Legendary synthpop band Information Society debated for four years whether to continue dropping full records or veering completely into the singles landscape. Following their 2016 studio record, Brothers! Sisters!, the outfit─composed of Kurt Larson, Paul Robb, Zeke “Falcotronik” Prebluda, and James Cassidy─considered every option, turning to various colleagues to get their input. “There are people, not just within our band but throughout the industry, who are like, ‘Well, the age of the album is over. We’re in a singles era now. No one cares about albums, and nobody buys CDs anyway,’” remarks Robb.
“The whole sort of theoretical album experience is just kind of passe. But on the other hand, we are, for better or for worse, a legacy act一let’s face it,” Robb tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “A lot of our fans still think in terms of albums, and they still want albums. Even down to things like sequencing, people are still interested in why we chose to put the songs in this order.”
In 2018, the group began releasing a series of singles (many of which worm their way onto the finished set), but “when it became apparent that we were going to go all the way and create an album that was thematically related, we stopped putting out singles and talked about the fact that there would be an album coming up,” he adds.
As their creativity poured forth, Oddfellows, their first record in five years, emerged, a cobblestone of style from their wealthy catalog. “One of the most salient aspects of this record, and I wasn’t even really consciously aware of it until one writer in the early stages of doing some press about this pointed out to me, he said, ‘It seems to me like the 10 songs on this album are sort of almost like a greatest hits of all the styles that you guys have worked in, over the years.’ When I thought about that, I had to admit that that’s kind of true. In that sense, it makes it cool.”
From freestyle to “forays into darkwave and more industrial sounds that were part of our middle development,” the 10-track collection is surprisingly expansive, a satisfying excursion for long-time fans and perhaps enticing for newcomers. “Then, there are just some very simple straight-ahead synth-pop songs, which have a dear spot in my heart. That’s the kind of music I was inspired by initially in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. These are meant to be small, adjustable little pop songs and mood pieces. They are a time capsule of the time that they were written, and I didn’t really want to mess around with that.”
With much of the record finalized pre-pandemic, the mysterious elixir “Grups” found its way out of their fingertips last summer. As a response to the pandemic, according to an interview with The Vinyl District, Robb and Larson pull greatly from the “Miri” episode of Star Trek. “The genesis of that song was an exercise in constraints,” says Robb. “With so many choices with this infinite palette that we have available to us now, you know, with VST synthesizers and sampling and drum machines and everything in the box, I have found in my writing that artificial constraint can be a really good creative tool.”
In the Star Trek episode, a bunch of children are stricken with a disease “when they become sexually mature. They become grups and monstrous and die. I laid out a challenge to Kurt,” he continues. “I said, ‘I want you to write the topline on this track that I’m presenting to you, but you’re only allowed to use lines from that episode of Star Trek as your lyrics. They don’t have to be in order.’ It’s almost a sort of experiment in poetry or like an Exquisite Corpse exercise or something like that. And so that’s what he did.
“It’s rearranged to a certain extent to get across the relationship between the mortality and the foolishness of that group of kids on that planet in that episode,” he adds, “and our current situation now. In that sense, I don’t know that millions or hundreds of thousands of people are going to hear that right away or appreciate it. But I was pretty happy with the results.
“When you’ve written as many songs as we have, it’s very easy to fall into old habits and get into ruts and just keep doing versions of what you’ve done before. Applying a pretty strict constraint to your process like that allows you to come up with things that you wouldn’t necessarily have done without the constraint being in place.”
But “Grups” carries an even more personal meaning. “We’re old men. We’re not trying to make music for 20-year-olds anymore. Our concerns are not the same. Our concerns are not Billie Eilish’s concerns,” he laughs. “We’re not going to write songs anymore about how our last boyfriend was so mean to us, or whatever一you know, Taylor Swift stuff.”
The record pops and fizzes with the sample-heavy patchwork “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” calling back to a trend they frequently explored on their early ‘90s records. “It was when culture jamming and recontextualizing samples and things like that was the coolest thing. We did a lot of that on our albums, obviously, but we haven’t done it for quite some time,” says Robb. “I thought it was time to have a bit of a kick-ass jam with some cryptic samples on top and just let it rip. We decided to put it first on the album just to kind of announce both that we’re serious about this album and also that we’re not that serious about it.”
The sample soup, clipping at just over two minutes, samples a 1979 Wall Street interview and sermons from Peoples Temple cult leader Jim Jones. “You could think of it as a slightly topical song, as well,” he says, quickly noting the song title is inspired by an 1841 book of the same name written by Charles Mackay. “[That book] was the first attempt at psychologists trying to understand why people act so crazy in large groups. When taken individually, they all seem pretty straightforward, intelligent creatures, but then when they get into a large group, they act insane half the time. We certainly are seeing that lately.”
Later, the group excavates “Down in Flames,” a track initially written during sessions for Peace and Love, Inc. (1992). “When we were going through the material, both new and old, and assembling the album, this one was something that both Kurt and I have liked over the years. We just decided to see what we could do to bring this up to the modern era in terms of the production and things like that. Even though it’s almost a 30-year-old song, it sounded perfect for this album.”
The album rounds out with “Mymble’s Daughter,” another moment drawing upon literature for its thematic backbone. Mymble’s daughter served as a prominent figure in the popular “Momin” book series, written by author Tove Jansson. “On the subject of constraints, again, we write conventional songs for the most part. But we don’t want to write pablum, either. That song is a straight-ahead love song, and it was written for someone by me. I didn’t want to just come out and say I love you. Kurt and I are actually big fans of the Momin books, and we both read them numerous times. I find that everyone in your life can be categorized as one type of Momin character or another.
“The process of working creatively with people remotely is not a new thing for us. We were doing it long before the pandemic. I’m always pleasantly surprised every time we make a new record that we can so successfully collaborate while being geographically very distant from each other. In terms of this group, it’s always amazing to me how quickly it all comes back to us, and we kind of gel with our distinctive sorts of concerns and sounds, regardless of what else is going on in the world and in our life for that matter.”
Oddfellows sees a standard stereo release, and in collaboration with THX, a Spatial Audio recording will also be made available. “If you’re a headphone person, and you’ve got really good headphones, it’s a pretty interesting listening experience,” says Robb.
“Even though we idolize some of the real early, primitivist sorts of electronic productions and groups, like Suicide and things like that, we came along long enough into the development of the genre that the technology was pretty mature,” he continues. “We’ve always had pretty big, impactful productions, and so I think our music is able to benefit from this spatial technology, more so than a jazz trio or something like that. I don’t think you would get much more in chamber music, for example. But for us, it was a super fun exercise.”
On the conversation of albums, particularly while we’re living in an era of vinyl resurgence, Robb observes it as nothing more than nostalgia buying. “A lot of the people who are buying vinyl now are buying it more as just a souvenir or collectible item. I’m not sure how many people really have integrated or reintegrated listening to vinyl in their daily lives. You know, it’s funny. For myself, I’m a vinyl listener, but I wouldn’t necessarily classify myself as a vinyl collector.
“I feel some types of music work better on vinyl than other types of music. On the other hand, when I do listen to vinyl, I like the experience, in the sense that you have to pay attention when you’re listening to vinyl because it only lasts 30 minutes outside of the full-length album. I also have a collection of 78s, and that’s even more focus intensive because that only lasts four minutes. You really can’t wander off and start cooking dinner. It forces you to pay more attention.”