Interview with Kurt Harland Larson of Information Society
It's not an everyday occurrence that you get to interview someone who has helped shape the course of your musical journey in life. I'll never forget the first time I heard "What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)" by Information Society on the radio. It marked a sea change in the way I consumed music. Up until that point I'd been a kid trying to settle on what my musical tastes were. I was a big fan of Depeche Mode but that hadn't exactly translated into a full time devotion to synth based music. Information Society became the band that transitioned my obsession with music into a focus on synthpop, and I've never looked back.
Over the ensuing years I continued to follow Kurt's work in the video game industry and equally fell in love with some of his scores, especially the Soul Reaver games. Just as his work with Information Society helped shape how I listened to music, Kurt's scores changed how I (and quite a few other people) thought about the soundtracks to video games. Gone were the days of 20 second loop hooks of the 1980's...music was becoming more and more a character of the game...something tangible that expanded the experience.
Now that I've finished gushing, I come to the topic at hand. I recently covered the single "Strange Stubborn Proud" by ELYXR featuring none other than Kurt Harland Larson. It's a dance club pounder of a track that has been one of the most popular songs we've ever covered at Echosynthetic. I had an opportunity to talk to Kasson Crooker (the mastermind behind ELYXR) about the song, and now I'm thrilled to share my conversation with Kurt. I hope you enjoy it!
Welcome, and thanks for taking the time to talk with us! How are you doing today?
I am doing reasonably well, all things considered and adjusting for inflation.
The article we ran on your collaboration with ELYXR has been one of our most popular ever. A.) How did the track come about, and B.) How do you feel about the finished product?
Kasson and I had been talking about doing some music together for a long time; he has been using a collaboration model for ELYXR, and we have known each other for a long time, both because of our mutual interest in each other’s music and also because we both worked in the video-game industry as audio specialists, so I think it was natural for him to reach out to me to talk about doing some songs together. We have two more planned for the near future, in fact!
I am quite pleased with how ‘SSP’ turned out. When he first told me he wanted to do something which would capture some of the feel of those initial 80’s dance-floor hits, I was a little skeptical; I thought it would end up sounding rather weak... but when I heard what he meant, and *especially* when I played it at a club at one of my DJ gigs in Brasil, I was really pleased and impressed with the power of the sound. It really sounds like getting pounded into the floor with a hammer... but, you know, in a good way.
You've done a lot of things across the span of your career. What are some things you're most proud of?
I am proud of having taught myself to roller skate as well as I have; that is a unique signature thing I can claim, and that pleases me. Of course it’s silly, and does not represent much in the way of real work or talent, but I did it and no one else did. I dared to do something goofy and weird and now it’s mine. I like that.
I am probably most proud of the generative-adaptive audio system a programmer and I developed at one of the game companies at which I worked, but since that game never shipped publicly, that is a little hard to show off.
I am proud of the music I did for the games ‘Soul Reaver’ and ‘Soul Reaver 2’. Some of those tracks are more artistically-fulfilling for me than anything I did with Information Society, even my solo album.
You worked as a composer on quite a few video games, including one of my all time favorites, ‘Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver’. Is it different writing music for video games than it is for, say, an album?
Very very very different, yes. I could write a 10,000-word essay on it. For now I will just point out these two crucial issues:
When you are writing music whose purpose is simply to be heard, then that music must captivate all of the attention of the listener. When writing for a game, you must specifically avoid that; the player needs the music to support the experience s/he is having, not try to tell them how to feel, like music in a movie must do.
Games are a non-linear medium. By this I mean that you can not know beforehand what will be happening at a specific point in time during gameplay. Therefore the music must change and adapt to changing conditions. This is a completely different kind of music composition: ‘Interactive Music Composition’ and whole books have been written on it.
Your work with Information Society has stood the test of time. When you started out with the band did you ever expect that it would be so well loved for so long?
No, we had no idea what to think. We had a vague idea that it would be good to obtain some sort of commercial success, but we had no idea what that would even look like. We also completely shut down and then re-started the band between when we started and that later success, so it was a rather convoluted path. It is always very difficult to imagine the future, and I am sure we did not better with it than anyone else.
How has the music industry, and along with it, how you release and market your music, changed for the good and bad over that time?
Again, *many* entire books have been written on this subject. Again, I will point out a few big things:
The primary change, of course, is the removal of the requirement of a physical storage object. For example, once we no longer needed discs, there was no longer any real purpose in albums. (i.e. groups of recordings as opposed to singles) For Information Society, we have moved to a singles-only release plan. I think this is the future.
The other big difference I will mention is that it is no longer feasible to make a living by selling recordings of your music. Like some other tech-related industries (and yes, music is now essentially a tech industry), you must give away the primary product for free, and then look for ways to monetize the fact that many people are paying attention to you. For bands this takes the form of live shows and merchandise, and to a lesser extent, premium music items like CD’s, vinyl, etc. So whereas in the old days, you would go on a tour of cities playing your live show in order to promote sales of the album, now you release music in order to legitimize your live show.
What are your plans for 2018?
I am mostly moving into computer programming these days, while maintaining opportunities for creative work, like songs with Kasson. :)
Any parting words before we go?
Things Happen When You Do Things!