Interview: Saint Etienne
Published on March 25th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Saint Etienne have been churning out exquisite electronic pop music for some twenty years now, not least on their luxurious, Beach Boys harmonies-decorated 2005 album Tales from Turnpike House.
A follow-up to that resounding triumph has been a long time coming, but after a seven-year studio hiatus that took in a stint as artists-in-residence at London’s Southbank Centre, they are set to return on 21st May with Words and Music by Saint Etienne, an LP thematically devoted to “the strange magic of pop” and how it affects us at various stages of our lives.
Rocksucker was bloody chuffed to be granted a private telephone audience with Bob Stanley, one third of this magnificent pop institution, and soon-to-be-published author (more on that further down the page). But before wading into the juice of our hearty natter, have a simultaneous earful of and butcher’s at “Tonight”, the first single to be taken from the new record…
Why the seven-year gap between albums? Has it simply been a case of being busy with other projects?
We were artists in residence at Southbank for a year, we had a couple of films, I’ve written my book and Sarah and Pete are raising families. Also, approaching old age slows you down a bit! I suppose it would have been strange if there’d been a seven-year gap between our first two albums.
What can we expect from the album? Is “Tonight” a good indicator?
Yeah, I think it is. Lyrically it’s all about how music affects your life, which is kind of the theme of the album. The first song [“Over the Border”] is about how music affects you as a kid, then it’s about how it affects you as a teenager, then as the album progresses it goes up to whatever age I am now. Mid-middle age, I suppose!
Musically we’ve worked with Tim Powell and Nick Coler from Xenomania, we did a song with Rob Davis, who was in Mud and co-wrote “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, and we did four songs with Ian Catt, who’s been with us since the beginning. It’s a very melodic album.
Do you think it could achieve mainstream success?
Maybe one of the songs will get on a film soundtrack, or became a number 1 hit in Switzerland! Although 6Music has been playing “Tonight” a lot, and Radio 2 have played it a few times as well, so it’s nice to know that twenty years later we’re still capable of writing a song that gets played on the radio.
I ask because “Tonight” sounds like it could be a hit.
Yeah, well wait ’til you hear the next one! (Laughs) The way the industry is these days, “Tonight” is a ‘soft’ single; it was available as a free download for ages so the radio pluggers weren’t expecting it to be a hit, but they think that the next one has more of a chance. It’s called “I’ve Got Your Music” and it’ll be out in early May.
“Side Streets” (from 2005 album Tales from Turnpike House)
Were the songs from the album all written close together, or do some date back further than others? Did you adopt any particular songwriting practices for them?
One of them’s about four years old, but the rest were written within the last year. I’ve been writing songs independently, and then we go into the studio and finish them together. That’s pretty much how we always work. Because I’ve been writing the book, I haven’t read a novel in four years; I’ve only read music history books and music biographies, so that’s what was going round my head and I just suggested to Pete and Sarah that maybe we could make that the theme of the songs on the album. I’m happy they agreed because if they hadn’t done then I’d have been a bit stuck for inspiration!
Do you think this nostalgic sort of theme also owes itself to going back through your old stuff for the recent spate of reissues?
Yeah, I suppose it did partly. I can’t really say for Pete and Sarah but for me there was an element of that, but more from listening to stuff that I grew up with, Cocteau Twins and whatever else, so I could write about it in the book. Rereading old music papers brought back a lot of…not memories, but a sense of how music made you feel at the time, how incredibly important it was in terms of shaping the person that you grew up to be, what you believe in and how you relate to other people. It’s incredibly important.
Was there one song or one album that changed everything for you?
I was talking to someone just now who runs the East End Film Festival, and she was saying that when she was a kid her mum’s boyfriend had Hunky Dory, and she used to listen to it over and over again when she was about seven or eight years old, knew every single word. I’m trying to think if there was one record for me that was that significant…(pause)…I think like for a lot of people it was just watching Top of the Pops while growing up, working out which things you liked and which things you didn’t.
When you’re a certain age you just take it all in, though there might be one or two things that bore you. I used to find the ’70s soul groups pretty boring at the time because they all tended to present themselves in a similar way – it wasn’t as exciting as, say, Sweet coming on – but now I love that music. There have been certain records over the years that when I got them I played ten times in a row, which doesn’t happen very often. “This Charming Man” was one, and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”; they’re pretty obvious, but I suppose they’re famous for a reason.
“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (Neil Young cover and the band’s first single, from 1991 album Foxbase Alpha)
Do you know yet when your book will be out?
April next year. It’s called Do You Believe in Magic?. Faber & Faber are publishing it.
Richard X mixed the album. What’s he like to work with?
