The Guide to Getting into Stereolab's High-Concept Pop
As the London-based group gets ready to reissue their studio albums and head out on tour, here's how to get started with their innovative and unparalleled discography.
In the 19 years leading up their 2009 year hiatus, Stereolab released a string of beguilingly extraterrestrial-sounding albums, bridging the gap between pop and experimental music. The London-based outfit could sound entirely different from one record to the next—and sometimes even from one song to the next. Hailed as “the ultimate record collection rockers” by music critic Simon Reynolds, Stereolab used their eclectic taste to build a hybrid music, one that dabbled, variously, in avant-garde, noise, bossa nova, lounge and jazz, to obscure cinematic scores, musique concrète, 1960s pop, Brazilica, and Krautrock.
Formed in 1990 by analog gear and record enthusiast Tim Gane and his then partner, French singer Lætitia Sadier, the band took its name from Vanguard Stereolab, a subsidiary of Vanguard Records that specialized in hi-fi effects. Their music was highly cerebral and studious, with lyrics that referenced surreal imagery, Situationist philosophy, and leftist politics, sung in both English and French. As an expression of his love for record collecting, Gane also co-founded a boutique label, Duophonic, with the band’s manager, Martin Pike, which has released limited edition singles and EPs by Stereolab and like-minded peers.
“I guess Stereolab was conceived as a ‘high concept’ pop group, and I guess that’s remained the case,” Gane told FACT in 2009. “I always liked the idea of a conceptual band, and of achieving certain resonances with the way the records look and sound, right down to the titles of the songs—you know, I’m always looking for the nth degree of effect.”
Album titles such as Switched On, Emperor Tomato Ketchup, and “The Groop Played ‘Space Age Bachelor Pad Music’’’ all referenced different sources of inspiration: Wendy Carlos, a short, experimental Japanese film, and a fascination with lounge and exotica, respectively. The song titles, which for fans were regularly a source of both bemusement and amusement, could be as obtuse as “Puncture In The Radax Permutation” or “How To Play Your Internal Organs Overnight,” but also as simple as directly honoring their heroes by name: “John Cage Bubblegum,” “The Free Design,” “We're Not Adult Orientated (Neu Wave Live),” “Brigitte.”
The one constant with Stereolab was Sadier’s French accent and deep and impassive voice. Although she delivered her lyrics with a detached chillness, her consistency as a vocalist, especially one who could switch between languages so effortlessly, provided a focal point within the musical chaos that surrounded her. Until her untimely death in 2002, fellow vocalist Mary Hansen would act as the ying to Sadier’s yang, their breezy, two-part harmonies offsetting Sadier’s heavier, more stoic vocals with her sweet falsetto.
Like many leftfield artists during the post-Nirvana alternative sweepstakes of the early 90s, Stereolab built a sizeable following. In 1993, they signed a deal stateside with Elektra, the major label they would call home for eight full-length albums before defecting to 4AD in 2008 for their final studio release. They only scarcely made contact with mainstream culture (i.e. soundtracking a VW Beetle commercial, being used as a pick up line in High Fidelity), but they were key players in helping establish the post-rock scene of the late 90s, alongside peers like Tortoise and Mouse On Mars, both of whom co-produced their 1997 album, Dots and Loops.
You can hear obvious traces of Stereolab’s music in the work of later artists like Broadcast, Air, Laika, Electrelane, Atlas Sound and most recently, Le SuperHomard, and Vanishing Twin. And thanks to their unconventional rhythms and whimsical arrangements, they’ve been sampled by artists from all over the musical map, including veteran acts like Busta Rhymes, Madlib, and Brandy, and newer artists like Jamilia Woods, Pro Era, and the late Mac Miller.
After calling a hiatus in 2009, Stereolab have returned to finally reissue their studio albums, beginning with 1993’s Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, and in May will embark on a tour in the Summer and Fall. For anyone that wasn’t around for the band’s original run, here is a primer on where to start with Stereolab’s innovative and unparalleled discography.
So You Want To Get Into: Jazzy Exotica Stereolab?
One major misnomer about Stereolab was that they were part of the early 90s lounge revival. The confusion was partly their own doing. Naming their 1993 record The Groop Played ‘Space Age Batchelor Pad Music was bound to fool fans of the popular Ultra-Lounge compilation series at the time. But while that release offered little for cocktail party guests (the “foamy” version of “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music” was best described by Simon Reynolds as “a Muzak vent that's fallen into a swimming pool”), Stereolab wasn’t just spoofing exotica legends like Martin Denny and Juan Garcia Esquivel.
