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"The kind of world I would love," says Paul Robb, chomping on a cigar, "is one where people don't care what instrument you're making music from, as long as it sounds good."
Up inside the Northeast Minneapolis warehouse loft that serves as both his studio and the offices of his Hakatak International record label, Robb is conducting rehearsals for Brother Sun Sister Moon, an odd-couple collaboration between two local stalwarts: acclaimed singer/songwriter Barbara Cohen, and himself, an electronic music veteran who topped global charts in the late '80s with his synth-pop outfit Information Society.
On cue, Robb triggers a volley of samples and lush keyboard parts, while bassist Jason Heinrichs and drummer Josh Herbst work an intricate, assertive groove. Behind two turntables is the group's secret weapon, 19-year-old Kyle Herskovitz, a.k.a. DJ Inspite. Spinning custom-pressed dubplates of guitar parts and other samples, Inspite is the band's surrogate axe-master--only he manipulates, scratches, and interprets the parts like no live guitarist can. A moment later, Cohen throws her head back from the mic, closes her eyes as if losing consciousness, and wails, letting a rapture spread through her body. And suddenly it happens: The combination of DJ, electronics, and human energy transforms a digital vision into a living, breathing band.
The group's debut album, The Great Game (out March 11), is arguably the Twin Cities' first trip-hop record--a smooth electronic amalgam of hip hop beats and pop flourishes with jazz, ambient, and world music flavors buttressed by Cohen's high-drama vocals. Robb and Cohen are preparing to bring The Great Game to the stage for their March 8 debut at the Fine Line Music Cafe. At heart, the group is a studio concoction; depending on how things go, it may or may not be the only live gig Brother Sun Sister Moon ever play.
Hakatak, Paul Robb's budding electronica label, got its start three years after Robb left Information Society and returned to Minnesota, only to find a local scene as unsupportive of electronic music as it was when INSOC skipped town in 1986 for NYC. "The last show Information Society ever did in the Entry," Robb recalls, "the soundman [Billy Batson] steadily turned down the volume throughout the show. By the end we were sounding like a transistor radio."
Sparked by funk and synth pioneers like Kraftwerk but not by the New Romantic genre into which they were lumped, INSOC was experimenting with samples in their pop mix as early as 1984, on their indie effort Creatures of Influence. With the help of some Star Trek snippets, the group hit Number One with 1988's "What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)," and had six more Top 100 hits while they toured the world. Curiously, they found their most lasting audience in South America, where, according to Robb, their music was considered "Latin hip hop."
In search of something new, Hakatak's inaugural release was Skullbuggery by Think Tank--Robb's one-man techno/"synthcore" project, which drapes hard-edged beats with a variety of samples. Think Tank's single "The Screen" has dented dance radio and club playlists. After The Great Game, the third Hakatak album, from Dallas synth-pop group Dissonance, is due in spring.
Barbara Cohen attended New Brighton's Irondale High with Robb in the late '70s, when they first played together in a school disco band. They collaborated more throughout the years and always stayed in touch, even after she chose the acoustic folk route. Little Lizard, her eclectic folk combo of four years, split up at its peak last month, just as the Brother Sun Sister Moon project was coming into the world. She views the change with a sense of fate. "It's forcing me to work through another genre full-tilt," she says. "And it's opening my brain and my heart in a big way. As I write music now, I can hear it with these rhythms. Not to say that I won't continue in my own 'work.' But I don't know quite what that means anymore."
The Great Game, casually created over two years, is both Robb's most artful and sophisticated work, and Cohen's most modern. The songs are named for and loosely based on foreign cities, and most of the lyrics are written in character. "Havana" and "Bangkok" explore doomed love affairs on the eve of revolution, and the track "Lagos" is a pair of jazzy instrumentals that meditate on Africa at the cusp of the new millenium. "Cairo" and "Timisoara" are typically realistic Cohen dissections of ex-relationships. Throughout the record, various world music samples enhance the album's themes of emotional and psychic displacement. The powerful soundscapes are Robb's, but in most cases, the songs succeed because of the control he surrenders to the group's eclectic singer. "It's the first time I've ever worked with someone I consider an equal," admits Robb, who concedes that "there's no guitar player in the world who can stand up to Barb's voice."
That may explain the common thread in all of Robb's bands, in which electronics are used to create an ideal ecosystem of sound. Watching Brother Sun Sister Moon rehearse--with turntables playing guitars, samples playing singers, and an actual singer playing her soul--Robb and his partners, if temporarily, have made a perfect world.
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