Songs of Our Lives: Stereolab’s “Pause”
A light May rain fell on my face as I woke; predawn light smudged the field where, the night before, we’d dragged our sleeping bags to study the stars. Under that silvery light we’d held hands and shyly kissed. Now I tapped H. on the shoulder and, too drowsy to talk, we shuffled back downhill to my trout-farm apartment. I probably drove her back to her dorm after that, or she drove herself, and anyway the school year was days from ending, so we both drove ourselves home within the week—me to Massachusetts, H. to Montana. She mailed me a postcard of the Bitterroot Valley and suggested I visit. Later that summer, I called her long-distance while listening to Stereolab’s “Super Falling Star” in the background. She’d become involved again with an ex-boyfriend who’d just broken his neck diving into the Pacific surf. Before that happened, it seemed as though they might break up for good. An old story: There wasn’t really much to say. I spent long days painting houses with my friend Matt and listening to mixtapes we made for his speckled boombox. June and July, 1993. In the western suburbs, in the right weather, we could sometimes catch the 360-watt signal from WMBR, on which I first heard Stereolab’s “Avant Garde M.O.R.” while applying white paint to a garage door. Two or three nights a week, Matt and Rebecca and I drove to the Middle East in Cambridge to see shows: the Swirlies, Tiger Trap, Unwound, Jawbox, Half Japanese, Moonshake. In Moonshake’s set, during “Spaceship Earth,” Margaret Fiedler jumped offstage and landed nearly in our laps.“I felt like I could’ve reached out and played a chord on her guitar,” Matt said as we drove west on the Mass Pike, our ears still ringing.
I strung Christmas mini-lights around my room, turned off the lamps, and sat in the semi-dark listening to records. No songs affirmed my mood throughout 1993 more than Stereolab’s “Super Falling Star,”“U.H.F.-MFP,” and “Pause.” I was twenty-two. My mother had just moved out of the house where I’d grown up and into another house two miles away, and most of the physical traces of my childhood had vanished in that move. In my hometown for one last summer, I drove around familiar neighborhoods, looking wistfully at the wooded lots and chain-link basketball courts and pizza shops and and thrift stores and abandoned brick factories that had formed the dull backdrop of my life to that point, noting every small change in these banal streetscapes to which my relationship now felt somehow severed, unrecoverable. Then my Subaru broke down one last time; I sold it to a junk dealer for $125, and a week later paid the same price for a used Telecaster. Rebecca rode Amtrak from New York City to stay for two weeks, and we wrote and recorded songs in my bedroom on a Tascam Portastudio I bought with money I’d earned painting houses.“What you’re saying keeps getting lost,” began the one we felt was our best, on which I played my bass guitar with a heavy brass slide and ran it through distortion and chorus pedals so the entire track cruised atop a film of fuzz. We called this plaintive song, somewhere between ballad and dirge, “Static.”
Midway through side two of Stereolab’s 1993 double LP Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, the song “Golden Ball” ends with a repeated riff that mimics a skipping record, and then the sound of a stylus dragged across vinyl grooves. Next, from a hash of radio interference, a girl’s voice recites a series of numbers in German. The recording is Poland’s “Swedish Rhapsody” numbers station, a shortwave broadcast originating in the 1970s. (Believed to be a means for government agencies to convey encrypted instructions to field operatives, numbers stations have been transmitting for decades, clandestine and difficult to trace, and though they are primarily associated with the Cold War, many remain on-air today.) Then a sustained, high-pitched chord, as if to focus our attention, overwhelms the girl’s speech. “Retrieve the past,” sings a heavenly voice, “Like a prayer. Bringing it back / Into the light. / What was yesterday / Will reform today.” The beauty of this voice, the church-like organ, the stately rhythm, the haunting child’s monotone still speaking in the background, some carefully rung guitar chords: “Pause,” like the nostalgia it references, possesses the qualities of ceremony. My ceremony: I played and replayed this song that year, transforming past into present into past over and over.
