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A Quietus Interview

Bob Stanley On Saint Etienne's Reissues And His Love Of Pop
Adrian Lobb , September 8th, 2009 07:20

Adrian Lobb talks to Saint Etienne's Bob Stanley about new reissues, old forgotten songs, Britpop's lack of community and listening closely to the pop charts

In the interests of full disclosure, we have been here many times before. This pub, this table, even, these drinks (Bob's a pint of Best, mine a Guinness). But this time is different and feels odd; to me anyway. Our first meeting as journalist (me) and, erm, pop star (him).

On the way – slightly nervous, strangely – I realise that I must ask Bob whether he considers that the moniker applies to him. As a student of pop music (more of which below), where does he place himself on the scale of ordinary mortal to pop star?

First, though, to the business in hand. Saint Etienne are continuing to reissue their albums. This time 1993's So Tough and 2000's Sound of Water get the Deluxe Edition treatment, including a bonus CD replete with b-sides, discarded tracks, rarely heard cover versions and alternate mixes. The attention to detail is typically fastidious – hours of tapes have been trawled through, boxes of photographs and posters plundered. . . .

When was decision made on re-issues, and why are they coming out now?

For a start we got our catalogue back, it all reverted to us. Secondly, it was something we had always wanted to do. Even in the olden days. When we got the Byrds reissues in the early-90s, we would imagine how we would do it ourselves. The booklet, the photos, the stuff people haven't heard before. We always thought we might end up doing it, and with the way CDs are going, there is only a limited time to do it. It is all changing quite dramatically: if we don't do it now, we would miss the boat.

With the organising and ordering of your back catalogue, it is almost like drawing a line under this part of your career, preparing your legacy – or am I reading to much into it?

I don't think it is reading too much into it. If you record a new album, who are you recording it for? People aren't going to buy albums in the same way they always have done – this is the music from a certain period in pop history. This is drawing a line under it. I think each album stands up – some are better than others, but there are no real howlers.

Does the fact that you are collectors and completists come into it? Does it appeal to that side of you as well?

Yeah, totally. The idea of digging out stuff that even we had forgotten existed some of the time. We had completely forgotten a couple of songs. A song called 'Sally Space' on Foxbase Alpha – I remember recording the backing track, but I had no recollection of the vocals or the lyrics.

How much of your record collection is in your music?

Quite a lot of it, I'd like to think. As you know, I have been listening to loads of post-war and pre-rock music from the early 50s. But I haven't been able to convince Pete and Sarah that it would be a good direction to go in. Maybe there will be elements creeping in . . .

But it has always been as much about the pop of today as the pop of the past.

Yeah. Because it is the end of the decade, I wanted to make sure I have heard every number one from this decade by the end of 2009. So I listen to one of them a day. I am up to the end of 2004 now.

I love actual popular music. The charts is always going to be at least 50 per cent made up of stuff you really don't like. But I prefer the idea of actively liking or disliking things that are actually in the chart, rather than saying: "I don't really need to hear it" and listening to Fleet Foxes or something.

I'd much rather have an opinion on – what was it I heard the other day – 'Babycakes' by Three of a Kind. It is brilliant, really good. I can't think of any actual act that made one single that got to Number One but didn't release anything else. They thought about putting out another single, apparently, but didn't bother – it's brilliant.

I'm realising that I really like the charts, I really like pop music above most things. And in that respect, I think the reason I listen to music is different to the reason most people listen to music. Obviously I like to listen to stuff that moves me in a certain way, but I also like to listen to things that were hits, because it must have affected a hell of a lot of people, no matter what I think. I'm intrigued by pop.

What are your memories of recording So Tough?

The main thing was, we had always used Ian Catt's studio but he and his sleeping partner had split everything down the middle. They even shared a car – I can't imagine why – but Ian kept the car, and the other bloke got all of the studio. Anyway, we ended up recording it at a place called RMS, which was right next to Selhurst Park. And it smelt of alsatians! One was called Diesel. It was an old hippy studio, so that was weird, recording a whole album in a place we weren't used to.

