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Archive for June, 2011

It’s a sobering thought, but when Stereolab released their first record back in 1991, Margaret Thatcher was still in power and Nirvana’s Nevermind had yet to break big.

Stereolab didn’t fit in then. And they don’t fit in now, as they approach the release of their 11th album (not withstanding a shelf full of compilations) the brilliant Chemical Chords.

You see, Stereolab care intensely about music. And they think deeply about it. This, for example, is co-founder / co-songwriter Tim Gane talking about the promo copies of the new album, which, in a slap in the face to internet pirates, came with all songs cut off at around the two-minute mark.

“In the US a lot of people said they liked the way that the songs ended suddenly like that.” Gane laughs. We’re sat on a wall outside the Brixton Windmill before the band’s “secret” gig at the start of June. A kid is doing wheelies down the road in a particularly distracting manner but Gane looks lost in the musical chat.

“They expect some kind of messing about on each record,” he adds. “I actually quite got into the idea of doing that for real, doing a record where things did really stop. What could we do with it? “The download problem, one way to solve it, you send one version out and when the real one comes out, it’s a totally different version. Why can’t you do it?”

Well, why not indeed? I want to agree with him and most probably do. In fact it’s only reading back my notes at the end of the night that you realise the very obvious pitfalls of such a plan slapping you in the face.

Of course Gane probably wouldn’t care for such inconsistencies: years ago he proclaimed that it was better for a band to be interesting than “good”, a view he subscribes to, to this day.

“Be different,” he urges. “Be unique, be something new and then try and make that something good as opposed to being very proficient. Attempt things. Try things. That is at the heart of why I like creating things.”

Which seems like as good a time as any to mention Chemical Chords, the band’s new effort comprising 14 tracks of “purposefully, short, dense, fast pop songs”, according to Gane. That’s pop, incidentally, in the sense of Motown and 60s girl groups in Paris cafes; pop as in fizzing cola pop that lodges itself in your brain that you never want to leave.

“That was kind of deliberate,” Gane admits, taking a deep draught on his beer. The sun is shining brightly now in a way that suits the Stereolab feel.

“I was very interested in making the tracks short but very tense. A lot of 60s pop songs, within the three-minute form with a lot of things going on.” But things are never that simple with Stereolab.

“There was a series of obstacles that I set up,” Gane adds. “But sometime we just go with the flow. I find seven-minute tracks a bit boring.”

The grizzled Stereolab fan may be excused a moment of disbelief here: the self-styled “groop” has a handul of seven-minute plus art monsters in their catalogue, from Emperor Tomato Ketchup’s majestic opener Metronomic Underground, to the locked groove drone of Jenny Ondioline, a track that could quite happily double or even triple its 18-minute playing time without ever exhausting this correspondent.

But this is Gane’s point: Stereolab are, in the immortal words of John Peel talking about his beloved Fall “always different, always the same”. Always the same because every song Stereolab have recorded is instantly – insistently – recognisable. Always different because the band have incorporated everything from wonky disco to sunshine bossa nova in their music over the years.

“People say we have an identafiable sound,” Gane shrugs. “I can’t change it. It’s done naturally and I am not going to inhibit it.”

The idea, he explains, with the new album was to build tracks from the rhythm upwards, without relying on the guitar chords that have given a motorik whoosh to so much of their output.

“I was just trying to change things and upset things a little bit,” Gane explains. “But conversly they ended up sounding like us.”

Of course the music is only part of the Stereolab charm. The band’s lyrics, too, coming from the pen of French singer and writer Lætitia Sadier are truly amazing. Consider this example, from the band’s dazzling single Ping Pong. “Bigger slump and bigger wars and a smaller recovery / Huger slump and greater wars and a shallower recovery / Don’t worry be happy, things will get better naturally / Don’t worry, shut up sit down, go with it and be happy”

You what? A sarcastic takedown of the capitalist system in a pop song. And that’s the bloody chorus as well. And if it sounds like it might be clunky, well it isn’t at all.

And then there’s this, from Fractal Dream on the new album: “Humanity is split between masters and servants,” trills Sadier over a pointed pop backing.

With such lofty concerns, the flash of fashion is, you feel, unlikely to trouble Stereolab’s weighty brains. But that is not to say that the band is on a sideline. Over the years everyone from Timbaland to The Neptunes and J Dilla have expressed their love for the group, while Lætitia collaborated with Common on his awesome track New Age, simply the best drone pop hip hop ever laid on vinyl.

