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The bizarre true story of a band too far ahead of its time; its international rise, drug-riddled disillusioned fall and now, its strange clear-headed return.


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The Rise and Fall and Rise of Digital Sex

by Tim McMahan


Tim writes...

This story was written  way back in 1994 for The Note, a monthly music magazine published out of Lawrence, Kansas. At the time, I was writing about four cover stories a year, numerous smaller articles and countless CD and 7-inch record reviews as the primary "Omaha correspondent." This was actually one of the last stories I wrote for The Note before the publication folded in 1995, after the publisher discovered he was losing $3,000 per issue. I'm not sure what happened to Digital Sex, other than they broke up shortly after they released Essence and Rarities. All three members, to my knowledge, still live in Omaha. The last time I saw Sheehan, he had recently shaved his head again. I saw Tingle riding his bike downtown about a year ago, but have never had the good fortune of running into Mr. Higgins since these interviews. If you want to know more about what the band's been up to, go to the new Digital Sex website. Anyway, I've posted this article because it was fun to write, fun to reread,  might even give a few Omaha readers a bit of an indie music history lesson.

Who remembers the 1980s?

Think real hard. Where were you in '82? What were you listening to? Us less-cool types were still grooving to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, tolerating Robert Plant's solo efforts, feeling reckless with The Cars and discovering U2.

But what about Durutti Column? Remember them? Or how about Throbbing Gristle or Psychic TV? Remember letting go to Brian Eno? How about Left Banke? or Joy Division? (Okay, now a few hands rise).

And what about Digital Sex? Way back in 1982, Omahans Stephen Sheehan, Dereck Higgins and John Tingle formed a group that was a hybrid of those obscure sounds. The result was so unique (and some say, ahead of its time) that it gained only a small following in Omaha and, of all places, Roune, France. And now, Pittsburgh, where (the band recently discovered) they have hundreds, maybe thousands of fans. So many, in fact, the hysteria is driving the release of a new Digital Sex CD compilation in June.

For the past 12 years, Digital Sex has seen the ups and downs and, maybe because the music world has caught up with them, has been given a second chance at making it.

Right Now

Digital Sex has always been the same three people, but those people have changed dramatically over the past decade. These days, Stephen Sheehan, the band's vocalist, may be best known in Omaha as the guy who shaved his head.

"Yeah, I did it last June," Sheehan says with a smile. "It was symbolic of rebirth, cutting off the ego, the whole vanity-of-hair thing. I kept it shaved for three months."

Is Sheehan Hindu? Buddhist, maybe? "I'm not into any belief or practice," he says, then quickly adds, "I'm a practicing Immortalist -- the study of physical immortality. I got into it through Rebirthing. The idea isn't so much to live forever, but to get out of the deathist mentality. I see a lot of people living a slow suicide."

It sounds creepy, but Sheehan says this heady stuff with a smile of someone who's been there and lived to tell about it. At 36, he's the youngest member of Digital Sex. He lives modestly in a top-floor apartment of a converted Victorian home in mid-town Omaha. The entire flat is about as big as an average living-room. Off to one corner, a tiny kitchen; across from that, a squat-entry bedroom -- a crawl space with a mattress and a window that looks east over downtown Omaha. Sheehan's lived in this tiny hovel for seven years.

Guitarist John Tingle, 38, lives only a few blocks away. His house also is a little slice of squalor, with toys in the yard and kids in the street. He looks like a short Thomas Jefferson -- the guy on the nickel -- only with long hair that runs down his back.

Bassist Dereck Higgins, 38, lives in North Omaha. It's here, on the sofas inside his living room, the band retells its history. To supply background, Higgins slips in a videotape of a 1982 Digital Sex performance taped for public access. The embarrasing program looks like something that will haunt the band if they ever get famous.

These were the days before MTV, and it showed.

"Dereck, look, you're wearing that necklace, the one with the two figures that when you pushed them together simulate sex. You remember, the tantric thing..." Sheehan says.

"Oh, man, I forgot about that."

