Stereolab headlines Irving Plaza this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Tickets are still available here.
Stereolab, “Three Women” (MP3)
From Chemical Chords
Since their early days as one of post-punk’s first major bands, the core of Stereolab has always consisted of multi-instrumentalist/composer Tim Gane and singer/lyricist Laetitia Sadier. The pair, who met at a concert by Gane’s former band, McCarthy, have since produced not only a marriage, a son, and a subsequent divorce, but 11 albums and untold shorter releases.
Just three days into Stereolab’s North American tour in support of Chemical Chords, Laetitia Sadier experienced a broken-down bus, a subsequent 16-hour ride from Texas to Georgia, and then this interview. Still, the French-born resident of England managed to share her surprising views on the band’s new album, the need to form her own band, how there’s a whole other unreleased “nighttime” companion record to Chemical Chords, and what it’s like to turn 40. —Rob Trucks
You’re on tour in the States for a month, but you’re in New York for three of those days. Is that a chance to catch your breath? Or are you going to have to work every moment that you’re here as well?
Well, it’s kind of both, because we’ll still have three shows to play so it won’t be exactly a break. We’ll have probably some interviews to do, but it’s also a chance to see our boyfriends and girlfriends who are coming over from England. So it will be a bit of a break as well in that respect.
Your son’s 10 now. Does he travel with you? And if not, who takes care of him while you’re on the road for a month?
Well, at the moment he’s with my boyfriend at home.
That’s a long time to be away from your child.
Yeah, that is indeed. That is indeed.
It sounds like your other band, Monade, came about because you wanted the opportunity to write complete songs and not just contribute lyrics. Is that a fair reading?
Yeah, I felt basically I had little choice. Sometimes when you have to do something on this earth and you’re put there to do it . . . It’s not something which I completely control, funnily enough. It kind of controlled me. I had to create this outlet. It just had to happen. And it did. And it did me a lot of good as well, to have my own outlet.
On the surface at least, Stereolab appears to be a partnership. But you’re saying that there wasn’t enough room to get even one complete song on an album?
I mean, I didn’t push it. I didn’t push it a lot, extremely. But you know when there’s room and it’s welcome and you know when the door is shut and it’s not welcome.
You don’t want to go to a party that you haven’t been invited to.
Exactly. That’s very well put [laughs].
You and Tim are co-writers, you share songwriting credit, but are you collaborators? He’s in Berlin and you’re in England and you record in France. How do you go about working together?
It all happens cosmically.
Is there any way you can explain cosmically to me?
[laughs] Well, it just happens at another level, a personal level.
But you wrote almost all of the lyrics for Chemical Chords, correct?
And Tim has talked about how quickly he wrote the music for this album. I believe he said that he basically began with a whole bunch of drum loops about a week before you were supposed to record. Is that right?
Yes, some of the songs. And then he wrote some more songs later. There’s 31 songs to this project.
So how do you go about writing lyrics for 31 songs, or even 15 songs, or even five songs, in so little time?
Well, the process took nine months. I didn’t write 31 songs in a week. I would be completely incapable of it. Particularly the quality control end would go right out the window. It took nine months, but still it was a lot of work, intense, condensed work. At times I felt I had to dig quite deep [laughs] in my pockets to find stuff, but it’s good. It’s a challenge. And I have always my best friend, my best collaborator, which are my dreams, to have very creative pockets, you know.
Well, Chemical Chords is a very poppy, very upbeat album. You’d have to search pretty hard to find a minor chord on the record. I’m assuming that, for the most part, you’re working on the lyrics after the music is written, but because these songs are so upbeat you couldn’t really sing, ‘They shot my horse/They shot my dog/And I’m really sad,’ to one of these tunes, right?
