Since 1990, Saint Etienne has been the quintessence of cool art-school-indie. To paraphrase a rather tired social media meme, you think you’re cool, but you’ll never be cool “Saint Etienne in an Indian restaurant chatting with Alan McGee”.
Everything about the band has been put together with painstaking detail. From album covers to covers, from T-shirts to improbable samples, there is always something interesting about everything they do. For their new album I tried to tell you the group looked to the last time in recent history that the UK was actually a happy place and picked out some pop gems to loot for the source material. You can forget these samples from Led Zeppelin and James Brown: the cool kids get their backbeat from Natalie Imbruglia, Lightning Seeds and Tasmin Archer.
Saint Etienne dates back to 1997, when the UK rejoiced in the new Labor government and was eager to gracefully sail towards a beatific and socialist utopia. Of course Labor fumbled for the ball, everyone started to get depressed again and the terrifying events of September 11, 2001 set it all. It might sound like an unusual concept for hanging pop music, but remember, this is Saint Etienne we’re talking about here. This is the group that took “Who Do You Think You Are”, a one-hit little British wonder, and put it at the top of the American dance charts. This group had the nerve to use a song by Rush (“The Spirit of Radio”) without irony as the basis for a dance tune.
Saint Etienne turned 31 this year. It’s time to get settled in, start wearing the right clothes, and have a chat with your retirement planner. However, founding member Bob Stanley took some time past adulthood to discuss I have Summer To tryg to say You and how the words “Saint Etienne” can be used as an adjective.
I’I tried to tell you is your first sample-based album since 1993 So hard. Was this a conscious decision or was it brought about by the lockdown?
Neither, to be honest. I’ve watched a lot of liminal or vaporwave stuff on YouTube over the past few years – people have put weird snaps of Tokyo malls in the 1980s or spooky hallways of a school, accompanied by slow music and sampled. I was put there by a friend of mine who’s an artist, and I assumed everyone would know what it was, but when I told people about it, they didn’t have a clue! For the most part it’s American and almost all based on samples from the 80s. I mentioned to Pete (Wiggs) and Sarah (Cracknell) that I really wanted to do something along these lines, but using British samples from the late 1990s / early 2000s, and they were happy to go.
Examining the UK vibe at the turn of the millennium seems like a bold choice for a concept.
At first we didn’t think about releasing this album as an album at all. Initially it was going to be a fan club record or something. Then Martin Kelly, our manager, said it should be a new album. He really loved her because it was so different and interesting.
When you write your music, put the samples first, or do you get to a point where someone says, “I know a brilliant part of a Tasmin Archer piece that will do just fine here!” “
Ha! Usually, we use samples without really talking about them. We use them as textures, but with this one the samples came first because we were looking at a specific historical period that we were trying to evoke – a hazy memory of a particular period. We scoured Spotify for more mainstream artists of the time – things you would have heard on the radio, but not the obvious hits. We found some great pop records, took a few seconds of something interesting, and built a loop around it.
Speaking of old stuff, it’s been 30 years since your first album, Foxbase Alpha. How does this make you feel?
Thirty years ago Foxbase Alpha came out, the Berlin Wall was rising, and by the time Foxbase Alpha came out, it had fallen back, so 30 years is a very long time. When you think of who had hits 30 years ago Foxbase Alpha are out, they look old, so it’s good to make you aware of how old you look to young people and remind you not to make a fool of yourself. It doesn’t look like 30 years old; it’s been a long time, but it’s more like the last twenty years have gone by faster than the first ten. It has been nine years since our Words and Music album, and it still seems very recent to me.
When you reach a certain age, 1998 seems to be only four or five years ago.
That’s it! The time period on this album was 20-25 years ago. And I was shocked because it looks like it was in the recent past, but it’s only the recent past if you are in your 40s!
For a record that has its roots in optimism and joy, I tried to say You seems meditative and restrained to me.
This is pretty much a time when people were generally optimistic about the future, but now we are in a very volatile time, and it is gradually getting worse. Remember 2016 when David Bowie and many other musicians died? At the time, everyone was saying, âPhew, thank God, this year is overâ, but that hasn’t improved over the past five years! 1996-2001 was a period of general optimism in the UK. September 11 was the end of it, and from that point on everything became the modern world as we know it.
