For a band whose “sound” is, at least to its fans and serious observers, instantly recognizable regardless of album or song, Stereolab is surprisingly mercurial. Listen closely to any two of their albums back to back, and the differences between them will begin to reveal themselves. The instruments are balanced differently; their owners play with rhythm like Maceo played with James Brown. They paint with a broad palette of tone and mood; they wrestle with a broad range of social issues. Try to pin them down on their much-vaunted ideological concerns, and they’ll make a quick, slithering turn out from under you, claiming, as Tim Gane did during our conversation, that they never felt the way you deduced they felt. You’ve been misled. You’re mistaken. Boom, flash, look at the monkey. Stereolab has slipped away again.
And yet, they remain recognizable, almost iconically so, because, wherever they wander, they’re sure to leave clues to their whereabouts. While perhaps not card-carrying Commies, they do — or at least, vocalist Laetitia Sadier’s lyrics do — consistently espouse a firmly left-of-center stance on everything from the efficacy of war in resolving international disputes (see: “Ping Pong” from Mars Audiac Quintet or “Les Yper Sound” from Emperor Tomato Ketchup) to the merits of socialized medicine (or rather, the lack of merit in most things commercial). Heavy shit, all of it, but rendered light as gossamer by their musical arrangements, which borrow liberally (small “l”) from Latin jazz, exotica, modern composition, avant garde electronic music and, yes, good ol’ rock ‘n’ pop. Heavy lyrics, digestible tunes. That’s the key right there: subversion is Stereoloab’s calling card.
That’s what audiences identify when the group plays live. It has to be, because Stereolab sounds different every time it plays; the last time the group made the trek from its native England (vocalist Sadier is from France) to play the Belly Up (in November of 1999), it leaned heavily on synths, laying down a smooth, slightly jazzy drone that coated the venue in rich warmth. And when it returned to town this past November, to showcase the songs from its most recent album, Sound Dust, it stripped back the Moogs and favored slightly bouncier, grittier arrangements heavier on guitar and more aggressive in their musical attack. Not punk, but not lounge. Maybe the best word would be “poignant,” since their punch and vibe and lyrical bent favor the current schizophrenic mood of the world right now: we’re desperate for hard news, but equally desperate for “comfort food” entertainment. Stereolab may be the only group in the world capable of satisfying both urges at once. Still, it remains resistant to convenient analysis, as Gane made deceptively clear to us during our little chat.
Listen to the full interview:
Sean Flinn: The first questions I have deal with the new album, Sound Dust. How long did you guys spend putting it together? Did you approach it differently than previous albums – and if so, how?
Tim Gane: OK, the first part of the first question, the answer is: about four months, four-and-a-half months, something around about that. We were there [in Chicago, at Soma Electronic Music Studio] from October  through to February recording and mixing. We came back [to England, where they reside] for Christmas and New Year’s. It’s about the same as what we normally do, or have done on the last three or four records – maybe two weeks longer or a week longer. But our way of working is really kind of slow, so it seems like a long time. We don’t have the songs written other than very basic stuff written on a cassette recorder, which contains a lot of the stuff that you’ll hear, but it’s never rehearsed and the other guys don’t get to hear it until we go in there. So it’s just a question of a lot of that time you’re spending thinking about what to do and how to approach it.
The second part would be: it’s very difficult to ascertain, for me, whether we approached the record in the same way, because in a technical way, a practical way, they’re always the same. I write the music kind of loosely. I just write the basic chords, melodies, sometimes bass, sometimes little instrumental things — but pretty simple — and I try to keep it open. So, in terms of how I did it, I did it the same: I did it on a cassette recorder, and so on. But in terms of, like, an idea of the sound or a concept of the sound, it’s different. Every record is different. The methodology is, I’m trying to think of new ways to approach ideas that I have and ideas that I want to come back to, I suppose, but I’m always trying to put them in a new way or a slightly different language or a slightly different environment. So, I think that the basic beginning point is always very different. It depends on how you look at it.