Yeah, that’s right. I think there are two parts of the album. You’re hearing the 15 first songs which are upbeat and, as you said, no minor chords. And generally the vibe is up and positive. Which is good, I think. We need that. We need to put some positive vibes in the world. In this time, the world is hard, you know. There aren’t many positive vibes. But that’s the day side. And then the other album, which I don’t know if it will ever come out, hopefully around April, would be the dark side of the album. I’ll call it the nighttime. I mean, like in any record there’s a light and a dark side, so lyrically there are darker things that are being tackled, such as exploitation, and how we submit to those forces without really fighting them off, fighting them away.
I’m interested in the cosmic collaboration, because if Tim’s writing upbeat tunes in Berlin and you’re writing in England during a not-so-happy time then that would yield kind of a messy album, wouldn’t it?
Yes, but I think the thing about Stereolab is that there’s a kind of tension going on. Like “Ping Pong” [from 1994’s Mars Audiac Quintet], for instance, is a very good example of a song that is extremely poppy and with very dark, ironic lyrics. And I think artistically we always validated that. We don’t see why it should be a happy song with happy lyrics or a sad song with sad lyrics. Who says it has to be that way? Certainly not us. It fact, Tim comes from a background of the after-punk and situationalism and movements like this which are much more determined to–sorry, I haven’t had any breakfast today so I’m finding it a bit difficult to speak philosophically–but basically what I want to say is in art, and I think also like in politics, it’s you who chooses. You decide. You have the freedom. You create your own freedom and it’s a kind of sacred domain where no one should tell you what to do. That you are responsible for it. And if you decide to have a happy song with sad lyrics, then so be it.
You mentioned politics, which is a subject that a lot of music writers address when they’re discussing Stereolab. Are you trying to communicate with your song lyrics, or do you consider the songs more of a work of art, like on a museum wall where the viewer is left to take from it what they want?
No, no. Of course not. Of course not. And this is why I moved to England as well. I moved away from France, because in France art is all up on a wall, and it has little concern of whether it connects with reality and people’s daily lives or whatever. And what I liked about the punk movement, the after-punk and all that is that it was about bringing back, reappropriating art and introducing it to life. And knowing why it brought meaning to your life through your own elections or through your own creations, and often both. So that has always derived from this idea that this is how we give meaning from our lives and hopefully pass on some of that vibration. And it seems to work because we still find people to this day to share that, 18 years on.
Are you playing anything from the nighttime side of these sessions on this tour?
Yes, we rehearsed two songs from the nighttime sessions, so hopefully we’ll at least play one when we come to New York.
And what are the names of the two rehearsed songs?
Well, there’s “Two Finger Symphony” and “Bump.” But these are working titles.
You’ve had a long and successful career. Do you think Chemical Chords stands up there with Stereolab’s best work?
If you asked Tim he would say probably, ‘Yes.’ But I have an issue with it. I prefer the nighttime sessions. But playing the songs from Chemical Chords live, now it makes more sense to me live than they do on record. Because the beauty emanates more. I had issues with the production, with how it was mixed, how there’s very little air and ba-donk, ba-donk, ba-donk all the way through practically, so I had issues. But live? Ah yes. Yes. It’s a beautiful work.
You turned 40 this year, and for a lot of people that’s a big number. Is your life anything like you thought it would be like at 40?
Well, first of all, when I turned 40, I got very depressed. And that had never happened. I really felt that you climb, you climb, you climb, you climb and then you reach 40 and then, you know, it’s downhill. And I had really a strange feeling about it. Which lasted for maybe a week or two. And now it’s gone. Now it’s like, well, you know what? Life carries on and you have to make it. You’re responsible for it, and how you treat it. So I feel actually . . . I feel young. I stopped smoking about a year ago and I look better, I feel better. So, I mean, I didn’t have any preconceived ideas. 40 just crept up on me. I had no idea that one day I would even be 40. I guess at some point you stop counting. You just live life and it’s not by the numbers. It’s by what you do and the quality of life you’re going to cultivate within yourself and around you, and that’s what matters. And age is something that’s inevitable but can also be beautiful.