Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs. This exquisite trio of kindred musical spirits collectively known as Saint Etienne has formally been in the business of making music since they delivered their landmark debut album Foxbase Alpha in 1991, their sound dwelling in the nexus between classic and contemporary pop. Their latest LP Home Counties—the group's ninth album and Albumism’s just-announced “Album of the Year” for 2017—represents another revelatory milestone in a long streak of consecutive knockout projects, the most immediate precursors being Tales from Turnpike House (2005) and Words and Music by Saint Etienne (2012). Celebrated by critics and longtime fans alike, Home Counties is a crisp, cool and thoroughly British set, the consistent Saint Etienne shorthand for sonic bliss and excellence.
Just back from a successful American tour and currently engaged with a UK-based jaunt of live Christmas themed shows, Saint Etienne generously took time out of their busy schedule to talk with me about their new album, their unique band dynamic, Brexit, and how pop music remains a force to be reckoned with.
Quentin Harrison: Congratulations on Home Counties capturing Albumism’s “Album of the Year” honors! How would you describe the musical evolution of Saint Etienne, from Foxbase Alpha to Home Counties?
Pete Wiggs: I think we've gone from knowing not much to knowing a bit more. [laughs] With every album we try to have a different guiding theme that helps us write. With Home Counties, we went a bit more conceptual.
Bob Stanley: We've become much better songwriters. The more time's gone by, the more we've rubbed off on each other. It's difficult to tell who starts which song because we know each other so well. Pete and me certainly, we absolutely learned from scratch.
QH: Melody and songcraft are seminal to the Saint Etienne sound, something that is becoming increasingly rare in contemporary popular music. And yet, your music seems to thrive in the “now.” Can you explain how you've achieved this balance?
Sarah Cracknell: I don't really know. It's one of those things, we're such fans of melody, such fans of pop. I think we like to get creative with it and use melancholy as well. That's always a good pop moment, if you can get a bit of melancholy in there. And we just like experimenting with ideas. It's good that all three of us work together. If we're working on one song, all three of us at the same time, and we go off to come up with a tune or some words, I suppose, the best one from each of us will make up a strong melody. It's helpful that all three of us are involved with the writing.
BS: You just have to trust what you like, trust your instincts when you're writing. Always. That's true of anybody. We've always wanted our production to sound contemporary, because otherwise you could sound a bit like a tribute band. Home Counties was recorded with a lot of vintage gear, but with a producer who is pretty sympathetic to modern production and modern records. We just trust our instincts and the three of us all like melodies, song structure and chord changes, you know?
QH: An additional component of Saint Etienne's longevity and appeal is the unique relationship between the three of you? How has your connection with each other developed or changed over time, up through the recording of Home Counties?
PW: Kind of like family, eh? [laughs]
SC: Yeah! [laughs] I'm the grumpy auntie! I suppose that we've been together for so long, we've gotten quite intuitive about what the other person's thinking. We're on the same wavelength, which makes working together in the studio, live and touring a real pleasure, you know? We kind of get each other and enjoy each other's company.
PW: We have a laugh!
BS: We've all grown up together, I suppose. We all live in different towns now, so that's quite strange. We've all got kids now. We used to see more of each other, but we arrange to meet, so it's always a pleasure. [laughs] One thing we've never done is do things that tend to destroy bands. We've never done that. We've never really fallen out. Obviously we have disagreements on things, but we've never fallen out in a major way.
QH: You bring that “taste of London” to your audiences through your music and live performance. Why have you made this so integral to your music?
PW: It's about using the things around you for inspiration. We sort of like capturing moments in time, in words, pictures and in music. Like on So Tough, the booklet, it was just kids living there, on the streets and stuff and what they were wearing at the time. It would be something to look back on.
SC: I think London was a big draw, for me, when I was growing up. It was endlessly fascinating. I used to go up weekends with my friend and we'd go to Kensington Market and buy clothes and go people watching a lot of the time. It's still endlessly fascinating. It changes a lot. When I get really peeved off because some building that I love, or some business that I love, or cafe or something gets closed down, another building will go up and you'll go “I really like that building!” [laughs] It's changing all the time.
BS: We always want to write about our environment. It's just the subject matter that we go to more than anything else I suppose.
QH: Our readers that live outside of England, and particularly here in the U.S., may not be familiar with the inspiration behind Home Counties’ title. Can you explain what the counties signify to you and how they became the thematic focus of the record?
SC: It was where we grew up. I think that “home counties” has become like a dirty word, slightly, in this country.
SC: Everyone thinks it's this horrible, kind of right-wing, stockbroker belt type people. But when you live there it's not all like that. There is that element, but you don't feel like a part of that, it's about who you hang out with. Pete and I have kind of retreated out of London. I'm almost home counties, I'm in Oxfordshire now. So yes, it's quite interesting to start thinking about what is was like and how it shaped my life.
