Stereolab may have dissolved three years ago, but that hasn’t prevented former vocalist and unofficial spokesperson Laetitia Sadier from carrying on as before. Her resilient creative spirit, evident in dabbles and one-offs during her time with the Groop, has now blossomed, after The Trip (2010) and this year’s Silencio, into a proper solo institution.

Freshly jettisoned from an epic traffic snarl somewhere in Ohio and speaking with Spectrum Culture by phone last month, she didn’t sound the least bit frazzled. Talking at length in her calm, melodious contralto that hinted at the many subdued vocal turns of her career, Sadier had the following to say about her new record, the current political climate and life post-Stereolab:

Are you guys through the traffic jam now?

Yes, finally. We got out about five minutes ago. And had a lovely Subway sandwich in the meantime. It’s really fun, life on the road.

Subway sandwiches and everything.

Ouais. I’m really discovering… it’s dawning on me now, how bad the food is in this country. My god! And there’s no choice. A bag of peanuts is about as healthy as it gets, you know. It’s pathetic.

I feel very fortunate. I live in a relative food bubble, in Portland, where we have access to fantastic fresh ingredients—I can get my vegetables from a farm that’s two blocks away from where I live in the city. That sort of thing.

Cities are usually fine. Food in cities is brilliant. I never remember eating so bad—you know, we’d be on a tour bus, and the tour bus arrives in the morning sometime, and we look up and there we are—and that’s it, we’re in town, with all that has to offer. We never saw much of America in terms of the road trips, and that’s where it happens, the non-choices—in the middle, between the big cities. It’s all Denny’s, Flying J, Denny’s, McDonald’s, Taco Bell. Apparently Taco Bell is the least worst.

There’s a great accolade: “the least worst.”

Yes. And talking of choice. You have the choice. But here there is no choice. Arby’s, and McDonald’s—they serve the same crappy food. It explains a lot of things to me. And to me it’s like a kind of prison, where this food is forced upon you. Because, you know, you get hungry… We’re like this.

Right.

As humans you get hungry. And there really is no choice. There is no choice. It’s shit, or shit, or cold shit, warm shit…

Older shit, newer shit…

I’m feeling it in my bones right now. But anyway. It’s still a choice for me to be in America. And to be coming to Portland of course, which is one of my favorites in America.

It’s great. I love living here.

Ouais. I recorded with Richard Swift some years ago and spent a little time in Portland. It would be one of my top choices, if I wanted to live in America.

Absolutely. So where are you guys currently? You’re playing Cincinnati tonight?

Yes.

As part of a music festival?

I believe so, yes. I’m not too sure exactly what to expect. We’re playing a few festivals. But they’re mostly like regular club nights, not necessarily the shebang on a field. Tonight there are four bands on. It’s in the modern art museum, which is nice—so if we want to go to it, we’ll already be there.

How is life on the road for you, generally speaking?

We haven’t started the heavy driving from A to B, although we’ve done some quite long drives. I think we have some very long drives ahead of us because we’re going to be heading back west, and the distances are going to be insane. We’ve done the easy part.

In terms of traveling, it can be quite grinding, but there is this purpose of it all—it’s to play, and the pleasure that we can take at night in sharing it with people. I think that’s quite unbeatable. And mixed with the whole journey and… it all makes it worthwhile.

I’m very happy to play with Julien (Gasc) and Jim (Elkington)—Jules et Jim. We played our eighth show last night. It’s amazing to see. I think we’ve started off quite well already, considering we had two days of rehearsal before leaving. The chemistry is really good, and it’s nicer to get tighter and tighter every night. It’s lovely. Lovely people come to the shows. I tend to go to the merch booth after the show, and chat with people who say nice things (laughs). It’s brilliant.

I know life on the road can be hard. But it’s also something you take home with you, the kind of trip you take home—and you know, ‘Oh my god, it was so great.’ And met so many nice people. And played all these nice shows. It’s a really worthy thing to do.

So you don’t get a sense of fatigue that sets in?

Oh yeah, yeah. There’s totally fatigue. I only had four hours’ sleep last night. I was hoping to get a nap, actually. I haven’t had a nap. Total fatigue—chronic, chronic fatigue. I only wake up when showtime arrives, and then two hours after the show I’m awake, and then I’m fatigued… but at the same time, excited.

Since Stereolab have been on hiatus since 2009, is your time spent working on solo material the new normal for you? Have you settled in to that?

Yes, very much so. Very happy to have done it. It wasn’t something which I had programmed. I didn’t think, ‘Oh well, Stereolab’s finished, time to do my solo career.’

