DAR: Stereolab and the ‘Emperor Tomato Ketchup’

How One Album Shaped the 90s Indie Scene

Guilty Pleasure | Seng Lim | April 17, 2016

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Me: “Which would you prefer: indie music or pop music?”

My 16-year-old niece: “Trick question, indie and pop are the same. Just listen to Stereolab.”

Ten years ago,I discovered the heartland values of indie music in Stereolab, a passive alt rock band that reminds me of how honest and original their “indie” sound is. Because pop music of the 21st century began soaring in “indie” into a major obsession for every hip kid, old indie bands like Stereolab kept it simple from the beginning and, like I said before, original. They manufactured the serene creativity of indie, in which the term indie can mean absolutely anything, as long as it felt like it belongs from the underground. For Stereolab, it was pop in the underground boundaries.

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Photo by Seng Lim

I love this cute band. Yes, I said cute. For some reason, I keep thinking of them as a form of adorableness they embellish from any performing attraction they put in their songs. Primarily, my first taste of Stereolab was their innovative release of Emperor Tomato Ketchup twenty years ago, an album title straight from a 1971 short avant-garde film by the late Shūji Terayama. In relation to the film, the album cover shows a rising sun portrait daunted by a twisting tornado figure in response to their first track of the album. Above all else, the album is teeny, catchy, boppy, but incredibly different and ostensive to deem as one of the finest post-rock albums to ever live in record stores in the late 90s.

So, indie kids rejoice!

Twenty years ago was the release of Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup and the DAR celebrates its release in the category of indie/post-rock.

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A Stereolab show poster in 1996

Perhaps it was their decision to be familiarized with their original roots from their first album Peng! in 1992. The result was their comeback to illuminate more poignant-assorted sounds by combining pop elements and other odd, non-substantial genres that seem too irrelevant to matter. From my perspective, these English kids, or perhaps multi-European post-modern ego beatniks, manage to hype up their musical appetite to allure more sounds by coalescing electronic, low-fidelity influenced pop, lounge music, and a pinch of modern alternative blending altogether in Emperor Tomato Ketchup. The album synched in violins and cellos, the return of the moog synthesizer, vibraphone, saxophone, and allusive keyboards which emphasized Stereolab’s evolving musicality (not to mention Sadier’s hollow surrealism inspiration that made her lyrics the way they are).

I may not know a lot about the French language despite that Stereolab’s whole career dubs a French tune here and there, but vocalist Lætitia Sadier has always kept me fond of her hardy Françoise impression, and she does more of a kickass job when it comes to the rocking element of Stereolab. I often think of the superior credits that Sadier gave to the U.K. which were spreading the charming lyrics of French language, and that in some way she is educationally cool especially for a French woman who found no aspirating music scene in France. Even her private sidekick Mary Hansen dubs along while she strums and plucks her guitar pleasingly to the album, which comes to show that Stereolab probably would not have existed if she wasn’t in the band. Even in a further existence, Andy Ramsey’s drumming was much too demanding for the band, and if it weren’t for him, the band would not had functioned correctly.

Tim Gane, who is the lead guitarist and keyboard orchestrator, choreographs his musical ability in the band, but mostly urges Hansen to be his stapled, charismatic rhythm — like peanut butter and jelly, but made elegantly in the shape of a sweet, aromatic munchie snack. Gane also romanticizes Sadier’s voice throughout most songs, and it feels like a quixotic link between those two in some way. Ironically, the two were romantically involved, much akin to other love-duos like Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in Portlandia (punkniks), Jack and Meg White in the White Stripes, and Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth (I’m still devastated on how these two not only split, but also called it quits for the New York noise band).

aaaChanneling back to the album, Stereolab decided best to introduce the first track as a drastic change in their career…or maybe not. “Metronomic Underground” is presented irrelevantly from most opening tracks they had prior to Emperor. It is, indeed, a mono feel throughout the whole near-eight-minute track, and maybe listeners had to grasp how “metronomic” could have possibly meant mono or flat (but in fact means regular) throughout the whole same-key tune.As for underground, well, I guess it could be a nod to the underground music scene in the 90s. But that’s not the point; the song is endlessly  enjoyable and repetitive, making listeners feel awkward in this post-new wave-My Bloody Valentine-kind of song. The drums play along with the odd synthesizers that seem appropriate in Japan, then the groovy bass lines, the guitar following up, Sadier’s semi-coyish voice blurting out while Hansen’s backing vocal is in another world. Overall, the song can really find its intentional reflection from a typical Raincoats song, which is fine by my book.

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It’s fascinating to know that few female musicians like Sadier can play guitars backward, along with Anika Moa and Elizabeth Cotten.

The following track still mesmerizes me from the first time I heard it ten years ago. It must be intentional for them to start the second track with orchestic strings that feel up-beat, melancholic, and beautiful at the same time. Add that with Sadier’s poetic voice and Ramsey’s modern drumming, and your heart begins to drop a tear for no peculiar reason. “Cybele’s Reverie,” which was also released as a single before the album’s release, proves that Stereolab can reach out to any emotional base with their multi-genre exploration strategy, and it works surprisingly well.

