Permanent Rotation: Eris Drew

By in Features





Permanent Rotation is a series in which producers, DJs, and musicians go deep on the albums that have inspired them.

Eris Drew is one of the most beloved and respected underground DJ/producers on the planet and the co-founder of T4T LUV NRG, the label she runs with her partner Octo Octa. She’s revered for her transcendental sets, impeccable, wide-ranging selections, and nostalgic productions that evoke the early ‘90s Midwest rave scene where she cut her clubbing teeth. Her musical DNA extends back further, however, most notably with the discovery of the Minneapolis-Saint-Paul synth-pop band Information Society as a 13-year-old.

Eris Drew has the school bully to thank for introducing her to Information Society and their 1988 self-titled album, a record she still studies to this day.

“He was kind of a terror but he was also kind of cool and he knew about pop music and he started talking about this group Information Society,” she recalls over Zoom, describing herself as an only child who was “kind of different, anyway”.

“So I was at the music store and I was like, Ok, I’m gonna buy this and check it out. I was trying to find music at the time and I totally fell in love with it. I loved all the electronics and how danceable it was and the use of the science fiction samples.”

The most memorable sci-fi sample on the record is Leonard Nimoy’s “pure energy” sound bite in the opening track “What’s On Your Mind (Pure Energy)”, one that Information Society lifted from a Star Trek episode with the blessing of Leonard’s son, Adam, who was a fan of the band. The song went to the top of the US dance chart that year and hit number three on the Hot 100 pop chart.

“For me, it was like The KLF’s The White Room before The White Room,” says Drew of Information Society, pulling out the original cassette she bought in 1988 alongside an impressive collection of accompanying merch. “There’s all this weird symbolism and strange sampling of cultural debris all over the record, but I don’t think the band had such a strong message—I think they were young and having fun and maybe taking the piss out of what an information society we were becoming. It was a little more punk-spirited.”

Information Society is a bold, richly layered blast of synth-pop, influenced as much by Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys as it is by D.A.F. and Kraftwerk (the album’s producer, Fred Maher, came to Information Society fresh from working on Kraftwerk and Scritti Politti records).

So instantly enamoured was Drew with the album, that she went out and bought all the singles, bundled with a bunch of remixes. She recalls asking her mother, “What’s a remix (pronounced rem-ix)?”. New York legend Justin Strauss was among the remixers, as was Little Louie Vega, whose “54 mix” of “What’s On Your Mind” is “pure freestyle minimalism”, says Drew.

“It’s really stripped back, and I was just like that’s me because it was all about the drums, all these different layers of drums and the ‘54 mix’ showed them off because the pop stuff was stripped off and it was just the meat of it.”

It’s a track Drew still DJs with today, some 35 years after stumbling across it for the first time. “I speed it up and then I mix that in with some breaks that are around 120 – 124 [BPM]. It sounds so dope, everything’s crystal clear, it’s got all this dynamic range in it,” she says. “I’ve got the double so I can do layers with them together and this, to me, it’s still immaculate. Sometimes when people are like, ‘Oh that’s held up pretty well,’ I’m like, ‘Nothing touches this’. I love new music, but this will always be this special little thing.”

Drew saw Information Society live just once, in Minnesota, as part of the Club MTV Tour, which also featured Paula Abdul, Milli Vanilli and Tone Loc on the bill.

Sally Ven-Yu Berg, who died in 2015, was a touring drummer for the band, and she was “ferocious”, Drew says. “She was playing so intensely on all these electronic drums over the sample drums and she rocked it. She was super solid.” [Check the YouTube clip below from 47:35 to see Sally in action.]

Thinking about how Information Society might have informed her own approach to production, Drew cites the album’s “slick but raw” sound and the rhythmic bridges in songs connecting two different vocal parts (e.g. “Over the Sea”), qualities that can be heard on her own debut album Quivering in Time. The band’s name hints at the level of detail in their productions, layered to form a kind of “sound collage”, another characteristic that marks Drew’s own compositions.

Drew also takes cues from Information Society’s use of samples to signal transitions in their tracks. “I try to blend in that kind of way and there’s something about the energy of the transitions in their songs that I’m always trying to reproduce when I’m producing or playing,” she says.

It was about three years after discovering Information Society that Drew attended her first rave and, for Drew, it wasn’t hard to connect the dots between synth-pop and rave music. “It was really easy to move between those things as I got older even though they were made for different spaces,” she says, noting that Information Society had a surprise dance hit in 1985 with the freestyle song “Running”. “If you listen to Ex:el by 808 State, they feel like they’re cut from the same cloth, lots of layers of programmed drums and bright melodies made with digital synthesisers from the time,” Drew says.

Little Louie Vega’s “Running” instrumental was also popular with DJs such as DJ Dan in the late ‘80s. “The breakbeat scene at that time was definitely all about finding the hip-hop and pop B-side mixes that were super dope and Louie’s dub mix fits that bill for a wide range of DJs,” says Drew.

Drew went to her first rave with a kid from school — let’s call him G — after witnessing a “full-throated defence of Information Society” that he delivered at a party. “All the kids were into Jane’s Addiction and Pearl Jam and all this, quote, ‘real music’, and G was a drummer in the school band and he played first chair, and everyone knew he was a badass drummer, and he was like, ‘Information Society have the best drums’. He sat them down and taught them about syncopation and how the hi-hats were layered,” she recalls.

“Normally I cannot get a word in around these kids and they’re just listening dumbfounded as G tells them about how this music doesn’t get any respect in the ‘90s and the late ‘80s when it’s the best stuff out there and I was like,’ yeah, you’re alright G’, you know?” G drove Drew to the rave in his sports car decked out with subwoofers; the party ended up getting busted and “he dropped me off in a park and I was tripping,” Drew laughs.

Information Society was “not a cool band by any means” when Drew was in junior high, she says. Metal and hardcore rap held far more social currency, “but I liked Run DMC and Information Society and Depeche Mode and stuff like that,” Drew says.

To the school bully, Information Society was “probably cool for all of two weeks,” Drew says, “but I formed a whole identity around it and specifically around studying certain parts of its musicality and production that I’m still using today.”

For Drew, “mining your own true history” is what produces music that really resonates, which is why Information Society is a record she holds so dear.

“I think that was a golden age of pop music, and I think they were my Kraftwerk because they were this North American pop band that had really amazing electronics,” she says. “That was the music I was into when I was 13, when my musical values were really becoming really established, and by understanding that part of myself and that time, I have an interesting relationship to that music and an interesting well of ideas that someone else might not have.”

Words by Annabel Ross