Published on July 4th, 2016 | by Kirsten King0
Hormones and Stereo Total’s Winning Formula
Stereo Total has done it again. With their recently -released album, Hormones, the Franco-German duo delivers their trademark electro-kitsch through a collection of 14 new frenetic and often chaotic songs in their typical average of two-minute bursts. Taking from a seemingly inexhaustible store of collaborative projects, Stereo Total supplies fans with a fresh dose of quirky exuberance. The record is rich with the their unique attitude by way of loose, carefree rhythms and cheeky wordplay.
After 23 years of prolific collaboration, the Cactus-Brezel machine is nowhere near the bottom of the barrel. As Françoise Cactus stated during a recent interview in Kaput Magazine, “Making music is getting easier for us as the years go by”—contrary to what one might expect given the name of the publication. The “anti-diva” assured readers that she and her partner still have plenty of ideas of their own. Her certitude is evidenced on this album by the absence of the standard crowd-pleasing covers like their well-known rendition of Salt-N-Pepa’s chart-topper, “Push It.”
Françoise Van Hove grew up in Villeneuve – l’Archevêque, a small village in the Burgundy region of France. Having spent much of her time in her parents’ greenhouse, she was given the nickname “Cactus”…it stuck. Cactus moved to Berlin in the mid 1980s, where her talents were shaped by Genius Dilektant — a “musical movement” according to which, Cactus says, “You didn’t have to know how to play piano or special instruments to play music. You just had to go on stage.”
Prior to teaming up with her other half, Brezel “Pretzel” Göring (born Hartmut Richard Friedrich Ziegler), Cactus had been performing and recording with the Lolitas, a girl-garage band fashioned after American rock and pop musicians as well as those belonging to one of Cactus’ favorite genres, chanson française—imitated without its traditionally innocent themes. During the winter of 1992/93, Brezel, the “multi-non-instrumentalist,” met Cactus outside a Berlin bakery and shortly thereafter, she brought her skill set and distinctive vocals to his band, the Sigmund Freud Experience. Assuming the title of a mix-tape Cactus made for Brezel, they later became Stereo Total. Cactus and Brezel habitually rummaged through the garbage skips of East Berlin, salvaging what they could from the quantities of rubbish people were throwing out to rid themselves of “everything that reminded them of their former life in the GDR.” Inspired by this “throwaway society,” or “Wegwerfgesellschaft,” and largely influenced “by old music nobody cared about,” Cactus and Brezel “used instruments that nobody wanted” — often building their own.
Cactus and Brezel agreed to an artistic code from the outset. Their seven commandments included a stringent budget for the cost of instruments, abstaining from virtuosity, writing and singing in foreign tongues, molding their mutual identity “from the vinyl section of the flea market,” and avoiding big record labels and favoring “small ones…run by music enthusiasts.” Their current release is available through Kill Rockstar, though Cactus and Brezel are supporters of file sharing and steering clear of mainstream tastes, aiming instead for studio recordings to fall below the technical standard. This last notion is a part of the pair’s broader philosophy. As they explain in the liner notes of their 2015 best-of compilation, “Our goal was always not to let things be too perfect, too professional or too polished,” expressing a preference for “accepting mistakes” and embracing their lo-fi sound and lounge-act persona.
Their vision has been one of “disappearing frontiers,” constantly working to eliminate linguistic, stylistic, political, and geographical boundaries. Like a pan-European edition of the B-52s, Stereo Total has been a group comprised of multinational band members who have come and gone along the way. The songwriting involves languages other than English, French and German (the latter two native to Cactus and Brezel, respectively), including lyrics in Japanese, Spanish, and Turkish.
While their globally diversified verses have won love outside the boundaries of Europe, this isn’t the only example of Stereo Total’s limitless inclusion. Their signature sound is mélange of different musical traditions: “40% Yéyétronic, 20% R’n’R, 10% Punkrock, 3% electronic effects, 4% French 60ies beat, 7% genius dilettantism, 1.5% Cosmonaute” — to name but a few—combined with multifarious forms of experimentation such as typewriter solos.
