October 25th, 2010 | Interviews

alice rutherford

Laetitia Sadier “One Million Year Trip”

Laetitia Sadier’s voice will always be associated with Stereolab, but that’s not really such a bad thing. Still, Sadier is eager to discover a new space of her own. She has recently scored a Marxist film, made three albums with her band Monade, and now presents her first completely solo endeavor, The Trip. This interview by Kristina Benson.

You said in a past interview that ‘you can’t appoint yourself an artist; you just become one.’ How do you know when you become one?
Ah yes—that’s a tricky question. I don’t know. The country where I come from, France—you have to be touched by the hand of God to be an artist. So you don’t even become one, OK? You’re either graced, or you’re not. Of course, I was born like the black sheep in the family, and I didn’t know my grace when I was 14, 15. I had no idea, and it’s only much much later—when I came to England, I was like ‘OK, punk’s been around,’ and it was basically demolishing any set ideas or preconceived ideas of what it’s like to be an artist. ‘You want to express yourself? Be an artist? Go ahead! Do it! It’s healthy. Get your shit together and do it! Don’t go to school for it, don’t ask permission, don’t get a degree—just do it.’ Which was really liberating and really empowering. And I feel that was my school—more what I would follow in a way, to say ‘fuck you!’ to the big academic world of artists in France. So it’s true that for years we grew from that. Stereolab is not a punk band, but it really derived from the punk energy. It was second generation, but certainly still that punk blood was flowing through our veins and our motto, our philosophy, our principles, was not like, ‘Hey, we are artists. We are ahhh-tists.’ There was none of that. Just: ‘Let’s do. Let’s make. Let’s make music. We love music. Music is our aim—our priority.’ And that was that. Knowing very well we were artists and are artists, but it was set aside from that preconceived notion of Artist With a Big A. And now things have changed a hell of a lot. Now everyone’s an artist.
How do you feel about this thing where anyone can be an artist nowadays? I mean, in your own band, you said you wanted people who couldn’t play their instruments too well—
Certainly when I started Monade, I didn’t want people who could play too well because they would be bored in the band. They couldn’t be guys from Tortoise because it would be fun for maybe five minutes but they would be bored. I needed an environment where I could grow and where I could grow with others at the same pace. And then as it stood, we didn’t grow at the same pace. I was ready to grow faster and faster, and some weren’t because they had other interests. But the idea was to grow together because alone it could get a bit boring. I know for me that it’s excruciating when I have to practice alone in my living room. When you’re a band, it’s much more motivating together. The thing is, I think we’ve been misled all along regarding our creativity—that it was only the business of a certain handful of privileged people who are talented, and who somehow could put themselves in a position where they could go to school and learn or they would have the strength and somehow they could do it. Which to some degree is true, but now we’re finding there’s much more artists and much much more people making music. And much more people who are expressing themselves because they can, because they can be exposed. I can record myself on my computer. I can record an album on my computer next weekend if I want to, and release it, and so all this technology has made it possible so that people can not only express and record and manifest themselves, but also project it into the world. So it seems like there’s more artists. I do believe we all have a huge limitless endless creative potential that is there—we can tap into it, it’s just there. And people who don’t, for several reasons—it’s still there. The potential is there and limitless and there’s no crisis there.
It’s interesting how you mention the French Academie as a place for privileged people. Because in the States, France is painted as this socialist haven for artists.
It’s much more socialist than the U.S., and as far as I know, you have to pay a bit to study, but you don’t have to put yourself through massive debt if you or your parents don’t have the money for you to study. You still have to pay something to study, but it’s not crazy. I think America is probably the most expensive place to study.
It’s disgustingly expensive, yes.
