Paul Robb of
Information Society,
The TVD Interview

The early 1980s was a magical time for electronic music. Artists like Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, and OMD were coming on strong and opened doors for other artists looking for the freedom to express themselves in new and untraditional ways.

Born in a dorm room in 1982 in St. Paul, Minnesota, three friends—Kurt Larson, James Cassidy, and Paul Robb—came together to form a band known simply as Information Society. Their 1985 classic “Running” became an instant classic in NYC and helped catapult the band from obscurity to stardom. Future singles such as “Walking Away” and “Peace and Love, Inc.,” cemented their place as one of the quintessential synth-pop bands of all time. 

We recently spoke with Information Society founding member Paul Robb to discuss all-things INSOC including their challenging start in the music industry, a storied 40-year career, as well as their upcoming release, ODDfellows.

Share with our readers how you got your start in the music industry?

Well, that’s a pretty long story. In the early days of the band, we really didn’t understand much about the music industry. As a matter of fact, for the first year or two, we kept having discussions about why we weren’t being discovered and were very frustrated. Finally, someone pulled us aside and said, “If you want to be discovered, you’ll need to make some recordings in order to put out records.”  Sounded fairly easy (laughs), so we eventually scraped up some money—I believe the whole recording budget was $600—went into a studio, and recorded our first self-released EP.

Funny thing about that EP, it just wouldn’t sell and most of the vinyl ended up being thrown away. About a year later, we regrouped and tried again with the support of a local DJ along with a small indie label in Minneapolis called Wide Angle Records. And like a lot of fledgling record labels, they started out by owning a record shop. Ultimately, they gave us some money and helped us distribute our next album. It was on that album that our song “Running” first appeared. Fast forward a year and a half later, and that single ended up causing a major stir in New York, ultimately inspiring Tommy Boy Records to license that song and eventually sign us to a first major record deal.

What artists inspired you along the way?

It is so hard to get across the idea to the younger generation how open it felt in the early ’80s. New wave was so important to us, yet we all came at it from different musical points of view. My focus at the time was jazz and funk. Kurt Larson was listening to Styx, The Beatles, and all things progressive. James Cassidy was in a band playing Black Sabbath covers. We were all influenced by what was around us, but when new wave music started to trickle into Minneapolis, which is where we grew up, it really opened our eyes to what was truly possible.

Bands like Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, and a German band called D.A.F., were incredibly influential on us in the early days even though we didn’t really end up sounding much like that kind of proto-industrial music.  And then the whole new romantic thing kicked in with a lot of British and German bands. After that, we started hearing “electro” bands in NYC and that really turned us on. Ultimately, we combined the song craft and the romantic overtones that we were picking up from the British bands along with the beats coming out of New York, and that was the two-cent formula that we ended up eventually co-opting as the Information Society sound.

Information Society’s sound seemed so uniquely different from many of the ’80s New Wave artists.  What made your sound standout from others during that period?

Well, thanks. Every artist makes their own synthesis—no pun intended—of their influences. And it’s funny because if you listen carefully to that first Wide Angle Records album, which really was an EP, and if you were familiar with what was on the air in 1984, you can totally pick off the artists that we were emulating for each one of those songs. For most, you try to imitate your idols and then eventually—when you get good enough or lucky enough—craft your own thing. This is what happened to us. But I can’t say that there was any great master plan involved, it was just a sort of a natural evolution.

Describe the evolution of Information Society over the years and how the band has withstood the test of time almost 40 years later.

I think the fact that we kept quitting and then coming back was part of the secret. There have been many times when we’ve walked away from the project—sometimes years at a time—because of the mix of personalities and the very ADD nature of us all allowed us to “get away from the idea of the band.” And then when we came back, we were refreshed, excited, and ready to explore our new ideas. It made the whole INSOC experience much more fun.