In The Tempest, Caliban famously confesses, “Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments / Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices,” as good a description as any of spooks speaking to spooks via high-power transmissions over the MHz bandwidth, skywave propagation, and one-time pad decoder. Or of how we remember—how we hear, even in their absence—certain songs we once played so frequently that now they seem etched into our minds and memories if not the air around us. Caliban speaks these lines while he’s advocating the overthrow of Prospero, and recalling a time the island was “his,” a time he still dreams about: “The clouds methought would open and show riches / Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked / I cried to dream again.” In our remembered pasts, everything always belongs to us, if only because the memories themselves are ours; everything, because it is unattainable, seems a kind of treasure, all the more valuable because of its elusiveness.
Rebecca recorded a bunch of vocal takes for “Static,” and hated them all. She’d written a difficult melody, and struggled to get it exactly how she wanted it to sound. The song has no chorus, no drums—just that noisy bass, a sloppily-strummed twelve-string acoustic guitar, and her voice. Then one night she talked on the phone to her faraway ex-boyfriend, or future boyfriend, or never-quite-boyfriend—I can’t remember, only that she, too, was thinking about someone far away—and the next day, still bummed out, wanted to try singing again: “It always comes down to distance / it always comes down to who I am.” This is the take we ended up using. Her voice, on the tape, sounds sad, subdued, and, when she reaches some high notes, very pretty. “I need a filter / to remember the sound of your voice,” she sings at the end. We added samples we recorded directly from TV, so the song begins with Jane Jetson telling Elroy, “It’s time to blast off for dreamland,” and ends with Darrin Stephens from Bewitched blurting, “That’s a lullaby?…I forbid you to sing any more of your so-called lullabies!” A few days later, while we were recording another song, Rebecca accidentally erased part of her vocal track for “Static,” and began to cry. We’d already mixed down a copy of the song, but now the master was ruined.
“Pause,” like most of the songs on Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, asserts the glitchiness inherent to stereo recording and playback: it invokes the error. Recordings have always beguiled us with the idea of owning something as ephemeral as sound—even though music inevitably escapes us as we listen to it. But, like all technologies, recording is fallible, and as with all fleeting experiences we wish to recall later, the idea of fidelity to the original haunts us. Throughout this LP, the stylus is dusty and the vocals distorted. The needle skips. Sounds pan suddenly from speaker to speaker. Vocals begin, and the music drops low in the mix. Instruments have huge soundstage separation. These techniques, done deliberately in 1993, evoke the earliest tricks and mishaps of stereo recording, when accidents offered novel sounds and producers left the tape constantly running to capture as much as they could. (Still, Stereolab’s Tim Gane told Tape Op magazine that, after several weeks of eighteen-hour days in the studio while recording Transient, the band and the engineer realized that “a few millimeters… of tape residue” had accumulated on the heads of the two-inch multitrack machine: “The sound of 80 percent of the drums on the album was the sound of millimeters of tape rust on the tape heads.”) When everything’s recorded, even the most mundane and imperfect things have value, if only because they remind us so perfectly of what was and will never be again. “What was yesterday / Will reform today.”
Stereolab’s music was inspired by, named after, and sometimes played on obscure electronic instruments and vintage analog synthesizers: the Ondioline, the ondes Martenot, the Mellotron, the Farfisa, the Harmonium, the Moog. The band named themselves after the Vanguard label’s series of stereo LPs (from an era when labels needed to distinguish stereophonic records from monaural ones), and appropriated the sleeve art for their 1993 mini-LP, The Groop Played “Space-Age Batchelor Pad Music” [sic], from Vanguard’s 1960 Stereolab Test Record (“for use in aligning, calibrating and balancing stereo disc playback systems”). Stereolab also borrowed from—at times, as with the tracks “Jenny Ondioline” or “Anémié,” seeming almost to court plagiarism—the music of predecessors such as Faust, Neu!, Can, the Velvet Underground, Modern Lovers, and Kraftwerk. If their music gestured not only at old technologies but also the art and sound and ethos of earlier records, their fans did not mind. Stereolab inspired endless imitators, even as their music evolved and changed during the decade—from one- or two-chord strumming to burbling lounge exotica to jazz-inspired horns and 5:4 time signatures, all overlaid with their breezy pop sensibilities and the unmistakable vocals of Laetitia Sadier. When Rebecca and I recorded “Static,” our samples from The Jetsons and Bewitched evidenced our own unwitting complicity in the 1990s cliché of recycling old pop culture ironically. But nostalgia can be—as with Stereolab, and as in our case— simultaneously ironic and earnest. I liked the joke in Darrin’s complaint “That’s a lullaby?” but my appreciation also felt sincere, quite possibly because, in 1993, those TV shows reminded me not only of the seemingly simpler time in which they originated, but also of the hours I spent watching their syndicated reruns as a kid.
