Much Space Age music treated the new electronics as novelty (think of the popular Moog album Switched-On Bach, a title Stereolab nicked for its second LP, Switched On Stereolab) but the hardware still holds underdeveloped and, er, unsynthesized potential.
"I've always felt that there was a lot more to be done with [analog keyboards first marketed in the '60s and '70s], so it's not really a nostalgia," guitarist/songwriter/knob-twiddler Tim Gane asserts long-distance from London. "It's more wanting to take the inherent possibilities of certain instruments much further."
This philosophy could be summarized as the thrift-store approach to musical revisionism: Stereolab stumbled onto its unique sound because used electronics were, for a time, cheap and readily available. During the '80s, Gane recalls, analog keyboards "were becoming obsolete quite quickly, or what for general purposes was regarded as obsolete, because at that point synthesizers entered a new domain of trying to re-create the sounds of other instruments, as opposed to being the sound that's purely their own." Gane, however, prefers analog algorithm to digital sample, finding analog instruments "more open to the imagination because they're more malleable, they're more abusable, they're more moldable."
Hence the analog work of art in the age of digital reproduction. In the mere five years that it's been around, Stereolab has proved so influential that, like Nirvana or My Bloody Valentine, it's at risk of inspiring a copycat subgenre (viz. Amerindie bands like Flow Chart and Seasaw). But Gane modestly denies having sparked the vintage-keyboard craze, claiming that American synth-based bands like LaBradford and Tortoise have long been working similar turf and "became attracted to us because we were into similar things."
Stereolab's members first met Tortoise's John McEntire three years ago at a Gastr del Sol show (McEntire was then that band's drummer), and out of that meeting grew a mutual friendship and collaboration. Stereolab recorded several tracks for Emperor Tomato Ketchup using the eclectic collection of electronic toys at Idful, McEntire's Chicago studio (what Mitch Easter's Drive-In Studio was in the '80s to indie jangle pop, Idful is in the '90s to the new art-rock underground).
Emperor Tomato Ketchup (the title is a reference to a '70s Japanese film dealing with "childhood mythologies," Gane explains) dishes up the same satisfying recipe as 1994's Mars Audiac Quintet, but in a different kitchen. If Mars felt cool, almost eerie -- Young Marble Giants meet Philip Glass in a spaceship -- the new recording feels warmer, mellower, playful and yet down to earth. The first American single, the uptempo rocker "The Noise of Carpet," gives a nod to the earlier, groovier punk-pop singles compiled on last year's fabulous Refried Ectoplasm collection. On the new European single "Cybele's Reverie," Sadier continues her Astrud Gilberto ("The Girl From Ipanema") revival, but with epic string arrangements and soaring melodies, it's too gorgeous to register as mere kitsch. Other strong numbers include the calmly insistent "OLV 26," the haunting waltz "Monstre Sacre," and the meditative "Anonymous Collective" ("You and me are molded by things well beyond our acknowledgement," Sadier muses over a single-note buzzing drone).
The surprising Meters-strut funk flavor of two standout tracks -- "Metronomic Underground" and "Spark Plug" -- was, according to Gane, an accidental effect of the band's exploration of repetition, its ongoing search for "Lego-interlocking riffs." Although Gane listens to Mo' Wax releases and other "left-field techno" recordings, he claims that he did not deliberately set out to create danceable tracks. "I wasn't actually thinking of funk," he says. "I was thinking of rubbery music -- rubbery, bouncy music."
Stereolab's rubber balls and Legos, its attempts to demystify music by making its mode of production more visible and "open," can be seen as symptomatic of a post-indie politics that stresses artistic over economic self-determination. Although Stereolab is still on its own label (Duophonic) in the U.K., Gane does not think being "indie" matters so long as a band has a say in the final product.
"We like the process of making records and doing music on a whim, and doing what we want; we're not really used to people saying, 'You can't release this,' " Gane says. "But then again, we had that with independent labels. So as far as major releases are concerned, I don't really care either way, because for me a band needs to be independent, not really the record label."
He adds that revamping lost or discarded music "is, in a sense, a political act, because you're saying what you discover is important and not what you're told is 'collectible,' and not what you're told is the classic music you should be listening to at a certain time."
Then there's the matter of Stereolab's "Marxist" reputation; I can almost feel Gane flinch over the phone when I bring up the dreaded "M" word. "I don't know where it came from," he sighs. "We'd never use the term 'Marxist.' " He suspects that the British music press has perpetuated the idea. But lead chanteuse/lyricist Sadier's penchant for revolutionary sentiments ingenuously uttered in a deadpan, affectless singsong while happy grooves percolate behind her -- the rock equivalent of mid-period Godard films -- might have something to do with this popular misconception (as might Gane's earlier involvement in the lefty pop band McCarthy).
Whatever its politics, Stereolab stubbornly persists in being accessible yet nonconformist, avant-garde yet humanist. Recent side projects include a 15-minute experimental film loosely based on the life of Lee Miller (Man Ray's lover/partner who invented a photographic process called "solarization" for which Man Ray later took credit) and a collaboration with Brooklyn sculptor Charles Long (music from which is available on a British-only EP). Long makes large, pink, squishy objects equipped with headphones: Gallerygoers can reach out and touch the objects while Stereolab reaches out and touches their ears. The works facilitate machine/human interfaces and connections, but again Gane can't resist jarring expectations, or throwing a bit of discomfort into our comfort.
"I wanted to try strings and make it very un-art gallery/Eno-ish music," he says. "Basically I wanted it to be as far away from that as possible."
Stereolab plays Tues, April 30, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.