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Retirados do Sound on Sound, matéria de março de 1999.


Paul Robb: Information Society: Brother Sun Sister Moon: Working For Film & TV

A co-founder of US electro-pioneers Information Society, Paul Robb recently scored the new movie from the creators of South Park. He has a new band signed to Virgin and a dance side-project, yet still manages to write award-winning music for TV. Sam Molineaux joins him and his various alter egos in his new Los Angeles studio, Digitalis.

As South Park fever approached its peak on both sides of the Atlantic in the late Autumn, some sort of spinoff other than the passé "Oh my God, they killed Kenny!" T-shirt became inevitable. I had my money on a Christmas duet between sexy soul crooner Isaac Hayes and Les Claypool of Primus, but those marketing guys at Comedy Central went one step further with Chef Aid -- The South Park Album. This 21-track collection of tributes not only features Hayes (aka Chef in South Park, most notably on the UK New Year number one smash 'Chocolate Salty Balls') and Claypool, but the king of tribute songs himself, Elton John, alongside a whole host of other musical collaborators such as Ozzy Osbourne, Joe Strummer and Rancid. (Rumour has it South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone turned down 200 interested bands -- look out for the sequel, folks.) Undoubtedly one of the album's most vital tracks is Paul Robb's Think Tank remix of British group Vitro's offering, 'Mental Dull'. A rip-roaring hard techno number loaded with samples from various South Park episodes, it has all the makings of the world's hippest novelty single.

"It was all just a bit of a lark, silly really. But it was fun to do, and the record is huge," assures Robb, treating me to the 'alternative' version, which he'd completed earlier that day, in all its foul-mouthed glory. "I thought I'd finally waved goodbye to it, actually, but then a couple of weeks ago Matt and Trey sent me a bunch of profanity and said 'Now we want an uncensored version!'"

Paul Robb's association with Parker and Stone goes back to their pre-South Park days, when the pair were putting together their very first pilot for Fox Children's Network. Fresh out of college, they were also developing a feature film, the one musical directive of which was apparently 'Music like Information Society' -- Robb's '80s electro-pop outfit (see 'The Rise & Fall Of America's Depeche Mode' box). Although the TV pilot ended up being scrapped, the film project continued. After two years, in which the whole South Park phenomenon took root, Parker and Stone's first movie Orgazmo finally saw the light of day last October, complete with Robb's soundtrack.

It all came about in quite a strange way. They literally just contacted me out of the blue one day," remembers Robb. "When we first spoke, Trey was very impressed to be talking to me, he was kind of a fan I suppose. It took a couple of years for them to get the funding and to get everything together, and in the meantime we became friends, through meeting at various industry events."

In the five years since his departure from Information Society, Robb has composed a substantial amount of television music (most notably for MTV's Real World and Road Rules and a string of cutting-edge TV commercial spots, of which more in a moment) but Orgazmo marks his first movie score. Being that the film is a spoof on the Los Angeles porn industry, complete with Church of the Latter Day Saint-turned-pornstar superhero Orgazmo (played by Trey Parker), it wasn't exactly your average soaring-strings type of movie score.

"There are some parts that are standard faux orchestral-style film score -- for which I made extensive use of the Peter Siedlaczek orchestra disks and the older ProSonus orchestra library -- but other parts were a little less conventional," explains Robb. "There was a disco scene, for example, which I actually used a Think Tank track for, and a few techno sections where I was free to use more of my synth arsenal. The worst part was that some of the cues were supposed to sound deliberately cheesy, which isn't easy when you fancy yourself as a composer, to take that sort of direction. I'd be saying 'Yeah -- but I don't want people to think that I actually compose like that!'"

The whole project was not without its problems, it seems, particularly since Robb's previous music-to-picture experience was confined to his previous work for the small screen. On a couple of occasions with the film work, he admits, he felt like he was flying by the seat of his pants: "My TV work definitely led me astray on the film score. For example, there was this one repeating cue, a kind of tacky wah-wah guitar part that came in every time there was a porn scene -- it's exactly the same piece of music each time, that was part of the joke. So I just recorded it the once and wrote on the master 'Use cue number 2 on reel 1', which is normal practice in TV, but the dub stages where they mix films are so horrendously expensive that they don't do anything that's going to hold up the recording process like that. It was causing eye-popping, steam-rising sort of sessions and I wasn't popular for a while!"

Nevertheless, everything came out in the wash, the movie was well received, and Robb claims to be somewhat the wiser having successfully completing his first movie project.

"We spotted the film quite extensively. There was a lot more direction than I've been used to with TV projects, but virtually all of my score survived to the final mix, which isn't always the case. Since I had no-one to tell me how to do this and I was working a lot of it out as I went along, I'm surprised it turned out so well."


