Laetitia Sadier on how music and politics go hand in hand, and how to struggle is to live

Laetitia Sadier on how music and politics go hand in hand, and how to struggle is to live
David Thayer

Laetitia Sadier was the charismatic singer of the influential and experimental Stereolab, a band she started with guitarist Tim Gane after a short stint in the political post-punk band McCarthy in the late '80s. Combining krautrock drones and hypnotic rhythms with a lounge-jazz sensibility and a willingness to make the most out of simple elements brought together to create a rich, cinematic sound, Stereolab was impossible to pin down, and it was a challenge to pinpoint its more obvious influences.

See also: Laetita Sadier at the hi-dive, 10/10/12

Stereolab went on hiatus in 2009, and the following year, Sadier released her first solo album, the critically acclaimed The Trip. While very different from Stereolab in fundamental ways, Sadier's solo work nonetheless benefits from the cool soulfulness of her voice and her ability to speak to specific personal experiences with a poetic depth and capture the human condition in a larger sense.

Sadier's lyrics have always been sharply political, but in the same sense as Gang of Four or Fugazi, they look at the essence of the issues that plague us not only with a critical eye, but with compassion. We recently spoke with Sadier about the loving social critique of Jean Renoir, the importance of silence and the artwork for her latest record, Silencio.

Westword: The song "The Rule of the Game" from your new album was inspired by the Jean Renoir film. Does that song have some resonance with how in 1939 -- the year that film was released -- fascism was already in power, and with what we're going through today?

Laetitia Sadier: Yeah. Alas, there is a big resonance obviously in the fact that the power is in place. I'm not taking my responsibility. They're turning things around -- i.e., it's the people who have to work for the banks and who have to work for the system, rather than establish a system that would work for the people and for most people. So there's a big responsibility there that should be decried, and I am very surprised that it isn't more decried every day considering the absurdity of the situation.

Also, what struck me about this movie is the way it was shot and the way Renoir approaches a very tender subject, which is humans deluding themselves and kind of being corroded by the bourgeoisie or the delusion that one day they can live as bourgeois, you see? I find that really kind of pervasive, you know, that now we've all been brainwashed very deeply, very subconsciously, to act in very irresponsible ways and forget reality.

I think it's getting more and more obvious that the system is not working for a lot of the people on the planet. I think people know that there's enough to go around, even for nine billion people. The planet can support a lot, and it has, and it does, and the only reason why [a sizable] percentage of the people on the planet do not eat when they're hungry... There's enough to house everybody. The only thing that's stopping us from being housed and well-fed is this system.

I think that's quite obvious, but at the same time, it's like, "Why aren't people reacting? Why aren't they shifting the system around?" I think this movie really shows why. It really shows being different, the ghosts, the monsters that don't care and are completely caught up in their fantasies and their little games and their little clothes and whatnot. And they're cut off from their deepest humanity. They're rendered completely selfish, basically.

That really struck a chord with me because I know I suffer from this selfishness and that I'm not out there giving...I don't know what I'm supposed to do, even. But certainly I have concern, but I really feel that on an individual level, we are all implicitly involved in not creating a better world. That made me really cry for two days, because the mirror that was put in front of me was so accurate but also very loving. The guy didn't go, "You asshole and blah, blah, blah." He did it with love, and that [deeply affected me in a way that a more judgmental treatment of the subject might not].

Why do you feel that commercialism and the marketplace overwhelm our ability to go deeper and to disconnect ourselves from our inner selves?

Yes, yeah, yeah, hence the title of Silencio. I think in the press release they talk about "commercialism" and the "marketplace." These are not my words, because I think it's an oversimplification of what's at hand. I don't necessarily want to name things in a narrow way. But, yes, of course, hyper-consumerism makes a big racket, and it's all about the numbing of senses and preventing us from knowing ourselves.

I think someone who knows [herself or himself] is more secure and less fearful, is less malleable. They're less controllable than someone who's insecure, doesn't know, who's fearful; you can make them buy just about any shit, which is what's happening. All this want of conformity, wanting to conform, whilst imagining that one is super-individual and original -- the delusion again.

I think those forces are cynically at work. [Instead of so much] randomly happening, there are people that know exactly what they are doing. On that subject, I saw, years ago, a film back on the Internet called The Century of the Self, a documentary by Adam Curtis. It speaks in a very well-researched way of how these things came about and how the nephew of Freud used the unconscious and learned how to manipulate people through their unconscious. How well it worked! It's phenomenal. Bravo.

I do believe that humans have free will. But it depends on what you develop in life, if you develop yourself into a little zombie following this [or that], or if you develop your stronger self, your higher self. I think this system is about developing the worst in people.

Adam Curtis made another documentary called The Power of Nightmares. I only watched the first half-hour, but he talks about a man who kind of looked at American society in the '50s or something and he thought it was despicable: "They're really selfish. All they're interested in is trimming their hedges and doing a little garden, mowing their little yards and having their car in a very individualistic and materialistic way."

This man saw other things in humans like spiritual aspects. He thought then that Americans were going down a really narrow path. He was a Muslim, and he ended up in a prison, where he was tortured, and there, he realized that the system bred brutality and barbarism. So it's not just about us trimming our hedges. It leads to the worst. We don't experience it firsthand, you and I, but it's never too far from that, particularly in America, where anyone can have a gun.

All social and economic systems affect you in unexpected ways in the overall sense, and it flows down into specific experiences. For instance, Frantz Fanon wrote a book called The Wretched of the Earth, and he talks about what was happening in Algeria in the years leading up to its liberation from France and how the repression was affecting the oppressors and the people they were oppressing in ways deeply psychological that they didn't realize until later.

