Saint Etienne interview: A Homecoming

Marko Kutlesa spoke to lead singer Sarah Cracknell to talk Pedro Almodóvar, Queens Park Rangers and swerving the Britpop tag.

Skiddle Staff

Date published: 22nd May 2017

Image: Rob Baker Ashton

Saint Etienne are one of the UK's best loved and most consistent pop groups of the last three decades. Formed in London in 1990 by longstanding friends and music journalists Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley they burst onto the scene with a much loved and distinctly clever cover version of Neil Young's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart'. Initially imagined as a pop group utilising a variety of different singers, after the band worked with vocalist Sarah Cracknell on their second single 'Nothing Can Stop Us' the collaboration proved such a good fit that she became the group's full time vocalist.

In their career they have released many much cherished singles such as 'Join Our Club', 'Like A Motorway', 'You're In A Bad Way', 'Hobart Paving', 'Hug My Soul', 'He's On The Phone' and 'Sylvie' which have appeared across eight studio albums. They have recorded music for film soundtracks, had their music appear in films by directors like Pedro Almodóvar, worked with Kylie Minogue, David Essex, Richard X, Tim Burgess and Shara Nelson and have been remixed by the likes of Aphex Twin, The Chemical Brothers and Underworld.

They have added diverse influences such as folk music, rave, northern soul, 60s pop and electronica to their pop music frame and have even released chart topping dance tracks such as '7 Ways To Love' under the pseudonym Cola Boy. June 2017 sees the release of their ninth studio album 'Home Counties'.

Prior to the album's release and the supporting tour which takes in Common People Festival, Oxford between 27th - 28th May plus many other UK festivals and stand alone dates and a USA tour, Marko Kutlesa sat down with lead singer Sarah Cracknell to talk about the new album, her life and the band.

Hi Sarah! Saint Etienne have been around since 1990 and you've made music in several kind of different styles over the period since then. If I introduced you to my mum, who likes Abba, Barbara Streisand and Eagles, how would you describe to her the music that Saint Etienne make?

Hi. Ooh, blimey. OK. I would say it's melancholic pop. Which is like Abba really. 

It is. I was thinking you're closer to Abba than you are to Barbara Streisand and the Eagles.

Definitely. I suddenly thought whether melancholic is a word. Maybe? Sounds like something babies get. 

Synth pop influenced by everything from folk and rave music to northern soul, 60s rock and pop and even Rush samples. It is a weird amalgam, would you agree?

Generally speaking it is, yes and even more so I think on this new record. It's more like our earlier records where it's kind of mixed. It's got a lot to do with the fact that none of us play a specific instrument, there isn't a guitarist or a drummer, so we're not restrained in any way by what instruments can be on a record. That frees you up, style wise.

And also it's because generally speaking we're massive fans of almost every kind of music, bar a few genres. That makes it quite eclectic. Also, we've been making records for over 25 years. You'd get a bit bored if they were all in a similar vein. It's more exciting to keep branching out and doing different things. 

I'm familiar with the fact that Bob and Pete are nutty about music, having seen them contribute to some music compilations, so I know that your sound has probably been influenced by their extensive record collections. But I'm not familiar with any compilations you've contributed to aside the Songs For Mario's Cafe one, which you did jointly as a band, so I wanted to ask where does the influence of your record collection make its mark on the sound of Saint Etienne?

I don't have a massive record collection. I did have and then I just kind of stopped buying as much vinyl as I used to. I used to buy it as an artefact as much as for anything else. There's nothing like a big piece of vinyl with some lovely artwork. When the artwork started to get smaller and smaller I gave up a little bit.

I think our original tastes in music, the three of us, was very similar, even though Bob and Pete had grown up together in the Surrey area and I grew up in Berkshire. We liked a lot of the same bands at the same time. So, we had a common link. I was always fairly obsessed with 60s pop, 60s clothes, French things. We just had the same reference points and I think those reference points have stayed with us throughout. 

