controller.controller talk recovery, rehab, and reunion

November 5, 2017 in news

 

In the early aughts, Toronto’s controller.controller emerged with the eerily propulsive dance-punk sound they dubbed “death disco.” The band’s 2004 album History and its 2005 follow-up X-Amounts (both released by Paper Bag Records) made them one of the most buzzed bands in Canada, followed by a series of high-profile tours with artists such as The Cult and OK Go.

When vocalist Nirmala Basnayake left controller.controller in 2006 they disbanded just as quickly as they had risen and would not the hit the stage again until their 2015 reunion. Then, mere months after the band’s performance at the 15th annual Wavelength music festival, tragedy struck. At age 37, bassist Ronnie Morris suffered a series of disabling strokes. For the past two years, he has worked through intense physical therapy to regain his speech and the use of the right side of his body.

Label Obscura and controller.controller have now teamed forces a limited edition 7” vinyl single featuring the band’s first new recordings in over 10 years. All profits will be donated to raise funds for Ronnie’s rehabilitation and medical bills. Their cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” was assembled around his bass lines originally recorded in 2006, with controller.controller reuniting in the studio this year to add new instrumentals and vocals. It is accompanied on the 7” by a brand new remix of their hit 2004 song “History” by Sebastien Grainger.

A limited run of 500 copies of the 7” with hand-stamped artwork are now available for pre-order, with 130 of these copies signed by the band and presented with special perks. These include additional remixes available digitally with purchase by artists such as Tanya Tagaq collaborator Jesse Zubot, and Coins, known for his viral hit Beastie Boys/Daft Punk mash-up album Daft Science.

Label Obscura and controller.controller will celebrate the 7” with a release show on November 30th at The Baby G in Toronto. This will include performances by Hit The North (members of controller.controller, Public Animal, The Two Koreas, and Uncut), Lolaa (members of Magneta Lane), plus DJs Permboy and LinderLegs. Listen to the songs from the 7” below, and read on for Jesse Locke’s interview with controller.controller guitarist Scott Kaija.

Can you take me back to how it felt when you first learned about Ronnie’s strokes? How did you find out?

 It was crazy. Going back to our actual time together as a band, we went through a crazy couple of years. We started this band as essentially a group of strangers. Various people knew various people, so it all just came together.

If felt like we were in the rehearsal space one minute, and the next minute we were being written about, touring, and had become a buzz band. It’s quite an adjustment to be thrown in with these people. You go from being strangers to acquaintances to essentially family because you’re on the road for five weeks at a time, living in a band, sharing one hotel room if you’re lucky.

We had this crazy trial by fire, and then it burnt out just as fast. We didn’t really talk for a while after that. Everyone had gone on with their lives, had children, and moved on to other things. Then we all had nostalgia, longing for those friendships, and our creative relationships.

How did the band come back together again for your reunion in 2015?

We started seeing each other again in passing or whatever the case may be and were always excited to see each other. Then at the end of 2014 the band magically found its way back together, and we had a reunion. We played two shows, but before that we were on our own going into the rehearsal space every week. It really reinvigorated this intense friendship without all of the other pressure.

Ronnie was in the process of finishing up his PhD when there was a strike at York University. We decided that when that was all over we would get together and write some new music. The Wavelength show was in mid-February, so after that we had a few email exchanges until one morning when my phone started ringing. It was our drummer Jeff, and he never calls me. Ronnie had these strokes, and there were complications.

 The previous six months had been an emotional event in and of itself with the power of those friendships reconnecting. Then suddenly out of nowhere this healthy, vibrant guy nearly died. He didn’t just have two strokes and then recover. Complications from the strokes required him to have emergency surgery to save him. All we could do was stand by and wait. With each day he got a little better, and we were eventually able to go out and see him at the hospital in Brampton where his family lived.

How has his recovery been going in the last two years?

After we got through the initial stress, we realized he had to pay for his recovery. Ronnie doesn’t have health insurance as a PhD student, so we tried to figure out the most important thing we could do for him as a band. There is a little bit of OHIP support for stroke patients between the ages of 18 and 64, but Ronnie was basically left high and dry.

Initially his family started a crowdfunding site, and we put on a fundraiser at the end of 2015, but now here he is two years later and he’s still recovering. I’ve played music with Ronnie, but his right hand just doesn’t work the way it used to, and he has to focus on his speech to get back to where he was. He’s still in rehab.

 When did you decide to come together again to record this 7”?

 After Ronnie got the all clear, I really wondered what I could do because I consider to him to be a family member and a brother. During our reunion, we got our masters back. We had all totally forgotten that during the making of our second album we had started to record a cover of “She’s Lost Control” by Joy Division. I said “fuck yeah! I wonder if we can do anything with this?” We decided to take the bass line that Ronnie had already recorded and do something new with it.