In an interview with the L.A. Times, the band acknowledged their inclusion in the lounge revival. “We have our own interpretations of exotica, though,” said Lætitia Sadier. “Like we did an album called Space Age Batchelor Pad Music, which revolved around the smooth schmooze of the 50s, but it was our own mutation of it. It's actually Stereolab's sound.”
Some of their music could be construed as easy listening. Their most Muzak-leaning album was the ambitious Dots and Loops. Opener “Brakhage” moves at a brisk pace, but is unequivocally chilled out, with its jazzy drum fills, warm rinses of Moog, and dominant vibraphone loops. The album gets easier-going along the way, with the breezy “Prisoner of Mars”; the swaying, orchestral bliss of “Rainbo Conversation”; and the lengthy “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse,” essentially a four-part suite where the band expresses a range of experimental urges.
This was a vibe they would revisit throughout subsequent albums. Tracks like “Velvet Water” (from 1999’s Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night), “Hallucinex” (from 2001’s Sound Dust), “The Man With 100 Cells (from 2004’s Margerine Eclipse), “Daisy Click Clack” (from 2008’s Chemical Chords), and “Laserblast” (from 2010’s Not Music), all run the gamut from lounge, to bossa nova, to exotica.
Playlist: “Brakhage” / “Plastic Mile” / “Nomus et Phusis” / “Prisoner of Mars” / “The Man With 100 Cells” / “Rainbo Conversation” / “Spacemoth” / “Hallucinex” / “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse” / “Daisy Click Clack” / “Laserblast” / “Gus The Mynah Bird” / “Spool of Collusion”
So You Want To Get Into: Political Stereolab?
Listening to Stereolab's discography, it's easy to overlook the fact that their music contained some overtly political manifestos. The band didn’t preach their anti-capitalist agenda with the same belligerence as Public Enemy or Rage Against the Machine. Instead, they embedded their radical views in Sadier’s poetic lyrics, which blended in with the music’s persuasive melodies.
Of course, Stereolab’s politics paled in comparison to Tim Gane’s previous band, McCarthy, which was one of the most dogmatic groups of the C86 scene, the nickname for Britain’s indie pop boom in the mid-80s. Vocalist Malcolm Eden was an outspoken communist who used the band’s jangly pop as a platform for his anti-Thatcher, anti-capitalist grievances. Sadier joined on vocals for the final album, 1990’s Banking, Violence And The Inner Life Today, before she and Gane moved on to form Stereolab.
Still, you can hear echoes of McCarthy in what came after.
Their 1994 single, “Ping Pong,” houses Stereolab’s most visibly political communiqué within a bouncy pop song. Surrounded by vibrant horns, an infectious lead organ, and Mary Hansen’s backing “oohs,” Sadier attacks both capitalism and the military: “There's only millions that lose their jobs/ And homes and sometimes accents / There's only millions that die / In their bloody wars, it's alright.”
As Tim Gane told The Washington Post in 1999, Stereolab never used politics in a sloganeering way. But, as Sadier explained in a 2012 interview with Westword, “Music and politics go perfectly hand in hand.” She continued: “I'm just surprised there's not more politics in music these days. It just gives meaning to what I do, and I see that a lot of bands in post-punk were extremely politicized… It was a way of fighting. We're kind of in a system where you have to fight.”
Playlist: “Ping Pong” / “Crest” / “Brakage” / “Motoroller Scalatron” / “Eye of the Volcano” / “Contronatura” / "The Man with 100 Cells"
So You Want To Get Into: Krautrockin’ Stereolab?
From the cosmic synth noodling to the recurring, four-four Motorik beat, Stereolab’s music is full of references to Krautrock. Often, this affinity for the German-bred experimental music would result in lengthy jams or abrupt tangents, but unlike any other band of their time, Stereolab could turn even the gnarliest sounds into hypnotic pop music. That was the plan from the very beginning.
“In the early 80s I was a big fan of Krautrock music—like Faust, Neu! and Can,” Gane would tell Tape-Op in 2013. “I'd been in two bands, and I didn't want to do ‘just another band.’ I was looking for a way of combining the experimental with the commercial. The idea was a combination of naïve pop melodies melded with very simple rock minimalism.”
Early Stereolab favored four-four rhythms and trance-inducing walls of noise, but on “Metronomic Underground,” the lead track from their seminal 1996 album, Emperor Tomato Ketchup, they took the inspiration to the next level, kicking off the most accessible and celebrated release in their catalog with a spellbinding, eight-minute marathon. Like Can’s “Spoon” before it, it was an exercise in holding a steady, calming funk groove, while surrounding it with disorder. Despite its long duration, the song has become a fan favorite, thanks in part to its two-part vocal harmonies.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup offers plenty more of that fine, German engineering. The title track is textbook Neu!, whose Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger deconstructed the rock music template in the post-war Düsseldorf of the 70s and 80s. Gane is an admitted fan, and so it should come as no surprise that the track’s sputtering rhythm and fluttering noise recall the timeless “Hallogallo,” from the 1972 Neu! LP.
