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Home >  Interviews > interview with Laetitia Sadier (Stereolab) - The "avant" in avant-pop

interview with Laetitia Sadier (Stereolab)

interview with Laetitia Sadier (Stereolab)

The "avant" in avant-pop

by Ian F. Martin    Jun 28,2018 UP

Laetitia Sadier Source Ensemble
Find Me Finding You

Drag City

Amazon

 Initially emerging as a curiously conceptial bubblegum pop tangent from the shoegaze scene, Stereolab throughout their career embodied a series of tensions – between accessible and experimental, complex and grindingly simple, personal and political. Their music was never purely bubblegum: it had to be John Cage Bubblegum, it was never purely avant-garde: it had to be Avant-Garde AOR.
Stereolab’s roots lie in guitarist/main songwriter Tim Gane and lead vocalist/lyricist Laetitia Sadier’s time with jangly indiepop band McCarthy, with whom Stereolab shared similary explicit leftwing politics.
However, where McCarthy’s lyrics were typically sarcastic dissections of the absurdities of contemporary political life, Stereolab’s politics tended to be more reflective and even romantic, revelling in their own uncertainty, feeling out the relationship between self and society with less confidence and more innocent curiosity.
Their early records were infused with a gushing enthusiasm for the motorik rhythms of Neu!, which they then filled out with organ drones, and it’s probably fair to say that, along with Julian Cope, Stereolab were in large part responsible for the UK music scene’s rediscovery of Krautrock in the 1990s. However, from around 1994’s Mars Audiac Quintet, and more explicitly on 1996’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup, the band’s sonic palette broadened considerably, incorporating influences from ‘60s film soundtracks, French pop, jazz and a more sophisticated use of electronic elements.
Through all these mutations, the group’s unique and instantly recognisable sonic identity was Laetitia Sadier’s vocals, which simultaneously embodied a cool detachment and an unaffected romanticism. Sadier’s vocal foil for much of the ’90s was keyboard player Mary Hansen, and the interplay between the two singers helped to define the group up until Hanson's death in a road accident in 2002. Their combination of deadpan delivery and breezy “ba-ba-ba”s reflected a broader dynamic within the band’s music between pop’s desire to give you everything all at once and an avant-garde wariness of making things too easy.
From the start, Stereolab infuriated the UK music press with cryptic song titles and obscure puns alongside what seemed like a contrarian insistence that what they were doing was pop. And it was pop in the sense that, at its heart, Stereolab’s music was generally simple and melodic, drawing on familiar chords and rhythms – the song Transona Five was built around the instantly recognisable beat of Canned Heat’s On The Road Again, for example.
It also reflected a punkish rejection of the grownup world and a love of childish thrills. It’s there explicitly in song titles like We’re Not Adult Orientated, but also in the dadaist delight in nonsense that led to them describing the tracks on Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements with gnomic nuggets of hi-fi wisdom like “subjective white noise” and sci-fi surrealism like “underwater aztec”.
In some ways, Stereolab were like a precociously smart teenager experiencing first love: so keen for you to like them, but always holding something back; complicating every simple expression of their feelings, but also underscoring every attempt to be cool and aloof with something disarmingly honest.
In the end though, perhaps the band themselves were always their own best reviewers, so it may be best to leave the last words to them:
“Constantly evolving, curious / Sombre, obscure, dark and luminous / Vitriolic, stringent, prophetic.”

Yeah, and I think that’s the beauty of pop: that it is this simple, conservative structure that lends itself perfectly to being disturbed and disrupted.

IAN:
Since this issue of the magazine is focused on avant-pop, I’m interested in how you feel about that term. With me, I find that I use it a lot without ever really thinking about what it means. It’s certainly a term that has often been used to describe Stereolab, but was it a term you ever felt comfortable with?

LAETITIA:
Well, as you know, artists don’t like to be pigeonholed in any way, so no term would suit. But if I were to choose one, this would actually be quite legitimate, because there were strong pop references in our music, and it was our structure for a lot of what we were doing. And there was an immense liberty between a verse and a chorus, where Tim might want to try out some ideas, so there would be these “avant” ideas perhaps between parts four and seven of track three on the album. That’s how I understand the “avant” in “avant-pop” – it’s taking liberties and being free to explore inbetween a rather simple structure, without our music being “avant-garde” strictly speaking.

