By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
There's a song on the new Stereo Total album, Musique Automatique, that perfectly captures the band's worldview. On "Für Immer 16" ("Forever 16"), Brezel Göring whips off raunchy guitar riffs and fizzy keyboard parts, as Françoise Cactus coyly sings, "I am not a woman for real/ I don't know nothing 'bout anything/ Tell me it is all a dream/ A never never-ending dream." When asked about the tune via phone from a tour stop in New York, Cactus emits her infectious, cigarette-strained laugh. "This [song] is autobiographical. Not only for me -- for me and some of my friends. We are all women who don't want to be adults. My mother thinks it's a problem, but I don't think so."
Most Stereo Total fans would agree with Cactus. Over the past six years, the Berlin-based band has released some of the giddiest pop music around. Each of its albums features wacky cover tunes, sexy multilingual singing, and a mix-and-match approach to songwriting. But after the release of its 1999 effort, My Melody, Stereo Total's members realized that they were headed for disaster. "After the last [LP] we said, "Oof, let's stop; it's going too fast. We need a little more time to make better music,'" Cactus admits.
Recognizing the need for change, Cactus and Göring stripped the band down to a duo, altered their songwriting methods, and hired an outside producer to steer the results. Are the world's finest producers of giddy kiddy pop finally growing up? Mais non!
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Françoise Cactus first met Brezel Göring in the early '90s, after moving from France to Berlin. "We were living in the same street," Cactus says. "Sometimes when we went out to get some bread or something we'd see each other, and I would think, "Oh, this guy looks good.'"
Eventually the pair got to talking about music. Göring was in an experimental group called the Sigmund Freud Experience, whose music he once described as "not good," while Cactus drummed and sang for the girly garage-rock combo the Lolitas. Discovering common tastes, the pair commenced to record a song in Göring's cellar.
"It was a sexy cooking recipe," Cactus recalls with a grin I can almost hear over the phone. When pressed for the dish, she elaborates: "It had a double meaning, you know? It could be a recipe or it could be a sexy thing."
After hitting it off so well, the duo began playing around Berlin as Stereo Total (pronounced a la francais "toe-TALL"), doing art openings and discotheques with Cactus on vocals and Göring on a child's Bontempi organ. Soon they had written and recorded an album's worth of material and began shopping it around.
"We really loved it, but we sent it to several record labels and nobody wanted to put it out," Cactus remembers. "They said, "Oh my God, what is that? Nobody will hear that, nobody will buy that.' Because it was in this time when grunge music was in."
Fortunately, a new wave of "easy listening" parties began springing up around Berlin, and soon bookers began calling Stereo Total. "I don't know why, exactly, because we're not really [easy listening], but they put us with that, and we were in suddenly."
In 1996, Peace 95 and Little Teddy released Stereo Total's debut album, Oh Ah!, on CD and vinyl, respectively. The record was a revelation, a bizarre mix of '60s French pop, '70s punk, and '80s synth pop that leapt out of the speakers, ready to goose the nearest listener. The band crafted goofy, over-the-top tunes from anything and everything: "Dactylo Rock" used a typewriter for rhythm, "C'est La Mort" copped a Bee Gees vocal, "Morose" swiped a surf riff. Cactus and Göring sang in French, German, and English, covering everyone from Brigitte Bardot to Salt 'N Pepa to KC & the Sunshine Band.
Around this time, Scottish provocateur Momus (currently on tour with Stereo Total) heard the band for the first time. "They had this very Japanese shamelessness about ripping off the best bits of other people's songs, whether chart music or scratchy indie-pop, and I was instantly smitten," Momus writes via e-mail. "They're humorous, playful, and kitschy, but scratch their light and gaudy surface and you'll find wonderful songs."
Momus wasn't the only tastemaker to discover the band then. Bob Salerno, who was working at Chicago indie label Minty Fresh, picked up one of the first imports of the debut. "Man, I'll never forget seein' that cover and thinkin', I can't wait to listen to this!" he writes via e-mail from a studio in Minneapolis, recalling the gaudily colored picture. "I must have listened to that record six days a week for about a year, constantly staring at the cover.
"Shortly after, I decided to start my own label [Bobsled] and work with my favorite bands. Stereo Total was one of the first bands I contacted, 'cause I was so knocked out by that record that I had to turn more people on to it. I finally got ahold of Françoise and Brezel after quite a bit of searching, but the only drag was that by this time there were a couple other labels here diggin' them, too. So Françoise asked every label to write them a letter and explain why they wanted to put out their records. I'm happy to say we've been putting out their records ever since. I was super-flattered to later find out from Françoise that they decided to sign with us solely based upon the letter I wrote."