Listening to Stereolab During the Pandemic

Nearly an hour into a 2015 Red Bull Academy interview, singer Laetitia Sadier discusses the lyrics for the beloved Stereolab song “Ping Pong.” It is, she explained, about the “cycle of destruction” within capitalist societies. 

“Repair, rebuild and then another crisis,” she says, before adding that the cycle could no longer be called a crisis. “Now, we’re just stuck,” she adds.

I watched this video recently and began to think about the strangeness of “Ping Pong,” from Stereolab’s 1994 album, Mars Audiac Quintet. The meaning wasn’t exactly hidden in the lyrics; with lines like “bigger slump and bigger wars/and a smaller recovery/huger slump and greater wars/and a shallower recovery,” you could say that the message was blatant. In its day, “Ping Pong” was one of the band’s best known cuts. Certainly, it was the first Stereolab song I heard. For much of the late ’90s and into the ’00s, you could hear it on college radio, inside indie clubs or filtering through the record stores and coffee shops. It’s a commentary on the world at the end of the 20th century, but, in retrospect, it also sounds like a warning of what’s to come. 

Listening to Stereolab now – in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it seems like every fault of our modern, tech-centric, capitalist society is on full view – is a revelation. Even for those of us who are longtime fans, the music might hit differently. It’s not just that the passage of time has shown how vast their influence has been across genres (Madlib sampled Stereolab; Iron and Wine and The Editors have both covered them). It’s that the themes peppering a good chunk of their lyrics are more tangible now. 

To an extent, Stereolab, who reconvened in 2019 after a decade-long hiatus and recently released the rarities collections, Electrically Possessed [Switched On Volume 4], had a rep as a political band. A 1996 article in The Wire described Sadier’s lyrics as reading “like a Situationist/Marxist pamphlet” and they had a lineage that extended back to the vocally left U.K. indie pop of the 1980s: Tim Gane was an original member of the band McCarthy, which Sadier later joined; they formed Stereolab after the group split. But the message in a lot of their songs was often overshadowed by the sound, an eclectic mix of styles coming together in a unique way that would set the stage for a slew of bands to follow, from Broadcast to Ladytron to Animal Collective. 

“Retrofuturism” has been a word used to describe Stereolab often, but, now, it’s clear how inaccurate that description has been. The implication was that Stereolab was mining a vision of the future imagined in the middle of the 20th century. While there are certainly echoes of that era’s music and design throughout their work, Stereolab was also offering a critique of the political and economic systems that would drive the illusions of progress in the middle decades of the 1900s and lead to growing hardships as the century neared its end. 

During the band’s heyday – their initial run was from 1990 to 2009 – it was easy to highlight the band’s links to the past. For fans just starting their music nerd journey, Stereolab was a gateway to learning about German groups like Can and Neu!, French singer Brigitte Fontaine and a host of genres considered vintage by the dawn of the 1990s.  Listening to them now, though, what stands out is the prophecy in Stereolab’s songs. 

They might not have set out to make predictions, but Sadier, the band’s chief singer and lyricist, is incredibly skilled at breaking down how systems work in engaging ways. Because the Stereolab songs viewed as being their most political are more about structures than people or events, they’ve transcended the moments in which they were made and have become more relevant as the flaws in our systems become harder to ignore. These were the issues that were part of the discourse going on at college campuses, in zines and amongst DIY art and music-makers of the time, but were often ignored by the mainstream. Today, they’re trending topics on Twitter. 

Take, for example, Emperor Tomato Ketchup, released 25 years ago on March 18. Listening to “Tomorrow Is Already Here” (“Originally, this set up was to serve society/Now, the roles have been reversed that want society to serve the institutions”) in early 2021 is a reminder of how and why a select few have made billions when so many have suffered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In “OLV 26,” in which Sadier uses both French and English, I hang onto the line “unchallenged myths, they lie heavy” and think about how so many of today’s biggest issues are the result of systemic problems (racism, colonialism, sexism and classism, just to start the list) that have remained largely unchecked for generations, and will stay in place so long as people continue to perpetuate myths of exceptionalism. Meanwhile, “Motoroller Scalatron” asks “What’s society built on?” Maybe that’s a question that’s been on a lot of our minds at a time when our society can feel like it’s on the brink of collapse. 

