Paul Robb Talks INSOC’s Punk Origins and the THX Experiment of ‘ODDfellows’ (INTERVIEW)

The pioneering Electronic band Information Society is making a foray into new technological possibilities by teaming up with THX to present their upcoming album ODDfellows in multiple sound formats, including THX Spatial Audio, arriving August 6th. The effect of this technique on the listener is to make it sound like the drummer is behind the listener, the vocalist in front, and other instrumentation to each side, and it is an experience most effective with headphones. The album will also be available in traditional stereo and on CD and vinyl. Gamers are well aware of the possibilities of THX technology, but this is the first time an entire music album is being released with a THX option. 

It’s not totally surprising that INSOC would take a new technological plunge since they have a long history of being fearless in this regard, however, fans get the added bonus of a long-awaited new album which contains a wide variety of favorite stylistic approaches spanning their nearly 40 year history. I spoke with INSOC founding member and Producer Paul Robb about working on ODDfellows, why technology has been such a big part of the band since its earliest days, and how INSOC came to be the first band to release an album in THX. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: I’m really struck by the wide range of musical styles on this new record. I get the impression that you work pretty consistently on song ideas and send them out to the other guys. Is that your normal method?

Paul Robb: Yes. I’ve been asked a few times if the pandemic has changed the way that we work, but interestingly enough, we’ve been working like this for twenty years now in terms of doing our stuff remotely. We haven’t lived in the same city together since 1993 when we were all living in New York. The only thing that we like to do in person is the vocal sessions, so Kurt [Larson] has graciously flown out five or six times during the production of this album to record vocals with me. 

It feels kind of like you have to be in the same room for that instant feedback. Things that would take days or weeks if you were doing them in a remote session are things that we can knock out in a couple of hours. Although the vocal sessions for this album were done before the pandemic started, so this album has been ready to go for over a year now. We decided to hold off on releasing it until the time seemed right and the time seems right now. 

HMS: It’s been a steep curve for those who have never worked remotely, but you guys have been way ahead on that. You’ve been preparing for this!

PR: It helps that we’re not a Rock band. I can imagine the process being a lot more difficult if you’re a couple of guitar players, a bass player, and a drummer. You kind of have to be in the same room, I would think, just to get the energy and woodshed songs. But we’ve never worked that way, so it hasn’t been much of a change.

HMS: Is there something beneficial to that distance that you can get when having ideas doesn’t lead to immediate recording sessions? Is there more room for process?

PR: I think it does help. That’s also the reason that frequency of releases for our band has been pretty few and far between. You do that thing where your first album is the result of all the ideas you’ve had in prior years. Then you have your sophomore jinx, where, suddenly, if things work, the record company says, “Okay, we need another one in ten months.” We’ve been through that whole process, too, and now we’ve come out the other end of the music business. We’re kind of back to the original format. We release things when we feel they are ready for release and I feel like that has been successful for us. 

Because we are our own label now, there’s no one telling us that we have to make it sound like our last hit or like something playing on the radio now, and that kind of goes back to your point about the wide stylistic range on the record. Through no master plan, it ended up being a recapitulation of all the different styles that we’ve worked through in the history of band, everything from retro pre-MIDI-style Electronica to freestyle bass tracks, to straight up Electro-Pop. I suppose if you’re not well-versed in the world of Electronic music, they might sound the same, but they are significantly different in our world, and that’s a refreshing thing in that sense. I think that’s the benefit of taking three years to make the record. Each song represents a distinct facet of the band’s sound.

HMS: Do you see that variety as more evident on this album than on previous albums?

PB: Absolutely, because there are relatively new songs on this album and there are also songs that we’ve been playing around with for years and years. You put it through the mill and it always ends up sounding like Information Society. We can’t change that even when we’ve tried to. That never seems to work. We have our playground that we play in and there are five or six different approaches on that playground, and I think on this album, we’ve taken them all.

HMS: What you’re describing in terms of having a specific sound is from most perspectives a very good thing, because if for some reason you don’t have it, you also cannot easily get it.

PB: Of course. I remember learning that lesson right when we were starting out. When George Harrison came back and had a few hits in the mid-80s, I thought, “This is a great learning opportunity.” Because he didn’t try to make music that sounded modern. It didn’t sound like what was on the charts. He was making music that sounded old, more like the music he always made. That’s relevant to us now. There’s nothing worse than a veteran band who has a history coming out and trying to sound “relevant”. Thank God that through no fault of our own, we’ve kind of avoided that pitfall.

HMS: I think Harrison’s album Cloud Nine really fits with what you’re saying. It totally sounded like him, but in a fresh way.

PB: Exactly. The other side of the coin was Billy Idol who tried to sound relevant with that cyberpunk album. It’s like, “Billy, no!” 

HMS: I’m sure he was the victim of some bad advice and plenty of pressure.

PB: I’m sure he was under pressure from management. We’ve been there, too. They say, “You’ve gotta have a hit! We don’t want the same thing again.” But it’s the Enya conundrum. If you buy an Enya record, you want it to sound like Enya and that’s all you want it to sound like. There’s nothing wrong with that. Enya lives in a giant castle in Ireland because of her sound. There’s no shame in that.

HMS: She pops up from time to time on the internet as a reminder that she lives in glory with her pets. What do you think has always made you open to technology as part of the music tradition continuum? For a lot of people, those are two very different things. 

