Saint Etienne’s music has often felt like a love letter to London — from referential classics like “Archway People” (famous b-side to one of their biggest singles, “You’re In A Bad Way”) and “Mario’s Cafe“ (paying homage to the well-loved Kentish Town emporium) to “Tales From Turnpike House”, 2005’s concept album set in an imaginary London estate. Even the title of their most recent greatest hits collection, “London Conversations”, serves as a reminder of the city that inspires Pete Wiggs, Bob Stanley and Sarah Cracknell so.
Formed in 1990, Saint Etienne released a couple of singles featuring the vocals of Moira Lambert and Donna Savage before settling on Cracknell as full-time head girl. Since then, they’ve built up a glorious and near-flawless discography, brimming with songs that embrace the essence of pop and give it an extra layer of finesse.
That love of London we were talking about earlier is equally matched by the band’s love of music and, when it came to writing and recording their new album “Words And Music By Saint Etienne”, the three chose to focus on music and the central part it plays in their (and many of our) lives as its theme. It’s easy throwing poncey phrases like ‘tour de force’ around but this record really is up there as a high point in the band’s career to date and it is certainly one of the most thrilling albums we’ve heard in quite some time.
The goosebump beauty of the first track, “Over The Border”, sets the tone nicely for a journey through musical memories past and future, with cuts like “Tonight“ (the album’s introductory first single, which giddily anticipates a show by your favourite act), “I’ve Got Your Music” (this would’ve been number 1 for ages in Stock, Aitken & Waterman’s heyday) and the euphoric “DJ”, supplying thrills by the bucketload.
We got Sarah Cracknell on the blower for half an hour’s chit-chat and we’ve learned quite a bit about the golden days of Soho, falling in love whilst on the dodgems and (ahead of the band’s forthcoming gig at the Palladium) what Saint Etienne’s London fans are like.
It’s been 7 years since “Tales From Turnpike House”. Are you guys turning into Kate Bush?
We’ve actually been quite active in those seven years. We’ve not been reclusive in a rectory in Oxfordshire tending our garden [laughs]. It doesn’t seem like that long to us because we’ve done a few re-issues, going through our archives and listening to songs from 20 years ago and looking up old pictures – that took a while. I had a single out with Mark Brown. We’ve been doing film music and also gigs. So, I know it does feel like a long time to the outside world but it hasn’t been 7 years of inactivity to us. We’ve been busy. Not as busy as we are at the moment, though!
The album’s opener, “Over The Border”, is one of the best things you’ve ever done. Discuss.
Umm… I think it’s the most succinct opener we’ve ever had on an album because it sums up the whole record. It was, in fact, the last thing we recorded. We did that because we felt that the album needed some explanation. It’s one thing to talk about it in interviews but if the interviewer listens to it before talking to us then this song kind of explains what the whole album is about, really, the album being about music and what it has meant to you over the years and what it means to you now. How a song or a record can transport you back to a time or a place. Even if it is not about a massive landmark in your life, music can pull you back to an atmosphere, a place you used to hang out or a person you used to know. And the album is also about how you listen to music, how that changes over the years.
Was that concept clear to the three of you at the outset or did it evolve with the recording process?
It happened near the beginning. I think we had a couple of songs sort of under our belts, not even lyrically finished. We had the odd lyric here and there and I think the lyrics started suggesting something. But it was certainly fairly early on.
The new single, “I’ve Got Your Music”, is smashing. What is it about?
It’s about that personal moment of having your own favourite song on your headphones and that feeling of being separate to everything that’s going on around you.
And out of all the songs on the new album, which one is your personal favourite?
Oooh. Umm… It changes. Because of things like doing the songs live. A couple of them, perhaps three, we’ve been doing live for a while now but we’ve gradually started adding more onto the setlist so, as we go along, it sort of changes. At the moment, I suppose… lyrically it’s “Heading For The Fair”. The storyline is a bit David Essex. A girl goes to the fair and meets a guy who spins her round and promises many things and says ‘I’ll come back next year and we’ll run off together’ and, of course, next year he just ignores her. I remember going to the fair and getting crushes on boys on the dodgems [laughs]. I was really, really young. But it’s about that mood, fairs at night-time. You’ve got lots of music going on, all the different rides and there’s that smell of grass and candy floss. It’s a very heady mix, I think.
The Olympics are very nearly upon us. As one of the musical acts most associated with London, will you be doing anything to commemorate the extravaganza?
Yes, we are. We are doing free gigs!
Well, that’s a bit brilliant.
Yeah, I’m not yet sure where or when but we have been asked and we’ve said yes.
Are you excited about the Olympics being held in London?
Yes. It’s nice to bring focus on to a city that I love so much and that has so much to offer.
Many of the band’s songs are about or inspired by various parts of London. Is there one particular place in London which is particularly special to you?
I love Soho. I suppose I’ve loved Soho since I was about 15 when I first went there. There’s so much history to it and the history is quite flavourful, do you know what I mean? It’s a great place. My mum went to school there, actually. She used to go to the Two I’s coffee bar and do all that afternoon jiving and I remember doing a gig when I was about 15 or 16 at a place called Le Beat Route on Greek Street. I also used to go out to a club night called Alice In Wonderland at Gossip’s on Dean Street. I just love the atmosphere of Soho.