Krautrock is more than just Neu! and Can, obviously, and Stereolab certainly flexed their understanding of that movement’s penchant for pushing boundaries. 1994 B-side “Ulan Bator” gurgles and hums like anything off avant-Krautrockers Cluster’s Sowiesoso, and the droning “We’re Not Adult Oriented” is the work of a band that spent countless hours in a bedroom studying the mind-expanding jams of Amon Düül, who they later sampled on Dots and Loops’ “Diagonals.”
Playlist: “Metronomic Underground” / “Jenny Ondioline” / “Op Hop Detonation” / “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” / “The Long Hair of Death” / “Silver Sands (Emperor Machine Remix)” / French Disko” / “ Wow and Flutter” / “Les Yper Sound” / “Ulan Bator” / “We’re Not Adult Oriented”
So You Want To Get Into: ’60s Throwback Stereolab?
By the mid-90s, Stereolab shared little in common with the band that had been making ear-bleeding, drone rock just a few years prior. Gane began adding a new layer of complexity to Stereolab’s music. This seemed to bring out his love for the ornate pop music of the 1960s, including sunshine pop (i.e. Harpers Bizarre, Beach Boys), yé-yé (i.e. Françoise Hardy, Jane Birkin), and baroque pop (i.e. The Left Banke, The Zombies). He would tell FACT in 2009, “There was kind of a change in the way I wrote from about 93 on—I got really tired of doing things the same old way. It was then that my interest in repetition, in repetition itself, and in revealing something through layering, took hold.”
Thanks to Sadier’s bilingual singing, Stereolab were already used to the “French pop” tag. But with the sweeping string arrangements and multi-part vocal harmonies of Emperor Tomato Ketchup’s “Cybele’s Reverie,” not to mention the good vibrations of tracks like “You Used To Call Me Sadness” and “Fluorescences,” Stereolab had transformed into an elegant, orchestral pop group.
With Tortoise/The Sea & Cake percussionist John McEntire in the producer’s chair for most of Dots and Loops, Stereolab were pushing the band’s jazz, bossa nova and electronic influences deeper into the music’s core, but tracks like the waltzing “The Flower Called Nowhere” and the swinging “Miss Modular” were clearly indebted to the romantic 60s sound mined by artists such as Burt Bacharach, Wendy & Bonnie, and the Association.
This carried on through to Cobra and Phases. “The Spiracles” resembled something from the Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up; “The Emergency Kisses”was Stereolab’s closest attempt at yé-yé; and “With Friends Like These” which would have had influential French composer Jean-Claude Vannier eating his heart out. Sound Dust followed that up with the breezy soft pop of “Nought More Terrific Than Man” and the effervescent “Captain Easychord,” a blend of cosmic country and Tijuana Brass that flips the script halfway through to channel the weird pop experiments of Joe Meek & The Blue Men.
In a 2008 interview with Wired, Gane explained his fascination with music from the 60s. “For me, [it] is amongst the most complicated or complex music because it has so many resonances that strike you. The music itself is often simple, but the way that I interpret it, or the way I think it’s interpreted culturally, is very complex.” At the time, he was promoting the band’s final studio album, 2008’s Chemical Chords, which is arguably the band’s clearest homage to 60s pop, thanks in part to longtime collaborator Sean O’Hagan’s string arrangements. The result is a cohesive set of songs that included the Bacharach-esque bounce of “Self Portrait with ‘electric brain’” and “Silver Sands,” and the baroque elegance of the title track and “The Ecstatic Static.”
Playlist: “Cybele’s Reverie” / “Fluorescences” / “Miss Modular” / “The Spiracles” / “Chemical Chords” / “Nought More Terrific Than Man” / “The Flower Called Nowhere” / “You Used To Call Me Sadness” / “The Emergency Kisses” / “Long Life Love” / “Allures” / “Captain Easychord” / “With Friends Like These” / “The Ecstatic Static”
So You Want To Get Into: Other Stereolab-Related Projects?
