Saint Etienne clearly need no introductions. We are talking about THE band, formed back in 1990 by Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs. Only to keep haunting us. Still. After 26 years. By producing music to fall in love with, to dance to, cry to, to walk through life with.
It was about time we met them, had a discussion with them, asked them all these little things we’ve always wanted to but never thought we would. Around eight hours before their live in Thessaloniki and about twenty eight hours before their live in Athens tomorrow (more info about the live concerts here), time finally stands still, for a bit. Guess why.
Because “He’s on the phone”. Pete Wiggs, that is…
This is probably a classic, but why be named after a French football team?
PW: We thought the name sounded exotic and continental (it’s not a very exotic city apparently, although none of us has been there still!) the team were very cool looking in the 1970’s and we hoped some of that might rub off on us.
What exactly was it about Sarah that made you give up the original idea of having a variety of lead singers?
PW: Well, the obvious reason is the main one!- we got on so well together, had similar reference points of music and books and style and some of the same friends, she could beat us in a drinking competition and of course we loved her voice. Also having different singers isn’t very practical in a live setting – when we started I don’t think we ever thought we’d actually do live gigs.
Back in the ‘90s, the Times wrote about you that you “deftly fuse the grooviness of Swinging Sixties London with a post-acid house backbeat”. That was before you turned the sound into a more atmospheric kind of electronica. Who were your biggest influences throughout that road? By the way, I also read once about you that you “make dance music for grown ups”, and actually loved it. Ιs it also how you guys see yourselves?
PW: At that point we loved the sampladelic hip hop of de la soul and PM Dawn, Detroit techno and Chicago acid house but also (what now seems quite cheesy) Italian house was exciting when it first came out – at the same time we were really into Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Phil Spector and lots of sixties and 70s soul music and threw the lot in together when making Foxbase Alpha. I don’t think we were consciously making dance music for grown ups! We still like the idea of kids dancing to our music (even if they are only our own kids).
You guys have always been, probably because of your history as a music writer, considered a conceptual band. Is that a fair statement?
PW: The term makes us sound a bit cold and clinical but there has always been at least a loose concept behind each album we make. Initially we just wanted to say that pop is not a dirty word and you don’t have to pretend to be American to make good music. Of course a lot of our influences came from America but we put them through a Croydon (South London) filter.
“Bandits”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Volver”, “Maryoku Yummy”, “The Misadventures of Margaret”. You have been flirting with film soundtracks for quite some time now. What is it about “dressing up” a film with your music that makes the idea so attractive?
PW: I think it is partly that we are so in love with the cinema music of John Barry and Ennio Morricone that we always wanted to make film music. I think it can really add to the emotion of a scene and sometimes last a long time in your mind afterwards. We are all big fans of the cinema and especially loved the films of the 1960’s and 1970’s when the scores were often really interesting and characterful. It’s certainly something I would like to do a lot more of.
Is there a film you wish so hard that you had been the ones to do the OST for?
PW: I love the soundtrack to “Drive” and would love to do something darker like that. I haven’t seen it but can imagine we’d have done a good soundtrack for Kingsman! But something like Tinker Tailor, Soldier, “Spy” would have been perfect too.
Kylie Minogue, The Charlatans (Tim Burgess), Paul Van Dyk, Marc Almond, Debsey Wykes, among many others… Which collaboration are you particularly proud of?
PW: Debsey is going to be performing backing vocals with us in Greece and that collaboration has led to the greatest friendship – Paul Kelly met Debsey through us and they have two children together. She has a wonderful voice and is great fun to be on tour with, Bob and I used to be fans of her band Dolly Mixture when we were teenagers so its funny that we are such good friends 30 years later.
Is there an artist you kinda miss having NOT collaborated with, and would do so in an instant, if possible?
PW: It would have been impossible for many reasons, but Marvin Gaye is my favourite singer of all time. So to have done a track with him, would have been incredible. Literally.
Eight albums, 26 fantastic years. What has changed along the way? People change, the sound does too, yeah.
PW: We must have all changed over the years, but in some ways we are still as childish as we were when we started! And we work together in a similar way. The main things that have changed for me are being married and having children – it changes your priorities and the way you look at the world. Technological changes have meant I can do a lot more in my home studio too which has made a big change for me.
What was the most important lesson you’ve learned from those 26 years?