IAN:
It also seems to me that the term “avant-pop” embodies a contradiction. There’s something fundamentally conservative about pop, in that it’s music that wants you to feel comfortable in how you already are, whereas the avant-garde is about taking you out of your comfort zone.

LAETITIA:
Yeah, and I think that’s the beauty of pop: that it is this simple, conservative structure that lends itself perfectly to being disturbed and disrupted. I think The Beach Boys were masters of hiding an incredible amount of complexity and even darkness beneath something that on the surface is so shiny and friendly – when inside it’s just plain weird! So in that regard pop can be very subversive and can be a danger to society! (Laughs)

IAN:
You mention about the the importance of simplicity, and I remember reading something that Tim said about how a lot of the simplicity and minimalism of early Stereolab was dictated to a large degree by your own limitations as musicians.

LAETITIA:
Yeah. Indeed, you have what you have, and you have to work with that. In a sense it’s more liberating to accept the physical limitations. It’s much more hindering to have too many possibilities and have to narrow it down rather than have a much more narrow terrain to work with and think, “How do we exploit this bit of land here and how do we extract the gems?” There was a fair amount of limitations because we were not schooled musicians. But the aim wasn’t to be virtuosos, and I guess that’s also part of the pop thing. You don’t have to be a virtuoso: you just explore your capabilities within the context of being a normal human being, not some supreme creature touched by the hand of God! It was more punk: do the best with what you’ve got.

IAN:
Within punk, there seemed to be a lot of affection – sometimes a little ironic and sometimes more sincere – for the bubblegum extremes of pop music. The Sex Pistols covering The Monkees etc., despite them not seeming ideologically compatible on the face of it.

LAETITIA:
But they were! I don’t know if I can make the class system step in, but I will! It was about the working classes taking power, exercising their self-determination, so that’s very important and very dangerous. You know, The Who and The Kinks were probably seen with an air of suspicion by the authorities because they had an incredible amount of sway with the youth. They were a bit threatening, and of course so were the punks. And the punks made a point of saying, “I didn’t go to school for this, and I’m going to make it as simple and direct as I can to show that anybody can do this!”

That’s what I find so appealing in that sort of pop, is that it was very political. Not political with a big “P” but it was about people taking matters into their own hands through their art. That’s how I educated myself politically: it was through music, not through reading Karl Marx.

IAN:
Yeah. When Stereolab started, one of their most audible influences was Krautrock, which was a music with its own kind of simplicity. But Krautrock also embodied this thing that wasn’t only a class thing but also this attempt to get away from the Anglo-American hegemony over rock music.

LAETITIA:
Yeah, and again there was a big element of self-determination and saying “Fuck you!” to the man. That’s what I find so appealing in that sort of pop, is that it was very political. Not political with a big “P” but it was about people taking matters into their own hands through their art. That’s how I educated myself politically: it was through music, not through reading Karl Marx – because it’s hard to read Karl Marx! And far less immediate than listening to a pop album.

IAN:
Of course, as your career progressed, you all became better musicians and so some of those limitations fell away. How did you keep in touch with that simplicity?

LAETITIA:
The watershed point would be “Emperor Tomato Ketchup”. That’s where it shifted to something more overtly complex. I didn’t write the music, so it’s difficult for me to answer this clearly, but as far as I know, each album stemmed from an idea, and it would imply some kind of restriction. One album was written entirely where none of the notes from the melodies appeared in the chord that was sustaining the melody – which I think is great. It brings about more tension. It wasn’t dissonant, but I think “tension” is the word that springs to mind, and that for me makes it an interesting song. Another example was “Margarine Eclipse”, which was essentially three albums, because we had one on the left speaker, one album on the right speaker, and then you had the sum of the two, which created the third album, so that was another sort of conceptual idea. There were often little tricks like that, which sustained entire albums.

