Paul Robb of Information Society

by Greg Prato

Dance music lyrics: just there to supplement the beats, or something deeper?

In the case of Information Society, the New Wave techno band who created their own version of the Minneapolis sound, there is a layer of meaning under the blanket of beats. Songs like "What's on Your Mind (Pure Energy)," "Walking Away" and "Think" have plenty to say - it's just set to samplers and synths. Paul Robb, who founded the group in 1982 (the name comes from a concept in the 1970 Alvin Toffler book Future Shock), was kind enough to dissect some of these songs and explain how they embed them with meaning.

Robb, along with longtime members Kurt Larson and James Cassidy, is still going strong with InSoc, which in 2016 released Orders of Magnitude, a collection of 11 cover tunes that run the gamut from Devo's "Beautiful World" to "Heffalumps and Woozles" from Winnie the Pooh. Robb spoke with us shortly before the release of the disc.

Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's start by discussing the new album, Orders of Magnitude.

Paul Robb: This is a project that we've had bubbling around in our brains for quite some time. We had a new album two years ago that was our first new/original album in a number of years [2014's Hello World]. And when we were doing the sessions for that album, we had a couple of covers that we wanted to do, too, and we did have a cover on that album, that was "Beautiful World," where we got Jerry Casale from Devo to join us on the recording. And it got us so excited about covers, that we decided to do a whole cover album, and that's what Orders of Magnitude is: It's basically a collection of songs from artists - for the most part - that inspired us when we were beginning songwriters. So without exception, all the tracks on the record are older songs from the '80s, and in some cases, even from the '70s - just done in our style.

We wanted to have a lot of fun with it, and we weren't taking it too seriously, so we did "Heffalumps and Woozles" from the old Winnie the Pooh cartoon, and we did that song "Kiss You All Over" by Exile, just because we thought it was such an unbelievably goofy song that we wanted to see what it would sound like if we covered it. And it was awesome!

We did the song "Me and My Rhythm Box" from that gawdawful '80s movie, Liquid Sky. It was such a terrible movie, but at the same time, it was the only New Wave movie - at least American New Wave movie - that any of us had ever seen. So it was also very influential. We did a Snakefinger song and the Devo cover is on there. Just the usual suspects, but a way for us to stretch out and do songs that were not written by us.

Songfacts: How does the songwriting work in the band now, compared to the '80s?

Robb: It's a very similar process, because even back in the '80s, we were not your "Let's get all the guys together around the grand piano and tinker on the ivories." It was a very disjointed process where generally speaking, I would come up with a track, and sometimes a hook, sometimes not, and then I would present it to the other guys in the band, who would finish off parts of it. So in the modern era of the band, it works the same way.

"Topline" refers to the vocal melody and lyric. So named because it's what goes on the top line of the chart.
Even though we don't live in the same cities anymore, I'll write a track or write a hook to go along with it, and I will send it over to Kurt, and he'll finish it up. Sometimes, he'll do the entire topline. Back in the day, we didn't have that term "topline," but that's what we were doing.

I'm pretty good at hooks, so sometimes I will write the chorus hook, sometimes I won't. The technology that we have today that we didn't have back in the day makes it easier to collaborate remotely. But other than the geographic distance, the process is pretty much the same as it always was.

Songfacts: What are your memories of writing "Pure Energy (What's on Your Mind)"?

Robb: That song actually had a very painful gestation and birth. It started out as just kind of an instrumental jam. We were trying to record our first album when we were originally signed to Tommy Boy, and we didn't really know how to write songs at the time, so we just kept coming up with these 10-minute-long instrumental jams, and we were spending all this money in the studio. Finally, the people from Tommy Boy flew out to Minneapolis and essentially said, "This isn't working. We're spending all this money, and you're not actually providing us with any songs that we can use to follow up 'Running' with."

So I took the instrumental groove that latter became "What's on Your Mind," and woodshedded it. I listened to songs that were popular of the day, and I really sat down with the intention of, "I'm going to write a chorus that is hooky and memorable, and people can sing along to." And that's what I did.

I took some particular inspiration from "Sledgehammer" from Peter Gabriel, and I can't remember which one, but there was a Duran Duran song that was big at the time. I used to study Duran Duran a lot, because I really was a fan of their harmonies. So anyway, that song, the chorus came first, and then Kurt and I shared the writing duties on the verses after the chorus was written.

Songfacts: Does the song have any special lyrical meaning?

Robb: It's funny, because at the time, as latter-day New Wavers" that we were, up to that point, we tried to write lyrics in the vein of Gary Numan or Devo or some of these other New Wave acts, where the lyrics said as little as possible. You put lyrics in a song back in those days because people expected lyrics. You weren't trying to be a storyteller in the way that album rock songs were stories or narratives. At the time, we thought that's kind of what "What's on Your Mind" was: just sort of a random collection of emotional impressions.

But when you look back at it now, it's a clear narrative about the difficulty that people have communicating with each other. At the time, we weren't writing it with that in mind, but it's so clear when you just read through the lyrics. It's a very simple and very clear-cut story.

We didn't really realize what we were writing about. You fall into these grooves - I think it's just the way the human brain works, even when you try to avoid it, you fall into the next groove over. But it's still the same narrative structure, because that's the way the brain works: we like to tell stories.

Songfacts: Was it ever difficult getting across a profound thought in a dance track?

