Words On Music: Saint Etienne On The Joys Of Pop

The charming London trio discuss the ingredients to pop’s magic potion with Aug Stone

For the pop music fan, i.e. someone who demands more from the whole experience than just an album’s worth of songs every year or so, Saint Etienne are a dream come true. And the pop world they’ve conjured up over the past 20+ years contains all the magic of dreams, with new vistas continuously opening to give those enchanted ever more to explore.

The band are able to weave such wonders because they themselves are fans, and thus know all the delights to be had. Just recently they held a contest to win a copy of singer Sarah Cracknell’s extremely rare 1987 ‘Love Is All You Need’ single. Over the years there have been plenty of obscurities to track down – the French ‘Lover Plays The Bass’ single, Cola Boy, fanclub records, the releases on their Caff and Icerink labels, as well as the songs they’ve written for other people, like the eight tracks on Absolute Shampoo. They’ve made sure their sleeves look good, a crucial component in creating a world, expanding this into films in order to share with us unfamiliar aspects of London, the subject always present in the heart of their work. Sarah, Bob Stanley, and Pete Wiggs introduce us to their own favourite bands and songs via opening slots and compilation cds. Then they host special events with their own exclusive giveaways.

And of course, there’s the holiday EPs – Valentine’s Day and Christmas. Especially Christmas. December’s festivities have always been dear to Saint Etienne, with Bob indeed being born on Christmas Day, and the band revel in throwing holiday parties or playing gigs to celebrate the season. They will continue to do so in York, Edinburgh, Manchester, Brighton, and London from December 10-14th. A fine way to finish out the year that saw them release eighth studio album Words And Music By Saint Etienne: a testament to the magic of music, of how special and important, how wonderful, it is to have in our lives.

The new album is largely about your love of music. What were you listening to while you were making it?

Bob Stanley: We weren’t listening to anything as a group particularly, were we? Like we quite often do.

Pete Wiggs: Nothing that necessarily inspired or influenced the sound of the record. It’s not like we suddenly discovered pop music [all laugh].

BS: I think the sound of it largely came from all working together at Xenomania, about three years ago now. That kind of splintered and everybody we worked with there, apart from Brian Higgins, left and went independent. Nick Coler, Tim Powell, Tim Larcombe. Even though they’d gone independent we thought ‘well, we always got on with each other’. It was quite weird because we ended up writing loads, which is how the place works, where they’re writing loads of songs that [mock indignant] no one ever sang. We got one song (‘Save The Lies’) on a Gabriella Cilmi album. But you’re in there writing loads of songs that never come out. So it was nice to actually be in control of it, cause you’re writing songs with these people who keep them there.

Sarah Cracknell: Things got dismissed that were actually really good. ‘No, no, we’re not using that.’ [Disbelieving voice] ‘But it’s really good!

BS: ‘No, lyric’s weak. Weak lyric.’

PW: Yeah, so we wanted to put out our own… weak lyrics [laughter].

The new album is still very much you, and very much pop, but it’s strikingly different to me, in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. Do you get a sense of that? Were you consciously trying to do something different?

SC: Do you think it’s just cause we’ve got more people involved, externally?

PW: We’ve employed a bit more self quality control, to some extent.

BS: Yeah. We also had a lot of time to write it. Make sure it was how we wanted it. There’s so many leftover songs, we’re not sure what to do with them all.

PW: And I think the kind of concept is much more inclusive. Easy for anyone to get a handle on.

SC: Yes, it’s something that [adopts serious voice] ‘everybody can relate to’. There’s an emotive theme running through. So it touches people ‘deep inside’, touches people’s heartstrings. It’s about songs that mean something to you, and everyone seems to have those special songs. We like melancholy and we like that juxtaposition where the music is upbeat but the lyrics are more downbeat or more melancholy. I think we always use those similar tools.

I really love the album title, Words And Music By Saint Etienne. What do you think are some of the other all-time great album titles?

SC: I like Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death [Felt’s 1986 nineteen-minute instrumental album].

BS: I was gonna say that! [laughter]

SC: Got in there first! They don’t come much more bizarre than that.

My favourite has always been Everybody Wants To Shag The Teardrop Explodes.

[all laugh]

PW: Yeah, that’s brilliant. Fear Of A Black Planet, You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, Reggae Owes Me Money, that’s a great one.

BS: I like Swaddling Songs, the Mellow Candle album. In 2000/2001 we did a folk club called Club Swaddling Songs, so that springs to mind. There must be more obvious ones but that’s a nice description of the music.

I thought the Spiritualized album, Songs in A & E, was very apt for them.

BS: Yeah, yeah. Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is a really good name as well. I’m not much of a fan, but cracking titles and artwork. I’m trying to think of ones where I don’t actually like the record, that’s a good one. Or where you want to hear the record because the title sounds intriguing. Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death, that’s pretty great.

PW: What’s Wrong With This Picture? [Andrew Gold] is a funny one, isn’t it? Not a very good name.

