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"When people are told about Stereolab," says the band's lead singer, French-born Laetitia Sadier, "I've heard that they often imagine a dance act. But when they come to our shows--well, they get some songs that can be danced to and some songs that are quite different from what they expect. Which is nice, I think. Sometimes it's good to surprise people, fool people a little bit."
Stereolab has made a habit of doing just that over the course of its five years as a recording entity. With a slew of full-lengths and singles behind them, the core players (Sadier, multi-instrumentalist Tim Gane, guitarist Mary Hansen and keyboardist Morgane Lhote) remain a collective that's damnably difficult to define. Hence, the project is frequently likened to acts with which they have only the most tangential qualities in common. "The Orb is a good example of a strange comparison," Sadier allows, her speech heavily accented. "And in the beginning, we got compared to Lush a lot, which I felt was pretty inaccurate. Sometimes people oversimplify what we do, try to make it seem like a formula. So they call us an easy-listening band or a kraut-rock band, or whatever.
"Actually, I think it's quite funny," she goes on. "To me, it's entertaining to watch people falling into their own traps. Because it's hard to describe Stereolab's music in one synthetic, gimmicky expression."
True enough. The act's latest album, Emperor Tomato Ketchup (on Elektra in the States), is suffused with electronics that alternately drone and jump. As for the rhythms and arrangements, they draw from sources as disparate as avant-garde rock and jazz, thereby serving as an intriguing complement to vocals by Sadier that recall French pop of the Fifties and early Sixties. Sadier's lyrics, however, reject the sort of romantic ennui favored by chanteuses of that period; instead, she tends toward politically charged, poetically rendered calls to action that scan like subtitles from Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film Weekend. "The Noise of Carpet" typifies her tack: Sadier croons, "I hate to see your broken face/A lazy life of fade-aways/A fashionable cynicism/The poison they want you to drink/Oh no, man, that's so easy."
In short, there's nothing else like Stereolab in the pop-music universe--which, according to Sadier, is precisely the reason she's in the band. In her view, mixing and matching seemingly incompatible sounds "is where the fun lies. It's the excitement of making music. You could even call it a dialectic in a way--an attempt to blend genres through your own creative filters. It is all about having ideas and trying to make from that idea something concrete. To make a new thing out of it."
Gane began tinkering with the sonic notions that he now manipulates full-time while a teenager in his native London. He eventually became an important part of McCarthy, a band that used DIY pop to advance a left-wing ideology. He found a willing accomplice in Sadier, a McCarthy fan who met Gane at a gig in Paris. The pair eventually set up housekeeping in London, and when McCarthy fell apart, they decided to collaborate on a combo. Upon dubbing their new entity Stereolab, they began exploring textures shared by Can, Faust, Kraftwerk and Neu!--outfits generally lumped into the art-rock category but more akin to the minimalism being practiced by neo-classicists such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich than to the florid pomp of Yes. These influences constitute a thread running through all the Stereolab works and go a long way toward explaining why Stereolab enjoys a popularity in Germany that reaches beyond its cult status in the United States. Sadier--speaking by phone from the Fatherland--notes, "We get a very good reception here, which is a bit ironic. Neu! and Faust are all but unknown in their own country now, but the people definitely have an affinity for what we do."
The first Stereolab recording, a single called "Super 45," was released on Duophonic Super 45s, an operation run by Gane and Sadier. Disc jockey John Peel, still one of Britain's most important tastemakers, responded favorably to the platter, and his decision to spin it on his widely heard radio program resulted in an offer to record for Too Pure, a fledgling imprint distributed in the U.S. by Rick Rubin's American label. The deal promptly resulted in Peng!, a 1992 offering that employed Farfisa organs and Moog synthesizers (soon to become Stereolab staples) in an opus that suggested a European variation on The Velvet Underground and Nico. The music flowed beautifully, enveloping listeners in an alluring wave of sound subtly overseen by Sadier. On the printed page, her lyrics from the album seem didactic and awkward; in "Surrealchemist," she intones, "Even more than philosophers/Aiming at no less than the total transformation of man and the world/ Begin with the dissolution of superfluous matters/So that desire and consciousness are free." But in the context of the lovely, multi-farious noises made by Gane and former cohorts Martin Kean (on bass) and Joe Dilworth (drums), her words become a beguiling supplement.
A Stereolab EP put out the following year indicated that the band had little interest in repeating itself: Titled The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, the disc bowed to the sounds subsequently celebrated by participants in the neo-lounge movement. But Gane and Sadier didn't linger in this arena long. Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, released by Elektra that same year, was a tougher, more feedback-oriented piece than its predecessors, with tracks like "Tone Burst" and "Lock-Groove Lullaby" twisting elements from previous Stereolab efforts into stunning new shapes. As for Mars Audiac Quintet, from 1994, it dabbled in all of Stereolab's styles. An expanded band--six official members plus guest appearances by several other contributors--offered up "Three-Dee Melodie," which spices a Farfisa wheeze with saucy bah-doo-bah-doo background vocals; "Wow and Flutter," a pop ditty sprinkled with spacy effects; "Anamorphose," a slice of the swinging Sixties; and "Fiery Yellow," an excursion into exotica.