Rob Sanzo who recorded our two albums got involved, and he helped edit the bass line. Revolution Studio donated time so the rest of us went in and re-recorded the instruments and vocals. Then we had this song that uses Ronnie’s actual bass line and Tim came along and said he would release it.

Ronnie’s life as an academic was going to be lecturing students, but now he can’t do that because his speech is impaired. He can’t live his other life as a musician either. He can’t do the two things that he’s really fucking good at, and it’s been almost two and a half years since this happened. Ronnie works and works at it, and it’s his band as much as anyone else’s, so I hope that comes through with this release.

For anyone who’s not familiar with the Joy Division song, can you talk about why you chose to record it?

 It was the one cover we used to do. There was a Joy Division and New Order cover night put on by Dan Burke at the Silver Dollar that tons of awesome bands played. We learned “She’s Lost Control” and I don’t know if anyone really thought about the connection because of our band name. It’s just such a great song.

We would play it live and always get a great reception, but at the time lots of mainstream bands were coming out with covers, like Alien Ant Farm doing “Smooth Criminal” or Limp Bizkit doing “Faith.” We didn’t want to be a band that came out with another band’s song, so we never finished the recording.

It was great to rediscover it two years ago though, because at the time I never knew if Ronnie would play music again. Since then I have played with him and he’s sending me new ideas, which is amazing. But this was one thing that no one had heard, so we built a new recording around it.

There’s also significance to the song because it was written about a woman experiencing violent epileptic seizures and losing control of her body.

 Ian Curtis from Joy Division was epileptic, so he was closer to the world, and the way I understand it is that he wrote the song about someone he saw having a fit. That’s another weird connection because it’s called “She’s Lost Control”, we’re called controller.controller, and now the song is coming out as a fundraising single for Ronnie, who essentially lost control himself. Tie those three things together however you will. I really just hope people don’t think of this as purely a charity project, but can enjoy the tune and think it’s well done.

 

It’s also really interesting hearing the different remixes, like Sebastien Grainger turning “History” into a club banger, while Jesse Zubot stripped the song down to its skeleton.

 It’s crazy, eh? Those are built from the same song but they sound totally different. Peter Chapman, who records as Coins, made this mash-up of the Beastie Boys and Daft Punk that went viral last year and got covered in places like GQ. He did that project for fun, and then someone discovered it and realized it was the coolest thing ever. Peter is an amazing artist who doesn’t necessarily have the same cachet as Jesse or Sebastien, but he’s another super talented person remixing our songs.

The remixes are just as exciting if not more exciting than us building the cover. There’s really a whole village around the band, so people are doing whatever they can by remixing our songs. It’s just like the four of us in controller playing our instruments, Rob Sanzo and the studio recording it, Tim putting it out, or you writing about it.

This release is not just about raising money for Ronnie’s recovery, but also bringing awareness to other people in similar situations. I’m sure there all kinds of musicians in Canada who seem to be doing well, but are they actually protected? Do they have insurance and benefits, and can they pay their rent? We live in these bubbles where we’re not always taking the best care of ourselves, and assume that we’re indestructible, but anything can happen. If you’re on the road all the time and eating badly it’s just not the case. You really need people around you to be looking out for you as much as you’re looking out for yourself.

Ronnie also played in a great band called Flowers of Hell, and they were supposed to play a show right after he had his strokes. We live in these bubbles as musicians and artists where we’re not always taking the best care of ourselves, and assume that we’re indestructible. If you’re on the road all the time and eating like shit, it’s not the case. You really need people around you to be looking out for you as much as you’re looking out for yourself.

I’m a new dad and always have to remind myself that there’s a greater good. That’s what I’m hoping to do with this project, not just directly help Ronnie.  I want to get a couple hundred bucks in his pocket for Christmas, but also put out the story that people are there for you when push comes to shove. In this day and age it’s negativity piled on negativity, but here’s a community willing to help out someone in need.

The controller.controller 7″ will be released on November 30th by Label Obscura.  It is now available for pre-order here.


controller.controller 7″
A) “She’s Lost Control” (Joy Division Cover)
B) “History ’17” (Sebastien Grainger Remix)

Additional Remixes
“History” (Coins Remix)
“History” (Zubot Remix)
“The Raw No” (afrech sorgbreyta Remix)
“Tigers Not Daughters” (Torro Torro Remix)

Release Show
Thursday, November 30th
The Baby G (Toronto)
Lolaa (Members of Magneta Lane)
Hit The North (Members of controller.controller, Public Animal, The Two Koreas, and Uncut)
DJs Permboy and LinderLegs

(swedish) Death Polka talk Judith Judith and the disaster that inspired it.
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By Jesse Locke

Jesse Locke is a writer, editor, and musician based in Toronto. He is the author of Heavy Metalloid Music: The Story of Simply Saucer, published in 2016 by Eternal Cavalier Press. Jesse currently plays drums for Century Palm, Tough Age, Chandra, and Simply Saucer.

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