I know you recently told Play Louder magazine that you’d designed Sound Dust to be a little bit more approachable, as opposed to something like Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, which you had dubbed – at least in this interview – as being a little too introspective and a little too long.
Yeah, but I mean … that’s true, but in the sense that what I was trying to say was that I don’t judge [Cobra and Phases …] badly for being that. I’m just saying that that’s what it was and that’s what came out at the time, because that’s how we were, and that’s what comes out. I don’t judge records on a scale of commerciality or approachability. On this record, I just felt that a lot of what people said about the last record is that it was a bit sprawling and a bit long. It’s true. But it was OK for that record, I think. Maybe in that respect I would have changed it, but being retrospective about it is kind of pointless – you just do what you feel at the time. But I didn’t want to just do that again, so I did have an idea of – well, it wasn’t just me, it was Laetitia as well, and everyone – that we’d maybe try and keep it to around an hour or so, so people have a chance to be able to get into the music and not find it such an epic Charlton Heston movie.
That was it, really. There was no real attempt to make things more approachable in terms of the music. The music came out how it came out – and I don’t know what’s going to come out. So the idea that we’d make a record to be more commercial or sell more records is never true and certainly wasn’t true of this record, because I just don’t know what going to happen. It’s really just work from a very intuitive level, and I’m not thinking of audience or thinking of opinions or thinking of record labels or record sales. It just absolutely doesn’t enter my head.
What is it about Sean O’ Hagan that keep you guys coming back for more? I know, from what I’ve read recently at least, that you guys really kind of share a fondness for the Beach Boys – but what is it about his working style that draws you back to him as a producer?
I think he’s amazing because he’s very able to tune into ideas quite precisely and, without lots of explanation, really get to the heart or the essence of an idea just by listening to something. He’s very enthusiastic, and he’s very good at tweaking and adding some layers and levels to ideas which were already there in order to make them blossom out – and he always does it very intuitively, or in tune with the ideas that I have. So for instance on this record, he came over and played a lot of keyboards and so on – which were the chords [that Tim had written beforehand] – but he’s great with keyboards. I don’t play the keyboards, I just play the guitar, so I’m trying to say, “Well this is this, but I’m trying to have this feel from it which is not the same as this version of it.” And he understands that! He’s always trying to go with that, and it’s very good to have him say what he thinks. We have good conversations about stuff like that. He knows very much how I work, and he’s very quick in understanding things. He’s amazing. I don’t know anyone who’s as quick as him.And, for instance, on this record, I had an idea of the brass — it wasn’t what the brass was playing, but I kind of wanted a statuesque column of brass coming in at one point on the first song, against kind of floaty music. And I might say that, but I don’t actually do that. He does that. But when he came back with the [arrangement], it was more than I wanted. He’s just good at progressing with the ideas as well. I think it’s a shame that, in talking with people, they get the idea that Sean and Jim O’Rourke and John MacIntyre have this one thing that they do, and you can go to them for that reason. And that’s not true. They’re able to turn their hands at any kind of stuff, really, and try to find what is the best, or most interesting way forward.
I really think that, when we are actually working with these people, it’s totally different than what people imagine. We don’t use Sean because we want a harmony / Beach Boys thing, we don’t use John because we want a Chicago sound, and we don’t want Jim because we want a late ’60s West Coast arrangement style. We use them because they have very interesting ideas, and they’re very good players and we have a good time and they’re good friends. I couldn’t think of other people more suitable for us to use, you know? And it’s not because we want to keep doing the same thing. I think all the records we’ve made with John are, sonically, very different. I don’t see that Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Dots and Loops and Cobra … and Sound Dust are that closely aligned, sonically. I think they’re all quite different.