"What's your word for it -- anorak?" enquires Paul Robb, running down his vast rack of goodies with a story to tell about each and every box. "We say geek here, but I like 'anorak'. As I explain the origin of this very British term [actually, it's originally an Eskimo word -- pedantic Ed], Robb is noticeably amused. He's a word-anorak like myself, and, of course, a veritable gear geek.

"I can remember when I was seven years old my Mum bought me a 65-in-1 Electronic Project Kit. It was a little box with some electronic components in there, and you connected the wires to different springs to make different projects. I don't remember learning much about electronics, but I loved connecting them and trying to make funny sounds come out of the box," says Robb, of his introduction to electronic music-making.

By his teens, after years of carrying around a picture of an early modular Moog clipped from the hippy Whole Earth Catalog, Robb had acquired his first synth, a Moog Prodigy, and shortly after, Information Society was born. "I heard Gary Numan's 'Praying To The Aliens' on the radio, and that was it. My life changed at that moment," he remembers.

As America's first electro-pop outfit, Information Society hit the big time. The first single from this trio of schoolfriends, 1985's 'Running', was an instant success. "It was crazy. I can't describe the scene," says Robb. "We'd be flying to Florida or New York or California every weekend to do track shows. We played so often at one club in the Bronx that we were virtually a house band there. They'd give us $2000 and we'd take all our synthesizers and just play 'Running' -- it was all they wanted to hear!"

Within a few years, Information Society's fame had swept the clubs of both North and South America, thanks to a string of Latin hip-hop-style dance hits. "We came to Latin by way of Kraftwerk, hip-hop, Afrika Bambaata and New Romantic -- a lot of which is based on Latin chords," explains Robb, pointing out that they're actually all of Scandinavian descent, from Minnesota.

Despite a massive hit with 'What's On Your Mind' in 1988, and considerable US success with their first two albums, Information Society never made much of a mark in Europe. "We played some shows in Spain where we were quite popular, but every time Tommy Boy, our record company, tried to get us a deal in the UK, the prevailing attitude was: 'Well, we have Depeche Mode and we have OMD -- why would we want Information Society?'"

Nevertheless, a year after its US release, their second album Hack was released in the UK on Columbia, following the discovery that the 1990 UK club hit 'A Knife And A Fork', attributed to Think Tank, was in fact by Information Society. By 1992, however, as grunge swept America and electro-pop reached its sell-by date, Information Society's star was on the wane. Their third and final album Peace & Love Inc., although an estimable example of early techno, underperformed in the US and wasn't even released in Britain. They finally decided to call it quits.

"We were a band on the verge of break-up for our entire history," reveals Robb. "While we were still going up, all the internal differences in the group were easier to ignore, but once things started to get harder we began to wonder if it was actually worth it. What we should have done was fire our management, but we didn't do that. Basically we couldn't stand each other, we couldn't stand our booking agent, we couldn't stand anybody at either of our record companies, and our lawyer had just married our manager's sister, so he couldn't be trusted either. I'd just got married and was going to have kids, so it was a good-riddance situation."

Robb left Information Society for good in 1993, at first concentrating on scoring for MTV before reviving Think Tank as a solo project, while fellow co-founder James Cassidy dropped out of the music business altogether and vocalist Kurt Harland, after biding his time for a few years, eventually released a new Information Society album in '97, though he was by then the only remaining original member.


Robb-A-Job

Robb's involvement with the Chef Aid album came about largely from having worked on Orgazmo. "I think they thought they owed me a favour," he laughs. It was originally planned to include a Think Tank song, but they ended up doing a Think Tank remix of a Vitro song instead.

"I like doing remixes, because somebody's already written half the song for you and you have the luxury of messing it up," says Robb, not unhappy with his remix credit. "The song came to me on DAT and I basically tore it apart, broke it up into loops, rearranged it, added more drum loops and the South Park character samples, then some bass and guitar and pretty much undid everything they did on their original song!

"So over the top of Vitro's basic tracks I layered a number of loops from different sources. Some of them were from the Best Service sample library, which I use quite a lot, and I also did some of my own drum programming. The bass line was from the humblest box in the entire world, the Alesis Nanobass, which I just love. I have all these $2000 synthesizers, and I went with a little $100 box! I also used a couple of guitar samples, sort of anonymous ones that I don't really know where they came from, and that was about it on that song. It wasn't the most intricate arrangement I've ever done."

Robb explains that the main divergence from the norm on this particular remix was the sheer number of vocal samples he had to work with; four of his five samplers were taken up with South Park character samples and their widely varying levels posed some technical problems.

"Generally I work completely tapeless, where everything is virtual until I mix it to stereo, but because there were so many samples this time I had to lay some parts down to Tascam DA88. I wish I'd had Pro Tools for this project because adjusting the sample levels is exactly the kind of thing Pro Tools is good for, but instead I just had to compress the hell out of the vocals so that they came out at roughly the right level."

