By Jim Schutze
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"Saint Etienne have been going for years, a lot longer than we have," he offers. "Lots of bands use brass arrangements and orchestration. They're more into the kitschy pop kind of disco thing. We're not into that much."
When you examine it closely, it's hard to imagine Etienne singer Sarah Cracknell warbling Laetitia Sadier lyrics like "All the women who understand how good and natural it is to bare all clothes and bring the smile of knowledge" from the dance floor or the confines of a speeding sports car.
"I like the vibe of [easy-listening, cocktail music] but I like having it underlined by something else, a bit of contradiction," Gane says. "I don't like music that's all obvious to you and everything is as it should be. I like nebulous music, which is not easy to identify with, not one thing or the other."
While on the subjects of obviousness and Britpop, it's ironic to note that while Stereolab has championed and revitalized many arcane forms of '60s easy-listening music, a band like Oasis gets more credit for the renewed popularity of Burt Bacharach simply for sticking a poster of the Maestro on the cover of Definitely Maybe.
"That's all corny," says Gane matter-of-factly. "Or doing a duet with Burt Bacharach or getting him to do an arrangement on one of your B-sides. That's just rubbish. Bacharach was a really inventive musician and composer. Oasis is just bogged down in standard major chords. They're millions of miles away." When asked whether Bacharach has ever heard a Stereolab record, Gane expresses doubt. "I don't think he even knows we exist. He plays tennis; he's an 80-year-old guy," says Gane, laughing.
A onetime Stereolab member and recurring guest collaborator is Sean O'Hagen, guiding light behind The High Llamas, a band whose eerie instrumental re-creations of Brian Wilson Smile-era music are inventive enough to piss off Mike Love. O'Hagen is all over the Microbe Hunters mini-album, and co-wrote the opening 10-minute jam "Outer Bongolia."
"It's pretty typical of how we record," Gane explains. "We don't rehearse or know how the songs are going to sound at all. They're just basic ideas. We just make the rest up as we go along. It's sometimes boring to go into a studio and record a song exactly how it sounded." Stereolab employed the Smile method of taping small bits of the songs and reassembling them in random fashion for Dots & Loops. "It's kind of arranged in some kind of logic. But of course it's really good when you get clashes and accidents happening, or you put something backward or the other way. You're really just listening to the music almost as if somebody else made it."
On Cobra and Phases' "Italian Shoes Continuum," the band cut up four or five different mixes of the song into little sections and spliced them together on tape. Halfway through the track, it cuts into a piece of music the band recorded for the Ben Stiller film Permanent Midnight that went unused. "We initially did it for a party scene for the film, and they never actually got to hear it for bureaucratic reasons. The person who was going to deal with it left the company. But I quite liked it, and we just edited it into the tape. That was totally random. We had no idea what it was going to sound like," says Gane.
It's surprising, given the band's love of film scores, that Stereolab's music hasn't turned up in more motion pictures. To date, its only big-screen credit has been in the 1996 Kids in the Hall feature Brain Candy. "We don't do them because we've never really been asked," says Gane. "We get asked to contribute songs. 'Can we use this track for a film or so and so?' I don't like those kinds of soundtracks. I saw one soundtrack which had a really long New Order track on it that I didn't remember hearing in the film. We watched it again, and at one point in the film a car goes by in the distance when a couple are talking, and out of the car you hear New Order. It was hilarious. One day we might do scores when we get older and don't tour."
In an age where live improvisation is a no-no because it might throw off the lighting technician's cues, Stereolab is a breath of fresh air. But be forewarned: There can be a downside to this kind of seat-of-the-pants random experimentation.
"It's really weird," Gane says. "When we're doing the improvised stuff onstage, things all go together and then coalesce. And then you realize you're playing some boogie riff or it sounds like prog rock or," he says laughing in mock horror, "Deep Purple!"