Using a yard-sale Polaroid Sun 660 with flip-up flash, Rebecca and I photographed a trip to the supermarket, our recording sessions, our mirrored reflections as we brushed our teeth, our smiling faces with a blanket draped over our heads while we held old Star Wars figurines. A click, a whirr, and the already-developing image spooled out of the feeder and we shook it for a moment until the image was ready. A Polaroid camera, that summer, was itself a nostalgia machine: When one-hour photo kiosks still inhabited supermarket parking lots and shopping mall arcades, the promise of an instant photo remained seductive—particularly if, as with our Polaroid, the colors came out undersaturated and horizontal lines appeared across the image, so that a picture taken five minutes ago looked as if it might have been lost in a drawer for years. Now, these documents—which I’ve kept in a drawer for two decades—form the sole visual accompaniment to my memories of summer 1993.
Rebecca and I could never have performed “Static” live: in the recording we made, I played both bass and guitar. Studio recordings, even—or especially—bedroom studio recordings, condense time and combine different tracks into the illusion of some perfect whole, despite, as in the case of our songs, the audible punch-ins and occasional flubbed notes that rupture that illusion. But the process of writing, recording, editing, and mixing offered me, at least, an even better fantasy: that of control over something at a time when many things seemed slightly beyond me.
Why wouldn’t I want to recall the past—August 24, 1993, when Stereolab’s Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements was released days before I began my last year of college? Even then I knew I dwelled in the most temporary spaces. That spring, I’d bought Stereolab’s “John Cage Bubblegum” 7” and been hooked. That summer, I listened to Peng! and Switched On and The Groop Played “Space Age Batchelor Pad Music” and “Lo Boob Oscillator” and “Tempter”—“Midway between happiness and sadness, boiling but never overflowing”—while painting houses with Matt, while playing music with Rebecca, while thinking about H. in Montana. Stereolab’s early records, with their deliberately dated and garish covers, their myriad allusions, their lyrics that often wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a late-’60s folk LP, all seemed suffused with some complicated backstory, documents of something already slightly lost. For that reason alone I found a home in them. “Pause” describes nostalgia at the same time that the music and the way it’s recorded express a nostalgia for older forms while also sounding utterly contemporary. At what seemed the very end of my formal education, as I packed some things for one last trip back to school, how could I have avoided the backwards glance? And as I write this twenty-three years later, in the midst of a digitally archived era when any artifact is mere click away from recovery, how can I fail to be drawn to the former difficulties of nostalgia, when it still required ritual, some active agent, and not just a sidebar of YouTube links recommended for me algorithmically? Or am I simply nostalgic for my earlier nostalgias?
Rebecca transferred to another college an hour away. H. and I visited her there that fall, and we baked and ate pot brownies and messed around with ProTools in the school’s music lab, but after that summer Rebecca and I only recorded one more song. Without a car, I now lived in a single in one of my school’s dorms. I tacked my Christmas mini-lights along the ceiling there, too, and kept listening to Stereolab. I’d pined for H. all summer while she visited the boy lying paralyzed in his bed—and felt guilty about that, although not guilty enough—but back at school nothing much happened between us, and soon we were both seeing other people. To recite these facts with the declarative blandness of a disembodied voice speaking coded numbers over a shortwave band conveys nothing of the intensity of my memories of those months. That said, it’s hard to trust my memories of a year I was already idealizing even as I lived it.
Un-pausable,“Pause” moves forward from its melancholic ceremonies: After a further spoken-word interlude, screeching guitars and bass lurch into a brief lullaby—a short version of the track “Lock-Groove Lullaby” that ends the record, in fact—as Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen harmonize: “La la la la, la la la la, la la la la, la la la la.” Coming at the end of this track, it’s a song to oblivion, a childlike chant against forgetfulness that’s already forgotten the words. Or, essentially: “When I waked / I cried to dream again.”