I first saw the strange odyssey that is Stereo Total at the 1998 Emmaboda Festival in Sweden. While they didn't seem any more bizarre than the twenty or so other acts I saw that weekend, they did leave a larger impression. I was left with visions of a strange woman standing on stage shouting in various languages that I didn't understand, while a guy pogoed behind a keyboard, seemingly doing nothing. In the years since, a few of those strange bands I saw that weekend have become staples in my life, but none occupy such a dear spot in my heart as that foreign duo with the bouncing electronic pop songs. It would be seven years before Stereo Total would play in a town where I lived. When I learned of the show months in advance, I bought my tickets, boned up on the new album, revisited my favourites (so I'd remember to shout out for each of them), and set separate reminders for the show date on my computer, phone, Palm, and iPod. Hey, I never said I wasn't obsessive.
I arrived a bit after 8pm to open doors and an empty club. Having the run of the place, I sat down on one of the two stools in the club and tried to read by the dim green glow of the stage lights. Once I realized this was impossible, I occupied myself by examining the stage, attempting to figure out what sort of band openers Boy in Static might be. Seeing no drumkit, I wondered if the band might actually be a solo endeavour and started feeling pretty good about my powers of deduction when a lone figure walked on stage a bit after 9:00 and began tuning his guitar. Soon a bassist, then a keyboardist, and eventually two others providing electronic drums and effects joined him on stage. Okay, a quintet. I was off, but the mistake was an easy one to make. For example, the effects guy sat down on a milk crate at the back of the stage, holding what appeared to be two guitar pedals. The drummer really just stood behind a small electronic drum pad that was perched upon a stool, various boxes, and a jacket. During the set he tapped and pounded out the songs' rhythms in real time. A tethered Macintosh computer translated the various taps into the components of a full drum kit. As for the bass and keyboards, well, I guess I thought they were for another band.
So, Boy in Static is a five piece – at least as it performed live on this night. But five members or not, the band's sound is defined by Alex Chen, who provided softly strummed electric guitar and high, smooth vocals. Unfortunately neither of these was particularly engaging. Unfortunately, simple guitar parts devoid of hooks and vocals consisting of a half a dozen notes used without stylistic variances at all is a bad thing for a band to hang its hat on. While the drumming was novel, it not only sounded weak and dated, but was also horribly out of time. The wooshes of effects provided by the shadowy figure seated at the back of the stage were barely audible and completely unnecessary. Sadly the keyboard parts were equally immaterial to the band's sound. This, of course, leaves the bass. While Mike Rubenstein's bass also plays a quiet background role in the band's music, it also provided noticeable pleasant accents. It did not, however, provide a base for the band's compositions. Without an anchor, Boy in Static's songs drifted and floated aimlessly. Although the band's music is obviously influenced by the early 90s buoyant dream pop, Chen's guitar was much too structured to allow the listener to flow with the meandering elements. Instead songs seemed like acoustic-based, singer/songwriter fair with extraneous noise.
When I talked to Chen later, I learned that Boy in Static is indeed a one-man project. His live band was built of players borrowed from local bands such as Skating Club, Freezepop, and The Medicine Line. So I wasn't so far off after all. Half credit.
Illogically, Montreal musical assassins Les Georges Leningrad followed the studied and serious Boy in Static. Les Georges Leningrad is less of a band and more of a three-piece wrecking crew of performance artists and musical deconstructionists. While bands like this spring up in every town worth its salt, few of these costumed marauders achieve the level of recorded success that Les Georges Leningrad have.
Pony P, a chubby girl packed into a small, green, lacy dress and red tights and topped with a bad 60s wig held on with a chinstrap, fronts the band. She doesn't sing, but rather produces unintelligible half-spoken, jarring yelps. Are her lyrics about anything? Only she knows this for sure. Besides her vocals and darting dance moves, P also lies on, and abuses, a keyboard loaded with samples. Mingo L’Indie provides the majority of the music, controlling samples and triggers and providing live synth. I assume the red homemade pirate unitard somehow contributes to the band's unique sound as well. Maybe L'Indie's pullover hood with attached eye patch and felt beard allows him to see or hear things we can't. Finally the stiff drumming of Bobo Boutin completes the band. When loading his kit onto the stage, his starched white shirt and tight, high-waisted pants gave him the air of an anachronistic dandy. When he returned to stage with a mask complete with faux hair – and faux bald spot no less – and a black sweater with a crude logo of a bat on it, he simply looked insane. Insane is, of course, the band's trademark as they blend post-punk, no-wave and new wave into something that is remotely danceable, occasionally melodic and ultimately just bizarre.