Then I signed up to Facebook, and people were inviting me to come and play a show in Belgium, in Greece, in Portugal, in Brazil and Chile. So all of a sudden I was like, I don’t have a band, and a room, I can’t play the guitar very well. Also, the publishing company offered me a sum of money to record a record [2010’s The Trip], and I was like, ‘Well, does the world need another record by somebody?’ (laughs).

And as it so happened, yes, I had things to channel through music. I had a reason to write a record. A very sad reason, but a reason nonetheless. And then Richard Swift came and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to record together, aren’t we?’ And I said, ‘Well, if you say so.’ And all these things fell into place. They came and got me. That was a very beautiful thing to observe. Something was calling to me out there to carry on the music. Same for this last album. I asked Jim to write me a song. And then I had friends in Toulouse also—they have a studio in their barn, and recording there was a simple thing. Everything played itself. You know when everything plays itself, you have only to walk through that door and do it.

Speaking of your new record—despite its title, I found it surprisingly grand. Did that emerge through the natural or accidental accumulation of layers in the recording process or was that something mapped from the start?

I’m glad to hear that it sounds very grand to you. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m going to make it grand.’ But you just do what the song says. You are basically its servant. They dictated certain things. There was a lot of help from my friends from Toulouse. And from Jim, also Jim, a very good arranger. Very keen to work in this way, and with plenty of ideas. Good ideas.

To me the songs sound quite natural, and organic. Nothing too ostentatious. But I like to have a certain power in my songs. I’m hoping there is a certain power behind my songs, to convey what they carry. What they have to express.

Silencio’s first track “The Rule of the Game” mentions “struggling humanity” but leads out with two songs of gratitude and a message of hope for “le future de l’homme.” If pressed to choose, would you cast the record as presenting an essentially optimistic or pessimistic view?

I think it’s generally optimistic, of course. But it’s also realistic.

I mean, I’m talking about myself on this record. I’m not excluding myself from humanity. I’m a part of it, and I can see those things, I can see when we struggle. When I saw this film, a 1939 movie about a class that relinquishes its responsibilities as an elite and is all about selfishness—I can see it’s a mirror. It’s a mirror to me. To me, as part of humanity, and in the face of all this danger… it’s hard to explain. Really, I wonder why people don’t react more.

Democracy is under a lot of strain at the moment. A lot of civil liberties have been taken away from us. There’s more and more surveillance. There are agencies like the NSA that have entire files on people, on everybody who lives in America. If there’s anything associated with you at some stage, the file will be pulled out, and they know what you consume, where you travel, which schools you’ve been to, what you read, what you do. They have a lot of information on you. That’s not a democracy. That’s not a free society. It’s all about the suspicion of people and being able at any time to imprison people. I see that more as a dictatorship. It’s about policing people and curbing people’s behaviors. And I really disagree with that. I think people ought to be trusted. I think people ought to know the difference between right and wrong, because at the moment people don’t know what’s right and wrong, and all the morals have gone out the window. So you do have to police people, but it’s very paradoxical—we’re brought up like children who are naughty and who have to be forcibly coerced. It’s no way to treat people.

I think it goes a longer way when you trust people because you put responsibility on them. And we’re doing the contrary. Responsibility is taken away from us, and only chaos can come out of that. That’s not desirable. I think some people—some governments, or I don’t know who—actually want chaos, to sell more weapons, I don’t know what the final end is to this. But it’s not good for people. It’s really to the detriment of our general well being, and to the detriment of the general well being of the planet.

Speaking along those same lines, the track “Auscultation to the Nation” has some gorgeous guitar work on it and a pleasant, sugary pop melody, while also disparaging the current political climate and how monetary policy is driving social policy. Is that inversion, of the light with the dark, something you play up consciously, dialing up the excoriations in the lyrics while softening the music?

People really pick up on that, I think, because they expect—I don’t know who says, what book, what rule, what law, that says when you’re angry about the state of affairs, you should write loud, screaming, bombastic music, that if you’re happy and in love, you should write a happy pop song, and if you’re sad and heartbroken, you should write minor chords. I can write minor chords and be very happy about something or in awe about something. That’s the nice aspect about being an artist or musician. You write your own rules. You define what you do by making your work stand up and giving it a shape, a structure for it to stand and say something and tell something. Sometimes it’s going to say something in a different shape or form than what has previously been done, and that’s fine. I like to give the example of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. The music is extremely beautiful, sophisticated, and even very sensual, and he’s totally hitting the hardcore political slams. Maybe at the time people were like, ‘Oh, what a weird record,’ and yes, it is a weird record, but it’s also incredibly powerful—one you remember more than when some punk rockers go—(yowls)—and you immediately forget about it. Because there’s no tension. It’s all going in one direction.

