From their beginning in the early '90s, the band's leader, Tim Gane, had a vision for Stereolab's sound. "I'd been in bands before (as a college student), and I really didn't want to be playing in a band just for the sake of it," he recounts from his home in London, which he shares with bandmate and partner Laetitia Sadier. "I tried to think about what would be relatively unique, given the limitations of doing everything yourself, and basically tried to have the most stripped-down and simplistic music I could. And combined with, very specifically, an unchanging beat -- no drum rolls or anything -- so it could kind of free up the space above for melodies and other melodic jigsaw pieces to mesh together. When we started in London, the stuff we wanted to do was very different, but also kind of obvious, really. It had to be very simplistic because we weren't great musicians."
The result, found on early releases like 1992's Switched On (Slumberland) and 1993's The Groop Played "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" (Too Pure/American), was a dense and noisy drone, elegant in its simplicity. Long-held keyboard chords and strummed guitar, as well as the occasional electronic blip, meshed alongside rhythm-establishing bass lines and a relentless simple drum beat à la Moe Tucker. Simple but catchy female pop vocals -- alternating between English and French, and often tackling heady subjects like Marxism -- floated over the din for the majority of Stereolab's early catalogue.
One of the most prolific bands around, Stereolab spent about five years and countless releases perfecting this hypnotic and minimalist formula before deciding to expanding the sound's scope. "By the time we got to Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996, Elektra), I think we had about run our course on that particular river," Gane recounts. "The arrangements, as opposed to the music, have become much more important to me than they were at the beginning. I wanted to retain that simplicity of the music, but have the arrangements sort of push and pull the basic music into different areas and permutations."
That album marked a distinct turning point for the band. The material became actual full-fledged songs taking the place of the band's signature minimalist drones, with an added funky, but not quite danceable, edge. "It was a change from the linear, kind of horizontal sound of the earlier records into one more based on pulses, and interaction of different dynamic things within the instruments. I suppose it would be a different aspect of looking at the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, or even Terry Riley, but then combined with a more jazz aspect -- or a very simplistic interpretation of jazz, anyway -- in terms of the way things would lock together. The way I listen to jazz is probably very different than how most jazz fans listen to it, because I'm not really interested in solos or anything; I'm just interested in the interaction between the basic rhythm, interlocking the bass with say, piano chords or something like that, taking a very small cross-section snippet, and then using that idea as a basis to bring many other non-jazz-influenced things into it. But it's still a coagulation of very simplistic ideas, and the melody is still very important." The album also marked the first time Stereolab was produced by Tortoise's John McEntire, a seemingly perfect fit for the band's new direction.
And while Emperor won the group legions of new fans, they would continue in a somewhat even more experimental vein with their next release, 1997's Dots and Loops, again with McEntire at the helm. That album, for the first time in Stereolab's career, utilized modern computer sequencing technology to its fullest, with somewhat mixed results. "That wasn't decided upon until we got (to Chicago), actually," Gane says. "I wrote all the music on cassette, and went over there, and we started recording the drum tracks. They had Pro Tools (a computer program designed for recording) there and we decided -- I can't remember why -- to do some things on there. And then we ended up recording everything on there. We decided to just record small sections (of music), then move them around and loop them and repeat them and so on and so on, and see how that would influence the music. I think it had both a positive and negative effect on the music at the same time." The album was certainly less immediately winsome and more challenging than its predecessor. Where Emperor Tomato Ketchup was warm and instantly listenable, Dots and Loops had a slightly more antiseptic sound, requiring extended listening to bear its fruits.
"Looking back on it now, we tried to be as inventive as we could with the arrangements, and we were able to do many things which we could never have done with the music in a live context," Gane explains. "But at the same time, the record has a slightly more homogeneity of sound than I would have preferred. That was just an outcome of the way we recorded it, to a certain degree. You have to allow those things to kind of happen -- the environment and everything -- to discover and explore the things that you want to. You can't contrive a series of things to happen; or, we can't anyway. We have to allow things to develop and follow them as they occur, so that often the resulting record isn't in any way the one we might have considered making in the beginning."
The band's new release, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (Elektra), marks the third time they've worked with McEntire. In addition to the group's cemented lineup of Gane, Sadier, Mary Hansen, Andy Ramsay and Morgan Lhote, the album features now-regular contributions from Chicagoans McEntire, Jim O'Rourke and Rob Mazurek (Chicago Underground Duo), as well as others such as the High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan, once a permanent member of the band. And while they dabbled in computer technology during the recording process, Cobra largely represents a return to the organic methods the band utilized in its pre-Dots and Loops material.
"What we did on this record was to record sections relatively live, though we were sort of limited by the studio, which was tiny, in a house, so we couldn't really record as much," Gane explains. "So we played in real time, as you actually hear it, but then we would use the computer just to do rearrangements, where we would just shift elements to different sections. The computer was used, really, for splicing and editing, then we would put it back on tape, and add things to it, and repeat that process. I feel like we tried to get a combination of the best things of using live material and the computer. In certain ways it sounds more similar to older stuff than Dots and Loops, simply by the fact that we actually physically played it, but it wasn't an attempt to return to that sound in any way whatsoever. It's just that it has a more live dynamic because it was played live."
The result is the band's most accomplished album yet. From the opening avant-skronk of "Fuses" to the horn-laden, unusual-tempo-driven melodic pop of "The Free Design," to the metronomic keys, vibes and strings workout of "The Spiracles," Stereolab proves once again that the "retro-futurism" tag is an apt description. The music manages to fuse elements of the somewhat kitschy genre of analog-synthesized space age pop à la Esquivel with a foundation of its original drone tendencies. While the singular elements of the compositions are relatively simple, the dynamic arrangements are layered to achieve a sound that's deceptively complex.
Somehow, Stereolab has again managed to up the ante. Their sound is unique the world over, and that's just how Tim Gane likes it.