Stereolab’s music is not easily described.
The collective brought together disparate influences, from lush Bacharachian lounge to the krautrock of Neu!. From Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda, to the Japanese filmmaker Shuji Terayama, whose 1971 subversive short movie (Tomato Kecchappu Kotei) gave this UK based group their fourth and much-admired studio record its name.
Laetitia Sadier’s serene vocals, in English and French, are both inviting and coolly detached. Similarly, there’s a restlessness and anticipation in her words.
With all this in mind, Stereolab might just be one of the most unique sounding and thinking groups of the 1990s.
Formed by Sadier and Tim Gane, following the demise of his band McCarthy, there were strong cultural and left-leaning political foundations at the core of how they wanted to operate as a group. They started their own record label Duophonic to release their own material and that of other independent bands, including Tortoise, Yo La Tengo and Daft Punk’s indie rock precursor Darlin’.
They were also inspired by surrealism and situationist theory and, from the outset, were dedicated to affecting change through their music.
“Art is a real political tool, in the sense that it’s your way of acting, a way of bringing in ideas,” Sadier said in 2015.
“In the late 70s and 80s, there were a lot of political groups. It was no big strange thing.
“Even the fact of being in a band and deciding how you’re going to lead your life, is a political act, and really, I came from that school of things whereby I’m in charge of my life and making my music and writing my lyrics brings meaning to my life. And that felt absolutely fundamental to what we were doing.
“We were doing it as a matter of life or death almost. And I think some people poo poo’ed that, they just didn’t get it. To them making music was just our entertainment. No, it’s not just that. This is our life. And it was very serious, but at the same time not very serious, because we’re just a very small pop band.”
Emperor Tomato Ketchup’s songs such as ‘Metronomic Underground’, ‘Olv 26’ and ‘Motoroller Scalatron’ are crafted with an emphasis and love of vintage organs and synthesizers. Structuring them with minimalist sensibilities enabled them to wind and propel forward with a peculiar purpose and a driving groove.
Gane explained to Pitchfork in 2012 that his choice of instruments wasn’t just an analogue fixation.
“Well, the first thing is, it’s got to have a character and it's gotta have a kinda poetry in the sound,” he said. “If you use a real Farfisa or Vox [organ], the sound is instantly good and makes the chords sound good.
“I’m looking for things that make chords sound good, but I’m not a retro person. Like ‘nothing is good post 19… whatever’, it’s just that I listen to it and this is infinitely better. I’d rather have an organ than a piece of software that’s trying to be an organ.”
Tracks like ‘Cybele’s Reverie’ and ‘Percolator’ endear with their carefree dreaminess. As does ‘Les Yper-Sound’, until you catch slowly vocalized and disjointed lyrics like ‘make ‘em opposites, so there’s a reason, stigmatization, okay, now we can fight’ amid Mary Hansen’s sweetly sung ‘la la la las’.
And ‘Spark Plug’s’ ‘There is no sense in being interested in a child, a group, or in a society…if one does not see in them before anything else, the life, it’s capacity to be founded upon itself…’
There’s feelings of dissatisfaction, agitation, resistance and violence.
“From the personal and the unconscious to the political which I find are linked, I don’t dissociate the individual from the societal,” Sadier explained to Pitchfork in 2012.
“I find one influences the other, which in turn influences the one. What I’m trying to say is, you can have one small thing but it can radiate out to a bigger reality. Maybe it’s a bit pretentious to say that, but I’m concerned with this reality and how I perceive it in one way and how you’re gonna perceive it in a different way, and where is the truth in that?”
Stereolab perhaps attempt to provide an avenue to that end in ‘The Noise of Carpet’ with its cut and thrust optimism and message to take action. ‘I hate to see your broken face, a lazy life, a fatal waste of fashionable cynicism, the poison they want you to drink, oh no man, that’s so easy, oh no man, that’s too easy.’
The group has been on indefinite hiatus since 2009, but Sadier sounded as driven as ever in 2015.
“I am an idealist and I think we can improve the way we live, we could each achieve a better, fairer society,” she told RBMA.
“Humans are vulnerable and they’re corruptible. Accept that, respect that, but to bring people around to surmount their cowardice or whatever it is that’s keeping us down there, keeping us from taking our power into our hands. This is where I want to be acting as an artist.”