May 22, 2024

Self Edge Culture Reference Series #1 - Information Society

Welcome to the first edition of the Self Edge Culture Reference Series, an ongoing collection of garments showcasing artists, bands, and musicians that make their own mark and push culture forward. The series kicks off with Information Society, a band founded in 1982, who operate where new wave, electro, and synthpop all intersect. But unless you were born before 1990 (or you live in Brazil—more on that later), you might not recognize them by name, even though you’ve probably heard their songs.

“We were the last band of the ‘80s,” says James Cassidy, who co-founded Information Society with Kurt Larson and Paul Robb in Minneapolis–Saint Paul over 40 years ago. “I mean, the last time that the ‘80s were an aesthetic—everybody after us was kind of leaning forward into the ‘90s.”

It’s just a quick riff from our conversation, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Watch the video for Information Society’s biggest hit, “What’s On Your Mind (Pure Energy),” and you’ll understand Cassidy’s assertion. Full of primary colors, oversized cutouts, and jump cuts, the video feels like a crash course in ‘80s aesthetics. The song itself features all the poppy earworm hooks you’d expect from a vintage new wave hit—accordingly, it spent 25 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100, peaking at #3—but also a crucially funky electro rhythm (and vocal samples of Leonard Nimoy from Star Trek!) that you might not.

The band’s beginnings were as humble as they come. Cassidy, Larson and Robb met in high school and became fast friends; each was an outsider in their own way. They were all into music, playing in numerous bands, until Robb proposed they start a band of their own. As Cassidy remembers it, “Paul [Robb] contacted us one day and said, ‘Hey, I’m starting a band and I want you guys to be in it. I think we’re gonna shave our heads, and we’re going all electronic. Yes or no?’”

For younger readers who might not have experienced life spent offline, it’s important to remember that things were different in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s—information traveled much differently. “There was no internet, there was no MTV,” says Robb. “The musical and visual aesthetics that influenced us came mostly from two places: the import sections in indie record stores and music magazines like The Face,” he says. That’s how, despite growing up in suburban Minnesota, they tapped into artists like Kraftwerk, Devo, Gary Numan, and DAF (aka Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft), all crucial to the band’s formation. The band’s name, meanwhile, referenced futurist Alvin Toffler’s influential 1970 book Future Shock, a progenitor of cyberpunk and digital culture.

At first, Information Society was not especially pop-friendly. “In the beginning, we were social-critical and saw ourselves as putting on avant-garde art performances,” says Larson. Robb explains: “It was a reaction against what we saw around us at the time—a garage rock aesthetic epitomized by groups like Hüsker Dü and The Replacements—and we wanted to be the exact opposite, as different as possible.” And they succeeded: their earliest recordings, collected on The INSOC EP, share much more in common with minimal European synth-punk than anything coming out of America at the time.    

In 1985, the band released their first LP, Creatures of Influence, on Minneapolis label Wide Angle. More polished and accessible than their first EP, it’s noticeably influenced by electro and early hip-hop (think “Planet Rock” and “Rapper’s Delight”), especially “Running,” the band’s first single. Radio and DJ playback made “Running” a massive hit at Latino freestyle clubs across New York City, and led to the band being signed to nascent hip-hop record label Tommy Boy.

“We took electro beats and put pop songs on top of them, but unbeknownst to us, we weren’t the only ones doing that—there was a whole group of young Latinos in New York doing the same thing, and they loved us,” says Robb. (We refer to this style of music as “freestyle” today, but it was just called “Latin hip-hop” back then.) “It was bizarre to us at first,” says Cassidy. “We always felt like impostors in that community, but they never treated us that way. And we finally realized, ‘OK, we actually belong here,’ and we were kind of adopted as this token white new wave band from Minnesota all the way out in the South Bronx,” he says.

Fueled by the success of “Running,” the band returned to the studio to record their self-titled album for Tommy Boy, released in 1988. The record’s visual identity—playful but stark, pop but experimental—was developed in collaboration with The Grey Organisation, a British art and design collective; most of the graphics in this Self Edge capsule collection were adapted from the album sleeve and inserts. (A fourth band member, Amanda Kramer, performed on the record and appeared on the artwork, but left the band soon after the album was released.)

The album’s lead single, the aforementioned “What’s On Your Mind (Pure Energy),” rocketed the band to the top of the charts in the USA: “The video got tons of play on MTV,” says Larson. “The video happened to look like what MTV wanted to do at the time, and matched their own self-promotion—it was pure luck.”