PR: I have a lot of answers to that question, but my first answer is that any Pop musician who denies that they have a relationship to technology has just not thought about it very well. I don’t care how Roots you are, your sound is the way it is because of technology. That either has to do with wound steel strings on an acoustic guitar, or the creation of the dobro, or the creation of the electric amplifier, microphones, and PA systems. You couldn’t have made Rock ‘n Roll without these technological innovations. And similarly, without sampling in Hip-Hop, and without turntable technology. 

The older I get, the more I realize that Pop music moves along hand-in-hand with technological change, and I don’t care how far you go back. You are benefitting from and defining your sound based on music technology. It might sound like a weird claim for me to say this, but I actually think that we are kind of a Roots band! We’re an Electro-Roots band. We don’t sound anything like popular Electronic music today, by which I mean all of music today since it’s all Electronic. We started out as a Punk band. The fact that we didn’t play guitars didn’t change anything about the fact that we approached music, when we started out, from a distinctly Punk point of view. 

It was all about DIY, it was all about confrontation. It was all about humor. It was all about breaking that fourth wall and interacting with the audience. Everything that our peers were doing with guitars, we were doing with synthesizers. It’s hard for people to accept that kind of thing as legitimately Punk in that aesthetic. Punk used to be an approach and a mindset. There was also the thing that you didn’t have to be an advanced player to play your instrument, and that because you were not an advanced player, you might think of things that an advanced player would never think to do. That’s a long-winded answer, but in short, I don’t buy anyone saying that they are separated from changes in technology. 

HMS: That’s a great answer. What you were saying reminded me of many classic Rock musicians who would agree with you. They were obsessed with the changes in technology.

PR: All those great sounds from the 70s that old people like myself grew up listening to were incredibly tech heavy. All those new sounds with echoes, multitracking, and reverb chambers. Those were technology-driven sounds, even Surf Rock and Rockabilly, with their Slapback delays. It’s all distinctively defined by what technology they chose and what technology they had available to them. 

HMS: A lot of them were experiments that were happening in real-time at shows in really interesting ways. I’m reminded of Keith Richards saying he was constantly getting electrocuted in damp basement venues in London trying to hook up amps.

PR: Not to mention that he tuned his guitar in strange ways and only used four strings because he didn’t want to learn how to play guitar in a normal way. He wanted to learn to play in a different way.

HMS: That’s a great example, too. That’s an excellent bridge to talk about the THX experiment on this album. I understand that the album is being presented in two ways, as a normal stereo recording and as THX. 

PR: The CD and the vinyl are going to be straight ahead, 16 bit wav-file stereo tracks. The spatial mixes will be available through our Bandcamp page as a digital-only format. As an extra bonus, we’re also putting up 5.1 surround mixes. We like CD and vinyl, and like to hold objects, and we know some of our fans do also. They like to have a full album experience, so that’s one of the reasons why we put some CD-only bonus tracks on the CD as a treat. 

HMS: How did you become aware that THX was an option for the album?

PR: A friend of the band is actually the COO of THX. Along with a lot of technology companies, they are starting to move into spatial audio in music. As a demo for their clients and marketing purposes, they thought it would be cool to partner with us and do this album as their first THX spatial audio music product. We were totally cool with that because we’re always looking for new ways to experience the music. It sounds really great.

The caveat is that it’s not like VR. Things are not going to be whizzing around your head, and you’re not going to become nauseous because of this experience. But there is a subtle sense of greater space around the music and things have a little more depth to them when you listen on headphones. I was just talking to Kurt Larson, our singer, the other day and he said that he loves the spatial mixes so much that it’s the only version of the album that he’s going to listen to from now on. 

HMS: That’s a high standard to meet if a vocalist is that happy with how it sounds! Did you record the tracks on this album in the same way that you usually do, or did you have to do anything different to make THX possible?

PR: It was work. The record was already done, and then we got into talks with THX. I worked with our friend Kasson Crooker, and what I had to do was re-export the files on all of our songs on a track-by-track basis. Then he took what you would have called in the olden days, the multi-tracks, and he remixed all ten of these songs to adhere to the spatial audio technology. He then ended up with 5.1 mixes, traditional surround sound mixes. He then sent those to THX, and their in-house engineers encoded those mixes through their proprietary algorithms to make their spatial mixes.

HMS: If you were doing it again, would that be the same route that you would need to follow?

PR: That’s exactly how we would do it. It’s kind of like the same things we would do with remixes. You have your album and it’s done as a stereo mix, then when you hire a remixer, you send them the multi-tracks and they start from scratch. They do their own mix. Obviously, these spatial mixes are a lot more faithful to the canonical mixes that we provided. But you can hear some differences. They are different kinds of mixes with a different experiential feel to them. 

HMS: Do the spatial mixes feel different even to you?

PR: Yes, there’s a lot of technological sleight of hand to create the sense of a bigger space. But I enjoy it a lot. Unless you listen to them on headphones, though, you probably won’t hear the differences. But the good thing is that if you really want to focus, you will put those headphones on and you will do nothing but listen to the music. That’s great. That’s the way it should be. That’s the way that I used to listen to music. You can close your eyes and get lost in the sonic world. 


Photo Credit: Jonathan Shelgosh

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