Cobra … it was a real hard slog to get anything out of that record technically, because we had to record it in London and the studio we found was actually someone’s house. And when we got there, the gear was totally full of MIDI music. So we had to change absolutely everything, and buy stuff and re-boot it. And, it there were just so many technical problems to overcome. I don’t think the first week we spent with Jim anything was recorded. It was all just trying to make things work. So that album suffered a little bit, in my opinion, sonically just because it was such a struggle to overcome basic things. And when we actually got around to doing the music, it was like, “Whatever. Just get on with it. It sounds fine. It’s not right, but I want to get something done because in two weeks we’ve done a couple of drums and we need to get nervous about it.”
I imagine, too, that working with these guys, after doing a couple projects with them, just gets easier and easier, as you get more in tune with one another.
Yeah – I mean, you don’t try to do it to be easy. You try to keep the level of difficulty up, but what I do mean is that you don’t have to explain. It’s so good not to have to explain at all points what you’re trying to do. Or, “No, I don’t like that. Can you lose that please?” Because so many engineers just do that, and we have very particular tastes. And John and Jim are very in tune. It doesn’t mean that they don’t suggest things that we wouldn’t normally use. They do. But they know what seems to work given certain situation as opposed to just having one set of ideals which they always go by, like, “Vocals must always be recorded through this, music this, and drums must always be gated …” I mean, you do what’s necessary to achieve an idea that you have, and the thing is, with the ideas, they’re pretty obviously there and they understand them without us having to talk them through it. I do have a talk with them vaguely at the beginning a little bit, on and off, just vaguely what I’m thinking of. But from listening to music, and some small explanation, it all comes from that.
It seems like a good time to get into what I’ve seen at least a few reviewers peg as “Stereolab’s instantly identifiable sound.” The four albums that you mentioned before don’t bear a whole huge resemblance to one another …
Sonically, no. There’re so many ways of approaching this, but after reading so many reviews or speaking to many interviewers, I identify three areas where there is a communication problem or a misunderstanding. One is sonically. One is stylistically. And one is content. They’re three simple things. When I talk about music, I usually talk about it in terms of content, because they’re obviously ideas that sprung from me.
Most reviewers tend to talk about them stylistically: What does it sound like? Does it have guitars? Does it have electronics or Moogs? Does it have this type of vocal or that type of vocal or blah blah blah. To me, that’s just arrangements. That’s stuff that you do to bring out an idea. And whether a record has synthesizers or no synthesizers doesn’t alter the fact that I’m thinking of it in terms of content.
So some people like Dots and Loops, or think Dots and Loops is better than, say, this one or better than Cobra…, because they like it stylistically. They like the certain sound that’s on that record. To me, those songs are no better than the ones we’re doing now. And if we did the ones now in a Dots and Loops style, I’m sure they’d go over well. But to me, I’m trying to keep up a level of interest in terms of content, and how we decide to do it is on the spur of the moment. I decided I didn’t really want to use so many electronics and heavy organs and keyboards and guitars – the guitars had kind of gone away a bit anyway for a while – simply for practical reasons. I wanted to have some quite subtle arrangements and I wanted them to be heard. I didn’t want them fighting to be heard. And I wanted the music to be slightly impressionistic or blurred and not precise, exactly, because that’s the kind of ideas I was thinking of. So I thought that, to avoid all of these things that fill up a lot of space, you’d be able to hear things a little bit more. It’s not because the record is more commercial or we’re not using electronics anymore or whatever. It’s not done for those reasons. I’m not some kind of Machiavellian figure who kind of has all these ulterior motives for everything. It’s really, like, simple. It’s simple. And I think sometimes you have to think simple first, without trying to …
Yeah. It’s our fault. We’ve kind of set it up so that people overanalyze what we do – certainly in terms of the music.
I guess the plus of that is, if the message boards on your Website are any clue, you do tend to attract a fairly intelligent fan base, if opinionated.
I don’t know. I’ve never read them. I can’t bear to read them. I did try to read them a couple of times once, years ago – we had a Website back in, like, ’93. It was not run by us, but I tried to read some [of the message board posts] and just said, “Oh, I can’t!” It’s like reading someone’s private letters or something. I find it really squeamish.