PW: I suppose it is to try and maintain your personality and do things that feel right for you and not what you think other people would do, if that doesn’t feel right (if that makes any sense!!).
Where do you guys imagine yourselves to be in, say, 20 years from now? For whatever reason, I always imagined you to end up once old -and yet gorgeous looking- somewhere around St. Etienne, owning a fantastic little hotel, don’t laugh.
PW: Ha, Ha! I always wanted to run a hotel like that (have changed my mind having seen how difficult that is) But I still like the fantasy of doing something like that – maybe we could all take over a village somewhere nice. I’d like to think I’ll still be making music – for films maybe. My daughter’s really good at playing piano so can imagine her playing to me, while I sit in a rocking chair, smoking a pipe (I don’t smoke, but who knows).
What sort of effects has this digitizing of music had on listeners and the industry as a whole in the past decade?
PW: I think, it means you can hear almost anything you want to really easily (something I would have dreamed of when I was young) but you don’t get the same attachment as when you bought an album and read all the information on the cover, while on the bus, on the way home, wondering how each song was going to sound. Because you can preview songs, it often makes you (I am guilty of this too) cherry pick the songs you think you like best, rather than buy the whole album. And this is leading to the death of the album as an entity, as we knew it. When we make an album we spend a lot of time sequencing the songs so it flows when you listen from beginning to end – even rejecting songs, because they don’t fit the flow, always thinking that people will listen to it this way, but often they won’t.
Do you still go out and buy records?
PW: Embarrassingly much less than I used to (Bob still buys loads). I will blame my children for wanting to eat and things like that. So, I am guilty of buying downloads and using Spotify and Youtube.
You are probably the best lyricists in pop music, how do you get inspired to write them?
PW: Wow, that’s very kind. We are big fans of lyrics by Jimmy Webb – lyrics that tell stories and use unusual imagery, we also love Richard Brautigan the poet/author and Mark E Smith gets referenced in quite a few of our songs!
The experience of a listener VS the experience of creating music. Do romance and mystery die when you’re into deep?
PW: Funnily enough, once we have finished a song, it takes on a life of its own in my head and I can separate the recording process from the music quite easily. With other people’s music I still experience romance and mystery and often imagining the recording process (especially with old music) can be part of that. There is however a lot of dull moments, when in the studio, but I tend to forget all those and remember the good bits.
London seems to always be a very important part of your music. Do you have a Woody Allen and NYC-type relationship with the city or do you find inspiration in other places as well?
PW: I’ve moved away from London now and live by the coast, and Sarah lives near Oxford but Bob is still in London and it is always a big part of our hearts and minds. All three of us grew up on the outskirts of London and it always represented excitement and open-mindedness, modernity as well as tradition and we couldn’t wait to move there.
You and Bob were music journalists originally, so how is it to produce music when you also think music, to be on both ends of the process?
PW: I wasn’t a proper journalist, but would write (often quite silly) articles for fanzines and dance music magazines, but Bob is a proper journo and has developed a great style over the years. I find it hard to take bad reviews in my stride and harbor dark thoughts about what I might do to those that write them! So, Bob must know the wrath that he might be incurring when he writes a bad review – very brave. But seriously I don’t think it has affected the way we work – when we have a concept that guides us it is very loose and not overly thought out.
Let’s say that for whatever reason, you had to perform only once more live. For an audience of millions. Which song would you choose?
PW: Wow, that’s a tough one – of the top of my head will say ‘Nothing Can Stop Us” although it would be slightly ironic as something obviously was about to stop us playing live ever again.
It’s not only those 26 years (for you and Bob it all started while you were still toddlers). You guys are more than just friends. This is a family you have formed. How easy (or tough) is it to work with your family, day after day, and still admire, trust, and love each other ?
PW: What a sweet question! I think we definitely are like family, but not a warring one. We all get on really well together and laugh a lot (too much sometimes) – I think we’ve got the balance right between band activities and other aspects of our lives so we don’t get on each others nerves and we look forward to meeting up.
Assuming you were to host an old fashioned dance party at home. Close friends aside, which 5 artists (dead or alive) would you definitely invite and have a drink with?
PW: OK, this is a very random stream of consciousness type list but might lead to some interesting chatter: Richard Brautigan, Stan Laurel, John Schlessinger, Margaret Attwood and Peter Blake.