The Stereolab Halo

Easily one of the most prolific acts of its time, in its original two decade run as an active band Stereolab split the difference between major label distributed formal albums and any number of side projects, one-offs, collaborations and other work, exploring its fusion of older sonic and musical technologies, politically pointed lyrics, a broad understanding of pop music in the 60s and beyond from around the world and much more besides. The band released so much music that even after an extensive reissue series with bonus tracks, a boxed set of numerous EPs and no less than five formal compilations of various work, most of which were double CDs, released under the overall title Switched On, there were still as of late 2022 a large amount of formally released efforts not fully compiled. 

Even beyond that sphere, the individual members of Stereolab had so many side projects themselves that the sheer scope of what they did isn’t always understood. The most well known ones come courtesy of the two main figures of the band, singer Lætitia Sadier and guitarist Tim Gane, both of whom also played a further variety of instruments in their own right. The two had first started working together in the final days of Gane’s previous band, the mid to late 80s English indie group McCarthy, with Sadier joining as a backing singer both in studio and live. From there the duo began the first of what would be many incarnations of Stereolab as the lineup was in something of a constant evolution, though two key members were in place by the time of their breakout album Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements. There was drummer Andy Ramsay, who would become a crucial anchor for all versions of Stereolab including the reunion years, and singer/multi-instrumentalist Mary Hansen, who would provide key harmonizing vocals with Sadier for many years until her tragic death due to a hit-and-run driver in 2002.

Even while the group was in its initial 1990s heyday various side projects started appearing, notably the UiLab EP, a collaboration with the New York trio Ui, and Turn On, a full album recorded by Gane, Ramsay and regular Stereolab producer and cohort Sean O’Hagan from Microdisney and the High Llamas. By the turn of the millennium and beyond, newer members, some of whom appeared only briefly and others who took longer stints, had numerous projects going either in their own right or with the assistance of others from the band and elsewhere. Sadier herself began her initial work separate from Stereolab under the name Monade, while bassist Simon Johns began the group Imitation Electric Piano and Katherine Gifford fronted the group Snowpony, not to mention any number of further solo efforts and one-off collaborations, one of the most notable being Hansen joining the group Hovercraft for the self-titled Schema EP.

When Stereolab went on pause in 2009, the various members went into overdrive on their own individual projects as a result, with Sadier wrapping up Monade and then launching a full solo career with a stream of elegant albums on a regular basis, along with a separate duo with David Thayer, Little Tornados. Gane himself reteamed with Stereolab’s original drummer, th’ Faith Healers’ Joe Dilworth, to begin his own new main band, the instrumental-focused Cavern of Anti-Matter, while other veterans from the group began their own efforts, notably including singer/instrumentalist Morgan Lhote as Hologram Teen and instrumentalist Joe Watson as Junior Electronics. Even with the return of Stereolab as a touring group done in combination with the wave of reissues and new compilations, no new music from the band has emerged again as of late 2022, with Gane also having started another act, Ghost Power, while Sadier continues to pursue various projects and guest appearances as suits her. Exactly where the band’s general story ultimately ends may yet be undetermined, but in terms of a real artistic legacy going well beyond the group’s central work under its own name, Stereolab’s true impact continues to play out broadly.

Schema cover

It was only ever a one-off project between the final incarnation of the band Hovercraft and Stereolab’s Mary Hansen, adding vocals to what otherwise had been an instrumental band, but both in its moment and then after Hansen’s tragic passing, Schema’s one release remains an intriguing and retrospectively sad what-might-have-been. With Hansen’s easy, elegant singing, even with wordless lyrics, riding the 90s spacerock waves of songs like “Unde,” “Far From Where We Began,” and the Can-like drive of “We Think We’re Sane,” it’s all very engaging.

The Slow-Motion World of Snowpony cover

When Snowpony’s debut album first appeared there was a feeling that it didn’t hit a perceived shoegaze supergroup mark, given the band included bassist Deb Googe from My Bloody Valentine and guitarist Debbie Smith from Curve. But the fairer perception was to consider them a strong, coolly powerful late 90s rock band, with singer/keyboardist and Moonshake/Stereolab veteran Katherine Gifford being the focal point. Songs like “A Way To Survive” and “St. Lucy’s Gate” showcase unusual yet catchy arrangements, reaching for a new musical language.

Blow It Up, Burn It Down, Kick It ‘Til It Bleeds cover

The second and apparently last full Imitation Electric Piano album, Blow It Up, Burn It Down, Kick It ‘Til It Bleeds may sound like a metal record in its title but some heaviness aside it’s much more of an indie-meets-space-age pop affair, again showing unsurprising connections to Stereolab given Simon Johns’ long stint with that group. Unlike the earlier releases, here Johns concentrates on backing vocals with organist Mary Hampton taking the lead; her own bright tone adds lightness on “Tension” and the glazed drone kick of “Relatively Good Times.”

