Laetitia Sadier took a break from Stereolab's sell-out world tour to tell Theresa Clifford how they became this year's model pop group
A Year in the 'Lab
With Dots and Loops, their ninth album in the six years since vocalist, keyboardist and lyricist Laetitia Sadier met tunesmith Tim Gane at a gig in Paris, Stereolab finally hit pay dirt. Sales are up, concerts sold out, as album reviewers rave about 'the most addictive music of the moment'. But don't suggest to Laetitia that Stereolab are an overnight sensation.
'Some people have asked whether Stereolab are like Pulp, in the sense that we have been around for ages and then we suddenly take off. But our experience is much more gradual. The life of Stereolab is a slowly evolving process. Never any massive change, steady and slow in the charts and in the press. But this year has been really good, in that we are finally getting to do what we set out to do.
'At the beginning of the year we wrote the new album in about four weeks - written on a four-track in a very basic fashion. We just threw the songs together in snatches of 20, 30 seconds. Then everyone learnt their parts and we took the thing to Chicago where we began recording with John McEntire from Tortoise and Sean O'Hagan from the High Llamas. Chicago is a very inspiring place, and you try to live up to the musical standard of the city. Making Dots and Loops was really fun, because we didn't practise anything. We went into the studio and put it down, and then embellished it.
'Contrary to some cynical assumptions, Dots and Loops is more complex than our last album, Emperor Tomato Ketchup. This album is very detailed, like lace. It's not an easily accessible record. However, more people have come to understand what we are trying to do with our music. At first listening to our music is weird, but then you get used to it. You treat it as yours. When people say we are more accessible, it's largely to do with the fact that they are more familiar with our music. They have done the work, not so much us.
'But at the same time we have done our work better than before. The music is now less angular, violent or angst-ridden. In the past there was always a sort of angst feel to our music, but that was more because we weren't meeting the sort of standard that we aspired to, so we were a little insecure. Now we are more confident that we can express ourselves better. Therefore the album has got a smoother quality on the surface. But on another level, it is still full of contradictions, or a better word might be juxtapositions. The whole of Stereolab's musical history is based on the juxtaposition of opposites. They have to work together and most of the time they do.
'I totally disagree with the notion that there is nothing new coming out of music. Nineteen ninety-seven saw some great things happening. Within the music produced today, people are mixing around some old kitsch with some new drum'n'bass beats, or even jazz with drum'n'bass. There is a lot of new stuff going on - Tortoise, Mouse on Mars, Pram, the High Llamas, Broadcast, Air and Kid Loco. New tech and their own ideas, juxtaposing things that have not been juxtaposed before.'
A year in corporate culture
This was the year when management gurus made even more money, but for the first time met serious dissent. Two journos from the Economist wrote a critical attack on the whole genre, titled The Witch Doctors, and American ace Tom Peters had a whole tome published against him. At Eastbourne the Tories found out from the media that the venerable institution of the senior management retreat is now seen as infra dig. Meanwhile, as the multi-billion dollar accounting firms felt an urge to merge (Coopers & Lybrand with Price Waterhouse, Ernst & Young with KPMG), their clients worried. Would the fees they had to pay for number-crunching rise even further, only for them to face an even more subsidised and aggressive sales assault from youthful flipcharters pretending to be thinking management consultants?
Mergers of every sort, worth an unprecedented $100 billion on one October Monday morning alone, were also surrounded by a sense of doubt. The shenanigans around BT, MCI, GTE and WorldCom confirmed this. No firm admitted wanting to marry another to cut costs; that, like our old friend 'synergy', was passé. No, mergers boomed because growth by normal means looked slow compared with staying focused in one's sector, but aquiring in order to go global. Shareholders - pension funds with portfolios organised into nice little sectoral boxes - demanded nothing less. But what was a 'sector' any more, when branded billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson were deeper into everything? With sleepy WH Smith under pressure to dispose of Waterstone's bookshops, demergers were touted as the Next Big Thing. After all, as London Business School guru Gary Hamel argued in Fortune (23 June 1997), the name of the game now is to change the rules of the game (even if, as he has, you've been arguing this same story for years now).
In Waterstone's as elsewhere, shelves groaned from the weight of conflicting theories, and also from an increasing overlap with the burgeoning literature of self-help and personal growth (at work and play). Indeed, merger failures themselves were blamed, more than ever, on conflicts of ego, leadership style and...culture. While many a newly-acquired merger target flouted a suitor chairman's 'value system', his employees were sternly urged to adopt it. So it wasn't 'people are our greatest asset' any more. Rather, the right people were our greatest asset.
