Ahead of shows in Auckland and Wellington, Stereolab’s Tim Gane chats to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM via email.

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STEREOLAB are one of the great alternative bands of all-time. Active for two decades and without a dud release in their repertoire, the London-based band have been challenging accepted notions of “alternative” music with every release. Managing to achieve considerable critical success via a major label and some healthy underground adulation (they’re a band people love with an absolute fervour), the band released their latest album last year, Chemical Chords, another brilliant release. Formed in 1990 from the ashes of Gane’s previous project McCarthy, the band has centred around Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier, with a revolving cast of figures supporting them.

Stereolab achieved underground success early, with the innovative music. They released some of their earlier work on Flying Nun. Part of the connection was that early member Martin Kean was a former member of The Chills, but Gane says it was more due to meeting label founder Roger Shepherd when Shepherd relocated to London. “Our press agent Brian O’Neill began to work for Flying Nun too at around this point and I think it was a case of serendipity coming into play. We were fans of Flying Nun so it was fun for us to do it.” They managed to sign to a major label (Elektra) pretty early on in their careers, surprising given that their music is remarkably uncompromising. You only have to listen to the1993 Krautrock epic ‘Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements’ to realise that this isn’t standard major label fodder. “When we gave them our requirements before they signed us, we stipulated to them that we wouldn’t do demos and that they couldn’t refuse individual tracks, only the whole album. We didn’t think that they would actually sign us anyway so we had nothing to lose. Having said that Elektra never complained with what we gave them and any involvement they had in the recording stage was very minimal (i.e. the A&R guy would come to the studio for an afternoon and listen to what we were working on).

For all their consistent quality of albums for a couple of decades, it was their mid-’90s output which gained the band their greatest fame. Their ’90s work is remarkably ahead of its time, and they were championing genres and styles well before they were opened to the mass market of the internet. Albums such as Mars Audiac Quartet and Emperor Tomato Ketchup were the almost perfect mix of Tim Gane’s musical explorations and Laetitia Sadier’s uncompromising and haunting lyrics. Gane says “I rarely listen to any old stuff but when I do I’m sometimes horrified and sometimes really happy with the way it sounds. Across all the albums I always love about two-thirds of each one and the remaining third runs from not bad to not good to bloody awful. This remains pretty consistent across all of them. I’m always able to take my mind back to how I was thinking at the time of making a record and am able to inject myself back into it very easily. This is an involuntary process and natural to me so my reaction to listening to these records doesn’t really change with time.”

“Yes, there is always the risk that the ease of attaining anything can make you jaded and lead to banality and boredom. The current ‘grazing’ method of listening to snippets of tracks and then moving on, if it doesn’t immediately thrill you will, of course, lead to music with more and more pronounced levels of instant gratification built in. This is in itself interesting and I like to think of how to mess about with this.”


The band is revolutionary for pushing musical boundaries and mixing unfashionable genres, and each release is considerably different to the previous one. I ask if it’s difficult to do so, to maintain such a rigorous drive of experimentation. “It’s my default state. I’m only interested in that. But here the whole thing gets mixed up with individual concepts of what is ‘new’. New for me might not be new for you and vice versa. ‘New’ for a lot of people means ‘current’, for others it might mean ‘ahead’ or just ‘outside’. At any rate ‘newness’ itself is not the goal but that it helps you attain a glimpse of the other side.”

Given how accessible music appears to be now, there is the threat that unusual or what was once “exotic” music could become banal. “Yes, there is always the risk that the ease of attaining anything can make you jaded and lead to banality and boredom. The current ‘grazing’ method of listening to snippets of tracks and then moving on, if it doesn’t immediately thrill you will, of course, lead to music with more and more pronounced levels of instant gratification built in. This is in itself interesting and I like to think of how to mess about with this.”

Sadier’s lyrics came in for a bit of attention from the critics in the ’90s, with their incorporation of political sloganeering, Dadaist, Situationist etc. imagery. In particular, it was the band’s apparent Marxist stance, which got picked up on the most – a highly simplistic and problematic reading of the band. Gane says “personally it’s one of the most irritating and consistent bugbears of being in Stereolab. On top of the fact that I Don’t write the words and that I have never read nor have any interest in reading Marx, and that I know that concept originated in the sneering journalistic milieu of the time (early ’90s), the real problem is that no-one is interested in the question or the answer.”

Gane isn’t keen to offer any validation to any of my interpretations of the brilliant 2008 4AD release, Chemical Chords. In fact he downright disagrees, when I suggest the new album is much poppier, organic with shorter songs (“I have to say I don’t completely agree with your analysis”) – though this is probably understandable given how unclassifiable the band are, and any sort of reductive description would almost defeat the purpose. He disagrees to it being compared to the Motown sound, a frequent comparison made in regard to the album. “It’s nothing to do with the Motown sound. It’s the radiation that seeps out over time that creates a subtle complexity that I find inherent within the ‘pop song’ arrangements of the era, that I’m interested in. The last thing I would want would be that these tracks were apeing the Motown sound or the Phil Spector sound or whatever. It’s about simple elements (maybe?) creating complex resonances over time.” He suggests a future sound for the band (given the band’s frequent shifts) taking the piss out of my question, to be “a medley recorded with a toothbrush and a comb.” But all this is academic – the audience will have a chance to judge their brilliant sound and the direction of Chemical Chords (and there is plenty of healthy debate) for themselves in New Zealand, as the band play a couple of shows. Regardless of how they’re classified, they’re one of the most vital and innovative bands of the last couple of decades.