Minneapolis synth wizard Paul Robb talks about his longtime group’s excellent new album and their roots at the intersection of New Wave and House
Paul Robb is calling from his home in New Hampshire . “I’m a country gentleman now,” he jokes.
But he will probably always be associated with Minneapolis, which is his hometown and also where he launched his career as the synthesizer player and main producer for Information Society. That band, long revered in the electronic music scene, just released their latest album, ODDfellows, in August (via Hakatak International, a record label Robb founded in 1995).
ODDfellows has been a long time coming. “The bulk of the material on this album actually was recorded before the pandemic happened, and we were going to release it last summer,” Robb says. “Then we just decided to hold off because everything was so weird.”
The album’s rather dystopian theme – which Robb describes as “the impact of technology, particularly information technology, on one’s life” – follows the same blueprint that Information Society has largely favored since Robb co-founded the band in 1982. “The thing is, when you reach the stage in your career that we have reached, I don’t think that there’s anything new that we want to say or wish we could say,” he says. “We have a little playground that we’ve been playing in, and we’re very happy to explore the themes and styles that we’ve always explored.”
That approach has worked out well for the band. Since their 1983 debut, The InSoc EP, they’ve released more than a dozen studio albums and EPs, as well as appearing on several compilations. They achieved worldwide fame with their 1988 hit “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy),” and have remained one of the best-known electronic music acts ever since. They continue to innovate, releasing a “THX Spatial Audio” version of ODDfellows that incorporates the latest technology to give listeners the most immersive sonic experience possible.
VIDEO: Information Society “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy)”
This long career technically goes back to the future Information Society members’ high school years together in Minneapolis, though they didn’t form a band then because, as Robb explains with a laugh, “James Cassidy [bassist] was a metalhead, so he was in bands like that. And Kurt Larson was a choir kid.”
For his part, Robb can still vividly recall his own early musical touchstones: “I started out playing saxophone in a band, and then I was into jazz, and then I was into funk. And then I heard Gary Numan, which changed my life. His song “Praying to the Aliens” was the first thing that filtered through to pop radio in Minnesota, and I just couldn’t believe it.” He still clearly remembers the first time he heard it: “I was in my car, and I had to pull over because I wanted to listen so closely to that song.”
Robb recalls how Information Society’s members finally found themselves on the same page when they got to college. “I wanted to start a band, and they were the only people I knew who were musical but also just freakish and strange enough to take a chance doing a band like this, that was so out of the mainstream at the time.
“We really embraced the punk ethos, in terms of ‘do it yourself’ and it’s actually better to not be an accomplished musician because that way you won’t be boxed in by your stylistic limitations,” Robb continues. “We didn’t want to be the same as all the other bands that we were hearing in the clubs. We wanted to be the opposite. When you were growing up in a town where the heroes were bands like The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, the most reactionary thing we could think of to do was to go onstage with four synthesizers and a drum machine. And believe me, we got a lot of shit for that!”
As for why they persevered and ultimately prevailed, Robb says, “I think it’s a combination of sheer stubbornness and also just good luck. The first couple of years, we broke up several times. People quit, but then they would come back and we would do some music. As a matter of fact, our first breakout record, a song called “Running,” the band was broken up when that became a hit.” That track, released in 1985, reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s U.S. Dance chart. “The rats all came back to the ship when they realized it wasn’t sinking anymore! So we have dissolved and reformed many times over the years.”
VIDEO: Information Society “Running”
After “Running” became a hit, the band members moved to New York, which Robb says was a critical turning point for them: “I feel like it was that mixture between our Minneapolis electro punk roots and then the dance club scene that we were exposed to for the first time in New York that really created that signature Information Society sound.”
But even now, nearly forty years since the band started, Robb admits that their distinctive style is still hard to define. “Some people think it’s retro and that’s fine, and some people think it’s current, and that’s fine, too.” With a laugh, he gives his own opinion on the matter: “It’s retro-futurism, that’s what it is!”