Dance Music for Grown-Ups: An Interview with Saint Etienne

Photo by Elaine Constantine

After a seven-year hiatus, the British dance-pop returns with their trademark, learned style.

Saint Etienne

Words and Music

Label: Heavenly/Universal
US Release Date: 2012-05-29
UK Release Date: 2012-05-21

Even if they’ve never become a mainstream phenomenon, people in the know are aware that Saint Etienne might very well be the most influential dance band of our times. From its birth in 1990, the band has made a name for itself as one of the most adventurous acts in Europe. Their elegant melodies and haunting lyrics combined the best of the house movement and Britpop, while their musical knowledge -- perhaps just as expansive as their brilliant library -- has turned them into a truly erudite pop band. With eight official studio albums and myriad remix, soundtrack and compilation albums, it seems that Saint Etienne never stops making music, and yet it’s been a whole seven years since their last studio album came out.

Earlier this year, they released Words and Music by Saint Etienne, an album so in love with the idea of music, that it can’t help but reminds us that the best musicians are also hardcore music fans. Newbies might wonder why the sounds coming from this veteran band feel so fresh, while seasoned listeners will be infused with the joy of realizing that the band sounds as happy to make music now as they did 20 years ago.

Now as they embark on their first North American tour in half a decade and celebrate the release of a special edition of Words and Music by Saint Etienne, PopMatters spoke with writer-producer-keyboardist player extraordinaire Pete Wiggs. Prepare yourselves to dig into the brain of one of the bona fide musical geniuses of our time.

* * *

You are probably the best lyricists in pop music, where and how do you get inspired to write them?

Me and Bob [Stanley] grew up together so we share similar inspiration; our parents for example liked Glen Campbell, Jimmy Justice, and other musicians who wrote great lyrics about relatively mundane kind of things. Yet, because the music is so good it transports you to another world, so what we wanted when we started writing our own lyrics was to continue this tradition.

London seems to always be a very important part of your music. Do you have a Woody Allen and NYC-type relationship with the city or do you find inspiration in other places as well?

We have moved away from the city but London -- like somewhere like NYC for example -- are amazing places to be in. London is a place where you can see everybody identifying with. Everyone feels they’ve been to NYC, even if they haven’t, because they see it in films and books. It’s the same with London; there is so much great stuff happening you can’t help but be influenced by it. Bob and I grew up in the outskirts of London, it took a 15 minute train ride to get to the center of town, but the difference in the mindsets of people was amazing. People outside of London were more right wing, racist, while London in the early 80s was more open. It was a place where you didn’t get beat for looking different; it was where all the best gigs happened and where you could get to see non-mainstream films.

You and Bob were music journalists originally, something that has always reminded of French New Wave filmmakers, how is it to produce music when you also think music? How is it to be on both ends of the process?

[Laughs.] I wouldn’t say I was a journalist. I wrote a column once for a DJ magazine called Jockey. It was a monthly piece. Luckily I’ve done many reviews too which helped expand my musical knowledge, but it’s also been awkward in some festivals when you give their albums bad reviews and then you run into the bands. [Laughs.] It’s been good having that kind of perspective, especially because we never thought we’d be in a band, but we loved music. Bob writing about music was like that; he was always kinda expressing his love of music through his articles. He was a great writer, and one of the first music critics to get into the Stone Roses back when no one knew who they were.

After “Tonight” came out, I remember reading a great line that said it was “dance music for grownups.” Is this how you see yourselves?

Yeah. I suppose yes, you make music for you and your friends, you want to impress your friends. I got a lot into dance music, there’s been some great stuff recently and we’re grownups too, so we make music we want to listen to.

What modern dance bands were you listening to?

All sorts of things. We also listened to old stuff; but contemporary bands, we really liked Jeremy Glenn, who does a very house-y kind of thing. John Talabot too, have you listened to him? He’s great. So we listened to loads of music. It’s funny because most pop music now has a very 90s thing going on, have you noticed? Similar beats and hooks which are being very overused. Maybe that’s what part of why we’re making dance music for grownups; we wanted to stray away from the formula.

Even if you’ve evolved with the passing of times, there’s still a uniquely Saint Etienne sound to your music. What do you think of the idea that dance artists need to reinvent themselves with each record?