And I think China is one of the cheapest. But in France you have to pay something, and I think a little contribution is good. I don’t think it should be completely free because then you probably lose the value of what you’re doing. But there’s still a lot of drop-outs. I was a drop-out after three months—I dropped out of the university that my mother decided I would do, which wasn’t art. France is socialist in the sense that when you work, you have to put some money aside for this, and that, and the other, and you can have—as artists, it’s a complicated system but really, nothing in life is free. So maybe some people know how to work the system better than others. It works, although it’s changing. Because there are forces out there that seek to demolish the social system, you know. Capitalism is growing stronger and stronger—has a stronger grip. And there is more and more gap between the rich and the poor. It’s moving up again, leaving the ones below. So there are millions of people in France who don’t eat every day what they should eat. It’s not just in America. I know there is a lot of poverty in America, and I’ve seen people work three jobs and still not really make ends meet.
You’ve spoken about ownership of music before—how when you lived with Tim [Gane], he’d bring home all these records and he saw the objects themselves as both the means and the ends, but you looked at them as simply a means to deliver music. But this was before the internet.
It’s tricky. Yes, it’s good that technology evolves. OK—my CD? I’ll probably sell 10,000 copies worldwide. I’ll be lucky. I may not even get to that—I dunno. But fifteen years ago? I probably would have sold 50, 60, 70,000? And Stereolab would have sold maybe 150,000. And Stereolab, the last album did very poorly, yes—because people download it for free on the internet. Unless you have a real consciousness, a real awareness, which most people don’t really have—given the chance you’re tempted to download. I have personally never downloaded but for instance, my boyfriend will buy a CD and I will put it on my iTunes. So it’s a kind of stealing as well—of using it for two, because he bought it and I didn’t pay for it. But that can’t be helped, and I don’t know the solution to that, globally. But what I do see is the devaluation of people’s work, and that we are threatened—deliberately—and told, you know, ‘You better cling to your work, even with your shit pay, because look at the queue of unemployed people who would love to have your shit job for shit pay.’ And that I find really a disastrous tendency—more so than people nicking my music. But it is awfully problematic, you know? That is a real human problem that we’re facing that doesn’t have necessarily to do with technology, but has more to do with the outlook on humans—that humans are shit, and just there to be exploited, and we’re just here to exploit another. And we’re all at the mercy of that. Of not stepping outside of our hearts. And even when I sell my CDs, sometimes, after a show, I feel super awkward, because ugh! It’s not still very clear in my mind. I know it’s a very good thing, to sell my CDs, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s like, ‘Oh! I don’t want this mercantile thing, I don’t want to have to do it.’
You’ve said that when you wrote a song, you felt it was this miracle that it had happened. And then you decided to put what you referred to as your ‘tiny little songs’ down. I was really struck by the humility in that—is this humility part of a strategy of not putting pressure on yourself?
Yes, I don’t know any other way. I’ve done stuff. I can take orders, people can place orders, you know like, some friends—like Phil Collins, who makes arthouse films. They’re called Marxism Today. I scored his art films so I know I can work. I know it’s not a miracle any more, and I’ve moved on from this phase of thinking it’s a miracle. And I master things, to some extent. I’m not insecure about that. But I never went to school, I can’t read music, I can’t play very well, I can only play my own songs, I don’t know any other people’s songs. I can only move in my own restricted way. I’m self-taught, I’m left-handed. I play right-handed, left-handed, you know, so I’m restricted in what I can do. But somehow, it doesn’t matter. It’s still a lot for me.
I’m sorry, can we back up—you said you scored a film?
It’s two art films, and they are both prologues to a longer film that is going to be made at some stage, and they came out in movie art houses. So I was just this Sunday in Manchester at a place called Corner House, which is an arts film house. I don’t think it gets any commercial release. They are 20-, 25-minute movies. But I have no idea who will be able to see them apart from the happy few who would have gone to the right galleries at the right time.
You said with Stereolab that Tim comes in with the music and you write the lyrics. So I think about that from the perspective of a vocalist, and the idea of scoring music sounds so intimidating. How did you realize you could do that?
I just did! It was a little bit like a pregnant woman who doesn’t know that she slept with anyone and then something happens and she’s in denial that she’s even pregnant and then a kid comes out of her. And she’s like, ‘Oh! What’s this?’
