Saint Etienne: A User’s Guide To Feeling And Living Pop

Days before the release of the English trio’s new album, the first in seven years, we spoke at length with Pete Wiggs about Christmas, the radio, life, love, and passion for music

Saint Etienne have taken things calmly. Seven years have passed since that far-off “Tales From Turnpike House”, and during that time, their many devoted fans have had to get by with only the occasional single, reissues, a greatest hits album (which obviously didn’t quench anyone’s thirst), and a Christmas album, “A Glimpse Of Stocking” (as well as listening to “A Good Thing” in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Volver” with tears in their eyes). Some months ago, they announced a new album, “Words And Music By Saint Etienne”. It will be released via Universal on the 21st May, just over a week before the trio’s eagerly-anticipated concert on the opening day of San Miguel Primavera Sound 2012.

It’s an album with a very carefully considered idea, it could almost be called a concept album; as the title suggests, the songs speak of the different ways that music affects life. The lyrics are very personal, taken from the trio’s own experiences - “Over The Border” is especially interesting, with Sarah Cracknell as a child wondering, among other things, whether Marc Bolan will still be important when she has children. Furthermore, however much confession there is here, these are verses that make a deep impression, which you can fully identify with. The cover, the titles of the songs - everything here is full of musical references, both to other bands and to their own (on the map in the illustration are Cemetery Gates and Mario’s Café, among other small nods). “Words And Music By Saint Etienne” left us with many questions, so we wanted to talk to Pete Wiggs about his latest offspring, alongside his own musical experiences (he confesses that he cried at an Edwyn Collins concert!). So pay attention to the words of Saint Etienne.

This is quite a nostalgic record, specially the song “Over The Border”. How much time did you spend watching “Top Of The Pops” as a kid?

[laughs] I’ve known Bob since I was one, basically. We grew up together, we went to school together, we discovered music together and watched “Top Of The Pops”. A lot of the experiences, specially the early days ones, that are sung in this album can directly relate to me and Bob being young. And Sarah has similar tastes and references. It kind of describes our growing up.

"When we were young at the same time we were buying the latest things and also discovering lots of 60s new things we hadn’t heard before. So when we started making music we tried to mix these things together"

Sarah uses spoken word in some parts of that song. Is this a way to make the lyrics more credible?

I really don’t know. I suppose it makes them stand up more. Mmm… yeah, it feels more personal, even though it relates to the three of us. It really goes with the idea of the whole album: how music intersects with your life as you grow up and comes in and out from different places.

There are a bunch of pop references here (Peter Gabriel, Marc Bolan, New Order, Dexy’s…). Are these clues of some of the bands you liked back in the days?

Yeah, these are some of the common things we all like. We were really into T-Rex when we were really young, under ten years old. And we still like them now. New Order is another big group, as we say in the song. We were big Joy Division fans; we were really into, especially in our teen years, when we were 14 and 15 years old, Postcard Records and things like that. We were kind of indie kids. Parallel to that we were discovering 60s music a lot of the time and electronic stuff too. Growing up in the early 80s was a great time for electronic pop music and synths, and then when electro came out in America around the early 80s, we were also into that. It was incredibly underground at the time in Britain and seemed, like, really futuristic. It sort of explains in a way the kind of songs that we write, because when we were young at the same time we were buying the latest things and also discovering lots of 60s new things we hadn’t heard before. So when we started making music we tried to mix these things together.

I haven’t been able to find references to newer acts. Is this because you don’t listen to new music?

Oh, no, we do. I suppose it’s partly about the impact the things have on you. When you are new to things, when you’re younger, they may have more of a powerful catch on you. I definitely listen to lots of new music, but this record was more about looking back.

Could you tell me some new bands you like?

At the moment I’m really into dance music, I’m going through a house music phase. I like moody dance music like Art Department and Noir and people like that. And then, sorts of things like Tensnake. I also like Little Dragon a lot, that one’s a bit more poppy. Caribou I think is great.

Do you see yourself citing these bands in future songs?

[laughs] Yeah, probably. We often do put current things in. Ages ago we put World Of Twist in and people like that. But yeah, I think it is good to mention what you’re into at the time.

It’s clear you have succeeded doing a conceptual album. Was that hard for you?

