InSoc Interview: 12/88 - Music Technology magazine.

INFORMATION SOCIETY'S Los Angeles debut came as a bit of a shock. It made sense that the gig was at The Palace, one of the larger and less predictable clubs in town, and I even came to grips with the fact that the party was actually a Spin magazine promotion. The 60- minute fashion show which preceded the performance was a bit odd, but, hey -- that's Hollywood. Already hooked on the dance single -- 'What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)' -- I was ready to brave anything to get a closer look at the whiz kids, just to see what kinds of gear they needed to recreate the studio perfection of their hip hop ingenuity.
"And no, direct from Minneapolis, is the band you've all waiting for... Information Society!" The crowd pushed forward, jockeying for a close-up position along the stage an J runway. The familiar beat-box dance groove rose up, and the band made their self-consciously dramatic first appearance. It took about two seconds for .the MT crew to start mumbling. "They're not really playing. There are no modules, no sequel.. Oh No, Mr. Bill! It's on tape!" Living in the world of up-scale mega-piles of techno-gear as'.we do, this was near blasphemy. But band members Kurt Valaquen and Paul Robb seemed prepared for the looming question: Why?
"I'll bet you were curious," laughs Kurt. "It's a very modern idea that's catching on, believe it or not, called The Track Show." "Tape is alive!" Paul cackles. "We call it the Information Society Concert Illusion." "We started out on the East Coast dance club circuit, and they did not want live entertainment," explains Kurt. "There 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."
"Even in these shows, some of the sounds are live," says Paul defensively. "We didn't lip sync, and all the drums are live. But the reason that 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 turn-around 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." Bu..bu..but couldn't you sequence the parts? "Well, storing information on a magnetic disk is no more live than storing information on a magnetic tape," Paul responds. "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," Kurt adds. "And if you don't think there's any 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 this hand live, even with tape back- up, is perhaps more engaging than listening to the album. "They've got a great image," people keep saying -- and the photos will tell you why. Kurt is one of the more eccentric vocalists on the circuit, vehemently attacking the muted keys of the solitary Yamaha keyboard, playing to the audience as a kind of mad professor; Paul maintains a laid-back, aloof-hut-beguiling presence as the totally- wired drummer. Keyboard bassist James Cassidy seems a cross between Popeye the Sailor and Spike from Our Gang, while Amanda Kramer on keyboards and vocals charms with trendy makeup and costume. It's an equation that's hard to resist. Now that their single has hit the Top 5 and their album has crossed into the Top 20 on the Black, Pop and Dance charts, a more major-league tour is underway. Band members vacillated on using tape or sequencing... but the decision is finally made. "After intensive negotiation, it was decided that we would use tape," Paul announces formally. "I spent about $2000 a couple of months ago on a computer and sequencer, and the program turned out to be worthless. Even as we speak, it's down. And because I'm so computer based, my whole studio's 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 equipment -- it would cost thousands and thousands of dollars just to buy modules alone. What's the point of doing that! So we're remixing our tapes, so that we can play the fun stuff ourselves. Nobody wants to play string pads anyway." Sequencing and tape aside, the success of this band can he greatly attributed to the creative use of synths, samplers and electronic percussion. The samples, in particular, are worthy of note on Information Society (Warner Bros), the self-titled album, and the man primarily responsible is Kurt Valaquen. "I was actually introduced to the whole tech world by joining the band," says Kurt. "Paul already knew about synthesizers, but it was long after that when I started studying computer science at the University of Minnesota. Those two interests fed off each other, and of course now they're hardly different." "Kurt is an obsessive sampler," Paul chides. "He samples everything in the universe, including a lot of things off television. Among those samples are a lot of clips of Star Trek dialog and sounds, which are great because those actors are such hambgones... all of their lines are just so over-dramatic." Star Trek s les are, in fact, an integral part of the album. The first track is announced by Doc McCoy's familiar drawl: "It's worked so far but we're not out yet." 'What's on Your Mind' features a snippet of a Spock quote: "Pure Energy" repeatedly. Captain Kirk leads off another great track, 'Walking Away,' with the challenge, "It is useless to resist us." And the sound effects, while not easily recognizable, are characteristic of the maiden voyage of the infamous crew. Lest ye be tempted by following this path yourself, however,' heed Paul's warning: "We made the mistake of telling Warner Bros where the samples came 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."

