Back to the 'Lab
Restructured Stereolab doesn't let the past eclipse its potential
Stereolab surely has soundtracked many a hipster's romantic overture, so it logically follows its members get plenty of action on the road, right?
"In the five years I've been with the band, nobody's had a single groupie," says Stereolab bassist/drummer Simon Johns during a tour stop in Seattle.
You're joking, right?
"No," he says. "Well, [keyboardist/harpsichordist Dominic Jeffery] snogged a bird in Sweden for a few minutes before our bus had to leave, but that's it. We're a very unsexy band."
Thus another myth shatters.
While Stereolab's sexiness is debatable — though French singer/lyricist Laetitia Sadier's surely stoked a libido or three while shimmying behind her Moog onstage — the group's music certainly possesses an understated sensuality that appeals to music aficionados who prefer erotica to porn.
Beginning in London in 1991, Stereolab has become one of those brand-name bands with an instantly recognizable sound. Led by obsessive vinyl hound and guitarist Tim Gane and his ex-lover Sadier, Stereolab arrived at a distinctive sound by rolling together several transatlantic hipster touchstones — Neu!, Can, Os Mutantes, Modern Lovers, Silver Apples, Francoise Hardy, bossa nova, exotica — into a golden ball of lilting melodies, motorik rhythms and Farfisa drones. Sadier tops everything off with Marxist/existentialist treatises festooned with blase "ba ba ba's". Voila — an ideal score with which to seduce intellectuals.
As every piece on Stereolab this year will inform you, the new Margerine Eclipse is the group's first album since vocalist/keyboardist Mary Hansen's tragic 2002 death in a hit-and-run traffic accident. Oddly, Stereolab seems rejuvenated in the tragedy's wake. Rather than wallowing in elegiac ennui, Stereolab fizzes with an effervescent ebullience on Margerine Eclipse. Sure, the group mourned, but the members didn't wallow.
"[Margerine Eclipse] was started three months after Mary was killed," says Gane. "So we were relieved and happy to be back making music. As to it being jolly or poppy, there are a few reasons for that. One, the music was written before she was killed, and [remains] unchanged. To us, it's best to record without contrivance. If you want to make a record that is about someone or influenced by someone, you make it how that person was, and Mary certainly was not a gloomy-doomy person. So if the record's up and lively, it's because that's how Mary was."
Acknowledging music's healing power, Sadier notes the therapeutic effect that recording Margerine had on the group.
"Being faced with a brutal loss, it puts life into a different perspective," she says.
Hansen's death spurred Stereolab into serious seize-the-day mode. Sadier plans to finish her second Monade album at Stereolab's new studio in the French countryside once she gets off the road with the mothership. "Fucking around," as Sadier delicately puts it, is not an option for her. Or for Stereolab itself, which recently expanded to seven people (multi-instrumentalists Joe Walters and Joe Watson just joined the fold).
"[Adding these players] was an opportunity to transform ourselves and progress," says Sadier. "And I think we achieved that. I think the five of us carrying on would be really hard work, because there are a lot of things to play and we would've been faced with this absence. I'm glad we have Joe [Walters] playing the French horn to pick up where Mary left it, and take it somewhere else. It's a really warm, beautiful instrument."
The instrument was deployed with finesse in Stereolab's phenomenal Seattle gig. With most of the septet pulling multiple duties, the group pulsed and bubbled with remarkable vigor. With no stage charisma whatsoever, the 'Lab must make the music carry most of the entertainment burden.
On disc, Stereolab offers few extreme highs or lows, but rather steady-state pleasures. Live, the band cranks up the intensity, ditches the loungey laid-backness and occasionally busts out epic, improvisational freak-outs. The crowd — full of bright, responsible-looking young adults, with some balding baby boomers filling out the ranks — roars after each song. It's touching that Stereolab can still sell out 1,250-capacity venues in the age of Neptimbalunes beats and Bristina Spaguilera pop vixens.
Bet you somebody in the group got laid afterward.