The one Stereolab song I’ve leaned on a lot during the past year is “French Disko,” a fan favorite that began its life as a bonus track for the 1993 single “Jenny Ondioline,” then appeared on 1995 comp Refried Ectoplasm [Switched On Volume 2]. The song is a call to action with the refrain of “La resistance!” that acknowledges the absurdity of the world. In spite of that absurdity, Sadier sings, “Well I say there are still things worth fighting for.” 

Ultimately, you need to believe that there’s a way to a better future if you’re going to spend time calling out what clearly isn’t working. When I listen to Stereolab now, I hear answers for the questions that this pandemic life is raising, but, more importantly, I hear hope.

NEWS ROUNDUP: Webster Hall Reopening, R. Kelly Arrested, and MORE

Webster Hall is Reopening!

It’s always sad when an iconic New York venue closes, but Webster Hall’s story has a happy update. The 130-year-old venue was shuttered in August 2017 for renovations when longtime owners the Ballingers sold it to AEG. That means Bowery Presents will be handling bookings, and the show schedule looks pretty sick, starting with a christening from punk poet laureate Patti Smith on May 1. Broken Social Scene, MGMT, Sharon Van Etten, Big Thief and Built to Spill are some of the acts slated to play over the next six months or so, and that’s just the initial announcement. The New York Times got a sneak peek into the renovations, and it seems like the $10 million plus project focused mostly on accessibility, with a revamped entryway and the addition of an elevator, as well as updates to the bathroom and soundsystem. Much of the characteristic fixtures in the ballroom were left unscathed, though we’re guessing the floor will no longer feel like it’s about to cave in when the mosh pit gets too rowdy. The Marlin Room will become a lounge, and there’s no word yet on what’s going on with the basement stage. The venue will still have a capacity of about 1,400 – making it an essential part of downtown nightlife once again.

R. Kelly Arrested, Bond Set at $1M

Following increased scrutiny after Lifetime doc Surviving R. Kelly aired earlier this year, the R&B star was arrested in Chicago on Friday and charged with ten counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving four separate victims, three of whom were minors when the abuse occurred. One of the most disturbing pieces of information to emerge in Saturday’s bond hearing was that Kelly met one of these victims at his 2008 trial for child pornography, of which he was acquitted; like the trial a decade ago, some of these charges stem from the discovery of a sex tape in which Kelly appears to perform sex acts with an underage girl. His bond was set at $1 million, and that may be the tip of the iceberg – Kelly is also under investigation by multiple federal agencies for sex trafficking, and it looks likely that there are more victims who have yet to come forward. Let’s hope this is the beginning of the end of their nightmare.

That New New

Audiofemme favorites Sharkmuffin shared rollicking new single “Serpentina,” the first single from their Gamma Gardening EP, out April 5 via Exploding In Sound. We couldn’t be more excited – love you, Tarra & Nat!!!!

While this video for Kate Bush’s cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” isn’t exactly new, it hadn’t been released since its recording in 1991. The video comes with the announcement of a four-disc rarities and b-sides compilation called The Other Sides, which will be available March 22. In other Elton John news, his biopic, starring Taron Egerton, comes out May 22.

Tierra Whack is back with single “Only Child,” her first release since blowing up with Whack World.

Helado Negro is currently on tour with Beirut as he prepares for the March 8 release of This is How You Smile; he shared a video for single “Running” this week.

Ella Vos shared an intimate self-directed video for “Empty Hands,” which follows her through the last day of two years of treatment for lymphoma. The single appears on her latest EP, Watch & Wait.

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe will release Gnomes & Badgers, their first album in five years, on March 8. The TG Herrington-directed clip opens a poignant dialogue about the family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Marissa Nadler released two new songs – including a duet with John Cale – via new imprint KRO Records, who will release the single on heart-shaped vinyl this spring.

CHROMATICS are back with “Time Rider” and a slew of tour dates, but no official release date for an album, which they’ve been teasing for some time now.

