St Etienne Interviewed by Peter Headen and Mark Brown
We start in a room above a pub in Shoreditch, with Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley. Sarah's somewhere else, yet to arrive . We're bricking it because we've never interviewed anyone before, and now here we are with two thirds of St. Etienne, people we used to watch on Top of the Pops
Peter: What's the new Album, 'Finisterre' like?
Bob Stanley: (laughs) Well, it's twelve songs, erm, more uptempo than 'The Sound of Water' erm
Peter: Finisterre means end of the world.
Bob: End of the world, yeah, it's more just off the shipping forecast
Mark: It doesn't exist anymore
Pete Wiggs: Yeah I know, we decided the name of the album then they ditched it, the bastards It seems to be a bit of a theme that, we're making this film to go along with the album, if we get it finished in time, part of that's filming lots of parts of London that we really like, nice old garages, things like that
Peter: Which bits of London?
Bob: It's be a lot around where we live, South Bank
Pete: We keep filming things then finding out they've been demolished the next day. Everything we touch turns to rubble
Bob: The film's a bit Iain Sinclair-y, more Patrick Keiller, Peter Ackroyd-y.
Mark: I love all that stuff
Bob: I suppose that's what it's ripped off from
Mark: It's all right I'm working on my own rip off of it at home
Bob: We've got an actor, Michael Jayston doing bits between the songs to link the songs together. Have you seen 'London'? The Patrick Keiller film? Ours is a similar idea
Mark: Is he the bloke that did 'Robinson in Space'?
Mark: So this is a bit of a concept album then? Is it gonna come in quadruple gatefold?
Bob: Yeah, no. Once we come up with idea of doing that, the songs probably went more in that direction. It's quite vague really, it's got a suite.
Alongside their immersion and association with the evolving culture of dance and pop music, St Etienne have always been a uniquely English band, part a lineage that can be traced back through groups like Pulp, The Smiths, The Pet Shop Boys, bands with a innately English sensibility
Bob: Yeah, I like all those groups. It sort of makes sense really. The
Smiths and Pet shop Boys thing comes through because we've bought their records
for years. I suppose they're all quite English as well. And they're old as well
Pete: Grey hair
Mark: What do you think of the whole Brit-Pop thing looking back? It's all a bit weird when you look back on it
Bob: It was purely down to 'Modern Life Is Rubbish', once that came out There'd been so much American stuff, the whole Grunge thing I suppose, was huge. It was some sort of backlash. You got all these absolutely awful groups coming through in their wake. I thought most of the groups were dreadful. It was good for people like Pulp to break through, that was brilliant.
Pete: We went to Norway and in one of the magazines there was a headline 'BRIT POP IS DEAD'.
Bob: It was a Suede review. It was in Spain Breaking news
What can the punters expect live, apart from the film?
Pete: We've changed the line-up. Over the last five or six years we've
been hiring a cast of millions of session musicians. There were nine of us on
stage, so we've sacked them. We've been changing the process, I suppose. The
new album's more samples and synth sounds, programmed drums. So it doesn't lend
itself so much as the last few albums. So we've just gone back to four of us
Mark: So you've got away from the Elvis Review kind of thing, millions of kick horns
Pete: Yeah, it's just four metal machine music men
Bob: Sarah's not a man is she?
Mark: Thought we were in for an exclusive. 'CRACKNELL: MAN SHOCKER!'
Pete: The games up
One of the things that seem to have underlined, in people's minds, the bands interaction with pop history and a sense of place and time is their choice to send out each album blessed with sleevenotes.
Bob: We've got Mark Perry doing sleeve notes for this one.
Peter: Who chose Mark Perry?
Bob: Me really. Got the Sniffin' Glue book, all the punk stuff was out this year. He's really THE punk character. He's really, really, really nice. I went round to his house and he was playing me Emerson, Lake and Palmer. No someone much better, Frank Zappa. We had lots of common ground in our taste in music. He'd be like 'do you know such and such' and I'd be like 'no', so he'd put it on. 'Hot Rats' by Frank Zappa, and I'm like 'I've got be polite, it's Mark Perry!'.
Pete: I don't know what he thinks of the album, but he wrote some good sleeve notes.
Mark: Did you always set out with that idea? Not that many bands really do them
Pete: We've always liked the concept of sleevenotes. You get these funny abstract ones on sixties records.
