Music Interviews

Saint Etienne: “It’s nice to have a proper stamp of recognition of what we’re about” – Interview

Saint Etienne

Saint Etienne: Bob Stanley, Sarah Cracknell, Pete Wiggs

The allure of the big city, the prospect of a dazzling night out. It’s something every music fan traipsing in from the suburbs to the thrum of urban glamour understands. “I grew up in Windsor, Bob and Pete grew up around Croydon – London was like a magnet for us,” Saint Etienne‘s Sarah Cracknell tells us before their show at the decadently refined Palladium. “That thing of getting ready to go to gigs and, heck, its the most exciting thing in the world, building up to it and everything.”

Cracknell is talking about the central theme behind Tonight, the lead single from the band’s critically acclaimed new album, Words And Music By Saint Etienne. It’s a track that beautifully illustrates the enjoyment offered by the live setting. At the Palladium, amidst a scattering of colourfully illuminated balloons and a backdrop that blurs with the ceaseless movement of London traffic, Tonight proves to already be a firm favourite amongst the fans.

And if there’s one thing that dominates the group’s setlist, its the racy up-tempo numbers, in particular the euphoric future-disco of DJ. Despite its clear popularity with the assembled crowd though, Cracknell reveals her trepidations about a future single release for the track. “It’s a bit in the balance at the moment. A lot of people keep saying they want DJ. But we were thinking as we’ve had two very up-tempo songs in a row perhaps it should be one of the slower, more interesting songs on the record. And we were sort of going to tweak things on, for instance, The Last Days Of Disco – building up the chorus and stuff like that. But lots of people have definitely been going on about DJ, and I think Graham Norton even played it on his radio show.”

We turn to discussion of one of the key forces behind the creation of the new album, Xenomania. “We’d been doing a lot of writing down at Xenomania and they’re pretty poppy people,” explains Cracknell. “We’d been working with Nick Coler, Tim Powell, Tim Larcombe – who then left Xenomania. So we knew these three people and they were all setting up on their own with their own studios and we were going, Hey, wed be a bit stupid not to use them!, you know what I mean? And we worked with Richard X, who’d been so brilliant with us on Foxbase Beta – we’ve done loads of stuff with him and he’s always fantastic, a really good producer.”

And what of Xenomania’s mastermind, the enigmatic Brian Higgins? “Well, we’d already done a couple of things with him in the past; he remixed Burnt Out Car and He’s On The Phone. And we did a cover version of the Gary Numan track Stormtrooper In Drag. So we’d already worked with him and knew him. It was useful because everyone all had their own studios so we could have one of us working in one place doing one thing and another somewhere else; we could spread ourselves out and get things done quicker.”

“As much as weve had a really good run, its nice to have a proper stamp of recognition of what were about.” – Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell

If there’s one defining quality to Words And Music By Saint Etienne and one that shines through particularly in the live environment its how well the trademark Saint Etienne and Xenomania sounds gel; a meeting of minds leading to an assuredly cohesive record. No wonder then that the production process was equally smooth. Cracknell outlines the methodology behind the creation of the album. “When it comes to the writing, since the first two albums, all three of us have always written together. We put lots of lyrics into the same song, it’s a bit of a melting pot really. Sometimes there’ll be one song that someone has a bit more of a hold on than someone else, but once wed written all the songs and got the lyrics then we could start moving things along. I’d go and do some vocals, and Bob and Pete might do a mix… but we always write the same way. And funnily enough, the same way they do at Xenomania! We turned up thinking, Oh my God, it must be some hothouse of pop! Oh God, theyre not going to like the way we work… But we got there and they write songs the same way we do.”

The new album’s impressive cover art takes pride of place on the screens arrayed behind the band on stage. Depicting a kind of warped version of Croydon’s labyrinthine road network, the sleeve supplants in names and locations from a cornucopia of songs, including – perhaps most prominently – Penny Lane. We ask Cracknell whether the domination of tiny-screened iPods and phones spoils the impact of a piece of cover art where so much attention and detail has been invested. “It is a bit sad, yes,” she agrees. “But it appears the trappings of modern technology have also had an unexpectedly pleasant outcome too. I’ve heard people are playing a game on Twitter where they’re trying to work out each song title from it.”

It’s this collective aspect to music, the ties that exist between listener and their most cherished songs, which feels like its at the heart of the message Words And Music tries to convey as an album. Cracknell thinks so, at least. “It’s very universal that feeling of hearing something and how it can transport you back to being, like, 10. Or maybe just a lyric or anything like that. It stays with you throughout your life, as a constant. You can remember who you were with, or sometimes even what it smelt like!” Memory or more particularly, shared memories; this too feels closely tied to the atmosphere in the Palladium. Middle-aged couples hold hands in the upper circle, while down below in the stalls, revellers sway to a satisfyingly beefed-up Only Love Can Break Your Heart. They’ll take home memories, to put beside all the other collected paraphernalia of lives, lived inextricably alongside the pleasures of music.

But wrapped up in that pleasure is not only unadulterated happiness, but the melancholy tinge of sadness too. On the likes of heavily nostalgic When I Was 17, theres a definite sense of time passing, things coming to an end, the past slipping away. Cracknell explains it was important to capture a full range of emotions on the record. “We love that kind of juxtaposition some of the songs are really upbeat, but slightly sinister. Like Heading For The Fair, for example that feeling of happiness and sadness at the same time. The perfect emotion.” Did recording the album help to bring back any old memories she thought she had forgotten? “Having to talk about it a lot did!” she jokes. It’s reassuring to see Cracknell in such high spirits. The Palladium show was rescheduled from a month earlier, when she fell prey to a throat infection. “I’m all better now, she assures. “It was bloody horrible though; Ive never, ever had that before.”

One song missing from the setlist tonight is Over The Border, the intensely beautiful album-opener to Words And Music By Saint Etienne. Full of tales of Top Of The Pops, Marc Bolan obsessions and journeys to see Peter Gabriel’s house. It turns out the track is actually a composite of sorts, in keeping with the band’s writing style. “If you want to get the nitty gritty of that one, Bob actually wrote the spoken word part, while Pete and I wrote the chorus. They’re always like that!” Did the album’s broader message of musical passion was something present from the start, or if it developed at a later stage? “The concept came after a couple of songs, I reckon,” says Cracknell. “I think we started a couple of things and then we came up with the idea. It’s quite useful, nice even, to have… a ‘concept’ sounds like a prog band… but a ‘theme’, to write about, to be honest. Especially as we’ve written a lot of songs over the years and it’s quite difficult to come up with new things; we don’t like to do too much repeating ourselves. Once we’d come up with the theme, it was much more fun writing the songs.”

One glance over the near-universal acclaim showered upon Words And Music By Saint Etienne suggests that a good deal of the satisfaction and enjoyment clearly present in the recording process has managed to rub off on listeners. “A couple of the songs we had been doing live already, and they’d been getting such a good reception. Normally audiences want you to do all the old songs and they don’t want to hear any new ones at all, but they’ve been really embracing of the new stuff.” But beyond a general sense of achievement at another job well done, it must make for pretty affirming stuff to see the record grace lists of the best albums of the year so far. To hear the new tracks and old greeted with equal applause tonight, the sense is very much of a group that has come full circle continuing to succeed precisely because that most crucial element, creating a properly decent record, remains fundamentally enjoyable. “It is continually really pleasing,” Cracknell confirms. “We’ve been going, what, 20 years now, and as much as we’ve had a really good run, it’s nice to have a proper stamp of recognition of what were about.”

Saint Etienne’s Words And Music By Saint Etienne is out now through Universal.

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