Near the end of the band's set, I was forced to return my camera to its case, and dance with the insistent group of girls who had made their way near the front of the stage. Finding the beat wasn't hard – especially with someone grinding it onto my ass – but my groove was often distracted by the demanding theatrics on stage. Les Georges Leningrad is conflicting that way.
Oakland's Hawnay Troof continued the evening's trend of nonsensical band names and aliases begun by Les Georges Leningrad. Hawnay Troof is the outlet of the ultimate frontman Vice Cooler, who combines his raunchy rap with simple electronic bedroom pop. Equipped with only a Discman, a microphone, and a long, white, pinstriped suit, Cooler rocked the willing crowd in a Peaches/Har Mar Superstar sort of way. That isn't to say his songs are as complex or as interesting as the above-mentioned crews; however, his energy is just as high, and his showmanship completely unparalleled. During the first two songs, Cooler was in constant motion. He jumped, paced, climbed the monitors and constantly hyped his performance to the audience. After those songs, however, he paused the backing tracks, doubled over and panted in an attempt to catch his breath. He told the audience he had tried to get in shape for the tour, but after two nights on the road he was obviously not in the peak physical condition he intended to be. It was endearing though. Despite his direct, sexual lyrics and an on-stage persona spouting enough expletives to embarrass Redd Foxx, Vice Cooler is a cute kid of no more than twenty hiding behind an underdeveloped thin mustache. His music is silly, but also oddly empowering. Along with labelmates Gravy Train!!!, Hawnay Troof is turning bedrooms into discos for the awkward artistic set. It's fun. I danced and was danced upon, and after no more than fifteen minutes, Cooler completed his set with a requested song entitled "Boys Get Hard, Girls Get Wet." Yeah, I know.
As expected, the highlight of the evening was Germany's Stereo Total. This continental duo consists of programmer/keyboardist Brezel Göring (Friedrich Ziegler) and vocalist/drummer Françoise Cactus (Françoise Van Hove). Everything about the band is sunny, beautiful and kitschy. Simply listening to the band brightens my days, and seeing them live is such concentrated joy that it was hard not to rush the stage to hug them both. Hey, I warned you about my biases.
I remember the band's performance only as a magical haze. I devoted no time to taking notes or memorizing facts to later to relay to readers. Instead I snapped a few pictures from within the bouncing audience, then set my camera on the stage and danced my ass off. The bump and grind inspired by Les Georges Leningrad and Hawnay Troof turned out to only be a warm up for the crazy sweatfest that Stereo Total created. The audience erupted for favouites like "LA, CA, USA" and when Vice Cooler was brought back up to help with "Holiday Inn," everything got wonderfully silly.
The collaboration began with Cactus asking Cooler – in her French accent and confused English pronunciation – what "hawnay" meant. Cooler began to blush. Cactus continued, asking if it was like "horny"; this turned Cooler a bright shade of red. In an effort to remedy Cooler's discomfort, Cactus proffered that being horny was a perfectly human thing and he should not be embarrassed. It was amazing to see the man who sang "His Dick was hard and I was ready for a taste," in "Dry Hump" only thirty minutes earlier squirming when asked to explain the origins of his band name to Cactus. But that is the sort of casual control Cactus exhibits on stage – and without exhibiting any of the trite showmanship that often passes for audience interaction.
At the end of the song, the appreciative Cooler responded with constant and sincere hyping of Stereo Total ("I say 'Stereo', you say 'Total!' Stereo! Total! Stereo! Total!"). Again, Cactus was almost motherly to Cooler, initially trying to repay the praise ("Hawnay! Troof! Hawnay! Troof!"), then instead opting for a more in-character response of thanking him and kissing him on the cheek.
The band closed with my favourite song, "C'est La Mort." This song's lyrics are comprised entirely of common French phrases offered when Göring polled the patrons of a German bar. It's bouncy, and has a giant vocal hook and thrilling synthesizer swells. Cactus was most animated in this song; she jumped up and down, shifted her hips, swung her arms, and spun around with the joy and abandon of a four year old rather than the forty-something she is. Just as the song ended and Cactus thanked the crowd, Göring brought the music back up for a glorious reprise. When the music was ultimately cut, I collapsed in a sweaty heap against the stage. My clothes were soaked, my hair was soaked, my legs were sore, and I promised myself it wouldn't be another seven years before I would see Stereo Total again.