Right meant believing that business is the best kind of leisure (the magazine Fast Company, launched in 1997, is dedicated to this proposition). It meant job interviews where you don't ask about the pay, just about when you can start. It meant changing your behaviour through a course on Neuro-linguistic Programming: thinking about positive outcomes, anchoring those thoughts by touching an ear lobe, mobilising the five senses - smell included - to get results.
In this kind of climate, technology takes a back seat. Indeed, the Harvard Business Review proclaimed that the trick was not the development of new technologies, but the 'choice' of existing ones. Clearly management thinking is now in deep doo-doo. As Hamel says, speaking of the whole genre, 'the dirty little secret of the strategy industry is that it doesn't have any theory of strategy creation'.
Nineteen ninety-seven was the year in which that secret came out.
Gemma Forest is a management consultant who doesn't believe in it. She has no shares in any of the companies mentioned above; she has no shares, period.
Signs of the times
'No drink or drugs'
Message on the printed invitation to the seventeenth birthday party of William Shaw, son of fun-loving Home Secretary Jack.
The Royal British Legion is to launch its own record label, which will release both classical and heavy metal music. William Straw, take note.
'Pubs should not have anything to do with Nazis. Pubs have been smashed up and these people do nothing for the standing of the pub in the local community'
Anti-Nazi league spokesman telling it like it is, in the Publican magazine
'There are cases where we lose in court, yet have still uncovered a wealth of evidence of people living above their means. It seems silly that this evidence should then be wasted and never acted on. The people we are after are the Mr Bigs who drive flash cars, wear nice suits and jewellery and don't appear to have a job or be claiming benefits'
Supt Bob Pattison of Northumbria Police - and he's not talking about former cabinet ministers. The Home Office Working Group is considering a recommendation that courts should be allowed to confiscate the assets of people police simply suspect of criminal activity.
'He was quite excited. Two asked him to leave - there was a kerfuffle. He stayed and did moves from Flashdance'
A bouncer recalls Peter Mandelson's off-message antics at Labour's celebrity bash in Brighton, where he rushed the stage and grabbed the mic
'As we approach the Millennium, it is uplifting music such as this that aids us in our doubts, speeds us to our hopes and dreams. The family remains the cornerstone of our nation, and Tipper and I feel that music can be a binding force that keeps our families together'
US vice-president Al Gore's moving tribute to those pillars of moral rectitude, Fleetwood Mac
'The cult of the body is narcissistic and self-defeating. I have lead a shallow and egotistical life. My eyes have been opened and I'm turning over a new leaf'
Sylvestor Stallone, turning over a new leaf while opening a new Planet Hollywood burger restaurant in Rome
'We come from a democratic country and believe people should have the right to defend themselves first'
Spokesman from the South African High Commission commenting on their recent football match against the Irish Embassy. The match was abandoned when a South African spat at an opponent after being sent off - all 22 players then joined in the punch-up. Police were called to break up the brawl in which one man was rendered unconscious and another suffered a broken nose and jaw. The peace process continues.
'Years ago, you wouldn't get a model talking politics; now they'll hang, have a Marlboro Light and seem quite proud to have little discussions. When Gordon Brown made his decision over Bank of England interest rate
formulation, there was a lot of interest from the girls -
everyone was talking about it.'
Paula Karaiscos of top model agency Storm
'This book provides a philosophical examination of the phenomenon of Aids. Influenced by Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Heidegger and contemporary thought concerning gay activism and Aids research, the author attempts to find a philosophical language capable of doing justice to the experience of living with Aids'
Promotional blurb for At Odds With Aids by Alexander Garcia Duttmann (Stanford University Press)
The year of ethical chic
In 1997 fashion tried to bring glamour back into our lives, but found itself entangled in sordid debates about anorexic models, heroin chic and the exploitation of Third World garment workers. After New Labour ministers complained about 'the scourge of smoking' on the catwalk, the fashion milieu was so desperate to clean up its image that it almost merged with the world of charity. Now we are told that, backstage, models are more likely to bring out their needlework (the legal kind) than their cigarettes. The new ethical chic was summed up by the response to the tragic murder of Gianni Versace: Elton John cried on Princess Diana's shoulder and arch-rival Giorgio Armani declared that 'we need less competition and more respect'.