I tried to tell you is based on a part of recent history where people were more optimistic, but it was definitely cautious optimism. We wanted to use samples to evoke memories because your memory distorts things – you only remember the good bits of everything. You can guarantee that in five years, people will be talking emotionally about the lockdown. âOh, wasn’t that great? we were in the woods having fun the whole time! We could also have died at any time! It’s like trying to capture a memory but also make it feel like the memory itself, so it’s hazy and warped and it’s not quite the way things actually turned out. This is what we were aiming for.
Do you have a pink and sepia view of England?
Hope it doesn’t sound like that, because I’m not particularly patriotic. We all live in England – this is what we know, and we write about it. Our last record, Home counties, was all the more double-edged since it was a response to Brexit. The UK was a country at war with itself, with the original counties region of the UK being particularly conservative with a small “c”. This is where we grew up, but getting out of there and going to London inspired us. That’s how we got together and made music together. We have this to thank him. None of us live there anymore.
Famous photographer and filmmaker Alasdair McLellan made a film based on the record. Did you just give him the music or did you give him a brief?
No, we really just played the music to him. I’ve met him a few times before – he’s from Doncaster, and I met him in a cafe in Shipley Market in the north of England. Like us, he believes that pylons and cooling towers are as much a part of the national identity as beautiful waterfalls or unusual Italian villages. He’s also one of our fans. We did a photoshoot with him for Arena magazine, and we talked about the Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys.
He was really easy going – a lovely guy. He did an ad for Marc Jacobs that used “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”, which I guess was his decision. He did something with Kylie Jenner, who used âHobart Pavingâ as the soundtrack. When I mentioned to him that we were doing a new album, he asked me if we wanted any visuals to go with it, and we said, âYeah! Great! Cheers! âHe’s so busy, so we were lucky to have him. He normally flies to LA or hangs out with Adele, but he has to go to Shipley and hang out with me instead!
There are quite parochial references on all your albums. Have you ever worried that no one outside the UK could understand you?
Rather the opposite. It never bothered me. I research weird historical facts and pop culture references mentioned in the music I listen to in order to find out what they are and what the songs are about. I’m just assuming that anyone who listens to a St. Etienne record will too. Otherwise, they’ll just pass us by and listen to something a little less taxing. Or upgrade to something a little easier to work with.
Does Saint Etienne exist in their own world now?
Yeah – it wasn’t a conscious thing. It’s the same as any kind of art, really. It should be a natural extension of who you are. We never think we can’t use something because people might think, âIt’s kind of a niche. I never told this story to anyone, but quite early in the group we went to meet our manager at Wimpy Bar on Berwick Street in London. We were sitting at the window, and he said, “There’s a free table in the back, are we going to move there?” and we said we were happy where we were. He kept insisting, “Let’s go to the back. When we asked him why he wanted us to move, he replied: “Maybe people will see you here, it’s a bit like Saint-Etienne, isn’t it?” And that was our manager! I think after 30 years ours will definitely be a world accessible to people now.
Alan McGee has led you to the height of his success and his mania. How did you experience all this chaos?
He was really good. He led us through when all this legendary, chaotic creation stuff was going on, but he felt completely normal. We always met in the same Curry house and had decent business meetings. It was all pretty straightforward. He had great ideas and we loved what he was doing, but then he had a breakdown and couldn’t handle anyone for a while.
He was really funny – I wasn’t aware of any of the stuff that appeared in the movie Creation (Creation stories), and it’s been ass years since I last saw him. He’s always loved signing new bands and seeing things happen. I was sort of responsible for his signing from the Boo Radleys. I told Alan they weren’t happy with their current label, he bought them and they became number one in the UK. There was a very good fellowship with the groups on Creation at that time.
You are back on the road later this year.
Well, we’ll probably take the train …
It seems fair. Why do what everyone else does when you can take the scenic route and learn something interesting along the way? What Saint Etienne.
No Comments Yet