"I look like a twig man," Sheehan quips. "I look emaciated."

"I only play this tape for my daughter," Tingle says. "I must have thought I was Ricky Blackmore. Man, that was a long time ago."

 

History

It was the fall of 1982, just a few months after Digital Sex first got together. Higgins, the son of local jazz horn player, Red Higgins, already had been in a number of cover bands, including Norman and the Rockwells (with legendary Omaha producer Tom Ware), Disco Ranch and the High Voltage Jammers. Tingle was living with him in a house full of fellow punksters.

With Tingle and a handful of co-habitants, Higgins formed Elvis and His Boss, one of Omaha's first punk bands, playing cover songs by the likes of the Plasmatics. "We were going to turn punk on its ear," Tingle says.

"But we weren't any fucking good," adds Higgins.

Shortly after the band broke up, Higgins posted a sign-up in a downtown record store, looking for a keyboard player "who was into Genesis and Japan." Sheehan answered the ad.

"I didn't know how to play, but I called and Dereck said come on over," Sheehan says. "I had seen him before in record stores, picking through the imports section."

"I thought Steve would look good fronting the band," Higgins says. "I thought he looked like Hugh Cornwell from the Stranglers."

Tingle, who was working a food service job, had just separated from his wife. "I needed a release from going to work and watching my daughter," he says. "When Dereck asked me to join the band, I was stoned to the gills. I wasn't sure what I was in for. I just knew we weren't going to play covers."

But that was the first thing the band did. Along with drummer Greg Tsichlis, they played songs by Joy Division, Comsat Angels and Velvet Underground before slowly working in their own material. Before long, Digital Sex gained a following.

"We attracted people who like to wear black," Higgins says, laughing.

"It was the hip crowd," Sheehan says. "We didn't draw drunks, just people who got really high and got into the throbbing, repetitive drone. John was using his guitar as an effects instrument. There was a darkness to what we did."

Their sound was indeed unique. Sheehan called it "ambient-pop." Both Tingle and Higgins are master musicians, complimenting Sheehan's low, hollow vocals. At times the band resembled Modern English or Eyeless in Gaza -- a million miles away from Van Halen.

They released their first single in 1983 on Post Ambient Motion, their own label. "We pressed 1,000 and now there's none left," Sheehan said. "We had 50 or 100 linger. I took a trip to New York and was just handing them out on the streets of Soho. I even gave one to Ric Ocasek, who I happened to bumped into. Finally, I got tired of carrying them on my back and just left them on the sidewalk."

Though they received virtually no radio airplay, Digital Sex's following continued to grow. But by late 1983 the band's drug-filled lifestyle was beginning to take a toll. "Cocaine was a real killer for me," Sheehan says. "It fucked with my emotions. It's not a lifestyle, it's a deathstyle. I had been mainlining cocaine and doing PCP since I was a kid. I knew if we maintained that intensity, one of us would be dead."

"Each of us had a different drug of choice," Tingle says. "We did our own thing, and didn't talk about it."

"We wouldn't admit the problem," Sheehan added. "We didn't see how it affected our personal dynamics. We didn't know. We wouldn't speak up and wouldn't listen. The residual affects were killing us."

"I was having my own mental difficulties," Higgins said. "The band, for me, was beautiful and brutal at the same time. It brought out the best and the worst in me. I would go on head trips and go off on tangents in my mind. I wanted the recognition and wanted it to be easy at the same time."

Finally, in the fall of 1984, Tsichlis had had enough. "He just said 'I'm done,'" recalls Sheehan." I said, 'Let's make an album. We'll go in and do whatever it takes.' At the time, we weren't even a working band."

The album was Essence, a 9-song LP on Post Ambient that took a year to record. As with their single, the band was having a hard time getting airplay. The music was just too weird for Omaha, but that didn't stop Sheehan from sending the album to radio stations all over the country.

"I thought Steve would look good fronting the band. I thought he looked like Hugh Cornwell from the Stranglers."