The haircuts that Pete and Bob had back in the early 90s, you could be forgiven for lumping Saint Etienne with the Britpop lot. But looking back in hindsight and looking at them now I actually think they look more like mods. Is that more accurate?

Yeah, I would definitely say that's more accurate. They are more like Mods, very stylish, very aware of aesthetic when it comes to everything, artwork, videos, clothes. Everything. I suppose the reason we got lumped in with Britpop was that we were a pop band and we were British. We were mates with Pulp as well, we'd been mates for a long time and they got swept into the whole Britpop thing as well. We didn't really like that moniker too much, to be honest.

Your song 'A Good Thing' is featured in Pedro Almodóvar's 2006 film 'Volver'. That's my absolute favourite Almodóvar film and the soundtrack is superb. Which of his films are your favourite?

Oh God! Well, now you've got me! I'm trying to think. Name some others.

All About My Mother, Bad Education, What Have I Done To Deserve this, that one about the crazy nuns who take drugs...

Oh, that one about the nuns on drugs is a good one. I'm just having a look at my thing...I met him. 

Really? Where was that?

They did the premier of Volver in London and, you know I can't remember which cinema it was, and I went with my friend Mark Waterfield, who we wrote the song with, and it was quite a funny day. I met Siouxsie Sioux, from Siouxsie and the Banshees, who was there, I don't know why. I met Cate Blanchett who was there, again I don't know why. And Pedro Almodovar I met as well. So, it was quite a big day, like ooooh, one of those days. I do like the one with the nuns though. Can't remember the name.

 At this moment neither can I (Dark Habits – Ed). Did cinema play a big part in your growing up because of your dad? (Sarah's dad was assistant director on films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Aliens)

Yes, it did. There was a long period in my younger years when I was desperate to work in films because my memories of my dad working in the film industry were so exciting. I remember the smell of film studios. As I say it now, I can smell it, those big studios at Pinewood and at Shepperton, being on location and how exciting it all was in the 70s.

I experienced a lot of it because it was in the days when you could take your children out of school, if you wanted to. So, I was taken to lots of far flung places and I was dying to be in the film industry. I never ended up being but funnily enough one of my sons is now desperate to get into the film industry. And I'm quite glad, because it's just exciting. You get to travel, meet a load of new people. It's not a samey job. It's hard work though, long hours. 

Which films were you on the set for?

Oh lots. The one that was the most exciting was the James Bond film, Live And Let Die, when they did the jazz funeral thing.

You mentioned one of your sons. It says on Wikipedia that one of them is called Sam Dion. Is he named after the singer from Dion and The Belmonts? 

Yeah!

Is your other son Spencer Michael named after anyone in music?

No, he's named after a friend called Spencer, who used to play in East Village and also played drums for Saint Etienne for a while. And Michael is his grandfather's name.

What's it like raving with your kids at festivals? Different much from back in the day?

Oh yeah, I have to keep myself together. My youngest son is like the alcohol police. He's always going “Mum, are you drunk? Are you drunk?” “No” “You always deny it when you are”.

 

How soon after 'Nothing Can Stop Us' did you find your confidence contributing to the songwriting of the band? 

It was a two way thing. For me it was, like you said, building my confidence, but for them it was them getting to know me. When I first met them I went into the studio almost immediately to do 'Nothing Can Stop Us', so they didn't know me at all. I was brought to their attention by Bob's then girlfriend Selena, who's on the cover of Fox Base Alpha. She's someone I knew from Windsor. 

It's about a level of trust, when you work with someone. Especially as they had such a manifesto for the band. They'd been thinking about the band for so many years, planning. So to let me in and give me free reign was going to take a little time. It was more on 'So Tough', the second album, where I started to contribute. 

You mentioned in a previous interview that, although it was something you'd always wanted to do, part of the reason you went off and did your first solo album in the mid nineties was you wanted to let people you weren't just the pretty blond singer, almost like you felt you had something to prove. Given that 20 years and a full career with the band have passed since then, how do you now view in particular those insecurities of your younger self?

