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Members include Duncan Brown (group member, 1993-96), bass; Joe Dilworth (group member, 1991-92), drums; Tim Gane (born on July 12, 1964), guitar, keyboards; Katharine Gifford (group member, 1993-95), keyboards, vocals; Mary Hansen (joined group, 1992; died on December 9, 2002), guitar, keyboards, vocals; Richard Harrison (joined group, 1996), bass; Martin Kean (group member, 1991-93), bass; Morgan Lhote (joined group, c. 1995), organ; Sean O'Hagan (group member, 1993), keyboards, guitar; Andy Ramsay (joined group, c. 1992), drums, percussion, vocals; Laetitia Sadier (born on May 6, 1968), vocals, keyboards. Addresses: Record company--Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019. Website--Stereolab Official Website: http://www.stereolab.co.uk.
Stereolab singer Laetitia Sadier told Pulse!: "We're a pop band in the sense that being pop is about knowing how to steal from the past and bring your own personality and ideas into it." Stereolab established itself as a cult favorite, partly because the band "stole" from an eclectic combination of largely ignored musical forms. But while other acts that share their passion for "Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music," easy listening, and other previously debased styles--mostly from the 1950s and '60s--Stereolab have refused to indulge in camp. Instead, they have taken the adventurous thread of such recordings and followed it into new sonic territory. Meanwhile, Sadier's lyrics have explored political and social issues with a surrealist's sense of poetry. "The whole effect is one of a shiny silver bubble," ventured Kathy Mancall in Addicted to Noise, "an erotically charged Jetsonian '60s vision of the future."
The band began in 1988, when Sadier met British guitarist-songwriter Tim Gane in Paris. Gane, then a member of the moody pop band McCarthy, used some translated lyrics of Sadier's on his band's final album, and the two were both musically and romantically involved shortly thereafter. By 1991 they formed Stereolab, which took its name from a record company of the "hi-fi" era that specialized in recordings designed to exploit the sonic capabilities of stereo equipment. Gane and Sadier also created their own label, Duophonic. Fascinated by the inventive, atmospheric recordings of such composers as Juan Esquivel and Martin Denny, who fused "exotic," symphonic, and avant-garde textures as well as such pop innovators as Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Stereolab began searching for new sounds.
The group's approach leaned heavily on out-of-date keyboards, especially old organs. Gane and company took the already spooky tone of such vintage gear and further modified it with other musical effects. "That roughed-up organ, put through an amp and distorted--I don't know why, but I'm always attracted to that kind of sound," Gane told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't like things too clean. I like a bit of spillage." Sadier noted to the newspaper's Lorraine Ali that the ensemble "didn't look for that particular sound, we kind of stumbled on it. We happened to find this Farfisa organ, a great big plastic thing from the '70s, in a thrift shop," she added. The sound of this organ--generally considered outdated since its long-vanished heyday--appealed strongly to the Stereolab sensibility.
With a shifting crew of personnel that has included singer/guitarist Mary Hansen, bassist Duncan Brown, drummer Andy Ramsay, keyboardist/singer Katharine Gifford, multi-instrumentalist Sean O'Hagan, and a score of guest performers, Stereolab began constructing their idiosyncratic sound. "Basically, Tim writes the music on a 4-track (tape machine) and gets a very thin, sort of skeleton of a song," Sadier noted of their approach in Grip. "And I write some lyrics on top of that, and then we have the bones of the song. And then we either take time to practice it and then take to the studio, or we go straight to the studio and bring flesh to it there. Basically, when we record we've not really worn the songs in, it's really the birth of them."
After a couple of indie releases began to generate a cult following, Stereolab were signed to Elektra Records. Their major label debut, Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, stunned critics and suggested that the group's ambitions were expanding. Sadier recalled in Pulse! that the album "was a nightmare to record--even talking about it brings a pain to my stomach." Yet by the time of 1994's follow-up, Mars Audiac Quintet, she added, Stereolab was "much more in control. You always need to f*** up somewhere to then be able to do something that's right."
At the time of the Mars release, Gane outlined some of his musical preferences to Lorraine Ali of the Los Angeles Times. "I like music made for utilitarian reasons, like elevator music," he asserted. "You can take it out of its original purpose, then it's just strange and very avant-garde. It's like an odd little art world, but the people who made that music didn't think it was strange at the time." In Addicted to Noise, he argued that "People are ready to look for something else [besides] mainstream rock music, and trying to find something for themselves, taking a chance and finding things that aren't forced down your throat." Ali of the Los Angeles Times characterized the group's work as "easy-listening music for a generation raised on [alternative noise-rockers] Sonic Youth." This proved accurate; Stereolab toured on the second stage of the traveling alternative music festival Lollapalooza. Yet such widespread exposure didn't prevent them from providing music for an art exhibit by a little-known sculptor, Charles Long.
