Are Stereolab the perfect pop group? By combining a rigorous DIY aesthetic with a playful reverence for the arcane relics of musics past, they have managed to make a reality out of that most elusive of notions: experimental music that actually sells. This article was originally published in The Wire 149 (July 1996).
While trying to explicate his usual working process, Stereolab's Tim Gane says, "I love contradictions in music, I think it should be contradictory. My favourite music is music which I can't tell if it's good, bad, what it is... I think music should convey something for which there's are no words." If nothing else, Stereolab's music certainly lives up to Gane's aspirations. Impenetrable, avant garde ideas about the organisation of sound collide head-on with the most unapologetic, saccharine pop tactics for audience manipulation. Wheezing antique synthesizers, churning one-chord guitar riffs and the deadpan vocals of Laetitia Sadier (who displays all the emotional histrionics of Nico) blend seamlessly with tear-jerking, Beatles strings and the unreal, Prozac chirpiness of Brill Building choral arrangements. Despite Stereolab's seemingly infinite storehouse of references, their sound is nothing if not unique.
The core of the Stereolab sound is the drone. Whether it's the manic insistence of one note played endlessly on a Farfisa or Vox organ, or the rumble of a severely over-taxed, single minded guitar riff, the metronomic, mechanical hum of a Stereolab record is relentless, but never monotonous.
"I like the intensity of the drone" says Sadier. "You have to maintain this incredible concentration even though you are only playing one chord. [Laughs] There was this promoter in Vancouver and he said, 'That's the first time I've ever seen kids be so into just one note.' He was really amazed, he was this Heavy Metaller. He had to ask himself a lot of scary questions that night."
"That's where the most tension comes from," adds Gane. "Where you have intensity but you have to stay restricted to something simple. Most people would go [imitates Al DiMeola guitar theatrics] which ruins it, everything dissipates. I find slow evolvements fascinating. I like to take accepted formulas and make them alien again by the simple process of extending them way beyond their expected time allotment. It draws you in, and once you're drawn in , your defences drop and you are open to certain ways of reinterpreting things that have been over-used so that they're non-effectual. Music like Steve Reich's Four Organs, where four organs play these two chords fast and then they slow down so that at the end they're completely different to the beginning, yet it's the same thing. You can see it working, the mechanics are there, but you can't quite see how it works, even though it's such a simple thing."
The whole Stereolab package is wrapped up with the French-born Sadier's almost surreal lyrics, which read like a Situationist/Marxist pamphlet, but actually sound like someone reading fortune cookie epigrams aloud. (Of course, having a non-native Anglophone write mostly English lyrics is a contradiction in itself.)
"Maybe our music and lyrics shouldn't work together," suggests Gane. "But they do, because the works and the music are both exploratory in the sense of trying to find out things about yourself, about the things around you, being curious about forcing certain elements together in a way that shouldn't be done."
"Or forcing things together which were artificially separated,"
Sadier adds. "It's basically exploratory, that's why it's not
preaching. A preacher has an absolute notion of what he's talking
about, or a least he thinks he does, whereas I don't."
On their most recent releases of new material - last year's collaboration with American sculptor Charles Long, Music For The Amorphous Body Study Centre, and this year's Emperor Tomato Ketchup - any lingering hint of the rigid political fundamentalism that characterised much of the group's earlier music had been brushed away by the incorporation of melodic, mock-innocent , Easy Listening "ba-ba-ba" choruses. The meeting of the pure commercial craftsmanship of Hal David vocalises with full-on, sloganeering Marxism is quite extraordinary evidence of the way the past is being pieced together and radically reconfigured on the margins of contemporary music.
"Guitar music is becoming tediously traditional," says Gane. "In America it's become tedious in a certain 'rock' way. Over here, there are a certain number of 'classics' that you must always include in your music. There's no attempt to rearrange it or try some other things... Even this new Easy Listening thing, insteadof being about music that has been marginalised but was interesting and [then using it] as a way of going forward, it's become about a return to 'classic songwriting', which is exactly what it's not. That's the worst possible interpretation of it. 'We want good proper music, no of this Jungle stuff. Good classic songs: Tom Jones, Burt Bacharach, but I think they're using his music as a kind of hammer to nail in reactionary ideas."
Unlike the post-rock mortuaries of Oasis and Blur (that's post-rock in the sense of Francis Fukuyama's notion of post-history, in which dialectic is dead because capitalist democracies have won), where the ghosts of John Lennon and Ray Davies have engineered the victory for one-nation Britishness, a victory that the Tory government could never have hoped to achieve, Stereolab records are full of utterly incongruous juxtapositions and conflicts between sounds. Although the standard charge against Stereolab is that the music is nothing but the sum total of its arcane reference points, their mischief never lets their records settle into simplistic version so Euro-Exotic: Martin Denny Performs All Your Krautrock Favourites. And no, their records don't all sound the same.
"I tend to collect ideas, then wait till I get a spark that will trigger a series of ideas that I can use on an album," explains Gane, who, along with Sadier is the group's nominal leader; other current members include Morgane Lhote, Mary Hansen and drummer Andy Ramsay. "On the last album it was hearing the beginnings of jazz records, not just jazz records but stuff like Yoko Ono, basically anything that had a simple riff that was used as an underlay to the development of the music on top. For the one before that, the Charles Long art project, I felt that it had to be something melodic, so I had in my mind melodic things that would loop around. Then I heard the end of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" and it kind of worked perfectly in that way [starts singing]. In my mind I imagined that it got more complex than it actually was; I imagine the beats extending all the time. So that [record] was all based around that, all the little pieces then gravitated towards that idea."