Robb: [Laughs] Well, it depends on what you mean by "profound," I guess. But I will say that there are people in the world who find some of our dance tracks to be very profound. It's the kind of thing where if you serendipitously hear it and it speaks to your experience at the moment, it seems very profound. But on the other hand, it's pop music, really, so how profound can it be? It's still two-and-a-half minutes, but it's profound in the same way that poetry can be profound: you try to concentrate your thoughts as much as possible, and get them across in the most compact and efficient way possible. So there's a certain profundity in that process.

Paul, Kurt and Jim all went to Irondale High School, outside of Minneapolis. Paul and Kurt started performing as Information Society in 1982, and over the next few years the group went through a dizzying array of band members. Their first recording was The InSoc EP, a 5-song set they put together in 1983 with the four-person lineup of Paul, Kurt, Pamela Brussman and Kristie Leader (Jim joined later that year). In 1985, they released their first album, Creatures Of Influence, which was the creation of Paul and Murat Konar. "Running" was issued as a single, and apparently went nowhere, but club DJs in New York and Miami discovered the song and made it an underground hit. Now with Paul, Kurt and Murat representing the group, they performed at New York City clubs, doing "Running" on stage to backing tracks, as was club custom.

Kurt left for Vienna, and when he returned six months later in 1986, "Running" was picking up speed - it got the attention of producer Joey Gardner, who pitched it to Tommy Boy Records. The label had Garnder remix the song with Kurt's voice replacing that of Murat, who sang on the original. Released as a single, the remix got decent airplay and Tommy Boy signed the band, now comprised of Paul, Kurt, Jim, and new member Amanda Kramer. This was the lineup that recorded their first Tommy Boy album, the self-titled 1988 effort with their biggest hits.

They recorded two more albums for Tommy Boy before being dropped from the label in 1993. Paul and Jim sold their interest in the band to Kurt, who released the album Don't Be Afraid in 1997. The core trio re-formed in 2005 and released Synthesizer in 2007, followed in 2014 by Hello World.

Songfacts: What is the lyrical inspiration behind "Walking Away"?

Robb: That was one of the few songs of that era where I sat down and I specifically knew what I wanted to write about before I started writing. A lot of times, it just kind of comes out, like what I was talking about with "What's on Your Mind." I had no idea what I was writing that song about - it just kind of happened.

But "Walking Away" was a song where I sat down and said, "I want to write a song that's kind of like "What's on Your Mind," but it's going to be directed to some former members of our band who had sort of quit the band at an importune moment. As a matter of fact, they both quit right before we made it big with "Running." So if you listen to the lyrics of "Walking Away," it's basically just someone complaining about people who left. That's because that's exactly what it is. It's a very transparent song - there's no deep meanings in that one.

Songfacts: And what was the inspiration behind "Think"?

Robb: "Think" was from a different era. We were trying to get a little more multi-layered in our writing. Most of the songs that we would write, we would try to at least have two layers of meaning. One was aligned with the conceptual theme of the band, because never forgetting that we were New Wavers, every band had to have a theme, and most of the time, the theme was a critique of mass media.

So "Think" is an example of a song that was an attempt to combine experiences of mass media and how it affects our feelings and our ability to communicate with each other - and even what we communicate with each other - and then overlay that with a relationship narrative. So as with a lot of our songs, it's kind of a backward-looking theme. Pretty nostalgic, but expressed with - at the time - futuristic narrative accoutrement.

Songfacts: How about the lyrical inspiration behind "Running"?

Robb: "Running" is rather rudimentary, as it was one of our earliest songs. It's basically someone who is in a relationship where it's not working, and you have a sense of things falling apart. You're doing your best to keep it together, but it doesn't seem to be working.

There's also a certain level of nostalgia in that song, too - that's what really hooked a lot of people. It does have that monstrously huge dance beat, the electro feel, but the song that's laid over the top is very romantic and nostalgic sounding.

Information Society is sometimes wrongly accused of being a one-hit wonder - VH1 listed them at #74 on their "100 Greatest One Hit Wonders of the '80s" countdown, just ahead of Bertie Higgins. InSoc actually had five entries on the Hot 100, including two in the Top 10.
Songfacts: What are your thoughts on when Information Society is tagged a "one-hit wonder" when the band scored other hits?

Robb: Well, what are you going to do? [Laughs] It's understandable, because "What's on Your Mind" was so much bigger than any of our other songs. Even though "Walking Away" went to #9 and "What's on Your Mind" went to #3, so they're both Top 10 songs. But really, "What's on Your Mind" was ten times or twenty times bigger and more legitimate as a hit than "Walking Away" was or "Think" was. If you want to talk about royalties, we still get more royalties for "What's on Your Mind" than we do for the rest of our catalog put together.

However, I will say this: there are some places in the world where they still think of us as a "one-hit wonder," but it's not that hit. For instance, in South America, which is second to the States as our biggest market - Brazil specifically - the song "Repetition" is far and away our biggest hit. And that's a ballad. It's probably the only ballad we ever did.

And then if you go into the club world in the States, like in New York, for instance, we're much more known for "Running" than we are for "What's on Your Mind." People are like, "Oh yeah, I know that 'What's on Your Mind' song. That was a pop hit. But I really love 'Running' - that was your greatest song." So in the world of the clubs and the DJ culture, we're also kind of known as a one-hit wonder, but the hit is "Running." So that's a little amusing and gratifying. We're playing in Florida tomorrow night, and it's a freestyle show, and at those kind of shows, "Running" is by far the most popular track that we ever did. So, it's gratifying that different groups of people latched on to different kinds of songs. But the one-hit wonder thing, I can't complain. It's better than a "no-hit wonder," right?

March 16, 2016.
For more Information Society, visit informationsociety.us.

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