Mark: I've got this old copy of 'Scott 2' by Scott Walker that's got sleevenotes by Jonathan King
Bob: It's the Scott Walker ones that really did it
Pete: (laughs) I actually met Jonathan King
Bob: What was he like?
Pete: He didn't like me, which was quite good. He's actually really enormous. He shook my hand because someone introduced me. He didn't look me in the eye and I was like (quietly) fuck off!
Bob: He's horrible
Mark: Did he try and make you his new favourite band?
Pete: That was it.
Sarah Cracknell joins us. The triumvirate is complete. Three people who've been working together for so long, they seem comfortable and relaxed together.
Mark: So in your head what does the average St. Etienne listener look like?
Sarah Cracknell: I think they vary
Bob: Palatial sort of setting
Sarah: The Beckhams
Bob: We actually did a computer-generated mock-up of our fanbase and the average fan looked like Anita Dobson
Pete: It was Bryan May
Mark: How do people see what you do? It depends on which magazine you read. One magazine it's perfect pop, another you're just pop.
Peter: Some people think it's one thing.
Pete: It's because we're shit in interviews, everyone goes away saying 'what was that?'.
If an article or review focuses on Sarah, it says how immediate and glorious it is , but if it focuses on Bob and Pete, it says how clever it is, Stanley and Wiggs having been producers, remixers, label heads and songwriters. People often seem to split the band into two camps. We ask if they think that the idea of a pretty woman simply being the singer, nothing else, is still a one that follows them.
Sarah: It's funny, someone else mentioned that. I didn't think that had happened for a long time. I thought in the first couple of years there was quite a lot of that going on, and then I thought it had stopped.
Bob: When we first went to Japan, they wouldn't address Sarah
Sarah: When were doing gigs, anything technical, they'd come up and ask you guys, never approach me
Pete: We didn't know what was going on
Sarah: So I haven't really noticed that for a while
Bob: We don't get as much press as we used to though. We used to get it a lot more, definitely
Sarah: It doesn't really bother us, we're aware of it
Bob: In reality it's not
Mark: Boffins, Pretty lady?
Bob: We've got an interview with FHM coming up in a minute
Mark: So it's gonna be all whips and chains and stuff? You (Sarah) will be out front, they'll be out of focus
Sarah: We've had a lot of that
Pete: I'm quite happy to be out of focus
Sarah: And I wish I was. That's the problem, it's got so we all want to be out of focus. We don't want to be in the videos anymore, we all want to be out of focus. Or in contrast. Anything that's not the real life.
The idea of 'Englishness' seems to be returning as a subject for pop, the much-hyped Libertines springing immediately to mind, with their ideas of Albion and mythic Englishness. What do St. Etienne make of them?
Bob: I liked the song
Pete: it's good
Bob: I haven't read any interviews with them, so I suppose they talk about Albion a lot
Mark: It's all from that Michael Bracewell book 'England is Mine', that sets up the idea that most English pop is Arcadian, it all wants to return to this mythic englishness. Morrissey and The Smiths being one of Bracewell's main examples
Bob: That's interesting. I'm quite interested in English folk music and mythic Englishness, because real Englishness is quite crap. I suppose that's the reason why we're doing the film, which is definitely our view of London. Obviously because we're going to film things that we know or things that we are interested in, horrible or not. I didn't know about The Libertines, it didn't really come across in the single.
Mark: 'What a Waster'? I quite liked that.
Bob: Yeah, yeah it's good
Mark: Any song that's got the lyric 'You two bob cunt' is alright in my book.
Sarah: Are you allowed to swear in interviews?
Bob: I like Electralane. I like the fact that they've got no lyrics because they don't want to write bad lyrics. We write them ourselves.
Sarah: We definitely write those ourselves. We're getting much better at deleting bad lyrics
St Etienne's last album was 'The Sound of Water' in 2000. Any major events between then and now?
Sarah: Well, we set the studio up
Bob: Yeah Pete set the studio up
Sarah: I had a baby. We wrote a lot of songs for this album, and we've spent quite a lot of time picking and choosing
Mark: How's the touring going to go with Cracknell Junior?
They all seem proud of Cracknell Junior, all three smiling like proud parents
Sarah: It's worked out okay, we were in Spain for about five days, so
I took him. He's quite sociable
Bob: He's travelled
Pete: He's well travelled
Sarah: He hangs out with the band and entourage
Bob: He's very sociable
Sarah: Nearly eight months. He's very sociable. But when we went to Norway for the weekend I didn't take him. I nearly cried. I decided to cross each bridge as I came to it rather than looking at the big picture and freaking out. We're not that wild on tour.