Even when we try to reinvent our sound, we still sound like us. [Laughs.] We have a certain kind of aesthetic principle we apply when we write our music; a certain use of beat and melodies. We always try to get an emotion out, we’ve always liked melancholy music which is great because Sarah’s [Cracknell] voice is pretty distinct too.

As producers, Xenomania have become some of the most respected producers in the world, working with the likes of Cher, Kylie Minogue and The Pet Shop Boys. They’re admired for the way in which they bend the rules of how music should be structured, something you’ve been doing since your career started. Would you say this collaboration was meant to happen? How was it working with Xenomania?

We got along very well with them, we clicked, we had fun in the studio. They can be quite brutal in how they make changes to their music, which was great because we’ve always done that to ourselves. We listen to our songs and go “this part doesn’t sound good”, or “let’s take this bit out”. It comes from being properly trained in music and also from making songs with sequences.

It doesn’t seem like a long time. I’m always busy doing things, do stuff with my kids and still DJ and Sarah and Bob are always busy too. With the films, we’re doing soundtracks. We did a kid’s TV soundtrack which took a lot of time, a year’s work. We’ve been doing gigs, doing lots of festivals. The reason a new album got put off a bit was because we were doing the reissues and we wanted to get most of the albums out before a new one came out. It also fit with the label’s schedule.

Your album Tales from Turnpike House told the story of a place with various characters, all of whom were complex and layered. Did you ever think of turning it into a musical, TV series or movie?

No, that’d be good. [Turnpike] was more of a proper concept album. It was fun writing the lyrics because they were personal; we write lyrics and Sarah sings them. Although it’s sometimes hard putting stuff in without looking like it’s Sarah’s perspective or vice versa. You can also sneak personal things in the song, even if most of the album was made up.

You’re always reissuing albums, releasing B-sides and showing your fans that there’s endless treasures they haven’t listened to yet. How do you end up selecting which songs will make it to your albums??

It used to be easier. [Laughs] In the past we kinda had more of a deadline, sometimes we didn’t have too much time before we had to send the songs to the label. Now there’s a point where you think “this one, let’s leave it off, it’s definitely not gonna happen,” some don’t fit with the concepts, sometimes you have two similar songs, similar tempo or sound and it feels like it should be one or the other. In the end when the album comes out you realize it’s how it was meant to be. When you put it together and hear it for the first time in sequence it’s kinda exciting -- the album just takes a life of its own.

Will we ever get to listen to everything you’ve ever done??

Yeah, it’s nearly all out. We’re catching up with the reissues, and we’ve put everything out, at least everything worth listening to. Laughs.

Just how autobiographical is the new album? The album opener, “Over the Border”, sounds like a journal entry you just added the melody to.

It’s funny because it’s the other way around. It was the very last song we recorded. We had an idea for it but had no lyrics. Then it took off in a completely different direction, Bob wrote the words, which were brilliant. Me and him grew up together and we’ve known Sarah for a very long time, so it was a song about our collective experience. It encapsulated us, it came from Sarah’s perspective, but it was about all of us. It was the song that put the idea of the album together.

I love “I’ve Got Your Music”, did you guys have any specific bands in mind when you recorded it?

There’s this song by Cliff Richard from the early 80s called “Wired for Sound”. When the Walkman came out, it was a big hit here. It was about the joy brought on by the Walkman being new and listening to music outside with it. The lyrics were nonsensical but the joy is what our song is about. About the joy of listening to music on the streets, listening to your tapes, or a tape your friend made for you. The world might be changing around you, but you’ve got this security blanket when you have your headphones. When we were kids Bob, moved away, so we made cassettes for each other and sent them, it was our way to keep contact. The song is about loving music and how you can create a new world for someone by playing them what you like.

Are you aware that because of its meta concept, the song has become an unofficial anthem your fans sing to you?

No, really? It must have to do with the title. I was very pleased with the title. Sometimes we came up with titles our label hated, they’d go “name the song after something in the lyrics, there’s no avenue in the song”. Laughs.

What are you looking forward to in your North American tour?

The last last time we were there was six years ago, so I can’t wait to go back- it’s been a long time – the audience is always brilliant – we have a huge proportion of diehard fans in America - and America has different beats and a different culture. The tour bus aspects can be quite fun too. I haven’t done that in a while. If I can believe what we’ve been told, the buses have been modernized, now they have bigger bunk beds and TVs and DVD players, so I’m looking forward to writing music and watching films. We also need to finish a remix, which will be interesting to write while riding a bus.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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