The way you record, presumably it's vital to know the studio really well?

It ended up sounding so British [because] we couldn't clear any of the bloody American samples, because American lawyers are such bastards.

It had been up to that point. When Ian rebuilt the studio, he got a bigger desk, and from that point on, I wasn't as hands on. The first album was done on an eight track, which was a piece of cake to get your head around. We were throwing reverbs and echoes on and knew how to operate it.

This time we'd give him ideas but were more reliant on Ian to do it. So that made quite a difference. Not in a bad way, but we could try to be more adventurous and test his engineering ability. There is tonnes more reverb and echo on So Tough than the first album, it's ridiculous. It sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of a well!

When you revisit it, what is the overall verdict?

I really like it. I think because the first album had done quite well, we were confident it would do OK. We thought: “we are going to have proper hits and be on Top Of The Pops”. We were quite cocky. We thought we were good enough to do that.

Which song do you have the strongest attachment to?

'Avenue'. That was us thinking that we were going to make a seven-minute single that would blow people's minds. That was the aim, anyway. I can't actually imagine doing that now, we were very cocky.

Has the songwriting process changed over the years?

It was more all over the place then. We didn't have a set way of doing things. It can't really be helped, you do settle into a pattern of how you write a song. Back then, we were almost forced at gunpoint to start writing songs, because the first two singles were both cover versions.

And the film samples running through this one?

That was because, like with the first album, we really liked the Monkees' Head soundtrack and The Who Sell Out. A lot of the hip hop records out at the time had sort of skits between the tracks. They were all clips of dialogue that we liked. It's funny, it ended up sounding so British – and the only reason for that was that we couldn't clear any of the bloody American samples, because American lawyers are such bastards. The first album we got away with it by not asking anyone, the second, because Warner Bros were putting it out in America, we had to clear absolutely everything – including the Rush sample. They were nice, but they were Canadian – maybe it's easier for them. It wasn't intentional, but it cemented out perceived Englishness . . .

What can you tell us about the other covers on the second disc

'Everything Flows' was something we were going to do live, but it was far too difficult for Sarah to sing live – if you listen to it, the rhythm of it, there is no obvious place where the vocals should come in. But the Bob Dylan one ['Rain Day Woman'] was for one of the first tribute albums – we thought we'd choose a song where we couldn't really get it wrong. Even then, we just thought it was a bit shit, but listening back, I quite like it.

Then there is a vocal version of 'Railway Jam', which is on the So Tough bonus disc. I remember doing it now, but if someone had asked us before if we had ever recorded a vocal version I'd have said no. But there it is, and it's called 'Orpington Blues'.

Can you remember what you were listening to at the time? Presumably not grunge . . .

No, no. It's quite hard to think, really. A lot of techno. Detroit techno. There was a compilation called Panic in Detroit that I remember listening to a lot. But that was probably more going in to Tiger Bay. Shut Up And Dance stuff, I suppose.

'Conchita Martinez' was our attempt to do a Shut Up And Dance record, which probably didn't quite work. Was I a fan of her work? We just liked her name, she was quite a dull clay court player.

Actually, I was getting really into 60s British girl singers around that time, I was collecting them like mad and occasionally nicking the odd lyric. 'No Rainbows For Me' was a complete Paris Sisters copy, really.

Was it around this time that the Yanks Go Home issue of Select magazine came out – with Suede, Saint Etienne, The Auteurs and Denim? What was it like being lumped in with them?

The Select cover was sort of like proto Brit Pop or something. The funny thing was, when we started, there was a lot of good music. I think '89 and '90 were both really good years for pop and dance music. There was a lot of blurring and cross-pollination of different kinds of music. I thought that meant the 90s would be a very exciting period, but looking back it was just like the start of the 1980s and it just fizzled out.

What went wrong?

I remember seeing Bernard Butler at the Underworld and drunkenly saying: 'we've got to take music forward, we've got it in our control, we're on this level we can do it, make new kinds of music!' He obviously thought I was completely bloody mad.

