Childhood friends Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs originally conceived Saint Etienne as a group with rotating lead vocalists when they began the band in London in 1990. To that end, the band’s debut Foxbase Alpha featured seven different singers, but after hearing Sarah Cracknell on the record’s “Nothing Can Stop Us,” she was drafted as the permanent singer.
With the line-up settled, Saint Etienne released a string of hit albums at a consistent rate throughout the ’90s and into the new millennium, most notably 1993’s So Tough and 1994’s Tiger Bay, both of which hit the UK Top 10. However, after Tales from the Turnpike House was released in 2005, the band seemingly went on hiatus. Now, seven years later, Saint Etienne has returned with Words and Music, a concept album that matches shiny pop with songs about the impact of music. I got in touch with Wiggs via email to get some questions answered.
It’s been more seven years since Tales from Turnpike House. Was that break planned?
Pete Wiggs: It doesn’t seem like seven years, as we’ve been constantly doing Saint Etienne–related activities. One of the things that delayed us doing a new album for a bit was that we wanted to put out the deluxe reissues of our previous albums first.
In the time between records, the band was still active on different fronts. For example, there was the artist-in-residence stint at Royal Festival Hall. What did that entail and how did it come about?
PW: That came about after the director of the South Bank came to see our previous film collaboration (with filmmaker Paul Kelly). Out of the blue she asked us to be the first artists-in-residence at the South Bank Centre. (I don’t think it had been done there before.) We were invited to various artistic meetings in order to provide an outsider perspective and perhaps shake things up, which was a bit weird. But the main emphasis was on making This Is Tomorrow, a film about the history and refit of the Royal Festival Hall, which was underway at the time. We ran monthly themed clubs in the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer with bands, films, guest speakers and DJs.
This Is Tomorrow was the third film the band produced. What is the process behind producing films and how does the band determine which films they get behind?
PW: The three full-length films with which we’ve been involved were supported by major art institutions like the Barbican and South Bank Centre and have been very much about London and documenting aspects of London that are in a state of flux. So far they’ve all been ideas that everyone finds interesting and which seem doable given the often limited budgets. We have more film ideas in the pipeline.
Moving on to the new record, once the band did decide to record a new album, how long was that process? Was it a case where the ideas came together fairly quickly or were there fits and starts?
PW: We wrote the first three songs and then there was a bit of dithering about until we hit upon the concept for the album. After that it came together pretty fast.
Much like Tales from Turnpike House, Words and Music is a concept album of sorts, like a love letter to being a music fan. Is that something that was always the overriding theme for the record or was it something that slowly developed?
PW: It kicked in after we’d written a few songs for which we only had vague lyrical ideas. It always helps to have a concept, and this one seemed perfect as we had all been on a kind of trip down memory lane in the process of putting together the album reissues, which involved a lot of retrospective interviews and searching through master tapes for hopeful hidden gems.
Another clear stylistic choice is the very synth-heavy production. It’s interesting because it manages to be both retro and forward-looking at the same time. Was that a choice to tie into the nostalgic feel of the album or was it just simply a continuation in the evolution of the band?
PW: We wanted to make a really pop album where any song could potentially be a single. Personally, I’ve really got back into dance music over the last couple of years so synths and beats are in with me.
Songs like “Over the Border” and “When I Was Seventeen” seem to have an autobiographical bent. Are they based on true stories or just simply great play-acting?
PW: It’s kind of a mix of the two. With “Over the Border,” Bob wrote the lyric but it reflects the teenage lives of all three of us. Bob and I grew up together, but Sarah was from a very similar background. Often we will write songs that are based on our own experiences, but we’ll transplant them onto a fictional character and setting.
With music critics, producers and label heads in the band, is it hard to not be critical about everything when it comes time to work on a Saint Etienne record? Is it a constant struggle to craft that perfect pop moment, to make everything a hit, or can those impulses be put aside?
PW: We worked with a lot of other songwriters and producers on this record and that provided a fresh slant on things and an external critic if you like. We wanted to make a great pop record, but wouldn’t go so far as trying to tailor it to try and get a number one record, as that would probably suck some of the joy out of it
The sound of the album and, generally speaking, the history of the band seems very tied to club culture. Has that been an important element?
PW: We started the band at a very exciting time when club culture really took over and broke down a lot of the boundaries between different musical worlds. Dance music seemed like the future at the time, and sampling technology enabled us to make the kind of music we wanted to make. Our association with Heavenly Records continued our connection with club culture as they were behind the influential Heavenly Social, which was a big part of our lives. We enjoy shaking a leg after a few shandies too, as it were.
One of the projects that took place during the hiatus years was the reissuing of the back catalog. What type of things did you learn during the looking back? Any surprises?
PW: We found at least one track that none of us had any recollection of recording—it was quite good too! It was interesting listening to our old stuff as we don’t generally do that. It is like looking through an old photo album, transporting you back to the person you were and the life you led when you made those recordings, albeit in a somewhat foggy way.
Of the past albums what has been your favorite and why?
PW: I change my mind about this all the time, but I enjoy listening to Sound of Water. The collaboration with To Rococo Rot gives it a unique sound.
The band is embarking on its first US tour in six years. What should fans expect from the shows?
PW: It’s going to be a pretty uptempo set, so hopefully there’ll be some dancing. We’ll play quite a lot from the new album, but plenty of old faves too.
How has the live show changed since the early days?
PW: To a certain extent, we’ve returned to the more electronic and stripped down style of our early gigs, only it sounds and looks a lot better!