Rise of the Synth

The life and times of Shawn Foree and Digital Leather

The last couple of years have been eventful ones for Shawn Foree.

It started when he was still living in Tucson, after he moved from Yuma to attend the UA as an American-literature major. Foree, now 34, spent the bulk of his downtime recording synth-based music in his bedroom, eventually giving it the name Digital Leather.

He did this for years, starting in 1997 or 1998, and eventually decided he wanted to record in a proper studio for the first time. He knew someone in Tempe who had converted a house into a studio, which was perfect for Foree, since he could also live in the house while working. It was also the first time he entrusted anyone outside of himself to engineer his music.

And then a funny thing happened: After putting the finishing touches on "Photo Lie," the first song he recorded there, he checked his e-mail. There was a message from someone at Fat Possum Records. The e-mail said the label had heard that Digital Leather was working on some new recordings and asked Foree to send an MP3 of a new song. He did; the label liked what it heard—and wanted to hear more.

Foree, who wasn't used to dealing with this sort of thing, contacted his friend and manager, musician Jay Reatard (nee Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr.), who was considered by many to be garage punk's great white hope, and who had helped Foree release music on both his own Shattered Records label and other small but respected labels like Goner and Tic Tac Totally. Reatard told him to immediately get a lawyer.

In a matter of weeks, Foree had gone from recording his own music in his apartment (and getting it released on small labels) to dealing with a much larger label, a lawyer, his manager and his engineer. He also had to deal for the first time with recording contributions from a couple of musicians from his touring band.

It was a lot to deal with, especially for a self-described "control freak."

"It confirmed my fears of having other people be in charge of serious stuff, like engineering a record for me, when I feel I can engineer it myself just as well," says Foree. "I learned a lot, both on a business level and a technical level, but it really was kind of a nightmare for me, because I didn't think some label was going to approach me and start offering me money. That's what kind of throws it off—when there's money involved—especially when you're completely broke. But I didn't change the music for them."

The experience lit a fire under Foree's ass to get the album done. While recording, which took a full year, he learned that the studio would soon be shut down—so he knew he had a limited timeframe to finish. And, of course, the label kept asking for more songs.

"And when the final version was done," Foree says, "they loved it and wanted to put it out."

Warm Brother was released on Fat Possum at the end of September 2009, and while its sales didn't exactly set the world on fire, the album garnered rave reviews. The notoriously indier-than-thou website Pitchfork gave it a very respectable 7.3 out of 10.

It marked a huge step in sound, too. Foree had previously flirted with several different varieties of synth-based music—noisy synth-punk with electric guitar, '80s British-inspired electro-pop, and even Krautrock-inspired motorik—but on Warm Brother, he began using elements such as acoustic guitars and live drums, which he'd never used before, and which added a considerable amount of depth and variation.

Meanwhile, Foree decided to make another change: After living in Arizona his whole life, he decided to move to Omaha.

"It was more just personal stuff," he says. "I wasn't like, 'Oh, I need to get the fuck out of Arizona, because it's Arizona.' More like, 'I need to get out of Arizona, because there are certain people (who) I can't get away from unless I move to Omaha, Nebraska.' And I had friends here, because I had toured through here a few times, and I was talking to one of them, and he was like, 'Come to Omaha. You'll be welcome here.' And I just trusted him, and I came here and was immediately welcomed into this family of people, which was super sweet and exactly what I needed."

He also enlisted an all-new, Omaha-based crew as his bandmates. The Arizona configuration, which he describes as "more aggressive" than the Omaha one, will back him at a one-off Tucson show at Club Congress on Friday, May 21.

He's just finished recording a new album with his Omaha band, though it still needs some post-production work. The fact that it got recorded at all is something of a feat. On Jan. 13, Jay Reatard was found dead in his Memphis home. The Commercial Appeal reported that the cause was "cocaine toxicity, and that alcohol was a contributing factor in his death."

Foree was, of course, devastated.

"I had just started working on this record, and that's when he died. ... Probably two weeks before South by Southwest, I started actually being alive again, to tell you the truth. I was kind of dead inside—and I'm not gonna blame all that on Jay, but it just brought all this stuff up in me, and I just couldn't work. But then after I, not got over it, but just accepted it, it totally fueled my work. ... This is the first week I'm kind of just starting to chill out before I come to Tucson."

His contract with Fat Possum contains an option for a second album, and he plans to deliver the finished product, which he describes as "kind of negative-sounding," within the next month. Whether they'll end up releasing it is anybody's guess.

"Record labels can love a record all day long, but if they don't see it as a marketable product, they might say, 'OK, we're not gonna take it,' if they can't sell it to a friggin' Lexus commercial or whatever. I don't think there's a Lexus commercial on this album."