The Strange World Of… Stereolab

From DIY beginnings in McCarthy, to situationism, to establishing the influential Duophonic Records, to influencing future bands like Deerhunter, Lottie Brazier charts the remarkable voyage of one of France and Britain’s most successful co-achievements besides the Channel Tunnel: Stereolab

Stereolab play Green Man festival this August

As Repeater Books’ Post Punk Then And Now describes, the conditions were highly fertile in the early 1980s for radical politics to be expressed through DIY bands. Higher education was fully state funded and this levelled the playing field for many young people in the country at the time who wanted to make art. Bands became their own “world making machines”, opening up ways of having fun with other people that didn’t have to cost much money. Born out of radical leftist Barking-based band McCarthy, the French-British band Stereolab seized on this idea more than most. Guitarist Tim Gane met his Stereolab co-founder and partner, the French singer and multi-instrumentalist Lætitia Sadier through the band. Stereolab was formed during McCarthy’s split in 1990, and from 1993 the band would include the singular, highly inventive guitarist Mary Hansen, one of the band’s longest members who tragically died in a road accident in 2002 after having recorded six albums with them.

Despite their shared leftism, the politics (and the aesthetic reference points) of Stereolab are more finely woven than those you’d find on a McCarthy record. Unlike McCarthy, Stereolab never identified their stance as Marxist, with Lætitia Sadier expressing to press that the Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis (a leftist critical of Marxism) was more of an influence on her thinking and lyrics. More outward-facing than McCarthy’s C86 jangle, the music of Stereolab itself contains a melting pot of influences which unfold throughout their discography including (but not limited to) vintage synthesisers, noise, The Beach Boys, Brazilian Tropicalia, surrealism and mod culture.

Their album Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night is possibly inspired by situationist avant garde group COBRA and their song lyrics contain numerous allusions to both modernism and post-modernism. Assessment of their lyrics on a philosophical rather than poetic basis is though, admittedly, a bit of a minefield.

Because of this jumbled up bricolage approach Stereolab can’t be described as didactic – their lyrics are never explicit enough for that – often carried along by the aloof softness of Lætitia Sadier’s voice, sometimes as though absentmindedly reading the back of a cereal box. This, teamed with once uncool muzak influences that originally frustrated some critics the first time they were heard, resulted in the NME dishing out an infamous 0/10 review of Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night. Even the name Stereolab, taken from a subdivision of Vanguard Records that worked with hi-fi special effects, hints at the whole project being an experiment, “Surrealchemists” distancing themselves from 90s US acts that seemed a lot more raw and self-expressive, like Nirvana or Jeff Buckley.

Stereolab now appear a precursor to record labels such as PC Music and their artists like Hannah Diamond and SOPHIE’s first singles that tap into a sense of being enclosed in hyper-stylised, queasily reflexive, vacuum packed atmospheres of the consumer “driven” internet and attempting to express what it’s like to be immersed in that. For Hannah Diamond, it’s the state (not even necessarily her state) of being in a teenage bedroom on the internet, scrolling absentmindedly through social media posts, or perhaps speculatively Spotify playlists rife with “chill” muzak now, ironically, popular. By tapping into muzak aka elevator music as a musical reference point long before vapourwave or the Spotify playlist, Stereolab help you to imagine those mundane intermittent episodes of waiting in which it is still occasionally played: lifts, waiting rooms, when you’re told to “please hold” while trying to get in touch with HMRC. Like Jacques Tati’s 1967 comedy PlayTime with its modish cubicle living, Stereolab’s music is haunted by a consumerism and corporatisation waiting to get out of hand.

And by celebrating ghosts of boredoms past, Deerhunter also become natural follow-ons to Stereolab: not only citing them as a direct musical influence, visually they engage with a washed out xerox hauntology that became resurrected through the Retromania of 10s blog culture. Disrupting our sense of time and space, they fixed short-lived memories in a Tumblr GIF loop on songs like ‘Basement Scene’ (“I don’t want to get old, I don’t want to get old, I don’t want to get old…”) and ‘Memory Boy’. Lætitia Sadier was a guest on Atlas Sound’s ‘Quick Canal’, Bradford Cox’s solo project similarly named after vintage music technology. Incidentally, Deerhunter were my introduction to Stereolab, besides a gateway into ambient music and experimental rock bands like Can. I loved Stereolab instantly, which should have been at odds with the fact that it took me a while to warm to the Continental philosophy that inspired them.

After having going on hiatus from roughly 2009 on, Stereolab members have since worked on other projects, such as Tim Gane and Joe Dilworth’s Cavern of Anti-Matter. This year they’re back to together and touring once more, with their Primavera Sound performance being their first since 2009. So what better time than now to acquaint/reacquaint yourself with their discography.