There were bands that, back in the day, we considered to be our peers or bands that we aspired to emulate based on their career trajectory. Some of them are long gone, but others have stood the test of time and obviously are far better than us. I’m thinking about bands like Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, and OMD. I remember going to see OMD when I was in high school and they’re still putting out incredible music today. So, it’s not impossible, but I think each band has to find their own way to do it. Similar to a family, to be able to continue to work closely with people for over a span of 40 years is just not easy. However, we found a way that worked for us!

Your latest release, ODDfellows, arrives in stores in August.  Share how the album came to be during a global pandemic.

For the most part, the album was done well before the pandemic hit and we would have released this album a year ago if everything hadn’t fallen apart. We were even considering a nice little tour to support the album. But obviously we weren’t the only ones who had their plans altered—or destroyed—by Covid. However, we did add a song called “Grups” to ODDfellows which our response to the pandemic,and I honestly think it’s one of the best songs on the record.

How would you describe the album’s sound?

It’s funny because every time we sit down to make a new album, we make a point of not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re not into chasing trends and I think that bands that do usually end up looking pretty ridiculous, although there are exceptions. So, we’ve never tried to do that, but I would argue that in terms of the integrity of our sound, this has really worked in our favor. Even when we try to do a song that’s distinctly different stylistically from anything we’ve done before, it always ends up sounding like an Information Society song.

We have fans that write us all the time and say things like, “I can’t believe you put out another record that sounds exactly like Information Society should sound.” And although gratifying, we don’t set out to recapitulate any sort of classic sound. We want to remain playful because that’s what makes the music interesting to us. I think ODDfellows comes across as a greatest hits of all the styles that Information Society has toyed around with over the years, highlighting all the types of electronic pop music that we know and love.

Do INSOC fans have any hope of seeing you on tour as “society” begins to reopen throughout the states and beyond?

We would certainly like to, but obviously with bands like ours, we’re not filling stadiums or arenas. So, touring will always depend on the right kind of opportunities. We’re a little bit shy about doing “Retro ’80s” or “Freestyle Tours” although we’ve done some in the past. That said, we’ve been touring fairly consistently for the past 10 years, and I don’t expect that to change. I can’t tell you specifically when anything is going to happen, but I don’t think we’re going to be going out any time soon. Every other band in the universe is going to be trying to hit the road this fall. So, we might have to wait a little bit longer. Stay tuned!

Your original INSOC EP dropped on vinyl in 1983 and is considered a “must have” collectable by many in the industry. Did you ever imagine at that time that this would be the case?

No, absolutely not. As a matter of fact, like I said earlier, we tried to sell that record back in the day and I think out of the 1,000 that were pressed, we literally sold less than a hundred. Kurt kept the rest in his basement and over time most ultimately got thrown out. I think that’s one of the reasons that people get excited when they find a copy, just because it is pretty rare. But I will say, I understand what you’re saying regarding the EP’s collectability. There’s a whole community of people out there for whom it is kind of a “holy grail.” As a matter of fact, about five years ago a German label approached us and said they wanted to rerelease it on vinyl exactly as it had been in the early ’80s. And so, there is a marbled vinyl, German copy of that exact album out in the universe as well.

What are your thoughts on the resurgence of vinyl around the world in what’s now a truly digital age?

I’m a vinyl fan. I can only speak for myself, but I feel like one of the advantages of vinyl is the fact that you have to pay close attention when you’re listening because one side of a vinyl record only last 20 or 30 minutes. You can’t just put it on like Spotify and it’ll keep going for the rest of the day until you turn it off. It’s also not super easy to do other things while you’re listening to vinyl. You need to really be present and listen to the music. And I think that the easy access of formats like Spotify and other streaming services make it easy to just have music as background noise (which we all do at one point or another). I listen to my fair share of ambient music and classical music while I’m cooking and things like that. But I do think that vinyl lends itself very nicely to just sitting down, dropping the needle on your favorite artist, and doing nothing else but listening to that record. That’s a positive thing and people are responding to it.

