Prior to the interview for this column, the last time I spoke with Shawn Foree, the mastermind behind the musical project Digital Leather, was a couple years ago. It was late in the evening standing outside the patio door at mid-town punk club O’Leaver’s, no doubt killing time between live sets from a couple local garage bands we both knew.
Foree, who looked like an unholy cross between Jim Morrison and Deliverance-era Burt Reynolds, told me he was about to hang it up as far as Digital Leather was concerned. He’d just turned 40 and was tired of banging his head against the music industry wall, trying to get someone to notice what he was doing. And it sure didn’t look like things would ever change.
The conversation bummed me out, because Foree / Digital Leather was and is my favorite Omaha-based music project. The only person more frustrated by his music never receiving the attention it deserved was me. Digital Leather music is the perfect amalgamation of modern songwriting, instrumentation and vintage digital sounds. The product is highly addictive, darkly worded 21st Century synth-punk that can stand alongside music by acts like Gary Numan, Psychic TV and The Faint.
As it turned out, Foree was just in a bad mood that night at O’Leaver’s. “Don’t believe me when I say I’ve given up,” he said over the phone July 21. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again.”
In fact, only a few months after that announced retirement, Digital Leather recorded and released a new album, followed by another and another.
And now comes New Wave Gold, out Sept. 15 on Madison, Wisconsin, label No Coast Records (Thee Oh Sees, Red Mass, The Hussy). The 16-track collection is the 24th full-length album (in addition to 13 EPs and singles) released by Digital Leather over the 20 years Foree has made music under that moniker.
Digital Leather fans will be happy to know New Wave Gold is the most cohesive, pop-fueled collection Foree has released since 2009’s Warm Brother (Fat Possum Records). He recorded and mixed the album in his apartment studio with contributions by drummer Jeff Lambelet and mastering by sound engineer Ian Aeillo.
The album opens with the first COVID-19 quarantine-inspired song I’ve heard, “Dark Ages,” which closes with the lines: “Don’t you go and worry about me, baby / You got better things to think about, I’m sure / Honey, don’t you know these are the Dark Ages / Disease is in the air, and it’s pure.”
Foree is the only person I’ve talked to who’s tested positive for COVID-19. “I tested positive a month and a half ago,” he said. “I was asymptomatic. It was a little freaky. I wasn’t sure if I was going to become sick, but fortunately, I was OK, maybe a little tired. I tested again a couple weeks after, and it came back negative.”
His day job doing environmental testing, which he’s kept throughout the pandemic, takes him all over the country. “I was floating around South Dakota, Missouri, all around red states, so it could have come from anywhere,” he said. “It was a positive test, but none of my friends had it, just me. So I don’t know if I really had it.”
With COVID-19 shutting down music venues and making touring impossible, it’s a strange time to release a new album. Foree, who has released more than an album a year on average, didn’t want to wait around for the world to reopen. “The record was done,” he said. “I showed it to Bobby (Hussy), who runs the record label, and we just said fuck it and put it out so I can move on to new material.”
To help market the release, Foree is working with national publicist Grandstand Media, whose massive client roster includes acts like Tame Impala, Waxahatchee, Soccer Mommy, Bright Eyes and Kim Gordon, to name a few. “It’s totally new ground for me, selling records without playing live,” Foree said. “If we can make our money back, that would be fine. Making a profit is not on my or the label’s to do list.”
Foree also is the first musician I’ve interviewed since COVID-19 began. The pandemic has had a huge impact on his music world. “All my friends want to play shows and are depressed, because it’s not only their livelihood, it’s part of their sanity. It’s part of who they are,” he said. “I have friends who were about to release records, go on tour, go to Europe, and now it’s all TBD. I think everyone is pretty fucking depressed about it.”
Even after the pandemic is under control, he said things won’t be the same. “There will be all kinds of new regulations; it’ll be weird,” Foree said. “A lot of people won’t want to go out to shows. Venues might close. How are they going to support themselves if they can’t do business? The same goes for musicians who live off their music.”
Foree isn’t one of those, not anymore. He’s managed to find a balance between making a living and making music, and has accepted the fact that, despite having toured the country and releasing albums on a dozen different record labels, he may never make it to “the next level.”
“Part of me is frustrated that I don’t have a larger audience, but I’m also kind of glad things are the way they are,” he said. “I see the silver lining. I have freedom to do what I want. You’re supposed to give it up at 30 and get a real job once you realize there’s no money in it. Well, I have a real job and can still do it, so fuck them all.”
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out tracks and order a copy of New Wave Gold via Bandcamp below: