Interview: Saint Etienne
With a new photo-journal of their career having just gone on sale, Songwriting catches up with indie-dance legends Saint Etienne
he early 90s were a heady time for British indie. Following from New Order, Madchester’s The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays had drawn guitar music towards the dancefloor, allying it to the acid house culture that prevailed among Britain’s hollow-jawed youth. One of the finest groups to spring out from this musical union of guitar and beat were Croydon trio Saint Etienne.
With a sound that borrowed as much from 60s beat pop as it did from the dancefloors of Britain’s clubs, they initially featured a series of vocalists alongside founding members Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs. It wasn’t though until they came together with vocalist and songwriter Sarah Cracknell that they hit upon the composition that would serve them to this day. Joining forces on Nothing Can Stop Us, the single would prove to be the group’s breakout song and one that catapulted them to global stardom.
Classed as leaders of the ‘pure pop’ movement, Saint Etienne endured much longer than many of their baggy-era contemporaries. With their biggest hit coming in the form of 1995s’ He’s On The Phone, the band have gone on to release eight albums in total, more than the combined total output of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. Songwriting was fortunate to catch up with singer Sarah and fittingly, it was just after she’d returned from the Ivor Novello Awards.
How were the Ivor Novello Awards?
“Really good. I’ve not been to the ceremony before but I really enjoyed it. I have been to Grosvenor House before but that was for something entirely different. My dad used to be in the film industry and Grosvenor House used to be the venue for the strongman’s ball.The opener to the ceremony used to introduce the ball by throwing himself over the aisle while on fire!”
Saint Etienne are going to be playing at the Sheffield doc/fest, tell us about that
“We’ve worked with Paul [Kelly, the director] for many years, so we were happy to be asked to work with him on this project. We are providing the live soundtrack to a documentary that starts in the 1950s and finishes just before the time when digital cameras started to be used. Paul wanted to stop at this point because the texture of the film would have changed at that point.
“Pete has been brilliant with the process of getting the music together for this project. Because even though we’ve done the live soundtrack thing before, it is a bit terrifying because you can’t improvise.”
How is the songwriting process different when composing music for film than for your own work?
“Writing for film is very mood-based, and less focused on structure than our normal writing. It is kind of liberating though, because you can get a bit bogged down in trying to write the perfect pop song. Here you just epée into the mood of the piece you are writing for.
“I love soundtracks though. There’s an Australian film Picnic At Hanging Rock, which is not a great film in itself and nothing much happens except some girls at a boarding school disappear. It does though have a fantastic soundtrack and that really makes it memorable for me. Mood music though is really difficult and is something that you really have to work at. But it’s a challenge I really enjoy.”
“For me writing has always been a collaborative thing”
What were your first compositions?
“When I was very young I started writing with friends and a bit on my own. For me writing has always been a collaborative thing – I’ve only written half a dozen songs by myself. With Saint Etienne, Pete and Bob had already written the first album when I joined and had a number of other songs ready for the second record. So it wasn’t until the third album that we were writing completely together.
“With Bob, Pete and I we do write everything together: the words, the melody, the structure, all of it is entirely collaborative effort, which I guess is a bit unusual. It really works for us though because none of have any egos and we are all able to tell each other when we feel something isn’t working. The main goal is that the final song sounds great and because of this none of us mind who contributes what.”
Do you find though that one of you brings a particular idea to the table for each song?
“It’s very different for each song. Someone might have a verse or a melody, maybe half a bridge, anything really and we each help each other out. One thing that I think really helps our writing is that we always have an overall theme for an album. So because we start off with a clear idea and are not just plucking ideas out of the air, it helps to give direction to our songwriting.”
How do you evolve these themes in your writing?
“It all depends on once we have a theme in mind. With Words And Music our theme was that all songs had to be about music and why you like it, and the whole album was about music and what it means to you. It was looking at a mood and how it can inspire you.
“The concept of the album then made it very easy to write the words. Tonight, for example; Bob wrote that and it’s a brilliant song. I can say that about Pete and Bob’s songs much easier than I can about my own! The main idea of Tonight was about going to a gig in your teens to see your favourite band, after listening to your favourite song of theirs all day. So you get to the gig and you’re so excited to be there and then they play your favourite song and it leaves you in raptures.”
You have a new single Pocket Call coming out, can we expect a new album any time soon?
“We’ve not started recording or writing an album yet. We are all starting to get a bit twitchy though and I can feel that we’ll want to start thinking about an album soon. So while nothing has been formulated yet, watch this space!”
Pocket Call is included with your new book, which reads like an extended interview-cum-biography through photos. How did that project come about?
“The publishing company had recently produced a similar book for the band Felt, who I love. They then they asked if Saint Etienne would like to do one too and we just thought that it was a really beautiful idea. Pete, Bob and I then spent hours digging through old boxes of photos and it’s quite amazing to go over the photos and remembering it all. We wouldn’t all remember everything but one of us would always be able to place where we were and say ‘Oh that was when were in Berlin’. It was really nice reminiscing.”
Does having a journalist in the band have an impact on the writing process?
“Of the three of us, Bob is the journalist and he has more of an overview of us and how we put ourselves across. I just find myself immersed in the music but Bob is able to take a more objective view. He’ll probably hate me for saying that! It’s not in a contrived way, it’s just that he’s able to step outside of the immersion.”
“None of us can play particularly well”
What inspired you to write music?
“Ultimately all three of us have been fans since we were kids, Bob and Pete have been friends since they were toddlers (their parents were friends). I was lucky because I had parents with good taste in music, which is always helpful! For me I started a band when I was 15 and it developed from there. For Pete and Bob it was a different process. It was the advent of sampling that inspired them to make music, because it meant that you could be a musician without having to be a proficient instrumentalist. This really gave them the freedom to be creative.
“The three of us met in 1991 and we just found that we had the same cultural and musical reference points. None of us can play particularly well, we can play a bit of guitar and piano but I wouldn’t say any of us were specialists. It’s for that reason that we get other people in to play our songs.”
Does bringing people in to give life to your ideas make you more or less precious about them?
“Well we bring people in and we just tell them to play the songs like this, or like that! When we get people in we’re very clear about what we want and we’re quick to ensure that they represent our ideas how we hear them.
What are you inspired by?
“I think our inspiration comes from liking lyrics and melodies. The main thing though that made us bond is production, we’re all real fans of extraordinary production and that’s been our inspiration. Songs like David Essex’s Rock On, Ghost Town by The Specials or anything by The Beach Boys. All of those artists have really excellent and groundbreaking production and that’s been a real source of inspiration in our writing.
“We’re also really inspired by the mood of melancholy. Songs like Dancing Queen. On the face of it it’s a very happy song but if you dig into it and look under the surface it’s a juxtaposition of emotions and is quite a melancholic song. That idea of contrasting and competing moods has always inspired us.”
What’s next for Saint Etienne?
“As I mentioned before, we’re starting to feel itchy about making another album and the atmosphere feels as though it’s getting to the stage where we’ll start writing again soon. It would also be sad if we only played the Sheffield doc/fest gig. We may be playing at the Barbican but we’ve nothing else lined up. After working with so many other musicians for the soundtrack, it would feel like a real shame if we didn’t play some more gigs off the back of that. So maybe we’ll have two or three more performances and then get stuck into writing some more songs!”
Interview: Damien Girling
Saint Etienne’s photo book, simply titled Saint Etienne, is out now in a limited edition of 2,000 copies, published by First Third Books. It includes the single Pocket Call, as well as some truly beautiful images of the band.