Interview with Paul Robb about the return of Information Society

By Bob Gourley | Published on September 2, 2014
Information Society

Best known for their freestyle hit “Running” and the synth pop classic “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy),” Information Society returned after a long absence in 2007 with the excellent “Synthesizer” album. Most of that album featured a different singer, Christopher Anton, as original vocalist Kurt Larson had limited availability at the time. But now the original trio of Larson, Paul Robb and James Cassidy are back with a new album,  “_hello world.”

Below are a pair of interviews with Robb. The first is a phone interview done in March 2014, focusing on getting the original line-up back together and “Land of the Blind” single/EP.  The second is an email follow-up done in late August, dealing more with the new album.

When did the original line-up decide to come back with new Information Society music?

“Around 2006/2007 we did some shows with Kurt for a radio station in NY, and it was so much fun that we started accepting a few more shows, and a few more shows. That eventually led to 2009, when we did a mini-tour, and one of the shows in Philadelphia was recorded for a live DVD that we released. That’s probably when we first started talking casually about doing some new material. It’s just taken us this long to get down to it and finish some stuff up.”

What are the major challenges in continuing Information Society?

“Number one, we’re all involved in other projects. Jim Cassidy, for instance, is a full time professor in Oregon. It’s difficult for him to break out of his teaching routine for us to play shows. It’s hard for him to get away, as it is for the rest of us. I would say that probably the second biggest challenge for us is that we’re not huge enough and rich enough as a band to, 25 years later, still have this be our main career focus. It’s always a balancing act. We don’t want to just be a nostalgia act, but on the other hand it’s not something we can devote the entirety of our lives to 24/7. In that sense, it’s always a balancing act. Some years and some months, we spend more time on the band, and some we spend less.”

Has this changed the way you create music? For example, is it more of a long-distance collaboration now?

“Interestingly, our process is exactly the same as it ever was. We were never the kind of group who would sort of gather around in one room and hash out our music. Generally speaking, I would always write a track and then either I would write the top line then send it to Kurt, or I would send it to Kurt and say ‘how do you feel about this track, do you want to write a top line on it?’ and he would do it. Even when we were just a few blocks away from each other in New York City, we’d work that way. And we still do. In that sense, we do collaborate remotely. But we are old school enough that when it comes time to actually record things, we want to be in the same room together. The guys will fly down to my studio here in Santa Monica at intervals, and we’ll lay down a few tracks, then they’ll go home and fly down again two weeks or a month later.”

When you work on new material, are you thinking about audience expectations, and balancing that with your own current musical interests?

“It’s totally something that I think about. When we did ‘Synthesizer,’ it was actually quite challenging for me to even remember how to sound like Information Society. It’s funny–groups like Devo when they did their most recent album–they hired a bunch of kids to produce it for them because they couldn’t remember how to sound like Devo! Ironically, it was probably the most Devo-sounding album in a long time. We’re not about to hire a bunch of kids to work on our music, but I will say that it is a balancing act. We don’t want to be one of those bands who desperately tries to be current. And yet, I think there is some pretty interesting electronic music going on in the world right now. So I want to incorporate some of what I like of the modern era into the template that we established years ago. We’re songwriters; we’re a band. We’re not a DJ project or an EDM act where it’s just five minutes of builds and drops. So that fact all by itself means that we’re going to sound quite traditional.”

The musical technology has evolved greatly since Information Society emerged – how has that impacted how you work?

“People score movies on a single laptop these days. I will tell you that our live rig weighs probably one-tenth of what it used to weigh, which is good because we could never afford to go overseas these days with the kind of rig. That miniaturization of everything, the computerization of everything, makes the whole thing much easier for us. We’re much more self-contained. It makes flying to shows a lot easier, instead of having to get a bus and a truck and everything like that. So that’s the live thing, it makes everything easier.

“Obviously in the studio too, everything is mostly in the box. I used to have walls and walls of analog synthesizers, which over the years I’ve whittled down to my favorite one or two. I don’t need them anymore. I know there’s a lot of people who still love to play around with them, the modular synths and things like that, but you don’t actually need that stuff anymore. The downside of that is that there is so much choice that you have to struggle to keep your own style and not get carried away by the millions and millions of easy presets and loops and everything else that is out there and easily accessible.”

Is it a challenge to not get bogged with all of the options?

“We do consciously think about that all the time. That’s where being aware of the legacy and historical significance of the band comes in. Sometimes things start to deviate too far away [from Information Society]. I’m constantly saying to Kurt ‘that’s not what Information Society sounds like.’ Well, we can make it sound like anything we want it to sound like, but there is kind of a through line and we want to keep that. So self-conscious limitation is always an artist’s friend.”

Do the ideas that don’t fit Information Society end up being used elsewhere?

“Oh of course, that’s what Think Tank was all about. I put out four albums under the name Think Tank that were mostly quasi-instrumentals with samples over the top. That was an outlet for all the stuff I wanted to do that didn’t sound like Information Society. And then also in the late 90’s, I had Brother Sun Sister Moon, which had female vocals and was much more beat-oriented. So yeah, over the years we’ve all had our different outlets. Kurt has done side projects with Steven Seibold of Hate Dept. It’s good to have an outlet like that, because it keeps the main project more pure.”

