STEREOLAB / THE WEEK THAT WAS Club Academy, Manchester, 17/12/08-

January 1, 2009

I walk up to the Krobar to meet Ben, thinking, “I’ve had enough of this year.  A few nights out and some null and void days are all that’s left.”  I feel low on energy, physically and mentally drained.  It’s winter.

One of my favourite bands are playing at the Academy.  I can’t even remember the last time I went to a gig that I wasn’t playing at.  Can’t have been Jeffrey Lewis and Plans & Apologies in Derby, can it?  This worries me.

I’ve been listening to a lot of new groups, but not many are hitting me.  There seems to be a lot of screaming and shouting going on.  Crystal Antlers, the Holy Roar label.

Rock is back.

Retro is back.

Nah.

Not that these things ever go away.  To me, a bloke screaming and shouting and howling is by definition, retro.  It’s that same old ‘big bang’ explosion of expression, of excitement, anger, pain, of life.  The source, the origin.  It’s exciting for the performer, but it doesn’t excite me to hear it, particularly. I’m more interested in what happens after that – what they go on to do once they’ve stopped getting a kick out of that automatic process of spewing stuff.

Bob Dylan talked about coming to terms with the fact that he became self-conscious about what he was doing, and continuing to create in the face of that realisation.  He couldn’t just bang out ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ automatically any more.  But he didn’t stop.  The end of Black Francis came when he found that the process “of writing automatically wasn’t working so well anymore”, around the period of the Pixies’ final LP, Trompe Le Monde.

I don’t want to feel like I’m in a cul-de-sac, or a backwater, just talking about the same old stuff all the time.  There has to be progress.  Music doesn’t necessarily have to constantly get better through time – not that I believe in any sort of Golden Age – but there must at least be interesting offshoots all the way.  Intelligent individuals.

The Week That Was is Peter Brewis from Field Music’s new project.  I spoke to Peter after their set and gave him a copy of the new Nightjars album.  He was as charming and polite as he had been on the previous occasions I’ve met him.  Introduced himself with a firm handshake, didn’t assume that I knew his name.

The interviews I’ve read with them have always left me thinking, ‘these lads are the proper stuff’.  Musicians who are more interested in making music than being stars.  You see, they have the horse before the cart.

I’m not sure that The Week That Was is as good as Field Music was, but with Field Music, they could cherry-pick from years’ worth of material – and there are still gems aplenty within the WTW set.   In this incarnation, David drums and sings backing vocals, whilst Peter plays keys, guitar and sings lead, with accompaniment from a dedicated bass player and another guy who swaps between guitar and keys.  David’s drums are the best bit, skittering, formal patterns, accurately snapped out; his high-pitched backing vocals also add a lot.

The songs are largely meditative and thoughtful.  One or two are more up-tempo (see the myspace for ‘Scratch The Surface’ – whose drum intro reminds me of Simple Minds – and yet it’s not shit!  How?!)

My favourite was a slow, spacious and gracious, seemingly new song with the lyric:-

“There’s no one to take you home
The lights are on
There’s no one to take you home”

“One more”, Peter shouts to the group at the end and they roll around the coda for one last, welcome time, before David rather messily brings it to a close.

Peter told me he thought the new stuff was too different from Field Music to be Field Music, which was why they ‘split’ into The Week That Was and David’s School of Language – I’m not so sure about that.  Anyway, they struck me, as they have always struck me, as honest lads who work extremely hard on their music.

If the 18-year-old me saw me writing this, he would go insane – that’s not what it’s about. The 18-year-old me believed in something glamorous, something different.  He believed in another world, better than the one he inhabited and that golden illusion, the ambition to transcend his world, kept him sane.

Now, it’s threatening to drive me insane.

The Brewis brothers strike me more as crafters than creative genii.  There’s something very ‘process’ about their music.  It hasn’t been delivered to them in a bolt of lightning.  They’ve worked on it, honed it.  The original idea will be a simple motif on guitar or piano, then they play with it, construct something with it.  Try a different rhythm, to break it up.  Backing vocals.  They work hard, you can tell.  I respect them for it.

*

Stereolab line up in a half-moon formation around the suitably luminous Laetitia Sadier.  The band lurk in the shadows.  Tim Gane stands at the back of the stage, playing Fender Mustang through Fender amp.  No tech to bring on guitars and drape them round his neck, not even a change of guitar, in fact.  He sets his own pedal levels before the set.

Why do people need techs to wipe their arse for them?  What are they so busy doing backstage that they can’t check their own levels?  Well, we’re having an economic downturn, dontcha know, so maybe a few roadies might find themselves surplus to requirements in 2009.

Speaking of the downturn, the ‘lab make themselves some cash on the merch desk by the simple expedient of pricing their stuff cheaply.  £8 for a double vinyl LP is tempting enough to have those long-haired, denim jacket-clad record collectors clambering over each other to pay out fistfuls of notes.