Percolator,” which also means coffeepot, is the only song that is credited by Sadier, Gane, and Sean O’Hagan, who was their string arranger and side keyboardist, whereas all other songs are credited by only Sadier and Gane. Listeners think of 007 motives or a late French-beat generation atmosphere, but I sense that the Brazilian Walter Wanderley’s lounge music was the perfect inspiration for this spacey, vintage beat. Besides, bossanova is an equable rhythm to which I imagine late 90s kids rock out.

Past fans can always count on Stereolab for a Yo La Tengo gesture tune, and “Les Yper Sound” has that beat. It also deludes to a tune like a late Joy Division song but then becomes a neo (or post-post?) shoegazing kind of song that reiterates to believing Jesus and Mary Chain would had gone soft and coy, and that this song is likely the result.

Spark Plug” resonate the same sound as “Percolator”; you can feel that lounging aspect around the corners of the song. Except this time, the song is evolving into the pre-historic counterculture era. The moog synthesizer beats along with the keyboard in the way Walter Wanderley does in his classic bossanova album Rainforest which isn’t exactly a copycat manifesto. Either way, lounge music was the band’s sole inspiration of becoming.

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The Noise of Carpet” is pure rock and roll, no doubt about it. Gane rocks it on the guitar while Ramsey’s drums finally fit in after all. Sadier dubs in English for this song which, for them, is applicable for a song that is as challengingly rockish as the lyrics: “Hate to see your broken face.” (And Hansen’s ba-da-paaa can tickle me cute every time I hear her.

The album appears demonstrative for making a few minimalistic-chord trance songs, and listeners may think of their creativity as lazy (there’s no shame in that!), but Stereolab refurbished the laziness in their songs to embrace total kindred affection from indie kids, convincing them to think that lazy songs are, in fact, catchy after all. Such an example is “Tomorrow is Already Here” with its quintuple meter and a crisscross rhythm — a lazy but puzzling and beautiful piece all wrapped up in a music box. Although it would have resulted admirably if Frances McKee of The Vaselines contribute this tale of indie/post-folk rundown song, the song already speaks proudly in the stylish act of Joni Mitchell.

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A Halloween show in 1996

The album’s title song “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” sparks a typical Stereolab song that, in much respect, strives for the differential attitude from not just combining genres to create a post-rock song but to develop a heavy love affair for various music listeners, both adversary and fresh-off-the-boat music geeks. Don’t let Sadier’s French lyrics fool you, just think of it as understandable jazz. Her vocals purposefully match the rhythm of the song, and you only have to find the right notes, which are pretty much everywhere in the song. Think of the vocals as an additional instrument in this happy, bundling song that makes you want to jump in oblivious delight (oh, let’s say on a trampoline, with flowers and lollipops floating all around you).

Monstre Sacre” is the kind of song you feel creeping underneath your bed. It’s gloomy, mysterious, lustful of fear, and sweet serenity that is hard to find in a forest of lost, enjoyable tunes. But what I like most about this song is how Sadier’s textured voice continues to be in the spotlight of the album. It’s difficult not to shun her voice throughout the album; you just can’t give up on her. If there is an instrumental version of this song, or even the whole album, I wouldn’t give it a listen without Sadier’s voice.

Montroller Scalatron” is one of the cited songs for a Kraftwerk “robotic” influence or a Neu! jangy beat noted heavily in the album. With seven beats per measure, the song just feels like it’s fooling itself out of pity, but it doesn’t matter for the fans or listeners because it’s so typical of Stereolab to persuade post-dance elements in their album whenever necessary. Other than that, it’s purely catchy and makes you feel like a nine year old again!Stereolab_live

Slow Fast Hazel,” in my opinion, should have been the album’s closing track with its return of the melancholic strings (I don’t really know why violins and other orchestral strings instruments sound so wretched for me; is it normal to cry about it once in a while?) But suffice it to say, Sadier and Hansen’s forceful harmonic vocals bear altogether like a dreamy requiem that appears so beautiful to witness, while Gane and Ramsey’s rhythmic flow plot in a touch of lounge and electronic that, in a rare way, seems acceptable to hear in waiting rooms or boring elevators.

But to be fair, “Anonymous Collective” is a suitable close to the album with its soft, tenacious My Bloody Valentine hit track “Sometimes” kind of rhythm. The deep-end bass of the track seems important to flow in, and listeners can’t miss out on that. After finishing this final track, you’ll thank yourself after going through all tracks of Emperor Tomato Ketchup. It’s a rewarding listen in spite of how unarguably amazing it is for a 90s album.

The band continued to appeal to the substantial millennials until they announced an indefinite hiatus after nineteen years only to focus on solo careers, family, and life itself. Sadier and Gane remained a couple and bore a child together, but soon separated in 2004. In between, tragedy struck in the winter of 2002 when 36-year-old guitarist and backing vocalist Mary Hansen was killed in a cycling accident, being hit by a truck in London. But the band continued to accomplish three more albums after her death before pausing their career, completing a total of ten studio albums altogether.

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Mary Hansen (left) continues to play for the band until her tragic cycling death in 2002.

A band like Stereolab isn’t really meant for everyone to listen to. But they are, in fact, important to listen to.

In a suggestive way, Emperor Tomato Ketchup is a shining example of Stereolab’s signature sound for those who really want to know about the band’s musical output (or even Dots And Loops if you want to discover more about art punk in the 90s), or for those who seek to understand how the jubilant notion of Stereolab embellished the 90s indie scene, to which future bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs cited them as a favorite.

Additional photos by Stereolab Unofficial Historical File.