Actually, the thing is, because we were reissuing all of our albums for the last couple years and for each one we were listening to all our demos and that stuff, we started thinking about the times when we recorded them. So it’s all been like a nostalgia trip for all of us. This got us all really excited about creating new things. Sometimes you think: ‘Oh, that was interesting!’, so it was really exciting to try and recreate those kinds of feelings and get back in the studio to do so. Once we had the music concept, as it was so universal, something that touches us all, we actually found it quite easy after that to write the words and fit them all together,

This is one of your most danceable records. What came first, the songs or the concept behind them?

We tend to have the tracks first and then the concept comes after. But with “Over The Border”, Bob had the idea for the lyrics and we used something I started chord-wise and it grew out of that. But generally we do the track and then come up with the words.

It may sound like a personal record, but in the end, it’s quite universal. I mean, everyone can relate to it. You’ve also started a sort of nostalgia campaign in which you let your fans participate and there is a song here titled “DJ”, which makes me remember that seven years ago I spent plenty of weekends at Razzmatazz Club (Barcelona) and I always asked the DJ on the pop stage to play “Snowplough”.

[laughs] Oh, really!?

Yeah! And he usually did it, too. It was kind of weird, you know, having that song in the middle of The Killers and Editors stuff. Anyways, you’ve also done plenty of DJ gigs—do you think a DJ has to play what he wants or should he accept requests whenever possible?

[laughs] I’m terrible with that. I always play what I want. I suppose, what you hope as a DJ is to play in a place where the people are receptive to hearing the stuff the DJ is playing for them. But at the same time, you know, when I go to a place I want to hear certain things; you sometimes hope you will hear something. It’s difficult, really. I think a club should be a mixture where the guest DJ plays what he wants, but then the club has an overall sort of aesthetic where people sort of expect to hear a certain song at least for a few weeks.

You’ve recorded plenty of stuff for Christmas, “Snowplough” being an example. You even announced this album in a Christmas message. What do you like most about that time of the year?

We are all big fans of Christmas. Bob was actually born on Christmas Day, so he doesn’t have a proper birthday and is probably extra fond of Christmas. Its music is fun. We were talking before about “Top Of The Pops”, well, the Christmas edition was always very exciting. There are a lot of parties, Christmas parties, and there’s always music around, with 1970s classic Christmas records. That was a time when we were excited kids and it kind of went into our psyches. So still when you hear them you get really excited. There’re too many fun things to do at Christmas! [laughs]

Why have you waited seven years to record a new album?

We’ve tried to work out why, really. Even though it doesn’t seem like it, we’ve done lots of other things. The reissues have taken quite a while to get those done. I don’t know why; there wasn’t an occasion before in which we could start doing it. When we were doing the reissues, Universal said: ‘When you’ve done your album, come to us first’. So we wanted to finish doing the reissues and then work on the album.

How have each of you spent your time these seven years when you weren’t in the studio or touring?

I’ve been constantly working! We did the music for a TV series that kind of only is shown in America and Singapore. It took a year doing that. There were also various film projects that either haven’t happened or are going to happen. Also writing music for others, doing gigs here and there, the Christmas record… I’ve been constantly busy. I should look back in my diary so I can answer this question better.

So, it wasn’t like time off.

No, really! I’ve constantly been doing stuff. And, you know, the childcare also takes time. I’ve got two kids – a nine-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl– and when my wife is working I’ve got to take care of them.

The artwork is fascinating. Every time you look at it you discover a new place. Can you please explain how you created it and why you chose that?

There is a map work that gave us the idea and is very similar. We wanted to see if we could use that. We approached the art collective that did it, Dorothy, and they said ‘yeah’. We came up with the song titles and stuff and they did a new one that sort of actually sets this part of Croydon and they changed all the names on it. It’s quite a big undertaking, I guess. It took them so long to do the type setting and everything. I just like the idea of this place that fits perfectly with the idea of the album, with all these songs that exist and have place names that sound a bit like real names.

The video for “Tonight” is a nice collection of great places in London. If I told you that I was going to spend a whole Friday in London, from morning until the sun came up the next day, what route would you recommend to me?

[laughs] I moved from London! It’s difficult to answer, really. One of my favourite areas is the South Bank. Wandering down the Thames there are a lot of things to do there. You have the classical views of London: the Tate Gallery (Modern Art), cross the bridge - over the river - Smithfield, that sort of area. Just wander around. A lot of the old cafés have disappeared, unfortunately. I probably only go there once every fortnight. But Bob’s still in London.

"It’s kind of mysterious why it doesn’t have more. In the past we used to get quite a lot of radio, maybe they think we have been going for too long"

And what about the night?

I’m living in Brighton, so I don’t go out in London anymore. You should go there! It’s down by the sea. There are a lot of clubs down there. Come down to Brighton!

