Though the corporate record machine would never let you know it, there are a handful of hardy souls making adventurous pop music, bands and solo acts who defy convention and who pursue creativity as their goal, not an afterthought. Divine Comedy, Sparklehorse, Super Furry Animals, and of course, Radiohead, are just a few artists for whom integrity is everything. Add to that shortlist French avant pop innovators Stereolab.
With such albums as Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night, Stereolab forge art rock and post rock sensibilities to unusual recording and performance techniques. Fans of '60s French pop guru Serge Gainsbourg, Stereolab take his gift for camp and couple it with a whirring rhythmic and harmonic sense reminiscent of '70s Krautrock specialists Neu! and Kraftwerk and the lush soundtrack allure of Henry Mancini. A typical Stereolab song hums along via the harmonized vocals of Laetitia Sadier, while Farfisa organs, glowing vibraphones and wobbly bass extend a playful atmosphere. Using rhythms that repeat and flutter, Stereolab main man Tim Gane often uses sampler and studio tricks to double or manipulate the drums, while part time member Sean OíHagen adds string and keyboard parts ala Pet Sounds. Stereolab use irony to full effect, as both a mirror held up to '60s sounds, and as a tool for commentary on todayís vapid pop scene.
Unlike most pop musicians, who seem to prefer a boombox to anything resembling decent hi-fi equipment, Tim Gane is a full blown audiophile whose choice of hi-fi influences everything from his recording choices to his mixing techniques. With two systems in his London apartment, Gane is a dedicated vinyl addict. And with a $7,000 Simon Yorke turntable, who can blame him? Ganeís system also includes Jadis and Cary amplification, BC Acoustics speakers and Tara Labs cabling.
Stereolabís last album, 2001's Sound-Dust, seemed to signal the end of a cycle in the bandís growth. Sounds that once seemed innovative have become stock formulas, as other bands, both rock and electronic, caught up with Stereolab in terms of both creativity and technical prowess. But none of that diminishes the bandís influence or reach, as Stereolabís impressive body of work cools and sets into a canon, at least for now. Currently working on their 15th studio album, Stereolab have just released a compilation, The Dymaxion compilation - Dymaxion x 3 + 4 = 38:33 (Duophonic Super 45s) on LP and CD.
Enjoy the Music.comô: Some elements of Sound-Dust sound like a live performance, and the musical juxtapositions are much more subtle than on past recordings.
Gane: It is about refinement really. On the last LP (Cobra And Phases Group...) , I wrote the rhythms first. I wanted to see how the music would be affected by having the rhythms first. Certain chords sound great, but when you move up the tempo they donít work anymore. On this record I did the opposite. I didnít want any overt rhythms at all. I had in mind a kind of insect orchestration, or polyrhythms, in a way very fast but static. I wanted to keep the music as arhythmic as possible. But then we also allowed the music to just breathe without sticking to any rules. There are two and three drums sets on each track, some put through tape delay. I always like to go for a general sound on a record, I donít like to chop and change radically between songs. I had a kind of impressionist approach to the sound and a slightly blurred approach. That led me onto the choice of instruments. I wanted harps and Celestes and softer instruments, like piano and harpsichords. With ProTools we recorded a vibes chord or piano chord and cut off the attack so we were just left with the decay. Then we linked the trail of decay together to give you the harmonic changes. That lets you use dense arrangements but with apparent space. And that helped the vocals to have more space.
Enjoy the Music.comô: Most musicians listen to a boombox, what drew you to high end audio?
Gane: Through the years I found that tube stuff always sounds better in terms of EQ and compressors and lots of equipment. It is less realistic in a sense, there is more distortion. But it suits the choice of instruments that we use. It gives a sound that has more character, more poetry. It gives me what I am hearing in my mindís ear. The next thing was to extend that to listening to music.
The problem I have always had coming from a non-technical background was trying to understand what I didnít like about listing to some things. You find that there is a deficiency in the recording and playback quality. It was hand in hand for me in the professional recording world. I was really tired of spending a lot of time and effort trying to get subtle mixes with instruments weaving around each other, then coming home and putting it on the stereo and not hearing any of it whatsoever.
