By Melissa Fossum
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Eric Seven, the nucleus of electronic/industrial band Radio Free America, doesn't strike you as the Trent Reznor type -- not even the Dave Gahan/Depeche Mode type, or any other iconic related-genre artist. Sitting on the porch of his producer Daggrr's small Tempe house, smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka with diet soda, 34-year-old Seven looks pretty much like what he is -- a computer programmer by day who likes to play with finance and real estate. There's a widow's peak beginning a retreat from his forehead, and he's dressed in a button-down shirt. But behind his dark eyes, there's a spark that you know is what ignites Radio Free America's fire-and-brimstone dance music.
After years of work, frustration, and messy collaborative breakups, Seven finally has in his hands the fruits of his labor, Fatal Exception, a collection of synth and breakbeat dance tracks that thump and pound as aggressively, if not as darkly, as Reznor's output. And he has big plans for this behemoth baby of his, RFA's fourth album; if he doesn't succeed, he promises he's out of the game, after almost 14 years of Radio Free America. "Frankly, if I don't sell some product, this is going to be my last CD," Seven says. "I'm not going to waste my time anymore."
RFA began when Seven was a 21-year-old kid in suburban Orlando, Florida, trying to apply his seven years of classical piano training to create something akin to the late-'80s synth pop he was fascinated with at the time -- Anything Box, Book of Love, Information Society, etc. His first album, 1991's Top of the World, channeled that fey sound, but a couple years later, while enduring a divorce after four years of marriage, Seven found Nine Inch Nails and saw another outlet for the electronic skills he'd acquired. "That's what Reznor taught me -- you can be pissed off, angry, aggressive, and yet still do synth music." Prior to Reznor, electronic music was pretty much regarded as a happy, danceable affair; Reznor's Pretty Hate Machine changed that perception.
The divorce and Seven's new aesthetic influenced 1994's Silent Adoration; at that juncture, RFA was still a one-man project. But as his social circle disappeared with his marriage, Seven compensated by making new friends on the Internet, including a similar-minded artist named Dan Koerner. "Dan was the first guy that I met that had more keyboards than I did," Seven explains. Both were living in Kentucky at the time -- Seven in Lexington, Koerner in Louisville -- but soon Koerner met a girl on Internet Relay Chat who persuaded him to move to Phoenix. For the next year, Koerner cajoled Seven until finally, in 1996, Seven agreed to move to Phoenix, too. He'd written most of an album called killjulie, which he brought out to finish up with Koerner.
The result was an album pulled by two divergent personalities from becoming the coherent piece it had the potential to be. Seven says, "[Koerner] was making compromises he didn't want to make, that he shouldn't have had to make, and I was doing the same. We ended up with an album that was sort of a mishmash. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't what was in my head, and not what I wanted." It was a modern, airy electronic dance album that still paid homage to its '80s forebears, even covering Duran Duran's "The Chauffeur."
After that, in 1998, the two began work on Fatal Exception. They released a single with three tracks on it -- "Give In," "Believe" and "Divine" -- ostensibly as a teaser for the upcoming full-length. All three songs appear on the 2004 version of Fatal Exception, "Believe" in its original, unaltered form. RFA had found a kindred spirit in the similarly electronic outfit Digital Free Loner Boy based in the Valley, playing with the band at practically every gig. When DFLB broke up, RFA was quick to co-opt DFLB's drummer Daggrr into RFA, as the two had become close friends.
But at the same time, around 1999, Seven and Koerner's relationship was deteriorating. They had different ideas of where RFA ought to head musically, and Koerner wanted to relocate to L.A. Seven basically disbanded RFA, but continued to write songs for Fatal Exception.
What Seven came to realize, while writing alone, was that he didn't have the full complement of skills necessary to actualize the songs he was working on. "I can write good songs, good, catchy melodies and lyrics," he says. "But I'm not an engineer, I'm not a producer, and if I don't have somebody who loves the material and wants to do it for me, like Dan did for killjulie, I can't bring it to fruition. And I can't pay guys to bring it to fruition for me because I don't have enough money to make them love it."
By then, Daggrr had formed his own project, the electronic-tinged rock band Army of Robots. Seven believed that Daggrr was the only one with the love for the music and the expertise to bring Fatal Exception alive, but didn't dare ask for that level of commitment from his already overextended friend. At the same time, Seven was becoming increasingly depressed at the prospect of giving up on the album he'd worked on for nearly five years.