Priests released a lyric video for “Good Time Charlie” from their upcoming album The Seduction of Kansas, out April 5 via Sister Polygon.

Empath have announced their debut LP Active Listening: Night on Earth (out April 2 via Get Better Records), and shared its first single, “Soft Shape.”

Alex Lahey will finally release a follow-up to 2017’s excellent I Love You Like a Brother. It’s called The Best of Luck Club and is slated for release via Dead Oceans on May 17; “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself” is the first single.

TEEN are streaming Good Fruit ahead of its March 1 release over at NPR, and have shared a video for “Pretend.”

With her band Wax Idols on an indefinite hiatus, Hether Fortune has shifted to solo work with the release of single “Sister.”

Shady Bug shared “Whining” from their sophomore album Lemon Lime, out March 8.

Los Angeles noiseniks HEALTH have released their fourth collaborative single since September, this time featuring JPEGMAFIA.

We’re obsessed with “TGM” from 18-year-old newcomer Ebhoni, who reps her Toronto home and West Indian roots all at once.

Palehound kicked off their tour with Cherry Glazerr by releasing a new single called “Killer.”

Indie poppers Pure Bathing Culture  shared a lyric video for “Devotion,” the first single from their forthcoming LP Night Pass, out April 26.

If you’ve ever wondered what Mountain Man’s Molly Sarlé sounds like on her own, take a listen to her debut single, produced by Sam Evian. She’ll play some shows with Mountain Man cohort Amelia Meath when she joins Sylvan Esso for a few shows in their recently-announced WITH tour.

Nilüfer Yanya’s debut album Miss Universe drops March 22. Her latest single “Tears” follows alt-pop bops “In Your Head” and “Heavyweight Champion of the Year.”

Former Shudder to Think frontman Craig Wedren has had an illustrious career scoring film and television, so it’s no wonder the clip for his vibey rework of “2Priests” (from last year’s Adult Desire Expanded) is so gorgeous.

We have a feeling Aldous Harding’s low-key pilgrim dance from “The Barrel” video might catch on well before Designer arrives via 4AD April 26.

Legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr shared a video for latest single “Armatopia” to promote his upcoming North American tour in support of 2018’s Call The Comet.

End Notes

  • Breakdancing could become an Olympic event by 2024.
  • Moogfest has announced the “first wave” of its 2019 lineup, featuring Kimbra, Martin Gore, Matthew Dear, Lucrecia Dalt, GAS, Ela Minus and more.
  • Wilco have also announced the lineup for their bi-annual Solid Sound Festival, taking place June 28-30 in Massachusetts. There will be several sets from Jeff Tweedy solo and with the band, as well as appearances by Courtney Barnett, Cate Le Bon, Tortoise, Jonathan Richman and more.
  • Detroit musicians will be the first recipients of Tidal’s new $1 million endowment program.
  • The 1975 took home British Album of The Year at the BRIT Awards for A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, and called out music industry misogyny in their acceptance speech for Best British Band.
  • Stereolab have added a ton of reunion tour dates to their Primavera Sound and Desert Daze appearances, and announced reissues for seven of their records. The band has been on hiatus for a decade.
  • Tom Krell of How To Dress Well launched his label Helpful Music with an EP from Calgary’s Overland.
  • W Hotels have also recently launched a label, releasing two songs with Perfume Genius to benefit Immigration Equality. Watch a mini-doc about the collaboration here.
  • Lydia Loveless took to Instagram to detail sexual harassment she has suffered since signing to her label Bloodshot Records; her abuser doesn’t work at the label, but attended all social events having to do with it as the partner of one of the label’s founders, who has since left the imprint.
  • Someone decapitated Puff Daddy’s wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Times Square.
  • Michael Jackson’s estate is seeking to block the production of HBO’s Leaving Neverland with a $100 million lawsuit; the two-part doc follows the story of two men who say their were abused by the King of Pop as children and is set to air March 3rd & 4th. Watch the trailer here.
  • Stereogum published this handy rundown on the drama that’s dogged Royal Trux’s reunion tour, as well as the release of White Stuff, still scheduled to come out March 1.
  • My favorite Eric Andre gag is getting his own TV special. Thanks Adult Swim!