Versace's work was admired for its upbeat use of colour and pattern, but Armani's safe and sombre approach was more in keeping with the contemporary mood. The Tories may have lost the election, but the colour of the year was blue.
Fashion lacked confidence, either shyly sheering away into flimsiness and floatiness, or hiding its embarrassment behind fake splendours: feathers, florals, frills and flounces, sequins, beading, embroidery, sparkle and bright colours; preferably all jumbled up together. This was glamour as a caricature of itself, in the manner of Barbara Cartland (she probably wore the big knickers).
We also saw the return of the come-back. Fashion news these days is about what is back: the miniskirt, the trouser suit, the shoulder pad, stiletto heels, black. Even fur came back. None of these could be described as exciting, though we all know a black trouser suit is always practical.
After British designers were invited to head French couture houses, London was hailed as the capital city of fashion. A few sceptics noted that couture houses now make their money out of selling perfume and tights; and what they really want from a chief designer is someone who can create controversy and get the name of the house in the papers. Column inches rather than design quality are what is expected from Brits like Alexander McQueen.
Appropriately enough, the year ended with that most British and boring of fashion staples: grey tweed.
Play with your Croc
The computer games industry told Brendan O'Neill what not to buy his little brother for Christmas
Three new games designed for the Playstation console are in the running for the Christmas No 1 spot: Fighting Force, a back-to-basics beat 'em up, in which characters like Ben 'Smasher' Jackson and Hawk Manson kick the crap out of each other; bookies' favourite Tomb Raider 2, the follow-up to the hugely successful Tomb Raider, in which heroine Lara Croft shoots, bombs and punches her way towards the Dagger of Xian; and Croc, a cutesy platform game in which a comic book crocodile grapples with the evil Baron Dante. Unsure which one to buy as a Christmas present for my younger brother, I decided to seek advice.
The European Leisure Software Publishers Association (Elspa), the body which helps monitor computer games, told me to go for Croc. According to Elspa's 'voluntary age suitability recommendations', Fighting Force and Tomb Raider 2 are appropriate only for persons aged 15 and over, while Croc is suitable for any child old enough to pick up a joystick. But at eight years old, my little brother has moved up a couple of levels. In case he found Croc too easy I went in search of a second opinion.
'Fighting Force is a superb game', said Miles Guttery, editor of Total Playstation magazine. 'There is nothing else quite like it at the moment. Most beat 'em ups have just one-on-one fights, but Fighting Force has got luv-a-jub graphics, loads of moves and weapons and excellent playability.' A good Christmas present for my brother, then? 'Erm, not really. It's quite violent. Out of those three games, Croc would probably be most suitable for an eight year old. Yeah, buy Croc.'
Next I tried Core Design, the company behind both Fighting Force and the Tomb Raider series. 'Tomb Raider 2 is the most innovative and exciting game you can buy this Christmas', said PR manager Susie Hamilton. 'The levels are far more detailed, the character Lara is a lot smoother and she now has a fully-functioning ponytail that swishes around. Lara can operate a flare to light her way on dark levels, she can fight underwater with a harpoon. It is even more enthralling than the original game.' Presumably my brother would be enthralled by it? 'It's probably a bit vast for an eight year old', Hamilton replied. Without going so far as to recommend Croc, which is designed and published by her competitors, she warned me that Tomb Raider 2 is too complex and Fighting Force is too violent for children.
Onwards to Fox Interactive, publishers of Croc. 'At Fox we consider Croc to be the best game we have published for some time', said spokesperson Andrea Griffiths. 'It is bright and colourful with a fully 3D world. A perfect Christmas present which would make a refreshing change from some of the more violent video games currently on the market.'
It seemed that everybody felt obliged to follow the 'voluntary' recommendations laid down by Elspa. But I was not totally convinced that my pugnacious sibling would be 'refreshed' by the bright and colourful 3D world of Croc. So in the end I asked him which game he would like. 'There is only one that you are allowed to have anyway', I prompted, thinking that the U-rated Croc might be right after all. 'I know I can only have one', my brother replied. 'I'm trying to make my mind up between Tomb Raider 2 and Fighting Force.'
Tomb Raider 2 and Fighting Force: developed by Core Design and published by Eidos, £44.99 each.
Croc, developed by Argonaut and published by Fox Interactive, £44.99.