I think it fizzled out because people got selfish and defended their territories. So, when you had Suede coming out it was all about egos. And Primal Scream to an extent as well, I suppose. There wasn't any kinship. I don't know what I imagined it would be like to be in a pop group that was doing quite well, but I thought people would feed off each other, work with each other. We'd approach someone to do a remix and you would end up hanging out and being influenced by each other.

But it didn't seem to work at that upper end, or at least, not at the indie end. It didn't really feel like a scene. I remember seeing Bernard Butler at the Underworld and drunkenly saying: 'we've got to take music forward, we've got it in our control, we're on this level we can do it, make new kinds of music!' He obviously thought I was completely bloody mad.

And the same thing with Bobby Gillespie – he was just doing one-upmanship on Dexy's lyrics. I don't want that, it's just rubbish. We could do something really great, don't try to catch me out on Dexy's lyrics. Obviously, Luke Haines was never going to be part of anybody's scene . . .

Laurence was a big influence, though, Denim were a big influence. But it didn't really feel like we were part of something. It felt as though that issue was anti-grunge and that was as far as it went, pretty much.

Fast forwarding to 2000, post-Britpop, and you made Sound of Water, which is coming out at the same time . . .

It didn't sell very well. It got quite good reviews. I don't really know how people think about it now – it just felt like we made it and then disappeared. Rather than people not liking it. People felt they could ignore it. So they did!

What are your feelings on exploring it more recently?

I like Sound Of Water – but listening to the bonus disc, it actually sounds even more extreme. It isn't as though we had some quite good A-side ideas and abandoned them, we had even more leftfield ideas and abandoned them!

We didn't feel like we were in a position to challenge, in terms of, Britney was around then. It was very, very post-Brit Pop. The Spice Girls were on the verge of splitting by then, so pop had turned into B*witched, Billie, Britney, Christina – this was nothing like what it was five years ago.

There was really no point in attempting to record a Top Ten hit, we just thought: "Let's make a record we are proud of and stick it out in a way that it won't qualify for the chart." 'How We Used To Live' was deliberately coming back and saying that we could do a nine-minute single. We got great reviews, it won best video at SXSW. So it was something that brought us back in the way we wanted it to – but I wish somebody had told us to try to write a couple more singles to put out afterwards.

'Heart Failed In The Back Of A Taxi' was the follow-up, which is one of my favourite songs that we have written, but probably not a hit. And the third single was 'Boy Is Crying' – which still doesn't sound like a single to me. So we really should have tried a bit harder to write something more obviously melodic and radio friendly.

And this one was recorded in Berlin . . .

It was an experience – it was an amazing city to hang out in for six weeks. The way these songs sounded, it felt like the right city to record them in. We were staying in West Berlin, miles away from the studio, near this place called the Bierpinsel – a 1970s tower next to a flyover. It was great – there was a restaurant on top, which had an asparagus speciality!

Just because of the way we dressed, people would point at us in the street and either laugh or frown in West Berlin, because anybody under 40 was living in the East by then, so we just seemed like freaks.

But there was so much good music at that time. We went to see Pole play, they sort of invented this Glitch thing, which took over. To Rococo Rot, Kreidler, that was the most exciting music that was around at that point that wasn't chart pop – and we obviously couldn't compete with that.

The Julian Opie cover – was that before he did the Blur one?

It was about a year before the Blur cover. He was doing portraits then, but I didn't think it would look great for a cover. It suited Blur, obviously there were four of them, but I always much preferred his pictures of tower blocks and landscapes. Beautiful but cold – block colour really appealed to me and suited the music better.

What about the bonus tracks on Sound of Water?

'Chaos in the Gym' I quite like. There was a bloke called Peter Thomas, a German film soundtrack composer, he did a thing called Raumpatrouille – like Space Patrol – which was like the German Star Trek. He would be like Ennio Morricone. He did a remix album that you could use bits of to make a new song out of them. That is what that song was – he got in touch with the record company and said: “I don't understand why it is called Chaos, it is beautiful.” So we were really chuffed.

Is it tempting to go back and finish things off?

