Tragedy befell Stereolab on 9 December 2002. "We'd turned up to rehearse, and our manager, Martin, was standing outside with his mobile," recalls the band's guitarist, Tim Gane. "He looked weird, and when he came off the phone, he said: 'I've got some really bad news.' We thought maybe we'd been dropped by the record label, but then he said: 'Mary's been killed.' I thought, 'What Mary? I only know our Mary.' Then it sank in, and the void appeared."
"Our Mary" was Mary Hansen, the Australian vocalist and guitarist who'd been with Stereolab since 1992. She was killed, aged 36, in a traffic accident. The group had already written material for their next album, but now stasis and indecision crept in as they tried to come to terms with the loss of their friend. For months, the new recording studio they had been building 30 miles north of Bordeaux lay dormant.
They eventually chose to continue. So, finally, here comes Margerine Eclipse, a stripped-down and surprisingly upbeat Stereolab record with folk, electronica and indie elements. In the record's gestation period, Gane broke up with the group's French-born singer, Laetitia Sadier, with whom he has a young son, Alex. Gane has remained in London, while Sadier now lives at the studio property in France.
Stereolab have always been an intriguing outfit, not least because of Sadier's overtly political lyrics, partly inspired by Situationist philosophy. The band's music has always been arresting, too, their dozen or so albums to date drawing upon 1960s French pop, Brazilica, Krautrock and much else. What makes Stereolab unique, though, is the fact that a simple tune might be tied to a Sadier lyric which explores the ennui brought on by consumerism.
Gane is quick to defend Sadier's lyrics: "She's not trying to be arch or clever-clever. "She's a French woman writing in English and trying to communicate." He says his idea of a good pop melody is something "naive or child-like. What I don't understand", he adds, "is all that bendy stuff Mariah Carey does. Pop isn't about technique, it's about ideas. That's what makes it the ultimate music."
Gane is a music obsessive who has bought a new album every week for as long as he can remember. Today, he's a little fretful about an impending deadline for music for a documentary about Bob Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesiser. He seems happiest talking about music in abstract terms. He says that he has no interest in using Stereolab's music to promote political debate.
But, talking on the phone from France, Laetitia Sadier can't help but be political. Asked what events had an impact on the new album, she immediately cites the war in Iraq, then makes informed arguments in which she questions its legality. Sadier says that "The Man with 100 Cells" - imagine Fairport Convention underpinned by vintage synthesisers - is about the apathy of armchair activists.
There is, however, one song on Margerine Eclipse that is clearly not about politics. The simple, emotive lyrics of "Feel and Triple" are clearly about Mary Hansen. "I was reflecting on my years with her," says Sadier in her thick French accent. "Reflecting on how we sometimes found it hard to express the love we had for one another. What made it difficult? Oh... two girls in a band. You can imagine. You project your neurotic stuff, and voilà! Around 1997, though, we overcame this and it was beautiful. I'm very happy we managed to do that."
"I'm very proud that Mary managed to do so much in her short life. She always understood that you were alive and had to make the most of it. Our dedication to her on the album says 'We will love you till the end', meaning of our lives. I'm not religious, but I feel Mary's energy is still around somewhere. It didn't just disappear."
Gane says the music on Stereolab's 2001 album, Sound-Dust, was part-influenced by "Neptune" from Gustav Holst's The Planets, plus the music of the 20th-century composer Olivier Messiaen. "But this record is a lot poppier and much more accessible."
Not that Margerine Eclipse is without intricacy. Gane likes to have a "musical puzzle", which this time meant arranging and mixing the record so that you hear completely different versions of it through each stereo speaker. "It's a kind of 'Noah's Ark' thing," he says. "Two drum parts, two bass parts, and so on. It's not the point of the album, but it's there. I enjoyed the challenge."
Another component of Stereolab's pop-art aesthetic is their imaginative song titles. Like The Cocteau Twins, they are fond of odd juxtapositions, words which simply sound good in combination. On the new album, song titles such as "Margerine Rock" and "Bop Scotch" are cases in point. "We have a rule," says Sadier, that if a song goes 'Go away!/ Go away!', then it isn't called 'Go Away'. We want the titles to have wide associations."
"It's a way of getting the taste buds going," says Gane. "It's also amazing how the right title can bind everything in a song together. For us, everything has to be interconnected. That's why we could never have any old album title or cover art."
Asked if she has a picture in a mind of the typical Stereolab fan, Sadier laughs and dismisses the question as terrible. "You want me to stereotype our fans? I can't do that. They are all precious individuals. I suppose we used to get a lot of guys with big glasses and spots, brainy guys who were thirsty for a good melody and something a little bit challenging in the lyrics. They would always speak to Tim, though, never to me. I think I scared them a little bit."
Sadier reveals she's reading Simone de Beauvoir's Le Deuxième Sexe and has learnt a lot about gender stereotyping. She wishes she'd read the book when she was 15. "We grow up with all these ideas that are so ingrained" she explains, "but you can break them down. You don't have to be a depressed female because you are not married and don't have any children at 30. You can reinvent yourself. This is a possibility."
But Sadier has a child? "Yes. I'm an unmarried single mum living alone with a child, and that's hard, too. Sometimes I wish I had a husband. But I don't at the moment..."
That Stereolab have survived Mary Hansen's passing and the break-up of Gane and Sadier's relationship is perhaps not surprising. At their commercial peak, circa 1997's Dots and Loops, the band sold around 200,000 records worldwide, but that most of their albums sell between 100,000 and 150,000 copies. They are clearly not doing this for the money.
"For me it's always stimulating," says Sadier, "and because music is his passion, it's the same for Tim. As long as you nourish your ideas by listening to other artists, reading books and doing this, that and the other, it stays fresh. It's like a sandwich."
'Margerine Eclipse' is out on Duophonic on MondayReuse content