A 90s Reverie: Saint Etienne Interviewed

How the warped lens of nostalgia fuelled their impressive new album...

Savants in the field of pop Saint Etienne have brought us their tenth album ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’ generating a sound of comforting familiarity to a time known to a multitude whilst also a period distant to the youth of today. Saint Etienne’s career has had an upward trajectory where they have cemented their own sound, one that is not simply about stylistic decisions alone, yet, upon listening the articulation of emotion rises to the surface.

Clash was lucky enough to catch some of Pete Wiggs’ time in his Hove studio Needham Sound named after the noteworthy documentary In Bed With Chris Needham – Pete enlightened us on the processes behind the eight tracks of heavenly escapism.

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Having just been on a morning run Pete is fresh-faced and feeling positive. “This is my tiny studio,” he laughs “a lot of the album was recorded in here.” Perhaps a compact space but the sound produced is huge; indeed, lockdown opened a window of opportunity for the pioneers. “We had started recording another album and then lockdown kicked in, that was the kind of album you needed to be in the studio to finish. Bob (Stanley) called up one day and said, why don't we try this? It wasn't even to do an album it was just to keep us busy really.” Sarah Cracknell recorded her vocals at home in Oxford and the band would come together via phone calls and Zoom. Film and TV composer Gus Bousfield, who like Bob is also based in Bradford, worked on a few of the tracks, too.

Pete explains: “None of us had voiced it for a while but we were all thinking: I’m actually preferring this to the album we started working on… and then when somebody said it everyone agreed!” It is a delight to discover that this album had purely creative intentions, it is an unplanned work of art made by long-term friends who, as opposed to feeling forced, enjoyed the process of crafting it. “Often when you are trying to write a song there is that pressure when you go ugh, I need a hook or I’ve heard that before, we didn’t have any of that it was just ‘this sounds good let’s do that’ it was kind of organic.”

The album’s concept was to create a 90s reverie. “Whilst you’re listening you’re supposed to go into a dreamy state.” Pete further clarifies: “but it’s also to think whether your memory is actually right or whether you remember the good things and forget about other things.”

The 90s brought musical and technological evolution, New Labour was in power and promised a brighter future, it was pre-internet harmony, yet the band question whether the good has been over highlighted. Have we experienced a collective memory distortion?

Talking about the past and present leads to the subject of changing times and the internet’s impact on music. “The internet is a double-edged sword, I gained so much from it personally with communication and learning stuff to do with music,” he points out. With the proliferation of online content the world appears much smaller, news travels faster, and perhaps music is slightly more disposable now than before. Pete reminisces: “When you bought a record even if you didn’t like it on first play you’d often give it a chance, you may sit there and play it several times and then sometimes the songs you didn’t like became your favourite ones. But I think when you’ve got this ease of skipping you might not give things time to settle in your brain.”

Even though, it is impossible to skip a track on this album. All the songs flow together forming a wistful narrative even though lyrics are sparse. Sarah’s vocal contribution adds a beautiful depth to the collection. Opening track ‘Music Again’ was one of the first songs made and the refrain is incredibly memorable. Pete compliments his bandmate: “I love the way she writes quite ambiguous lyrics which really draw you in, she deliberately wanted to pare it down to let the track speak for itself.” After the recording process the band decided on names to add another dimension to the narrative. He comments: “We picked them from lists of things from the time period, horses in the Grand National and stuff like that, we chose the names if they fitted with the atmosphere of the song in a weird and oblique way.”

This is their first sample-driven album since ‘So Tough’; this time round, though, the samples were initiated almost as a game between Bob and Pete. “It was right from the first day of the idea when Bob phoned up, he said he made a playlist of tracks that might be the kind of thing to sample, I went, OK I am going to take that and I’m not going to use anything else other than that… I’ll do it as fun.” You can expect to hear samples taken from Natalie Imbruglia and Honeyz, but also reversed recordings of background chatter taken from a market in Bradford and sounds of the natural world. For pulling samples Pete used iZotope RX which employs technology called music rebalance where “you can take a drum loop out of a sample and it has a kind of grungy quality, sometimes it sounds awful, but I quite like it.”

Consistently using this achieved a distinct and instantly recognisable sound, an atmospheric effect that makes one feel nostalgic for a time not experienced. This connects to the influence vaporwave had upon the album. “Bob was really into vaporwave. But as we were actually around and making music in the 90s it is sort of re-imagining a time we actually knew. A lot of vaporwave is 80s based elevator music, the samples that we were choosing were quite apt, like daytime radio, things you would publicly hear when you’re out and about, to make it more of an everyday reality rather than a certain time.”

This almost mirrors what was occurring during lockdown where the mundane everyday activities became exciting. “I have great memories of going out for a run in the morning,” he grins. “It felt very special because you were only allowed out once a day. For some reason it leant to the idea of a dream-like state, I was kind of in one myself!”

The musically documented fantasy comes accompanied by a film made by well-celebrated photographer and filmmaker Alasdair McLellan. He developed a relationship with Saint Etienne after making an advert for Marc Jacobs perfume Daisy which used the band’s pop gem ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’. He had also taken a photo of Bob for a magazine and the two later conversed about working on something together. With the uncertainty of the future of live music this gave the band another creative outlet – it is pure cinematic indulgence displaying youthful optimism via a summer soaked with poetic languor.

Pete elaborates on Alasdair’s inspiration: “He was in his teenage years at this period that we are reflecting on. He wanted to make a travelogue, a journey of south to north, partly to fit in lots of different locations but also because sometimes your memories are place based. When you remember your teenage years, you often remember what you were doing. Things that stood out are often trips with friends as it is different from the norm and the boring bits in between. He wanted to create the boredom of his youth but in a hyper beautiful way. So, in a way it is looking back at the past through rose-tinted spectacles.” This perfectly matches the album’s mood.

Refusing to limit themselves, Saint Etienne are thriving on diverse creativity, Indeed, their longevity is down to the ability to explore a wealth of artistic avenues – closing, we’re told about a potential Christmas single, one that distils these 90s themes into one song. Oh, and there’s also a full UK tour to look out for, too. Truly, a gift that keeps on giving.

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'I've Been Trying To Tell You' is out now. Saint Etienne's UK tour kicks off on November 18th.

The films of Saint Etienne including I’ve Been Trying to Tell You are now available to view on BFI Player as part of a collection of music-themed films called Sonic: Music in Movies.

Words: Caitlin Sibthorpe
Photo Credit: Elaine Constantine

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