Do you collect vinyl?

I’m a half-hearted vinyl collector. If I have a passion in terms of collecting, it’s actually 78s, particularly the wacky foreign ones. I have a little battery powered, portable turntable that I put an expensive 78 only stylus onto, and I listen to them through the built-in speaker because I think it’s probably pretty close to the way it would have sounded to the people who were listening to them at the time. I love that experience. It’s like the amped up version of what I was describing to you about listening to vinyl albums, because a 78 only lasts four minutes. So, you have to even be more hypervigilant about the process. For me though, it’s really fun. And most people don’t really value 78s as much. You can find interesting old 78s at garage sales, flea markets, you name it. And people aren’t as nutty about trying to overprice them as they are with classic vinyl albums.

What is your most prized possession?

I have a couple of inter-war German jazz 78s, Rudy Vallée style, but all sung in German. I also have a couple of Spike Jones 78s from the early 1950s that are just the craziest acid trip records you’ve ever heard in your life. They are surprisingly good! I also have a couple of Asian 78s that are really cool too, but these are really novelty listens.

Who is the most influential band of the 1980s?

Kraftwerk is. There’s no doubt about that. It has to be Kraftwerk.

Who would you consider the funniest member of INSOC?

Without question, it’s James Cassidy.

What band or song on your workout playlist might possibly surprise your fans?

My whole playlist would probably surprise people. My most recent workout playlist consists of the following two box sets, the Bee Gees Greatest Hits, and the original cast recording from Jesus Christ Superstar. Also, I’ve been listening to a lot of Mama Cass and The Carpenters lately.

If you could take the stage with one musician, dead or alive, for one song, who would it be?

Wow, that’s a toughie because taking the stage with my own idols would just be an experience in shame and embarrassment that would turn into a bad experience. That said, who wouldn’t want to be on stage with James Brown at his peak in the early ’70s? I think that would probably be my pick. I would have also loved to be a member of the horns section in bands like Kool & the Gang, Earth, Wind & Fire, or KC and The Sunshine Band.

Any charities or causes near and dear to your heart?

I’ve been giving a lot of money to Heifer International recently, which is an international charity that provide cows to struggling families in parts of Africa and Asia. It’s amazing for some of these hurting societies how much a single cow in the family can change their life. That’s a big one for me.

Favorite city worldwide?

The band has spent a lot of time in Rio and I consider it our adopted home city.

Favorite keyboard / synthesizer brand?

I’m a Roland man myself. They had a nice price point and the way they sold things in a modular way really appealed to me. And if there’s one predominating synthesizer brand on all of our records, it’s Roland.

Current band that is breaking out and will be turning heads in the not-so-distant future?

I can’t say that I’m super attuned to the popular music of today, most is just not that interesting to me.  However, every so often things do pop through to my consciousness. I cannot think of one band at this exact moment, but the last thing that kind of really piqued my interest was Vaporwave. The genre is a great example of how one could combine irony with a sense of melancholy and moodiness.

What is your all-time favorite Information Society single?

Boy, that’s a toughie. For me, the one that holds up the best is probably “Peace and Love, Inc.” It’s also the best video that Information Society has ever made. I remember one reviewer describing the whole album, several years after the fact, as a bunch of ideas about where techno music might go but did not. And I think that’s a great description of that song.

In closing, anything you would like to share with your fans and our readers all around the world?

I’d encourage people to check out ODDfellows when it’s released in early August. I know it’s hard to get excited about a band that you loved 20 or 30 years ago, and probably even more challenging to get excited about their new music. However, I do feel our new album is one of the best we’ve ever made and certainly the most consistently good songwriting collection that we’ve put together. So, I would urge people to definitely give it a shot.

ODDfellows, the brand new release from Information Society arrives in stores on August 6, 2021—on vinyl.

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BAND PHOTO: JONATHAN SHELGOSH

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