Information Society's combination of funk, hip hop, sampling and Star Trek give them a particular perspective on modern music making. Society spokesperson: Deborah Parisi.
Behind Information Society's debut lies four years of sampling, programming and songwriting. But on stage is it live, or is it a well-known brand of tape?
INFORMATION SOCIETY'S Los Angeles debut came as a bit of a shock. It made sense that the gig was at one of the larger and less predictable clubs in town, the Palace. A 60-minute fashion show preceded the performance - a bit odd, but that's Hollywood. Already hooked on their dance single, 'What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)', I was eager to get a closer look at the gear they needed to recreate the studio perfection of their sampling ingenuity.
"And now, direct from Minneapolis, is the band you're all waiting for - Information Society." The crowd push forward, jockeying for position along the stage and walkway. The familiar beat-box dance groove rose up, and the band made their dramatic first appearance. It took about two seconds before I realised it was all on tape.
Band members Kurt Valaquen and Paul Robb seemed prepared for the looming question: Why?
"I'll bet you were curious", laughs Valaquen. "It's an idea that's catching on, believe it or not, called The Track Show. We call it the Information Society Concert Illusion.
"We started out on the American East Coast dance club circuit, and they didn't want live entertainment. They want somebody to do one or two songs, which means they don't want to mess with the two-hour soundcheck, or building a stage, or calling in a sound system. You do your one or two songs that the kids in the club know already. And then you leave them alone, so the DJ can spin again. He's the real star."
"But even in these shows, some of the sounds are live", says Robb defensively. "We didn't lip sync, and all the drums are live. The reason we don't get as upset about tape as most old rock 'n' roll people do is that we don't feel like hiring 20 back-up musicians to play all the parts. Let's face it - we're recording artists first and performance artists second, which is a turnaround from the way it used to be. Instead of doing what Frank Sinatra does, which is to capture live performance on tape, we're trying to recreate our taped performance live.
"Storing information on a magnetic disk is no more live than storing information on a magnetic tape. It's just a perceptual difference."
"The only convincing argument I can see for sequencing as opposed to tape is that with sequencing your show can constantly evolve", Valaquen adds. "And if you don't think there's a good reason for your show to constantly evolve, then I wouldn't bother.
"I remember someone saying a few years ago that he'd rather play a machine than be a machine, like drummers or guitar players have to be when they do one constant part through the whole song. That's really turning yourself into a sideboard. A tape, or a sequencer for that matter, backs you up while you do your solos, but you don't have to be a slave to it."
Seeing Information Society live - even with backing tapes - is even more engaging than listening to them on record. Valaquen is one of the more eccentric vocalists on the circuit, vehemently attacking the muted keys of a solitary Yamaha keyboard; Robb maintains an aloof but beguiling presence as the crazed drummer. Keyboard bassist James Cassidy invokes images of Popeye, while second keyboard player and vocalist Amanda Kramer charms the audience with make-up and costume.
Their single has just hit the American Top 5 and their album, Information Society, has crossed into the Top 20 on the Black, Pop and Dance charts. In the UK, 'What's on Your Mind' (on London Records) has just entered the singles chart, and the album is due for release early this month. Right now a more major tour is currently in preparation. Initially the band debated whether to use tape or sequencers for backing tracks.
"I spent about £1800 a couple of months ago on a computer and sequencer", announces Robb, "and the program turned out to be worthless. Even as we speak, it's down. And because it's computer-based, my whole studio is down.
"We've heard a lot of horror stories about software crashing on stage, and we didn't want to deal with that. Plus we don't really have the money to do justice to our music - it would cost thousands of dollars just to buy modules alone. Instead we're remixing our tapes so that we can play the fun stuff ourselves."
Sequencing and tape aside, much of the success of this band can be attributed to their creative use of synths, samplers and electronic percussion. The samples in particular are worthy of note on Information Society; the man primarily responsible is Valaquen.
"I was actually introduced to the tech world by joining the band," he says. "I started studying computer science at the University of Minnesota and those two interests fed off each other, and of course now they're hardly different."
"Kurt is an obsessive sampler", Robb comments. "He samples everything in the universe, including a lot of things off television. Among those samples are a lot of clips of Star Trek, which are great because those actors are such hams."
