InSoc Interview: Village Beat - 08/90

There must be something special about the water in Minnesota. Maybe it's the air, or the isolation, or the altitude (attitude?). Whatever it is, this northern state has originated some of the most talented, ground-breaking singer/songwriter/performers in the history of modern popular music. Bob Dylan, Prince, The Replacements, Husker Du and now Information Society have developed their own unique sound and have all become vanguards in the world of Rock And Roll. Kurt Harland, the lead singer of Information Society, took some time out to talk to the BEAT before he begins extensive promotion of the band's second album, HACK, which is due for release on Tommy Boy Records in October.

The BEAT first met Kurt at Myoptics on St. Mark's Place when he skated in to pick up new eyeglasses. When asked what he did for a living, he quipped, "Rock Star." New York is a major city in the music industry and musicians are a common enough sight in the East Village. But Kurt isn't just a musician. He qualifies for true, certified and documented "Rock Star" status. In 1988, Information Society's self-titled debut LP went certified gold. What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy), the album's first single (and everyone's favorite dance sound that summer), went to #1 on Billboard's dance chart and peaked at #3 on the Top 100 chart. Walking Away went to Billboard's #2 on Billboard's 12" sales chart, #5 on the dance chart and #9 on the top 100 chart. Rolling Stone Magazine readers chose the band as one of the "Best New American Bands" of the year (Readers' Picks 03/09/89) and SPIN honored the band as one of their "Musicians of the Year" and credits them with making the "Ace universalist record of 1988, What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)" (12/88) Pretty impressive stats for a 27 year-old guy who's just hanging out roller skating in the East Village.

Whew! Facts and figures aside, we decided to find out what's behind the bespectacled, multi-colored "dreads" of Kurt, the "Rock Star", and find out more about Kurt, the musician and mortal being.

Village Beat: So what's this about being a "Rock Star"?

Kurt: We can be either "Rock Star" or "pop tart", depending on what mood we're in. If we really want to make fun of ourselves, we say pop tart. If we want to make fun of the whole world, we're "Rock Stars". But when we talk about being "Rock Stars", that refers to the insane reality that we have to go through much of the time. Things like... you're riding on a bus for 14 hours in Montana, and you just finished playing poker, and you go and get a hamburger or something, and you're all hot and tired. But then, the promoter pulls up with a limousine and says, "Come on guys, we've got to do a gala record store signing session." And then you have to become rock stars again, and you have to put your hair up, act like you're not tired and disgruntled about being in Montana. I shouldn't say that. I love Montana...[I should say] being in Texas. And then you have to go do the rock star skit for a bunch of people who come because they want to be entertained in one way or another by looking at you or listening to you talk, or getting something from you, or giving you something. And that's what the business is all about. So you can't just say "I don't want to do it...."

VB: But you knew that you'd have to deal with all this promotion crap when you got involved. It's part of the business. In order to sell records you have to promote yourself.

K: Well, every band that's starting out wants to become rock stars. To every one of those bands, the idea of it actually ever happening is never real. You can never understand what it's actually like until it happens to you.

VB: Bands all seem to have this mindset of "when we get signed...," but they never seem to look beyond that, to the realities of the business.

K: Even if you don't have that kind of unrealistic mindset it's hard. We were always really down to earth. We're Scandinavian descendents from Minnesota. We're not super ambitious urban hipsters who've been trying to get rich enough to buy a lot of cocaine. The whole idea of being rich and having everything we want is like being able to buy fine quality food and get cable TV. But no matter what you ever think about, or how long you've been expecting to get signed or how long you've been trying to become a rock star, when it actually starts happening, the way that the world operates around you changes. You're never prepared for how bizarre it is, and you can't ever have already prepared yourself for it. You have to go through this whole weird thing where you don't know how to act. Being a rock star does not mean that you're any different, that you think any differently or that anything is really different. Except that you're busier. What's different is how everybody acts around you. Because there's a bunch of people who really believe that you're something special and important and treat you that way. And then there's another group of people around you who need to promote that idea in order to make things run right. And they're expecting you to believe in it too. So there's this huge machine called "The Rock Star." It sounds like I'm complaining about it. I'm really not. I'm just trying to understand it. I'm still very uncomfortable with it.

VB: What's the worst experience you've had as a "Rock Star?"

K: We were in Brazil and the fans in Brazil are depressingly, desperately crazy. My theory is that they don't get a lot of acts down there from the Northern Hemisphere. Brazil is a very advanced industrial nation, despite what anyone thinks. They've just got a lot of problems, and they want to be in with Europe and the Unlted States and Japan, and they have trouble doing that. So whenever an act comes down from the Northern Hemisphere, I think they go absolutely crazy for them. So the fans find out where you're staying, they hang out and are exceptionally wild. They camp out outside the hotel. It's mostly girls, but boys too. I was skating around to the side of the bus that was taking us to the was parked over at the side so hopefully they wouldn't see us...and this one girl, who was particularly zealous, did see me and she came running over to talk to me. She apparently decided that the only way she could definitely get my attention was to grab on to me as I was skating, and we both fell down. I was sure she was going to get her nose broken or something. She wasn't hurt, but that was the worst thing ever. I thought, "Here it is. I'm going to have to run someone over and kill them because they ran out and grabbed onto me while I was skating. Because I'm a 'rock star.' She was a small girl. I might have been hurt a little bit, but if we had landed the wrong way, she would have gotten her neck broken.

