Interview: Bob Stanley

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Photo credit: Martin Green

Bob Stanley is an acclaimed songwriter, DJ and author.

Alongside childhood friend Pete Wiggs and singer Sarah Cracknell, he is one third of electronic pop act Saint Etienne. The trio have enjoyed a successful music career for more than 20 years with hits including He’s on the Phone. Last year, Bob published Yeah Yeah Yeah, The Story of Modern Pop via Faber and continues to work as a musician and writer.

Can you remember the first songs which made you fall in love with pop?

My parents’ singles from the fifties by acts like the Shadows, Duane Eddy, Johnny and the Hurricanes. The first records I remember really loving were like Rock n roll Part 2 – although we’re not really allowed to talk about that! – Metal Guru and Mama Weer All Crazee Now from the early seventies. That’s when I first became aware of the charts.

Did you get the music bug from those songs?

Yeah, I didn’t start buying records for another couple of years. It felt quite secret watching Top of the Pops or listening to the charts on Tuesday lunch time in the school holidays. It was quite a private thing as you didn’t hear music everywhere.

How did you get into writing music?  

I bought a guitar when I was 19, and before that a Korg MS10 when I was 16 or 17. I messed about with it and made completely unmelodic noises, but I now know that Juan Atkins bought one around the same time which is how he helped create techno. He must have persevered more than I did.

I never thought I was gonna be in a group. Forming one was entirely down to changes in technology. I heard Beat Dis by Bomb the Bass and thought I could have a go at doing this. Everything was more accessible. There was no chance until samplers came in.

How long did Yeah Yeah Yeah… take to write?

Five years. It’s something I’d had in the back of my mind since I first read books on pop’s history.

I’d always imagined how I would write it, divide it into chapters and see where artists would fit. Once I’d done that, it was just a question of writing it chronologically, revising, then relying on some trusted friends to tell me whether I was completely wrong about Sly and the Family Stone or whoever.

What was the most exciting discovery you made while researching the book? 

That so much of it happened by accident. Acid Tracks by Phuture happened because they couldn’t work out how to use a 303. It made a squiggly noise, they thought it sounded good and decided to make a record from it. But even things like why Strings of Life by Rhythm is Rhythm sounds like it was mastered off a cassette. That’s because it was and there isn’t a better version.

Many things are down to cheap technology and accident, all the way through the whole story. It’ll be interesting to see how much that’s still possible now that analogue is disappearing into digital. I really do think given another 20 years, people will look back and see it as a defined era. Maybe I’m wrong but I think that’s the case and the nineties were the changeover. Get to the 2000s and everything is digital.

So that whole room for error is removed?

Everything is getting smoothed over very, very quickly and technology has got so much better in the last ten years, that everything looks and sounds great. There’s a massive upside to that as well but coincidence, chance and accident are being taken out of the story.

How do you think your love of music has informed your own songwriting?

Obviously as more time goes by, the weight of the past becomes greater than the possibilities ahead. No one talks about the music of the future and how it might sound because it feels like we’re already there. When we started, changing technology around house and techno at the start of the nineties was very exciting. Me and Pete loved it as well as the Beach Boys and Joe Meek so it didn’t feel complicated to marry them back then. It feels harder the more time goes by.

Do you still get excited by pop music?  

Yeah. I recently really liked the East India Youth and Connan Mockasin albums. But if I was 15, they’d probably mean more to me on a level which I can’t tap into any longer. I’m too old. Most people don’t think anything about pop music when they’re approaching 50, let alone the philosophical weight of it.

But obviously bands like Dexy’s and the Manics had written down manifestos which was really inspiring. There’s no one around like that at the moment. But there might be again. Someone like Solange – she’s terrific – it’s weird she don’t have proper hits as she’s a really good pop star. Three or four years ago it seemed really bland. During the peak David Guetta period, the charts were pretty hard work.

Is there any value in X-Factor?

It’s all about taking control of the charts rather than anything to do with music so that’s quite depressing. Bleeding Love is a good record but you have to watch many seasons of X-Factor to get to it. If that’s all that comes out of it, it’s not worth it.

The most depressing thing is the amount of air time it takes up. This is music TV for the last ten years, which could have been about interesting new acts coming through.

The only thing you can hope is that it will end and be replaced by something better. Perhaps a new version of Top of the Pops although that keeps getting swept under the carpet.

It seems obvious that if people want to sit down on a Saturday night and watch amateur singers, they’ll sit down and watch professionals doing a better job. It’s not being snobbish. It could be Gary Barlow! But Cowell will probably end up making it.

Are there any records you own which you’re embarrassed by?

Not anymore. There used to be. I bought the first LP by New Music when I was about 15. Then four months later I got into Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen and was this album was embarrassing even though I’d only had it four months. But it seems a long time as a teenager so I got rid of it. Them obviously some years later I bought it back and I’m not embarrassed by it at all! It’s a great record. There are some records in my collection – Cliff Richard records or whatever – I’m not embarrassed by any of it. I’m too old to be embarrassed.

Can you ever grow out of pop music?

When I was at NME in the eighties, Danny Kelly told me; ‘you don’t grow out of music, you grow into it’. I’ve taken that with me ever since. I’ll be into music for three or four years, then discover something else. It doesn’t mean I’m discarding what happened before. There’ll always be new sounds to find. That whole period from the end of the of the war to the birth of rock n roll was a whole ten year period I knew nothing about until writing the book. It’s a fascinating lost decade where people were still going out, dancing and buying records.

Do you still get the songwriting urge?

Yeah I’ll sit on top of a double decker bus and get a tune come into my head. That still happens. But I think when you’re in a group, there’s momentum – you get to a certain level and people don’t expect to get an album every 18 months. That’s what we were doing but then other stuff comes into your life. That’s the growing up side of things. We’ve now been doing films for ten years. It’s not really an urge but I do get tunes in my head.

Have you any advice for new songwriters?

Working people you get on with and trust is best. That way you end up with the best sounding records and best promotion. Don’t work with people you don’t like.

www.bobstanley.co.uk