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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.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup, partially produced by Tortoise's John McEntire, is just as eclectic. "Metronomic Underground," the lead track, is among the most provocative numbers present: Its repetitions bear touches of funk and ambient music, yet they stubbornly refuse to capitulate to either approach. "I don't know if I could call it a conscious effort," Sadier says about the song, "but there is at its base the notion of being quite primitive and of using primitive beats and then grooving along with them--because it's a pleasant thing to do. But then, on top of that, we added electronics and what-have-you to give it another feel. It was inspired by Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders, who used little riffs like that and then took them wherever they wished. We did our own version of that."
That even jazz cognoscenti would likely miss these connections is an indication of just how thoroughly Stereolab subsumes its inspirations. The instrumentalists are fond of succinct musical figures, but they're able to use them in intricate and enigmatic ways. "When we record, we put in as much as possible--and sometimes we even put in too much," Sadier confirms, laughing. "The wider we cast our net, the more choices there are. That way, you have sounds that emerge--incidental stuff that sometimes turns out to be most important of all. The more the music is layered, the deeper it becomes. And the deeper you can get into it, I suppose."
To put it mildly, these sentiments do not reflect the kind of hit-singles mentality that has long been endemic among American pop artists. But Sadier cannot imagine conducting business any other way.
"It is possible to do things the way we're doing them," she points out. "It is possible to do it any way you like it; it's just a matter of what suits you best and what you feel you want to do. But I can't imagine us pushing Stereolab on MTV or something like that. I can't really associate myself with that at all. That's not why the band is there or why we started. That's not for us.
"I'm very happy with the way things are going--we're able to be creative and yet we're making a living out of it. It's not that bad doing it on a more intimate level, where you can actually see the people you're playing to, instead of trying to project things to the infinite--to the point where you just can't see or feel yourself anymore."
Stereolab certainly can't be accused of the latter: In fact, the musicians are so reticent about the fame machine that none of their CDs features photographs of them. Sadier denies that this is intended as a comment on the music industry's predilection for objectification. "Honestly, it's just never occurred to us to put our pictures on there," she insists. "Perhaps one day it will, but it hasn't yet." After mulling over the matter for a moment, however, she acknowledges that the absence of band imagery on the discs might have its advantages. "If I was a Stereolab fan and had never seen the group live," she says, "I'd really be wondering, 'What do these people look like?' It would feel a little mysterious, definitely. And I think the music does, too."
Stereolab, with DJ Spooky and Ui. 9 p.m. Monday, October 28, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $10.50, all ages, 443-3399 or 830-