By Keith Valcourt
“Pure Energy.” “Pure Energy.” If you hear those words spoken by the late Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy as his character Mr. Spock over a 1980s new wave dance pop beat and you get excited, then you already know Information Society. Their 1988 hit “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy)” launched the Minneapolis-based band into the national spotlight. The core of the band – singer Kurt Harland Larson, keyboard and percussion mastermind Paul Robb, and bass player James Cassidy – put out five albums during their initial run from 1988 to 1999.
All solid efforts, but none captured the attention of the public like their debut. At that point, Kurt left and the beat went quiet. Temporarily. In 2006, Paul Robb and James Cassidy reconvened the band with new singer Christopher Anton. In less than two years, they knew what they had to do and mended all fences with Kurt.
Since then, Information Society has released adventurous electronic-based 80s-tinged albums that make you butt shake. Their latest “ODDfellows” dropped August 6. I caught up with Paul Robb over the technology superhighway to discuss the burdens and blessings of having a massive hit, the technological advance of the new album, and why roller skating and rock shows are a bad combination.
How did the band initially form?
A: The three of us went to high school together and were known as the three weirdest and most picked on kids in the school, but we didn’t really do a band together until after high school. Kurt was a choir boy, and I was in the school jazz band. James Cassidy played in heavy metal bands doing a lot of Black Sabbath and Kiss covers. The band started when we were all in our first year of college. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the outlet of being in the school band anymore, I wanted to start a band. Kurt was the only person I knew who could sing. I called him up and asked, “Do you want to do a band with me?” He was on board. Six months later, James Cassidy joined us for shows, but only as a featured performer who would jump up and do banjo solos with us. It was great to have these non sequitur solos in our show, but I’m so glad there are no recordings from that time. God awful.
Is it true that Grant Hart from Hüsker Dü helped you get your first “real” gig?
A: We had no idea how to get gigs. We never went to clubs or bars. Kurt went to the prestigious college called Macalester, and Hüsker Dü played there. Kurt approached Grant Hart from Hüsker Dü and said, “Hey, how can we get a show at First Avenue?” (Laughs) Grant was kind enough to give Kurt the secret booking number for First Avenue. The club had us send in a cassette tape of what we sounded like, and we did our first show summer of our freshman year in college.
How did life change when “What’s On Your Mind” became a hit?
A: At the time, I said, “Oh, I thought my life was going to be a lot different.” I figured if you have a hit record, you would be flying on the Concorde to London every weekend and going to wine and cheese parties with other celebrities and every premier. It wasn’t anything like that, but looking back in retrospect all these years later, life totally did change.
Right after we signed our first record deal with Tommy Boy Records, we all moved to New York City, which was a huge change for us. It exposed us to every aspect of New York culture in the mid-80s. We also started making money. James had a job as a professional chef, so he had a marketable skill, but Kurt and I were completely devoid of any marketable skills. It helped that we started making money from the band. Then we started flying back and forth to L.A. and touring. It was a typical rock and roll journey, but we were still the same mid-western crybabies that we always had been. That did not change.
Was having that song be such a huge hit a blessing or a curse?
A: Yeah. A curse in a certain sense. But then I think of people like Tracy Chapman and Sheryl Crow who also both only had one hit. Then I see them on TV presenting at the Grammys and think, “Hey we had a hit too…” (Laughs) No one wants us to present at the Grammys. Or do duets with Paul McCartney.
The first album sold obviously more records than anything we have done since. On the radio station charts or Spotify or whatever, 90 percent of what you see or hear is that song. Or that song and our second hit, which was pretty much a re-hash of that first song. It’s a little bit disheartening. That said, you can’t complain. For God’s sake, it made our career and made everything else we got to do possible. We traveled around the world and met all our idols. We were able to make a living playing music and doing what we love. I can’t really complain about it because it was a huge stroke of fortune for us.
How important was Amanda Kramer to the early days of the band?
A: She was important on that first record. She co-wrote one of the songs. We all lived together in a house in Minneapolis we called “Baby Land.” She was in a relationship with Kurt. They were a couple. Because she was a few years older than us, she was kind of like our den mother, but in terms of the creative esthetic of the band, she wasn’t super critical. As a member of the band in the first couple of years, she was very important.
I imagine Kraftwerk are heroes of yours?
A: Are you kidding me? We were worshipping at their altar since ninth grade in high school. One of the reasons we picked Fred Maher to produce our debut album was because he had been an associate producer on Kraftwerk’s album “Electric Café.” We thought that anyone who could work with Kraftwerk was okay by us. And that worked out well.
