Paul Robb of Information Society talks about “ODDfellows”

On their latest release, ODDfellows (Hakatak International), Information Society continues to create sophisticated pop music that fuses new wave, freestyle, electronic-industrial and other genres. Initially best known for such ’80s synth hits as “What’s On Your Mind (Pure Energy)” and “Running,” Information Society has continued to use technology in innovative ways and, most importantly, make great music. Being kept off the road due to Covid-19 gave them extra time to fine-tune “ODDfellows,” and this time around, they utilized THX Spatial Audio to create an immersive listening experience.

While the line-up has shifted over the years, Information Society currently features founding members Paul Robb (synths), Kurt Larson (vocals) and bassist James Cassidy (bass). Video artist Zeke Prebluda (aka Falcotronik) has been performing live with them since 2009 and became a fourth official member in 2019. Over a Zoom interview, Robb talked about the new album and the current status of the band.

Before the album release, you’d already put out four of these songs as singles. Were those initially conceived as one-off singles? Or were they part of your overall vision for the album and just the first songs completed?

We’ve been debating for ten or more years now about the nature of releasing music and the continued obsolescence of the album, or not. Because we knew that we were in no hurry making these recordings, we decided to start releasing songs as we finished them. And so, not all of those four singles were singles in the same sense that we would have released a single 20 or 25 years ago. They were not necessarily radio-ish sounding songs or extra poppy compared to the rest of our material. But we felt then, and we still feel to a certain extent, that especially now with the dominance of Spotify, the era of the album is sort of over.

We’re kind of back to a pre-LP mindset where people go to listen to a song most of the time. They don’t necessarily sit down and listen to a whole side of an album, or both sides of an album, the way we used to in the seventies, eighties, and most of the nineties. So that was the thinking behind that. And then, once the fourth one had been released, we were kind of well into the sessions for the rest of the album. Then the pandemic hit. We had plans; we were going to be out on the road last summer. We intended to release this album a while ago. The pandemic kind of threw everything into disarray for us, as it did with everybody else in the world. We put a hold on the album.

I like albums. I like to see what the artist has as a whole vision, as an overall grouping of songs. I like to listen to them in order, as the original artist intended. But, I also acknowledge that a lot of people don’t do that anymore. So, we’re trying to have it both ways, a little bit.

So, releasing it that way, do you think it impacted how the overall album turned out? Did feedback on the singles have any influence on the remainder of the album?

Not at all. I’d say that the causality was actually in the other direction. We’ve done this for a while, but not quite in such a stretched-out fashion. These songs were produced one at a time, with weeks and sometimes months between them. And in a case of a couple of them, done in entirely different years. That made it such that when we sat down to do, for example, a song in, let’s say, April of 2021, we weren’t thinking about anything that had happened in the Fall of 2019. And we got pretty good fan response from all four of those singles. But they’re four very, very different songs too. If anything, the overarching idea behind this album is that it was a sort of a recapitulation of all the different styles that we operate within—everything from Miami bass/freestyle to more experimental downtempo, darkwave-sounding things to straight-up pop music.

The singles had come out on Tommy Boy, correct?

Yeah, that’s right.

How did that come about? How did that feel to be back with that label?

That was a result of some high-level business maneuverings, not on our part, but on Tommy Boy’s part. Way back in the day, Tommy Boy had been swallowed up in its entirety by Warner Brothers. And then two or three years ago, for whatever reason, that whole business arrangement was completed. So Tommy Boy was able to reacquire or re-establish control over all of their original masters, which has included ours. So, along with a lot of the other Tommy Boy artists, they reached out to us and said, “well, we’ve got your old catalog now, so why don’t you put the rest of your music, your new music, out through us as well?”

And for us, it really doesn’t make any difference because unless you’re a really big star or you’re a Tik Tok influencer or whatever, everybody does the same thing now. Which is basically just take the music and distribute it to all the streaming and online services. We are going to make a CD and vinyl for this new album, but just like everybody else, it’s not a significant component of the release. It’s just for the fans who really want to own an object. Again, I’m part of that group, but I recognize that it’s a pretty small group these days. And now, Tommy Boy has since been involved in some other kind of high-level business deal, in the process of which they’ve put everything that they’re doing on hold. The latter-day deal that we did with them for these four singles was very flexible and very loose. And so we’re taking all that music back, and we’re rereleasing it on Hakatak.

You mentioned the pandemic delaying the release of the album. Did having extra time affect the final product?

I think so. This album was over two years in the making, and I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s so good, in my opinion. Each of the songs, as you hear it on the album, is a pretty mature version of the song. Nothing was rushed; there was no need. As a matter of fact, there were reasons to slow things down. It allowed us to go back and tinker with things slightly. Not in a George Lucas ‘Star Wars’ kind of way where you could arguably tinker things to death. But just polishing things up. We threw a few things out, and we added a few new things. I think the end result of the delay was only for the better.

Are there any particular songs that you feel were affected more than others?

There’s a song called “Grups” on the album, which was definitely our pandemic song. It was an interesting experiment on our part. We decided to instill some very significant constraints on how we wrote it, particularly in terms of the lyrics. It’s about disease and about mortality. I think it’s a very good commentary on the pandemic, as it affected people’s actual lived lives and their lived experiences.