VB: We've had some interesting conversations with friends who are "rock stars" of the East Village. And there are all these little girls who love them and follow them around and go to all their shows. Everybody knows who they are.

K: It's weird. You can be a small time band in New York and it's almost like being a big time band in Minneapolis.


Kurt's car is one of the most eccentric looking vehicles we've ever had the pleasure to look at, much less ride in. It looks like Mad Max's car -- a futuristic, high-tech tank-like battle cruiser, painted a dull gun-metal gray. It appears to be indestructible, and the engine roars in true motorhead tradition. Kurt had all these strange metal objects custom-welded onto it at the Gas Station on Avenue B. He regularly adds all sorts of high-tech gadgets to it -- lights, meters, pipes, antennas - not necessarily for any purpose, but because 'They look neat." The day the BEAT spoke to Kurt, he and his friends were mounting a laser onto the top of it. Everywhere he goes with this car, people are constantly commenting on it, asking questions and taking photos of it. The car graces the cover of the new album, and will also be featured in the videos.

VB: How'd you get this car?

K: How'd I get it? I bought it.

VB: It looked like this or did you do it yourself?

K: Oh no, When I bought it, it was a metallic brown Plymouth Satellite owned by Carl Olson of White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

VB: Strange as this car is, I like it. The Minnesota plates make it. I guess you're quite a Motorhead.

K: Who me? It's just a 440 engine in a 77 Grand Fury with hi-rise manifolds, mag wheels....blah blah blah..(fades out}. Anybody in my position would have gone out and bought a new car for $22,000. I only spent $15,000, and now I've got this, like no one else's. Don't you think this is better?

VB: You're quite an exhibitionist. Look at your hair, your glasses, your car. Your skates. Everything about you invites commentary.

K: Do you want the short or the long answer?

VB: Well, the long answer.

K: I'm going to give you the short answer. I'm an exhibitionist because I need to constantly see myself reflected in the reactions of others.


VB: Do you ever go home to visit? And do you go out much when you're there?

K: Well, I live in New York now, but I do go home and visit and hang out. I don't go out much, because I just don't. The only people I know there I've known since I was in high school and two of them are in the band with me. People don't really make a big deal.

VB: Someone from my hometown also become a big "Rock Star," but nobody from my town knows it. It's a little town in the country. And he's really famous. And nobody even knows he exists.

K: Really? Well, he probably likes it that way.

VB: You said your music wasn't really that big in Minneapolis.

K: No, if something goes into the Top Ten, they'll [radio stations in Minneapolis] play it on the radio. The radio stations are programmed by consultants, usually from other places. But until we made it into the Top Ten, they never mentioned a word about us. We only played a show in Minneapolis on our first tour because we insisted on it. Ticket sales weren't very good, and the promoters didn't really want to put us in there because Minneapolis is a really bad concert area. Ticket prices in Minneapolis are generally half what they are anywhere else. Like the average price to get into a nightclub is only $5.


VB: Your music is very high-tech. When you play live, do you have a lot of stuff on tape and computers on stage?

K: Last tour we had half the stuff on tape and we played half of the stuff live over that so that we would be free to perform. This tour, we want to have a technician behind us running everything live on computers and samplers, while we again just play the parts that we want to play and that are entertaining to play. I'd like to wear my skates on stage.

VB: Do you like to perform?

K: Yes, but touring is hell.

VB: How large are the venues that you play?

K: Well, in Brazil, which was just us, there were 25,000 people. But we couldn't do that here. On the Club MTV tour, there were over 20,000 people on several occasions, but that was with Paula Abdul and Tone Loc. I would say that when we go out, we'll be playing theatres that seat about 4-5 thousand.

VB: Do you feel more comfortable in a place that's a little smaller?

K: Well, every performer will tell you that stadiums suck, so yes.


VB: Are you going to issue the new record on vinyl?

K: I bet we won't, because there's no vinyl anymore. We were hoping that we could get one. Be the last piece of vinyl ever. If they do print any vinyl, it's just going to be a token pressing just for the hell of it. Because even the last album, which was two years ago, vinyl accounted for less than 10% of our sales. Despite what people might think, cassettes out-sell CDs by a large margin. You buy one CD to keep at your house, but every time you put a cassette up on your dashboard and it melts, you have to buy a new one.

VB: What's so special about the new album?

K: This album is a very long album. It's 62 minutes iong. I dunno, maybe that's not unusual anymore. I know that 3 years ago, a 45 minute album was considered long. But since CDs have a much longer length, who knows. In addition to the standard radio hit songs on it, there's a lot of music on it that is from the deeper darker dens of our studio recording. We're sampling ourselves a lot on this record in between the songs.


VB: What's On Your Mind was one of the first hit songs to come out that used sampled songs.