Enjoy the Music.comô: Was that loss of subtlety due to solid-state gear?
Gane: I think solid state can probably reproduce detail better, but it is not just detail, it is the relationship between the sounds, the nuances. At the time, I didnít have particularly bad equipment. I had Arcam amps and a Rega Planar turntable, a good entry level system. I became very dissatisfied with the Arcam, I found it very peaky and etched. I am very phobic of tweeters. I donít like hearing the tweeter separated form the rest of the spectrum. I can hear a lot of that in hi-fi, particularly on CD, which I blame on the mastering. So I was tired of putting in all this effort and it sounding like junk. I started reading Sound Practices. The first thing I bought was the Simon Yorke S7 turntable in '98. It is very simple to use, it all works on pulleys. I use the Simon Yorke tone arm with a Crown Jewel SE cartridge. I bought it with one of my first advance checks from Elektra.
The thing about the Simon Yorke, besides its beautiful looks, it looks hewn out of solid rock is that when I went to his website, his attitude was my attitude. He had a page with his philosophy. I am really in to small companies or individuals making their own thing. You have to go see him. He wants to check you out. He wants to know what you are like. I brought records up and stayed at his house. Most people bring classical but I brought electronic stuff, oddball things like Nurse With Wound, he played stuff like Messian. He played it through some tube amps, and it sounded amazing. I like the slightly softer focus of tubes. For the kind of music I listen to it was great. I bought the table, that was all I had, with a pair of Stax headphones. It is more about the retrieval of detail, hearing how someone wanted you to hear it. I think any musician would say that. Mixing on a boombox is shortsighted.
Enjoy the Music.comô: Do you get a vinyl test pressing of your records?
Gane: Yes, we master our vinyl totally separate to the CD. We donít go through any digital processes, we go straight from the half inch tape to an analog EQ desk at Abbey Road straight into the cutting lathe. We still press vinyl of everything we do. Three people cut it like we do: us, Steve Albini, and some small classical companies.
Enjoy the Music.comô: You own Jadis amplification, what are the speakers?
Gane: BC Acoustics, they are French, very well regarded. I was on the lookout for a pair of amps, but I didnít really want the low powered single ended triodes. I wanted as full bandwidth as possible. I donít have much space, so I didnít want horns. I was going to get a Cary with the 2A3s, and then I heard the 805C. That was by far the best, it had so much more volume and much better bass. I really liked them. And I liked the BC Acoustics Nil model speakers. They have two midrange drivers sandwiching a horn tweeter and port for the bass. No woofers, it is all passive. It has plenty of bass. Everything I really like you canít decipher where the tweeter begins and the midrange ends.
I am really fascinated with Jadis. I like the look of their stuff. I came upon them second hand. They really suited the suited the style of music I generally play so I bought them on the spur of the moment. I use the Jadis JPS2 preamp with the Cary CAD-805C power amps. They go very well together, and I use an EAR step-up transformer for the Simon Yorke. I also have an EAR 845 phono pre-amplifier, which I use downstairs where I have a Croft amp, they are famous for their output transformers. They are old-fashioned English valve amps. I have Canadian speakers downstairs, Ars Acoustica Divas. I also have a Sony 777 SACD player in the downstairs system, which I like a lot. I didnít have a CD player and I thought its playback of CDs was great, it was only 1,200 quid. It plays CDs as well as I have heard. I donít use the SACD side of it, they are hard to find. With Stereolab, we may do SACD, but the cost of mastering is immense.
Enjoy the Music.comô: Has Elektra asked you to master Stereolab in 5.1? Capitol is pushing Radiohead to tackle the format.
