AN INTERVIEW WITH FREDRIK SAROEA OF DATAROCK
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2009
Datarock is comprised of the children of diplomats from Bergen, Norway. They met while young, and after being separated for years by diplomacy they reconnected while attending MIT. They happened to join the Church of Scientology at the same time, and if you believe that, then one of them also had a baby (they wouldn't tell me which one). They did tell me that "the baby was a Casio watch, and the Casio watch grew into a calculator, and the calculator grew into an analog synthesizer, and then it because a Casio MT64, and then we became the band Datarock." I should add that most likely none of this is true. Fredrik Saroea exaggerates often, usually with something on the edge of belief (or close to it). Bonding over our mutual thirst (no metaphor here, we really need a drink), we scanned the mini-fridge. "Cherry Coke," he said as he grabbed one out in the dressing room of the Highline Ballroom. "Haven't seen one of these since the eighties!" A quick search confirms Cherry Coke was first distributed in 1982. However, I can still find no evidence of a Norwegian man giving birth to a calculator.
It has been nine years since Datarock came together (this point was emphasized), and Saroea was candid about the efforts of the band to date after release Red, their electro spazzy sophomore effort. "Nine years," he told me, "and the whole Datarock thing seems to not be going anywhere. To be honest, that's what we were trying to do with this album. I don't know if it is going to happen, and if it doesn't, that's totally fine too."
In terms of going somewhere, Datarock seems to be doing OK. The band plays shows all over the world, although in Saroea's opinion, the travel is a mixed bag. "Sometimes we do mainstage at a big festival, sometimes we play in the toilet." The band is active in 44 different countries, and yet it makes more money playing in Norway than all the others combined. In Austrailia they are mainstage. "Then you get to Birmingham, and you're playing a strip joint."
The reason for this is questionable. Datarock Datarock, the redundantly titled first record, was an accidental commercial success. Although they spent almost no time recording the record ("we just didn't care"), their songs were licensed all over the world; films and advertisements for products like iPods and Coca-Cola, not to mention a large campaign for Princess Beer in Argentina. Saroea found the lyrics particularly compelling when applied to beer sales: "Princess/ you've got a prince ass/ you've got the ass of a prince/ and a prince of an ass." Aside from profitable coincidental lyrical material, Datarock is well known for it's ubiquitous video game presence, licensing songs in over 18 game titles, including several years of the popular FIFA series and The Sims 2 and 3. "The artwork? I drew it by hand at my girlfriends kitchen table" Freddy told me. "On wrapping paper." The same artwork would adorn an iPod display in their ad for the iPod nano. "OK" Saroea said. "If the world made our little homemade product into a commercial project, why not try to do that ourselves?"
Thus the concept of Red was born, including the slick album art, and the red jumpsuit theme. The sound remained the same, goof rock with a danceable beat, but the ultimate ambition was different: worldwide mainstream crossover potential.
Saroea said of Datarock; "it was very coincidental." Influences like Devo and Talking Heads all mixed together in the minds of the band, never forcing a riff or a verse. "[Songwriting] has not been a speculative process" he said. "It's always been intuitive. The only thing you speculate is which song out of twenty you remove." The band produces all of their music themselves along with consulting from co-producers, which is both a blessing and "incredibly dumb" at times. They avoid the big shot producers of "fancy-pants studios," but they also make strange decisions that Saroea called "not very smart, and just weird." On Red, they decided to use only equipment made from 1976 to 1983. Other decisions made more sense. The band spent a lot of time working with analog instruments; meaning that they used as much electro-acoustics as possible while avoiding relying on completely digital synths. The band fully recognized the difficulty of creatively forcing a project to be more accessible, especially considering the accidental nature of "Fa Fa Fa" becoming such a success; thus attempting to recreate weird coincidences through quirkiness.
It didn't totally work. "I really think that [Red] has, or had, the potential for becoming more than the first album" Saroea told me. I agreed that if "Give It Up" and "Pretender" became too mainstream, it wouldn't be a surprise. "But that can only happen if it's forced upon a mass consumer audience, which requires a lot of investment. And of course, no one is going to spend that on Datarock because it's a punk show."
"You're touching on what this album is about" Saroea told me. "Nobody provoked this answer in any interviews before...really the whole foundation of the album, to take that bizarre little project we did for fun, and see how far we could take it on the next one... Make ourselves look like headlining acts, and it didn't turn out that way, which is really the bottom line."
The bottom line might be to expect the unexpected. When releasing the first single from Red, Saroea was hung up on double-A-side singles. He wanted to release "Give It Up" and "True Stories" as A-side singles simultaneously. The international label "didn't want to do that" he said, and after making videos for both songs, with "Give It Up" being billed as the single, "True Stories" turned out to be more successful, according to Saroea.
Other media sheds light on the meta side of Red. The video for "Computer Camp Love" features the now familiar red jumpsuits, but Saroea made an interesting note. "It's all about the track suit, it doesn't matter who is inside them, it could be anyone, who cares, it just happens to be us." The tracksuit, already a central symbol of Red, may be a sign of something larger, something more insidious about mainstream music. Like wearing the suits, Datarock tried to cloak themselves in an illusion of mainstream, the look-and-feel of celebrity pop, but sometimes it doesn't matter who is in such a shell. "We wanted to make ourselves look like headlining acts," Saroea told me. "But Datarock is just a little punk phenomenon that blew up a little. It's not supposed to be too big."
Conceptually, Red was simply a way to spice things up for Datarock and their persona. "It's too anal just doing the same project for nine years...but it's been nine fun years. We're still alive, barely. You can imagine... nine years ago we were students. When you are students you have a lot of friends, spare time, and drinking energy. And that is what the whole project grew out of, we liked to hang out and party, party, we didn't take music too seriously. And then down the line you become a professional musician which we didn't regard ourselves as, even after hundreds of shows. We still don't have a crew. We almost have no equipment. I plug my guitar directly into an amp, with no pedals. We're not musicians."
And yet when prompted, Saroea said he could imagine doing anything else. His reason after nine years: "it goes with getting a few brain damages of course."
Never without their sense of humor, Datarock has always been about making the music they want to make. Regardless of what the world thinks (or doesn't think), they will continue to make sounds they enjoy. Saroea gave me a sneak peak of their next project; "we've come up with the ultimate new concept... the musical. That's the new project. Datarock the musical. The Datarock opera."
I'll be meeting them at the theater for opening night. With Cherry Coke of course. - joe puglisi