Since 1990, Saint Etienne has been the epitome of art-school-indie cool. To paraphrase a rather tired social media meme, you think you’re cool, but you’ll never be “Saint Etienne in an Indian Restaurant chatting with Alan McGee” cool.
Everything about the band has been put together with painstaking detail. From album sleeves to cover versions, from T-shirts to unlikely samples, there’s always something interesting about everything they do. For their new album I’ve Been Trying to Tell You, the band has turned to the last time in recent history that the UK was actually a happy place to be and cherrypicked some pop gems to plunder for source material. You can forget those Led Zeppelin and James Brown samples: the cool kids are getting their backbeat from Natalie Imbruglia, the Lightning Seeds, and Tasmin Archer.
Saint Etienne has gone back to 1997 when the UK was giddy with glee about the new Labour government and looking forward to sailing gracefully to a beatific, socialist utopia. Of course, Labour fumbled the ball, everyone started to get depressed again, and the terrifying events of 11 September 2001, drew a line under everything. This may seem to be an unusual concept to hang some pop music on, but don’t forget, this is Saint Etienne we’re talking about here. This is the band that took “Who Do You Think You Are”, a minor UK one-hit wonder, and got it to the top of the US dance charts. This band had the nerve to unironically use a Rush song (“The Spirit of Radio”) as the basis for a dance tune.
Saint Etienne turned 31 this year. Time to settle down, start wearing sensible clothes, and have a discussion with your pension planner. However, founder member Bob Stanley took some time out from adulting to discuss I’ve Been Trying to Tell You and how the words “Saint Etienne” can be used as an adjective.
I’ve Been Trying to Tell You is your first sample-based album since 1993’s So Tough. Was that a conscious decision, or was it brought on by lockdown?
Neither, to be honest. I’ve been looking at a lot of liminal or vaporwave stuff on YouTube over the last few years — people put up odd shots of Tokyo shopping malls in the 1980s or creepy corridors in a school, accompanied by slowed down, sampled music. I was put on to it by a friend of mine who’s an artist, and I assumed everybody would know what it was, but when I talked about it to people, they hadn’t got a clue! For the most part, it’s American and almost all based on ’80s samples. I mentioned to Pete (Wiggs) and Sarah (Cracknell) that I quite fancied doing something along those lines, but using British samples from the late 1990s/early 2000s, and they were happy to go with that.
Examining the mood of the UK at the turn of the millennium seems like a bold choice for a concept.
At first, we weren’t thinking about releasing this as an album at all. Initially, it was going to be a fan club record or something like that. Then, Martin Kelly, our manager, said this should be a new album. He really loved it because it was so different and interesting.
When you’re writing your music, do the samples come first, or do you get to a point where someone says, “I know a brilliant part of a Tasmin Archer tune that will fit perfectly here!”
Ha! Ordinarily, we use samples without really talking about it. We use them as textures, but with this one, the samples came first because we were looking at a specific historical period that we were trying to evoke — a foggy memory of a particular period. We trawled through Spotify to find more mainstream artists of the time — stuff that you would have heard on the radio, but not the obvious hits. We found some good pop records, took a few seconds of something interesting, and built a loop around that.
Talking of old stuff, it’s 30 years since your first album, Foxbase Alpha. How does that make you feel?
Thirty years before Foxbase Alpha came out, the Berlin Wall was going up, and by the time Foxbase Alpha came out, it had come down again, so 30 years is a very long time. When you think about who was having hits 30 years before Foxbase Alpha came out, they seem ancient, so it’s good for making you aware of how old you appear to young people and reminds you not to make a fool of yourself. It doesn’t feel like 30 years; it feels like a long time, but it’s more like the last twenty years have gone quicker than the first ten years. It’s been nine years since our Words and Music album, and that still seems very recent to me.
When you reach a certain age, 1998 only seems like four or five years ago.
That’s it! The time period on this album was 20-25 years ago. And I was shocked as it seems like it was in the recent past, but it’s only the recent past if you’re in your 40s!
For a record that has its roots in optimism and joy, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You sounds meditative and restrained to me.
It’s about a period when people were generally optimistic about the future, but now we’re living in a very unsettled time, and it’s getting progressively worse. Remember 2016 when David Bowie and loads of other musicians died? At the time, everyone said, “Phew, thank God this year’s over,” but it hasn’t got any better in the last five years! 1996-2001 was a period when there was a general feeling of optimism in the UK. September 11th was the bookend to that, and from then on, everything became the modern world as we know it.