Rather than exploit the kitsch value of "hi-fi" eccentrics like Esquivel, Denny, Les Baxter, and others--as a burgeoning circle of indie "lounge" bands had done--Stereolab took their influences seriously. "There's supposedly a trashy quality to it," Sadier told Pulse!, "but to us it actually means a lot. We don't feel it's kitsch. Some of these records are actually really good, with good music and ideas. Things that take you somewhere. These records were looking into the future with enthusiasm and great hope, and we like to look at the future that way."
Meanwhile, over sonic collages inspired by such eclectic sources, Sadier wrote lyrics--in French and English--of social confusion and loss. She was nonetheless bemused that critics persisted in labeling her a Marxist. However, her questioning stance did suggest a politically subversive agenda. "I'm not coming up with answers," she claimed in Strobe, "but surely there are answers to our problems. After having asked all the right questions, you'll want to take action. It's up to us, there's no big written solution, there's no God, and no ideologies either. There's only ourselves that we can rely on."
Stereolab expanded its following considerably with its subsequent releases, especially the much-praised Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Newly inspired by European progressive rock and the avant-jazz of Sun Ra and Don Cherry, the group once again explored new sonic territory. "The new songs are similar to what we always do with repetition and minimalism," Gane told Newsday. "But this time I wanted them to be bouncy, more rubbery. I wanted to have more of a swing." Musician deemed Emperor "extraordinary," while England's Melody Maker called it "bloody essential." Entertainment Weekly proclaimed that "They may be influenced by obscure German groups, they may sing partially in French, but Stereolab's kitsch pop is enjoyable even without a foreign language degree."
Following the release of Emperor Tomato Ketchup, bassist Duncan Brown departed, and was replaced by Richard Harrison. He made his first full-length recording with the group, Dots and Loops, in 1997. The group's lineup was enhanced by guests Jan St. Werner, a member of the German techno band Mouse on Mars, and producer and musician John McEntire from the band Tortoise. In addition to the Moog and Farfisa keyboards usually associated with Stereolab, the group also introduced an EMS Vocoder into their instrumental lineup. "People usually use it for vocals or keyboards," Gane told Guitar Player, "But an EMS Vocoder is great with drums or drum machines and guitar or organ. What comes out is a strange amalgamation. It's like the film The Fly, when the guy goes through the transformation. When it comes out it's a perfect blend of fly and human." Gane and Sadier put the group on hiatus afterwards in order to spend time with their first child. In 1999, they enlisted producers John McIntire and Jim O'Rourke for Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night.
Stereolab activities in the first years of the 21st century included the release of Sound-Dust in 2001 and a collection of live BBC Radio performances, ABC Music: The Radio 1 Sessions in 2002. Following the release of the latter album, singer-guitarist Mary Hansen died in London, England, after being hit by a truck while riding her bike. She was 36. Stereolab soldiered on in her absence, however, and released the critically acclaimed Margarine Eclipse in early 2004. Entertainment Weekly critic Elisabeth Vincentelli proclaimed the album the group's best release since Emperor Tomato Ketchup: "Returning to its roots, the band strikes a graceful balance between rockers that charge forward with exhilarating abandon and pop tunes that float about with delightful melodic inventiveness. It's like greeting old friends who'd been held hostage by free-jazz playing aliens for seven years."
by Simon Glickman and Bruce Walker
Group formed in London, England, c. 1991; released debut recordings on own label, Duophonic; released debut album Switched On Stereolab, on Too Pure label, 1992; signed to Elektra Records and released Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, 1993; provided music for exhibit by sculptor Charles Long, 1995; participated in Lollapalooza traveling music festival, 1995; released Emperor Tomato Ketchup, 1996; released Dots and Loops, 1997; released Sound Dust, 2001; released Margarine Eclipse, 2004.
- Selected discography
- Switched On Stereolab Too Pure, 1992.
- Peng! Too Pure, 1992.
- The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music Too Pure, 1993.
- Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements Elektra, 1993.
- Mars Audiac Quintet Elektra, 1994.
- Refried Ectoplasm Duophonic, 1995.
- Emperor Tomato Ketchup Elektra, 1996.
- Dots and Loops Drag City, 1997.
- Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night Duophonic, 1999.
- Sound-Dust Elektra, 2001.
- ABC Music: The BBC Radio 1 Sessions Koch, 2002.
- Margerine Eclipse Elektra, 2004.
- Addicted to Noise, June 1996.
- College Music Journal (CMJ), April 1996.
- Entertainment Weekly, January 23, 2004.
- Grip, June 1996.
- Los Angeles Times, August 6, 1994; April 24, 1996; April 27, 1996.
- Melody Maker, March 16, 1996.
- Musician, June 1996.
- Newsday, May 20, 1996.
- Option, July 1993.
- Pitchfork, June 1996.
- Progressive, July 1, 1996.
- Pulse!, September 1994.
- Spin, August 1996.
- Strobe, September 1994.
- Guitar Player, December 1997.
- "Stereolab," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (February 8, 2004).
- "Stereolab," VH1, http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/stereolab/bio.jhtml (February 8, 2004).
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