Gane: I recently heard a copy of Fleetwood Macís Rumours in 5.1. I thought it was a bit gimmicky. Youíve got the acoustic guitar there, the voice over there. It is not about long term listening. Just by taking things and splitting them up in a way that the musicians didnít intend... Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys - those records are better in mono. They have an energy about them that is dissipated in stereo. I find that energy further dissipated in 5.1. With classical music that might work to its benefit, but you do not listen to any music in the round, as it were, apart from some choral music. It might work, but European people are not into it in general. A) We donít have much space in our homes; B) It is more for yuppies.
I read an article with Bob Ludwig where he says that his problem with 5.1 is that since people have paid out for their subwoofers and home setups that he gets pressured to mix for the subwoofer, but he says there is nothing for those 20Hz. But they still want it, so he has to add it artificially. People want to hear something coming out of there. All you get is the occasional car crash. Normal music doesnít go below that, maybe low brass, but that is it.
Enjoy the Music.comô: What kind of cabling do you use?
Gane: Tara Labs The One for the upstairs system. They make a big difference but not as big a difference as the Tice power conditioner. I A-Bed a record with and without, and there was a general relaxation of the music with the Tice in the system. It is not only that the noise floor was lowered, you get noise with tubes anyway, but there was a general relaxation and retrieval of detail. They are boring things to buy, but they work. And I use Coincident and Harmonic Technology cables.
Enjoy the Music.comô: What are a few of your favorite LPs?
Gane: The best record I think is Ballad of Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg from 1970. I have original vinyl. It has a richness that is unmatched by any other kind of electronically recorded music. The voices are super present, full and rich and it has an amazing bass sound. It has very good clarity. I judge a lot of records by that. They reissued all of the Gainsbourg records on limited edition vinyl and CD. I also like a lot of jazz, such as Afro Eurasian Suite by Duke Ellington. Percussion records by Pakonitsu, the Japanese composer. I like a lot of 20th century music and Mobile Fidelity pressings of Rite Of Spring. I donít buy audiophile records that much. I am not into old blues guys recording their stuff digitally.
Enjoy the Music.comô: I agree. Who wants to hear some old fart with out of tune vocals playing bad guitar at super high resolution? Audiophiles often listen to lame music.
Gane: I went to the Hi-Fi & Record Review show, they had all the new gear. I was shocked by all the appalling music, horrible modern cover versions or really lame, laid-back jazz. I heard this room full of Marc Levinson gear playing the most awful show tunes. If music canít match the sound quality then it is a non-starter. You need the emotional and intellectual connection with the music first. Then you worry about sound. The good rooms were the EAR room, they played old-styled '50s blues and classical; the Beauhorn room played Chopin; and the Caffrey horn (?) room. But you often come away thinking, ďHow can anyone buy anything hearing that music?Ē A system has to play normal music. Normal records recorded well, like an old Impulse! record. They sound fantastic. There is no point in having all these frequencies if it doesnít suit the music. Digitally recorded blues just doesnít work full stop as music.
Enjoy the Music.comô: Radioheadís Kid A and Amnesiac sound good. They use a lot of tape.
Gane: Yes, they are like us; they record on computer, then bounce to tape. We record the arrangements with ProTools. Vocals are recorded on tape. Then we bounce them on to two-inch 24 track. You get 90 percent of what you would have got by going to tape originally, but the computer enables you to do so much more with the arrangements. And it really suits our music.
Enjoy the Music.comô: There are songs on Sound-Dust like ďGus The Mynah Bird,Ē where the edits sound obvious. But the drumming sounds live.
Gane: Because we use the computer in a way unlike most people do. We use it as a recording tape, we donít use click tracks or MIDI, we just record ten of fifteen minutes of us playing and jamming then we use the ProTools to edit the most interesting four minutes. We still go for that first take feel but we have the luxury of being able to edit. It allows for more interesting arrangement ideas and we approach the music from a collage point of view, which is how I see our music. But the ProTools sound is still not enough compared with two inch tape. On tape, drums have extra energy and depth.
Enjoy the Music.comô: What will you do next?
Gane: We are headed to Japan where we will, no doubt, buy a lot of vinyl. Then itís back to London where I will do a lot of listening, and then we begin on the next album.