Twenty years later: The beautiful, bewildering music of Stereolab

Stereolab

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Editor’s note: Twenty years ago this past May, the UK band Stereolab released its first official recordings. To commemorate the dawn of post-rock music, KDHX music writer Tom Healy muses on the band’s sound and vision. And check out Tom’s list of top 10 Stereolab songs here.

Now that we are racing to get rid of seemingly everything of tantamount importance (and all of our money) the vital relevance of uplifting, invigorating, inspiring and beautiful music, long, astonishingly, undervalued, is more important than ever. Particularly when it charges a bewildering beast it is none too pleased with, with chivalric resolve, honor and purpose. May it save us all!

For a couple of decades now, the predominance of unbelievably bad music foisted upon us has blighted and beknighted the collective unconscious of the hold-out music fan, who endearingly still seeks musical nourishment from commercial sources. In the deep grey remoteness of our bewildered domes, reconnoitering, mad scrambling envoys, marveling at the canyons where these deep wounds run, attempt repairs on a difficult schedule.

Have you ever watched some of our TV opinion-makers speak for several minutes, wearing the learned smug face of the anointed and beyond-question and realized that you have no idea what they said? They didn’t either. That takes study.

People are paid here in these, our United States of America to couch what most matters in pseudo-comprehensible gobbledygook. They know they must ensure the issues remain just complex enough that a self-respecting person of average intelligence is terrified of revealing his or her ignorance by even trying to discuss them. Then TV, that medium incapable even of an apt snapshot of what we need to know and understand, cuts to the chase, accelerating the feelings of powerlessness and futility that make us controllable, as designed.

Laetitia Sadier, singer, lyricist, and keyboards for Stereolab: “We refuse freedom because we refuse the responsibilities that come with freedom. In this culture of propaganda, of fear, no one is wanting to stand up to take responsibility. I feel like this system isn’t working.”

The people in charge with all of the money who make it clearer every election that they would sincerely like to keep all of the money, with grander privilege and, wherever possible, all else exactly the damned same, except with more secret policing and less rights and money (elsewhere.) All else be damned. Throw in invisible surveillance techniques, improvised and stapled-on anti-constitutional ‘security’ provisions as needed, armed robots and the kind of get things-done-with-the-money-I-don’t-have-cunning to make our own people test, applaud, engird themselves, upon and astride (and pay for, even! Genuis!!) technologies which look to those of us with nervous inclinations like our rapidly advancing undoing. And that’s just the stuff we actually know about!

The voice of Stereolab, Latetia Sadier on pop music: “It’s not even ‘fake’ anymore. It’s gone beyond the ersatz into the utterly absurd. Pop has completely eaten itself. It’s not even like we’re cultivating these artistic riches and then exploring them. It’s just exploitation of exploitation. We can’t help ourselves.”

With twinges of retro-futurist ’60s music, lounge, reggae and an unfathomable melange of crossover and cross-cultural styles. A study in contrasts and personalities, Stereolab’s individual components, like lots of greatest artistic results, sound like a potentially very bad idea when inventoried.

What are they? Apache beat dream pop? Neu or Can throwbacks? Motorik? The Archies? What it is and what others see it as being can bear little resemblance.

Wandering the map with an always nearby religious chorale music sensibility (and sound, somewhat), sophisticated and yet child singsong, with a jazz sensibility and metronomically steadfast grooves. There are harps and vibey synth strings and moogs, and ticklish raver arpeggios. Much fun.

Plowing through the archives I found Todd Rundgren chillin’ with candy raver girls. Don Cherry on the Krautobahn listening to Coltrane Jazz era John Coltrane. Led Zeppelin circa Houses of the Holy era. Forgotten Smith’s Strangeways tracks, Jobim does French new wave cinema. Blondie. Squeeze even! This band has been lots of bands and every listening points to others on deck. It is their weakness and strength.