IAN:
You’ve mentioned the idea of “tension”, and your work often has a kind of tension between music that on the face of it seems cheerful, happy, pleasant, and lyrical content that’s quite dark or angry. I’m thinking particularly of “Ping Pong” off “Mars Audiac Quintet”, where the lyrics about the cycles of economic downturn and war seem ever more relevant with the way the world seems to be heading now.

LAETITIA:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s difficult for me to say why I write certain things, but I know what you mean, especially with Stereolab, there was more darkness than originally suspected from a first glance. We were very serious about what we did. It was our way of making sense of our lives and of being autonomous. And of course I’ve always been very very sensitive to the way the world is going, and in fact since I was born it’s just getting worse. I always felt that we could organise ourselves a bit better, and I don’t mean a utopian society where everybody’s cool and the sun shines every morning – I just mean, “Hold on a minute: we can do this a little bit better so that it works out for more of us who are living on this planet.” And yet it seems that, “Oh, my God, we can’t!” The pathology has only gotten worse and deeper, at least on the surface. Because there’s a lot of good things as well that are happening, and people are getting organised in more silent ways – silent in the sense that you might not hear about it. People are going, “You can’t expect anything from governments: we’re going to have to do it ourselves!” and that I view as a good development: people taking matters into their own hands on a local level.

IAN:
Do you think there’s a parallel between what you’re describing there and the music scene? Something about the idea of organising independently of power structures?

LAETITIA:
I don’t know, because in my own experience, in my band, there were a lot of power structures actually. It wasn’t a democracy, in the sense that Tim monopolised the entire musical field and operated as a kind of “soft tyrant”. I mean, I had all the freedom lyrically speaking, but only because he couldn’t do it! (Laughs) So I don’t have an idealised view of being in the band. I’ve never been in a band where everyone wrote together. Even in my own band, I write almost everything. Sometimes on certain songs I give my bassist Xavi (Munoz) the chords and he writes a bass line, and then I have to write a melody on top of that, and it’s like, “Shit! He took all the melodic feel!” but it’s great because you have to dig deeper. So this thing about relinquishing control is probably difficult if you have a very strong artistic expectation, which I think Tim had. But also as a result I think our music was very reined in. It might seem crazy, but I’ve been listening to Stereolab’s old records recently, and they’re very repressed. But it’s really hard to let go and to let things flow, and I think that’s the reserve of some really, really great musicians where the’re totally on top of their instrument and go beyond.

IAN:
Do you think that having your creativity channeled narrowly into your lyrics and vocals influenced the way you make your own music?

LAETITIA:
Yeah, yeah, of course! And also what it forced me to do was start my own band, which was Monade, and I think Tim was very relieved! (Laughs) And, yeah, so that was a creative way around this issue, because I wanted to write my own songs, I had my own ideas, which are actually very similar to Stereolab, so I think I could have co-written much more with Tim. I’ve done seven albums now, and to my dismay I’m like, “This is still very influenced by Stereolab!” It’s really strange how each time I try to let go of that, I’m always face-to-face with that root, which I created. And I listen to what Tim is doing, and it’s still also... there’s no escaping it! It’s absolutely crazy! I don’t know, I could maybe write some reggae stuff to break it, but then it wouldn’t be me!

IAN:
But also one of the most powerful things music can do is that it creates a world. People fall in love with bands because they create worlds that they’re able to immerse themselves in and feel comfortable with. I wonder if the difficulty you describe in escaping Stereolab is a measure of how immersive the world you created was.

LAETITIA:
I don’t know. I find myself quite good at getting out of my comfort zone, at least when I compare myself to people I know. So I don’t know if what I’m looking for is something comfortable that I recognise, that I identify as safe. And particularly in the artistic field, where I feel that’s where you should be most free, and most adventurous. There’s no danger of hurting anyone because, as you say, it’s a world we create.

Yeah, and also coming from psychoanalysts themselves. It was always around “the problem came from your parents,” never from society.

IAN:
That comes back in a way to the “avant” side of avant-pop, right? The need to step out of your comfort zone, and also to take the listener out of their comfort zone.

