Interviews

Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell on Creating One of Their Most Uplifting Albums Yet

Home County publicity photo

One of the UK's pioneering dance groups went wild and weird for their homespun new effort, out now as the band celebrates their 27th anniversary.


Saint Etienne

Home Counties

Label: Heavenly
Release date: 2017-06-02
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We come up with themes for the albums, but everything comes in an organic way.
The cover of Saint Etienne's Home Counties shows an ordinary home in the suburbs on a bright summer day. Even if one didn't grow up in a house like that, one can't help but imagine the lives of those inside the structure, perhaps there's a young boy or girl escaping their humdrum lives by putting on headphones and traveling to the universe a new album takes them.

The feeling of endless possibility conveyed by the simple image of the house, perfectly encompasses how the album feels both like a visit home, and like a tour of an exciting new world. In songs like "Something New" and "Dive", the British indie dance trio bring to mind some of their most iconic moments like the playful "Hug My Soul" or the anthemic "I've Got Your Music". The band proves why they've been at the forefront of electronic music in pieces like the sensuous "Whyteleafe" in which they sing the praises of several cities on specific decades, and the rousing "Underneath the Apple Tree" which feels like a long lost dance gem from the '60s.

The band's unique sound is in great part owed to vocalist Sarah Cracknell, the rare singer who is able to make you smirk and break your heart at the same time. Cracknell's voice is at its most haunting in songs like "Out of My Mind", in which she sings about obsession, and the trip-hoppy "Heather", which explores a sound much darker usual for the band. In 2017 Saint Etienne celebrate their 27th anniversary, but their sound has by now transcended into timelessness.

In songs like the humorously titled "Church Pew Furniture Restorer", the band showcase their ability to turn instrumental interludes into pieces that engage in conversation with the track that follows. If the album is meant to evoke the charm and comfort of life in suburbia, it's often at its best when it reminds us that home should only serve as a headquarter from which we part on adventure.

PopMatters spoke to Cracknell about crafting Home Counties, how it fits in the Saint Etienne canon, and how the band managed to create one of their most uplifting albums yet in the midst of economic and political crises.

Sarah Cracknell (Home County publicity photo)

Recreating the radio experience is such an essential part of Home Counties and the work of Saint Etienne in general. Do you miss the radio experience and is this why you keep going back to it for the structure of your albums?

God, do we? I didn't even notice that we used the radio like that. It doesn't surprise me, I suppose we did grow up with the radio. I still listen to the radio, quite a lot, I live down in Oxfordshire, in the countryside and there are a couple of local radio stations. One plays oldies: in America, you have brilliant stations, lots of oldies stations -- the sister station plays lots of dance music, it plays current stuff and stuff from the '90s. So I still listen to the radio a lot, I think with me I just like someone to decide what I'll listen to next. [laughs]

What would you listen if you had to decide for yourself? Would you end up listening to the same track or record on repeat?

I bore myself with my choices [laughs] sometimes I put an album on and go "oh God, I've had enough", I get bored easily, so I like the idea of someone doing a playlist and sending it to me.

I remember taping songs off the radio and I recently pre-ordered Home Counties and noticed you were also selling a cassette version of it. Why did you want to put the record out in this format?

[laughs] We're not the first, there are other people releasing cassettes, we're just jumping on that. We had cassette singles and everything, I love it as a format, they're such cute little things. In the UK cassettes are coming back, so we wanted to add them to the canon. I like them, have you seen one, or been given one?

No actually, I haven't seen one since 1997, I don't have a cassette player.

I've got one, but my car doesn't have one, unfortunately.

I love the story in the album, some moments of it made me think about that radio programme from the UK, The Shipping… something...

The Shipping Forecast?

Yeah! It puts me in a trance of sorts, and "The Reunion" made me think of that spell. In "Something New" however, you sing about wanting to find a savior and finding something new, it made me wonder if you make the music you make in order to listen to what you'd like to listen to and aren't getting anywhere else?

Oh, you're psychoanalyzing us now aren't you? I don't know really, I think basically we always make the music that we come up with in that moment. We come up with themes for the albums, but everything comes in an organic way, I don't think we consciously go "let's make a record of things we haven't heard anywhere else" -- we still get excited about other people's music. But subconsciously maybe, you could be right. Who knows?

Something else you've become specialists in is making love songs dedicated to music, we see this again in "Magpie Eyes", can you talk a little bit about how this keeps coming up in your work?