Back to the stage and they kick off with ‘Percolator’ from Emperor Tomato Ketchup, before playing some of the new album, Chemical Chords.  Ben and I are down the front.  I feel slightly guilty for being so tall.  I don’t think Ben does.

An early set-highlight is a quite beautiful rendition of ‘Valley Hi’, which loses the recorded version’s motor-bass thrum and is instead propelled along beatifically by Andy Ramsay’s drums and the Nord Lead of one of the two keyboard players, neither of whom I recognise.

Tim Gane stands at the back of the stage, playing Fender Mustang through Fender amp.  His head goes from side to side as he chops out rhythm.  Everything he plays is rhythm, even the lead.

I am amazed when they suddenly kick into a song Sadier introduces as ‘La montagne’ – fuck me, it’s ‘Mountain’, from Switched On 2: Refried Ectoplasm.  One of the most perfect, focused blasts of guitar I’ve ever heard.  That song floors me every time – emotionally, I can’t get over it.  It is a truly beautiful storm.  The shitty sound in Club Academy doesn’t help, but I feel like those kids down the front at the Kaiser Chiefs must feel when ‘I Predict A Riot’ happens – it’s my song.

When you go to watch a band, you subconsciously assume that they must be enjoying playing.  Laetitia Sadier gives that impression, as do the rhythm section.  Tim Gane seems happy enough, lost in his guitar world.  The keyboard sidemen have their moments too, enough for me to forgive them for their general air of being slightly bored.  They seem to be a bit more extended and engaged when they’re asked to play the complex and soulful ‘Double Rocker‘, from Sound-Dust.  Poignantly, Mary Hansen’s backing vocal part is picked out on the Nord.  I find myself singing it in my head, moving my lips in time.  I don’t want to catch Sadier’s eye at this point.

For an hour and a half, I am happy.

It’s a strange business, being a fan.  You want the band to be happy doing what they do, because they make you happy by doing it.  Once they start rattling out ancient beauties such as ‘Mountain’ and ‘Lo Boob Oscillator’ (with a generous extra helping of Neu! repetition at the end), I feel justified in hollering for the galvanising rush of a song that is ‘Super Electric’, but Sadier says, “no, no, no.  We will play a new one.  Then we will play an old one.”

Someone shouts for ‘Crest’, which Tim Gane has a little run at, before semi-embarrassedly admitting that he can’t remember it.

“You can”, says the crowd member.

I feel slightly disgruntled that they were prepared to have a go at ‘Crest’, but not ‘Super Electric’.  But when Sadier goes on to announce another new one, I whoop my approval, to show that I am supportive of the new songs angle – that I want Stereolab to enjoy themselves.  I want to be a good fan.

The new song is a post-Chemical Chords one, as far as I know.  I don’t remember it now, but I do recall thinking it was really fucking groovy at the time.  Then they play ‘Revox’, of all things – and I’ve had three from Refried Ectoplasm, my favourite three at that.  Then ‘French Disko’, which makes four from Refried Ectoplasm! Jesus.  I thought I’d be lucky to get one – and wouldn’t have dared shout for ‘French Disko’.

I wonder who decides which songs are played – Tim?  Laetitia?  The rhythm section?  All of the above, via e-vote?

Stereolab seem like a more obliging bunch, warmer than I had imagined.  The bassist, Simon Johns, looks genuinely pleased with the crowd’s ovation.  Laetitia controls the crowd with short, friendly statements.  Tim Gane is lost in his own guitar world.  I wonder what the rhythm section do when they aren’t making Stereolab records or touring.   Maybe they’re sessioners, like the guy I spoke to who, when he wasn’t playing trombone for the Tindersticks, played trombone for Basement Jaxx and Madness.  Somehow, I doubt it, though.  They sound too specific.

Johns teases me by playing the chords from the start of ‘Super Electric’.  Laetitia has already dedicated another old song to “whoever asked for it.  You see?  It’s all in the asking.”  I decide against the instinct to petulantly reiterate my demand for ‘Super Electric’ and let them get on with it, seeing as they’re entertaining me so royally.

After the encore of ‘Cybele’s Reverie’ and ‘Metronomic Underground’, it’s back to Kro for a last pint with Ben.  We smoke and talk about the set, but my enthusiasm for life is already back on the wane.  The beer isn’t replacing the high from the set.

That doesn’t stop me from wanting another.

Ben sagely says no, it’s time for us to go home.  So, homeward I go, with my black and gold Stereolab t-shirt and a ten-second video clip of the band playing, Sadier mid-shimmy.

At the bus stop, two of the denim-suited long-haired, middle-aged music geeks stand, excitedly debating the evening’s set with an acquaintance of theirs, who isn’t denim-suited, isn’t clutching a handful of vinyl and has not, in fact, been “Stereolabbing” at all.  He has been to a pub quiz instead, with his girlfriend.

It’s nice to be a fan again.

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