oddly wistful tone] There was a show in Portland. There were like, four people in the audience, and Ronnie played completely lying down. He was so ill.

Ronnie: It’s not that rock’n’roll, it’s the reality of: you go on tour, get sick the second week — you didn’t get health insurance — so you spend the rest of the tour sick.

Nirmala: Riiiiight! Portland! I suddenly just had this flashback of Ronnie in Portland, just near death, in a diner. We did a photo shoot on that tour. You were very near death. It oddly turned out okay, that photo shoot.

You guys sound almost nostalgic about the early days of touring — eating shitty food, being sick — but it’s 2015 and perhaps your tastes have changed, your notions of how romantic it is to sleep on someone’s floor — so how would you do it now, if this sort of nascent revival materializes into a tour? What would it look like, if you could do it your way as grown-ass folk?

Nirmala: It’s romantic at first! You’re on a road trip, with your pals! You’re going town to town. People like you! You’re seeing places you’ve never seen. Sometimes, you’re staying in hotels with comfy beds and even when you’re sleeping on someone’s floor, you’re still meeting new people — and then it suddenly turns into the longest family vacation ever, and you hate everyone.

Scott: Notably, our first tour — I remember it quite well — at the end of our first tour, we all hugged each other goodbye, and it was just like, “ahh, that was so great!”, and at the end of our very last show, there was a fistfight. The grind of touring, being uncomfortable, you’re jammed in tiny spaces, you’re eating badly, it can weigh you down even if you’re the most patient, loving person.

Nirmala: Yeah, but on the flip side, you’d never get so mad at someone unless you really loved them unless they were really family — but you still need a break, a little bit of time.

Scott: So to answer your question, anything we do now, it has to be for fun, it has to make sense. Everything we do going forward, we want to do the right way, this time. Surrounded by really supportive, healthy people — because we didn’t necessarily have that the last time around.

In the space between your last show and this reunion, a lot of things have popped up in some of your lives — families, careers, other bands — what happens to a band after they get a little success, and go their separate ways? Did one of you end up going and being an accountant, or what?

Nirmala: [To Jeff] Heeeeeeeeeey kid! Jeff just showed up. Jeff is actually a probably good guy to answer this question…

Ronnie: He’s the only guy with a career.

Nirmala: What do you do, Jeff? Like, pictures or videos? What are you up to again?

Jeff: I, uhh… I took our picture.

Nirmala: Right, Jeff is responsible for our most current and up-to-date photo. [Ed: Jeff is being rather modest – he has done some significant work as a director, whose work can be viewed at]

Scott: I think the big things that happened are Nirmala and Colwyn had children. To be clear: not with each other. Some of us bought houses. Ronnie is still trying desperately to finish school. I think he’s at like, Grade 13?

Nirmala: Ronnie is still moving up in echelons of post-secondary education.

Ronnie: Ahem. I am a PhD student. At the end of my PhD. That whole thing about not having to pay back OSAP while you’re a full-time student? That’s not true. Don’t take that path.

So who has more to say, artistically? The full-time musician with limitless resources and or the part-time musician who balances their creative needs with their day jobs? You guys have been on both sides of that — do you feel there’s a certain urgency or realness to the music made by people who don’t have the luxury of making it full-time? Or… nah?

Ronnie: I don’t think any of us would want to do this full-time. Or could.

Scott: My wife manages some artists who do this full-time — and I won’t name names — but she works with people who have to find a number of things that they do in their lives outside of music because you can’t just sit around with a guitar and be struck by inspiration — you have to do things. I personally like that balance; of having multiple outlets.

Ronnie: It’s not like working musicians are just creating all the time either. When you end up having to tour and play the same stuff all the time, it’s really not that creative.

Nirmala: Personally, I think whether you’re doing it full time or just because you have Thursdays free, if you’re doing it from a place that’s real, it’s real.

I guess the underlying question is one I have wondered about a bit — can truly happy people with everything they need in life make art that is truly interesting?

Nirmala: I don’t want to sound overly pessimistic, but I don’t think anyone is truly, completely “happy.”

Scott: Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems.

Colwyn: I imagine Lars Ulrich saying to Metallica, “Hey, let’s write a song about my painting collection,” a little bit.

Scott: I remember very clearly, back when we first started, we all had day jobs — kind of struggling to pay the bills — and going to make music with these guys was the thing that made me happy. You’re able to take everything that frustrated you and channel it into this music, and it’s nice now revisiting it eight years later. I feel almost exactly the same way. Getting to channel happiness, anger, joy — all of those things — into this big, chaotic stew.

Nirmala: I think that’s why we started doing all of this again. It may not go anywhere, but it’s a way to channel something. This is the equivalent of a weeknight bowling league.

Okay, so: pointed question. You called it quits eight years ago. What perspective do you feel like you’re bringing to the table, that you have to say, this time around? Why come back?

Ronnie: We missed playing together. We’re going to keep that up for a bit. It’s not so much about expressing anything as much as it is us repairing our friendships.

Colwyn: One gig at a time.

Jeff: We’re older, we’re wiser, and hopefully… we’re better than we were.

Scott: Sneaky Dee’s is where we played our very first show. We only had four songs. Now, it probably has a better sound system. There’ll probably be more people there and we all know how to play our instruments a little better. It’s the perfect show for us to play, and Wavelength is such a huge part of the musical history of this city. It’s great to be a part of their anniversary.

Well shucks!

C’mon out on Friday February 13 @ Sneaky Dee’s, 431 College St. and see controller.controller alongside:

ART BERGMANN (Calgary – Canadian punk pioneer & living legend – former member of The Young Canadians, Poisoned & long-time solo artists – playing songs from across his entire career w/ Toronto all-star backing band – Weewerk Recordings)

BRIDES (Guelph/Toronto – REUNION SHOW for skronky late-’00s no-wave crew)

Plus Classic Wavelength/Toronto Tribute Sets:

MOST PEOPLE Plays Broken Social Scene

DELTA WILL Plays Caribou

HERVANA Plays Constantines

MORE OR LES Plays Toronto Hip-Hop Classics



+ DJ Las Venus Skyway

++ Projections by General Chaos Visuals

7:30pm • $10 adv / PWYC at the door • 19+

— Interview by Dean Williams