“I identify with the way they make music,” Gane says of the rap stars that have clasped the band to their medallioned breast. “Rather than a band that makes songs. Like them, I tend to pick and mix. Everything is there to be used.”

And it is precisely this spirit of adventure that has allowed Stereolab to thrive, where so may of their peers (Tortoise? Mouse On Mars? Labradford?) have slunk off to the experimental pop graveyard. They’ve outlasted Thatcher. They’ve outgunned Nirvana. And you can expect them to be happily art rocking away when the sun eventually goes supernova.

“It is a bit unreal,” Gane admits of the band’s 17-year plus history. “But I’m not looking back on things that much. We don’t need to motivate ourselves to do this. We have just been lucky enough to have the right bunch of people to stay together.”

He’s being far too modest, of course: Stereolab are nothing other than a national treasure, the finest example of Anglo French collaboration since Concorde. Not that Gane would ever admit it.

“It goes back to the question of being in a band,” he concludes thoughtfully, returning to the question of interesting vs. good. “That in itself is not a reason for people to listen to you. You have to justify what you are doing.”

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All the best bands are a mass of contradictions are Broadcast are no exception. The band – slimmed down to the core duo of James Cargill and Trish Keenan – have emerged from their Birmingham bunker with a gorgeous new album, Tender Buttons, that is both their most obliquely cool and warmly personal.

“When I sat down to write the songs I was keen not to say anything. I just wanted to play around with words, I wanted to stay free of who I was,” Trish explains down the phone from her messy Birmingham bedroom. “But when I let go of all the pressure to describe me it became more personal.”

It is this idea of letting go that centres Tender Buttons.  “It’s letting go of everything, being human, being who you are,” Trish explains. “I lost my dad during the making of the album. That was a parallel for me. It came out in the way I thought about music and I had to let go of my dad.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that such emotions seeped into the album, given the troubled circumstances that surrounded the recording: James and Trish, who are also a couple, argued heavily while making Tender Buttons and Trish wrote many of the lyrics while visiting her father in hospital where he was dying of cancer.

Such frankness is incredible in modern music, but Trish is unfazed. “I have got no problem with people knowing me or any personal details about myself,” she says. “I have had a crazy life: I was brought up by a prostitute.”

This experience is reflected in the lyrics to the beautiful Goodbye Girls. “I imagine what it’s like to be a prostitute, what you have to turn off inside to do it,” Trish says. “To a certain degree it’s a description of my mum. She has a blankness to her some times. There’s reasons she ended up as a prostitute.”

The idea of letting go also applies to the very idea of Broadcast as a band: Tender Buttons is a conscious step away from the guitar driven 60s style of previous albums, based as it is around a hypnotic swirl of minimal drum machines and distorted, angry keyboards.

As Trish describes it, it was a horribly necessary move to make. “We came back from America on the Ha Ha tour and it just felt like we were really sick of how we worked. We always wear our references too much on our sleeves. We needed to do something that was more us, other than in the shadow of all the 60s bands,” she says.

Tender Buttons certainly achieves that: the album is a startlingly original mix, beholden to no one, and a real step forward from the maximal sounds of previous long player The Ha Ha Sound. “We just turned off all the jewellery. The Ha Ha Sound was like a jewellery box, full of sparkling things,” Trish says.

Brilliant as the album is though, it may well prove a controversial one with their fans, some of whom have urged the band to return to their 60s ways. But if there is one track above all that is likely to incite argument, it’s the brilliant pop noir of America’s Boy, which Trish describes as “a sort of celebration of the American soldier”. “I wrote something off the top of my head and I am going to be called a Neo Conservative,” Trish jokes. But of course things are not that cut and dried. “There’s no pro or anti war thing going on at all,” she says. “Besides the world you and I come from is already converted to anti war.”

Not that you can imagine Broadcast coming from the same world as anyone really. Rather they exist in splendid isolation, floating on the planet Broadcast a million miles away from the humdrum world of modern music. “I don’t know where we stand. We get good reviews but nobody buys it,” Trish says, possibly facetiously. “There is the promo world that exists and there is life in this house. It’s weird that there are these posh photos but I look around my bedroom and it’s a mess.”

And with that, the singer of the best band in Britain goes off to tidy her room.

