Can you imagine a world without Stereolab?
Nah, us neither. They may not be mega-selling limelight-hoggers, but even seventeen years into their career, Tim Gane and co’s immaculately stylized music, and the thoughtful, fanatically referential manner in which they present it, continues to inspire smart boys and girls the world over to cultivate esoteric record collections and form idea-driven bands of their own – some amazing (Broadcast), others less so (ever been to myspace?).
Stereolab were absorbing and re-contextualizing elements of krautrock, French soundtracks, classical minimalism, drones and vintage radiophonics long before it became fashionable to do so, though their pretty much unerring base emphasis has been on mellifluous, melodious, Bacharach-indebted pop. Their new album, Chemical Chords, is their first since 2004’s Margerine Eclipse (disregarding the fantastic Fab Four Suture (2006), a compilation of limited edition 7″ singles). We spoke to the band’s musical mastermind, Tim Gane, at his home in Berlin, about the record’s strange but nonetheless organic genesis…
Unusually for Stereolab, the songs on Chemical Chords were born out of drum loops. How come?
“Well, it wasn’t really my intention to do it like this, it’s just that I was running really late…I was recording a soundtrack [for La Vie D’Artiste, with Sean O’Hagan] and it just dragged on and on, there were loads of little bits I had to do, and re-do, and cut. So I thought I’d have five or six weeks to work on this Chemical Chords but it turned out to be five or six days. I just didn’t have to time to make music as I’d done before, so I thought, I’ll cut up lots of little loops, beats from drum machines, stuff from records…I took about 50 or 60 of these to our studio, and worked on them with our engineer, Joe, who’s also our keyboard player. It reminded me of when we did Emperor Tomato Ketchup – that was a similar record in lots of ways, certainly in terms of approach. I’d had a bad the year before it’s release, ’94, and ’95 was pretty crap too – I didn’t like anything I’d done. So I recorded ten tracks using just bass, drums and a sax playing exactly the same notes as the bass. It didn’t sound that promising, but it enabled me to find a new way into the process, it was something I hand’t tried before and it opened things up. It’s important to have obstacles – I need something to bounce against, some kind of restriction on what I’m doing, otherwise I don’t know where I’m going.
“For this album I really want to get a set of vibaphones, you know, vibes, and we had an old piano, an old stand-up piano too. I’d written a load of chords, loosely, on the guitar. Then, with Joe playing piano or organ, we went about deciding which chords sound good with which rhythms. A rhythm can really change the way particular chords sound – it can make ‘em come alive, or make ‘em sound really rubbish. So at this point we had tracks comprised of piano or vibes, and drums; I then handed them to Sean [O’Hagan, former Stereolab member, former leader of Microdisney and now the The High Llamas] to do the string and brass arrangements.”
Are the arrangements a collaboration between yourself and Sean?
“No, it’s not a collaborative process at all. Of course, on some some records I might want something specific and will talk about it with Sean, but on this album I didn’t have the inclination or the time. There are a couple of exceptions – like the title track, which was written before the album, and is similar in a lot of ways to the soundtrack. It wasn’t part of the same composition process as the other songs, and I had a particular feel in mind for them. Otherwise, I left it entirely to Sean. I didn’t hear what he’d written until I went to the studio in London where they were recording the strings and brass.”
Was soundtracking La Vie D’Artiste a frustrating or rewarding endeavour?
“It’s the first film I’ve ever written music specially for. It’s funny, for years I’ve been asked, “Why don’t you do a film soundtrack, your music is so soundtrack-y” you know? And then suddenly this director actually comes along and askes me to do one. I’ve actually known this guy on and off for years, he’s a friend; he always said, when I make my film I want you and Sean to write the music for it. He was a fan of both our bands and wanted some of that “pop sophistication” (his words, not mine). I was like, “OK, whatever, let us know!” [laughs], and forgot about it. Then he got in touch and was like “Oh yeah, I’ve got some funding!” It came at a good time. I was getting bored of the album-tour-album-tour cycle. I’d been enjoying doing singles (those that comprised Fab Four Suture) and I needed a change.
It’s good, because it transplants you to an entirely different landscape. He wanted the music to be instrumental; he wanted atmospheric music, lots of strings. We weren’t go to give him a techno! He sent us a list of 22 scenes which Sean and I divided up between ourselves. My two aims were to avoid the production company, who were very negative and got on my nerves quite a bit, and to get the music to the director before he began editing – so that the film is edited to the music, rather than the other way round!”
I gather there are songs left over from the Chemical Chords sessions. Will they be released?
“I don’t know. I plan to finish them first. I really need to get on that right about now. It won’t be a proper second album; it’s the stuff that we didn’t have room for on Chemical Chords. In a way, it’s a mirror image of Chemical Chords – it’s not different enough to be released as a truly separate entitty. I think it’ll make a good mini-album or tour album or even some kind of download…”
Is vinyl important to you?
“If anyone knows anything about me it’s that I like buying records. And yes, tour albums, mini-albums, small editions certainly appeal to me – last year we released a record not many people know about, there were only 100 copies made; it was for an art gallery. I’m very happy to put lots of records out. From the very beginning of Stereolab, the idea has been to release as many records as possible. I want it to be hit and run. I don’t want to get bogged down with our own sense of history, what I want is a constant process of moving on. It’s always about the present – it’s not about the past, and it’s not even about the future. It’s about what I’m doing now.”
Tell us about the cover art for Chemical Chords…
“Julian House has been doing our sleeves for some time now, and Chemical Chords is his work. He’s also made two promotional films, for the songs ‘Three Women’ [see above] and ‘Neon Beanbag’. I’ll go to him with a small idea, a collection of magazine cuttings, or something else I like, and he takes that and does completely his own thing with it. I really want to let people to do their own thing, and Julian always seem to find an interesting visual route into the music.”
Do you worry about your reception among critics, fans, the general public? Have you ever worried?
“It’s not relevant to what I’m doing. You have to remember how much of a part single-minded obssession plays in what we do. I can’t do anything to please anybody except myself. I mean, we can’t change what we’re doing just because people are looking at us.”
Stereolab have been around for a long time. Artistically speaking, does it feel like the same group that you founded seventeen years ago?
“I guess Stereolab was conceived as a “high concept” pop group, and I guess that’s remained the case. I always liked the idea of a conceptual band, and of achieving certain resonances with the way the records look and sound, right down to the titles of the songs – you know, I’m always looking for the nth degree of effect. Everything is really thought through, even if we do happen to record in a really short space of time.
“There was kind of a change in the way I wrote from about ’93 on – I got really tired of doing things the same old way. It was then that my interest in repetition, in repetition itself, and in revealing something through layering, took hold.
“I’m not actively trying to repeat myself, but nor am I trying not to repeat myself! If it’s a good idea that sounds right, then I go with it. I’ve got no sympathy for the philosophy – a stupid philosophy – which says if you come up with something that sounds like something you’ve heard before, you should scrap it. When I work, what I’m doing is that close to me that I can’t think of it as wrong. Everything is right.”