Stereolab groove quests with rhythm sections that can enviably toggle between jazz fusion tight and garage rock loose. This trait alone offers them massive flexibility and there are so many more. There are lanky and askew melodies and Sadier’s delicious romance-language vowel-sound-bonanza morphing. Strange auditory textile patterns. They make me think of a high-end dress designer somehow. Sadier obviously tries everything she can think of until she is satisfied, serene all the while. Yikes. Bliss can be found even in their average material, when you look and they are quite lucky too in that occasional bad part just elevates the cream.

Have you ever gone years without hearing a song that had an immediate and special significance for you? Only to find yourself hugely let down when you finally hear it?

Your thirsty imagination exaggerates it for you. It is always there, trying to do nice things for you. Hypnotism. Whatever made you enjoy it, however it intersected with your heart, being without it, it didn’t have the chance to see through it to its mere mortal stuff to join series and sequences of other letdowns in its reserved spot. Unstintingly viewed objects lose their lustre. If the unheard delightful music is tied to a treasured memory in some ways it is as if an act of mercy when we pine to hear it instead.

Sadier: “The cultural trend fails people by implicitly deluding us into believing that happiness can be had by simply buying gadgets, or signing up to Facebook, looking like a princess, watching porn, crushing sensitivity, being shallow.”

It speaks for the power of music and the way it colors your unconscious and restores the invaluable belief that there are beautiful and exalted things to be found in this life every day. Once bereft of crushing burdens of disbelief, this world’s gravity is too much any other way.

Indie rockers, so fortunate to live the dream so many wished for in the ‘90s, bolstered by a legion of ostensibly successful bands that may not have sucked so bad, were it 20 years earlier: “Hey, I’m going to be in six shitty bands instead of one good one! and release 8 records a year, from each. ” Thus glut gorging an already gorged glut festival.

Suddenly when no one was looking, CDs became singles with nine B-sides, with part of the only decent song on there belonging to another country.

Sadier: “It seems to me that being indie now is about combing your hair to one side and looking miserable. I just want to shout ‘Action!’ at these people. They look so bored….when I first moved to London,…Chapterhouse was at the top of the independent charts and shoegazing was the big thing. It was so boring.”

Indie rock. Vapid songs by good-looking people.

In becoming a real songwriter there is a point, arriving quickly and unannounced where latent abilities abjectly fails one’s self; where songwriting informs you that it will henceforth require a ballet dancer or a gymnast’s determination and finesse and plyings of their arts. Also a determination to plow through technical limitations and deficiencies, one heart-crushing, potentially ego immolating layer at a time, usually for a very, very, long time.There are great bands that manage by other means but they are scarce and mostly happened over thirty years ago.

A real band places the song above all else, beyond showing off their technique or making sure my part is the coolest. There aren’t many.

This level of songwriting envisions results and you have to reel that fish on a kite string until your spleen itches beyond repair. You do not and can not, not keep going, until you are there or crying on the neighbor’s lawn. This is where we all want to be and surely will meet in heaven. The buy-in zone.

When experienced and evolved songwriters try everything they can think of with the refined questing interpretive critical faculties their path has steadfastly seen them along, you can really hear it. Wondrous power and simplicity and edifying meditations on pattern and style occur.

There are bands that will do what it takes and those that won’t. And can’t.

The ones that can will succeed no matter what scourge of compositional weaknesses to be agonizingly engaged, drum clinics to be inhaled, neo-classical guitar technique woodshedding or opera lessons or whatever your developing instincts and improved instincts make the order of the day, en route to the right groove and amount of space and all the ingredients painstakingly inherited and amassed. The necessaries of great song making. The kind that can help make light this en-endurable world for downtrodden human beings who may have done nothing to deserve a life of unending grief and hardship.

Stereolab must begin each recording and touring cycle with a mission of sanity-defying arrogance, to write jazz-standard quality music and it is just wrong how close they come, and how often.

If ever there was a stylish band that leaped cultural, sociological and language barriers, it is Stereolab. In this joy-starved world comes the joy, along with the reality-sanctioned waxing sadness that leads back ultimately to joy, until with any luck, you learn how to stay in the joy part more and more often.

Dots and Loops, enlisting Jan St. Werner of Mouse on Mars, with its melding of acid jazz, lounge and the discretion-sobering dangerous terrains of jazz fusion has got to be one of the best records ever.