"We were losing perspective. By the end of 1987, attendance at local shows dropped, and my singing was being criticized. Divisions began to form within the band."

 

The French Connection

One copy made it all the way to a Roune, France. There, unbeknownst to the band, the album rose to No. 1 in a week. Before long, Sheehan received a letter from Jean-Pierre Turmel, a French entrepreneur who owned the obscure Sordid Sentimental record label.

Sordid put out limited-edition 45s by the likes of Joy Division, Durutti Column, Tuxedomoon and Throbbing Gristle. Turmel has been mentioned as one of the drivers behind Europe's Industrial Culture. Not industrial as in Nine Inch Nails, not even as a musical style, but as a specific art movement, projecting a specific aesthetic. For a bunch of Midwesterners, this was strong stuff.

"Turmel said he wanted to put out a compact disc of our music," Sheehan said. "We were fucking floored. CDs were just coming out. No one even had a CD player."

The problem was, of course, that Digital Sex no longer existed. To replace Tsichlis, the band found journeyman drummer Kevin Kennedy and also added keyboardist Maureen Hansen to record new tracks. The CD would also include all of Essence, as well as Higgins solo material.

Essence and Charm came out in 1986 as a limited edition CD-only release. "We're probably the first band in Omaha to put out a CD," Higgins said, "but that became a problem." came out in 1986 as a limited edition CD-only release. "We're probably the first band in Omaha to put out a CD," Higgins said, "but that became a problem."

Who wanted a CD when they couldn't play it? Few radio stations even had CD players back then. But that didn't stop the release from getting rave reviews from Interview, The Los Angeles Times and Reflex magazine. Even the fledgling MTV was promoting the CD.

"It was hard to enjoy the attention because of all the bullshit going on," Sheehan says. "We were losing perspective. By the end of 1987, attendance at local shows dropped, and my singing was being criticized. Divisions began to form within the band."

Kennedy continuously pressed Sheehan to ask Turmel to get the band a European tour, but on reflection, none were ready to make the step.

"I was doing a lot of drinking," Tingle said. "I had a new baby, and the band wasn't quite as important as it was before."

"There was so much happiness and wonder amidst the grit," Higgins recalls. "At the time, we were 30, 30 and 27. We didn't think about making it big. First and foremost on our minds was making music. We weren't thinking big-time success. That kind of shit didn't appeal to me. I wanted to make records, not a million dollars."

By the end of 1987, feeling a lack of support Sheehan left the band. With a new front man, Digital Sex continued to play gigs around Omaha. Finally, one night at the Howard Street Tavern, Sheehan was asked to come on stage and do a couple numbers with the band. The next day, Digital Sex broke up for what they thought was the last time.

 

The Second Chance

Over the next six years, Tingle, Higgins and Sheehan continued to perform and record solo as well as with other bands. Sheehan was the most prolific, releasing two solo CDs -- one on the French label New Rose; another on Emigre, a company more known for its electronic type-setting products than its albums. Tingle, Sheehan and Hansen formed The World with drummer Scott Miller and bassist Craig Crawford. Though they had a small local following, the band never caught on, and Miller and Crawford left to form mousetrap with Pat Buchanan. Higgins worked with the now-defunct punk band RAF, releasing an album on No Time Records.

But as memories of Digital Sex slowly began to fade in Omaha, a new tide of interest was beginning to rise -- in Pittsburgh. There Randy LeMasters was hosting Modern Times, a new music program on WYEP, 91.3 FM. The American Public Radio (APR) affiliate's show was a favorite with the college crowd, playing music by the likes of The Story and Billy Bragg.

Then in 1989...

"I happened on the Essence and Charm by sheer luck," LeMasters said. "A friend of mine who had moved to Florida saw the CD at a local Camelot story and had no idea what it was. He was intrigued by the cover and bought it. He called me and said, 'You have to hear this stuff.' It was some of the most moving and emotionally spiritual music I'd ever heard, and I have thousands of CDs. Rarely have I ever been moved in such a positive way."