Pete: We never were.
Sarah: This British tour is three days, break, three days, break
Mark: Much more civilised.
Mark: So there's not any love songs to the little 'un on the new record then?
Sarah: No, no. Everyone kept telling me when we were recording it 'Ooo, your voice will change, it'll become really rich and deep and warm'. It made no difference at all. 'In the last month you'll not be able to sing at all, because you won't be able to breathe'. None of these things happened, it was completely the same as it's always been.
Mark: Pregnancy as mutation? Like you'd turn into this massive blues singer
Sarah: Yeah, resonating around all the fluid inside of me
Mark: On the new album we shall be cooing more
Sarah: On the DVD we do a voice over and unfortunately he was there in the control room and you can hear him squealing in the background, but we had to bring him in.
Considering that Pete and Bob have both owned their own record label, (with Stanley putting early 7" singles by Pulp and the Manics through his Caff records), they've had a varied history with the labels that they've been with as St Etienne. Signed to ex-Beggars Banquet boss Martin Mills Mantra Recordings in the UK now, we ask about their adventures in the record industry.
Peter: So did you have a lot of input into the Heavenly 'Best of ' last year?
Bob: We wouldn't have put it out then, out of choice, so close to 'Too Young to Die'. Sony wanted to put it out. They did let us do everything we wanted to do, the artwork, everything
Peter: How's it going with the new label?
Bob: Yeah, could be worse
Peter: What's the good things about it, what's the bad things?
Bob: Oh dear, it's an independent so we can do what we want, bad thing I suppose is that we haven't got much money, everything takes forever
Sarah: It's always one without the other, we chose to go independent
Bob: We were on Creation for quite a long time, we were on Heavenly, but basically everything went through Creation. We saw that changing, basically, from a medium sized indie label when we started to the brink of bankruptcy and Alan McGee having a nervous breakdown, then with Oasis they became the most corporate label in the world, it's really weird, all in the space of about five years.
Sarah: They still wouldn't spend money on us
Sarah: They pocketed it
Mark: That'd be because you didn't have leather jackets and messy hair
Bob: It's weird with Creation
Mark: McGee's got his thing about lads with messy hair. His little avatars. 'You will be little Alan'.
Pete: And are you Scottish?
Mark: I got that David Cavanagh book (My Magpie Eyes are Hungry for the Prize: The Creation Records Story), that's really really good.
Bob: That is amazing
Mark: You always think that behind the scenes record companies are quite sorted
Pete: They're not
Bob: It's one of those books where you think, he's not going to put this in, he's not going to put that in, but it is massive. He's got almost everything in
Sarah: Is there a quote from you?
Bob: No, he didn't quote us
Sarah: That's a shame
Bob: I told him Alan McGee voted Tory in the 1992 election, he was like 'ah, I wish I'd known that'
Sarah: Oh yeah, that's it
Bob: Scoop. Would have been a good scoop
Sarah: Could have made it a best seller
Bob: Yeah I know, it's bombed without that story.
Mark: You were signed with Sub Pop for a while- How'd you come across in America, it must have been really, really odd.
Bob: All our fans are
Bob: There's this big anglophile thing over there
Sarah: Gay anglophiles
Pete: That's it basically, gay anglophiles. (laughs) We had sell out tours and we were getting really pleased, then we realised it was the same crowd. And we didn't have any extra songs, so they'd be calling out the names of the songs before we played them.
Sarah: I think when were on Warner's there, there was nothing happening at all. Then Sub Pop were really good for upping the awareness of us, they were quite good.
Bob: I think we were really quite popular when we were on Warner's, but we'd been making music for seven, eight years before we got any gigs there.
Sarah: I think at Warner's they treated us like a little pet limey band, really cute British band. I think the people who worked there seemed to like us, they had a poster up. Mind you they probably were like 'Quick they're coming, put the poster up!' They seemed to really like us, but not really try and sell anything.
Mark: The British equivalent of Shonen Knife?
Sarah: Yeah, exactly.
Sarah: We ARE the Shonen Knife
Half an hour has passed, and we walk down the stairs into the pub below, passing the FHM team on the way. It didn't go too bad for our first ever interview. St Etienne are lovely, and above all patient people, and they didn't laugh at us once.
'Finisterre' is released on September 30th and it's very good
St. Etienne play selected dates across the UK from October 4th, finishing at the Royal Festival Hall on October 10th