Star Trek samples form an integral part of the album. The first track is announced by McCoy's familiar drawl: "It's worked so far but we're not out yet". The track 'What's on Your Mind' includes a repeated quote from Spock: "Pure Energy". Kirk opens 'Walking Away,' with the challenge, "It is useless to resist us".
Robb warns: "We made the mistake of telling Warner Brothers where the samples had come from, and it held up the release of our album for six months. Asking Paramount for permission was like approaching The Pentagon. I've hesitated to even ask Tommy Boy (the original label) what the final deal was; I don't want to know. We had to get permission from each actor, from each director... it was a mess."
"I studied computer science at University, and that and my interest in music technology fed off each other - now they're hardly different."
MOST OF THE sampling, as well as songwriting and pre-production, takes place in the two 8-track studios shared by the band. Robb begins the guided tour of his studio, punctuating the equipment list with true-life sagas of satisfaction and disappointment.
"The heart of my studio is an IBM AT clone, which I usually run Voyetra Sequencer Plus software on", he says, "and then I have modules - I don't have any big old keyboard synths any more. I use a Casio FZ10M sampler, which sounds great, but it's very strange to use. I've just discovered that if you save a whole keyboard setup, you cannot just call up one sound from that to add it to another bank. You have to call up the whole bank. I'm sure there's a way to get around it, but the manual... One of the great features is that it does have editing facilities built in, so you don't need to buy a computer for that. But again, if I can't figure out how to use it, it's not going to be much help.
"I also have a Roland MKS50 and a Yamaha TX81Z, which I used to hate because it has those weird little bird harmonics on every single sound. But there are sounds on it that are just so great that you take them for granted, like the Alto Sax sound.
"I love Ensoniq Mirage sounds, and I've just bought the Roland Super JX module, and I like that a lot, there are so many sounds that are classics and that the new synths can't do. It's so rich; for pad sounds and horn sounds you can't beat it."
"Amanda and I share our stuff', begins Valaquen. "We rely pretty heavily on the Prophet 2000 sampler, although it was not my choice. It just happened to be what turned up in my studio. Everyone seems to say that the actual sound quality of the 2000 is very, very good, better than most, but I don't particularly like it. I got upset right away that you can only transpose it up a very short distance. I was using a Mirage before, which is supposedly a much less sophisticated thing, but you could transpose over five octaves. Other than that, I'll admit it's a pretty good sampler.
"We've got a Roland JX3P, one of the old ones, which I still really like and I think could become another classic synth, like the Minimoog, or the classic drum machine, the Roland TR808. I'm not trying to predict the future, but if you have a JX3P, hold on to it!"
"And the Super Jupiter", Robb cuts in. "I believe it's the best there ever was."
"As long as you have the manual," adds Valaquen. "It took me over a year to understand how the memory allocation works. But I guess I can't blame Roland for the fact that we lost our manual. Roland manuals are always very endearing for their strange Japanese translations into English. With my Subaru, the manual tells you how to get into four-wheel drive by saying, 'Move shift level while drive straight.' It doesn't take too long to figure it out, but it's amusing."
The two techno masterminds of the group do have their differences - beginning with their basic approach to working with keyboards.
"Kurt and I have a philosophical difference in the way we go about doing music", confirms Robb. "He is definitely a programmer at heart", Robb smiles, "but since really hefty and good- sounding preset synths have come out - ever since Yamaha's DX7 - I haven't programmed a single sound. I still mess around with samples, and sometimes I'll customise a sound, but I think searching for sounds is a great aid to creativity. If you spend an hour going 'Wheeen,' and 'Bowmmm,' you'll come upon sounds that you never would have thought of in the first place."
"The same applies to programming", Valaquen objects.
"Larry Fast said something about six years ago that really pissed me off', Robb replies. "It was something like 'The new digital synthesisers will really separate the men from the boys, because you simply won't be able to program them unless you know exactly what you want'. Well, big deal. Let's have everybody go to college and get a masters degree in electrical engineering before they can play a keyboard.
"I'm from the Jamming School of Music - get an acceptable sound, and get it fast enough so that you can use it before you lose your musical idea."
"Paul's right", agrees Valaquen. "I have historically leaned towards programming, but the whole world of preset sounds is becoming so vast and of such high quality that even I, the staunch do-it-yourselfer, am relying more and more on just what's there.
