On Chemical Chords, the band sound more engaged (and more fanciful) than they have on any release since the death of singer/keyboardist Mary Hansen from a cycling accident in London in 2002 — a staggering blow to the Groop’s internal and external chemistries, and the cause for the only year-long pause in their productivity. Cobbled from a massive reservoir of chord fragments realized by Lab head Tim Gane in private, Chords has all the potential in the world to sound inhumanly generated or coldly manufactured, but ex-Labber and current High Llama Sean O’Hagan’s arrangements for string and brass plus the tender constancy of Laetitia Sadler’s slightly clinical lilt give the album a personal presence unlike anything the band have done in years.
“There were 31 songs,” says Laetitia over the phone of the pile of raw material Gane brought her. “And I’m not a machine, you know? I had to dig very deep.” As we talk, the band’s bus is dead at a mechanic’s in Arizona. It failed the day before, and they’ve had to fly to continue their tour. Eighteen years into their career, Sadler still “loves” the rigmarole of touring, despite the inevitable interpersonal and psychological frictions. She’s a person who seems (even over the phone) to live in the moment, led to the next moment by simple principles that favor joy over worry. A tour itinerary (even the 18th iteration of one) doesn’t blur together; as with her music, there’s enough difference to be uncovered in what could be considered mere repetition.
“This album was a lot of work, yes, but I do have a tool that really helps,” she says, as though about to spill something deeply juicy, “and that’s my dreams. They’re very revealing, they tell the truth. They’re very helpful. Dreams are an infinite bag of ideas and suggestions. They are universal as well — you are tapping into something collective. You can’t go wrong with them.”
For a lyricist who often gets tagged as a sterile Situationist given to wrenching chilly socio-political tracts into charmingly melodic and syllabically tidy “announcements,” Sadler sure sounds more enamored of Blake than Marx. Where Peng! found her rocking out with lines like “True life embodying pleasure principle’s noblest triumph/Over the cowering mendacity of bourgeois Christian civilization” (“Surrealchemist”), Chemical Chords is given to exploring the personal, emotional manifestations of the ever-increasing shitshow of our society, as on “Neon Beanbag”: “I’m sad to see that you are sad/But there’s nothing to be sad about.”
“I’m interested in politics,” she says resolutely, “but not politics as we understand them today. Politics in the sense of people being aware, conscious of the forces that govern them, and trying to hold the reins of their own destinies.” I’ve heard Sadler say things like this with her voice overwhelmed by a maelstrom of feedback and white noise; this time it’s just the static of traffic through the distortion of a cellphone, but she conveys the same even-tempered authority. “I’ve always been interested in political and social aspects, but also what forces govern us internally. They are both extremely strong and they both influence each other and act upon each other. All of my lyrics are about these forces — but I’m not a philosopher. I don’t read much. I’m a bit dyslexic.”