LeMasters immediately started playing cuts from Essence and Charm on his radio show. "I was on the radio six years, and honestly, in all that time, I never had more telephone response or letters than from Digital Sex. I mean, we'd get a two-week advance of the new U2 album and it still didn't hold a candle to it. People kept asking me, where can I get this? It was The Big Thing."

Once a summer, the station would have a Digital Sex hour, where listeners could tape the entire CD. The reason: "It was next to impossible to find," LeMasters said. "I found my copy at a Tower Record store in Philadelphia."

Word got out that a store in Greensburg, an hour from Pittsburgh, had copies. "Pat Smith, the owner of the Discovery CD store, had found a distributor who had some copies," LeMasters said. "This guy sold an incredible number over the course of two or three years."

Meanwhile, the band had no idea any of this was going on. "I started getting calls from Eastern distributors," Sheehan said. "They all had a common thread -- Pittsburgh. I'd ask, 'Why do you need more copies? It's been out for six years.'"

Which brings us to October 1993. LeMasters quit his job at WYEP to open Randy's Alternative Music with his wife, Margaret. "When it came time for me to open my store, I had to get copies of the Digital Sex CD," LeMasters said. "Stephen had been in town when my wife and I were on our honeymoon. He left his telephone number. I called and told him these incredible things that had been happening, and it touched him."

The two discussed Digital Sex tapes that hadn't seen the light of day. "I said to him, 'Someone has got to put this stuff out.' I had people constantly asking for the CD. I knew we could sell some in Omaha and Pittsburgh. We had to do it."

The two agreed, and with LeMasters' financial backing, the Essence and Rarities CD should be out in late May. It will include all of the Essence album, plus a number of unreleased Digital Sex tracks and solo performances. Currently, work continues on putting together the package.

"Over the years, my Florida friend and I had made up lyrics to some of the songs," LeMasters says. "This deluxe package will, for the first time, include lyrics to all songs and credits."

He said 2,000 copies initially will be pressed. "We're promoting it nationally and locally, with ads in Gold Mine, Option, B-Side and possibly Alternative Press.

"It's pretty amazing that just those three guys created this sound. It's one of those criminal situations where if the world was fair, XTC would be the biggest band and Colan Molding wouldn't have to park cars to make ends meet."

But perhaps the CD's best promotion will be the band's reunion. The three have gotten together with Guerilla Theater drummer Dan Crowell and have lined up gigs, including a Memorial Day weekend date.

"This whole thing is a second chance to me," Higgins says. "This time I won't trip about what happens."

"It seems like there's an atmosphere where people are more willing to listen than before," Sheehan added. "The time is ripe."

What has the band learned from more than a decade of success and failure?

"Don't mix work with pleasure," Higgins says. "I'm straight now, though I occasionally smoke. I'm going to be objective and have the perspective that I'm in a band and it's not just me. I thought I understood it then. Now I do."

"I used to drink and not sleep enough," Tingle says. "Now I sleep a lot and don't drink. I've regained my sanity, it's that simple. My hopes: I'd like to make some money. I'd like to see the band go somewhere and not be like a chicken picking up gravel to survive. I work two part-time jobs. I'm tired of living like that. I'm 38 now. It's do or die."

As for Sheehan, the whole world is different now that he's clean and sober. "The drugs are gone and will never come back," he said. "I crashed in October 1989 and cured as I threw out my drug paraphernalia. My drug-induced behavior is gone, I don't feel I'm a victim anymore. I'm going to enjoy this era of the band, and I'm willing to go the distance."

"Through it all we've stuck together," Tingle said. "The band was like a marriage. It was more than being a member of something. It was a family and a marriage."


Originally printed in The Note, May 1994.

Copyright 1998 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

Photo by Mike Malone, Copyright 1998 Mike Malone. Used by permission.

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"It's pretty amazing that just those three guys created this sound. It's one of those criminal situations where if the world was fair, XTC would be the biggest band and Colan Molding wouldn't have to park cars to make ends meet."