Stereolab has always been a band for record collectors, and considering that all of its members were active outside of the band, there is a lot to explore. The best starting point would be Gane’s first band, McCarthy. In the beginning, they were one of many London-based indie pop bands, but frontman Malcolm Eden’s revolutionary politics largely what set them apart from their jangly peers. Like Stereolab, McCarthy was a favorite of BBC DJ John Peel, and worshipped by fellow activist rockers Manic Street Preachers, whose Nicky Wire hailed McCarthy’s debut album, I Am A Wallet, as “the most perfect record, a Communist manifesto with tunes.” And while that album is probably McCarthy’s crowning achievement, fans might first want to sample their final album, Banking, Violence and the Inner Life Today, which features Sadier.
Gane has worked on a number of projects with one-time Stereolab member Sean O’Hagan, whose band, the High Llamas, shares a similar pop aesthetic. Gane helped mix that group’s 2011 album, Talahomi Way, after the pair composed the orchestral pop score for Marc Fitoussi’s 2007 film, La Vie d’Artiste. They also recorded a 1997 album under the name of Turn On, which also features Stereolab percussionist Andy Ramsay. The self-titled album is a Moog collector’s wet dream, rich with bubbling analog synths and fluid, jazzy rhythms. It sounds more like a batch of discarded Stereolab studio noodlings than anything else—especially the track “Re Tenone,” which features Sadier on vocals and could easily have been on Emperor Tomato Ketchup.
Recently, Gane has focused his energy on Cavern of Anti-Matter, a band he formed with Stereolab drummer Joe Dilworth and synth wizard Holger Zapf. Based in Gane’s current home of—where else?—Berlin, the trio of vintage gear heads is one of today’s most devout examples of Krautrock and Kosmiche reverence. Stereolab fans might hear flecks of Gane’s old band on tracks like “Phase Modulation Shuffle,” from last year’s Hormone Lemonade, or “Insect Fear,” from 2016’s Void Beats/Invocation Trex, but the majority of COAM’s three albums are deep, immersive dives into a whole other realm of synthesizer music.
Lætitia Sadier has also kept busy. Although she ended her side-project, Monade, the same year Stereolab went on their hiatus, there is plenty to dig into there. Based in France, the band released three studio albums—1996’s Socialisme Ou Barbarie (The Bedroom Recordings), 2005’s A Few Steps More, and 2008’s Monstre Comic—co-opting the more orchestral pop side of Stereolab. After Monade,, Sadier continued as a solo artist, releasing four albums of globe-trotting art-pop for Drag City, working with collaborators such as John McEntire; the late singer-songwriter/producer Richard Swift; The Sea & Cake’s Sam Prekop; Tortoise’s Jeff Parker; and Stereolab’s Julien Gasc and Joe Watson.
Other Stereolab members have released projects of their own. Europa 51’s lone 2003 album, Abstractions, is the work of ’Labbers Andy Ramsay and Simon Johns, also featuring Mary Hansen and High Llamas contributors Dominic Murcott and John Bennett. Like Stereolab, Europa 51 was a hybrid project that combined styles like lounge, jazz, bluegrass, and folk—with breezy, if sometimes uneven, results. More Stereolab-ish is Imitation Electric Piano, Johns’ band with British guitarist Andrew Blake, which at first explored cosmic, jazzy post-rock, only to evolve into a plucky avant-pop group on 2006’s Blow It Up, Burn It Down, Kick It 'Till It Bleeds. Shoegaze and Britpop fans will enjoy Snowpony’s John McEntire-produced debut, The Slow Motion World of Snowpony, featuring Katharine Gifford, who played on Mars Audiac Quintet, Debbie Googe (My Bloody Valentine), Debbie Smith (Echobelly, Curve) and Kevin Bass (Rollerskate Skinny, Quickspace).
As a group, Stereolab recorded collaborations with other artists. Their 1997 work with post-industrial act Nurse With Wound is definitely worth a listen; tracks like “Animal Or Vegetable [A Wonderful Wooden Reason...]” and “Simple Headphone Mind” are lengthy, balls-trippin’ journeys into the unknown. There’s also Uilab, an amalgamation of Stereolab and Ui, the experimental rock group that featured music critic Sasha Frere-Jones. They only released one EP, 1997’s Fires, which mainly serves up intriguing versions of Brian Eno’s “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
Playlist: McCarthy “Red Sleeping Beauty” / Cavern of Anti Matter “Phase Modulation Shuffle” / Monade “Sensible Et Extensible” / Stereolab/Nurse With Wound “Animal Or Vegetable [A Wonderful Wooden Reason...]” / Imitation Electric Piano “Energy Is Beautiful” / McCarthy “Take The Shortest Way With The Men Of Violence” / Laetitia Sadier “Dry Fruit” / Tim Gane & Sean O’Hagan “Champagne!” (from La Vie d’Artiste) / Europa 51 “Europa 51”