K: Yeah, we used the Star Trek stuff. Capt. Kirk,and Spock and McCoy. This time we've collected a lot of junk, commercials, and things people say about us, and bits and scraps of things we had done, and manipulate and condense it. I want to take that a step further on the next album and actually use old songs of ours in our new songs. One of the things that's happening a lot now, of course as everybody knows, is people are sampling other people's songs and building songs around that. Well, I want to do that out of our own.

VB: I like that. If you sample your old songs, especially a big hit, it's a sneaky form of self-promotion.

K: It is self-promotion. But it's also a good way to show how weird it is to be in the rock star business. Because we've got an ad on this album talking about us in Portuguese. At the top of his lungs. You can't understand a word that he's saying. Very strange.

VB: So you like sampling.

K: Well, there's sampling and there's sampling. Probably over 80% of the songs you ever hear on Hot 97 or Z- 100 are sampled sounds. But you don't know it. When you hear a snare drum, you don't stop to think, "Oh, that's a sample," but it is.

VB: Have you ever thought about building your own instruments? And writing songs that go with them?

K: No, that would be a waste of time. Three hundred years ago, you could invent a new kind of zither and then write a new song especially made for it. But 300 years ago, to make a new sound that no one had ever heard before, you could work for 30 years trying to build a new instrument out of metal and wood, and it probably wouldn't make a sound that anyone hadn't heard before. Now, there are way more sounds than anyone even has time to listen to. The sound I was most recently trying to mess around with was the sound of a guy getting his hand slammed in a door followed by five notes of a string arpeggio from a movie.

VB: Ugh! Do you ever write anything which is specifically acoustic?

K: I don't. I have found that a song can be performed in any way possible. And there's no point in composing for a certain instrument. it just doesn't make sense. I could take any song that's been done entirely with synthesizers, and record it with acoustic guitars, and it would be worth doing. At least, it wouldn't sound wrong. I could take any Bob Dylan song and do it using nothing but my AKAI S1000 sampler, and anybody who wasn't a Bob Dylan fan wouldn't notice anything untoward about it. That's just a question of production. The song is the melody, the words, the chord progressions. And after that, it's all just up to how you want to produce it at any given moment.

VB: Do you have plans to be a producer?

K: Yeah, I've done some stuff. I'd like to get into it more.


VB: You played piano for years as a kid. Did you ever take any formal music theory classes?

K: Only a little bit. I hated it so much that I never really did it. And I've found out now that music theory is not really worth much. It's like if you wanted to be able to balance your checkbook better, and then you went out and spent five years becoming an expert in linear analysis, graphic statistics and calculus 4. Why? Why bother?

VB: But it's stressed so much in music studies.

K: Well, it's because music schools want to separate themselves from popular music. Now that popular music is such a strong force in our reality, it has demonstrated to the world that all that music theory stuff is unnecessary garbage that just clutters up your brain. So music schools have to separate themselves from popular music because otherwise there wouldn't be any reason for their existence. And they don't want to change. So they keep teaching music theory to try to convince a new generation every 20 years that you need to know that popular music isn't worth anything, and that only if you know how to do an E flat scale going up and down with your left hand, that only then are you a true musician. You and I know that music is about expressing the human emotional condition through sound, and it's not about scales and mixalidian modes.


VB: What sort of music do you listen to at home?

K: Recently, Cocteau Twins, Enya, Nine Inch Nails, Fetus. I listened to the PIL album a lot last year. Love and Rockets. I was way into Love and Rockets up until a year ago.

VB: What about The Clash?

K: The Clash was like the band that all the normal guys at the University of Minnesota who didn't want to be known as normal would listen to so they could pretend they were new wave, when what they were really listening to was straight ahead Rock and Roll. Except that it was from England so that it was kind of weird. No, I was listening to Gary Numan, Devo, Human League, Kraftwerk, Yello, and The Residents.

VB: Would you say your music is influenced by all these?

K: Yes, it's definitely influenced by...I'm talking about all of us now.... Paul and I together, there's a big James Brown influence. With Paul from earlier days it was Kool and the Gang, Bootsie, and for me Gary Numan and Devo and Yello and Human League, not to mention Pink Floyd, Aerosmith and the Beatles. But who isn't influenced by the Beatles? Actually, I'm more influenced by Gilligan's Island than by the Beatles.

VB: You do seem to like pop culture. What's your favorite Star Trek episode?

K: Well let me answer that question by saying that no episode of the old Star Trek can even hold a candle to the new Star Trek. There's no comparison. You take an old episode of Star Trek side-by-side with the new Star Trek and you'd have to admit, yeah, the old is campy and it's great, and it's precious in that respect, but it's not the same level of quality. It's a whole different league. In the old Star Trek that was in the 60s, in the old days of television, you'd have these really cutsey plots where there's one problem that begins at the beginning of the episode and is completely solved at the end. The real difference between Star Trek and Star Trek the Next Generation is not the difference between the 23rd and the 24th centuries, it's the difference between the 60s and the 80s. It's just that TV has the benefit of 20 years of growth. Now there are complex plots that go on and on from episode to episode. They hook you in.

VB: So what are your plans for the future. What do you want to do when you're 60?

K: I don't know, play with my computer and maybe have a kid. I always want to be creating something.