Interview: Saint Etienne

Sarahcracknellweb25 years is certainly a long time in the world of pop.

But over the last quarter of a century London trio Saint Etienne – featuring vocalist Sarah Cracknell and music obsessives/instrumentalists Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley – have always managed to sound one step ahead of their contemporaries.

How? Well it’s obvious from the way their eight albums weave a path through sixties pop, folk, electronica and house music that the group are discerning music fans – they’re still very much in love with sounds and songs and feed this straight back into their songwriting.

While Words and Music by Saint Etienne was their most accomplished album to date, the group have also started delving into other medium to satisfy their creative urges – they’ve begun working with film on their live score to How We Used To Live while a new book is to be published this summer to mark 25 years together. This collaboration with First Third Books offers a rich photographic history of the group.

M quizzed vocalist Sarah about how it feels to reach such a milestone in their time together…

Can you remember the first songs which got you into music?

The music my parents listened to. I was lucky that they had very good taste so I was particularly enthralled with Marc Bolan and T-Rex, the Beatles, the Carpenters. The whole glam thing was really important for me. I was into slightly odd production – the Beach Boys, David Essex – artists like that.

Did those acts inspire you want to write your own music?

The first person who made me want to do it was Debbie Harry. I liked how she was seen as part of the band rather than a ‘dolly’. She was the first inspirational singer I heard.

How did Saint Etienne get together?

Bob and Pete grew up knowing each other because their parents were friends. They started a band in 1990 and had two singles out with two different female singers. We met because they were looking for someone to sing the next single and had a mutual friend, Bob’s girlfriend at the time, who I knew from Windsor. The funny thing was she played them a record where all I was doing was speaking in Spanish. They somehow gleaned from that that I could sing.

I met up with them with a view to doing one single but we just hit it off really well. We had a lot of similar reference points – TV, music and films we liked. We just really clicked.

Does it feel weird to be 25 years old as a band?

You just don’t plan these things. They just come from chance meetings. The first band I was in when I was 15 was just because I met someone in the pub. In those days you could be 15 and get away with going to the pub! I remember this guy talking about starting a band and couldn’t find a singer. I was like, I’ll do it.

It’s just chance meetings – and music has always appealed. I couldn’t really play an instrument so it was always going to involve other people.

How long has this book been in works?

It came together very fast – it was a matter of months of digging up old archives. I was quite good during the first ten years of Saint Etienne at collecting things – photos and stuff and shoving them all in a big box. We all got together and got our memories out. It’s amazing looking at things and just going – ‘what the hell is that?’

Luckily there were three of us so there would always be one person who could remember where we were and why we did that.

Was there anything that really stood out while researching the book?

The really embarrassing things have been left out of the book! There are some images of us with a horse in Scandinavia. It was completely freezing on this totally wind swept hill side with a photographer. This horse came over which was a bit bizarre. There were a lot of freezing cold photo shoots. They don’t bring up the most flattering pictures. We all look a bit purple around the gills.

How have your approaches to songwriting evolved?

The chemistry is still there. When we first met, it was almost like we’d known each other for years. Although it took me a while to infiltrate their world. It was like they were talking in a made up language when I first met them. All these in-jokes but once I’d penetrated that barrier, we really got on and we continue to do so.

We’ve also always enjoyed the touring side of things. But we’ve never done gruelling, month-long tours. We’ve always gathered people around us who are friends. There’s no massive egos in the band as well which is useful. No one thinks they’re better than anyone else.

Do you still feel the urge to write new music?

Definitely. We miss it. Some times you need to have a little bit of time off to realise how much you miss it. But at the minute Bob is really busy as he’s got his book out. He’s going off to literary festivals to speak all the time. I ring him and he’s like ‘I’m in Barcelona’. So he’s been pretty preoccupied with that. Which is fair enough. It did take him about seven years to write.

Pete’s been doing this film music. We’ve got this film How We Used To Live out at the moment and we’ve written the music. We’ll be playing the soundtrack live at this event in Sheffield. We’ve done it before and it’s terrifying as there’s no room for error. You can’t distract from the film itself. I don’t even sing until about half an hour so you’re sitting there waiting which is even more daunting.

Then once the dust has settled, it’s time to have a bit of a think about what we’re gonna do next. We might do another album. It’s quite possible. It’s in the air.

What are the songs you’re proudest of?

On the last LP, I really like Tonight. It’s all about getting ready to go and see a band you love so much that you play their record to death – that sense of anticipation and being swept away by it. That touched me a lot. Then on So Tough, this song called Hobart Paving – I love it to this day. There’s a song on each album I’m really pleased with.

Have you any tips for new songwriters?

You need to be true to what you’re doing and what you believe in. if you try to fit in with what you think you should be doing, I think it shows. Always stay clear of doing that.

Check out our recent interview with Bob Stanley about his recent book, Yeah Yeah Yeah, The Story of Modern Pop.

Visit www.firstthirdbooks.com to find out more about the Saint Etienne book and how to get a copy.