LAETITIA:
Yeah, this is the duty! But maybe that’s where one can act and maybe not have that pretension of taking anyone out of their comfort zone, and simply do what comes best, and not be too complicated. I worked with Colin Newman recently, and his wife Malka Spigel who was in (Belgian postpunk band) Minimal Compact. I didn’t know that they worked with a looper where things had to be four and four and four and four, and so I was sending something which I found quite interesting and fun and not too complicated, and they totally rejected it! What they did was they took parts of the song and then they looped it. And it worked fine, but I realised that, compared to what they were sending me, it just gave me a glimpse of how complex I make things and how I could simplify it a lot. I’m not saying it’s good or bad; it’s just an insight.

IAN:
A friend of mine once remarked to me that he thinks Stereolab must be the band whose lyrics contain the word “society” more than any other. And I was thinking how this idea of looking at the structure of the world in many ways goes against the rather individualistic world of pop or rock music.

LAETITIA:
Yeah, there’s a dichotomy between a world of egos and society. And I wanted Stereolab’s lyrical work to bridge the very intimate and personal and society; where does political start and where does it end? Because the way I saw it was let’s be as complete as we can, and for me being complete is talking about things that matter to me. Some people view pop music as a means to escape reality, so if you talk about mindless things, or if you “settle the accounts” with somebody, or express the world of feelings around a relationship. I do explore emotional stuff as well – that wasn’t excluded. It just seemed to me that let’s talk about important stuff, because there’s enough of it going on out there that we can discuss or at least question, because a lot of what I talked about in my lyrics were just questions for myself. Even the capitalist, the individualist, all this is stuff I could feel within myself. It was like, “No, I can be that monster too, and I’d like to interrogate that.”

IAN:
It seems that we’re often being encouraged by society to think very internally and to not really interrogate the relationship between ourselves and the outside world. In the song “The Well-Fed Point of View” by yours and Tim’s old band McCarthy, the lyrics tackle this quite directly.

LAETITIA:
Yeah, and also coming from psychoanalysts themselves. It was always around “the problem came from your parents,” never from society. And in fact, I got very interested in a guy called Cornelius Castoriadis. He wasn’t just a psychoanalyst, he was many things, but he was married to a very famous psychoanalyst (Piera Aulagnier) in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s in Paris, and they both were some of the first in the field to interrogate the impact of society on the human psyche. But it’s amazing to see that they were rare ones. Like, as if society did not impact your psyche, your unconscious, which I find extremely dubious! Of course it’s going to have an impact: everything has an impact on us: the architecture, the way the streets are laid out. It’s like if doctors are saying whatever you eat doesn’t impact your health: how can you say that?

IAN:
You mention architecture, but that’s true of music as well, right? The aesthetics, or the “internal architecture” of music also has an impact that goes beyond the lyrics.

LAETITIA:
Yeah, I think so. And the production of the song will say a lot. It’s a language.

IAN:
There seems to be an ease pop culture in Japan has in disconnecting the aesthetics from the content. But at the same time, maybe that’s impossible because the aesthetics have an impact of their own that is connected to the content.

LAETITIA:
Yeah, and I think there was enough happening aesthetically in our work that people would suspect that it had a revolutionary intent: that this wasn’t your regular pop group. And I think in Japan people were very savvy as well when it came to music. People knew their stuff! Not to mention that we called one of our albums “Emperor Tomato Ketchup”, which was named after a super-revolutionary Japanese movie.

IAN:
By Shuji Terayama, yeah.

LAETITIA:
I haven’t seen it! I haven’t read Marx and I haven’t seen “Emperor Tomato Ketchup”! (Laughs) Don’t tell them!

IAN:
It’s too late. It’s on tape! With the many collaborations you’ve been involved in, do you think that enriches your music?

LAETITIA:
Definitely. Like I said, it gets you out of your comfort zone, and it forces you to a sort of activity to be productive, because anything could make you go out of productivity: feeling a bit depressed or this or that or the other. It’s good to be kept in action. And stuff comes out that wouldn’t normally come out, so it’s very instrumental in keeping the creativity bubbling and active.