That’s also how we worked with Stereolab. For me it’s an ethic that works. And I hope it works for people. It seems to work for most people.

On the topic of protest music in general, two of the new album’s personal numbers are sung in French, while—and even going back to Stereolab work—more of the political material is in English. Do you feel you’re more comfortable exploring personal themes in French? Or, on the flip side, is there something about English that lends itself to protest music?

No, I think one can protest in French, too—in fact, the French are quite good at protesting.

But for you personally, do you have a preference?

Yes of course. It’s quite natural, I think. There’s a song, “Merci de m’avoir donné la vie,” a song that I dedicate to my mother and thank her for giving me life. And it’s a bit of a protest song against my mother.

But I was born and raised mostly in France and my mother tongue is French, so yes, it was quite a natural thing that this one’s in French and connects directly to the emotions, and the emotion is in French. And English, of course I can use—it’s more my social, everyday language, and I can have emotion in English too, which I can relate to. Whatever relates to the experience most directly. My everyday life is in England, in London, when I’m not touring.

It’s also the language that most people talk. If you get a house share between the Polish, the French, Italian and Chinese—they’re all going to speak English. It’s very sad for Esperanto, but English is the language. Which is not fair, really. Because none of us non-English speakers will ever speak as well as you, for instance. We’re always at a disadvantage.

Isn’t French pretty close, though? It’s the third most spoken language in the world. All the Francophone countries…

Yes. It was the diplomatic language for a long time. Who knows what they speak now? Probably English (laughs).

Going back to the medieval era, the Polish and English courts spoke French. So maybe it was one of those things—it could have been one or the other, but just worked out to be English over French.

Probably due to the American hegemony, fascination for America and the American way of life, the American dream and all that – which really took off in a big way, in a big way. I saw it in France—although the French were in a non-aligned country, and they always resisted it. But I think the imagery—mostly movies—that brought about this culture and made all these people dream, and all these really handsome actors were very appealing, and everyone wanted a piece of that. I think it was very strong. I think that helped. I think it really helped in making English the international language of today—probably a lot to do with business also.

It seemed to come into its own as a language around the start of globalization. Maybe it was just because English was poised to spread, to be culturally disseminated, at the right time that allowed it to do that.

Yeah.

I was going to ask about the last song on the album, “Invitation au silence,” which ends with a provocative two minutes of pure silence, the kind that, with the constant intrusion of passive and active noisemakers—some gracing Monade’s A Few Steps More album art—you point out is rare and only readily available in a church. Following the narrative built in the first half of the song, does the silence say more or is it what the silence leaves out, leaves unspoken?

I think it depends on how silence works. It’s always about having a genuine, deep connection with oneself. Finding the freedom to be able to listen, to check in with the deeper self… I realized it’s something that you need to discover. It’s something you think you know, but in fact until you ask, until you go, and until you look, you don’t know. You’re going to be surprised what’s inside yourself. So of course it’s going to vary depending on—from person to person. Maybe for some people it will be the unsaid, for some people it will be what is told, or for some people it might just be colors, or an image, a black bird—I don’t know, whatever. It’s about allowing your soul to speak. And listening. To just listen.

I think it’s exciting to have this kind of experience with oneself, to be able to just connect and not pre-assume about what’s there but actually see what’s there because one can be very surprised. I did a little exercise with that—closing one’s eyes, closing my eyes and connecting with my hands to my heart and saying, ‘This is Laetitia’s heart.’ I couldn’t believe the amount of imagery and images that came out of this visit of the heart. You basically have to cut off your head, the mental, and just connect to the heart and let it speak. Let your heart speak. I was really amazed. I didn’t know I had a red desert, a tempestuous heart. I found a castle, and a lot of protection going on around the heart. I had no idea until I looked. And that was the object of the song, actually. To visit the heart.

So what I’m saying is don’t pre-assume you know because a lot of the time you don’t—until you go and look you don’t know what’s there. And moreover it changes every day. That’s life.

To me the theme that’s running through the song is that rediscovery—looking at it again, letting go of cultural programming—like you said, cutting off the part of your mind that wants to tell you one thing and opening yourself to looking again at something.

