"I suppose all of our albums really are kind of concept albums..." - hmv.com talks to Saint Etienne
When electronic trio Saint Etienne scored their first Top 40 hit back in 1991 with a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, the landscape of popular music was a very different place; a coveted spot on the BBC’s Thursday night show Top of the Pops was still the primary means of having a hit single in the UK, and the group comprised of Sarah Cracknell, Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley shared the Top 40 that week along with the likes of Roxette, The Shamen, Jason Donovan and Right Said Fred.
Few of those 40 artists and groups have lasted this long, but Saint Etienne have survived partly by following their own musical path and gradually evolving their dreamy blend of dance music and pop that has, over the last 30 years, incorporated a broad range of influences from folk music to film soundtracks.
This week they return with their tenth studio album, I’ve Been Trying To Tell You, which sees them turn back the clock on the live instrument-driven elements of their recent output and sees them harking back to the 1990s, both in terms of resurrecting the sample-based approach of the early days, and the subject matter of the album itself.
Based around the idea of nostalgia for the late 1990s, their new album is a more abstract affair than their recent albums and is also accompanied by a feature-length film directed by Alasdair McLellan, which premiered at the BFI last weekend alongside a retrospective of their previous soundtrack work.
Ahead of the new album’s release this Friday (September 10) we spoke to Pete Wiggs about how they shelved their original plans for a new album and created something completely different…
Your new album is a very different beast to your last record Home Counties – would you call it a concept album?
“Yeah, well, I think because we’ve been going for a while now it’s good for us to have a concept to get things going and get the ball rolling, so I suppose all of our albums really are kind of concept albums, especially since Turnpike House, which is about a block of flats and the people in it, and we were making up stories to do that. That was more like a classic ‘concept album’ I suppose.”
There’s a visual element to this too - alongside the album itself you’ve also made a film with Alasdair McLellan. How did he become involved in the project?
“Alasdair had directed an advert that used one of our songs, it was an advert for a perfume which used ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’. So Bob met up with him after that, and I think there might have been some other connection there as well, Bob moved up to Yorkshire and Alasdair’s from nearby.
“It turned out he was a really big fan of ours, and Bob said that we were working on new music and maybe he could do a video or two. He was pushing it a bit and said ‘Hey, maybe we can do a whole film?’, and Alasdair just went ‘Yeah, great.” It’s been fantastic for us because we didn’t have much cash to give him and he’s gone above and beyond, put a load of effort into it. We weren’t expecting underwater photography and loads of models, things like that, it’s turned out brilliantly.”
Did you approach it more like making a film soundtrack than an album?
“No, the music came first. We’d written about three of the tracks which he’d heard by the time they started filming, and then we just kept sending them over. The music was recorded quite separately, and the film was informed by the music rather than the other way around.”
It’s a very sample-driven album by comparison to what you’ve been doing over the last decade or so – how was it returning to working that way?
“Yeah, it was partly because of lockdown. The project sort of came about because we’d started working on another album in the studio just before everything kicked in, and then that was sort of shelved for a while and we came up with this idea."
“We’d done an EP that we’d given out to fans a couple of years ago that was quite sample-based, and it was something we wanted to explore a bit more. Bob had this sort of concept of looking at a really specific period of the 90s, and I looked at that and thought it was really interesting because they were quite mainstream tracks that we were going to sample rather than crate-digger type things. It seemed interesting to sort of look back but to try and take things from that period and make something that sounded modern out of it.”
What inspired this idea about late 90s nostalgia in particular?
“It was a mixture of the fact that there seems to be a lot of young people that are being inspired musically by that period and look back on it kind of the way we did with the 60s when we started, and then also it was a period of optimism, or at least it seemed to me anyway before things went a bit sh*t. But the idea was to look back and say: ‘Well, maybe it wasn’t that great.’ It’s easy to look back on times as if they were great, but it might have been great for some people and it wasn’t for others."
“So it gave us that idea about memory and going back and revisiting things. As we get older our memories are getting worse. We’ve been doing interviews recently about reissuing Fox Base Alpha, which is 30 years old now, and sometimes you tell stories and think ‘Hang on, have I just rolled three stories into one? Am I remembering the details right?’ Between us somehow we usually get to the truth.”