You’ve been making music for over twenty years—now that you’ve done all this, what still frightens you?
Everything is a challenge. When they said, ‘OK, we’ve started the film out, can you have the music ready by tomorrow night?’ And I don’t have my recording equipment. I have a ProTools that kind of doesn’t work, I don’t have a setup. I asked my friend Marie and she came over with her computer and we really knocked something all night. And we sent it, and it came back, ‘OK, a bit of this, a bit of that,’ so we were making adjustments. I don’t know—it’s really fun! But at the same time it’s really nail-biting—you’re really working against the clock. I still get nervous before going on stage. I hate the three, two hours before going on stage. I get really nervous.
When I have to perform on stage, I spend the two or three hours before frantically trying on different outfits.
Ha! That’s a good way! I don’t have many clothes so I don’t do that but I’m going to try that!
In a different interview, you said that you felt like a French girl had to be petite and pretty, and you didn’t feel like you fit that.
Since I started, things have changed quite a lot. Somehow, women have really moved into this industry, including women promoters. Fifteen years ago, it was only guys, and now I’ve seen a lot more women take matters into their own hands. I feel that women have risen up to kind of honoring their creativity. Not everyone can end up on stage, singing their songs. I think it requires something that not everyone has got. Everyone has got something, though. I find that I meet more women now than I did, really. Also I have aged, and I don’t take shit. At some point, people could give me shit, but now they won’t give me shit so much because they know I won’t take it. But I find that generally, it’s—you had such retards, you know, doing your monitors. Now, less I find that. More just like, people getting on. Less stupid egos. More humility all around.
Stereolab’s very first EP, the 10” with Nurse With Wound’s—
No, no. The very first was a 10” that we released ourselves on Duophonic. It had four tracks. Was it Super-Electric? I don’t remember. God, I’m going to have to pull it out now.
I don’t know how you keep track.
I don’t generally. And the other thing is, I never listen to our music, or very exceptionally, so I’m not—OK, this is a very rare object that I’m pulling out. It’s called Stereolab Super 45. That’s what it’s called. And it has on it ‘The Light That Will Cease to Fail,’ ‘Au Grand Jour’ on side one, and on side two, ‘Brittle’ and ‘Au Grand Jour Prima.’ Oh I have to play that! Wow! We only printed 1,000 and I think it’s one of the records in the top 50 record collectors. You know the record collector magazines? Tim used to buy it all the time. Religiously. And that was in the top 50 of most sought-after records!
How did you feel when you saw that?
You don’t feel anything, really. It doesn’t change your life. I know I’ve had people been quite amazed. There are guys who really follow this kind of thing. It has a deep meaning to them. But it’s like, we were number 50 of the top 50, you know? Sorry, I just find it quite funny.
It seems like Tim collected library music, which is rare and hard to come by these days. So what was the first library music album you really connected with?
In terms of library music? Or just any records? I mean, music excites me on an emotional level and those records emotionally are completely empty so they’d resonate at zero with me. They are just kind of sound testings, you know? They are only made with the purpose of trying your stereo, aren’t they?
Though reviewers often compare your work in Stereolab to that kind of music.
Yes, now I can see, because they are kind of detached, in a way—like music that you do this and that to. But there is still a lot of thought going on, and a real richness, and not all like splurging with emotion but somehow, it’s not empty music. It resonates. It has a resonance. On several levels, you know, intellectual and kind of—but gentle. It’s not in your face.
When you’ve spoken about Tim and his influence on you, you talk about him as a dedicated record collector, and how he makes all the decisions in Stereolab. It must have been scary to have the final say in everything, then, in your solo projects.
I had never been in a band so I didn’t know any better. I joined [McCarthy] for the last five minutes of it. Ar some stage, I needed also to express my musical ideas. At some stage, I found it very frustrating, you know, that it was always Tim. It was not building my confidence, you know, that he was such a great songwriter and all this. Do you know what I mean?
