By Danny Roca | 14 May 2008
Lætitia Sadier has arguably one of the most recognizable voices in music. Through fronting Stereolab and collaborations with a diverse array of artists Laetitia has been releasing surprising and challenging music for nearly 20 years. Her latest album Monstre Cosmic with spin-off band Monade shows off her song writing skills in one of her most reflective works to date.
We met over a coffee in South London to talk about the album and her life in Stereolab.
CMG: First off, Monstre Cosmic is a great album, but thematically it seems dark. There’s songs about mental illness and “Change of Destination” seems to allude to suicide as well. What is the album about?
Lætitia Sadier (LS): Well “Change of Destination” is not necessarily about suicide. I think it is a form of suicide to hide, and this is what it and the album allude to. The tendency human beings have to hide things within the subconscious. I think we would benefit in trying to bring as much as we can of ourselves into the light of consciousness. And in the album, as with life, even though there is dark there are still stars.
CMG: So, almost that there is always hope, even when it appears there wouldn’t be?
LS: Yes, absolutely. I mean, nothing is hopeless. It’s never completely dark.
CMG: Monade’s music tends to be more and more melancholic and introspective than with your other bands. But on this album there’s something a little warmer. On songs like “Etoile” for example there’s subtle dubby influences.
LS: Well on this record, I worked with many other people who hadn’t participated before. Julian Gasc played bass and brought his own kind of sunshine on the record. He’s a very good musician. You can play him a song a few times and he can just improvise around that. Especially on “Etoile,” which I wrote with Julian Gasc and Emmanuel Mario from Momotte. Actually, I wrote four songs very quickly within a week with them. Basically, in the morning we would sit in the studio, Julian on bass, Emmanuel on drums and me on guitar, I would play some chords, work up a melody and throughout the day we would arrange it into a song. By 7 o’clock we would record it as it was, then we would have dinner. After dinner we would work on it a little more. Sometimes, it would be long past midnight I would go to bed but they would carry on through until the morning. I would wake up the next day they had added touches to the songs. It was like the fairies had been using their magic in the workshop.
CMG: The other thing is that this was the first time you printed the lyrics in both English and French. Were you worried about being understood?
LS: Absolutely. I was trying to make the album as together as I can. To bring unity of ideas. I wanted to be as clear as possible. Also, in France I have no real following at all. My fanbase is in England, Canada and US.
CMG: When I saw you play in Borderline there seemed to be a lot of French people there who spent most of the night talking.
LS: [Laughing] I’ve no idea who they were, they were there by accident. They seem like the kind of people who live in Kensington (a rich area of London) and were there to take the piss.
CMG: So, why did you form Monade? Originally, you were working with Rosie Cuckston (of Pram)…
LS: It wasn’t intended to be a collaboration as such. She leant a hand and I recorded with her. In the beginning, and still now, Monade is a project about autonomy. About me creating my space.
CMG: So, do you decide who you work with on each album?
LS: Yes, this is how I control it but people helped like Tim (Gane), Rosie but mostly I was alone because I wanted to prove myself. It needs to be a lone process to try and achieve autonomy. I think that’s what’s really great about art and politics. You have the ability to decide how much you can play within your parameters. Without the autonomy, this responsibility can be an illusion.
CMG: Is Monade, then, a route with which you can reveal yourself?
LS: Absolutely, it’s how I can express and get to know myself.
CMG: Obviously a lot of other members in Stereolab have their own side projects such as Tim Gane with his recent soundtrack work (La Vie D’Artiste; 2007) and bassist Simon John’s Imitation Electric Piano. What do you think of each other’s projects or do you not talk about them?
LS: I like very much Simon’s project but I don’t get to see him much as he is in Istanbul now but also Andy Ramsay has his own studio and does a lot of production work. These days Stereolab doesn’t keep us so busy full time.
CMG: Yet every year there seems to be a new album, a new tour or a new collaboration such as with Nurse With Wound…
LS: Well, that was quite a while ago…actually Stereolab have just finished recording an LP which should have been out in April. We were going to tour in May in the US but it is impossible to book a tour because everybody’s booking at the moment. The industry has changed so much, now the only way to make any money is through touring so we had to postpone the tour and the release of the record. The album will be out in August and we will be touring the US in September and back in Europe in October or November.
