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Stereolab & the Nineties art of influence

By Juliet Jacques.

In Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, journalist Simon Reynolds asked how music went from the strident post-punk experimentation of 1978-1984 – covered in his previous book Rip It Up and Start Again – to the post-modern approach in the 1990s, in which the aural and visual styles of the last four decades were endlessly revived, replayed and remixed.

In a chapter entitled ‘Good Citations’, Reynolds talks about the use of ‘curator’ in a rock context, saying that it ‘drifted across from the art world, thanks to the … intersections between experimental music and the museum and gallery circuit’ with ‘musicians becoming involved in exhibitions or doing performances in art spaces’. He discussed ‘portal bands’, so named by Mark Fisher and Owen Hatherley for their tendency to highlight cultural influences for their fans, and how journalists went from asking groups about their political, literary and cinematic interests to defining them solely by their musical tastes.

Few bands weaved in such a wide range of influences as Stereolab, whom Reynolds called ‘the ultimate record collection rockers’. He wrote that they ‘jumbled things up with a ‘musaic’ that tiles together various strands of retro-cool: Krautrock, Moog music and EZ listening, Françoise Hardy-style French pop of the sixties, lite jazz, the scores to Czech animation and more’ with the ‘resulting unlikely fusions [being] signposted by titles like John Cage Bubblegum and Avant-Garde M.O.R.’ Whilst there was little in Stereolab’s output that sounded completely unprecedented, their engagement with a different, broader set of musical and other reference points to their contemporaries made them one of the most distinctive groups of their generation.

Stereolab grew out of McCarthy, formed in 1984 by Barking schoolmates Malcolm Eden (vocals) and Tim Gane (guitar). Their ‘Celestial City’ appeared on the NME’s C86 compilation, besides a number of ‘alternative’ and ‘independent’ bands including Primal Scream, the Wedding Present and Half Man Half Biscuit. These acts reacted against New Wave pop and post-punk austerity, eschewing synthesizers and disco beats in favour of Sixties-sounding guitar riffs and kitchen-sink lyrics, following The Smiths’ sound but not Morrissey’s morose and implicitly queer worldview.

Unlike the punks and post-punks who grew up feeling that nobody represented them, The C86 groups revered the sounds of the past, their tastes shaped by John Peel, fanzines and the music press. They cared about politics, disappointed at the failure of socialism and the rise of Thatcherism, but Reynolds suggested that they removed the most radical post-punk aesthetics from their sound, particularly the black-white fusion of the 2 Tone or On-U Sound labels and the studio experiments of Factory producer Martin Hannett and others. McCarthy were more explicitly political than most, with ‘Frans Hals’ ending a song about the Dutch painter with a call for revolution, and ‘We Are All Bourgeois Now’ savaging the triumphalist right-wing conceit that class war was no longer necessary.

Gane met Lætitia Sadier at a McCarthy gig in Paris, and they soon fell in love. Sadier provided vocals for their final few releases, and became lead singer of Stereolab after McCarthy split in 1990. Taking their name from a division of Vanguard Records which demonstrated hi-fi effects, they shared the modernist sensibilities of post-punk predecessors such as Cabaret Voltaire, Gang of Four or The Pop Group, but had a very different intellectual and aesthetic outlook. They used vintage electronic instruments – Farfisa and Vox organs, and Moog synthesizers – with motorik beats influenced by 1970s German groups Neu and Faust. Their lyrics, sung in English or French, often referenced radical politics or avant-garde art, particularly the Surrealist and Situationist movements which sought to combine the two.

