November 9, 2001

What Kind of Total Disregard for Humanity Do You Have

Two characterizations of Stereolab which really create issues for 'Lab founder Tim Gane are "retro" and "Marxist." "I don't understand why we're called Marxists," he explained to me after their MAB show before a packed crowd in Mandel Hall last Friday. Sure there have been left-wing-of-critical lyrics in the past, Gane added, but he himself is not political, nor does he vote, nor does he even think anyone in the band is a "factual" Marxist — not to mention has even ever read Marx.

Yet, at the same time, resting on the dressing room table in the bowels of Mandel was a copy of Russell's A History of Western Philosophy. Gane was quick to explain that the book belonged to the group's manager, but when pressed for what he had brought along to read, he admitted that he had Barthes's Mythologies. That Gane would be reading about and interested in semiotics fits the Stereolab mystique in a way that crotchety old Russell simply would not. As a result, it was sort of in the prefigured shadow of Mythologies that our conversation stretched for the better part of an hour.

Since first coming across Stereolab about five years ago, I have been constantly struck by the paradoxically ready depth of their music. Each album presents itself as a unified whole of multi-layered possibilities of interpretation. Work in listening is rewarded by the depth with which the band informs their own music. That is, once a listener starts tugging at a certain tiny rhythm hidden underneath the shower of sound of a typical mid-to-late Stereolab song, the song begins to unwind — themes from earlier songs arrive and the rest can be predicted. As Gane explained, "you can feel an allusion" — which certainly sounds right. While the 'Lab might not be a force of citation like a woodchopping saxophonist, perhaps their allusivity is more attached to the attitude of the group.

What attracts Gane, then, to semiotics is the play and puzzle of interpretation. Some ideas, he explained, are best found by accident and variability. Puzzles often work this way, too. Certainly, one could develop a methodology in building up a way to solve a puzzle — take a piece and keep pressing pieces against it until you find one that fits. Repeat until you are dealing with factorial permutations. Sure, the puzzle will be done, but it won't be any fun. Instead, look at what's on the puzzle piece and try to create links of understanding and representation from piece to piece. That's the best way to puzzle something out — by seeing relationships and interpolating meanings.

Gane referred to (the listening of) Stereolab as observational — understanding possibilities and inherences. Putting together the puzzle pieces from above to try and establish a satisfying interpretation, which, of course, would have no particular authority or value, still creates a satisfaction in the listener. Yet a quickness to jump ahead can also create gaps in understanding which create differences of opinion that need resolution. A lot of Stereolab reviews, including some I've written, Gane explained, are too concerned with the stylistics of the band — focussing on Stereolab's being "retro," for example. Stereolab are not "retro" — they make certain artistic decisions. "A tube amp is better than a transistor amp," explained Gane. It's not better because it's retro; it simply sounds better. Similarly, a farfisa has "poetry and character" — Gane uses it in Stereolab because of these attributes, not because it helps resuscitate Serge Gainsbourg. Digital equipment is good and cheap, he was quick to mention, but not what he likes. "Electronic is just a style, a choice of arrangement," he asserted, not a window into the band's meaning. But this does not seem entirely correct. There feels to be something missing in pushing aside specifically stylistic understanding — sure, a review that says "Stereolab is, more or less, a sextet with guitars, keyboards, and occasional trombone" misses (perhaps) a lot of the fundamental formal work Stereolab does (formal work which is brought up front and clear on their fantastic new LP, Sound-Dust), but, at the same time, it's a foot in the door. Gane seems much more interested in the self-referential problem of the band, or their relationship with the idea of entertainment — both endlessly fascinating topics, but often outside the scope of a 350-word blurb in a newspaper.

Saying that many call Stereolab academic, Gane showed his belief that music needs an intellectualizing process, a personality, for it to have some sort of meaning dissociated from a utilitarian view of music as entertainment. In perhaps the most surprising affirmation of the evening, Gane explained that, for him, music (and art) exists without utility — there is no real purpose for it other than presenting a game to play. The act of playing, for him, (either instruments or interpreting the music) is all music offers. The band, he explained, are not an "act" but rather a conceptual summation of their records and personality. They promote themselves by playing live, but do not seek entertainment as a goal. Pop, said Gane, is sort of like the emperor's new clothes. If entertainment was the limit of music's (or Stereolab's, at least) utility, then there would be no point to speak of them other than in a valuative way of discussing how entertaining the show last weekend was. It was entertaining — but it was also jarring, and it asked its listeners to put aside pleasure principles as the group worked through their own creations.

In Mythologies Barthes presents a series of systems (pro wrestling, the strip-tease) and decodes them semiotically, to show how actions within the system (the good guy always winning in wrestling) indicate, mean, signify expectations about the society in which the system exists. Stereolab works much the same way. As a system of signs, Stereolab points to music's possibility and history. As Gane said, "a step forward is not necessarily a step into future," which seemed to work with the idea of Stereolab as a synchronous, ahistorical group. And it seems as though the best way to understand them is by seeing the steps and following the traces each step indicates as it creates an aesthetic whole.