This approach to songwriting begs the question, do all of his ideas come as responses to other records?
"Sometimes I get ideas in response to specific music, or the way a certain arrangement works, or the way that someone has recorded something. It usually starts from there and goes off in all different areas. I just need a starting point really. Sometimes I'll use quite cliched riffs - I'm always trying to get a basis to work on higher levels afterwards. Often an idea will come from reading a book about certain films and the way they would put things together, and I'll adapt that to what I'm working on... I tend to think about what I do in terms of collage more than I do in terms of songwriting."
Even though a Stereolab record is as immediately recognisable as
a song by The Fall, as easily identifiable as a can of Coke, the
inevitable result of this cutting and pasting is music that calls
attention to its sources above all else. As Gane admits, "The
biggest thing I think we're guilty of, or maybe the area where
we're on dodgy ground, is this idea that you need great knowledge
[of] esoteric music to understand what we're doing. What I really
want to do is to have music that operates on levels where sometimes
we can include references to other kinds of music, sometimes
obscure, sometimes not. Music ought to work without any knowledge
of it whatsoever. Sometimes I feel that maybe there are too many
reference points, too many in-jokes in a way."
"Some people can write very complex things in a simple way without diminishing the complexity of their writing," adds Sadier. "I think we have achieved a music that will make sense to a lot of people whether they know about Steve Reich or not."
With their gossamer female backing harmonies and motorik pulse, Stereolab make resolutely unmacho music. But all the self-conscious referencing of music you've never heard of creates an aura vaguely similar to tat most hopelessly masculine of pursuits: trainspotting. It's an atmosphere perhaps exacerbated by the limited release schedule of Stereolab's label, Duophonic Ultra High Frequency Disks. In addition to Stereolab's domestic product, Duophonic has released beautifully packaged, ultra-rare records by groups such as Tortoise and Arcwelder, with the next release being a Stereolab collaboration with those ultimate Industrial recluseniks, Nurse With Wound.
Duophonic is not just a way of milking the seemingly endless cash-flow of obsessive indie fans, however. Rather, it is an integral component of the Stereolab philosophy, and its success makers a small triumph for the DIY aesthetic of the music underground. "I like the notion of DIY. You can communicate without having the police nearby or some authority preestablishing or narrowing possibility," says Sadier. "To me, it's a way of not being a victim," adds Gane. "It's being sure enough of yourself to make things available, to not send out demo tapes and think you're a failure because people turn you down. One side of it is that you sell a couple of hundred records that are only available in some tiny record shop. But the other side of it is the empowering process of being in control of your own music. I don't see that as a bad thing."
Instead of using their independence as a way of keeping the
uninitiated out of their gate community of analogue-fixated
hipsters, Stereolab claim they put out their own records and design
their own sleeves t o keep their ears open and their minds active.
"Releasing lots of singles and records, that's all part of the
process of the music as well as the ideology of it," explains Gane.
"By doing that you learn; it creates more music, more ideas. It's
very important that we are able to control that... It pushes us
into areas where our ideas get mixed with things that they wouldn't
normally come into contact with, or just to generate new ideas... I
don't see the point of being a band that absolves all
responsibility for anything that happens outside of the music."
A project in the works with New York's elliptical groove merchants Ui is evidence of this 'throw things against the wall and see what sticks' approach. "I have no idea what we're going to do, but we'll come up with something," says Gane. This isn't the brush-off of the insouciant hot-shot, but the eternal truth of the inveterate procrastinator.
"I don't really write songs or do anything like that unless it's for something specific because I really have to be focused," says Gane. "Even though there are guitars lying around here, I don't really sit around and play the guitar and write a bit down and try to fit a song. I tend not to be able to do that because it's too vague. I need to have a deadline or something to really focus me and then everything tends to come out more focused more quickly. Often I'm all over the place and I tend to like just the basic essence of ideas... I tend to think of things as a whole. If I come up with a bass riff or something I've thought of which is kind of based around something which has been done before, it has to be integrated with the melody and everything else at the same time instantly. I can't just have the riff and see what happens."
"I'm not that interested in what people call emotional singing," says Gane, unsurprisingly. "To me, a more natural voice is always more emotional than any amount of [emotional over-the-top, whining R&B melisma]. With 'emotional' singing you get the point after one listen."
Perhaps Stereolab's modest success (their place in the current hipster pantheon looks fairly secure, alongside Sonic Youth, The Beastie Boys, Sergio Mendes, Mo' Wax and Beavis and Butt-Head) is the result of not the singularity of their gentle quirkiness, but rather that you can never completely unravel their sound.
"You want to hear music that sounds different in the daylight, different in the dark, different outside, different in the car. You want music that's open enough so that little things stick out, so it always sounds different depending on the environment or the atmosphere. Too much music is so..."
"One-dimensional," offers Sadier.
"And closed," continues Gane. "Appearing to be eclectic, but at the same time closed to any response to it. We have to play around with things and we don't know what's going to happen to them. We mix elements together and wait for the spark or explosion or whatever and the resulting mess is what you're left with. It can work or it cannot work."
Unlike too many groups these days, Stereolab can't be pulled apart to nothingness. Despite the fact that at one point during the interview Gane declared that the didn't like mystique in music - he wanted to see the mechanics of it - he later says, "I don't like anything to be obvious. I don't mind things being awkward because you need some things to draw you in and other things to perplex you, things that you can't get to grips with." As the name of their publishing company, Complete/Incomplete Music, indicates, Stereolab is a constantly evolving process. "I like the quality of the ongoingness," says Gane. "I don't like full-stops. I like open-ended things."