30 years is a long old time, what has been the biggest shift in the way you make records now, compared to back then?
“It’s been interesting with this album actually because it’s been more like going back to the way we started, with a sampler and stuff. Although they’re less ‘songs‘ on this album and more like moods, really, just seeing where it took us. Well, I guess we used to do that because we didn’t know how to write songs when we started! We were just cobbling things together from other songs, really”
“But some things have changed. We tend to do a fair amount of demoing and getting ideas together separately. Sarah will work with someone else, I do stuff here and Bob works with someone up where he is. But when we get back in the studio it’s pretty much the same as it always was. We do things like sharing lyrics, it’s almost like taking point on a song that they might have started, then we give it over to everyone else and it just depends on how precious you are about various bits of it.”
There’s definitely a more abstract feel to this album, was that a result of having to work remotely?
“I think so, although I’ve just done a master’s degree in soundtracks so maybe that’s had an effect! We were doing a lot of Zoom calls, but what was unusual with this is that I’d sort of get a backing track together to a certain level and we’d fire it backwards and forwards. Sarah was recording vocals at her house with her son doing the engineering, and then she’d send me a load of stuff, but it wouldn’t necessarily be in the right place."
“But it was fun in a way because it was a bit like having a paint box to choose from, I could choose bits and move things around and say ‘What do you think of this?’. And Sarah’s quite good at doing abstract lyrics, it surprises me sometimes and it takes you off in a different direction. It’s amazing how what you think of as just a track suddenly has an identity and more feeling, then you work on it, and some of them changed quite a bit. But the abstract nature of it I quite like, you can decide for yourself what it’s about.”
How did you go about finding samples to conjure this late-90s feel you wanted?
“The first one, which turned into the track ‘Little K’, it’s a Samantha Mumba song which I don’t think I’d even heard before, it was more on Bob’s radar than mine. So the idea was to take small bits and try and really maximise what you can get out of a sample. There have been lots of developments in software and there are various toys I’ve been playing with, pulling just the bassline out of a song, or the drums. It’s quite grungy quality, but because we did it with the whole album it creates a certain sort of sound.”
You have a screening of the film at the BFI with some other work of yours being shown over the weekend – what else is involved in that?
“Yeah, there are various films we’ve been involved with over the years, mostly in conjunction with director Paul Kelly. I think Finisterre was the first one we did, which was a project a bit like this one where we’d done an album and then made a film afterwards using the music we’d already written. It was about the draw of London and interviewing people at that time, this was about 20 years ago now so it’ll be interesting to watch it back and see what’s changed."
“Then there’s a film we made when we were artists in residence for a while at the South Bank Centre, it was before the London Olympics and it was just when the bid was put in and we visited the area where the site was going to be. We didn’t know at the time if we were going to win the bid but we thought it would be interesting to meet the people and film the areas that were going to change, either for better or worse. And we made this strange narrative about a paperboy to link these scenes. But again I haven’t seen that in a long while, so that’ll be interesting as the place has changed so much, some of it is unrecognisable.”
Is it all feature-length stuff?
“No, there’s another one called How We Used to Live which I did the soundtrack to and it’s all archive footage, and then various shorts that we’ve done with Paul Kelly. But it’s great that they’ve given the weekend over to us.”
You also have some live dates coming up in November and December – what kind of live show can we expect? Will you play the new album in full, with visuals too?
“We’re not going to do the whole album, because I think it’d be a bit too much like just watching the film. We’ll do maybe three songs from the new album and then lots of old stuff. We’ve got another song that’s a Christmas record which may or may not be coming out during that time. Those shows were originally booked in for last October, but hopefully, it looks like they’ll happen.”
Will you be playing older material too? Do the audience start tearing the seats up if you don’t play ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart?’
“We do pretty much always do that one now. But it’s quite nice actually having a lot of songs to pick from. It’s not all stuff from the really old albums either, which is nice for us, some of the more recent stuff goes down in the set really well, so we don’t feel like it’s a sort of retro-fest.”
Do you change things up every night?
"Not really, no. Lazy buggers! We’ll probably do the odd track here and there but it’ll be quite similar everywhere I think.”
I've Been Trying To Tell You is available in hmv stores from Friday (September 10). You can also find it here in our online store.