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In a bold move, Daft Punk are taking full control of directing the videos for the singles from their new album Human After All, and have set up a creative production company, Daft Arts, to handle the work. Ben Cardew hooks up with the arty French duo and discovers what gets their creative juices flowing [Interview from 2005].

They may have called their current album Human After All, but the suspicion remains that Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo of Daft Punk have been subsumed by their robotic alter-egos. After all, how else could they manage to juggle a successful long-term career as dance music pioneers with solo careers and running their own labels?

But now there’s another notch to their robotic belts. The band have decided to take over the reins of their promotional video career, directing the videos for the singles from the new album themselves, starting with an automaton Top Of The Pops scenario for Robot Rock and now the disturbing technological fantasy of Technologic.

The move to directing is even more remarkable, when you consider that these videos will be pretty much the only way that the band will be promoting their latest album. But then, as well as holding an idiosyncratic attitude towards publicity – they are rarely seen without their mirror-visored helmets these days – Daft Punk have always been highly attuned to the potential of creative visuals.

Indeed, the band played a central role in the development of the music video medium in the Nineties when they provided the inspiration for two groundbreaking videos: Da Funk, by Spike Jonze – probably the first video ever to double as a short film – and Michel Gondry’s Around The World – an iconic video, which was affectionately homaged in the video for LCD Soundsystem’s recent hit Daft Punk Are Playing At My House. Then, to accompany their next album Discovery, they commissioned the full-length Japanese-produced anime, Interstella 888.

With these in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Thomas Bangalter is not worried in the least by the issue of publicity. “The way we approach the music videos is pretty much the only way we are speaking out – we are not doing any promotion,” he confirms.

“We feel we are doing this thing sincerely and with a lot of integrity, in maybe a radical way. But that’s really the way we wanted to approach this concept and this album and the music.”

Bangalter is talking from Los Angeles, where the band have recently set up a new base for their production company Daft Arts – in collaboration with producer Paul Hahn, previously at LA special effects house Method – to talk to Promo specifically about the duo’s ambitions in the sphere of the visual – which they clearly see as another outlet for their creativity, rather than a way of tying up their image.

“Right now, as creatives, we like to create things and we are more and more looking to express ourselves visually,” he explains. “We are not taking it as a plan, rather than a will and a need as artists to express ourselves by different means.”

Although 2005 has seen the band really knuckling down in the business of video production, their first foray into video-making was actually several years ago, providing the coda for the exemplary visual feast that accompanied the first Daft Punk album Homework. Bangalter and de Homem Christo directed the video for Fresh, a sequel of sorts to Jonze’s Da Funk video, featuring Charles, the lugubrious man-dog and also starring Jonze.

Highly impressive it is too, taking place on Malibu beach on a movie shoot and filmed in a single tracking shot. (It was released on their excellent DVD, DAFT: A Story About Dogs, Androids, Firemen And Tomatoes, in 1999, together with Da Funk, Around the World, Seb Janiak’s video for Burnin’ and Roman Coppola’s Revolution 909).

Bangalter reveals that despite having worked with several of the world’s most respected video directors before that, the band were never intimidated by crossing over into film-making with Fresh – quite the opposite, in fact. “A lot of them encouraged us to direct,” he recalls.

“Because of the vision that we had and the fact of knowing what we like and what we want, on some level they were all very enthusiastic about us expressing ourselves and were saying ‘Why don’t you direct yourselves?’ At one point, if you are interested in art and in film-making, the best way to get closer to it is to jump in and put your fears aside and try to do it.”

Furthermore, for a medium thought to be ephemeral even by many who consider it to be an artform, Bangalter does evidently believe in music video as a lasting statement, from which people can take their own personal interpretation over time.

“This is pretty much something that happened also with our previous album [2001’s Discovery],” he says. “When we released our Interstella DVD [2003’s full-length animated film by Leiji Matsumoto, based around the album], for a lot of people it was like a second reading of the music.”

A look back through Daft Punk’s videos proves Bangalter’s point: their remarkable quality remains completely undimmed by the vagaries of fashion or technological advancement. And as for the videos, for the current album that the duo have directed themselves, they are effectively a brilliant distillation of their own sound.

As with their music, the videos respectfully incorporate elements of the past – the Seventies feel of the Robot Rock set or the Eighties-style digital graphics that introduce Technologic – in a way that is savvy and forward-looking, rather than dated or nostalgic. “We are not trying to be too retro futuristic about creating something that could have been done in 1983. It’s more like combining influences and things that we like about textures,” Bangalter explains.

