Wednesday 23 May 2012, 11:15 | By Marc Samuels
Q&A: Saint Etienne
This week Saint Etienne released their eighth studio album, ‘Words And Music By Saint Etienne’, their first since 2005’s ‘Tales from Turnpike House’. There are a lot of things the trio have done in those seven years away, not least ‘thinking’.
And thoughts about ‘who they are’ and ‘where they’ve been’ manifest themselves on the new album that works as a love letter to pop music, and how it becomes entwined with your own life. The album opens with a monologue from vocalist Sarah Cracknell, in which she remembers, as a child, using ‘Top Of The Pop’s “as my world atlas”, before tracing a life through pop, and worrying “when I was married, and when I had kids, would Marc Bolan still be so important?”
Tour dates in support of the album began last night, ahead of which CMU’s Marc Samuels met up with Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs to chat about pop, the digital music revolution, and the Beatles Jubilee.
MS: So, you’re ‘Back! Back!! Back!!!’ as Smash Hits might have said. Seven years since your last album… it’s been a while hasn’t it?
BS: I suppose it was a case of having an idea of what we wanted to do with a new album. When we did the Christmas record [ 2010's fanclub only release 'A Glimpse of Stocking'], we just started writing a lot of stuff, and it flowed from there. I don’t know why it didn’t happen earlier, seven years seems such a long time! But it doesn’t really feel like it. And we did do a film for the South Bank with a soundtrack…
PW: Yes, we’ve been constantly busy.
MS: What came first, the songs or the idea that you were going to make an album about pop music?
PW: The songs came, then the idea came… then the rest of the songs came! It’s normally like that, apart from maybe ‘Tiger Bay’, where we had a concept from the start.
MS: But it does feel like you’ve made another concept album? If, perhaps, the least ‘rock’ concept album ever.
BS: It’s funny that the idea of a concept album has this baggage, but I think pretty much every album we’ve ever done has had some unifying theme. We try to make them so you’d want to sit down and listen to them in one sitting.
MS: We’ve seen a digital revolution in music over the last ten years. Do you lament the fact that music, as a physical product, is less important these days. The idea of getting on the bus back from Woollies and peeling off the sticker and cellophane of a new release is not important to ‘the kids’ of today?
BS: Well, there is an upside with, say, Spotify, in that if someone mentions a song, at a click you can hear it, instead of spending the next four years going round second hand record shops trying to find it. But I think there are layers of magic that get taken away when you lose the physicality. Just the idea that you had to save up money to hear music is obviously completely alien to anyone under 25.
PW: And in our day you had to save up for ages!
MS: You occupy quite a unique position in that history and retro iconography is a big part of your aesthetic, but at the same time you work with current producers, are remixed by contemporary dance acts and have a very modern sound. It’s almost as if by straddling nostalgia and futurism you end up with music very much of the time it’s made, which is very pop.
BS: That’s definitely something we always thought was important to do. I don’t want to sound pretentious but it’s like a modernist way of doing things. Whether it’s music, art or architecture, it’s about knowing the past, understanding it and taking the best bits from it and doing something new with it.
PW: It goes back to Bob Dylan… not that we’re like him, but it’s the same ethos – using the past but presenting it in a modern way.
MS: The noughties saw a bit of pop renaissance with the likes of Girls Aloud, Franz Ferdinand and the electro-pop revival. But it feels like we’re back in a lull now. What’s got you excited at the moment musically?
PW: Because of the digital thing, I often don’t listen to an album end to end. But I want people to do that to us! Maybe it’s because I haven’t hit upon an album that’s mind-blowing. Though I really like people like Little Dragon and Grimes. And then there’s the Beach Boys releasing a new album, and Dexys reforming…
BS: I think with the Dexys album, it’s clearly made to be sat down to and listened to in one sitting. It’s a story, though the songs can stand up on their own. But quite possibly a lot of other new albums aren’t made to be listened to like that anymore. Even our last album ['Tales From Turnpike House'], when it came out in America they completely rejigged the running order. They said: “You want the two strongest songs at the beginning”, so obviously people can skip the rest!