Well, you’ve talked a lot about the studio and the craft of the albums, and I’m wondering how much actual studio wizardry might go on on the albums, and whether or not that makes it difficult to bring some of the music to the live performances. I mean, I know there are certain things — like string arrangements – that you can’t bring on stage with you. Does that make it difficult to communicate the vision that you had in making the record to the stage?
I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think we’re trying to do the same thing. We approach it from the point of view of getting close to what’s going on with the records in terms of what the notes and chords are. But how we do it live is quite different. In a live situation, it’s much more about more direct communication of the ideas. I think we tend to err more towards kind of a groove or more simplistic presentation; not so many parts, not so many thrills and trills.
I find that the songs mostly work – not all of them – but the songs mostly work in a sort of stripped-down way, because I think that [playing] live is a different experience, and we can’t hope to match the certain number of things that are going on on a record. But when we can duplicate, for instance, the string section or the brass or whatever with another instrument, we’ll do so, and I think it works. There’s a danger of reducing everything to sort of some punk-like things, and I suppose we kind of sprung from a punk background, so live, there is more of that element than there is on the record. Some people prefer the live sound. It’s more alike the records that they prefer – there’re more guitars. It’s heavy.
And that’s fine. I don’t to be false about it. It’s what we’ve managed to come up with. To be honest, this tour was quite difficult to do. One of the main reasons is we don’t like rehearsing. And the other reason is, we can’t seem to get our act together very well to perform well. [Laughs]. But I think actually when we start playing it live in front of people, then we really kind of focus on what we need to do, and what’s missing. It gradually evolves over the tour from the first concert we did in Eindhover, Holland to this one now, it’s like 12 weeks’ difference. And I think a lot of the songs have evolved a very large amount in that time, and I think they work pretty well – as well as any of our stuff has worked. But because we mix it always old song and other songs, it’s not like were trying to do this kind of endurance test. It’s never like that. I don’t want to play like that. We’re not avant garde or anything in that sense. I just want to mix everything we’ve done up to now. And we don’t do remixed, updated versions. We pretty much just do what on the album.
Do you guys give yourselves any leeway to improvise on stage at all?
Yeah. I mean, as I said before, a lot of the songs evolved. We kind of fulminate forms of improvisation: “Oh, we’ll let this go a bit, or we’ll cut this bit.” Kind of on that level But most – maybe six gigs out of 10 – we’ll kind of actually improvise a lot, maybe 20 minutes just totally free … usually towards the end or one from the end. We kind of did it all the time for two or three years, and now I think we do it more selectively; it tends to be more often than not. It just depends on the vibe or the moment. And sometimes we play and we think, “It doesn’t need that.” It depends what’s missing. What you feel is missing.
I wanted to talk a little bit about how often you guys release albums. It seems like you put something out every year – at least a full-length album with several singles in there in between. I’m really curious to know how you guys maintain the energy and the inspiration and the stamina to write, record, release and then tour that much material. Or does it even feel like you’re doing anything frequently? Does it just feel natural?
It depends. I don’t feel it that much, personally. I mean, I think that a lot of people might feel it more than me, so you’d have to ask them, but I don’ think … we haven’t recorded anything for a year – since we recorded the LP. I mean nothing. I recorded a tour single downstairs on the computer, just messing about. But I don’t know if we do a lot. A lot of the releases are sometimes compilations of stuff that we’ve done before. Like, maybe a few months old. But it’s true that in the early days, we did knock out quite a large amount regularly. And I think it’s just a question of us really trying to just enjoy working and doing the music. I mean, why we want to do music is because we want to do music. It’s not because of all the other things that some bands fell they’re forced to do. We tour a lot because we don’t present ourselves for videos or for marketing, entertainment magazine type things. We present ourselves or promote the record – if that’s the way you want to look at it-by playing live. So it’s to do with the music. That’s why we’re doing it. It kind of sounds stupid, but –
— it makes sense. You do what you do because you like to do it.
