After 18 years and 11 albums, Stereolab have gone on the dreaded “hiatus,” according to a post from longtime band manager, Martin Pike: “As we recently made #51 with Emperor Tomato Ketchup in the Amazon 100 Greatest Indie Rock Albums of all Time, we feel that our work is done for the moment.”
While I was saddened to hear about the hiatus, I was hardly shocked. The law of diminishing returns had most definitely begun to set in some time ago. And, after nearly 18 years, could you blame them?
During their lengthy career, consistency had been the group’s bugbear. Somewhere along the line their endlessly optimistic, faux-naïf approach to experimentation (a playful, fling-it-at-the-wall, see-if-it-sticks methodology) ossified into a kind of pleasant, tasteful aural wallpaper.
Maybe they started to lose me sometime around 1997’s Dots and Loops. When they left their home turf and took up residence with the Tortoise noodlers, things started to go slightly awry.
Not fatally so, mind you, but from that point onwards their music slowly lost the charmingly rough-hewn quality that made their early, occasionally strident locked-groove lullabies so compelling. Songs like “Brakhage” and “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse” were complex, jazzier, more playful —even airy. But with the new looseness came a certain aloofness, too. Without that central core of very human tension, it was inevitable that the center would not hold.
And it had been that way for quite some time.
I prefer to think about all the great moments they’ve had throughout the years: the marvelous singles (especially the one-offs), live shows and deliriously playful videos.
My fondest memory of the ‘lab is a secret Christmastime show they played at the Camden Irish Centre in 1994. Disco Inferno, Cornershop, Moonshake and Pram opened. (Talk about an amazing lineup! Never been topped since.)
They closed with a blissful 20-minute long version of “Contact” that had the audience levitating as one. One nation under a groove, indeed. At their best, Stereolab could hit that sweet spot of harmonic convergence like no other band.
I interviewed Tim and Laetitia for Warped Reality in 1995, right before the group left for Lollapalooza. Some highlights…
Tim: [referring to Lollapalooza] It’s really good to play in front of people who don’t really know anything about us. You don’t have to understand every single thing about what we do or why we do it to like it. It should be fun and enjoyable. And people might just get the groove of what we do and like the melodies. But then, it’s not “alternative rock” so I don’t know. There’s an awful amount of mainstream rock now parading itself as alternative music.
How did you become interested in Moog synthesizers?
Tim: They sound brilliant. I love archaic analog machinery. It doesn’t sound like anything else, really, and you don’t have to be a musician to play it. If you’re inventive you can get really weird sounds out of it —it’s as inventive as you are. I’ve had Moogs for 12 years and I still come across new sounds that I’ve never heard before. There are so many combinations that you can never recreate what you’ve done once before. And they look great!
Where did you get the hi-fi stuff from the back of Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements?
Tim: It’s taken from a sound-effects record. We did a radio interview and the woman said, “I’m not qualified to understand this stuff.” There’s nothing to understand! It’s just pseudo-scientific bumph. It’s humorous. It’s [also] a way of controlling the presentation off what you do. It’s very important that you have your own stamp and control of the way you present it. It’s the whole thing: the sleeve, the titles, colored vinyl.
Any amusing tour stories?
Laetitia: One of the wheels from the big tour bus fell off. It just rolled away. “Hey! There goes our wheel.” Thank god we weren’t going ninety miles an hour on the highway. That would have been pretty dangerous. Funny enough, we were in Olympia, Washington. We thought it might be the riot grrls because they don’t like tours that tour in big buses. “Big rich capitalist buses! We’ll get them!”
Tim: I never believed it for a second!
Laetitia: Oh, Tim, you can have a laugh about these things!
PHOTOS: STEREOLAB c. 1992, STEREOLAB c. 2006