Digital Leather: Synths And Sci-Fi In The Southwest

Shawn Foree is sitting on a dinky barstool, with his elbows leant over a booze-stained table on the very spot where he and his band, Digital Leather, will be performing in a month’s time. The table is in a bar called Che’s that orbits the penumbra of the University of Arizona’s bar zone in Foree’s hometown of Tucson, and with no stage to speak of, it must be cleared from the floor before amplifiers can be plugged in.

It’s the kind of joint that’s okay to drop in for a drink on a weekday afternoon but attracts that kind of intolerable, binge-drinking hook-up crowd on weekends — occasionally, though, the place books a band that by all rights should be playing one of the places down the street with a proper stage — bands such as Digital Leather, perhaps the best band in Tucson that remains virtually invisible to locals.

Leaning on the table, Foree tries to explain why this is so. “I just started recording on a four-track in the little hovel I lived in,” he says. “I didn’t have any friends for three years, so it gave me time to learn how to play a keyboard.” Though his band tours frequently, it rarely plays the dusty Southwestern town that it calls home.

Despite that fact, over the past seven years, Digital Leather has released seven albums and a large scattering of singles, EPs, and split releases almost as frequently as the band’s line-up and arrangement have mutated. Digital Leather started out as a two-piece with Foree and Ryan Wong (of Destruction Unit, Tokyo Electron, and the Reatards) both on keyboards; now Foree tours with a full band.

In 2008, influential Memphis-based indie label Goner Records released the band’s album Sorcerer. The music on the album could be described as dark synth pop, but it’s so much more — goofy, robotic odes where love is styrofoam and simulated in analog. Foree sardonically portrayed the songwriting process for the album.

“I can’t sing very well, so I’ll just kind of talk,” he says. “And I don’t really have much substance as a human being, so I’ll just talk about [science fiction novelist] Phillip K. Dick shit.” It’s true that the music channels the iciness of old Human League records, but there’s also a warmness somewhere between the obvious knack for melody and the warbling, in-the-red keyboards that attests to Digital Leather’s deeper control of sonic dynamics.

Although Sorcerer is Digital Leather’s latest release, it is misleading to say that it is the band’s newest material. “That record is three years old; the two records that I put out in 2007 (Blow Machine and Hard at Work) are actually newer than Sorcerer,” Foree explains. The new material is closer to power pop than the icy robo-pop of Sorcerer, as Digital Leather is now playing with a straight-up three-part rock combo—guitar, bass, and drums.

Despite the confusion, Foree seems to revel in the chaos of the lineup changes and out-of-order release schedule, and that impishness bleeds over into the band’s live shows. He recalls a disastrous show that the band played in Texas for a crowd of crossed arms and silence that culminated in the explosion of one of his keyboards. For Foree, a good show is one in which he and the band don’t get their asses kicked — but maybe almost do.

But lately, the chaos has been dying down. Foree has been recording his next album in a Phoenix recording studio for almost a year, for which he has yet to find an interested label, though he’s had a few bites. He’s confident about its potential. “I want this one to go further than all the others,” he says. “I believe that it will.”

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