And the rest of the stuff is pushed to the back. I don’t know if other bands do do that. But also, I write very, very quickly. Most of this LP was probably written in a four or five week period with a gap of two weeks, and then I came back and did the rest in maybe 10 days. And there was a lot more material than we actually ended up using. Once I get an idea or something, I tend to be quite quick. And, theoretically, there’s probably enough [left over from the Sound Dust demos] to do another mini album of stuff that we never ended up doing.
Do you tend to do that? Do you tend to take material that you haven’t used on the album and then try to re-use it somewhere else?
Occasionally, yeah. Occasionally we just don’t get around to something – something that I really feel is not really developed and we’re running out of time and have to come back to it. And sometimes I’ll just listen to stuff occasionally that I’ve forgotten and think, “Oh, that’s quite nice.,” or “That’s not really – but this bit here is good, so I’ll take a sample and use it.” But I don’t do it very much. I mean, generally, when we do a record, I tend to just do it at the moment, because sometimes the ideas are kind of … you know, you’re done with it. You listen to it and you go, “Well, yeah, that does sound like that record, and we’ve done that record.” If I can’t feel like I can change it, I just leave it. It has to be pretty good for me to use it again.
There has been a lot of discussion about the group’s political stance on a lot of issues. Do you think critics make too much of that?
I don’t know. There’re elements there, but the way they tend to construe it is almost totally tabloid. There are degrees of subtlety or ideas that don’t have any particular way of generalizing, and they still try to generalize. So all of those labels – the ones you know and everyone knows – I don’t agree with them because they’re not true. I don’t think that way, I’ve never thought that way, and it’s kind of a bit annoying to have people telling you how you are, and then when you say, “Well, no.” And they come back with, “Well, you must be as people say,” or “You’re trying to wiggle out of it.” I’m not wiggling out of it. That’s just the way it is.
On the other hand, there are certain elements of what we do and the way we approach doing what we do and how we conduct ourselves that are different from others, and I think can be an example of how not to do things – you know: how to succeed in the music industry bullcrap, how to decide to pick the things you find relevant. I mean, is that political? I have lots of discussions about it, but I find that we’re just people who think about things. I thought about things way before I was in the group – I’m not particularly an intellectual person, but you do think about things. It’s just normal. So I feel like I have to explain what is just being normal to me. Everyone has points of view, everyone has opinions, but they’re not set in stone. They’re evolving and changing and if someone has a counter point, we’ll say, “Yeah! Yeah.”
It seems like fluid ideas, or the ideas that somebody can have a dynamic world view is very inconvenient for a lot of the press. They want to pigeonhole you.
That’s the problem! We’re kind of self-referenced all the time because we make it difficult for them. But they still do it. But it’s not difficult for them. It’s difficult, I think, to look at things and understand what the language is they’re speaking, and if you want to get to the heart of something, you have to give up some of your preconceptions. But I think that most people who write about music just want to fill some paper. They’re not really interested in getting to the heart of something. Otherwise, they wouldn’t write what they write. I mean, some people are very perceptive and others are, unfortunately, hacks. Not yourself included – I have no idea what you’re going to write about – but in general, especially in reviews, it’s like these people aren’t very intelligent. I don’t mean that intelligence is always what you need, but I if you’re going to be a writer, you have to try and understand, to try to get to some essential quality of who you’re writing about. It’s like a photographer for instance. A magazine only accepts glamorous photos of people, even if the ones that are not glamorous are showing the people much more how they really are. And that’s the way I see it: you show the one which is closest at that point in time to what the person is. The same with writing stuff.
I guess that’s the great crux of art in general – is it supposed to be expressive, is it supposed to be entertaining, or is supposed to be anything? Should you put a “supposed” in front of “art?” It kind of defines whether people are making art or whether they’re making pop.
It makes a point of being pointless.