It was lucky, actually, that the song was released at all. “What’s On Your Mind” features numerous prominent samples of Leonard Nimoy—Spock on the original Star Trek TV series—and in the ‘80s, sampling occupied a legal gray area, even before the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique litigation made things very complicated. Because Warner Brothers had purchased a stake in Tommy Boy as Information Society’s self-titled album was about to be released, the Spock samples put the whole album in limbo. “Warner Brothers’ lawyers said, ‘Our relationship with Paramount [producers of Star Trek] is more important than this one stupid band,’” recounts Robb. “And so the record just sat on the shelf for over a year,” he says.

It was a chance meeting with Leonard Nimoy’s son, Adam Nimoy, then a Hollywood lawyer, that got the ball rolling. “Our A&R person at Warner Brothers randomly met Adam Nimoy,” says Larson. “So we asked him to talk to Adam, and he did, and Adam spoke to his dad, and Leonard went on to personally OK all the samples,” Larson explains. “Decades later I spoke with Leonard myself, and he confirmed that he did, in fact, go to the powers that be at Paramount and save our album—so we have the distinction of putting out the only pop music album ever executive produced by Leonard Nimoy,” Larson says, laughing.  

The album made waves in the United States, but it couldn’t have prepared the band for what awaited them south of the equator, in Brazil. Soon after their self-titled album was released, Information Society would become one of the most beloved bands in the country, building a dedicated, nationwide fanbase that persists to this day.

What exactly made Information Society so popular in Brazil is a matter of debate. As the band remembers it, the ballad on their self-titled album, “Repetition,” was licensed in a sync deal for a Brazilian telenovela, which ignited the band’s widespread popularity. But that wasn’t the case; a telenovela called Gente Fina did license “Running,” but not until 1990, when the band had already blown up in Brazil. The truth is likely simpler: just as it was in the Bronx in the early ‘80s, grassroots radio and DJ playback brought Information Society to the Brazilian masses—and so a decades-long love affair was born.  

That’s how three friends who met in high school in suburban Minnesota ended up performing in front of 190,000 people at the 1991 Brazilian mega-festival Rock in Rio II. “It’s one of those experiences where, I think I only remember it because I’ve seen videos of it,” says Robb. “The experience itself was just too far out of the norm. I mean, what do you compare it to?” Cassidy remembers getting into a cab when the band first arrived in Brazil: “The driver hit every button on the radio, and every station was playing an Information Society song,” he says. “It was totally surreal, like a national holiday, or something like that.”

After Rock in Rio II, the band went on a six-week-long Brazilian tour, hitting every region in the country—at the time, it was the longest tour of Brazil any foreign musical act had undertaken. “We were like the Beatles—we had police escorts, and people would sneak on stage and jump on our backs during shows,” Robb remembers. “It was great—it was fantastic—but I couldn’t live like that for an extended period of time,” he adds. These days, Robb says, Information Society is “like a Rio de Janeiro local band—we still play to crowds of 10-12,000 people in Rio and São Paulo, no problem.”  

In the early ‘90s, the band ended up parting ways. Larson went on to record an Information Society album by himself, Don’t Be Afraid; a decade later, Cassidy and Robb recorded their own follow-up, Synthesizer (with Larson contributing vocals on one track). But in 2014, the proverbial band got back together, and recorded _Hello World, their first album as a trio since 1992. And while the band’s bread and butter these days is live performance, they’re still writing new records: Orders of Magnitude came out in 2016 and ODDfellows in 2021.

Today, in fact, Information Society runs more smoothly than ever—because it’s a side project. “We’re lucky in that all three of us have had successful careers in other endeavors, so we’re able to go out there and pick the shows we want to do,” says Robb. “The lack of pressure has made it so much more fun. We get along so much better now that it’s not life or death.” Larson agrees: “It’s super easy now because it’s been a long time since any of us depended [on the band] to pay our rent,” he says. “It’s really relaxed now.”

For Cassidy, now a professor of agricultural science at Oregon State University, there are other perks, too. “‘Well, I guess I’ll have to do my class on Zoom on day one,’” he says, discussing compromises he makes to go on tour. “But then, I realized, my students might think it’s really cool that I’m doing my first lecture from Brazil,” he adds, laughing.

Ultimately, more than 40 years after it began, the story of Information Society is about three friends who love performing music together—who just happened to write a handful of chart-topping songs when they were getting started. “When I was 22 or 23, when we first started blowing up, I thought that if you had a hit record, you’d be flying the Concorde back and forth to London, spending your days going to receptions at art galleries,” says Robb. “But I love where we’ve ended up. It’s very nice not to have commercial expectations. And every now and then, when young people come up to me and tell me they’re excited by the ideas behind the band and inspired by the visual aesthetics we developed with our collaborators back in the day, it’s really satisfying. It’s nice to know we’re more than just ephemeral in that way.”

Words: Chris Zaldua
Photography: Dani Ponce
Concept & Direction: Kiya Babzani