CMG: So with this latest album should we expect any changes seeing with the way you’ve all worked on your own projects?
LS: Tim writes the songs and I write the lyrics. He goes in the studio with Joe and they work out the majority of it together. It’s not really a band in the sense that people assume. It’s not really like that. With Monade, I write the songs and then I flesh them out with the band. I enjoy working and collaborating with others.
CMG: Talking of which you’ve worked with quite a lot of strange collaborations such as Blur, Mouse on Mars…
LS: Well, I did a collaboration with Mouse on Mars last year—last year was a year of collaborations it seems…
CMG: Von Sudenfed, great album
LS: Yes, really good album. Well, I did 8 songs with Mouse on Mars last year which we toured around Italy.
CMG: Not released yet?
LS: No, we never recorded them but we should. We couldn’t find time to work in the studio yet. There’s also a collaboration with Momotte, they asked me to write some parts with them which was a lot of fun.
CMG: I think the most unexpected one was when you worked with Common on “New Wave” from Electric Circus (2005). How did that come about?
LS: He approached me. I was really not up for it as I don’t really like hip hop. I have to admit I don’t see the interest. Most of the chart stuff is quite rudimentary, not melodic…I think I need to just get access to all the good stuff. But, Common is a very lovely person and he approached me in the nicest way. He’s a very pleasant, clever guy so all I could say was “yeah, OK, I’ll sing on your record..”
CMG: Is there anyone else you would like to collaborate with?
LS: Well, last night I had a dream about going to a Richard Hawley concert. I was with my boyfriend and I kept trying to get closer and closer to the stage. He has a great lucidity when he plays. I would like to work with him.
CMG: I could see the attraction; you both have a sound that could have lived anywhere within the last 40 years.
LS: Well, yes, there are some artists I like who seem out of time with where they are. I recently saw footage of Yma Sumac. She could have been an opera singer, she had the most amazing voice. Her time was in the 50s but she still sounded very modern to this day. As I was watching it I could project Stereolab playing behind her. She had this timeless quality about her.
CMG: You have been recording for nearly twenty years now…
LS: Yes, but time is an illusion! I think, if we’re looking at modernity and timelessness then regardless of how you age or how you feel there are thoughts which can run and exist out of that time…[Laughing] I’m not quite sure what I’m talking about! It’s a theory I still have to piece together. I think we should just spend time being with ourselves now rather than projecting ourselves on to the past or where we think we should be in the future.
CMG: You were talking before about how music had changed since you began, with the impetus being pushed towards touring. “Independence” has been at the heart of your work, whether it’s releasing your own records or through socio-political statements through your music. Do you think independent music has changed as well?
LS: I think strictly speaking, in the past indie music meant you were with an independent label which didn’t have its own distribution network. Of course in our minds “independence” meant “do it yourself.” Don’t wait for a big guy in a suit to come along and sign you. It was in that sense political and from the aftermath of punk with bands like Joy Division and A Certain Ratio which regenerated music creatively and excited people to do it themselves. It was fiercely independent. I remember, when I was at school I felt like such an outcast because there was such a mould I needed to fit into. The French girl had to be petite and pretty and I didn’t fit in those clothes. That time after punk was very empowering for me. It was exciting to see the possibilities. I became such a music lover. Music was my best friend.
CMG: It shows in the way you treat fans with singles that are released only on tours in limited stock but then also releasing compilations so those who couldn’t come to the gigs didn’t miss out. Did you spend time hunting for records and what about now?
LS: Well, with the way things are now, the hunt maybe is different than it was. Personally, I was never a fan of the physical object. Tim Gane and our manager were very into collecting and creating the single, the vinyl object, whereas for me I was much more about just making the music available.
CMG: I guess one thing that may get lost is picking albums up because of the aesthetics. For example I picked up Klaus Nomi’s album because I was so struck by the cover.
