Dance Music for Grown-Ups: An Interview with Saint Etienne
After a seven-year hiatus, the British dance-pop returns with their trademark, learned style.
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.
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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.