Kitschy Cool

One of the loopier multilingual Euro acts to ever cross the Atlantic, Stereo Total is a charming Berlin-based couple made up of wacky French chanteuse (and author) Françoise Cactus and goofy German keyboard whiz Brezel Göring. Using antiquated keyboards and homemade gadgets, the duo concocts a kamikaze of kitsch-flavored, American-accented garage rock and Atari-inspired electro-pop.

"We met 10 years ago in Berlin, on the street," says Cactus by phone from New York. "We were living on the same street, and sometimes when we went shopping we saw each other. So we were always smiling at each other, and one time we decided to talk a little bit. In this time, I had a garage band called the Lolitas [who released five records in Europe], and Brezel had a project doing experimental music called Sigmund Freud Experience. I asked if he wanted to do a band with me, and that was the beginning of Stereo Total. At the start, we were just playing exhibition openings. Our music seemed a little bit strange at this time because there was a lot of techno-pop and grunge music, so people were thinking, 'Oh, my God. What is that?'"

Worth searching out and eventually dancing to naked are Stereo Total's six albums, the most fantastic of which are 2002's Musique Automatique and 1998's Juke-Box Alarm. A few years ago, Kill Rock Stars reissued Stereo Total's first two releases, 1995's Oh Ah and 1997's Monokini (i.e., a one-piece bikini), making the band's whole catalog available for the first time in the United States. On early albums, Cactus and Göring had yet to fully embrace the frenetic synth-pop instrumentation of later releases. Their early sound tended toward lush, romantic '60s-style French pop and wacko garage rock. "Dactylo Rock," from Oh Ah, a cute song about a secretary in love, bounced along to the sounds of her typewriter, its carriage return acting as a cymbal. During this period, Cactus had her first go at the cheeseball covers the band adores, tackling Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It" and KC & the Sunshine Band's "Get Down Tonight" so that it sounds more like the work of a drunken Korean hooker singing karaoke.

Everything came together for Stereo Total on the magnificent Juke-Box Alarm, an album that's like an amusement park ride wildly careening off the tracks. The band's appreciation for American trash culture is tossed into songs like "Heaven's in the Back Seat of My Cadillac" and "Holiday Inn," which includes the enticing broken-English lyrics "When you look into my eyes/I feel like in paradise/Let's go to a Holiday Innnn/And I will show you somezing." At times, Stereo Total has had other members, including someone named Palestinian Iznogood (who played something called "bass-balls-bass") and keyboardist San Reimo. But the band is now pared down to Cactus and Göring--she pounding on drums while handling most of the vocals and he playing guitar and keyboards and flailing his arms in a spastic, Sprockets-like nerdiness.

The band's latest record, Do the Bambi, is as screwy as ever, though it lacks some of the scampering dance grooves of previous outings. Awash in pictures of Disney's dearest deer, the CD booklet displays a sports Bambi wearing a gymtonic headband, a punk rock Bambi with a Mohawk, spiked collar and dangling cigarette, as well as a drawing of a naked Brezel straddling a white stallion as he encounters a cheery Bambi in the forest.

"We wanted to put something really kitschy on the cover," Cactus says. "We thought, 'What is absolutely kitschy?' And Bambi is super-kitsch. I think it was the first movie I saw as a child with my mother, and we were crying all the time in the theater. We didn't even know when we did our record that there would be this new DVD with the old Bambi. Now, there are Bambis everywhere, so it's really crazy, this story with the Bambi."

But Stereo Total is influenced by highbrow culture as well, especially art films. The band has written its own soundtracks to Weekend by Jean-Luc Godard and the German cult film Christiane F, which they've performed accompanying the films at a theater in Berlin. Several of these tunes are on Do the Bambi, and the album also features the song "Cinemania," which lists the band's favorite directors and actors. Jerry Lewis is mentioned alongside the likes of Fellini and Polanski.

"Jerry Lewis is really a big deal," Cactus says. "When I was small, they were always showing movies with him. Everybody knows him in France."

Cinema also plays a dynamic part in the imagery of Stereo Total's lyrics.

"Our inspiration is very visual," Cactus says. "It's always like a scene out of a movie even if it has nothing to do with a movie. For instance, the song 'I Am Naked.' It could be a little dialogue between new lovers and they are in their little flat, and he says, 'Oh, man. Why are you always going around all naked? The neighbors can see you.' And so she says, 'I have nothing to wear.'"

Comfortable tackling a wide range of genres, Stereo Total creates manic disco tunes like "Forever 16," experimental, postmodern soundtrack numbers such as "Vertigo" and twisted carnival tunes about tortured party girls, "Partymädchen Gefoltert." Cactus often writes about classically French themes such as the ménage à trois, "Love With the 3 of Us" ("L'amour à 3"), and rabbit eating, "Les Lapins." But in the end, these simultaneously über-hip and ultra-dorky Euros are most interested in fun. And their music shows it.

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Adam Bregman