ALTHOUGH Stereolab has made some of the most influential albums of the '90s, its music is not exactly unprecedented. Instead, the British sextet has crafted a cunning pastiche from such seemingly incongruous sources as the Velvet Underground, German space rock, '50s easy-listening music and French cafe songs. But it's another longtime inspiration that often comes to the fore on the band's latest album, "Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night": the compositions of minimalist composer Steve Reich.
"There's been a Steve Reich influence--and Philip Glass and people like that--on a lot of our records," says Stereolab guitarist-composer Tim Gane from London, where the group is unwinding after a six-week European tour and preparing for an American itinerary that includes a show Wednesday at the 9:30 club. "As much as I've tried to change the music, I'm still very interested in certain themes and motifs, and one of them is repetition and minimalism."
The rippling patterns and precision vocalese of Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" recur on the album, notably in "Blips Drips and Strips," "Blue Milk" and "Velvet Water." Despite their origins in art music, however, such tracks are more dynamic than much of the band's last album, "Dots and Loops." Though not as aggressive as the band's early work, this disc shows the effects of Gane's decision to change his compositional strategy.
"The basic way I write songs hasn't changed since the first album," he says. "I just sit at home with a cassette recorder and a guitar. But for this album, I did it slightly differently. I did all the rhythms first. Then I wrote the music on top."
Another alteration of Stereolab's usual procedure is the two-year gap between "Dots" and "Cobra." The customarily prolific group was slowed by a non-musical development: Gane and Stereolab singer and co-founder Laetitia Sadier had a baby, Alex.
In fact, Gane says, the layoff "appears longer than it is. We tour a lot more now. In the early days, we could go right back into making a new record. After 'Dots and Loops,' we toured for like seven months. Then we had our child. Obviously we were caught up in that, but we carried on doing some recording, small pieces, remixes, and some music for other things here and there.
"We were busy the whole time," he says. "We don't really stop. We were building our own studio downstairs in our house. But we didn't actually start recording our LP until November. Everything was finished by February; but by the nature of release times with large record companies, we couldn't put the record out until now."
Alex's arrival also led the band to record in London, even though co-producers John McEntire and Jim O'Rourke are both based in Chicago. "We couldn't really travel to Chicago as much as we'd like to have done," says Gane, "because Alex was about three months old then. But it worked out fine. The studio wasn't really ideal, but we eventually got it running in a way that we liked."
Still, the guitarist hopes to not record the next album at home. "I do like to get out and go to different places," he says. "Whether it will be Chicago or not I don't know. I don't really like to record here, because it takes a lot longer. It's better to go somewhere and do something. You're there for a reason and you seem to get a lot more done."
Gane also enjoys leaving home to tour, even though he isn't especially comfortable onstage. "I don't like to be the center of attention," he admits. "I just get into the music and am not really aware of the people there. That's my way of getting through it."
There's usually a new member when Stereolab tours, and this time it's bassist Simon Johns, who played on "Cobra" as a sideman. Gane and Sadier are the only founding members, although keyboardist Mary Hansen and drummer Andy Ramsey have been with the band for seven of its almost 10 years. Keyboardist Morgane Lhote was the newest musician before Johns enlisted.
"There's a good part and a negative part" of the frequent lineup changes, Gane says. "The good part is that when people join, they add a certain element which changes the music. To me, always in a good way. The negative side is that you have to relearn some older songs and redo stuff. We're just so used to it now that we just consider it part of the way of the band."
The other ways of the band include a collaborative style of building songs from Gane's basic ideas. "The way we record is pretty open-ended and, hopefully, minded," he says. "I go to the studio and play the cassette and we just talk a little bit about it and we start working on it and see what happens. It's never predictable or controlled.
"Laetitia writes the words to fit," he continues. "The vocals are kind of part of the instrumentation, like a series of jigsaw pieces, some of which are sung, some are played on different instruments, some become something else."
On the latest album, Sadier's lyrics reflect on Alex's birth and extol the freedom and self-determination she wishes for her son. Sadier's preference for political themes (often sung in French) bolsters the common depiction of Stereolab as a "Marxist pop combo," a phrase Gane dislikes.
"A long time ago, someone decided to call us 'Marxist pop,' and that's kind of stuck, even though none of us are Marxists," he says. "I've never even read Marx. Basically, Laetitia writes lyrics which touch upon topics that could be called political. We never do it in a sloganeering way. I prefer to adopt a critical perspective, to always question things."
Gane is also not pleased at the suggestion that his guitar has a less central role these days.
"There's a lot less upfront, distorted guitar," he concedes. "But it's still quite guitar-based music. Every single track has a guitar on it. I just happen to prefer to have different ways of playing the guitar. Often we'll put it through different electronic devices. For me, it's a bit difficult to just bang out another load of guitars.
"I don't feel you should have a fetish about the guitar," he adds, citing his current taste for electronic music. "I don't particularly have any liking for the guitar. It's just an instrument."
STEREOLAB -- Appearing Wednesday at the 9:30 Club.
* To hear a free Sound Bite from Stereolab, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)