Absolutely. Also, the fact that he had this incredible collection of records.
I think guys are more apt to really kind of accumulating this kind of knowledge. My new boyfriend is like that too. He can tell you what date a record came out, what number it was on the charts—and I don’t give a fuck who was number one or number five on the charts in the States in 1973. It’s like, to me, this knowledge is completely unnecessary. Somehow, for him, it’s easy to remember this. And when his daughter was born, he is like, ‘When was that?’ Or the date of our wedding anniversary.
I found a story about a fan who stole a setlist off the stage after a Stereolab show, and it was just a list of the bands that had inspired each of the songs. Not song titles. Is that story true?
Yes, it’s true. A lot of our songs were called Neu! Or Faust. And what all did we have that was related? We had Howie B, a song called ‘Howie B,’ or ‘H.B.’ from Howie B. They were working titles, basically.
What would the setlist for your solo work look like?
It would be different in the sense that on the last album, the working titles were names of women. Names of my female friends. Violá. So that’s how different it would have been. But then I tried to—do you know Bertrand Burgalat? He’s a really good French composer, and he’s the same family, I’d say, as Stereolab, High Llamas. Actually David Axelrod—sometimes he sounds like David Axelrod. He’s the same generation as Tim, and I wrote a song for him. He had to write a song for me, and I had to write a song for him. And then later on it became—he had to put lyrics and a melody to it, which he didn’t. So I later on put my own. But basically, I called it ‘B.B.’ for Bertrand Burgalat. But then it became ‘Lost Language.’
But the working titles were female friends? Who had inspired the songs?
Yes. I really wanted to honor women. I wanted to honor the yin energy and do it through the friends that I honor—my good girlfriends that I honor. So I called each song the name of a girl that I love.
Does anyone in your family make music at all?
My sister—one of my sisters can play the piano. But for me, music was something to save me from my family—save me from my condition. It was a matter of life and death. Or death. Music was everything. And no, there is no one else like that in the family. My mother wanted to be an opera singer. But of course in her generation—in our generation, you say, ‘Mommy, I want to be a pop star!’ And chances are your mum will say, ‘Oh, yes my darling—we’ll get you on X Factor! and you’re allowed to dream it at least. But for her mother, she was like, ‘Are you crazy? No, you’re going to be a secretary. And shut up with you wanting to be an opera singer!’ Because it was terribly hard and the expectation was very low of ever succeeding. People are willing to take a chance more, aren’t they?
When you started Monade, you said you wanted to prove yourself. To who? To you? To Tim?
Maybe there was Tim—a bit of an ego fight, a power struggle. I suspect there was something like that. Not consciously, but unconscious forces. But no—I was responding to dreams I had of music. I dreamt of music. And also the fact that I did write these songs and they were happening—they were manifesting. And I’m so lazy—I can’t even begin to tell you how lazy I am.
I doubt you’re lazy. You’ve done four solo albums, you have a child—
But I feel lazy! Like I do nothing!
Maybe you’re not lazy so much as tired.
Yes, I’m tired. But I feel like I could be doing more—but no, I couldn’t be doing much more than I am now. I’m going crazy with activity, which is great. I’m not complaining, but somehow in terms of really deepening what I want to do, on this new album, The Trip—I wanted it different, you know? And the songs that came out, I was disappointed that they didn’t sound more different than in the past. I was like, ‘I feel so different. And this is different.’ And yet the music sounded a lot like the Monade stuff, and to some degree, Stereolab. In this kind of template that I’m still at the mercy of—this template that I’ve learned and still haven’t really broken away from it. I wanted to be somewhere but I have to walk the way—walk the distance to arrive where I want to be. There’s no avoiding walking that distance. And I see that in the collective mind, whatever you do doesn’t really belong to you. My songs don’t belong to me. My kid doesn’t belong to me. My house doesn’t belong to me. Nothing belongs to me—nothing belongs to anybody on this earth. And I’m associated with Stereolab now, but with this solo album, it’s the beginning of dissociation. And I have a lot of people who tell me they start listening and they think ‘Stereolab Stereolab Stereolab.’ But by the end, they’re like ‘Laetitia Sadier.’ So there’s a departure from that point, which kind of musters—rallies, gathers us? You know? That point is Stereolab. And I need to move away with everybody! Whoever will follow. But it’s a journey we have to take together as well. I can’t take it alone. With this album, I thought it would sound much more different than it did. But I realize I’m not alone in this. I need to take people with me for it to be complete somehow.