What was it like to work with Karl Bartos (of Kraftwerk) on the “Peace and Love, Inc.” album?
A: It was kind of hilarious. You should never meet your idols in a certain sense. In an interpersonal sense. We went and worked with Karl and Wolfgang Flür. We chose them to produce a couple songs not because we thought it was such a great match musically, but just because we wanted to hang out with them. (Laughs.) We went to Germany for two weeks to do two songs with them, and it was the greatest two weeks of our lives. We drank a huge amount of German beer, and we went all around Dusseldorf with them. Those guys are world-class nerds. They would bring us to a club and just stand awkwardly in the corner. They were worldwide superstars, but in their own town, they were very shy and geeky. And the songs came out great, too.
I once saw the band live, and Kurt did the show on roller skates. Was that a common thing? And did he ever crash into your keyboard rig?
A: It is the cross I must bear to answer the roller skate’s question. He was on roller skates for a one-year period, I think 1990 to 1991. He claimed it was a DADA like life experiment. He had a great time, but for us, it was a nightmare. He couldn’t go upstairs. Onstage he had some spectacular wipeouts. There was one show during the “Peace and Love, Inc.” tour in which he wiped out so bad, he pushed his keyboard out into the audience. It was crowd surfing but for a synthesizer. We used to fantasize about putting super glue into the bearings of his skates because they did make our life more difficult.
What caused the band’s inactive period between 1996 and 2006?
A: We all left New York after the third album. Warner Brothers approached us to do more records, but they said, “We can’t pay you what we have in the past.” And we were also incredibly cocky. We thought, “The hell with you.” We allowed ourselves to be dropped and then all left New York to do our own thing. I moved to Minneapolis. Kurt moved to San Francisco. James moved to Portland. We didn’t have an idea at that point of how, or if, we were going to move forward. I had just had my first child. Then I got married. Jim got married, and we were in our own little worlds. It wasn’t until 1996 or 1997 that Kurt started lobbying to do another record. But I just wasn’t into it. I had gone back to school and had two children by that point. I said, “Just do it by yourself,” which is what he did. I then did some TV and movie scoring.
What brought Kurt back into the fold?
A: The band never broke up per say. It wasn’t until 2005 when 80s music was starting to make a comeback and we got offers to do a few shows. We did a few, and they turned out to be fun. All the things we used to fight about when we were kids has disappeared. That was when we decided we should start making records again. It was almost 20 years in between.
Was the new album “ODDfellows” planned or born of the pandemic?
A: We started this record before the pandemic, and it would have been out six months ago if not for the pandemic. We decided to hold on to it for a while just because things were so weird out there.
Does the title best describe the three of you?
A: Yeah. It’s not a super deeply meaningful title. I had been to an “Odd Fellows” hall in Oregon, and that is where the name ensconced itself in my brain. And when the record was done, we thought it was appropriate.
Has the creative process between you, Kurt, and James evolved over the years?
A: Interestingly, no. We have never changed anything because we haven’t lived in the same cities for 25 years now. We’ve been used to working remotely for a long time. The only time we are in the same room is when Kurt flies out to my studio to record the vocals. I still feel like we need to be together to do the vocal recordings.
The album is the first to be released in THX Spatial Audio. What does that mean to the listener?
A: Spatial audio is this new thing that you will most likely be hearing a lot more about. It was originally developed as a gaming technology. These surround sound companies like Dolby and THX have come up with a way to make it sound like sounds are coming from all directions. If you listen to the tracks in THX Spatial Audio, it sounds like things are coming from the left and right and up and down. It is an interesting technology to us, especially if you listen to this record on headphones. When you by the digital album, the Spatial mixes are included. It is an interesting experience to just sit with headphones and listen to those mixes while doing nothing else. It is rewarding.
Are you always striving to find and use the newest technology?
A: In terms of music presentation, VR or augmented reality has some potential. We had toyed around with doing a VR release of the album, but the production complications became too much for us. It would have pushed the album’s release for another year. But in the future, I see a lot of potential in presenting music that way.
Check out Information Society’s new album “ODDfellows,” just released on August 6.
Keith Valcourt is a Los Angeles based music and entertainment writer. He has interviewed thousands of celebrities in the worlds of music, film, TV and comedy for dozens of outlets including: L.A. Times, Washington Times, LFP Publishing, ChelseaCommunityNews.com, RetroRoadMap.com LaArtsOnline and more. Much More
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