PW: With Spotify, as well, you can see the track that’s been listened to the most and you go: “Oh I’ll check that one out”. It’s really annoying when I look at ours, as I go: “That’s not the best one!”
MS: You mentioned the new Dexys album. How do you feel about the whole heritage thing, with seemingly everyone bar Abba and The Smiths having reformed?
BS: I think it’s a by-product of everything being digital, in that everything from the past is as findable as something brand new. People under 25 will like all sorts of things, say, Woody Guthrie, The xx and Swedish House Mafia. That would never have happened in the past. These days the past is part of the present. So I don’t think it [all the reunions and revivals] feels weird to people of a certain age, even though it might do to us. I remember when the Velvet Underground, I didn’t see them, and sort of regret it now. But at the time I was like: “Why would I want to see them? They’re too old to be doing it”.
MS: If you grew up in an era that meant you weren’t old enough to see a band you subsequently got into, then if a reformation enables that, it can’t be all bad.
BS: No, I suppose at the time it just felt cynical. But I’m sure Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker made no money during the early years, so if a reunion provides an income – which I think was their motivation – well, that’s nice for them. Though these days, while money plays its part, I don’t think that’s why there are so many people older acts are reforming or returning to the stage. I think it’s just because there is genuine demand. Nick Jones the folk singer, who hasn’t done anything for years because he had a really bad car crash, he’s playing now, which is amazing, and I don’t think anyone thinks it’s a cynical move because he needs the money… although he probably does as well!
MS: You’ve made a very poppy album. Do you still hanker for a number-one-for-four-weeks type of smash hit?
BS: Yeah, absolutely. I know that chart positions don’t count for that much any more and if I ask anyone what’s number one at the moment pretty much everyone says “no idea”, which would have been unthinkable twelve years ago. But a top five single would be fantastic.
MS: You’ve worked with various artists over the years. Would you sell out your credibility in the name of a hit if, say, David Guetta rang you up?
BS: David Guetta’s an odd one because if he didn’t plaster his name all over the records he worked on he’d be seen as a much more intriguing figure. The current charts are interesting. If somebody had said to me a few years ago that the predominant sound now, in 2012, would be early 90s rave, hip hop and R&B, I would have thought that was fucking brilliant. But when the entire top ten sounds like that you think: “No no, I want a bit of variety”. It’s everybody featuring on everybody else’s records and just becoming one big mulch. But it feels like that is changing.
MS: Any hopes for the album and plans ahead?
BS: Well the album seems to be going down very well, which is pleasing. We’re hoping to play America before the end of the year. We’re doing festivals in Hungary and Croatia which is exciting as I’ve never been to those places before.
MS: How are you feeling about the summer ahead, with the Jubilee, Olympics and all of that?
BS: I left my ‘Stuff The Jubilee’ badge at home! My 1977 one, which I’m going to wear a bit closer to the day.
MS: So no street parties then?
BS: No! I’m going to celebrate the Beatles Golden Jubilee! I might try to organise something, if there is any groundswell of support, to completely ignore the royal family and have a Beatles Jubilee.
MS: What about the Olympics? You chronicled the development of the Lea Valley – which is now at the heart of the Olympic park – in your film ‘What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?’ Some have criticised what has happened there since the Olympics took over – most notably writer Iain Sinclair. Which side of the blue fence are you on – Sinclair or Seb Coe’s?
BS: The Olympics themselves, I’m not that bothered with. But I went around the site recently actually. It was basically just a vast area of derelict land that was incredibly polluted and genuinely ugly, with pylons everywhere, and a part of London that had the highest TB rate in Europe. None of this is good, no matter what Iain Sinclair says! Basically once the Olympics are done you’ll have this massive park, which looks great. I don’t want to look through rose tinted glasses – I think a lot of the land will have hideous flats built on it in the next ten years – but there will be parkland, the rivers and canals have all been cleaned up. That’s all positive. So I’m not cynical about it.