The nutty professors

Has the science of Stereolab gone too cool for its own good?

Conducting interviews over the telephone is always a difficult task--especially when you're relying on a scratchy overseas connection--but when the person on the other end of the line is Tim Gane, co-founder of Stereolab, the cracks and pops are strangely appropriate. To try to get a better visualization of Gane and his surroundings, I ask him for a detailed description. "Well," he says. "It's about 10 p.m., and I'm sitting in a chair in my home in New Brixton [London], sipping a pint of Grolsch and wearing brown corduroys and a brown T-shirt, with red and yellow sneakers..."

Hold it right there. The sneakers, you see, are the very essence of Stereolab. They constitute the essential anomaly that is always present in the group and that sets them apart. Indeed, much of Stereolab's music could pass for a direct cop of early-'60s artsy Euro-pop--the campy background music to a Fellini flick, perhaps--if it weren't for the sudden presence of various anachronistic sounds. It's the analog bleeps and whirrs, the phonographic pops and scratches--all the Dots and Loops, to drop the name of their latest release--mutating the music that make Stereolab so uniquely attractive.

For many, the name Stereolab is a virtual shibboleth for figuring out who's really in the know. The presence of their last release, Emperor Tomato Ketchup, was de rigueur for most snobby music critics' best of 1996 album lists. That's not to say it wasn't deserved, but a taste for Stereolab is the signal of chic for young Americans. Spin magazine selected them as one of its "40 Most Vital Artists" this year, making all due references to Velvet Underground and Nico without an ounce of restraint, bestowing upon them the status of royalty amongst pop-lounge acts.

Part of that is because vocalist Laetitia Sadier is French, and even though 90 percent of all modern French music is intolerably bad, the 10 percent that is good is cool. Then there's the fact that Stereolab's work isn't just artsy--it is art. They composed Music for the Amorphous Body Study Center in 1995 as an accompaniment to the sculpture of Charles Long, which was presented at New York's Whitney Museum last year, and they put out albums with such intriguing titles as 1993's impeccable Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements.

The lyrics are another important element. Beneath the boppiness and the la-la-la's posing as trite nonsense lurks messages that are more akin to the commentary of Jean-Paul Sartre: "There is no sense/in being interested/in an ill person/or unwell a society/if one cannot believe their readiness/and the capacity/for proper recovery" Sadier quips in "Spark Plug" as if she might be singing about her laundry.

But like art films--which are a major source of inspiration for the band--you either "get" Stereolab or you don't. And if you do, there's the same sneaking temptation to cut them slack as when Peter Greenaway trains his camera on a tree for 11 minutes, and you find yourself nervously looking around to see what other people are thinking.

Such is the case with Dots and Loops. To use a not so academic phrase, it's a real chin-scratcher. While Emperor Tomato Ketchup relied on the catchiness of its funky grooves, Dots and Loops might be mistaken for the soundtrack to a fancy clothing store. Gone are the indie-rock guitars of Mars Audiac Quintet, replaced by dream-sequence lounge and jazz subtlety.

"People get too hooked on gimmicks," retorts Gane, whom you will recall we last left sipping a Grolsch in London. "It's easy to fall back on the past," he says, "and so you have to keep trying new things. Besides, if [Dots and Loops] makes too much sense when you first listen to it, then it makes less sense later on."

The album opens with a temptingly morse-codish set of bleeps on "Brakhage," but the structure of the songs is far less disruptive this time around. It's an album that flows much more smoothly than its predecessors--which, unfortunately, isn't a compliment in this case. What emerges is a near-straight interpretation of kitschy Italian and French film music early '60s; but Stereolab's merely cribbing from originators of the genre instead of redefining them. Compared with a band like Portishead--whose strength comes from eerily messy and exaggerated beat rearrangements--Stereolab seems to be marching off in the wrong direction, but it's a track they've traveled before with Emperor Tomato Ketchup cuts such as "Percolator" and "Cybele's Reverie."

Both Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Dots and Loops were named after experimental films--the former, a Japanese film, and the latter, a mid-30s avant-garde animation flick by Norman McLain. But by far the main inspiration for Dots and Loops was '60's Euro-cinema. Gane says he began listening to Italian film scores and soon became infatuated with the sounds. His new interest happens to fall on the heels of a trend--namely the release of German and Italian porn soundtrack compilations, and samples from '60s and '70s Italian porn favored by Sukia, with whom Stereolab is currently touring in Europe.

"We don't contrive to do anything," says Gane. "I know it's hard to believe, but it's pure infatuation with music." He also doesn't make any pretenses over Stereolab's artistic abilities. "I think our music is an inspiration for people to believe that they can do something like this themselves."

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