BS: Best artwork, How Dare You? [10cc], really good artwork [laughs]. I’ve found some of my favourite records have got terrible covers. Well, not terrible but Pet Sounds is, apart from the font, the most ridiculous picture of all-time. Forever Changes, pretty terrible.

PW: Unknown Pleasures isn’t a very good name for a record, but great cover.

You talk about how music was intrinsically tied to growing up, how important it was. Now that you have kids yourselves, do you see that in them? What do you play them?

SC: Yeah, though they’re still quite young. They do that thing that kids do, they switch from one to another, but they do get really obsessed about certain songs or a certain band. Really obsessed, literally, you can hear it going like 50 times. You think, ‘Oh my god!’ Mine are constantly pretending they’re in a band, there’s a lot of that going on. I’m slightly worried.

PW: Mine are suddenly getting more into it, which is nice to see. It’s sort of tragic though, ’cause a lot of it is our music. [laughs] I gave them the Words And Music boxset and Harvey went [adopts serious child voice] ‘This is a family heirloom’. It was brilliant to see him ’cause he was opening it really carefully and he put the badge on and was going ‘I’m gonna treasure this forever’. And they started getting into the remixes as well, and singing the words and things. They’ve both got different favourites. It’s nice to see that they get excited. They pick out unusual lyrics and they notice things about music that sometimes you miss. They’ll highlight elements of a song and you’ll go ‘oh yeah, I never thought of that before’. It’s good to see how their brains work.

I remember vividly as a child, my mum playing her girl group 45s and Beatles records, and sitting there fascinated, making up stories in my head of what it all meant.

PW: Same here, I got really into and latched onto ones I could make a story out of, or if there was an obvious story. Even if it was something daft. Novelty records, like Benny Hill’s ‘Ernie’ [Sarah laughs]. It’s so graphic, even as a child you latch onto that. And ‘Johnny Remember Me’ [John Leyton, Joe Meek’s first #1 as producer], cause there’s a story and it’s got a sort of Western feel.

SC: And I remember with both of those, they sounded quite tragic. There was something dramatic going on. They sounded grown up.

PW: Yeah, yeah, yeah. ‘The Leader Of The Pack’. Harvey plays that on a loop, because it’s got everything, everything you need.

BS: Yeah, ‘Leader Of The Pack’ was really serious. I’ve never shaken it out of my head. People say ‘oh, it’s such a camp record.’ What?! No, it isn’t. What are you going on about?

SC: They say it sounds important to a child.

PW: But you still have that when you hear it now. Even though you know it’s camp, it still touches a nerve.

BS: She sings it so sincerely as well.

So what was that first single you bought at "Woolies in Redhill"?

SC: ‘Rock On’ by David Essex.

BS: Mine was ‘Amateur Hour’ by Sparks. Mainly because I wanted ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ but it’d gone out of the chart by then. [laughs] Obviously, I was young and didn’t realize you could order something. It was like it was gone forever so I got the next single. Which I still liked.

PW: Mine was ‘Winner Takes It All’ by ABBA. Doom-laden. Doom pop.

You mention the synthesiser a couple of times on the album by name. Do you remember your first time hearing a synthesiser and what you felt?

BS: Yeah, it definitely sounded important. Well, we say that in the bloody lyrics don’t we? [on ‘Over The Border’] It was Chicory Tip. ‘Son Of My Father’, obviously. ‘Popcorn’ [Hot Butter] must’ve been around the same time, definitely the same year. And you just started thinking, you had no concept of electronic music. I remember on Tomorrow’s World or other TV programs, they’d often have synthesisers and some presenter going ‘This is how all music will be made in the future.’ They’d always say that, so you’d just assume it was true.

SC: Someone with white gloves in a lab coat. [laughs]

PW: I’d hear things on TV, like Blake 7 and Dr. Who. It had that eeriness to it. And mystery.

BS: I bought a Korg MS-10, beginning of 1981. I saved up money from working down Surrey Street Market. It was 200 quid. And Juan Atkins did as well.

My favourite bit on the new record is that "Oo-oo-oo-oo" backing vocal in ‘Tonight’. I always love little bits like that in songs that really move you, make you go ‘YES!’ Other examples for me are at 2:38 in New Order’s ‘Age Of Consent’ when Bernard starts freaking out on the guitar, and the coming back in from the middle 8 in Duran Duran’s ‘Last Chance On The Stairway’, the "don’t even know what you’re drinking" part. Do you have any favourite bits like that in songs?

PW: Yeah, I know what you mean, the little bits of songs! There’s some I used to always go on about, sometimes it’s wrongly played or just something that jumps out. You remember that, it goes around your head. There’s one in The La’s ‘There She Goes’, it goes to a minor chord. I always used to love that bit. There’s millions. Silly things, like on Pet Sounds, the car horn sound…

BS: On ‘You Still Believe In Me’, yeah. Nick Dewey, who now runs Glastonbury, pointed out that on ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ [Lieutenant Pigeon], the most unlikely song to have this really emotional bit in it, there’s a drum roll that comes out of nowhere in a really odd part of the song. He said it always made him well up. When you get something like that and you can’t explain why it does that, it’s pretty special.