I have declared Stereolab the only music I could listen to around the clock in sessions of indoctrination-technique scale, prolonged drubbings. Now that I have actually tried, the bad news is; I can’t. People will tell you they have burnt themselves out on Bach (Shudder, Dante-esque suffering!) The good news is that if I listened to ANY band this much I would feel pain like that inflicted by Vogon poetry in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — supposedly foremost amongst un-endurable tortures to be encountered in the universe.

“Punishment” listening has sullied the charms of many of the mighties for me, though as I stand before ye, it will take you to school in style and a straightjacket if you obsess about how favorite pieces of music work to their nuts and bolts and splash cymbals.

At first it seems like there are no flaws here, yet sustained and measured probity begins the unveiling.

Song to song I love this band enough to erect an unconscious shielding screen, easing the condition of a prominently audible guy’s being an ass, and my resultant tic-addled squirminess.

Musical mastery and mastery of one’s self are found either very close together or very far apart indeed.

The more interviews I read with Tim Gane, the more I just want to scream at him: “Shut up! Get out of the way and let me enjoy your music!” He is in self sales, sounding like his own besotted sports announcer.

Interestingly, listening to someone’s music, beyond the capacity of human endurance, may serve to convey intimately the agony a committed songwriter feels in pursuit of the material’s perfection or near it. The most magical piece of music cannot sustainedly stand bludgeoning confrontations without volleys of questions flanking every doubt you ever had about your sanity. “How could I ever have liked this! I have a soul of corn!” He will never mention it, but this is part of what makes Gane describe writing and recording with Stereolab as torturous. Usually people sound of priss privilege when they complain of difficulty in making music, but you believe it here

If the weird automatic looping playback in your brain lasts for more than several minutes or if you have any peripheral mental frailty issues, cease and desist! You are courting autism. You have to let it go for a while. You learn the hard way.

Moog and other synthesizer composition and the requisite juggling of often inherently sublime tones, cannot be for the mild-hearted. Camp vacuity menaces the sojourner and piquant minstrelsy threatens at each trail turn. If you want to hear milk-out-of-your nose-funny Moogs, check out The Moog Cookbook’s Seattle-centric first record.

Moog’s are so archiacally uncool in that anticipating-the-space-age-and-misfiring way that they are actually the coolest.

Stereolab’s guitars are caveman dream pop, technique-wise and compensated for by a consistent gourmand’s taste for expensive and frighteningly nice sounding equipment, from the ’60s. When music sounded, and was, better. A ninja axeman with his aerial, arrangement-hogging calligraphies and Pollock globbings would not suit this anyway.

There can be downsides to knowing too much about your favorite artists. For those struggling to master their egos, reading Tim Gane interviews can help one lament one’s own episodes of oratorical magnificence and astonishment at oneself.

In interviews, chief songwriter Tim Gane comes off as an extraordinarily talented ass. He routinely fails to mention his mind-numbing good fortune of being in a band with someone who has got to be in a close race for best and most captivating pop singer in the world. The woman who fronts the band he sees himself as fronting. Gane is a Metallica-hued shade nearer the ranks of average slobs who win the lottery than nature allows him to successfully confront in dark, doubt-flurried moments.

In print, Gane allows for himself the possibility of actually being right wing. He distances himself in interviews from any discernable Stereolab message, effectively pronouncing himself a jingle writer and dispatching himself swiftly from some of the most spiritual and substantial elements his art has to offer.

You cannot place a value on having the means to constantly write and listen to music. Not all are so fortunate and anyone with heart and some talent can see the tortoise and hare effect for themselves. Not to say a lot of pain and self-sacrifice isn’t involved if you’re going to do it right, but this is music, folks, like no other art form.

Gane likes the sound of his own voice coming out of his own, entreaty. He can simultaneously discuss his having complete control and being all about sharing control.

Interviewee Gane is humorless and dry, trebly odd because his compositions burst with these traits’ photo-negative complements. If you know him initially from his music you suspect you are in the company of a wise and generous, sweet and thoughtful person.