But the vocal production is different. The composition is different. The cadence—so many Stereolab songs are in three; The Trip isn’t swimming in waltz tempos.
You have educated ears.
Well the techniques, the instruments—whatever you did to your vocals? It sounds like you are in the room, but in Stereolab is sounds like I’m listening to a recording of your voice, you know?
I take that as a compliment.
I could swear I saw you play guitar the last time I saw Stereolab.
Yes, I think just on one song I got the honor of playing a guitar. On the one song. Never very much, and never as much as I wanted to in order to get good at it. Because I play on my own—I sing and play the guitar, so anything going wrong is really pretty amplified so I’m having to work hard on my guitar playing, and it’s getting better. It’s true. Practice makes perfect.
Do you have a favorite Stereolab record?
I like Music For the Amorphous Body Study Center.
Does it ever change? Or is that always your favorite?
I never play them back. I had soft spot for Dots and Loops. That’s the one where I listened back and I was like, ‘Yes! That’s a good record.’ For the first time, I had this unconditional ‘Yes!’ You always have doubts, as you know probably from doing your own stuff. But I must say that I love Not Music.
Is there anybody that you’d want to collaborate with, even though the music sounds far from yours?
Damien Jurado. If you come across, you will understand—I feel like he’s some kind of brother, and I feel like—well, maybe it won’t be a dream, maybe it will happen. I’m trying to think of ways to come to the States next year. Could I just jump on someone’s tour bus? Richard Swift produced half of my record and he also produced Damien Jurado. I saw him and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s how it’s done.’
Is Stereolab going to tour the U.S. too?
No—you saw the tour schedule?
I was hoping you had inside info that the band was coming to tour the States.
No, I’m sorry. I can’t tell you such things, because I mean—it’s not up to me. If Tim decides he wants to do a tour, I’m sure he can convince. But to be honest, I wouldn’t want to go out again with the band as it is. Just yet. Talking of egos and tensions and shit, I’ve had my fill. I wouldn’t mind doing it trying something different. I felt it was so stiff, that I would be really happy—because this music, Stereolab—it’s very rich and it could be done in different ways. It can be approached in more minimal, less bombastic ways, live. And that would give just another—more air in it. Tim doesn’t think like that. He wants layers and layers. And lots of people, and I think maybe he hides himself a bit, in a way, whereas I’m ready to be naked.
As the vocalist you’re already out there, and he’s in the back. You’re used to it, maybe.
Also, I’m used to being crushed. I’m going to sound like I’m complaining now—but people can just crank up their amps, and I can’t scream. Maybe if I’m playing alone it’s because I’d like to hear my vocals when I sing and let it come to the fore. Because I’ve had years of being absolutely swamped. And at some point you’re like, ‘What the fuck? What. The fuck.’ That happens to a lot of female vocalists in bands. And at the end they’re just disgusted. They go and go and go, and at some point they’re like, you know, I’ve had enough of this.
I can also imagine that touring with your ex-husband is trying.
For the music’s sake I’m prepared to go a long way, but not with the people that we were with at that time. Different people who are much more respectful of my singing—please!—and are not just ready to put earplugs in and then crank it up. That? Nope. No. That’s it.
Stereolab’s vocals—when you and Mary would sing together, are just like … whenever someone crushed those harmonies, a star went out.
We still managed to have quite a long career, to put things into perspective. And what has carried us is the love of the music. That was the priority. I think that’s really what gave it its longevity. But at the moment? Rest. Yes. Rest for everybody.