Saint Etienne – Interview – 2017

Incredible to think that Saint Etienne have been making music for nigh on 30 years. Breaking out with their iconic balearic-influenced cover of Neil Young's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' in 1990, the band have honed in on the eccentricities/banalities of English life, and allied that to a glistening English dance/pure-pop sound that sounds familiar and yet alien. Hits such as 'Join Our Club', 'You're In A Bad Way', and 'Hug My Soul' saw Pete Wiggs, Sarah Cracknell and Bob Stanley become a permanent fixture in the pre-Brit-pop landscape. More recently they have entered the world of soundtracks and film scores, including the much admired documentary How We Used To Live. Home Counties, their paean to life just outside the metropolitan and multi-cultural riches of London, is their ninth studio album. Brightonsfinest talked to Hove resident Pete Wiggs in advance of the album's release and their gig at De La Warr Pavilion.

Hi there. Not sure we have met but we both have had shows on Radio Reverb, yours being The Seance, which you do with James Papademetrie…
Yes. We've been doing it for about eight years. We record it in my studio, which sounds more glamorous than it is. It is actually my cellar room.

That's where you keep the wine as well?
When we first started doing the show we had a bottle of wine on the go, and we realised it wasn't quite such a good idea. Doing the show is a good way for me to listen out for new and unusual music.

You live in Hove?
Up near Portland Road. I moved down here about ten years ago. I was in Croydon for five years, and before that in London for 15 years.

Still like it down here, then?
I love it down here. We've got a couple of young kids. I always fancied moving down here but I was nervous but it was easy to make new friends and settle in.

I've always been a bit scared of neighbours. Partly because of my bad behaviour when I was in London, making lots of noise. I always felt guilty about it but always carried on doing it. So, I've been programmed to treat neighbours with fear in case they were going to tell me off.

It's a great atmosphere down here, it's great for the kids and it feels like a community.

Your new album, Home Counties, is on Heavenly, the label you started out with…
We've always been affiliated somehow, but we are now officially back with them. Jeff (Barratt) is brilliant. And Danny and Carl. I've been a part of it for the last 25 years or so. It was by giving a cassette to Jeff that we got our first big break. We wanted his opinion, and he said he was just about to start a label. It was a total fluke really.

That was 'Only Love Will Break Your Heart'?
That was our first thing. That is what we played him, and he put it out. The single came out in 1990 (and which features Moira Lambert on vocals. Sarah Craknell had not joined the band by then) and then the album (Foxbase Alpha) in 1991.

Tell me about Home Counties…
Bob came up with the name. Sarah is in Oxfordshire now. Bob is still in London. But we all grew up in and around the home counties. It's a fairly loose concept. It's quite an embarrassing thing to say where you come from generally. It's not a celebration! It's where we grew up. People tend to not really talk about it. It's like a love-hate relationship really. I tend to have really good memories from when I was little. I grew up in Reigate, in Surrey. I was friends with Bob. My formative years were in Croydon in the 80s. It was a definite love-hate… you wanted to go somewhere more open-minded. That's what I like about Brighton.

Croydon in the 80s was a bit like what's it coming to now. A lot of right-wing thuggery going on, and lots of war and threats of nuclear war. I blame Croydon for a lot of that! When we went into London it always seemed you could do a lot more. It was more open-minded.

Tell me what you like about the home counties.
There are things about the home counties I really like. A lot of the architecture. When you do meet like-minded people in a place like Croydon you tend to make networks, and friendships you really love. You don't expect to find people who are like you when there aren't many like them.

It's funny, but you experience things again through children's eyes. It made me think a lot about remembering things I was doing then. It's not nostalgic, but you do view things through a different prism, and that gives you ideas for lyrics and things.

Do I detect the voice of Radio 2's Ken Bruce on the record?
That is actually Ken Bruce doing it for us. PopMaster is a good thing to listen to. Bob got in touch with him and he said, 'Yeah, OK'.

Can you tell me about the 'Train Drivers in Eyeliner' track!?
Bob wrote that. He went to this lunch and there were some top people from ASLEF (train drivers union) there for some reason. They were chatting about music and Bob thought it would be nice to write a lyric that revolved around the musical tastes of the top brass of ASLEF. Also, Nick Sanderson was a good friend of Bob's, and after his band Earl Brutus split up, he became a train driver. He said that line once about train drivers and eyeliners, so it's a tribute to him as well.

How was the recording experience this time around?
We did it in a much shorter space of time, which was good in a way. An enforced deadline. We worked with Shawn Lee as producer, who also played on the record. He does his own music under the name Young Gun Silver Fox (with Mamas Gun’s Andy Platts). Sarah had written 'Dive' with Carwyn Ellis (from Colorama), and he suggested we record it with Shawn. So, we tried a few things.

Since you are all living in different parts of the country, how do you work up songs?
I tend to demo things at home and send the parts up and then we get together to replace or add things. Sarah and Bob tend to work with other people to get ideas going, partly because of geographic reasons. When we get together sometimes someone hasn't got lyrics, or a top melody. So, we bat things around. We do things more independently of each other before we get in a studio now.

I understand you're back in education?
I'm doing a post-grad degree in film music and composition and orchestration. I managed to get some of my homework assignments and interludes into the album! Like the 'Church Pew Furniture Restorer' one. That started off as homework for my degree course. But, it fitted the concept!

Why are you doing this course?
A combination of things. I did the soundtrack for How We Used To Live. That was the first one I had done on my own. That seemed to go down well. But I thought it would be good to know a bit more; how to expand it, to have some kind of framework for that. Also, I took the kids to see the Brighton Philharmonic. They do rehearsals, and you get to take the kids for free to those. It's brilliant. The first time I went to do that, sitting in front of a massive orchestra… to be able to take it to that level and write for all those people. So, it was a combination of those things. For the dissertation you do something for a 60-piece orchestra, and record it.

When you're motivated to learn as a kid, it's such a different thing. With the internet I can fit it in and around things. It's going to be difficult this next year to get things done, but it's fairly flexible. I'm learning loads of stuff. I'm probably not going to get offers to work with a 60-piece orchestra, but I can do stripped down versions, and I will know how better to orchestrate and arrange things.

Even now you're quite involved with orchestration and film composition…
Bob Stanely has done a film with Esther Williams, a film about Basil Kirchen. It's an abstract film for the Hull City of Culture thing. I did a 12 minute bit of music for that. It was played by the BBC Concert Orchestra and loads of professional jazzers. How We Used To Live was a real baptism of fire. I had to write all the sheet music for everyone. It ended up being on Radio 3. I hadn't started the orchestration bit of my course then. I now know that I could have made it easier for everyone if I had done things a bit differently. But, it worked.

You're playing the De La Warr Pavilion as part of a UK tour…
My grandparents used to live in Bexhill. I spent many a summer there. I always liked the look of the De La Warr Pavilion. I've never seen anything arty in there. There was always a brass band and deckchairs outside! I've not been there since it was done up.
Jeff Hemmings