Musostics cover

Having participated in any number of efforts by Stereolab and its various spinoffs, one-offs and collaborations, on Musostics Joe Watson takes the lead in his own right as Junior Electronics, supported by guests such as his fellow Imitation Electric Piano participant Mary Hampton. While it sets the general tone with a very late 60s Beach Boys-goes-electronic tribute in the form of “Intimations,” Watson varies that up further with subtle varieties of sonic approaches, touching on everything from gentle funk to murmuring synth-pop even while hitting the soft harmonies.

Find Me Finding You cover

At once an extension of her solo work and an acknowledgement of the core of players around her, the Lætitia Sadier Sound Ensemble’s debut effort is one of her most elaborate and exultant collection of songs, once again working with key players like Emmanuel Mario, Xavi Munoz and David Thayer plus many further guests and friends old and new throughout. A number are from Brazil and it’s audible in the mix of classic musical styles from there once more amid the bubbling art-pop, another joyful fusion all tied together by Sadier’s never failing vocal dexterity.

Ghost Power cover

Ghost Power came to life in 2022 as a new collaboration between two simpatico artists: Stereolab/Cavern of Anti-Matter’s Tim Gane and Dymaxion’s Jeremy Novak. Their self-titled debut follows a touch in the vein of Cavern of Anti-Matter given that the songs are instrumentals with plenty of electronics, but the aesthetic, often thanks to the guitars, is usually more 60s nightclub frugs and spy soundtracks in turn. Whether it’s the ominous bassline on “Panic in the Isles of Splendor” or the exploratory trippiness of “Astral Melancholy Suite,” it’s all a good treat.

Between the Funk and the Fear cover

Following a couple of earlier singles under the Hologram Teen name, Stereolab veteran Morgan Lhote released her own full length debut Between the Funk And the Fear, an enjoyably accomplished listen. Showing an interest in post-punk electronic aesthetics in particular – “Post-Apocalypteacakes” clearly nods to New Order’s epochal “Blue Monday” – Lhote works with a few guests, including a couple of vocalists, but songs like “Tracksuit Minotaur,” the blasting “Lesbian Death Drums” and “Bartok in C” help establish her sound in a distinct way.

La Vie D'Artiste (Original Soundtrack) cover

It doubtless would have been perfect if Tim Gane and Sean O’Hagan had somehow ended up soundtracking a French period film set in the 1960s, but the 2007 film La Vie d’Artiste is partially about being so much in love with the artistic past can both help and hinder – so in ways, perfect as well. A spry set of instrumentals, ranging from easygoing to sprightly kick, there’s clear hints of both Stereolab and the High Llamas’ art pop highs, while many guest instrumentalists, including veterans of both bands and numerous UK studio musician legends, flesh it all out.

Turn On cover

Somewhere between a side indulgence, a collaboration and its own sparkling universe, Turn On’s one self-titled album in 1997 was the collective work of Stereolab standbys Tim Gane and Andy Ramsay and High Llamas mainman Sean O’Hagan, who had become a regular producer of the other act. Lætitia Sadier makes a vocal appearance on “Ru Tenone” but otherwise this is a collection of brief and bubbly instrumentals, emphasizing space age float and engaging percussive drive on songs like “Electrocation of Fire Ants” and “Triple Cause of Poetry.”

Something Shines cover

For her third solo album, Lætitia Sadier was joined not only by regular collaborator Emmanuel Mario but also her Little Tornados partner David Thayer and once and future Stereolab live member Xavi Munoz. It’s an rich core that produces some of her most intriguingly experimental songs, audible from the start with the lengthy improvisations on “Quantum Soup.” Her ear for elegant art pop/easy listening remains utterly on point, from the tight punch of “Then I Will Love You Again” to a striking cover of Giorgio Tuma’s “Release From the Centre Of Your Heart.”

Monstre Cosmic cover

The final Monade album was the most fleshed-out, with Lætitia Sadier again backed by a wide number of performers, including both returning guests like Joe Watson and, even more importantly, a new collaborator in the form of drummer/producer Emmanuel Mario, who would go on to work with Sadier on numerous future projects. Again suggesting Stereolab vibes, Monade still finds its own elegant art-pop approach, as with the tight rhythms of “Entre Chien et Loup,” the striking harmony break on “Elle Topo” and “Invitation”’s elaborate shifting grooves.