MOST OF THE sampling, as well as songwriting and pre-production, takes place in the two 8-track studios shared by the band. Paul 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 (which, by the way, is not the package that froze up Paul's studio). "And then I just 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 just realized 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... " He trails off, shaking his head. "One of the great features is that it does have the editing built right 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. "One of the reasons I bought the Casio as opposed to the Akai was because it was so Darth Vader-looking, instead of that rococo purple and beige. I'm terribly embarrassed to admit that, but I'm sure almost everybody is affected that way. "I have a bunch of synth modules -- the Roland MKS50, Yamaha TX81Z... I used to hate that because it has those weird little bird harmonics on every single sound, but there are some sounds on it that are just so great that you just totally take for granted, like the Alto Sax sound. If you produce it right, that's a really musical sound." "Once you start using those performance setups properly and start layering sounds, it's a whole different world," adds Kurt. "Yeah, but another suck thing about the TX81Z is that it doesn't have a knob, it just has that stupid up-and-down system, which I hate. I also have an Oberheim DPX1, which is totally cool for what it's for... even though with some disks, the filter setting will be different each time you press it." "Different outputs, different voices," Kurt interjects. "Yeah, but it's kind of annoying. Oh, and I love Ensoniq Mirage sounds. I really love Mirage sounds. I just bought the Roland Super JX module, and I like that a lot, even though the new Roland D110 is the same price and can do about 900 times as much. But there are so many sounds on the JX that are classic, 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 Kurt, "starting with an older model Fostex 8-track, And we rely pretty heavily on the Prophet 2000 sampler, although it was not my choice. It just happened to be what tumed 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 particu1arly 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 like 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. I think that 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... " he looks over his shoulder, then whispers: "If you have a JX3P, hold on to it!" "And the Super Jupiter," Paul cuts in. "I believe that's the King Synth of All Time, That's the best there ever was." "As long as you have the manual," says Kurt. "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 grade- school Japanese translations into English. Like 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 -- starting with their basic approaches with keyboards. "Kurt and I have a philosophical difference in the way we go about doing music," says Paul. "Yeah, that's true. He's wrong and I'm right," Kurt snaps. "Kurt is definitely a programmer at heart," Paul smiles, "but since really hefty and good- sounding preset synths have come out -- ever since Yamaha's DX7 -- I have not programmed a single sound. I still mess around with samples, and sometimes I'll customize a sound, but I think searching for sounds is a great aid to creativity. If you spend an hour going 'Wheeen,' 'Bowmmm,' you'll come upon sounds that you never would have thought of in the first place," "Well, the same applies with programming," Kurt objects. "I guess," concedes Paul, "But Larry Fast said something about six years ago that really ticked me off... something like 'The new digital synthesizers 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 be- fore they can play a keyboard. "I'm almost 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," concedes Kurt. "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 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 this band is really about, and their album is marked by excellent production values. A lot of the credit should be given to producer Fred Maher, former drummer for the off-beat band Material, and more recently known for his association with Scritti Politti. But the boys aren't exactly "Yes men" to their better- known mentor... "I have arguments with Fred all the time," Paul 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." "It was a big drag, too," says Kurt. "Fred got the thing (Synclavier) as a demo, and it seemed like a good idea, but it tumed out to be a lot harder than just using another 24-track machine," Paul explains. "Plus it heated up the studio about 15 degrees, and the air conditioner wasn't helping at all. But someday it's going to be great... it's just the power of the computer is gonna have to get so much better and 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." "By next week, please," Kurt says. "You can deliver that to the hotel," adds Paul.

IN KEEPING WITH their eye to the future, Information Society was released in a CD+Graphics format. Although excited by the possibilities, Kurt and Paul maintain a skeptical outlook on future implementation of the new digital code. "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," says Paul. "3" CDs, 5" CDs, 10" CDs, 12" CDVs, CD-I, CD+G... they should have a big 12" deck that accommodates anything out there," Kurt adds. "I'm afraid it's not in the hardware companies' interest to make one final format," Paul mopes, "There's not even an accepted format far 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 MlDI," Kurt 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." "Just to go on about CD+ G, though, I think people should think of it as an expanded video album cover," Paul 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 $10,000 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 soundcheck in two hours," Kurt says, Paul laughs. "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 -- wc 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 is all about. Paul suddenly seems entranced. "We'd like to make a prediction about music," he says. "It's gonna be Night of the Living Dead," Kurt adds, somehow part of the mystique. "New Wave is coming back. 1979 New Wave." Paul continues: "Old U2, The Cure, B52s..." The two of them begin chanting, "New Wave! New Wave!" Paul suddenly snaps back to the present, analyzing the vision. "I think we're biting our own tail." Maybe, but not likely, Self-criticism, manufacturer criticism and musical criticism are all a part of the energy that will spur them 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.