Saint Etienne has come very close to having a top 10 single on a few occasions. Does it bother you that it hasn’t happened, yet?
I think, at the moment, the top 10 is not something that our music would fit into. We’re never going to get played on Radio 1 now. Radio 1 is such a different beast. The fact that we haven’t had a top 10 is a bit of a shame but it’s not something we’re going to cry about [laughs]. Especially as we’ve had two 11s or an 11 and two 12s or something like that [“He’s On The Phone” got to 11, whilst “You’re In A Bad Way” and “Sylvie” both peaked at 12]. And I think even the single I did with Mark Brown was an 11 or something in that vicinity, although in the mid-weeks it was number 2 so that’s like a carrot being dangled a few times. But I do love the whole chart thing, as it was. And I also love the fact that we’ve been on Top of the Pops half a dozen times. That means a lot to me. That kind of makes up for it, really.
People have this idea of you, Bob & Pete being best friends. Is that how it is?
Yeah, that is exactly how it is. We never fight. We still love hanging out and travelling together. Like family, in a way. They’re all quite easy-going and there’s no horrendous egos or any particular egos at all so I think that’s part of the reason why we get on so well. No one ever treads on anyone else’s toes and no one is precious about anything. We write all the songs together, we all chip in. No one ever goes ‘ooh, that’s my song!’.
And how often do the three of you get together when you are not working?
Well, Pete lives in Hove, I live in Oxfordshire and Bob lives in Highgate so if we’re not working on an album or doing press, we’d probably meet up about once a month or once every two weeks. We get to see each other all the time, really.
Do you reckon Moira Lambert and Donna Savage have a little cry every time a new Saint Etienne album comes out?
Do you know, I’ve no idea. I vaguely remember someone saying that they weren’t actually interested in being in the band. Maybe that’s just Moira Lambert. I’m not sure. I might be wrong but that seems to ring a bell.
Have you ever met either of them?
No, I haven’t, actually [laughs].
Has [long-term Saint Etienne co-vocalist] Debsey Wykes ever said to you guys: “go on, make me a full time member of the band”?
Well, she pretty much already is, really. She does all the live shows. I don’t know what we’d do without her, now. She’s become my rock. If she’s not around I’m panic-stricken. She’s had a co-write on the album on a song called “Haunted Jukebox” and we did a cover-mount thing for MOJO recently, where we did a duet on a Beach Boys track, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice“. So she’s around with us all the time. She is a full time member, really.
Bob has recently told Pitchfork that you guys hope to release a double album next year. It sounds like you’ve got quite a lot more in the bag, as it were.
We have got a lot more in the bag. But I wonder whether there’s been a confusion along the way about the double-album thing because Words and Music is coming out as a double-album as well with remixes. I’m not sure. Maybe Bob thinks we’re doing a double-album next [laughs]. Hey, maybe we are .
And now to Settle An Old Rumour corner… is it true that you were originally supposed to voice Spiller’s “Groovejet”, which Sophie Ellis-Bextor ended up doing?
I’ve heard through management and that sort of thing that, erm… yes. But I’m not sure. It’s one of those things that is so brilliant, I wouldn’t want to taint it with ‘it could’ve been me’. It’s such a great record and she sang it fantastically.
You released your solo record, “Lipslide”, in 1997. Do you have any interest in releasing any more solo material in the future?
I haven’t got any thoughts about it for the near future. But it’s one of those never-say-never things.
Which of Saint Etienne’s albums would you say is your favourite?
I think I’m extremely fond of “Foxbase Alpha”, even though, funnily enough, I didn’t write anything on that. But it’s got that brilliant melting pot feeling about it, where every idea that Bob and Pete had ever stored up went into it. In that kind of way of ‘ooh we might never make another one’. And I just think it’s very of its time and it’s so exciting. So exciting. I love what Richard X did with it on “Foxbase Beta”, just kind of updating it slightly. I think it’s brilliant. I mean, he didn’t tamper with it too much, he just modernised the sound and the beats and things like that.
Does the London crowd at Saint Etienne shows differ from other audiences?
It does in a way. Partly because so many people we know come. And I suppose there is a real familiarity, having lived there for so many years, previously. You look at the people and you feel as though you know them. They tend to be quite good about getting up and dancing. Even if it’s a seated venue, they’re really quick to get out of their seats. Especially with a little bit of encouragement.
When was the last time you had a cuppa at Mario’s Cafe?
Oh goodness. Do you know, someone said to me the other day that, apparently, Mario is a bit cross with us. Apparently he still talks about the song. Somebody said that they’d been in there – they may have been joking – but they’d been in and he said ‘yeah, they don’t come in here anymore, you know’. Whether they were winding me up, I don’t know [laughs]. But I was quite sad to hear that. It has been a bloody long time!
“Words And Music By Saint Etienne” is out now on Universal. Saint Etienne play The Palladium on 28th of May. Tickets are available here.