"Part of my programming mania is there just because I enjoy doing it", he explains. "I do it when it's not even necessary. Actually it's something I have to avoid getting bogged down in. I start to forget that I'm supposed to be recording sounds, not programming them."
Recording sounds is what Information Society are really all about, and their album is distinguished by its excellent production. A lot of the credit for this should be given to producer Fred Maher, former drummer for an offbeat American band called Material, and more recently known for his association with Scritti Politti. But the boys aren't exactly "Yes men" to their mentor...
"Even as we speak, my computer sequencing program is down - and because it's computer-based, my whole studio is down."
"I have arguments with Fred all the time", Robb says, "'cause he's the King of 'Buy the Best Thing in the Universe', or at least 'Get to Use the Best Thing in the Universe'. My philosophy is that 12-bit sampling is plenty for a drum set. We used the Synclav Direct-to-Disk to do vocal fly-ins.
"Fred got the Synclavier in as a demo, and it seemed like a good idea, but it turned out to be a lot harder than just using another 24-track machine. Plus it heated up the studio by about 15 degrees, and the air conditioner wasn't helping at all. But someday it's going to be great, it's just that the power of the computer is going have to get so much greater - faster and stronger."
"We're looking for just one instrument that has 60 minutes of 100K sampling, and cut and paste editing, and everything possible, that doesn't cost a zillion and a half dollars."
IN KEEPING WITH keeping their eye on the future, Information Society was released in the US as a CD+Graphics format. Although excited by the possibilities, Valaquen and Robb maintain a sceptical outlook on future use of new digital codes.
"Even though we did it, we spent the money and the time, it's my belief that it will never catch on unless somebody comes out with a CD machine that plays every conceivable format", comments Robb. "Three-inch CDs, 5" CDs, 10" CDs, 12" CDVs, CD-I, CD+G... they should have a big 12" deck that accommodates anything out there.
"But I'm afraid it's not in the hardware companies' interest to make one final format - there's not even an accepted format for computers. So I don't think they want one universally accepted standard. Actually, I think it's amazing that MIDI even came about."
"I remember when I first heard about MIDI", Valaquen laughs. "I kept asking, 'Why would I want that? Who wants to mix two synths together? But then I suppose nobody felt that they were being too underprivileged when they had to crank-start their cars, either."
"I think people should think of CD+G as an expanded video album cover", Robb says. "When you listen to music, it's really cool to look at the album cover, and read the lyrics, and look at who wrote the song, especially for techno-weenies like us. That's what CD+G is perfect for - it can contain 50 pages of information and pictures and diagrams and lyrics.
"It only costs about £8000 more per album, which on a regular album budget is not that much, and it's a way to add value to the product from the record company's point of view.
"But I'm not going to go out and buy a new CD player just so that I can see somebody's expanded video album cover. It was bad enough just going out and getting a CD player in the first place. I ended up buying the cheapest one I could find."
You and the rest of the world, Paul.
THIS INCARNATION OF Information Society has been together for three years, and it's conceivable they'll go on a while longer. When asked about their future plans, the visionaries go into action. "We've got to be at the soundcheck in two hours," Valaquen says.
Robb laughs and adds: "We're so busy right now, and we're only on our first single. We want to be really careful and take our time on the next album so we don't get the Sophomore Jinx. Your first record takes a lifetime - we had four years to compile material for this one - and then suddenly you're a star and everybody's yelling, 'gotta have another record, gotta have another record'. So you write ten songs in a month and they all sound terrible. Then those people who were pushing you say you're a one-hit wonder. We want to make our second album as good as our first."
Realistic attitudes combined with visions of the future are what Information Society are all about.
"We'd like to make a prediction about music", Robb announces.
"It's gonna be Night of the Living Dead", Valaquen continues, somehow part of the mystique. "New Wave is coming back - 1979 New Wave."
Paul continues: "Old U2, The Cure, B52s..."
Self-criticism, criticism of manufacturers and music are all a part of the energy that will spur Information Society ahead. Perhaps, if they're lucky, they'll discover another four-year mission, to seek out new samples... to boldly go where no band has gone before.
Interview by Deborah Parisi
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