He likes a drink! (Laughs) We became good friends. Actually, I think he thinks we’re a bad influence; there was a period where we were going to the pub quite a lot, and he said, “Can we meet at the cafe? I keep waking up not being able to start work until midday!” He’s a lovely bloke, very dry sense of humour. It’s funny, he’s got this mysterious name, but when you meet him he’s not especially mysterious. Just slightly mysterious. He doesn’t like football, even though he lives right next to Dulwich Hamlet’s ground. (Click here to read Bob talking to Football Burp about his love of Hendon FC and non-league football in general.)
Do you know yet which festivals you might be playing this summer?
Yeah, we’re definitely doing one in North Yorkshire called Deer Shed, we’re also playing at Vintage, and I’m pretty certain that we’re doing Bestival. I’m DJing at one in Mid Wales called Johnfest, where anyone called John gets in half-price; it’s around Barmouth, which is by the sea, so it looks like it could be a nice weekend away. I think that’s in July. There was a band in the ’80s called Yeah Yeah Noh who were a John Peel favourite, a bit like The Fall, and they’re playing Johnfest; in fact, it’s one of the blokes from the band that’s putting on the festival. I’m not quite sure why they asked me to DJ there, but it sounds like it could be fun.
You’re now based in Highgate, north London. Do you ever see Ray Davies around the area? He always seems to be out walking, or supping a half at one of the many local pubs.
Well, my ex went to see the equinox and she’d been reading up on wicker stuff. We planted some seeds to celebrate the longest day of the year, and the next day we saw Ray Davies walking through Highgate, and again the day after. He waved to us while we were sitting at a bus stop, and then she told me that she’d cast a spell over the seeds that we’d bump into Ray Davies at some point. She’s got a bit of a crush on him when he was younger. That was my last dabble with witchcraft. It scared me.
“You’re in a Bad Way” (from 1993 album So Tough)
Which were the most memorable interviews from your days as a music journalist?
I interviewed Alex Chilton but he only wanted to talk about what he was up to at the time, not Big Star or anything from his past. For some reason I mentioned that I’d just watched The Waltons, and he went off on a rant about how The Waltons doesn’t represent America. That was bizarre.
John Barry was fantastic; I got to go round to his house and his wife made tea. It was the same house in Cadogan Square that he lived in with Jane Birkin during the ’60s, so I was thinking, “God, there’s a lot of history in this place.” He’s a big hero of mine so that was pretty amazing.
Do you think that being the interviewer shaped your approach to giving interviews in any way?
I think it honed my technique for TV interviews, where you’ve just got to be as concise as you can. I much prefer being the interviewee, because being the interviewer can be awkward if you don’t get your questions spot on. I got to interview Brian Wilson once and I knew that if I didn’t ask just the right questions that I could end up getting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as an answer.
Your song “A Good Thing” was used in the Pedro Almodóvar film Volver. Did you have any contact with him personally?
No, we just got an email saying that he liked the song and wanted to use it. We replied saying that if he ever wanted us to do a film soundtrack for him, just get in touch. We’re yet to hear back about that! (Laughs)
Sorry to bang on about your dealings with various legends, but I have to ask if you had any direct contact with Chris Morris vis a vis using one of his sketches on the single of “You’re in a Bad Way”…
Yeah, we met up with him for a drink. I think he just wanted to know how we intended to use it. I remember he was very tall, which I wasn’t expecting. It was strange, he kept on asking us about groupies. Maybe he was trying to get some material for a sketch or something.
“The Bad Photographer” (from 1998 album Good Humor)
Are there any obscure and/or up-and-coming artists that you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to?
Yeah, check out Stay+.
Finally, if you were forced to spend the rest of your days in solitary confinement, but were allowed to bring the entire works of five different artists along to tide you over, whose would you choose?
The Beach Boys, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Felt and The KLF.
Oh, actually, one more: which is your favourite Saint Etienne album?
I’m tempted to say Good Humor, but more because of the circumstances at the time than the music itself. We were living in a flat in Malmo together, it was like being in The Monkees. That was a lot of fun, although it was very cold. Also So Tough, because by the time we got round to recording it we were getting written about in the press. Things were looking up, and it gave us the confidence to experiment more. We even thought that maybe we could have an eight-minute single that gets in the top 40; we tried, and it got to number 40, so it sort of worked!
I know you’re a fan of The Monkees’ soundtrack for the film Head. Of course Davy Jones passed away recently, so it seems appropriate to ask if you think The Monkees are an unfairly overlooked footnote of popular music history…
I’d like to think they’re more than just a footnote, and going by the tributes that have come out in the wake of Davy Jones’s passing it would seem that many people agree, which is nice. The way they came together as four complete strangers, became a kind of garage band and then had these huge hits was quite amazing. They’re one of my favourite bands.
Bob Stanley, thank you.