Stereolab’s first releases kept Gane’s 12-string guitar as their most prominent instrument, with their cultural influences most apparent in their titles. They issued singles and EP on their own label, Duophonic, which were sold at concerts, via mail order or Rough Trade’s record shops, and collected on Switched On, which referenced a 1969 record by electronic composer Wendy Carlos. ‘The Light That Will Cease to Fail’, named after a poem by little-known British Surrealist author Toni del Renzio, typified their early sound:

Stereolab quickly incorporated several new members, and collaborated with other musicians. Mary Hanson joined in 1992, providing backing vocals, guitars and keyboards until her accidental death ten years later, and drummer Andy Ramsey arrived a year later. They worked with Sean O’Hagan from Irish post-punk pop act Microdisney, as well as industrial pioneer Nurse With Wound, producing the Crumb Duck EP (1993). This included ‘Exploding Head Movie’, which remixed part of Stereolab’s ‘Jenny Ondioline’, an 18-minute epic from Transient Noise-Burst with Random Announcements, their second album. Nowhere was Neu’s influence more apparent than here, in a track that sounded similar to their Hallogallo, sharing its insistent beat, prodding bassline and cosmic overlays.

In 1994, Stereolab released their third album, Mars Audiac Quintet. It was the year that Britpop broke, with Oasis influenced by The Beatles and T-Rex, Blur’s Park Life resembling The Small Faces, and Pulp borrowing heavily from The Kinks. It was also the year that Kurt Cobain died, ending Nirvana’s project of merging 1970s punk and rock with American ‘underground’ music of the 1980s, and the point at which Stereolab made a definitive break with the C86 sound and the ‘alternative’ scene around them, resisting the ‘indie’ move towards the mainstream.

Despite widening their template to incorporate bossa nova, 1960s lounge pop and the sort of Theremin and snythesizer sounds used to soundtrack 1950s science-fiction films, piling hooks and melodies on top of each other in a way that led journalist Angela Lewis to call them one of the first ‘post-rock’ bands, Stereolab attracted most attention for their lyrics.

‘Ping Pong’, released as the title track of an EP and often played on MTV, gained extensive coverage for its Marxist lyrics, opening with the assertion that ‘It’s alright because the historical pattern has shown / How the economic cycle tends to revolve’. Journalists were keen to discuss the band’s politics but Gane preferred to keep the focus of interviews on their aural influences, which endeared them to writers wanting to discuss forgotten favourites and demonstrate their knowledge, but also led The Guardian’s Dave Simpson to criticise Stereolab for sounding like a band of critics rather than musicians.

Reynolds said that Stereolab’s interviews were frequently couched in terms of who they were listening to, and that when he met Gane and Sadier in 1996, they talked extensively about Yoko Ono and Don Cherry. After a unique collaboration in which they soundtracked an exhibition by US sculptor Charles Long, the band released their fourth album that year, naming Emperor Tomato Ketchup after a short Japanese experimental film made by Shūji Terayama in 1971.

More than ever, Stereolab drew on minimalist composition, with ‘Tomorrow is Already Her’e showing an interest in Steve Reich, closing with a nod to his Six Marimbas. Placing it at number 51 in their list of Best Albums of the 1990s, Pitchfork wrote that Emperor Tomato Ketchup ‘remains their most definitive and recommended statement’. Building their tracks on the kind of repetition favoured by Reich and Philip Glass, Can and Neu, they carefully structured their sound to create something which Pitchfork called ‘wholly futuristic and alien … so unique that tracking its influence to date ends at Timbaland and the Neptunes’.

Stereolab were sometimes attacked for creating from a desire to experiment rather than any deep emotional need, but Sadier’s oblique lyrics and detached delivery, perfectly balanced with Hansen’s dreamy backing vocals, contain as much feeling and more political urgency than most other bands of the mid-1990s, with one notable exception being the Manic Street Preachers, who cited McCarthy as their greatest influence and covered ‘We Are All Bourgeois Now’. If they were more for critics and curators than a mass audience, they were one of considerable verve and intelligence, whose understanding of music history and ability to meld their discoveries in adventurous ways made them one of the most interesting and inventive groups of their time.

[This is a transcript of a speech given at The Rest is Noise, 7-8 December 2013]

Juliet Jacques is a freelance writer for The Guardian, The New Statesman and others, who writes about literature, film, art, gender and football. Her Transgender Journey blog for The Guardian – the first to serialise the gender reassignment process for a major British publication – was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 12th, 2013.