SC: That was one of the songs that the kids picked up on the radio the other day. They started off going ‘what’s this old man singing?’ and by the end of it they were going ‘I really like that one’. [laughs]

PW: It’s amazing how often I get the guitar solo from ‘Novelty’ by Joy Division in my head, first solo I ever liked. Ian Hunter saying "Made it" on ‘Roll Away The Stone’. Big Star’s Third is full of slightly wrong sounding moments that add to the sense of unhinged melancholy. Like the two picked acoustic guitar notes that leap out at you after Alex Chilton’s first few words on ‘Kangaroo’.

SC: One of my favourite ‘YES’ moments in a song is when Alicia Keys comes in with the chorus just after the "Yeah, yeah’s" on ‘Empire State Of Mind’ – "In New York…" So many people have danced around my kitchen singing that, quite badly, until the early hours!

I always say that there’s something about a really great pop song that’s akin to the feeling you have after you’ve first kissed someone you really fancy.

SC: Yeah, absolutely.

What do you think is inherent in all great pop music? Or any similar comparisons?

PW: Say you hear something on the radio or in the background that you don’t know, there’s that reaching for something, or asking someone what it is. Some songs you can just have in the background and it’ll pass, but other ones are like ‘what the hell’s that?’ That often happens, sometimes even if you know it, something leaps out and you go ‘Oh, what’s that? I remember that!’ And other times it just strikes you, music, doesn’t it? There’s something about it that you can’t put your finger on. It’ll cause an emotion in you that is either happy or sad or reminds you of something. Or just makes you wanna go ‘I wanna hear that again!’ It still happens, which is nice. Now, I leap for the phone. Google or Shazam it.

BS: I used Shazam when I heard ‘OMG’ by Usher. I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. Well, not the most amazing thing I’d ever heard, that would be ridiculous. But yeah, I thought it was good, very good. The bit where it’s got the sort of terrace chant, I was thinking ‘what the hell is this record?!‘ It’s some sort of R&B-terrace-chant-thing and it’s actually Usher. I remember I was in Greenwich Market. I think that was the last time I did something like that with a new song.

For me pop music, and all art really, is about creating a fantastic world of your own, for yourself and others to play in and look at life through. You’ve always made being fan of yours into a real experience, much beyond what most bands do. Rare singles like ‘Lover Plays The Bass’, or albums like Misadventures, then the wealth of items that even those of us who kept up enjoyed on the reissues. You DJ and have been making films. Are there any other fields you’d like to explore?

BS: A musical [laughs]. An old musical with just us three singing. We could do that kind of musical singing where you sound very theatrical.

PW: Fashion.

SC: Ooh! Oo yeah, I’ve thought about that one. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind designing a couple of items of clothing.

BS: Pete’s got that radio program.

PW: Yeah, a very niche radio program, www.the-seance.com.

Were there bands that you yourselves loved who really gave you that full experience of being a fan?

PW: Dexys were like that.

BS: The Smiths.

PS: Yeah, The Smiths gave us fashion, political attitude, films to watch, books to read, art and other music to seek out. You didn’t go along with all of it but you could pick and choose the bits you wanted from each of your favourite bands. For instance when Julian Cope mentions Christo in a song you think he’s worth checking out, but when he gores himself on a mic stand, you probably give that a miss [laughs].

SC: I was a huge Felt fan. That was my thing. I just went to every gig, and I would drive around the country to go and see them. Pale Fountains were another one of my favourites like that.

PW: I think Lawrence does it even more now than he used to then – giving a kind of world, a kind of crazy world.

PS: Yeah, having a philosophy and everything. There was a lot of that in the early 80s. It was a really good time to have been a teenager, for that reason.

PW: Then sometimes it was record labels that had a kind of ethos, who released a presence. Postcard was a kind of mysterious world.

BS: The review of the Go-Kart Mozart album in The Guardian where he said ‘it’s like he’s living in a parallel universe where Lieutenant Pigeon and whoever else were the most important influences’. Everyone should be doing that, we need more people to do that! Rather than just citing the bloody canon. I’d really like if a band came along that had a complete – the Manics are a really good example, their manifesto and everything about them was definitely more interesting than the music. I’m sure they’d agree with that. The whole thing they set out, it was so inspiring. We used to hang around with them quite a lot early on. One of the most inspiring groups, I would think.

And my standard last question – Say you’ve stolen a space shuttle and are flying it directly into the sun, for whatever reason you might have. What would you want the soundtrack to be?

BS: ‘More Than A Feeling’ by Boston [all laugh].

SC: That’s a good one.

PW: I would go with Roger Nichols & The Small Circle Of Friends. Mellow, I can imagine being evaporated to that, would be quite nice.

SC: Uck, though it’s awful, the first thing that popped into my head was not even a record I like. It was ‘Ace Of Spades’. [all laugh]

PW: Don’t you like the record?

SC: Well I do, but I don’t love it. I do like it.

PW: You’re gonna die anyway. [all laugh] Ace Of Base. [more laughter]

Deluxe editions of Casino Classics and Sarah Cracknell’s Lipslide are out now

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today