‘Should The Bible Be Banned’ by McCarthy (1988)

As McCarthy’s sixth single, ’Should The Bible Be Banned’ may not be a Stereolab song but it’s an early example of Sadier/Gane sonic forces before they were writing their own material. The song follows the story of a copycat killer following the story of Cain and Abel, forcing a Plato’s Republic-esque ethical dilemma onto the public of whether Bible should be banned if it is going to inspire future similar acts of homicide. In an interview with Louder Than War, McCarthy’s songwriter Malcolm Eden suggested that this satire of reductio ad absurdum literature banning should perhaps be covered by Miley Cyrus. Strangely enough though, the phrase ‘Should The Bible Be Banned’ is a pretty hook, and the outro lifts off dramatically with Sadier’s subtle introduction. More jangly than Neu! inspired, it’s easy to see how Gane’s approach to guitar playing was transformed by the formation of Stereolab. But there are also some continuities here as well — there’s still a chiming quality in his 12 string guitar, and a kind of lo-fi noisiness which is present in early Stereolab records.

‘French Disko’ (1993)

I first remember seeing ‘French Disko’ on YouTube, on a music programme that I’m personally much too young to have seen the first time it aired, a British 90s series called The Word designed to replace The Tube. Originally released at the end of 1993 on Stereolab’s first Elektra release, the EP Jenny Ondioline, the song charted at no. 75. Scantily clad male dancers and special effects aside, their guest appearance on The Word was an excellent introduction to them at their most musically immediate. Here the motorik beat of ‘French Disko’ (adopted as much from the Velvet Underground as German bands like Can or NEU!) has an urgency far more apparent than on the original EP recording. There’s an addictiveness to it similar to that of ‘What Goes On’ by VU, with lyrics that turn the absurdist existentialism of Camus into a heart-pumping rhetorical cry for personal freedom. “Even though the world is essentially an absurd place to live in it doesn’t call for bubble withdrawal”, Sadier intones over droning synth and guitar, before her self-consciously Gallic cheer of “La Résistance”. There’s nothing gloomy about this performance: following in the footsteps of their situationist influences, Stereolab are as playful as disobedient children onstage. Their buoyancy makes me think of the situationist Eventstructure Research Group, attempting to separate the act of play from commodification and instead framing it as an act of radical spontaneity and non-conformism.

‘Jenny Ondioline’ (1993)

Named after the electronic keyboard synth, invented by Georges Jenny, this song’s title is fairly misleading in that Stereolab never actually used this model of synth on the album it’s featured on, their second album Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements released in 1993. This is perhaps somewhat to do with their post-modernist aesthetic tendencies – their ripping up of expressions, words, sound bites, musical styles and repurposing of them. Early on Stereolab were a lot rougher around the edges in their approach to this and ‘Jenny Ondioline’ is 18 minutes long, opening and closing its segments with an untethered fuzzed out riff which sounds closer to My Bloody Valentine than anything else. And even at this point in their evolution Stereolab are deceptively odd in their approach to structure, despite the repetitiveness of their churning guitar and droning synths.

Barely audible on an initial listen, Sadier sings during the first half of the song: “Life on Earth is a bloody hazard, it’s a fact / I don’t care if the fascists have to win / I don’t care democracy’s being fucked / I don’t care socialism’s full of sin.” These are difficult lines to get through to, but to me it sounds like an anti-utopian sentiment – that there cannot be a perfect, incorruptible socialist state – but this isn’t a call for passivity, either, a resigned acceptance of a fascist takeover. This latter sentiment manifests especially during the lightest section of the song which introduces itself around the 7:24 mark, featuring a line, repeated like a mantra, “We got to keep the lift, hope and struggle.” This sense of keeping going characterises even the structure of the song, in their maintaining of the mantra of NEU!’s “play monotonous” across the track’s 18 minutes the band must have had discipline, patience, steadiness.

Duophonic Records

Duophonic Ultra High Frequency Disks Limited, or Duophonic Records for short, was a record label established by Stereolab in 1991. It featured many bands which would go on to be associated with Stereolab’s own penchant for analog synthesizers and library music such as Broadcast, The High Llamas, Tortoise, Pram and Yo La Tengo. Now, the label supports releases from Stereolab and Gane’s new project Cavern of Anti-Matter with one of Stereolab’s past drummers Joe Dilworth (also of Th’ Faith Healers) and Holger Zapf. It was through this label that Stereolab also released their first record, the ‘Super 45’ 10” which was a mail order limited to only 880 copies. Although also established by Sadier and Gane, the label is managed by Stereolab’s manager Martin Pike.