I’m not sure I would bat an eye were he to follow a spouted truism with “As one of history’s most important artists, I am an imponderable, celestial entity and a conduit of esoterica and genius.”

Gane: “You have to remember how much of a part single-minded obsession plays in what we do.”

Unless it is misanthropy or wussiness, I am without a means to calculate how a real artist can be so cavalier as Gane about his finished product. I have never seen someone who has obviously invested phenomenal effort in writing music, eager to shrug off what is most profoundly meaningful to his listener and thereby potentially the most noble part of the work.

Gane: “We can’t change what we’re doing just because people are looking at us.”

At the helm of such a politically important band, he seems unaware how ugly-to-near-Satanism it is to have a disregard towards people to whom he means something, with a reptilian-cold bearing evocative of the power structures his band mocks.

He has a gift for talking down to his audience, flying chords on strings and illuminating them from within. You don’t hear people consistently find fresh places for melodies in chord progressions he knows how to conceal artfully the common currency.

Yes, Ganes can be great, but most high schools nowadays should have a comparable music arranger who would manifest their own idiosyncratic precocities in comparable arresting flourishes and one suspects that with demon determination, tons of practice and $170,000 worth of instruments and recording equipment that some humbling results could be achieved.

Gane does not like digital recording equipment or gear. Just listen to a drumset recorded analog to know what goes missing in the digital age. Analog recording was invented for cymbals. There is a reason Stereolab’s drums resonate airily and synthesizers have a warmth and nice way of leaving wide swaths of space for the arrangements and the rhythm section. These are connoisseur’s recordings. They sound great on my cheapo computer speakers and it frightens one to think what they would sound like in the Stereolab listening room.

It is a thing to marvel at — the altitudinal discrepancy between what Gane is capable of and what he will allow to be released. It’s comparable in magnitude to the lofty trekking between middle and high brow that Sadier surveys vigilantly and uncomplainingly.

One suspects clever manipulations and strategic maneuverings in Gane’s interviews. He promotes his campaign to release assloads of material, marginalizing some of the ass. This is a brilliant marketing strategy because it always allows him to seem new and fresh.

One critic noted it would be a Herculean task to chronicle their entire, sprawling release vault. At least without grit and loot a-plenty. Still his ratio of greatnesses to fluffy-mind-candies (and they are there) is assuredly ahead of the curve. Gane wisely says he is not afraid of doing something that sounds like something you’ve heard before, a crucially convenient philosophy, as there is liberal borrowing and wholesale airlifting of other’s musical material going on, cunningly disguised pop and rock staples, fun stuff to look for.

Gane lets you know his music is solely for pleasing and educating himself; happy chance bestowing a commercial audience while Sadier makes us believe she cannot rest until you allow her to nourish you in her numinous light with all the glory you are able to receive. Sadier’s grail knight rescues Gane’s demon princess. The image of generosity and virtue unerringly supported by her lyrics and unceremoniously touted ideals. Sadier’s choices are the opposite of convenient. She has the boundless heart of a lion.

Gane, being the best thing that ever happened to himself, is on a credit-taking crusade with legs and hunger. One imagines he hears vibes, bebop jazz grooves and beloved, organic organ sounds as his own invention, like the advent of recording equipment and the wheel.

An irritation it may be to him that these instruments, which are a freaking gigantic part of his tool satchel, are immortal; they will never completely fall out of favor. These sounds and Sadier’s voice are the stereo lode.

With time, and money, and your voltage controlled analog time machines, here’s what you do: you listen to and record yourself, find a nice groove and a pastoral chord—a note, even–and get out of the way. Voila, part of your song will be superior to much of what is out there. When that (quicky) becomes boring, learn how to tie chords together and that the music, as brilliantly expressed by Ted Green, is what happens between the notes. The notes anyone can play.

When Stereolab songs are written, Ganes brings to the table a work in progress and the current lineup goes to work on them.