So we have a lot of awareness to achieve. My record was about that -- in a very small way, of course. But I think that even if it's small, it's there. No matter how tiny, it's there, to reach out for some of this awareness.


You did an interview with The Quietus earlier this year, and you were talking about how with Monstre Cosmic was about reconciling different aspects of oneself and the concepts behind Silencio. In that discussion, you talked about having written songs in your dreams. Are you a lucid dreamer, by chance?

I've had two in my life. But, no, I wouldn't call myself a lucid dreamer. Last night, I had some really amazing dreams. I think I was referring to the fact that I wasn't writing songs consciously at first, and I was letting Tim [Gane of Stereolab] do the writing, and, anyway, I had no choice. But I had songs that wanted to come out, and I had music that was being put together. Because it wasn't coming out in reality, it came out in dreams -- like a sort of musical wet dream of sorts. It's true that now that I write songs, I have fewer dreams where I make music. I have other kinds of dreams.

Oh, like your subconscious mind was trying to communicate in the only way it could.

Absolutely, yeah. It was so frustrated that it was coming out in the dreams.

In an interview you did with Coke Machine Glow a while back, you said something that resonates with Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own about creating space for yourself in order for your creativity to blossom. Would you say that was the case with what you've done with your solo musical work?

Yes, of course. It's something that one must take. I don't know exactly how I meant it all these years ago, but certainly I find that if I want to create I have to shut the door, shut off the phone, shut everything out and create this space and time where I'm going to work. Otherwise, everything's going to munch me up. Then I won't get anything done. So I seriously have to put big barriers against the door and go for it. Of course, in reference to Stereolab, there was no space for my writing, apart from my lyrics -- and what I had to do in the end was to create this space, this big playground, for my own creativity and for myself.

This is probably so obvious to state, but that process is directly connected with the title and theme of Silencio.

It's true. I guess in a way I'm talking about meditation, but I didn't want to call it meditation, because what happened in that church wasn't really meditation. It was really silence that happened, and it felt so good, only because there's too much noise. And maybe I'm a bit hyper-sensitive to noise as well.

One thing that has always been noteworthy and interesting about your music and your lyrics is how there is an excellent blending, even alchemy -- a fusion of the conceptual, the political and obviously the musical. How did you come to be politicized in life and then with your music?

To me, music and politics go perfectly hand in hand -- any form of art and politics. I'm just surprised there's not more politics in music these days. Maybe it's part of the same phenomenon of being brainwashed and absolutely wanting to make a career and therefore stay in the format of what is commercially acceptable. Of course you take risks [in not doing so], though Rage Against the Machine had a great career.

I don't know. It just gives meaning to what I do, and I see that a lot of bands in post-punk were extremely politicized, bands like Magazine, Gang of Four and Wire. They were very political -- and McCarthy, of course. At that time, I think there were more political bands than apolitical bands. It was a way of fighting. We're kind of in a system where you have to fight. I don't know if it was Victor Hugo, someone like that, who said the one who fights and struggles is the one who lives. If you don't struggle, and you're a mollusk on your sofa, then you don't live. For me, music is part of my living.

I feel like a little bit of a freak out here, when really it's not freaky at all; it's just normal. Things are really fucked up in the financial world and the political world, and politics is about people reinstating their power and doing so in a conscious way. And debating and talking about things and coming up with ideas as to how we can run things better for everybody. I'm not talking about a 100 percent great heaven.

I'm really surprised that we're really far from these notions that, in the '60s, were quite banal in a way. Of course, they've been discouraged because we've been really hammered. The CIA went after it with big chainsaws and terrorized everybody. Communism was the enemy and had to be absolutely extinguished. I don't know. Okay, let's have the Tea Party and see how the world gets, you know? How much proof do you need that it doesn't work?

Oh, yeah, like how four years ago a lot of people who had believed completely in the system as it was and still is and were very rah-rah about George W. Bush and his championing of supply-side economics and whatnot before they figured out they'd been had and that it did not, in fact, result in a booming economy. And now they've flipped back to insisting that, "No, it really works and anyone who says otherwise is a socialist."

Yeah, yeah, but I think that's the phenomenon of fear. And also because there's not enough voices out there that are really captivating to those pseudo-conservatives. We're all in the same boat, so I don't want to segregate anybody. I want to speak to the conservatives, as well. We're all humans, and we all have the same basic needs.

It is a big opportunity, because we know there's no real right or left anymore. There's only extreme right and extreme left. That middle ground is kind of blurred. So now is a good time to reset everything. Okay, level zero, and think about what we think and what we want.

The cover art for Silencio looks like a pastel chalk drawing or painting. Who did that, and what do you feel it conveys well in terms of the music inside the album?

First of all, my friend Damon Locks made it. That's his art, which you can go and see up on walls in Chicago in galleries or bars. What I like about it is that the more you look at it, the more you see in it, the more depth it gains. It's like when you observe the stars: The more you look at them, the more stars appear, and the more there are to look at. So I really like that.

I didn't know what he was going to come up with, and he came up with that, which I think is really beautiful and intriguing, and it isn't silent. But yet, again, silence doesn't exist, really. There's always some noise going on of the inner body. And I think that reflects that kind of complexity quite well. It's going inside, you know. Then I like the fact that it's open to interpretation and it doesn't do what it says on the package directly. I quite like that quality.

Laetitia Sadier, with Achille Lauro and Fairchildren, 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 10, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, $12, 720-570-4500, 18+

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