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flag England - Full Moon 38 - 11/23/99

an interview with lab-master Tim Gane

Forward ever, backwards never? A conversation with Tim Gane

Stereolab have just released another album with yet another rather weird title. The record, their tenth, is called Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night and it is their first new material in two years and the follow-up to 1997's Dots And Loops. Once again it features contributions from Tortoise's John McEntire and long-time friend Sean O'Hagan, plus Jim O'Rourke and a full brass and string section. That's just the facts and they sure sound impressive. It's also rather impressive that the album has been described as a mix of "Ennio Morricone, Faust and Brian Wilson." Yet for the first time in their career the British/French band cannot hide the fact that they just re-created the sound of their glorious 1996 album Emperor Tomato Ketchup. "They just returned to their own basics" is how their press officer describes it. Sounds nicer, but basically means the same. So we met up with mastermind Tim Gane prior to the Stereolab show in Schorndorf, near Stuttgart, in southern Germany, to find out why exactly the new album has to sound the way it does. Meanwhile, at the next table, Laetitia Sadier tries to explain the secrets of modern day communication to her baby daughter - with the help of a plastic toy telephone!

Lu.Ka.: Do you fear the prospect of a backlash sometimes?
Tim: We never had a backlash. Either people liked our music, or they didn't get it right from the start. We had sort of a backlash in France, because our first records were very popular there and all of a sudden the magazine 'Les Inrockuptables', a very powerful magazine in France, started to hate us and we couldn't even really tour there for five or six years. That was more for intellectual reasons though. They just don't like French people who are in bands living abroad.

Lu.Ka.: Despite the fact that many fans and critics regard Stereolab as one of the most important and innovative bands of the 90s, you change very little from album to album...
Tim: You shouldn't regard the music in terms of albums. It's the creative process that counts. I had the common philosophy that every new album has to be bigger and better written and produced. I often ask myself where that comes from. There is no other art form that is judged that way.

Lu.Ka.: So it isn't just me who thinks this album sounds a lot like Emperor Tomato Ketchup?
Tim: All of our records have huge differences. Of course you'll notice straight away that it's the same people and the same ideas, but we try to find a new approach with every new record. And we do that on purpose, otherwise it would get boring. This time we recorded everything live and then put it through the computer, cause we didn't like the electronic sound of Dots And Loops too much.

Lu.Ka.: Do you think this album will sell as well as the previous ones? The sound is pretty mellow and one should think it's designed to be a pop album...
Tim: We don't sell that many records. All the people we ask to guess how many records we sell come up with a figure ten times higher. Then again, often people come to us and ask us if we feel bad, because we never had a hit. No! Not at all! I wouldn't know any reason for us to try to produce a hit single.

Lu.Ka.: How do you decide whether a song or session will be used for a major label album (outside of the UK Stereolab are signed to Elektra/eastwest) or for one of your many independent releases on the side?
Tim: When we record an album for Elektra, it is 'the next album' and we use the advance that they give us. The other records that we make we record with our own money and Elektra doesn't have anything to do with them. They couldn't even release that many records anyway, they are far to big.

Lu.Ka.: New to the ranks of your "little helpers" in the studio is Jim O'Rourke. How did you get involved with him?
Tim: All the people we work with are our friends first before we work with them. To play with friends is just more fun. A lot of them are people we admired at first and who later became our friends. We wanted to work with Jim for a long time, but he's very busy these days. He produced one half of the record, John [McEntire] the other. And usually the audience doesn't know who produced what. We had that before, with Emperor Tomato Ketchup. People said: "You can really hear John's influence of Metronomic Underground - this funky Tortoise-sound." And we could just answer: "No, we already recorded that song before we even went to Chicago to work with John." The same happened with Dots And Loops where Mouse On Mars produced a few tracks. It think it's pretty funny though to see people guessing.

Lu.Ka.: You've written 50 tracks for this album, recorded 25 and only selected 15 for the final release. How would you describe your work ethic?
Tim: People always think that everything we do is pre-planned, but that's not true. It's like the movies by Goddard. They look very free-form, but there are very strong ideas behind it who reflect a certain personality. That's what I miss listening to most bands. They sound as if they have no idea what they want to achieve. We on the other hand try to get ourselves in situations, were a lot of things can happen musically.

Lu.Ka.: Final question: Your record company describes your sound as "uneasy listening" and I'm sure you hate that. How would you try to describe or categorize your sound?
Tim: At the end of the day it's is just pop music. Even if we wander off quite a bit sometimes we still always come back to it.

(Please note that due to problems with the tape I had to re-translate the interview from a German transcript and not all of the quotes might be 100 % accurate - Carsten's note)

Copyright © 1999 Carsten Wohlfeld e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Stereolab articles/reviews: Dots And Loops, First Of The Microbe Hunters.

© 2011 Luna Kafé