I’ve Been Trying to Tell You is based on a part of recent history where people were more optimistic, but it was definitely cautious optimism. We wanted to use samples to evoke memories because your memory distorts things — you only remember the good bits of everything. You can guarantee that in five years, people will talk about lockdown fondly. “Oh, wasn’t it great; we were out in the woods having fun all the time!” We could also have died at any time! It’s like trying to capture a memory but also making it feel like the memory itself, so it’s foggy and distorted and isn’t quite the way things actually happened. That’s was what we were aiming for.
Do you have a rose-tinted and sepia-tinged view of England?
I hope it doesn’t sound like that, as I’m not particularly patriotic. We all live in England — it’s what we know, and we write about that. Our last record, Home Counties, was especially double-edged as it was a response to Brexit. The UK was a country at war with itself, with the home counties area of the UK being particularly conservative with a small “c”. It was where we grew up, but getting out of there and going to London was what inspired us. That’s how we ended up meeting and making music together. We’ve got that to thank it for. None of us lives there anymore.
Acclaimed photographer and filmmaker Alasdair McLellan has made a film based on the record. Did you just hand the music over to him, or did you give him a brief?
No, we really just handed the music over to him. I met him a couple of times previously — he’s from Doncaster, and I met him in a cafe in Shipley Market in the North of England. Like us, he feels that Pylons and cooling towers are just as much a part of the national identity as beautiful waterfalls or quirky Italianate villages. He’s a fan of ours, too. We did a photoshoot with him for Arena magazine, and we got chatting about the Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys.
He was really easy to get on with — a lovely bloke. He did a Marc Jacobs advert that used “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”, which I’m guessing was his decision. He did a thing with Kylie Jenner, which used “Hobart Paving” as the soundtrack. When I mentioned to him that we were doing a new album, he asked if we wanted any visuals to go with it, and we said, “Yep! Great! Cheers!” He’s so busy, so we were lucky to get him. He’s normally flying to LA or hanging out with Adele, but he got to go to Shipley and hang out with me instead!
There are some pretty parochial references on all your albums. Do you ever worry that no one outside of the UK will be able to relate to you?
Quite the opposite. That’s never bothered me. I look up odd historical facts and pop culture references mentioned in the music I listen to in order to find out what they are and what the songs are about. I just assume that anybody who listens to a St. Etienne record will do that as well. Otherwise, they’ll just pass us by and listen to something a little bit less taxing. Or move on to something a bit easier to work out.
Does Saint Etienne exist in their own world now?
Yeah — it’s not been a conscious thing. It’s the same as any kind of art, really. It should be a natural extension of what you’re about. We never think we can’t use something because people might think, “It’s a bit niche.” I’ve never told anyone this story, but quite early on in the band, we went for a meeting with our manager in the Wimpy Bar on Berwick Street in London. We were sitting in the window, and he said, “There’s a free table at the back, shall we move there?” and we said that we were happy where we were. He kept insisting, “Let’s go to the back.” When we asked him why he wanted us to move, he said, “People might see you here — it’s a bit St. Etienne, isn’t it?” And that was our manager! I think that after 30 years, ours will definitely be a relatable world to people now.
Alan McGee managed you at the height of his success and mania. How did you cope with all that chaos?
He was really good. He managed us when all that legendary, chaotic Creation stuff was happening, but he seemed quite normal. We’d always meet in the same Curry house and have proper business meetings. It was all pretty straightforward. He had good ideas, and we loved what he was doing, but then he had a breakdown, and he couldn’t manage anybody for a while.
He was really funny — I wasn’t privy to any of the stuff that’s turned up in the Creation film (Creation Stories), and it’s been donkey’s years since I last saw him. He’s always liked signing new bands and seeing things happen. I was kind of responsible for him signing the Boo Radleys. I told Alan they weren’t happy with their current label, he snapped them up, and they got to number one in the UK. There was a really good camaraderie with groups on Creation at that time.
You’re going back out on the road later this year.
Well, we’ll probably take the train…
That sounds about right. Why do what everyone else is doing when you can take the scenic route and learn something interesting on the way? How very Saint Etienne.