Yeah. No, I don't have those kinds of insecurities any more. I was being bashed by some female journalists before that, so I was made to feel quite insecure. At that point in time, the early 90s especially in music, it wasn't as equal as it is now (for the sexes) and so when I got bashed by these female journalists it really pissed me off. Ha! I kinda felt they should be sticking by my side. 

But, I don't feel like that now. I think everyone has come to the conclusion that the three of us are a very close knit family, with mutual respect and a great fondness for each other. We work hand in hand on everything, a very cooperative band

What are the benefits of being back with Heavenly and what did you learn from your time away from them?

Well, we've never been away from the label. We've always had the input of Heavenly on the records. We're not signed to Heavenly and we've not been signed to them for a long, long time, but it's our spiritual home and so we always have the Heavenly imprint on the records no matter what label we're dealing with. They're a great sounding board and there's a great collaborative feeling with Jeff, Martin and all the people at Heavenly. 

You've had some great remixes done on your tracks, Aphex Twin, Underworld, Chemical (Dust) Brothers. Who was responsible for commissioning them? Did those choices come from the band or from within the record label?

Mainly us. But also Heavenly, our manager Martin, who's also my husband, Jeff (Barrett), other people at Heavenly. They've got their finger on the pulse of what's happening in dance music. 

Which remixes have surprised you the most and which are your personal favourites?

The Aphex Twin one was quite....that was good, quite surprising. That was one of those ones where it doesn't sound anything like the original version. We had one done recently by Confidence Man which was good. They're Australian. I like them a lot.

 

Ian Holloway is a bit of a mad old fish. Is he the right man for the job? (Sarah and her son are fans of Queens Park Rangers)

[Laughs a lot] If you'd asked me about four or five weeks ago I would have gone “This is great!” and then it's started to go a little bit downhill. My son was actually a mascot at the Nottingham game and we won, we played really, really well, so that was a really good day, thank God.

What with Brexit and the approaching national election I'm not sure the Home Counties is my favourite place in the UK right now. Why did you decide to write songs about that area and how could a solidly socialist northerner like me be persuaded to listen to an album about a world a million miles from my own?

I don't know... there is an element that, with a lot of distance and time, you can begin to like somewhere where you grew up even though at the time you hated it and were desperate to get out. We were also discussing what it actually means, the term Home Counties, and Bob's looked into it extensively, of course, and it's quite vague. There's various different theories of where it came from.

I've retreated back. I'm in Oxfordshire now, I grew up in Berkshire and I've retreated back to a similar, but a bit more rural existence. I think you do get over the hatred of it.

There is obviously, politically... the Home Counties you just think of as Tories. I do some leafleting for a friend of mine who's a Green Party candidate for the area and a lot of people in the village where I live are so anti Brexit. I was really surprised actually. I thought they'd all be pro. There were some who didn't realise what they did vote for, when they voted Leave, but they now realise it's not quite what they were expecting. They're quite politically motivated. It's not all black and white, you know what I mean?

What can we expect musically from 'Home Counties'?

Like I was saying earlier, it is very varied. It's almost like a big mixture of all the stuff we've done on our different albums. Some of our albums have got a certain style, a certain feel to the, for instance Good Humour or the last one Words and Music, which was very dance music orientated. This one is very mixed.

It's not like a concept album, like 'Tales from Turnpike house' was the closest we got to a concept album, but it is themed and that's quite a useful tool for writing songs because instead of trying to pluck a song out of thin air, you've got something to start the ball rolling. And it was good to revisit lots of different feelings and characters that I know.

You've released a European best of and a US best of and in the last decade all of your albums have been reissued. After 'Home Counties' where next for Saint Etienne?

Dunno, ha! I can't really think past the end of the year. I don't like to think too far ahead. We've got some vague ideas for next year, but really I can't think past Christmas.

Saint Etienne play at this years Common People Oxford, which you can find tickets for below.

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They won't be on the bill at Common People Southampton, although you can find tickets for that event below.

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Festivals 2017