“I” and Stereolab are interchangeable for Ganes, who makes deliberately unclear exactly how these songs evolve, yet clearly minimizing Sadier’s ultimate, enduring contributions. A great singer is always going to be amongst the best music listeners and Sadier is so inherently vital to the finished product that it is not possible she isn’t an essential presence throughout, enriching and expanding the music in ways Gane cannot have anticipated when his works in progress face the Sterolathe.

Saider: “A very strong particularity for a lot of people, is the sound of my voice.”

Few are the fans who close their eyes and meditate on Gane when they listen to Stereolab, and bask in their hallucinogenic-afterglowing tracer grip on the universe.

“I was always brought up thinking about Europe rather than being brought up French. We live.”

Sadler has the kind of voice where listeners start leaning toward the speakers at her strange vowel pronunciations the deciphering and guessing at of which adds yet another blessed layer of absorption. Chanting or dive bombing, flying on her melodic trapeze, she deliberately avoids technical or operatic singing, focusing her yummiest of voices instead on an even-ness and pitch perfection and tampering with conventional note placement.. On some songs, with some electronic assistance sometimes it is like you’re watching her voice at the only non butt-rock planetarium laser show in town. You can read the lyrics and play the “how will she pronounce the vowel sounds” game. Sadier can’t help it. She says she thinks her voice is very much like a trombone.

With her dulcet warble, she is an identity, not a voice. She seems like the most intelligent and beguiling girl at the party, and the most modest and thereby the winningest.

Sadier: “I personally like within the right sort of range the sound of guitars and keyboards. I just respond to that. I think that life is too short to be working with new technology. It is not that I dislike it or anything, but I don’t have the time to explore it. I like drums as well.”

Sadier: “I don’t really like hip hop. I have to admit I don’t see the interest. Most of the chart stuff is quite rudimentary, not melodic.”

The liberation Sadier wants for herself (and by automatic extension, her listeners) is without limit and at times seems realized beyond question.

Sadier: “Basically I think we should be aware of what we are. Be aware of the monster that we can be. You should reach out for that monster, look after and respect it. Chances are, we could be more at ease with life.”

Some curiosity can be quenched by listening to her previous, excellent band, Monade, in which Sadier had the creative songwriting outlet she sometimes found frustrating not having in Stereolab. Sadier says she has benefited from the band she has called “The Tim Gane school of how to make music.”

“It’s good but at the same time I like to write songs too and I was at a time of my life in 1996 when I formed Monade when I wanted to do just that.” Sadier’s songwriting is great. She can’t not be great. And there are guitars (praise be!) and her voice is enthralling. Monade sometimes sounds even better than Stereolab.

Tim Gane’s ability to elude in interviews the troublesome condition of his mind being in the same universe as his person, consistently underscores his wise choice in delegating lyrical responsibilities to Sadier, whose interviews often read like lyrics. Diplomatic and serene and consistently, unpretentiously thoughtful.

She is that rare interviewee who doesn’t sound pretentious when she says the lyrics are yours to interpret.

For lyrics Sadier chooses English or French based on what she thinks is right for each song. Regarding France: “We don’t have an audience there at all. We have a bigger one in Italy, England, and America, but in France they decided they didn’t like us. They are anti-Stereolab.”

Her lyrics help one to confront idiotically indulgent, morose tendencies and self-produced miseries alike, and are guaranteed to help make lonely and impoverished times more tolerable.

Sadier is a big fan of Brigitte Fontaine’s album Prohibition, which Nicolas Sarkozy banned because “he doesn’t like the truth so much being so well put.” Sadier on Sun Carriage: “Great band. Beautiful songs by alcoholics.”

Lyrically, though she certainly provides some provocative imagery and clever poetical flourishes, she wisely, for this music, maintains an elect opacity, writing in a way where you aren’t sure if you might be hearing intercepted conversations or a perchance interlopingly observed soliloquies from unaware solitary figures.

Sadier is not out to prove how smart she is. There is no need. For the most part even rare clumsy lyrics, have a deliberate vagueness and sloppiness. Sometimes I have no idea what she is talking about, and I like that too. Sadier has said she doesn’t see why there should be a difference between magic and science and when she takes unwieldy syllabic strings of textual eyesores (you read some of the lyrics and think, “There’s no way”) and astonishingly fastens them perfectly in her vocal lines and further still, into compelling melodies, there isn’t.