For Robb, working tapeless means doing everything on a Windows PC running Voyetra's Digital Orchestra Pro sequencing package. "The reason I use Digital Orchestrator Pro is because I used its predecessor, Sequencer Plus, which was the first DOS-based MIDI sequencer. It was such a powerful program, not just for its day but even now, that I couldn't give it up. I only switched to the Windows version recently because people were laughing at me for still using an old DOS-based 286. I tried Logic Audio and I have to say it totally defeated me. The thing is, I'm not dumb, it's just that Sequencer Plus on a DOS computer was lightning fast and very powerful and I got used to that. The Windows version is basically the same thing."

One frustration Robb finds with working with so many samples is the amount of physical space needed to store them -- he keeps everything on Syquest disk, having long ago filled up his CD3000's hard disk capacity. Like many programmers he has been waiting for the happy day when Akai's new S6000 sampler was available, so he could organise his samples more efficiently. Now it has arrived, and is sitting in his rack, but at the time of our interview he hadn't yet pressed it into service.

"One of the things that brought about the downfall of Information Society was that we were trying to write songs based on marketing, instead of writing songs based on what we wanted to hear."

"The good thing about the S6000 is that it has no upper limit on the size of hard disk you can use, and it stores everything as wave files. You can buy a 9Gb or 18Gb hard drive and finally put all your sounds in one place. Until now, I have them organised by physical object, by disk, which works okay but it's expensive, and takes up far too much room. Plus it's clumsy to keep having to load in Syquest disks all the time. I'm looking forward to putting all my sounds onto one hard disk on the new 6000, and cataloguing them with directories in a sensible way."


Since leaving Information Society, Paul has kept a reasonably low profile with regard to the music business; he's done a few remixes here and there, but has otherwise worked largely in the realm of television. The balance began to shift last year, however, and confident of having learnt from the mistakes of the past he's now preparing himself for a second crack at the fame game. But this time, things will be slightly different.

"One of the things that brought about the downfall of Information Society was that we were trying to write songs based on marketing, instead of writing songs based on what we wanted to hear," says Robb. "Even after I'd left I kind of continued that way of thinking. But after a while I came to realise that that wasn't the way I wanted to work, so I decided to just start writing songs how I wanted them to be, without worrying about what would happen. That's how Think Tank came about, and subsequently Brother Sun Sister Moon."

The latter, his contemporary sample-heavy duo with folk-blues singer Barbara Cohen, is due to release its first album in the spring on Virgin Records. The male programmer/female singer combination against hip-hop beats is sure to draw stylistic comparisons with British trip-hop but, as Robb explains, his was more an outgrowth of his experiments with American musical styles than any conscious assimilation of what was happening in Britain.

"I was actually trying to find a rapper to work with, but after several experiments it wasn't really happening. I knew Barbara Cohen from high school and she's always done folk music, but with a really bluesy inflectedvocal style, which I thought would make an interesting coupling with the kind of hip-hop music I was writing. We started writing the material back in 1995, and then suddenly Portishead came out. Somebody stole my idea!" he jokes.

Nevertheless, they forged ahead and along the way one of their songs, the haunting trip-hop power ballad 'Bangkok', attracted the attention of film director Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused) who cast it as the signature tune for his forthcoming Claire Danes-starring movie Brokedown Palace. "I heard that the director fell in love with the song, so we're really hoping that it will be released as the single from the soundtrack," says Robb. "The film is set in Bangkok but our song was chosen before they knew what the title was!"


Confessions Of A Studio Musician

Someone like Paul Robb must be a keyboard whizz who knows his gear inside out and spends every spare minute programming new sounds, right? Wrong! "I, like one of my early idols Gary Numan, proudly admit to being a two-finger virtuoso. As a matter of fact, my keyboard skills have gone downhill. I was a much better piano player before I made my living in music," confesses Robb. "I'm different to most musicians... in fact, I'm not that different. I just admit to all these things.

"Most people who make this kind of music will say 'Oh no, I never use presets', like every sound on every record is programmed from scratch, from sine waves or something. That's garbage, everyone uses presets! They tailor the music to the sound and it's a special case if you need to tailor a preset to fit into a song, not the reverse. They just never admit to it in interviews.

"Basically I'm lazy -- and I'll acknowledge that. The thing is, there are so many presets in the universe of sounds now, you know. If a sound isn't right, I just keep looking until I find a better one. With a synth like the Roland JP8000 it's another story -- I'm happy to twiddle knobs when it's called for -- but generally speaking I go for presets."

So what else does Paul do that's inadmissible?

