Interview – Stereolab
June 29, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, January 20, 2009.
Over a career that has spanned 11 albums and nearly two decades, Stereolab have crafted one of the most distinctive sounds in indie music. Drawing on flourishing pop dynamics, meticulous arrangements and wonderfully obtuse melodies, the ensemble – based around core song writing duo and former husband and wife, Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier – have inhabited a space somewhere between outward futurism and Euro retrospection.
Where earlier work featured sprawling song-structures, new record Chemical Chords sees them condense their meanderings into short, tightly packed pop songs. It’s a revelation.
We spoke to an ever-talkative Tim Gane about making the new record, writing music for film and imagining songs as cities.
Hey Tim, how are you?
I’m alright, yeah. Just chatting away you know (laughs). Where are you?
I’m in Melbourne…
Oh good, good. I like it there. How is it today?
It’s about 38 degrees…
(Laughter) Here it’s about minus 12 or 16 or something, so it’s quite different.
Hey, I loved Chemical Chords by the way. Without the lyrics, it seems a very upbeat record. Do feel that way about it?
I think so, yeah. I mean, I didn’t really know how the record would turn out. I guess I was interested in having a lot of short songs that had a kind of pop arrangement, but I think the kind of content of a lot of the songs isn’t particularly poppy. Some of the arrangements are a bit fragile or a bit melancholy maybe.
I had this idea of trying to keep the songs restricted to about three minutes. The songs tend to take a long and winding road on the way to being recorded, so I sort of started off with sort of chords applied randomly to drum rhythms that were done before. I wanted to sort of be the listener and the writer of the music at the same time, and respond to the way that the rhythms changed by chance, the randomness, the sound of the chords and the quality of the chords, so that’s how I did it in the beginning.
Yeah, I found that really interesting, that you had recorded the rhythmic and melodic elements of the album in virtual isolation from one another.
Yeah, yeah. It really seemed to really work in that sense.
As a listener, your stuff is very layered. You can listen to it flippantly as a bunch of pure pop tunes, but once you really listen in more detail it begins to reveal itself. I’m guessing it kind of works that way at the writing end.
Yeah, I think there has got to be a kind of a motive or an initial impact, so when you first hear it or you’ve got it on in the background or whatever, there’s something that really draws you in. But yeah, once inside, different aspects are then revealed. I’m really into things gradually evolving as you listen to them more and more over time. I mean, it’s not so academic like that, especially when we’re recording. It’s always very intuitive, like, ‘That sounds great, we’ll go with that, we’ll go with that’, but at the same time I am aware of trying to have those levels or layers happening.
When I think of this music, the landscape I kind of see is a rather big, modern city with skyscrapers and only a small amount of space, so everything has to go up. It’s not sprawling and it’s not horizontal like our earlier stuff; it’s vertical with all the things kind of overlapping and going up and down.
(Laughs) Thankyou, thankyou!
I can imagine these songs would really change shape in a live context. I was reading an interview with Laetitia and she was saying that this record didn’t even make any sense to her until you guys started playing them live.
Yeah, I mean, in the beginning we really have to relearn them. We never rehearse before recording, so the songs are really built in the studio. Often no one knows what certain bits are going to sound like – even I don’t in the beginning. All the instruments change and it kind of takes the shape of whatever it takes.
But yeah, when we play live, in the first place we sort of rehearse the chords and just sort of work with what we’ve got – we don’t have to ask people to play strings or anything – but we take the idea and we sort of move it a little. And then, when we actually do play live in front of people on tour or whatever, the songs often undergo even more changes than before. Most of them take on a totally different dynamic, and generally it’s much more upbeat again – a bit rawer and with a bit more energy.
A lot of people tend to prefer the live sound when they’re there, but sometimes the songs lose a little something as well; a fragility, maybe, or an aspect like that. But that’s natural. The live band and the studio band are really quite different.
There were about 32 or so tracks from the recording sessions, yeah? What happened to the ones you didn’t use?
Well, we finished and mixed 14 of them and I’m currently working on two more of them. Out of the 16 that were left, two or three of them have kind of been used for b-sides to singles and stuff like that. So in the end there’ll be 13 or 14 left and we’re not quite sure what we’re going to do with them. The idea is to maybe do a small vinyl or download-only release at some point, so people who want them can get them. But we’re not going to make a big, new album out of them or anything.
Tell me about the work you’ve been doing for film. As musician who is used to providing the creative impulse for a band, what is it like working to someone else’s brief? What kind of challenges does that throw up for you?
Well it’s totally different, but it’s perhaps a process I enjoy even more. Although I’ve only done the one soundtrack, for Marc Fittousi’s La Vie d’Artiste, I have done stuff for art gallery exhibitions and it’s something I’m kind of aiming towards doing more and more of. What I need when I write music – and I sort of set this superficially if I don’t have it – is friction. And sometimes there’s just not enough friction when you’re doing your album, meaning you can just do whatever you want. But when there’s a situation where it’s like ‘This is the film and this is the scene’, I can kind of write really fast and I really enjoy the process.
I really like restrictions in music and as a way of writing. So I hope to do more and I am doing more – I’ve been asked by the same director to do his next film. So yeah, hopefully that will be good.
Considering the amount Stereolab has been through as a band – I guess with Mary’s death (Australian born Mary Hansen was the band’s guitarist and backing singer from 1992 to 2002, when she was struck and killed while riding her bicycle) and you Laetitia’s divorce in particular – what do you think keeps you together?
Well, I don’t know…I think it’s probably fear of getting a job (laughs), and having to work.
I’m glad we’re being frank today!
(Laughs) Well that was partly the reason for starting it. To be honest with you, we’ve never had any hits or anything like that and we’ve had it pretty easy with the record label – they’ve never bothered us – and we’ve just never kind of been challenged really. We’ve never had a situation where we were up against a big decision. We’ve always sold enough records to justify doing it for that reason and then just for me, I’ve always just been into the creativity of doing music, so I’ll carry on doing it as much as I can.
Obviously at some point it will get to a stage where it’s not really possible to carry on doing it anymore. But until that comes, I will carry on doing it in any way I can.
For me, it’s just a process of investigating something. I don’t have a message or anything. It’s just like I want to find out something, so this is why I do it. I still have that curiosity and so I still do it. For me, whether it’s Stereolab or whether it’s soundtrack music, it doesn’t make that much of a difference.
Stereolab – Australian Tour
Brisbane – January 31, Laneway Festival – lanewayfestival.com.au
Melbourne – February 1, Laneway Festival – lanewayfestival.com.au
Melbourne – February 3, Billboard – billboardthevenue.com.au
Sydney – February 5, The Metro – metrotheatre.com.au
Perth – February 6, Laneway Festival – lanewayfestival.com.au
Adelaide – February 7, Laneway Festival – lanewayfestival.com.au
Sydney – February 8, Laneway Festival – lanewayfestival.com.au