I have never been a fan of the traditional Christmas dinner. There is nothing wrong with turkey (free range, naturally) and all the trimmings, although Brussels sprouts have been known to make me violently ill. But to expect an overgrown chicken to provide sufficient distraction in the run-up to EastEnders is, I think, asking rather too much. As the ominous day approaches, what would I give to swap this prospect for a clam bake on a beach in Australia, complete with blazing sunshine, surf, salt, and ozone.
But there is no need to be too despondent. For less than the cost of the departure tax on a flight down under, you can imagine you are on that beach: all it takes is a dozen oysters and a glass or two of Champagne.
Once known as the food of the poor (in the days when they could be collected for free), oysters are less expensive than you might imagine - about 50p each from the fishmonger. With their salty tang and the most sensuous of textures, they are really seductive. A touch of Tabasco, or maybe some shallot vinegar or just a squeeze of lemon, is all they require. Do not swallow straight down; you must chew. What is the point, otherwise? I still remember my first one, harvested from the Ile d'Oléron off the west coast of France and served in the half-shell on a mound of crushed ice (okay, so I was in Paris at the time). But perhaps the perfect setting for the consumption of these bivalves is the outdoor oyster stall.
Part of the pleasure for me is the prizing open of the shells, known as 'shucking' the oyster. You will need a knife with a short, strong blade. With a cloth protecting your hand, hold the oyster firmly, hinged end towards you and with the deeper shell underneath to collect the juice. Insert the point of the knife into the small gap in the hinge and twist the blade to separate the shells. Slide the blade along the inside of the upper shell to sever the muscle which holds the shells together. Remove the upper shell and clean out any shell fragments with the point of the knife. Finally, run the knife blade under the oyster to sever the muscle attaching it to the lower shell. Serve on crushed ice and consume quickly. Drink chilled Champagne (it is Christmas) or Sauvignon blanc.
Pacific oysters are available all the year round. But if you can get hold of the native oyster, which is the one you can eat when the months have an 'r' in them, so much the better. Order them for Christmas and store at the bottom of the fridge, wrapped in a damp cloth. As with all molluss, discard any that gape open and do not close when tapped.
I should point out that if you are unfortunate enough to suffer a reaction to oysters, you will probably be very ill indeed. But at least you will then be spared the inevitable turkey curry, turkey bolognaise, turkey fritters....
© Neil Haidar BBC1's Masterchef 1996
'On Christmas Day, everyone's home at the same time. And it's a disaster...We call them "star or fairy" murders: people get to arguing about what goes on top of the tree. Here's another regular: fatal stabbings over how you carve the bird.'
According to Mike Hoolihan, heroine (for 'Mike' is a she) of Martin Amis's deliberately obtuse take on the hardboiled detective genre, Christmas is a good time for murder (suicide is more likely on Mother's Day). In my experience, reading a book is a good way of escaping any homicidal feelings and the domestic surroundings which may have prompted them. I would therefore like to recommend the following 1997 books for Xmas - think of it as my part in the war against crime.
Amis' Night Train follows detective Hoolihan as she conducts a 'psychological autopsy' into a suspicious society 'suicide'. Hoolihan's internal life is compellingly clichéd and inventively cynical. I enjoyed her cannon-titted, boyfriend-slugging attitude to life, and was tickled by her interrogation technique.
If there is ever an upswing in the suicide rate among horror fiction readers, the Millennium anthology compiled by Douglas E Winter and featuring Clive Barker (Hellraiser) may well get the blame for it. This is a grim book that puts a smile on your face because the stories are so good (mostly). Avoid homicidal/suicidal situations this Christmas by gathering your family around your yule log, reading them a yarn from this collection, and scaring the crap out of them.
Incest is something else that apparently occurs more frequently at Christmas. Reading about incest will certainly be more popular, if Amis, Winter and Iain Banks have anything to do with it. In A Song of Stone, Banks takes us somewhere dark, brutal, and futile; a not-too-distant future, during a war. To be read in a moody, broody kind of way - maybe after you have had the row about the turkey and you need time to sulk. Scribble cryptic notes in the margin and later everybody will understand.
I have now read all three of them, so a pair of socks will be fine, thanks.
William W Mayes
Night Train, Martin Amis, Jonathan Cape, £10.99
Millennium, Douglas E Winter (ed), Voyager, £16.99
A Song of Stone, Iain Banks, Little Brown, £16.99
Reproduced from LM issue 106, December 1997/January 1998