STEREOLAB: ORBITING AROUND THE EARTH
Stereolab should be traveling by Sputnik but instead they’ve had to Greyhound it during this most recent transportationally troubled tour. They speak now to Camella Lobo.
You had some bus troubles, huh?
Tim Gane (guitar/keys): Yeah, our bus broke down about four days ago. We’ve been hopping on Greyhound buses over the past 15 hours. We had no other way to get to the gig!
Besides the transportation hiccups, how were the first few shows?
We’re getting it together now. We’ve actually only played four so far. It’s hard to get started and we had never played those eight or nine songs [from Chemical Chords] in front of anybody. To get the right spirit of the songs and that groove—you can only get that by playing a few times. Gradually things start to take shape so I think we’ve just about got that now. Although last night’s gig I didn’t play too well. We only play about six or so songs in an average set and we’ve been playing a lot off of Chemical Chords. We realized that we hadn’t actually played some of our older tracks like ‘French Disko’ or ‘Ping Pong’ in six or seven years! So we’ve brought those back as well.
How do you keep the momentum going through a three-month tour? You must get pretty tired.
I’ve been tired the last few days only because of how we’ve been traveling. You get tired but then get locked into a kind of flow. You can be a bit groggy but as soon as you start playing on stage, you wake up. Sometimes you don’t even notice how tired you are until you get back home and everything slows down. Then you’re sleeping like crazy hours.
What do you like to do when in Los Angeles?
I used to like going to a couple of record stores but they’re not there anymore. We never have that much time in one place but we like to go to the beach, if possible. It’s nice to do that because I actually remember the first time I saw the Pacific. It was when we first came over to the states in ’93. It was either our first U.S. tour or when we were coming over to meet with our old label, Slash.
I’m reading Dean Wareham’s memoir, Black Postcards, and he writes about meeting you and Laeticia—pre-Stereolab—at a club in London during a Galaxy 500 tour. Do you remember that?
I remember that, yeah. We had their first album and wanted them to sign it. It was really weird because at that point Laetitia had just cut her hair and she looked nearly identical to Naomi Yang. People kept mistaking her for Naomi and we thought people were thinking she was copying her but really, it was just a coincidence. It was a very low-key night, though. I think I knew some guy who was working at this tiny London venue where they played. But, yeah, years after that, we played with Luna a few times. I remember Dean telling me a story about when Luna was on tour with the Velvet Underground and they weren’t allowed to look at John Cale in the eye or something like that. And they weren’t allowed to speak to him unless they were spoken to first. I wonder if that’s in the book. I’m sure that will come up later.
Any thoughts on the current state of affairs here in the U.S.? Are you happy to be out of all this politickin’?
I was definitely following it more when I was at home. When you’re on tour everything is so up and down and you’re cut off from a lot of sources of information. You don’t really know what’s going on all of the time. We don’t have TVs but I’ve been sporadically watching some things. I know the first presidential debate was on last night but we were playing so I didn’t even really know what happened. I heard later it was sort of uneventful. I do know that in Texas there were plenty of Mc Cain/Palin posters. It will be interesting to see what happens with the current condition of the country. I just think it’s funny because the Bush administration has got to be the worst presidency ever. Hopefully they’ll get it together. But you know, Europe has its problems as well.
You currently live in Berlin, right?
At the moment. I’ve been there about three years now. It’s great. I love it. It’s very laid-back. London is just too tense for me now. Whenever I go back there, I can feel the tension in the air. Berlin is under-populated so it’s got that relaxed vibe. I haven’t really spoken German that much—just enough to get by. But everyone there speaks English so that makes it easier.
Many bands cite Stereolab as an influence. Did you ever think you would have that type of affect on other musicians?
No. We were just looking out for ourselves, really. Part of the thing is that I just picked up on the things that I like the idea of, whether it was a song or a record sleeve. I just tried to come up with an idea that would mix some of these things together in a way that wasn’t typical or that wasn’t going around at the time. But it took a while to do it. It took about a year for me to really think about it. I think there’s stuff that’s not really written about a lot. If you play music you’re always looking for things that inspire you and that keep you going. You are a little bit of a magpie when you’re playing music. You’re constantly looking around for something that maybe you can turn around and use or do differently. I remember going to a Sebadoh concert, who I like, and they started the show with a Stereolab track. It was completely weird!
There is a heavy Motown-girl group influence you’ve talked about on the new album, right?
I like that whole sound. To me, it has such uncanny resonance. It’s hard to explain it. The music is so simple with its chords and arrangement but when you hear it now there’s such conviction to it. It has such a strong resonance like a radiation that comes off of it and gets more and more complex. I think it’s some of the most complex music ever done. I was having a conversation with someone about this recently [avant-garde guitar player Rhys Chatham] and telling him that that music has the kind of relevancy that our music or avant-garde music will never really have, and I didn’t really know why that was. The idea of the music—the tempo and the arrangement of sound is what influenced me, and the fact that it was more upbeat. I don’t think in the end the tracks sound anything like the girl groups. It was just a board to jump off into something else.
Since the band began in 1990 you’ve seen many seminal bands come and go. Why has Stereolab continued for as long as it has?
It’s a combination of a lot of things. I think part of it is not having a hit. You don’t get that kind of pressure on you. The next is really boring, actually. The main reason we were able to survive is that we had enough money to do the next thing. When we signed with Elektra in 1993 we laid out kind of an outrageous contract stating all of the things we wouldn’t do. We never thought we’d end up on an album like that but they said yes. I also think we were popular without being too popular. Our music was never really what I would call mainstream. Stereolab has been more like something that is orbiting around the Earth. Sometimes it comes quite close and other times it can drift quite far away. Another reason is the people in the band. It’s been Laetitia and myself ever since the beginning and the others have been coming and going but it’s always been the right combination of people. I drive all of the music, so for me, I’m as much into the music now as I was then. I suppose the music has changed but I haven’t really changed at all. I’m just so into it. I don’t really see much relevance in how long we’ve been going. I don’t really think about that. I guess at some point I may have to change.
In an older interview I read you said it was rare for you to be completely happy with an album. Is this still the case?
Yeah. I think there’s that idea that one album will be absolutely everything and that just goes contrary to the way we work. There are so many elements you don’t control. You know people will ask things like, ‘This album is really poppy, why did you do that?’ and I’ll be like, ‘I don’t know. It was just the way it came out.’ To make an album that we really liked would have to re-do this and re-do that and we don’t really do that. It seems like our albums sum up a period. It’s a summation of those things, good or bad. For me, every album contains one or two tracks that I think are pretty light. Sometimes the best albums that we’ve done are compilations. It’s just the way things stick together. But I think this album pretty much works. I’m happy with it. There are one or two tracks we were working on that would have made it a much better album but we ran out of time. But I’m not sitting back smiling happy and saying how proud I am of the album. If it comes out great in the end I’m just as mystified as anyone else. It’s hard to control it but that’s what I like about it.
Has having a child affected your music or outlook on life?
Yes, but I don’t know exactly how. I don’t think it’s happened in any kind of obvious way where the music got more bouncy or happy. There are too many complexities involved in making music. Of course, it changes you as a person but I’m still obsessed with music. When I was a kid I had a big fear that when I grew up, I would like really boring music like Elton John because that’s just what happened when you grew up. I thought when you have a kid you don’t have time to listen to music anymore. You worry that that’s going to happen but it doesn’t happen. My son, Alex—he loves music. He’s got an iPod and he’s into electronic music and he just kind of sticks to himself. He picks and chooses what he likes. He’ll come running in saying, ‘What’s that, what’s that?’ and he’ll put it on his iPod because everything’s instant now, you know?