When CDs get stuck and start skipping violently, it's a million times worse than the sound of an album locked in a groove ever was. It's more like hearing a Martian deathray obliterating a favorite record, one digital particle at a time. Next time you're at a party and someone plays something you don't like, something really precious (say, a cut off the new Matchbox Twenty record), sneak Stereolab's 1999 offering Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night into the stereo and cue up track 11, the hypnotic and repetitive "Blue Milk." Press play, leave your finger on the search button, and in about 15 seconds your host will inevitably bound out of the kitchen, spilling drinks and stubbing toes in a mad dash for the disc player. This nasty trick works every time, the human equivalent of pretending to throw a ball to your dog.
Actually, you may get the same puzzled glances from some partygoers just for playing a Stereolab album straight through. Founded in 1991 by Tim Gane and singer Laetitia Sadier, this London group's musical mélange cross-pollinates bossa nova, lounge-pop, movie soundtracks, and art-rock space jams with a Marxist lyrical agenda (though they claim otherwise) that's often sung in French. The results can sometimes resemble The Singing Nun praying to Sergio Mendes and Hawkwind...simultaneously.
The group's latest release is The First of the Microbe Hunters, a mini-album with seven new tracks, meant to coincide with a string of late spring and summer U.S. tour dates. At 39 minutes long, this latest disc is actually what a regular-length long-player was back in the '70s. To bolster its status as "the world's first mini-double album," it's also being issued on two short-playing 180-gram vinyl records in the U.K. Whatever its categorization, Gane insists that Microbe isn't the follow-up to last year's Cobra and Phases, and the similar packaging design hints that it's more like an addendum than anything else.
"Not every record is made for the big push," Gane says. "Sometimes our most interesting music has been made for B-sides and EPs. Sometimes our best songs turn up when no one's looking." He chuckles meekly. And he's right: Since inception, Stereolab has issued nearly a dozen EPs or split 10-inches on its own Duophonic label, and that material is often better than the stuff that turns up on their albums.
"I just get bored of just doing albums," Gane continues. "An album is so monolithic. I enjoy recording them, but you do one every two or three years, then you do another one. You just get so many vibes and good ideas if you simply go in the studio and start doing things."
The decision to record and compile tracks for Microbe was a spontaneous one, according to Gane. "We just decided to do it a month before, record and mix everything in just two weeks. There wasn't any plan for any particular sound, no concept around the record. I wrote a couple of songs and had a couple left over. We improvised a jam, which is the first track on the album. And there's an old track from [1997's] Dots & Loops that we never got around to mixing, and [longtime Stereolab collaborator and engineer] John McEntire mixed it in Chicago and sent it over. So that one arrived, and we put it on there. It's a record where you don't think about the consequences of what you're doing, really," he says, laughing quietly.
Named after a late-1950s record-mastering process, Stereolab often gets lumped in with the scores of imitators it helped spawn--retro acts that cater to the highball martini lounge set but bring nothing new to the party. The band even helped popularize the terminology that defined this musical movement when it named its 1993 album The Groop Played "Space Age Batchelor Pad Music."
"It was coined by a magazine writer who termed it about a form of music that was going around in the '50s and '60s, but it wasn't known as Space Age Bachelor Pad Music at that time. It was a post thing he [came up with] in the early '90s," Gane explains. "We called it that because we were supposed to be this imaginary band playing this made-up form of music which didn't really exist but we wanted to exist. Obviously, since then it's become a real form of music.
"Sometimes I think it's kind of rebounded on us a bit," he continues. "People just think we're doing lounge or easy listening or whatever it's called. I think anyone who's really listened to us or come to see us play live would know we don't do that at all. That's just one influence that we've hopefully mixed with other things. I don't consider our music 'lite.'"
Stereolab's openness to experimentation with a variety of structures and meters differentiates it from other exotica-minded dream-pop bands like Saint Etienne, which employs similar instrumentation and breathy vocals in its three-minute songcraft. Gane has heard Saint Etienne mentioned by another interviewer earlier in the day, but believes there's little similarity between the two groups.
"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."
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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!"