We have a lot of pre-assumptions and we have a lot of protective mechanisms as well which may hide the truth about our deeper selves and it’s important to be aware of those traps and all those self-limiting mechanisms—like how we can’t achieve more, because that’s what we received as children. That’s not true. That’s just a creation of our minds that is holding us back. It’s amazing how much you can beat by being aware of certain things, by making those things visible, those mechanisms visible, and going, ‘Ah, actually—I’m not going to go down this way now. It’s a trap. It’s going to get me in trouble.’

What I find interesting is how we may act like this as an individual on an individual level, but that’s also how it works on a societal level. We’re falling into the trap of individualism and profit, profiteering and exploitation, thinking that’s what’s going to bring us happiness. It’s toxic.

Have you seen any Adam Curtis documentaries?

I saw The Century of the Self. I started watching The Power of Nightmares—the first five minutes. Then I never got around to finishing. But I love Adam Curtis. I love what I’ve seen. I love his style of documentary, the research that’s gone into it—I totally drink this kind of thing. Which one are you referring to in particular?

The Trap.

Ah, The Trap. Okay, I’m going to look out for that one.

You mentioned falling into the trap of individualism and the like and it reminded me of it.

I’m going to watch it. I’m going to drink it (laughs).

Drink it up.

Yes, it’s so… He’s one of my heroes. Although I haven’t seen all of his stuff, I love it. Being able to articulate and support, through historical evidence, how things work. He’s a truth teller. That’s what we need. We should all communally, globally, open our eyes to the cynicism that lies behind all the systems supposedly there to serve us, when really we have to play to serve it.

Going back to “Invitation au silence.” The song struck me as a re-appropriation of the sacred for secular, humanistic purposes. Could you speak to that?

I couldn’t put it better myself. Thank you for that. That’s exactly what it is. It’s about celebrating the sacred aspect, which of course has been trashed through capitalist forces. Because sacred is, of course, something you can’t buy or sell, if it’s not marketable, it’s like ‘Okay, trash it,’ make sure people don’t connect to that. Of course, if people are connected to their higher selves, sacred selves, they will buy far less shit, and they will buy less Subway sandwiches (laughs) and less chicken wings and nachos at 7-11. Because this food really lowers your immune system, it’s just trashed—

Your basic quality of life—

Yeah, the whole quality of life would rise with it, and it wouldn’t imply consuming so mindlessly. So it’s really a re-appropriation of the sacred without being religious—because I don’t like religion, but any of them—I don’t like any religion. I think humans can do better. I mean, I enjoy certain philosophies and spiritual philosophies. But spirituality is life within nature and the organizing force of nature—and there is an organizing force, because the energies compose or organize themselves, atoms organize themselves. Or maybe it’s an auto-organization. Which also is an interesting idea for us lot, to trust that we can also organize, and be trusted, and we’ll be fine. Maybe there’ll be quarrels here and there, divorces and whatnot, but generally we can also organize and don’t need a ton of surveillance and borders and high security bullshit. We don’t need that. It’s way too brutal. It doesn’t correspond to what we really are.

But you can infuriate people and make them set off bombs. If you treat them badly enough you can make them fight, just like dogs who are deprived of sleep, deprived of food, beaten, and then after, they become enraged. Yes, you can do that to people, and to a degree I think they’re doing that to people now. I think we’re being sedated. Through bad food, TV, too much stress.

I don’t want to take up too much more of your time so I’ll ask one more question to wrap up. Silencio has been out two months. At what point do you start dreaming of the next project?

It’s likely started already.

Gestating?

Yeah, about a month ago I started dreaming of the next project. I feel also I need to not divide my energies too much and concentrate on the touring. At the moment it’s about organizing of the future tours, for maybe South America or more of Europe after I’ve completed the tour of a part of it. So that takes up a lot of time, a lot of energy. But yes, I know I want to sit down and have more time to explore my writing, and also have something spontaneous and a way out of my control zone. I’ve written a lot of songs within that control zone, that familiar zone, and I would like to really let go of this control and see what comes out. These connections. Maybe have a deeper part of the self that would manifest. I don’t know. That’s my idea but sometimes you may have an idea of it but in fact you’re already there, already working this path. So I have to accept the path I’m on and what I can do at that time and not be disappointed that I didn’t do blah blah blah. I channel what I channel, I do what I can do and that’s already amazing, to be given the means to do it. It’s a fine balance between kind of forcing yourself out of your comfort zone and at the same time respecting your own timing. That’s where I’m at. But I think I do need to sit down and also just take a little, some very simple instruments and play with it, record it and see what happens. It’s about trust.

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