Sadier addresses issues we should be much more concerned about than we seem. In her lyrics, and (maybe even more impassionedly,) in her interviews, with adroit, evangelical aplomb. We are made aware of her social and political concerns what her in stripped-down and completely unpretentious keen and direct language, exactly the opposite of the previously alluded to TV heads.

With songs so sumptuously sprawling in constantly evolving patterns it would be a mistake to have lyrics too precise to confine and limit possible interpretation. It would also spoil the fun of thinking about them and how selfless, yet taut with of fiery ego-harnessed attitudinal artistry they are. Win win.

Sadier. Unflinching intellectual vessel of radicalist positivity, decrying stupidity. She is a humanist, something that has become uncool. She charges, roping the miscreants of folly, with her lasso of impartial justice in a way that is quite nice.

Sadier is meditation instructor, counselor and confidant. She consoles you with lullabies. She can talk you through the pain of loss and illness, cheer you up, nurse you back to health, kick you in the ass when you accept less than truth and the honor-bound burden of determinedly following a spirituality that is difficult by definition. She makes it look easy and if you yet struggle to recover from dark days, she is a godsend. She can even teach you to be a man.

Saider on her oft-perceived “Marxist” lyrics: “I never read Marx, so I can’t claim to be a Marxist, but I know that there are principles in Marxism I agree with, strong points about discovering how the system works, and the hope that one day the capitalist system will be made obsolete, and another more human one will emerge.”

Could it just be that thinking people with the rare and blissful ability to make complex and abstract ideas approachable, tend to intersect one another, and other thinking people tend to notice?

What she does for her young and thoughtful fans is exemplary. They cannot help become more thoughtful and communicative and empowered through sustained appreciation for this workhorse music which thanklessly elevates listeners and prepares them for much better music than they have learned to expect, and hence for better lives.

Sadier makes you think. This can produce miracles in the same way the part of Stereolab’s splendor derived from classical music may draw the intimidated into the light. Chamber music changed my world when I felt too ignorant to even try to appreciate classical music — and it is also part of this band.

For the guitar-centric, alien Stereolab sounds can provide a welcome break from guityrrany (recording guitars all the time will drive you probably even more crazy than electronic recording because there is so much going on with overtones and incidental noises and feedback and more), Those rarest of birds in the Lab, real guitars, are viewed as a glimpse of an oasis through desert-baked, famished eyes.

When you get up close and personal with Stereolab some of the awe re-balances from Gane’s consistently singular part creation onto the way he can completely airlift other people’s music and festoon some goodies on there and have it sound new and extra-disguised. Masterful. Gane can drop the ball or haltingly channel the tastes of a self-shaming circus geek. Sometimes the super-imposed upon, original, Thomas Kinkade painting, looms at the foreground.

Having tampered with the imaginations and dreams of our young people who encompass the only future we can all want to share with one other, we imagine there are stimulus starved precocious youngsters listening, who will inevitably feel a delayed debts of gratitude towards this music, which pre-filters and organizes a great deal of important music tradition and fosters significant growth. Better things will happen. There is greater undiscovered music en route yet.

In the words of a powerful, no-bullshit music industry executive: “If you think music owes you something, just accept that you’re a hobbyist.” As desperately as I want to tell Ganes it doesn’t, music does owe this band something.

Yet Stereolab make little money unless they tour; like so many things people used to be able to do for a living, profits to be made from selling one’s music are scant and shrinking. Something is broken in the music industry.

Stereolab could practice better quality checking and may release too much music, but they are one of the greatest bands there has ever been. It is unreal how good some of these songs are, and how varied. There are times when, to my ears, they cannot be improved upon. It could be more technical, but this band has ears for instrument playing suited to the song, like real bands do, all the way up to where it becomes indulgent and they very seldom cross it, and sometimes couldn’t.

Comments

  • peng!

    this is one of the worst articles on a band i have ever read.

  • peng!

    seriously.