It’s been quite a while since we’ve heard anything from the Information Society camp. The genre-breaking, experimental new wave and synthpop band broke out of the Twin Cities back in 1983 and had a successful run on Warner Bros. offshoot Tommy Boy Records throughout the ’80s. But by the mid-’90s the band’s three founding members had parted ways and only Kurt Larson was still recording under the Information Society name.
The band slowly regrouped in the mid-2000s, first for an episode of MTV’s Reunited and then for a new album with substitute singer Christopher Anton. And by 2007 all three founding members—Larson, Paul Robb, and James Cassidy—were back on stage again supporting their new album, Synthesizer.
But progress on new Information Society material got pushed to the back burner again after Synthesizer, with Robb, Larson, and Cassidy returning to their lives and families in separate West Coast cities. Which makes it all the more exciting to hear that today, with a few recent West Coast shows under their belt, all three founders of Information Society have rejoined forces and begun work on a new album that they expect to be released this spring.
I called up Paul Robb at his studio in L.A. this week to catch up. We originally started talking about a new remix of Strange Names’ track “Potential Wife,” which you can hear for the first time right here:
But as you’ll see our conversation quickly shifted to talk about the resurgence of ’80s sounds in modern music, his thoughts on the Minneapolis scene, and what we can expect from Information Society in the near future.
Local Current: So how did you discover Strange Names?
Paul Robb: [Strange Names’ producer] Chris Heideman and I work together in our secret day jobs, Clark Kent style, where we do music for TV, and Chris has become my pipeline to all the groovy things that are going on, especially in Minneapolis. I’m always interested in hearing what projects he’s working on. So when he played me some of the early Strange Names stuff I was very positively disposed towards it, and it kind of seemed like a natural fit to get involved in the project. And remixes seemed like a natural way to do that, especially since we’re not in the same city. It’s easy to do remixes remotely.
Local Current: What was it about “Potential Wife” that drew you to it and made you want to do the remix?
I’m a sucker for a well-written pop song, and I think that’s a well-written pop song. It’s interesting, because I do remixes every so often, and sometimes it takes me a while to figure out what I would even do on a given song, what can I bring to it. But on that particular song, it’s almost like I heard what I wanted it to end up sounding like immediately. The very first time I listened through it I said, oh, I know exactly what I want to do on this song. Which is kind of rare, to have that experience. So it was a strong, clear idea from the get-go. And it ended up sounding exactly like what I was hearing in my head.
What do you enjoy about doing a remix, as opposed to writing an original song?
Remixes are kind of a luxury. We used to complain about remixes, and how people would take our songs and they’d say they were doing a remix and then they’d send it back to us and it’d sound nothing like our music, or anything we would ever do. But as remix culture has matured and grown, remixing is almost like a re-envisioning of a piece of music at times. You have the advantage of being able to take a crystal and grow it in a way that the original artist didn’t envision. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds: you get to do your own thing, and you get to build off a foundation that someone else has started. In that respect, I really enjoy it, because it doesn’t involve the same level of existential terror that you get when you’re staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blank computer screen and saying ‘What the hell am I going to write about now?’
Are you paying much attention to the Minneapolis scene these days? Do you have any thoughts on what’s happening now?
My interest is electronic music. I know Minneapolis is not known primarily for that, but just because of my history and my tastes and my style, I’m always interested in what people are doing with electronics. And I do see, in Minneapolis—and I think Minneapolis is the perfect place for this to incubate—a move back towards alternative electronic pop music, if you will. Back in my day, when we were first charting, we were considered alternative. They even invented a new chart in Billboard for our kind of music, they called it Alternative Dance. And then we kind of got crushed between the millstones of grunge on the one hand and faceless techno on the other hand, and that lasted a long time. And I’m starting to see, in the last few years—and even with groups like LCD Soundsystem—a move back toward actual electronic bands. Not just a DJ. Not just a guy in a teddy bear costume or something. But an actual band with actual players, and a pop sensibility, not just a dance floor sensibility. I’ve seen a number of groups lately in Minneapolis that fit that bill. And it’s kind of exciting.
And I know your next question is going to be, well who are those people? And I can’t think of any at the moment. But I have seen some. Both more poppy and less poppy. And with that unique Minneapolis brew of—on the one hand it’s very cosmopolitan, and on the other hand it’s kind of provincial. You get that cultural starvation, it produces some pretty interesting flowerings.
That’s interesting that you say that; you’ve given me a lot to think about.