You’ve always done covers, and you even did a full covers album, Orders of Magnitude(2016). Did doing that impact your work when it came time to make new Information Society music?

I feel like most artists go through this process when they’re doing a covers album. It allows you to have more fun and experiment with styles that may be a little bit outside your comfort zone because it’s just a lark. It’s a fun process. And for us, that cover album was more about paying homage to our influences and the music that was important to us as we were maturing, as much as it was anything else. So in terms of whether that process affected anything that came after it, probably not. I mean, we’re at that stage in our career where we have our process down pretty well now, and we’re not about to go off to the desert and record records on a couple of mandolins and a bongo drum or something like that. We know what we sound like, and we know how to do it. And we’re pretty happy with that.

Could you discuss the use of spatial audio on the new album?

We have a close friend of the band who is effectively the COO of THX. All of these technology companies are moving into the music space. They’re all getting into the world of spatial audio from one direction or another. And he proposed this to us as a continuation of our own sort of history of being experimental and adventurous with new technologies. I thought it was a great idea. It’s not surround; it’s not like a surround experience that requires a whole special setup with multiple channels and multiple speakers and things like that. So, it’s not like you’re going to experience sound effects coming from behind your head and things like that, but it is a pretty unique experience. I think spatial is an accurate term here. What it does is it kind of opens up the stereo field and the sound stage and makes the music sound bigger and kind of more interesting, in my opinion. So I regard it as a success.

To what degree did you have to keep that in mind as you were recording the album, in terms of how it would adapt and make the best use out of the format?

Not at all, actually, because it was an after-the-fact thing. The album was already done when this idea was presented to us. We went to another friend named Kasson Crooker, who was in Freezepop and has a group called Symbion Project. And he is very aggressively in that future-forward kind of space with VR and surround and all these things. And he’s pretty aligned with our style. He understands what our sound is and what we want it to sound like. So we turned over the mixes, or the files, to him, and then he remixed all the songs from scratch to be compatible with the spatial technology.

Do you have any more videos coming up off the album?

We have been touring with a video artist named Falcotronik for a long time, 12, 15 years at this point. And we finally had a little ceremony at a restaurant in Brazil, and we officially inducted him into the band as a member. Which is appropriate because from the get-go, we’ve always, way back in the eighties we envisioned ourselves as a multimedia enterprise. So Falcotronik has been making videos for every single release for the last ten years. Sometimes they’re just simple lyric videos, and sometimes they’re more elaborate. Very few of them are straightforward, MTV style, sort of like here’s a recorded performance kind of video. They’re much more dense with symbology and information, but we are continuing that process with this album, and all four of the singles that we’ve discussed have already had videos made and released. And he’s in the process of making videos for the rest of the songs on the album right now.

With the pandemic, are you planning on doing anything different for this album, such as online performances?

No. We toyed with the idea of doing some sort of VR project in lieu of going on the road and performing, but we decided that the technology was just not quite … it’s getting there, but it’s just not quite ready for prime time, in my opinion. So we’re keeping our powder dry, and we’re going to avoid the big stampede of groups going out on the road coming this Fall, and looking towards maybe early next year to do something like that.

I know that all the members of the band have different projects going on. At what point did you realize that Information Society is a long-term project, but might not always be your absolute focus?

I think that that moment came at different times for all of us. When we decided to take our big hiatus in ’93, James Cassidy moved out to the West Coast and immediately embarked on an academic career, which he has not left. He’s a professor now and has been for years. Kurt and I have dabbled around in more neighboring fields. He does audio and music for video games, and I do music for television. So it was probably not until, I’d say, the early 2000s that we finally realized that we could continue in our sort of day jobs. But we could continue with the band as well. It wasn’t as all-encompassing for us. We weren’t relying on it for our identity as much, or, honestly, for our paycheck as much. So in a way, ironically, that kind of freed us up to relax a little bit and make albums on our own schedule and not let it impact our personal lives so much. But we were able to continue on and do what we wanted with the band, which has been pretty liberating, actually.

Is there anything that you’d like to add?

I guess I would just encourage your readers to give this record a shot, because I think a lot of times, there’s a little bit of resistance to listening to new music by one of your old favorite bands. I fight this instinct, even in myself, it’s like, ‘I’m not interested in what they’re doing now. I want their classic stuff.’ But I feel like if people who love our classic music go take a listen to this album, they will be pleasantly surprised about how true the through-line is, between when we started and where we’ve ended up here.

Is that something that you consciously think about as you’re creating music? Moving forward while also being reminiscent of your previous work?

Yes and no, I wouldn’t say it’s conscious. And as a matter of fact, there were plenty of times in the 00’s when I was intentionally trying to sound very different from the “classic Information Society” sound. And then we would put a song out, and people would say, ‘Oh, this sounds exactly like Information Society. It could have been your fourth Warner Brothers album’ or something like that. And at first, I was like, ‘what are you talking about? This sounds completely different.’ But then I realized it doesn’t matter what we try to do. Our instincts are so well-honed that even when we try to sound different, it always ends up sounding clearly like Information Society.

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