I have always thought your music deserved to reach more people. It is often said that a certain song could be a universal hymn in an ideal world. This is something I think happens with “Tonight” or “I’ve Got Your Music”. Do you understand why you don’t have that much radio airplay?

[laughs] It’s kind of mysterious why it doesn’t have more. In the past we used to get quite a lot of radio, maybe they think we have been going for too long. Things were unfair! At least with the internet you can see that people are listening to your songs. With things like Soundcloud, you get people instantly tweeting about it. So at least there are ways in which to bypass the radio.

In “25” Sarah sings that if she’s lucky enough she will have 25 more years. How long do you intend to keep making music?

We just keep going. We are intending to record at least another album, probably for the fan club; that will come out next year, to keep the momentum up. There are a few songs that we started that didn’t fit in on this album. We’d like to finish those. We also want to carry on with the film we are doing with Paul Kelly, who has directed the other films we’ve worked on. It’s a documentary about London that we’ve been doing with found footage from the archives. So at least we’ll be carrying on one more year.

You’ve just said there are a few songs that didn’t fit on the album. Is this new record going to follow up the concept of “Words And Music”?

We didn’t get them to the end. Some of them didn’t get as far as having the lyrics worked out. So we have to write the words to get the new concept.

In the info sheet you say that some songs that you used to love sometimes take different forms and then hurt you. If possible, could you please tell me an example of this (name of the song and what happened with it)?

This is going to be sort of cheesy and obvious. Do you know “It’s The Same Old Song” by The Four Tops? The meaning has changed since I first heard it. I used to love that song, but I didn’t appreciate its meaning ‘til after splitting with someone I was going out with for a long time. It completely transformed the song into actually what it was obviously about. I used to think of it as being a pop song.

Four Tops - It's The Same Old Song

So you hate it now!?

Oh, no, I don’t hate it now! You know, I’m married now, so I’m happy. [laughs] Mmmm… I’m trying to think of others, because that was the time when songs become important to you, you kind of play things to get some of that emotion out of your system or . . . I’m trying to think of some more, some songs that I really used to play over and over and then the meaning changed. When you hear them again it just makes you think of that period and being slightly miserable.

Do you still experience the feeling you describe there about how people get excited when they go to see their favourite band?

Yeah, definitely! Especially in these days that a lot of people that play haven’t done so in years, or they play an album in its entirety; seeing that is really exciting. You are kind of wondering if it is going to live up to your expectations.

Any one in particular?

The last gig I saw that completely blew me away and I wasn’t really expecting it was Edywn Collins, who was playing in a festival we were at. I was completely taken back; it was fantastic, a joyous occasion. He did a lot of Orange Juice songs. It was incredible and he was really happy. The last time I saw him play was before he had the stroke, quite a long time ago. He seemed a bit grumpy, like ‘We don’t want to do Orange Juice songs’. The band was incredible, he was incredible—I had tears in my eyes. It’s great when music can do that to you.

"It’s fun to get remixes back because you don’t know what people are going to do"

In the last years you have done some nice remixes, I really like the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart one. Is this something you see yourself doing more often in the future?

Yeah, actually. We’ve done quite a few because there’s a remix album that is coming out with the special edition of this album. So we’ve done a few, and people have done some for us. And I really enjoy doing it. It’s fun to play around the chords, take the bits that you really like, and try to put some slightly different sounds. It’s kind of easier than writing new songs from scratch, probably because there’s already a good melody or the vocals there.

You mean this special edition will have remixes by both you and other bands?

Just by other bands. We did one for Summer Camp, Summer Camp did one for us. So we are, like, swapping remixes.

So it’s like a “Casino Classics”?

Yeah. It’s going to be really great kind of stuff. The Golden Filter, Beat Connection… It’s fun to get remixes back because you don’t know what people are going to do.

As both a journalist and a musician, how do you see this kind of battle there seems to be between these two factions?

Well, Bob’s more a journalist than me, I do some writing. It kind of helps us in some ways to get press in England, but at the same time, you incidentally get other people a bit suspicious about journalists in bands. They think they are a little bit clever or something. Some magazines are a bit weary of us, because they think we are a bit fake or something.

Pedro Almodóvar featured “ A Good Thing” in “Volver”. Do you like his cinema?

I go less to the cinema these days because of the children. I see children’s films all the time. And I definitely like his works. Right from the start I went to see films like “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”. One day, about twenty years ago, I saw three of his films in a row. It was nice to find out that he included that song.

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