Well the thing is, we used to flag on the Minneapolis scene a lot when we first got out of Minneapolis. That was our go-to response: ‘Oh, Minneapolis was so mean to us, nobody liked us. All they cared about was the Replacements and Prince.’ But now, when I look back in retrospect, you can probably only name one or two really interesting bands that came out of New York City or Los Angeles that were not very generic examples of their genre, where a city like Minneapolis, you kind of have to fight a little bit to be heard and to come up with something. I think it breeds more originality. I don’t complain about the Minneapolis scene anymore. I think it’s awesome.
I’m curious, with the rise in this nostalgic ’80s new wave and synth sound in today’s pop and indie music, do you have any thoughts on returning to that sound that Information Society was a big part of returning to the forefront?
Well, pop music is cyclical, of course. And on the one hand I like it, because I think if you take away all the horrible dreck that was released in the ‘80s, it was actually a very creative time. We benefitted from our forefathers in the new wave and punk scenes, kind of busting open what was acceptable, stylistically. That’s what Ioved about new wave in general; anything was new wave as long as it was strange and new. We didn’t have these rigid genre ideas. We’d listen to the B-52s right next to Soulsonic Force right next to Gary Numan right next to the Residents and DNA or Talking Heads or whatever. And it was all new wave to us. It was only later on when radio started jumping on it that they had to start giving things genre names.
But in terms of the ‘80s revival, I mean they’ve been predicting an ‘80s revival for 15 or 20 years now. And it’s funny because every generation sees the previous generation’s music in a different way. We laugh because some of these bands, even going back to a band like the Postal Service, and I love that record—but it Information tried to release a record that sounded like that, no one would take it seriously, and we’d be laughed out of the record company. But because they were already kind of hip twentysomethings, they were allowed to do that, even though to us it would seem like a warmed-over version of what we had already done. But to them it was brand new. So I think that it’s great to hear these sounds coming back.
But I will say I’ve never been a fan of retro in the first place. One of the things that made us develop the way we did is that we wanted to sound brand new; we wanted to sound like bands that sound like bands had sounded before. And the bands that we loved sounded like no bands had ever sounded before. Kraftwerk and Gary Numan and DEVO. And the bands that bored us were bands that tried to sound like their heroes from the ‘60s and ‘70s. So I don’t like retro just for the sake of retro. I’m not going to name any names of any particular groups from France, but I don’t need anyone to make any new Nile Rogers records. Because I already heard Nile Rogers’ records. You know what I mean? There’s a fine line between being influenced by a style and just making a tribute record.
Your career has had so many interesting twists and turns, from Information Society to South Park and other work writing music for TV. What do you tell people when they ask you what you’re working on?
I try not to mention it actually. I try not to mention anything. What I do, my job description, 9-5 on a Monday through Friday basis, is ‘composer.’ But—and this is the Minnesotan in me coming out—I was so embarrassed to ever use that word. Schubert was a composer; I’m not a composer. I just put things together. And I have that same sort of shyness when it comes to talking about my work with anybody on a casual basis. It’s hard to talk about it without sounding pompous, or sounding self-important. So I kind of downplay what I’m working on.
But I can say this: For the first time in a long time, I don’t even want to tell you how many years, we’re working on some new Information Society material with all the original members of the band. And it’s super fun. And now we’re long past the time when it was critical to our self image and preservation to have these strong opinions about things, I think that we’re having a lot more fun working together. It’s interesting, because we’re starting to sound like how we always imagined we might sound, but never quite made it.
Do all of the Information Society members live in the same place?
No. I live here in L.A., in Santa Monica, and Kurt Larson lives in San Francisco, and James Cassidy lives in Corvallis, Oregon, where he is a professor. But we get together quite often. We do all live on the West Coast, so it’s not that big of a deal to get together on a weekend or a couple days here and there and crank some new stuff out.
So you’re recording right now?
Yep. Matter of fact, Kurt just went back to San Francisco last night.
Do you think that you’ll play live shows together?
Well, we just played two big shows on the West Coast with Andy Bell and Howard Jones, and that was super fun, because those were acts we grew up listening to. But in general, we play out as often as we can, but it’s not easy. We all have families and lives and stuff like that, and we can’t do what we used to do when we were kids, which was ‘Let’s take three months now and hit the road in a bus.’ But we do as much as we can. Obviously, if we put out a new record in the spring—which is the plan—we’ll have to do some live dates for it, for sure.
I know a lot of people in Minneapolis that would be pretty excited if you came back to play here.
We played a show in Minneapolis, I think our last show was in 2007, and that was the first time we had played locally in many moons. It was great, it was a big party. I have this fantasy about playing our last show ever—if we were to retire—it would be in the 7th St. Entry, which was the very first place we ever played. So there would be some artistic closure there. But let’s not be morbid.
What year was your first show?
1982. I think we opened up for a band called Chuck Wow. It’s amazing that I remember that, but these things were important to us back then.