Undefinability is their defining trait. Looking back on some of their previously hard-to-find material, Cactus and Brezel observed, “Usually people say concerning our music: ‘I can’t get it.’ Now they can switch to saying, ‘I don’t get it.’” While Stereo Total resists categorization and simple definitions, if pressed to classify their particular brand of creativity, Cactus and Brezel place it under the umbrella of “Underground Pop Music”—albeit with the further clarification that their music is “seductive like pop, but does not conform with the taste of the majority.”
Although Cactus and Brezel enjoy the freedom of moving easily between a number of musical styles, their eclectic range of sound is artfully—dare I say it, harmoniously—synthesized by the consistent attitude of playful irreverence and infatuation with the seedier things in life. They are gratified not only by playing on actual trash but by singing about it. For all the flippancy and insistence on fun-loving, there are still more serious considerations acknowledged in their music, among them a skepticism regarding social norms, stressing the triviality of physical beauty, and (obviously) the importance of loving and living.
A channel for the adolescent condition, Hormones is a kind of light study on girls and boys, almost anecdotal in its personal connection to Cactus. The sole female in a band of the same name, Hormones is reminiscent of her experiences and the general climate of that time. “We were called Les Hormones. Back in the early eighties hormones were really hip. There had been talk about hormones everywhere – in the water, in pork, and especially in pills.” It also draws on an unexpected and awkward development within the group. “I went on vacation for a couple of weeks, and when I came back, they had replaced me—with a boy! They wanted to be by themselves, they believed that girls couldn’t play guitar. I was appalled.”
Besides proving a successful guitarist and drummer alongside her male counterpart in the decades since her unanticipated ejection from the former band, this album features a debut moment in production skills for Cactus, having mixed all its tracks herself for the first time. Kraftwerk is usually cited as having made a lasting impression on Stereo Total. Likewise, popular music of the 1960s has a certain magnetism that the dyad continually gravitates towards. And their customary nods to the culture of that era have not lapsed here. Space-surf remains a felt presence in laser-riddled “Doktor Kaktus,” the near sci-fi/horror anthem of perpetual teenagers in its hypercritical preoccupation with problems like “spaghetti hair” and unsightly pimples. Instrumental “Cactus Berry” would fit comfortably in the score of a spaghetti western, complete with trotting tempo, jaw harp, and a vocoder-updated howling evocative of Morricone’s “wordless male choruses.”
Always sexually-charged, Hormones is not without its obligatory content about the coarser aspects of romance, as in “Labu Hotelu (Das Stundenhotel)” — about an hourly hotel. Though less languid, the song is something akin to Gainsbourg’s erotic “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” minus the soft focus filter. But despite the connotations of its raw subject matter, “Labu Hotelu” is ironically delivered in a more restrained and self-conscious way, a treatment characteristic of Stereo Total – Cactus’s tiny and repetitive ecstatic outbursts make it comical. Similarly, remembering the circumstances surrounding a casual encounter in “Good Night, Bad Morning” sounds like a problem for Batman and Robin to solve. The echoes of Neal Hefti’s superhero theme for the Adam West series are impossible to ignore.
“It’s All Because of You” wraps up the album with the shock of simply being happy and a confidence that is, in effect, an answer to insecurities addressed in the songs preceding it, as in the ridiculous abstract idealizations of the opening track, “Zu schön für Dich.” Cactus’s accusatory observations reveal a tolerance for the banalities of our existence and even a newly-found appreciation for those most irritating aspects of life. Its blithe whistling stabilizes chemical imbalances, soothing the frayed nerves, anxiety, hysteria, and violence found earlier on the record and ends on a high note.
Cactus and Brezel did not anticipate a career that spanned more than three months. They are now amused by a new generation of young fans who tell them, “I know all your records from my mother.” When these indefatigable master amateurs aren’t recording soundtracks for Japanese pink films or crocheting life-sized dolls, they are out on the road performing. Stereo Total kicks off another tour in June, beginning with a show in Germany.