IAN:
Are there any particular projects that you’ve worked on with other people that stand out as being especially rewarding experiences for you?

LAETITIA:
When I worked with Jan and Andi (Mouse on Mars). It was so brilliant. We had a tour of Greece and Italy booked up and we had to come up with an hour’s worth of music, and it was the first time I was working like this outside of Stereolab. It was really difficult for me because I wasn’t confident that I could do this. I then learned that if I’m asked to do it, that means that I can do it! So that became my sort of motto. And yeah, somehow we did it and we had such a fun tour – it was such an adventure! But working with people, each time it’s a different adventure. I’m currently working with a Brazilian band called Mombojó, and we created a group together called Modern Cosmology – we made a video called “C’est le Vent”, “It’s the Wind”, which gives an idea of our collaboration. I can only see the positives of working with other people and “crossbreeding” (laughs) your creativity.

IAN:
So you made three albums with Monade, then three just under your own name, and then more recently one as Laetitia Sadier Source Ensemble. It seems like there’s a period there where your identity is subsumed within this idea of a band, then three albums where you push your own individual identity to the foreground, and then finally this third stage where you’re trying to reconcile the collective and the individual. Would you say there’s something like that going on in the process?

LAETITIA:
Yeah, thank you for summing it up so beautifully! Yeah, it’s true that there’s time where you’re in the playground and you’re working out who the hell you are like, “This is me.” And then there are some times where you open it up and it’s like, “This is me in the world, this is me and my friends, and this is collective me.” And even when I was in my “this is me” period, Laetitia Sadier, I was still well aware that nothing that I do is just the product of solely me: it’s the product of many people’s involvement. And it seemed to me that it was an important point to make when I “Source Ensembled” Laetitia Sadier, because we’re told that “This is just you, and you and you and you alone!” and that’s wrong: that’s a lie. We are all connected here.

IAN:
Jumping back to Stereolab, I think it’s interesting that the band is in many ways a product of the 1990s and the age of CDs. For example, most Stereolab albums are far too long to fit onto a single piece of vinyl. But at the same time, they’re also albums that seem designed to be appreciated on vinyl.

LAETITIA:
Yeah, like any music that respects itself! (Laughs) It’s true. I have a turntable in my kitchen and a CD player, and I’m not attached to the object at all, and I would prefer to listen to CDs because you don’t need to worry about turning it over. But now I realise there’s something different about vinyl. I don’t know what it is, but it’s just more music-friendly.

IAN:
I think the way it forces you to constantly attend to it by turning it over every fifteen minutes encourages a different, more attentive sort of listening.

LAETITIA:
Yeah, it’s funny how this kind of alienation in fact gives you more connection with the record.

IAN:
Perhaps it goes back to the idea of tension again. In this case, rather than tension within the music, it’s tension between the listener and the medium itself that engages the listener. The other extreme would be Spotify or something, where you just put on a playlist while you’re cooking.

LAETITIA:
Yeah, you just consume it. I don’t have Spotify, but my son’s got it and it’s amazing though. Just say a band and there you have it. I think I’m going to have to get it, especially because I’m going to be on Spotify as of this month (April 2018). The Drag City catalogue is on all the streaming platforms, which it wasn’t before – Drag City have given in! It’s tricky but times are changing and people just have new ways of listening to music. There’s a lot of people out there – have you seen all this youth out there! (Laughs)

IAN:
OK, I guess before we finish, I should just ask if there’s anything more you’ve got coming up that you’d like to tell us about.

LAETITIA:
Well, really the main thing at the moment is my project with those Brazilian boys, Modern Cosmology. Apart from that, I’ll make it to Japan again maybe not this year but next year, one way or another.

by Ian F. Martin(2018年6月28日)

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Ian F. MartinIan F. Martin
Author of Quit Your Band! Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground(邦題:バンドやめようぜ!). Born in the UK and now lives in Tokyo where he works as a writer and runs Call And Response Records (callandresponse.tictail.com).

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