BS: We don't want to sound dogmatic, but humanizing things is one of the best things you can do. You make things relatable. We know those places very well and there are good things about them, the countryside is beautiful. But, then the downside to growing up in a place like that is that you want to get away from there to somewhere more cosmopolitan.
QH: How has Brexit impacted your music and your personal lives? Was “What Kind of World” informed by this or perhaps even by the fallout of the American presidential election?
PW: That particular one we wrote, we were in the studio that day with the result of Trump's election coming in. It was the mixture of the two things (Trump, Brexit) and thinking, “what's going on?!” There's more racism and things like that, with people still thinking that that's okay. It was a reaction to stuff like that.
SC: With Trump, we wouldn't ignore—we can't ignore—what's going on. It hasn't gotten any better has it? It's gotten even worse. We had to acknowledge what was going on in the album.
BS: The American election happened literally while we were recording. “What Kind of World” came together while we were in the studio, Pete wrote most of it. But, the whole album is informed by Brexit. The area where we grew up voted strongly “to leave” and it's slightly depressing, but sort of so predictable because it's a very inward looking suburbia where people live in houses behind hedges. It's a cliché, but it's true. But in London, a very multicultural city, people voted to “remain.”
QH: In the spirit of discussing the impact of politics on your music, can we talk about Saint Etienne's excellent grasp of gender politics in your own output? How have you managed to convey such strong stories that detail these complexities so effortlessly?
PW: Well, we all write the songs, so they come from different gender perspectives. Sometimes, they're about our own stuff, but we change the gender to what feels right at the time.
SC: We really enjoy storytelling and character-based songs, you know? We like them to be quite three-dimensional, I suppose that's what it is. Quite often, they're imaginary characters based perhaps on one of us or someone we know.
BS: All three of us are socialists and feminist sympathizers, and that's just the way we write the lyrics. But I think it's important to have your own readings of songs. We never write lyric sheets (for the album jackets). The only time is if we're specifically asked by the record company. Everyone has their own perception of the song they're listening to and if you can personalize it, that's always a good thing.
QH: You're one of the few bands who has a great grasp on your canon and how it reaches your audience, regardless of the medium. Can you talk about your recent vinyl reissues and Christmas fan club releases, and how it feels to make your music more accessible this way?
SC: We're very lucky. Our fans, they're really great. They're supportive and they're really nice people. And they've been with us for such a long time and we felt like giving them something back. Plus, it's really good fun recording extra songs and it's something we enjoy doing as well.
BS: I always think, as a fan, “what would I like my favorite group to do,” and we do it. The Beatles did fan club releases every Christmas, so that's where that idea came from. The vinyl reissues, they're kind of because we want them. We've always wanted to have all our albums on vinyl, so hopefully other people are with us! [laughs]
QH: Your recently concluded North American tour seems like it was quite a success? How was it to play over here once again? And what can you tell us about what you have in store for the Christmas tour at home in the UK?
SC: It was brilliant fun doing the States, though I got a bit ill toward the end. But it was really good fun.
PW: Yeah, yeah.
SC: We love the States anyway. It's nice to get a chance to go and hang out and visit places. We've got such a nice touring party, everyone in the band and the crew are so wonderful. We base our days around food and things like that. The UK shows start tomorrow (11/30) actually, I was just rehearsing, just doing “Dive” actually 10 minutes ago before I came on the phone. We're doing a similar set to what we did in the States, but we're putting in some Christmas songs as well, including “I Was Born on Christmas Day.” So that's fun!
BS: The American tour was absolutely terrific. We hadn't been there in five years. The reaction, everywhere, was great. It was a really wonderful experience. We've been going so long, we're just incredibly lucky. I think our band, our live band at the moment, is really good. The best we've ever had. That probably helps as well. The Christmas shows, they're always like a party really. And my birthday's Christmas Day, so I love Christmas.
QH: There are those who still think of pop as a dirty word in certain critical circles. Your thoughts on that?
PW: It was definitely a dirty word when we started. I hope we've done something to clean it up. But when we were younger, growing up in the ‘80s, the music that was coming out and in the charts in Britain, it was amazing and really varied. Things like Adam and the Ants. It can be quite varied, and it didn't have to be squeaky clean and nice.
BS: When we first started there was a kind of a scuzzy indie—sort of before Britpop and after, a bit of acid house. It was a bit of a no man's land. Really, we just wanted to put melody back in the chart. We were confident we were going to be successful, which is quite funny now.
QH: Keeping with the spirit of Albumism, what are your five favorite albums of all time?
SC/BS/PW (answering collectively): Marvin Gaye’s What's Going On?, The Monkees’ Headquarters, Blondie’s Parallel Lines, The Fall’s Dragnet, and Laura Nyro with Labelle’s Gonna Take a Miracle.