It appears that the idea of texture is an important one for the band, both musically and visually. Bangalter says that he and de Homem Christo are “obsessed about texture”, whether it comes from frequencies or filters, as in music, or through a judicious use of film-making equipment to create a visual warmth. He compares the choice of the right camera or lenses to picking the correct microphone or perfect synthesiser sound and he says that the band spend a lot of time testing and combining equipment, both old and new, as a way of paying respect to the legacy of vintage equipment in film making.
This may be a fairly time-intensive approach, but Bangalter believes that the audience will respond to the careful use of texture.

“In a way, everybody is very sensitive to texture,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who are like, ‘Oh yeah I saw that last Star Wars movie but you can tell it’s CG.’ People can see when something is different in terms of texture.”

And there is little question that Daft Punk are serious about expressing themselves through image in the future. While Daft Arts may still be in its infancy, the company has already produced a video for Smog’s I Feel Like The Mother Of The World, starring Chloe Sevigny, and they are currently working on a video for Human After All, the next single to be taken from the album.

There is also a video in the offing for album track Prime Time Of Your Life, to appear on a DVD EP later in the year. This latter piece is not being directed by the band, but by long-term collaborator Tony Gardner – the man responsible for the band’s own robot look of the last five years and as the gruesome robot baby of the Technologic video. Do not expect anything as cute as the robot helmets though – Bangalter confidently predicts that Prime Time will be both “unusable for marketing purposes” and “almost impossible to play on TV”.

You can almost hear the smile as he says this over the cracking transatlantic phone line. Bangalter sounds happy with this state of affairs and his excitement as the new film-making venture is palpable.

“It’s very rewarding to work with people and not just being the two of us in a studio making music,” he says. “This approach of being a team and working with skilled people, being able to extract something together, that’s a very human approach. Music is an important part of the spectrum, but image is a very important source of inspiration, of creation that we really want to play with.”

Daft Punk – Technologic (Virgin)
Directors: Daft Punk
By itself, the song Technologic comes across as a disco ode to the joys of technology, with a strangely helium-addled voice playfully urging the listener to “buy it, change it and format it”. But, with the video in tow, it’s an entirely different matter: as it unfurls, the song takes on a oddly unsettling edge and it becomes clear that this new technology may not be the simple joy that it seems.
“It addresses how people can perceive technologic and technology in general – it is something with a very seductive appeal, but at the same time there is a mixed feeling – something between heaven and hell,” explains the band’s Thomas Bangalter.

The promo starts with a small robotic monster – something like a junior de-skinned Terminator crossed with Chucky, complete with gigantic eyes and beetling eyebrows – watching TV in a darkened room, flanked by the band in full robot gear.

At first, a TV flashes up the song’s consumeresque lyrics, but this soon changes to show a startling landscape filled with orange pyramids. In one of these, flanked by the Daft Punk duo playing along on guitars, stands the robot monster’s double, mouthing the lyrics.

While the first monster, though certainly ugly, has a look of wild-eyed innocence, this double looks unquestionably evil. The “good” monster is spellbound, watching the TV with a naïve fascination. Soon, whether through fear, a desire for unity or some other unknown emotion, he slowly holds hands with the Daft Punk robots, in a strangely touching moment. As the song climaxes, he approaches the screen and holds it in a desperate embrace.
The robot monster character was created by special effects ace Tony Gardner, the man responsible for the look of the band’s robot mask over the last five years and director of Daft Punk’s forthcoming video for Prime Time Of Your Life. The boggle-eyed beast is a remarkable figure, with the ability to convey both a sense of creeping evil and harmless innocence.

“It’s the alter ego,” Bangalter suggests. “At the same time the little character is watching TV with the viewer, kind of scared and addicted to it, he has this alter ego in control on the other side of the TV – which we do too, when we are watching TV.”

The robot’s facial movements – all rolling heads, shifting eyebrows and staring eyes – are so captivating, that possibly the strongest shots in the whole video come when the screen is filled with just his giant mechanical face. The movement – a mixture of puppetry and computer effects – is filmed in simple, almost crude shots, which frame the face, enhancing the visual power of the set-up.

“These shots are our favourites,” says Bangalter, “because you just show something that is very weird or amazing, but it is shown in a very simple way so that the images can really go straight at you.”

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