Stereolab Moves Forward

Stereolab Moves Forward
Tragedy strikes like a body blow. It knocks your wind, and whether it's for seconds or months you feel like you'll never recover, like you're not the same person any more. In December 2002, Stereolab vocalist Mary Hansen — who'd been with the group since 1993's The Groop Played "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" — was struck and killed by a truck while riding her bicycle in London, England. She was 32.

But to let tragedy take not just a single life but the life of an entire creative entity is to let it win. "The idea of not doing it wasn't something I ever thought about," reveals Stereolab founder and songwriter Tim Gane. "The love of doing this — and Mary loved making music as well — doesn't go away. For people who don't know the person, they're going to reflect more on the impact of the death. I really didn't think of it in connection with the group. It's the person, not the music."

In tribute to their friend, Stereolab did what made the most sense to them as creative people: continue doing what Mary would have done herself, and that's making propulsive, complex pop music. The result is the Groop's ninth album, Margerine Eclipse, an album that is both unmistakeably Stereolab — Gane can't escape his signature sound any more than French vocalist Laetitia Sadier can — and one of their best in recent memory.

"Some people have expressed surprise that the record sounds, on the surface, so upbeat," Gane reveals. "But Mary herself was the most upbeat person I've ever met. There's no way the record would be a gloomy, doomy thing. That's just not what she was about. To me, it's better to have the spirit of her involved in the music the way she was, rather than the negative energy of her tragedy, a stupid accident."

Idle hands can spend too much energy wringing over lost potential, but the ‘Lab's hands were anything but — over the last year, they put the finishing touches on a major construction project that's consumed the band's energy for the better part of a year. The avant-pop collective pooled their resources and built Instant 0, a studio outside of Bordeaux, France. When it was finally completed, after months of delay, there wasn't even time to test the acoustics — work was completed one afternoon, and that evening, the band began laying down drum tracks for Margerine Eclipse.

"Most of the studio came from the basement of my house [in London]," Gane says. "We did remixes and b-sides, but we never actually made the main albums there. There was no technical reason why we couldn't — there was just no space where we could all play as a band." Once they settled into their newly converted four-car garage, Stereolab set out emulating the engineering geniuses that have assisted their last handful of records: Tortoise percussionist John McEntire and fellow Chicago sound experimenter Jim O'Rourke.

What started out as a practical consideration — having spent the money for this record on building the studio, it wouldn't make sense to suddenly go to Chicago to record it — turned out to be a valuable creative one as well. "It was good to have a break, to just develop the ideas [on our own] because what came out is an interesting result. It let us breath." It also helps distance the band from anyone who would accuse Gane of being a pop tunesmith who gets Tortoise-ised by McEntire. In fact, one of Margerine Eclipse's sonic innovations — the music for left and right speakers was recorded entirely separately — is certainly one McEntire would have had great fun with.

But regardless of the influence of McEntire, O'Rourke or long-time collaborator Sean O'Hagen (High Llamas), Tim Gane's tastes and therefore the music he makes, remain very specific. "I long ago realised that I paint, so to speak, on a smaller canvas. At the same time, I like to explore that more fully, rather than spreading myself thinly over a large canvas. To me, the differences are all in the details and nuance of what we do.

"You begin to realise how people listen to music," Gane continues. "Most people listen to music stylistically: what does it sound like? What genre is it? What instruments are on it? To someone making the music, content is important — what are you trying to express? The rest is pure arrangement. What I'm trying to do is take the stylistic element and combine it with the core structure of what I'm actually trying to express. By fusing [style and content] together, you want one to highlight the other in the most interesting way."

For Stereolab, the most interesting records have always been about a depth of detail, not surface considerations. "In some ways, the essence of the quest is not any different. If it drives you to do it, you can't really question it or be sentient about it. You just follow it. We haven't yet arrived at a point where I feel it's appropriate to stop looking."