That is a big thing for us, especially our last album where the music was all about that. I think the reason we're so passionate about music and songs is because of the way it makes you feel, you can hear a song from 20 years ago and the sounds can transport you there almost immediately, you can smell where you were, and feel whatever the weather was like.

Music is very evocative, so we are very reverential and celebrate it as much as possible, that's why we always wanna share things we love. If we listen to something and like it, we want to share it with people, music is something to be shared and enjoyed by everyone. Spread the word!

You and Pete no longer live in London, do you still think of the city as the hub for all your new music fix, and are the suburbs where you seek quiet?

I suppose there's an element of that because Pete and I have children now and they're similar ages, teenager, 11-12-year-olds, and we moved to somewhere where they could spend more time outside running around. Pete lives down in Brighton, he's near the beach, and I live in the countryside with fields, cows and stuff like that. Bob lives in London, he now has a little boy who's just lovely, he's one and a bit, and he bought a house in Yorkshire, so he spends time in both places. I think as a band, our spiritual home is London, all three of us grew up in the outskirts, in the home counties basically, and London was a magnet. I moved to London properly when I was 17 and I didn't leave until 12 years ago. It's my spiritual place, I'm still close, it takes me about an hour to get there, so I go a few times a week. We're all extremely fond of London.

You mentioned in an interview that when you were young you wanted to be an actress because you were fascinated by the theatricality. Now that you're a musician, have you guys thought about making a musical?

No [laughs] we haven't thought about it. Musical theatre is not necessarily my thing, but I'll ponder it and see what comes up.

Geography is also very important in Saint Etienne sounds, with many songs dedicated to specific places. As a selfish New Yorker I have to ask what music makes you think of New York city?

Things like The Strokes, Velvet Underground, Debbie Harry, and Blondie.


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You guys never seem to stop being on tour, if you're not promoting an album you always seem to be doing DJ sets, what makes you most excited about being on the road?

We're excited about coming to America, as a threesome we get excited about traveling. A lot of bands spend most of their time in the hotel room and don't engage with the cities they're visiting, we're very into traveling and experiencing new places and new food. We always seek out hanging out with people, being taken to new clubs and restaurants, sightseeing, all the silly, nerdy stuff really.

In "Whyteleafe" you sing about different cities in different eras, Stockholm in the '90s, Paris in the '60s ... what do you think of as the perfect era in a specific city?

Probably London in the '20s, I've got this feeling the '20s was the best decade and everyone was having an amazing time. But you had to be wealthy, mind you [laughs]. If you weren't wealthy you'd be having a very shitty time. With a certain amount of money the '20s might have been very decadent, they were always partying and dancing, clothes were really important, they had gone from being really dowdy and Victorian, and suddenly everyone had glitter and tassels!

I love the transition between "Angel of Woodhatch" and "The Reunion", can you talk about structuring the album and picking what song goes where?

It takes quite a while to do the tracklisting, we spend a lot of time listening to it in different orders, sending it to each other in different order until we all agree. The album needs a good flow so you don't get distracted and nothing jumps out in a weird place. We care about that.

You also make a lot of music, is it hard to know when you've completed an album? When you don't wanna add an extra CD or a bonus track?

It's very difficult actually, we finish an album and master it, and we go and listen to B-sides and go "that could've been in the album, but it's too late now", it can be quite frustrating, we need to be very decisive about things. You have to have a full stop at some point with everything you do though, you can't just keep going. Many people have that problem where they keep going "maybe if", but you need to go "that's it!", so the fact we have a B-side or two that could've been in the album, it's too late now.

Home Counties is so optimistic and full of hope, so I was shocked to discover you wrote it during one of the harshest years Britain has been through in contemporary history...

[laughs] I know!

How were you able to pull off Home Counties in the year of Brexit?

I think probably because we're quite political people but we have humor. In the face of adversity, you have to use humor to get through, don't you? We need to put stuff into songs, that's where you put your feelings and frustrations, you turn them into songs.

In your last album you sang about the "Record Doctor", where there any songs that helped heal you post-Brexit?

I suppose jubilant stuff, but I also like melancholy, it's one of my favorite emotions in a song. Melancholy is bittersweet, that feeling of everything's a little bit shit, but hey, we're going to be alright in the end! I love that feeling in a film, song, but I can't think of songs that get me to that point ... let me think. I don't think I have something off the top of my head, but when something comes to me I will email it to you.

A few days later an email from Sarah: My Brexit song is "I Believe In Miracles" by The Jackson Sisters.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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