LS: [Sings Klaus Nomi’s “The Cold Song”]
CMG: Exactly! Do you think that sense of discovering things for yourself has gone?
LS: A little. I think that almost the political movements have disappeared as well. It seems to me that being indie now is about combing your hair to one side and looking miserable. I just want to shout “Action” at these people. They look so bored. I remember when I first moved to London and Chapterhouse was at the top of the independent charts and shoegazing was the big thing. It was so boring. Then the Faith Healers arrived and gave a big kick to the scene. Then you had acts like Gallon Drunk, much more “Action!”, Huggy Bear, Sun Carriage…
CMG: Sun Carriage?
LS: Yeah, great band. Beautiful songs sung by alcoholics.
CMG: There was a time with your contemporaries during the early ’90s with labels such as Too Pure, One Little Indian, Wiiija, and Clawfist that seemed very inventive. People like Moonshake, Bjork, PJ Harvey…
LS: ...and Mouse on Mars, who were cool. Still are. I saw them recently touring with Mark E Smith who was a bit (faux-drunkenly) wurrrrrgh but the beats and the music in the background just made me smile. It made my soul smile.
CMG: So, how do you feel in now terms of identity? Do you feel more French or English, you spoke before about not feeling like you could fit the role of the French girl…
LS: Well, I’ve been here for thirteen years, then I moved back to France for five years and I returned in September and I am very happy to be here now.
CMG: So do you think you’ve escaped being classed as quintessentially French? You’re always mentioned in the same breath as people like Francoise Hardy…
LS: …which is a compliment! But I don’t know, I was always brought up thinking about Europe rather than being brought up French. And my family travelled a lot. We lived in America for a while when I was little, I learnt English when we came back to Europe. I dunno it opened a door in my mind that I was more than just French. I didn’t realise there was a whole world. I realise that people are more similar than different and to open myself to that. It makes life more exciting and it doesn’t take anything away from you. Which I guess is what I love in London, it shelters so many different cultures and people.
CMG: Going back to Stereolab. They are still quite an underground band but there was a time between Mars Audiac Quintet (1994) and Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996) when it seemed, in the UK at least, that you were going to crossover to the mainstream. Were you aware at the time and were you aiming for that?
LS: We’re still trying to make that happen, we’re still working on it!! Personally, I don’t have any agenda to try and hit that number one. Maybe our manager would. Maybe we should have more of a strategy about it…but there’s such a queue of people to get mainstream success so we’d be joining the queue right at the end! Seriously, I think it has a lot to do with how you promote yourself and how you sell an image. I mean, we are a band that never had a photo on our record sleeves, but we don’t hide ourselves, we do press shots and we’re there on stage when we’re in concert. Maybe the public expected and expects to see more imagery or the ability to own an image, but yet the only image we gave was a geometric image and maybe people can’t relate to that so they pass over us.
CMG: Saying that, it’s not just random imagery, a lot is related to Czechoslovakian art…
LS: Absolutely, it’s researched and it’s meaningful but maybe not to most. I mean, maybe if you put a lady in a bathing suit under a coconut tree maybe people could find it easier to relate to.
CMG: So a sliding scale with obscure ’50s Eastern European art on one side and glamour modelling on the other…
LS: I’m sure it’s all connected somehow.
CMG: So, how do you decide on the artwork? How did the rabbit come about on the cover of Monstre Cosmic?
LS: I had no direct idea about the sleeve, but in the process of deciding I had an image in my head of a monstrous rabbit… Huge but approachable and I wanted its feet on the ground and its head in the cosmos. I wanted to explore the duality of the music through the artwork.
CMG: So is it an analogy for the theme of the album?
LS: With this album I really enjoyed working with bringing opposites together. It’s that tension which I think is at the core of everyone. There is the thought of yourself and the reality. We are all capable of hating ourselves but at the same time we have an ideal of ourselves and where we want to be. It’s quite difficult to explain quite what I mean as the more I speak the more the meaning escapes me. Basically, I think we should be aware of what we are. Be aware of the monster that we can be. You should reach out for that monster, look after and respect it. Chances are, we could be more at ease with life.