‘Les Yper-Sound’ from Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996)

Released on their fourth studio album Emperor Tomato Ketchup in 1996, ’Les Yper-Sound’ marks a time in the Stereolab discography when they experienced a surge in popularity both commercially and critically. It comes as no surprise: here their steady timing is now matched with a keener feel for melody, structure and space between instrumentation. The bass is soft, barely there, playing tasteful contrast to chugging guitar and washes of synth melody that colour Sadier’s vocals. Every instrument has space to breathe while working comprehensively, no tone is wasted. You cannot complain about self-indulgence on this record. Sadier is just as economical lyrically, with the political sentiment here simpler, clearer, and her sounding calm and in control of the delivery of the message. It’s hard to pick out a particular favourite from Emperor Tomato Ketchup as every song sounds in full flower; Stereolab’s layers of synth, guitar and vocal become breezy and glowing, their 60s chamber pop touches lush and well arranged. In terms of sound, it’s Stereolab at their most realised and also relaxed: this record sounds through and through like it was a joy to make.

‘Simple Headphone Mind’ (1997) with Nurse With Wound

‘Simple Headphone Mind’, a song which Stereolab and Nurse With Wound collaborated on, is possibly the antithesis to the song discussed above. It’s a counter to the idea that listening to Stereolab has to be an intellectual challenge. ‘Simple Headphone Mind’ is a song made out of 100 percent pure cashmere, the result of Stereolab sorting out a basic track and passing it on to Steven Stapleton of Nurse With Wound to do with it what he wished. Continuing the slickness of Emperor Tomato Ketchup released a year previous, the stereo image here is pretty fucking incredible and has to be listened to on headphones to be really appreciated – rather than acting as a sonic onslaught, it’s seductively infiltrating the space around your head. If you shut your eyes, it’s hard to pinpoint where you are in this song: bird tweets collapse into slurring analogue synths, before finally reaching its sluggish conclusion, the repetition of the ominous, yet bizarrely relaxing phrase “MILKY WHITE” as though you’re coming out of the end of a very long tunnel and seeing daylight for the first time. Who can really say. Stereolab and Nurse With Wound aren’t going to spell it out for you.

Kybernetická Babička Pt. 1 (2005)

A criticism of Stereolab such as the one found in that shoe-pieing of Cobra And Phases Play Voltage In The Milky Night by the NME is that they are emotionless, boring. There’s nothing that captures this more in their catalogue than 2005’s ‘Kybernetická Babička Pt. 1’, with aggressively looping brass, synths and Sadier’s voice into a locked groove, a stylus caught in a scratch on a record — forever. After the death of guitarist Mary Hansen in 2002, it’s safe to say that Stereolab changed with the lack of her highly distinctive, noise driven guitar experiments. The song title is in fact extremely topical to today’s AI anxieties, as its Czech name translates to ‘The Cybernetic Grandma’ and refers to a 1962 Czechoslovakian sci-fi puppet animation short wherein humans are coaxed into machine control. If my aesthetic preferences weren’t completely deranged, I’d probably point out this release as being the most irritating song that Stereolab has ever written. But there was a time in my life where I found myself revisiting ‘Kybernetická Babička Pt. 1’ frequently, finding something reassuring in the bleep of its emotional flatlining. It probably has a similar appeal to Anna Meredith’s ‘Nautilus’ in its relentless persistence, with repetition of honking brass elevated to something almost transcendentally grating and as a result absolutely unforgettable. The tedium of an early 00s ringtone that high school children would have at one point tortured each other with. This Strange World Of… therefore comes with a warning that ’Kybernetická Babička Pt. 1’ will always be wedged in your head after hearing it, hypnotised by the machines.

‘Quick Canal’ by Atlas Sound (2009)

In an interview with Under The Radar Mag, Sadier and Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox discuss the making of ‘Quick Canal’ which featured on Atlas Sound solo album Logos, with Sadier originally “stunned by the beauty of [his] voice, and thought, ‘Oh wow, I’d love to sing with him.’" Even though Sadier’s guest vocal appearance is prominent on ‘Quick Canal’, this is very clearly not a Stereolab track. Recorded by Cox on his 2009 album Logos, which is heavily influenced by the Stereolab palette, there’s something vast and less boxed in about his sound that seems to give Sadier a little more breathing space than with Stereolab. At the top of its range, her voice seems to glide over the top of the backing, rather than ducking and diving in and out of its jaunty rhythms and sleepy Motown influenced bass line. Coated in reverb, there’s now a lost quality to it, a sadness and almost frantic uncertainty which builds towards the 4:30 mark and mirrors the lyrical sentiment: “I looked in the dirt and found wisdom is learnt through a costly process of success and failure.” In fact, to me the whole of Logos has a sickly, sad, tender existentialist story to it; now doubly so as the record is a decade old – it’s simultaneously Cox’s memories of high school, and my own.

Stereolab play Green Man festival on the weekend of 15 – 18 August, Crickhowell, Wales. Both Transient Random-Noise Bursts from 1993 and Mars Audiac Quintet have been reissued by WARP recently

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