What made you choose “Land of the Blind” as the first single off your upcoming new album?

“Actually our manager kind of chose it for us. We probably would have hemmed and hawed about it for a long time, but he kind of just said ‘that’s the obvious one that we’ve got to go with.’ Based on fan reaction, I think he was absolutely right. He chose it because it was the one that sounded the most like classic Information Society. I think that fans are hearing that as well and are responding very positively to it.”

The EP features a cover of “Me and My Rhythm Box” from the movie “Liquid Sky” – what made you decide to do that?

“Well, I happened to watch part of that movie about a year ago. And it just reminded me how much I always really liked that song, even though it’s terrible. The whole movie is terrible, it’s unbelievably bad. But it still was incredibly influential on us and everyone in our scene and of our particular age group. So re-doing that horrible song, but twisting it so that the vocals are done by computer instead of a human trying to sound like a computer, I think was just kind of cute and fun. It was really just a lark.”

Is the new album done?

“It is complete. We have not finished mixing it, but all the writing is done and all the singing is done. We’re not planning on putting it out until the summer, so we’ve got another couple of months to tinker and refine things.”

Where do you feel your fanbase is the strongest? Are there any particular places you prefer to perform?

“I would say aside from the US, our biggest fan bases have traditionally been South America, the whole of Latin America, really, and then Scandinavia and Japan. Why those areas? I can’t tell you. I can say that in terms of where we like to perform the best, I would have to say Brazil, just because the fans are so psychotic there, for whatever odd set of random reasons. They really, really like us. In the States, it’s a different proposition because it depends on where we are, we will be perceived differently. For instance, in New York and pretty much all of the East Coast, we are known as the band who sings ‘Running.’ That’s what we’re most known for–an underground freestyle act who had this sort of legendary classic hit back in the 80s. And then in places like Texas and the South, which is what we call the ‘land where new wave never died’ we’re seen as being a classic synth pop act of the Erasure / Depeche Mode / Pet Shop Boys ilk. So it’s interesting. We do different kinds of shows in different places, depending on the audience.”

I noticed that “Creatures of Influence” was re-released, and there is also a recent live album. Could you comment on those?

“There’s a live album that is actually nothing more than a remixed/remastered audio version of the live DVD that came out in 2009. And then the “Creatures of Influence” thing … we did a compilation of all our old stuff a few years ago. It was a limited release, physical CD, that we called ‘Apocryphon.’ Once that sold out, we put out the individual projects just as digital releases on iTunes and whatever, mostly because we couldn’t stand seeing people paying 300 bucks a pop for those old records on ebay. But then ironically, there’s a label from Berlin that is putting ‘The InSoc EP’, which is the very first record we ever made, out on vinyl. What are the odds of that?”


Follow-up email interview (August 2014)

You’ve made “_hello world” available for pre-order on Pledgemusic, even though it was already complete and the actual recording wasn’t dependent funding there. I see more and more bands doing it this way, but am wondering what your motivation was for using Pledgemusic at this point?

It can be nice to hook up with a company like Pledgemusic because they already have a system in place for things like premium packages and exclusive content. It’s kind of like the promotions department of a record label, without the label. It keeps us from having to kill ourselves reinventing the wheel when it comes to communicating with our fans.

The deluxe box set actually comes a special InSoc version of the Nootropic Synthino. How did that come about?

Kurt actually brought the Synthino to our attention. The bonus was that the designers are from our home town, Minneapolis, so it seemed like it was meant to be. In terms of what attracted us to the idea: we’re selling a tiny, hackable, INSOC-branded synth to our fans! What’s not to love?

When the ‘Land of the Blind’ EP came out, you’d said that the album was mostly done but you had ‘another couple of months to tinker and refine things.’ Did the feedback from ‘Land of the Blind’ have any kind of influence on the finishing touches you put on “_hello world”?

Not really. But everybody seemed to have really nice things to say about “Land of the Blind”, so it was very encouraging.

What made you cover “Beautiful World,” and how did Gerald V Casale get involved? Did his involvement make you feel more pressured to make your version musically unique from the Devo original (so that it didn’t end up just sounding like Devo)?

We’d been wanting to cover a Devo song for a long time. They were a huge influence on us, and it just seemed like the time was right. Gerry Casale being involved was really just a happy accident. We already had the song nearly finished when our manager, Jason Fiber, pointed out that he was friends with Gerry, and did we want to ask him to do a guest vocal. Gerry didn’t really influence the stylistic choices we made with the track, but I’m happy to report that he did approve.

We were able to contact Gerald V Casale and get his thoughts on contributing vocals to the track. Here’s what he had to say:
“It was easy working with Paul Robb and the ‘IS’ crew on Beautiful World. They styled the song the way Devo might have done had we written it now. Thoroughly enjoyable experience.”

Do you plan on touring to support the album? If so, how extensively?

We’ll do as many dates as possible, given the constraints of our other careers as gator hunter, librarian, and parking lot attendant, respectively.

You’ve mentioned Information Society having a particularly large following in Brazil. Is there anything that you can attribute this to or did it really just mysteriously work out that way?

Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Spain, pretty much anywhere Spanish or Portuguese are spoken! I think more than anything else, it has to do with the demonstrated excellent musical taste of these countries.

For more info, visit the official Information Society website.

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