We'll only mix them if they are completely unmixed. We have just found the first ever version of 'Let's Kiss and Make Up', which we did the same day as 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' with Moira Lambert singing on it. That was unmixed – found it too late for the Foxbase Alpha bonus disc. It is going to come out, we have worked out what we are going to do with it – but I can't say at the moment. I'll be able to say in about a week or so!

Being on a soundtrack to Volver a few years ago – that must have been a thrill!?

Yeah! Someone got in touch with Martin, our manager, and said: 'Mr Almodovar is a fan of Saint Etienne and wants to use this song.' So obviously I wrote back and said: 'great, we're big fans of his as well – can we do the next soundtrack?' No reply!

And what about playing live? Because you personally took a break from playing live for a while . . .

I hated it for ages. But a couple of things have changed. For a start, technology got better and more reliable. We did a couple of really bad gigs last year when it didn't work so well, but at least it is possible to have back up and the whole gig doesn't suddenly collapse. I remember it happening to the Chemical Brothers, where the equipment broke down and it was literally the end of the gig. Being in that position, I couldn't stand it.

On the 1993 British tour, I thought that I didn't need to be there, so I asked if they would mind if I didn't go on stage. But for the last few years, I've been playing.

There are only four of us at the moment, which means it is much more adaptable – so when somebody asked if we wanted to do a benefit gig for Hendon Football Club, we can do it. We're going to announce that. When it is literally a big machine rather than a bunch of people making a big machine, it is much easier.

The response to the Foxbase Alpha shows was very positive . . .

We were really happy. Having been to things like that, you know that it triggers so many memories for the people who turn up. You can't even begin to think what the audience is thinking, because everyone will have a completely different take on what you are doing. It will mean a lot more to people than just standing in a hall watching us play. The atmosphere of the gigs were fantastic, it was really lovely. I was really pleased. And it makes us more relaxed, it ended up being a really great occasion.

Do you enjoy being busier again?

I think doing all the reissues, which is really good fun, makes us all think how good it would be to actually sit down and write some new songs. We've been doing that in a half-arsed way, but between October and Christmas we will put time aside to do some serious songwriting. That's the problem with the three of us living in different counties, and kids coming into the equation, it is not as easy as it used to be.

How do you find, balancing the whole journalist, musician thing?

I always think of myself primarily as a writer, but it is more fun writing new music, doing new remixes – we've just done a Frankmusik remix. We finished it last night. The single is out quite soon and will probably be a top ten hit. He's from Croydon – we might end up doing a gig in Croydon together.

Am I allowed to ask about the book you're writing?

[pause] Yeah, I'm writing a book that is a short history of modern pop music. That's another reason I like listening to all the number ones from the last ten years – I don't like the idea of having gaps.

It's too ambitious, it's a real headache, I should have thought of a narrower subject, but it is something I have always wanted to do. No one has done it for 30-odd years, I suppose it was a lot easier to do in the mid-70s when you only had about 20 years of modern pop history.

I start with 'Rock Around the Clock'. I think it is quite ridiculous how Bill Haley is seen as a grandad joke figure, because no matter which way you look at it – the first rock 'n' roll hit or the first rock 'n' roll record, both were made by him.

It is great going back and looking at all this stuff – finding out that you often think a lot more of Little Richard or The Turtles than you thought you did. It is obviously going to be slightly subjective, it's not going to be the canon presented chronologically because that would be pointless. But it's not all going to be about Three Of a Kind and, I don't know, Charles and Eddie – the stuff I might think is great but not many other people do. 'I Should Have Known Better' by Jim Diamond probably won't get a mention, even though I'm quite fond of it . . .

Four pints later, with the voice recorder thingum long since placed away amid talk of many things far away from Saint Etienne, I remember my initial query. So, Bob, I ask him, with a slight slur. Are you a pop star, then?

A sheepish shake of the head, a chuckle, a mumbled denial. But then a change of heart. "Well, I suppose I have been on Top of the Pops." And during the era when we bought records and CDs and followed the pop charts, that was all that mattered. . . .