The Archive

Switched On Vol­umes 1–3 Glo­ri­ous avant ex­per­i­ments and krautrock mono­liths, with a pop heart. By Jon Dale

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In­clud­ing: Stere­o­lab, Ground­hogs, Cocteau Twins, Felt, The House Of Love

Ever since an­nounc­ing their hia­tus in 2009, english-French avant-pop group Stere­o­lab have gone through a slow but sig­nif­i­cant re-eval­u­a­tion. If, dur­ing their ex­is­tence, peo­ple could be sniffy about the group – record-col­lec­tion pop! Krautrock by num­bers! Process over out­come! – a broader au­di­ence has since caught up with Stere­o­lab: see how they’re fêted, now, by fig­ures as dis­tinct as Phar­rell Wil­liams, Brad­ford Cox of Deer­hunter and Tyler The Cre­ator. Their al­bums, though, have been hard to come by for some time, mak­ing th­ese reis­sues of their Switched On se­ries – which pulled to­gether hard-to-find 7in, 10in and split sin­gles, com­pi­la­tion ap­pear­ances and other ex­per­i­ments – most wel­come.

Stere­o­lab’s roots ap­peared to be in indie-pop and C86 – gui­tarist and song­writer Tim Gane was in agit-pop gang Mc­Carthy; he met singer and lyri­cist Laeti­tia Sadier after a gig in France. They soon be­came a cou­ple, with Sadier re­lo­cat­ing to London and the pair form­ing Stere­o­lab in 1990, with Martin Kean, who had played bass in New Zealand pop group The Chills, and drum­mer Joe Dil­worth, who was also work­ing as a pho­tog­ra­pher: those are his bleached, white-out pho­tos on the cover of My Bloody valen­tine’s Isn’t Any­thing. (Stere­o­lab’s line­ups would be in a rel­a­tively con­stant state of flux, with mem­bers com­ing and go­ing over the years, though for a pe­riod of time Gane and Sadier counted drum­mer Andy ram­say and the late, much-missed singer, gui­tarist and key­board player Mary Hansen as solid co-con­spir­a­tors.) But there were deeper roots to Stere­o­lab. Be­fore Mc­Carthy, Gane had made noise cas­settes as Unkom­mu­niti, hook­ing up with Bro­ken Flag, the la­bel run by Gary Mundy of ram­leh. ear­lier still, Gane had his head re­ar­ranged by some chance en­coun­ters with avant-garde and ex­per­i­men­tal mu­sic: talk­ing about his dis­cov­ery of fu­ture col­lab­o­ra­tor Nurse With Wound via the mu­sic press, he re­calls that “Sounds [mag­a­zine] got me into many things, ac­tu­ally: Throb­bing Gris­tle, Nurse With Wound, and the rec­om­mended reis­sue of the first Faust al­bum in 1979… The photo and de­scrip­tion of the mu­sic so in­trigued me that I went out and bought it. How could there be mu­sic like that made be­fore punk!”

That fi­nal dis­cov­ery might well be the most im­por­tant, as early Stere­o­lab picked up on the man­i­fold ex­per­i­ments of krautrock, while fore­ground­ing its pop pos­si­bil­i­ties: for ev­ery head-wreck­ing blast of drone, there was a beau­ti­ful pop

melody, Sadier and Gina Mor­ris (and later, Hansen) har­mon­is­ing gor­geously over drums that ticked, metronome­like, along­side white-light, stream­lined gui­tars, and sput­ter­ing arcs of rough-asguts ana­logue key­boards. It was a sim­ple, ef­fec­tive strat­egy, and one that dom­i­nates the first two of th­ese three Switched On com­pi­la­tions: see the hyp­notic throb of “Su­per Elec­tric”, the gen­tle men­ace of “Con­tact”, and the driv­ing psychedelia of “The Light That Will Cease To Fail”.

It’s im­por­tant, though, not to overem­pha­sise the im­por­tance of groups like Faust and Neu! to the spi­der’s web of in­flu­ences that Stere­o­lab gath­ered around them. There was so much more go­ing on – a fond­ness for the ‘sin­cere kitsch’ of easy lis­ten­ing; a love of the un­ex­pected twists and turns of ’60s pop-psych, and its oft-sur­re­al­ist pro­duc­tion val­ues; deep ex­plo­rations of hard-edged elec­tronic ab­strac­tion and musique con­crète; and a gen­eral em­brace of the de­tri­tus of pop­u­lar cul­ture. All this, plus song ti­tles drawn from all kinds of artis­tic and sci­en­tific en­deav­our: Stere­o­lab are prob­a­bly the only group who’ve lifted a song ti­tle from a book on Cal­i­for­nian per­for­mance art.

