By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
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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.
"He actually came to me," Seven says about Daggrr. "He was like, 'Look, you've been working on Fatal Exception for so long, the concept's been around for so long, I'm gonna be sick if you don't make it. If you just finish writing the songs, I'll produce it.'"
"I saw my friend struggling and being unhappy," Daggrr says. "I saw he was bummed out, and at the time I decided I wanted to be a producer and work with other people. Up until that point, I'd only done stuff for myself. So I said to myself, 'I'll produce this guy's album as a friend, and make it the best thing I can.'"
That was early summer of 2003, and Fatal Exception was finally completed in late 2004. It's a monstrous, emotional, and clever album full of pummeling dance tracks and a few equably danceable ballads. It's also the most unique and explorative electronic album to be released by a local act in memory.
The CD kicks off with the banging "So Sexy," a tongue-in-cheek paean to a goth girl getting ready for a night out on the town. That segues into "Believe," the track Seven and Koerner originally released back in 1998, which is a cynical 180 degrees from Cher's club hit of the same name. Seven attacks religion on "Give In," a slower digital assault on the ears where he proclaims, "Oh, but this is not the way/I will not give in to you/You're as lost as I/In everything you do."
In producing the full-length, Daggrr created layers of digitized riffs, subtle bleeps, and arpeggioed melodies among the complex rhythms and breakbeats that make the album so goddamned danceable. He pares it down where appropriate as well, like on "Falling Into You," a despairing love ode. Later, on "It Could All Be Yours," Seven sums up his modus operandi -- "I'm nothing if not cynical and jaded" -- but laments a lost love that still tears at him. On Fatal Exception, Seven's finally sculpted his digital masterpiece.
But he swears that if it doesn't blow up beyond the confines of the Valley, he's done wasting his time with music. Given the amount of heart and soul he poured into Fatal Exception, it's hard to believe, but his logic makes sense. "I'm in a unique position where I make a good enough living, I buy property, I'm into money. This is a hobby. I don't need a record deal, but I'd love a record deal to get my shit heard. I want it to be on the radio." To that end, he's focusing on Europe as the ideal market for his music, given Europeans' more enthusiastic response to dance music.
RFA will begin playing shows at the end of this month, with a CD release party at Hollywood Alley in Mesa on Friday, January 28. They'll gig out, and send out promotional copies of Fatal Exception, but outside of that, Seven is exhausted by music at this point. "Right now I'm at the end of a four-year process, and I'm fuckin' drained, man. I don't want to think about music for all of 2005. I want to try and sell this shit. This album is good enough that there's somebody out there -- I haven't met them, I don't know who they are -- but if they heard it, they'd go, 'Wow, I want to pick that up.' For the first time in my life, I feel like I've written an album full of songs and none of them are throwaway. I'm at an apex."