They were founded in 1990 by songwriters Tim Gane (guitar, keyboards), formerly of the band McCarthy, and Lætitia Sadier (sometimes credited as Seaya Sadier; vocals, keyboards, trombone, guitar), who is from France and sings in both English and French. By 1992 they had recruited the band's other core members, Mary Hansen (vocals, guitar) and Andy Ramsay (drums). Hansen was killed in a road accident on December 9, 2002. Other members have come and (in some cases) gone over the years: Martin Kean, Duncan Brown, Richard Harrison and Simon Johns (all bass); Joe Dilworth (drums); Gina Morris (vocals); Sean O'Hagan (keyboards, guitar); Katharine Gifford and Morgane Lhote (both on keyboards).
Early Stereolab material characteristically relied on droning, repetitive guitar or keyboard riffs, with or without vocals. As the band developed, they incorporated new instrumentation, and an increasingly complex sense of rhythm and structure. The drum playing anchors each song in place with a steady and driving groove. Unusual for western music, two-part vocal harmonies are often separated by the interval of a fourth (thirds or sixths being more usual).
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The "Switched On" albums are compilations of material previously released on singles and EPs.