"I hot-swap my SCSI drives back and forth between my samplers. I've already destroyed the SCSI card on one sampler doing that, but I don't want to go out and buy several drives for every single sampler, it's ridiculous. That's why I was waiting for the Akai S6000 to come out for so long, so I could have one sampler and one very large hard drive. I also smoke like a chimney in my studio. I drop cigar ash in my mixer all the time."


Desk Job

The now completed Brother Sun Sister Moon debut album was recorded primarily at Robb's new studio, Digitalis, which he moved from Minnesota to the Los Angeles suburb of Venice last year. A comfortable mid-sized room, the studio includes an entire wall's worth of synths, samplers, sound modules and outboard effects [see the 'Gear List' box], while the rest of the area accommodates three Tascam DA88s, a couple of DAT machines, a pair of Genelec monitors, his Sony 3/4-inch video deck and video monitors for music-to-picture projects, and an expanded Mackie 32:8 mixing console.

"I love the Mackie. I have two expanders for it, which brings it up to 80 channels in total. That's really just an outgrowth of my laziness -- I want to have every box available on the board at all times. I have all my samplers, synths, and effects on it so I can do complete mixes at any time. I also mix to film on it."

With the Brother Sun Sister Moon album, however, Robb chose to mix at an outside studio, employing the services of engineer Paul McKenna. "We tracked it all here, but then we took it to various other studios to mix. Working on it all day and every day, I tend to get paranoid about losing touch with the overall picture, so I find it's really good to take it to a real engineer to help mix it. Even if I'm the one who essentially mixes it, I've got to have somebody else there to reassure me that it sounds like it's supposed to sound."

Alongside 13 original tracks and one cover (Bill Withers' 'Ain't No Sunshine') the album also includes a long-distance Brother Sun Sister Moon collaboration with British ambient techno protagonists and mixmasters Orbital, which is appearing on the new Orbital album planned for release in March. By all accounts, the Orbital brothers Hartnoll were 'blown away' by the rare quality of Barbara Cohen's voice. "Barbara's voice is both our biggest strength and our biggest weakness. A lot of people love it, but some people can't understand it. They want to hear a baby voice, the little girl from Morcheeba or the little girl from Sneaker Pimps, they don't think slow music can have a real singer on it. It was very encouraging when Orbital told us they liked our singer over and above the hundreds of offers they get," says Robb.


Tank Warfare

While writing and recording the Brother Sun Sister Moon album, Robb has also continued to pursue Think Tank, his dance music and master-remixer alter ego. Think Tank's first album, the futuristic techno-industrial Skullbuggery, released on his own Hakatak label in '96, spawned two Number One dance singles in the US, as well as providing the soundtrack to hundreds of Laser Trek laser tag installations worldwide. Meanwhile the second Think Tank album You Can Be Replaced, You Know, featuring an updated version of the 1990 dancefloor smash 'A Knife And A Fork', is complete and due for release through the Never Records Group in the Spring. Also keeping Paul busy is ongoing work with female Hakatak artist Cat Hall (pictured on page 188) for another, as-yet-untitled industrial project with female vocals.

The sample-heavy, breakbeat-oriented Think Tank formula was what provided the inspiration for Paul's first foray into scoring TV commercials: a series of five BMW ads which ran during '97 and '98. The impact of these refreshingly simple 30-second black and white ads against a backdrop of hard-hitting techno was phenomenal, and consequently earned Robb two highly coveted Clio Awards for music.

"It was an unusually collaborative effort between myself and the film editors. They would put together a rough edit, I would do a track to it, and when the music was finally approved they then cut to the music," he explains. "That was part of the reason it worked so well, but also the music sounded good. It was real music that you would buy a record of, not some warmed-over version like most advert music. I was using a lot of breakbeats and a lot of funk bass loops put through distortion boxes. All five spots utilised that template, and then I added other sounds and samples thrown over the top."

Since those first BMW ads, Paul has scored worldwide ad campaigns for Lexus and Acura cars, as well as for various drinks, computer games and sportswear products. "It's good to do commercials every once in a while, but I don't know if I have enough discipline to do it for a living," he admits. "The music part of it is fine, but I sometimes have trouble with those advertising people!"


Man Or Superman?

As our interview draws to a close, I look down at my scribbled notes and wonder if I really have only been speaking to one person. Paul Robb seems to have achieved more in the last 10 years than most musicians achieve in a lifetime -- a Top 10 pop group, a successful solo techno act, strings of credits as a remixer, a TV and now a film composer, a second pop group teetering on the verge of success, not to mention fathering two kids -- and it's likely he's still only halfway done. Summing him up is not easy, as even he admits.

"People ask me 'What is it that you do?', even within the music business, and I really don't know what to tell them. These days I find myself saying 'I'm a composer', because then they don't know what to say after that and they don't ask any more questions!"

Out of the corner of my eye I notice all his alter egos nodding in agreement.

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