The Trip cover

Lætitia Sadier’s solo debut, following her wrapping up of the Monade project, was partially a continuation of it due to the inclusion of both Emmanuel Mario and Julien Gasc as well as new collaborators such as the wonderful and too soon departed keyboardist Richard Swift, who along with Mario and Sadier produced the album. Sadier’s performances remain utterly elegant, with standouts including some striking covers such as the suave funk grooves of Les Rita Mitsuoko’s “Un Soir, Un Chien” and the breezy flow of Wendy and Bonnie’s “By the Sea.”

We Are Divine cover

Even as Lætitia Sadier’s solo career took fuller form into the 2010s, she also began a new collaboration with David Thayer as Little Tornados, taking a first step forward with 2014’s We Are Divine. With Thayer often taking a speak-sing vocal lead, handling guitar while Sadier tackled bass and subtler backing vocals with occasional leads, and with regular Sadier collaborator Emmanuel Mario on drums, the result is a kind of gentle ramble through Stereolab-adjacent aesthetics on songs like “How Many” and the sweet flow of “Unicorn.”

Blood Drums cover

Tim Gane’s main new vehicle for creative work after Stereolab first went on hiatus found him settled in with a slew of old synths and drum machines, recruiting th’ Faith Healers (and early Stereolab) drummer Joe Dilworth and synth player Holger Zapf. The result was a new path forward for Gane, being a series of sometimes quirky, something aggro and sometimes serene instrumentals that all pulse and flow with the feeling of a great late 70s science documentary soundtrack. Among the killer song titles: “Dystopian Shopping Mall” and “Hot Electric Insect.”

Hormone Lemonade cover

By the time of Hormone Lemonade Cavern of Anti-Matter had fully gelled into a wonderful trio at work, with Tim Gane and Holger Zapf credited with a veritable mountain of old synths while Joe Dilworth kept at it on drums. The opening track, “Malfunction,” well serves as a statement of purpose; at sixteen minutes it’s the longest song on the release, a swinging groove of electronic pulse and melody. From there it’s another fine collection of jams, drifts and explorations, and once again songtitles like “Phase Modulation Shuffle” and “Feed Me Magnetic Rain” rule.

Abstractions cover

A one-off album project by two long-serving Stereolab players, drummer Andy Ramsay and guitarist Simon Johns, as well as guitarist Steve Russell, Europa 51 brought in a slew of further performers from that general universe, including Mary Hansen and the High Llamas’ Marcus Holdaway, to create a quick, enjoyable collection of mostly lyricless or instrumental pieces. Touching on everything from country via steel guitar to quietly orchestrated lounge vamps – plus a great song title in “The Society For The Prevention of New Music” – it’s a fun little fillip.

Original Soundtrack Recording cover

When a one-off release directly states on the cover that it involves members of the bands Add N to (X), Stereolab and Hairy Butter, one gets a pretty good sense of what it might involve. It’s not a full collaboration between the three – from Stereolab, Andy Ramsay and Tim Gane take a bow – and the title references a cult UK 1970s pseudodocumentary about projects to escape Earth due to climate change. Generally consisting of short snippets of electronic bursts, tones and rhythms, it’s an engaging stitch-up of styles, conveying a sense of weird signals from beyond.

A Few Steps More cover

Following her first Monade collection of solo home recordings, Lætitia Sadier on A Few Steps More recruited a full set of supporting players, notably including Stereolab veteran Joe Watson on a variety of instruments, to perform a dozen engaging efforts. While there’s an unsurprising carryover from Stereolab’s overall aesthetic, the feeling often is a little more intimate overall; Xavier Challebard’s drumming wisely doesn’t try and replicate Andy Ramsay’s, and songs like “La Salles de Pas Perdus” and “Sensible et Extensible” find their own subtler approach.

Drone Hill cover

Richard Harrison’s solo debut, coming off of two decades playing drums, percussion or bass with everyone from Distortion Dance to Spaceheads to Stereolab, went in another direction yet: field recordings, recorded at a location on his brother’s farm where electrified wires exposed to the elements resonated with different tones depending on weather and wind. It’s a lovely collection of found sound, the rough, by-default choppy and muffled snippets becoming a series of miniature drone experiences, very much on the moodier, haunting side of ambient as such.

I Am a Wallet / Banking Violence and Inner City Life Today cover

A discographical oddity of its era, this compilation of work by the band McCarthy features its first and third albums, leaving out the second, The Enraged Shall Inherit The Earth, entirely. It’s a good complement to the That’s All Very Well But… overview of the group’s work, while there’s a real retrospective importance to hearing Banking in full due to it being the full-length recorded debut of Lætitia Sadier on backing vocals. Malcolm Eden’s own sunny singing and the band’s engaging late 80s indie rock music easily serve up cutting, sharp sociopolitical lyrics without apology.

Shfl