Moving in Stereo

Can Europop act Stereo Total evolve without losing its joie de vivre?

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!

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.”

The first Stereo Total record Bobsled released was 1998's self-titled effort, which combined tracks from Oh Ah! and 1997's Monokini. The record received rave reviews in Spin, Village Voice, and Washington City Paper, and led to a triumphant U.S. tour. Soon the group was writing songs for Japanese pop star Kahimi Karie, remixing the work of seminal German soundtrack producer Peter Thomas, and touring 19 countries. Stereo Total had become an international pop phenomenon.

The group expanded to a quartet for 1998's Juke-Box Alarm, adding Italian bassist/vocalist Angie Reed and German keyboardist San Reimo. The album was another direct hit, featuring a fuller sound and more clever genre juxtapostions. (Why a certain hotel chain didn't snatch up the incredibly catchy “Holiday Innn” as its theme song is anyone's guess.) But the following year's My Melody, while still ripe with great cover songs like Cher's “Ringo I Love You” and the Beatles' “Drive My Car,” felt a bit overworked, as if the band was trying to cover up creative exhaustion with spangly riffs.

Reimo and Reed soon quit the band, Reimo to work on his own increasingly popular band Jeans Team and Reed because, Cactus says, she “didn't want to sleep all alone in the hotel room on tour.”

“There were other people that wanted to play with us, but we decided to make it the two of us, like in the beginning,” Cactus says.

To facilitate a fresh sound, the duo swiped a page from the Surrealists and their stream-of-consciousness writing style, “écriture automatique.” Cactus explains: “You take a pen and you think about exactly nothing and you kind of daydream. And then you have strange stuff coming out of you which you are writing down. That's how we wanted to do the music.”

After adding lyrics and recording basic tracks themselves, the couple met with German producer and Air Liquide leader Cem Oral. The band had used an outside producer only once before — Der Plan's Kurt Dahlke on Juke-Box Alarm — since Cactus and Göring consider themselves control freaks. “We were afraid that somebody would come and change our music,” Cactus says.

Cactus had met Oral while she was applying guest vocals to his brother Khan Oral's record, No Comprendo (Matador Records). “I thought, “This guy's [production] is really good, and it would be good for us to do something with him,'” she says.

The result of that collaboration, Musique Automatique, is the band's smoothest, most professional, and most modern album to date. “Liebe Zu Dritt” is almost slick enough to be featured on a car commercial, while several songs follow the trend pursued by everyone from Cher to Daft Punk of using vocoder vocals. The duo's army of synth blips and bleeps, which in the past seemed to come from a thrift store organ on its last legs, now sound like recent hand-me-downs from major electronica artists. But longtime fans needn't worry about the increased proficiency: While the new songs lack the kitsch-en sink vibe of the past, they retain much of the old dizzy spirit. The pair continues to craft impossibly addictive melodies and rework covers, among them tunes by Brigitte Bardot, Charles Trenet, and obscure German band Deo.

The band's lyrics are as cheeky as ever, playing with love like a kitten with a ball of string. “Je Suis une Poupée” tackles the age-old icon of French pop, the doll — only this one threatens to get ugly if it's not obeyed. On “Adieu, Adieu,” Cactus says goodbye to a boyfriend, telling him there are plenty of other girls out there (“It's a little bit mean — sad but mean,” Cactus explains with a chuckle). With “Liebe Zu Dritt” (and its loosely translated English counterpart, “Love With Three of Us”), Cactus offers a hands-on alternative to the increasingly virtual world: “What I love is to make love with the three of us/ It's absolutely out, I know it's hippie shit/ But I say hey love with the three of us I love it.”

“What I noticed in Berlin,” Cactus says, “is the way that people are communicating more and more through their telephone or e-mail. So I thought I'd take this old-fashioned thing — going to bed with three persons — and put that back onto the table.”

For Stereo Total's current tour, the band will be only a twosome, but that doesn't mean it doesn't want to share its love. Most likely, the duo will bust out its gold-painted square guitar and its nutty dance moves, and drag the audience kicking and screaming back to childhood.

“It's so great to see them really catchin' on,” Bob Salerno writes. “Stereo Total are one of my favorite bands on the planet! And at this crazy time in our history, Stereo Total are the elixir we all need right now.”

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