Those mul­ti­ple in­flu­ences be­gin to show on Re­fried Ec­to­plasm, which is, by gen­eral con­sen­sus, the pick of the Switched On se­ries. The breadth it cov­ers is per­fect – it makes enough space for all kinds of di­ver­sions, from the gen­teel, play­ful jan­gle of “Tone Burst (Coun­try)” to the heads-down, psy­cho-dirge of “Tempter”, while also fea­tur­ing some of Stere­o­lab’s finest pop songs, such as the gilded glide of “French Disko” and the puls­ing, thud­ding blocks of abraded noise that con­sti­tute “John Cage Bub­blegum”, per­haps the em­blem­atic sin­gle from this pe­riod. You could also hear, on some songs, the in­flu­ence of Sean O’Ha­gan of The High Lla­mas, who was a mem­ber from 1993 to 1994, and who brought a par­tic­u­lar lyri­cism to the group’s way with melody.

The cen­tre­piece of Re­fried Ec­to­plasm, how­ever, is Stere­o­lab’s first col­lab­o­ra­tion with Nurse With Wound, the “Crumb Duck” 10in, from which comes both “An­i­mal Or Vegetable (…A Won­der­ful Wooden Rea­son)” and “Ex­plod­ing Head Movie”. Steven Sta­ple­ton of Nurse With Wound was al­ready leg­endary, in cer­tain cir­cles, for his deep love of Ger­man ex­per­i­men­tal mu­sic from the 1970s; it was a per­fectly im­per­fect fit, with Sta­ple­ton ei­ther push­ing the group’s mantric rock through waves of ef­fects (“Ex­plod­ing Head Movie”) or com­pletely dis­sect­ing their mu­sic, build­ing a 16-minute anti-epic that’s like Faust’s ca­reer in minia­ture (“An­i­mal Or Vegetable”).

In­deed, Gane seems to have given Sta­ple­ton ma­te­rial cus­tom-de­signed for his in­ter­ests: “I ori­en­tated the tracks to be rather krautrock bub­blegum in a fast-driv­ing Neu! and pound­ing Faust man­ner,” Gane re­calls. Al­ways a con­scious, in­tel­li­gent artist, Gane knew ex­actly how to give Sta­ple­ton ma­te­rial

he could work with, while push­ing him into un­fa­mil­iar, more pop ter­ri­tory. The first two Switched On com­pi­la­tions col­lect ma­te­rial from 1991 to 1994. In the lat­ter year, their pro­cesses changed, and they started to pull apart the idea of ‘the band’, en­ter­ing the stu­dio with noth­ing planned be­yond the sim­plest four-track record­ings. “This turned out to be the most rad­i­cal change for us,” Gane ex­plains, “as it to­tally freed us up to in­ter­pret the mu­sic in a very open way, and en­abled al­bums like Em­peror Tomato Ketchup and Dots & Loops to come out of the process.” On Alu­minum Tunes, you can hear how Stere­o­lab’s mu­sic has been blown wide open by this change. The songs from 1995’s Mu­sic From The Amor­phous Body

Study Cen­ter set the tone – breezy, lus­cious pop songs meet shud­der­ing drone-rock minia­tures and space-age chil­dren’s tunes – and the rest of the ma­te­rial takes in some of their most risk-tak­ing record­ings, like the crushed, col­lid­ing ed­its of “Iron Man”, the su­gar-rush blast of “Speedy Car”, and a play­ful cover of sev­eral bossa nova stan­dards, “One Note Samba/Surf­board”, with guest flute from Her­bie Mann.

They were also writ­ing some of their loveli­est songs – see Study Cen­ter’s “Pop Quiz” and “The Ex­ten­sion Trip”, and me­lan­choly swoons “You Used To Call Me Sad­ness” and “Seeper­bold”. If Alu­minum Tunes doesn’t sit to­gether quite as con­vinc­ingly as its pre­de­ces­sors, that’s largely due to the sheer sweep of the ma­te­rial it takes in. But lis­ten­ing back, it’s as­ton­ish­ing to hear how Stere­o­lab man­aged to fit so much of the shadow his­tory of mu­sic to­gether in an al­most fault­less run of sin­gles and al­bums, and yet to con­stantly tran­scend their in­flu­ences, to make mu­sic that could be gen­uinely af­fect­ing, in its love for mu­sic, and in its thought­ful ad­dress of its au­di­ence. It’s pop that loves pop – and loves the brav­ery of the ex­per­i­men­ta­tion at the heart of pop at its best.

Feast­ing on pop’s shadow his­tory: (l–r) Laeti­tia Sadier, Mary Hansen and Tim Gane

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