Saint Etienne: There Are No Egoes

For a little over ten years now, Saint Etienne have been in the trenches, crafting beautiful and harmonious pop records. Finally, they are getting their due Stateside.

From their 1992 debut Foxbase Alpha to their expansive new album Finisterre, the English threesome have endeavored to craft perfect songs. They combine pop chanteuse Sarah Cracknell’s vocals with the beats, blips, and melodies of keyboardists Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley. Throughout their career they have made pop records that rely on soft vocals, lush melodies, and powerful sweeping beats. Finisterre features a collection of intelligent dance tracks.

While the band has done very well in other corners of the world, Saint Etienne have managed to remain on the fringes of American mass popularity. This is about to change. Finisterre is garnering wide praise and attracting more people to their sound. Those who know of Saint Etienne know that they are always welcoming, constantly cool, always reliable, and rock solid. Simply put, Saint Etienne make great records.

Saint Etienne recently toured the States. PlaybackSTL caught up with them on a cold afternoon in Chicago.

You have been very fortunate to have been a musical entity for over 12 years now. What is your secret to getting along?

Sarah: There are no egos. That’s why bands fall apart. We all like doing the same things. We enjoy traveling, exploring new places. We always have a laugh.

Bob: We’ve managed to maintain social lives as well. When we record it is from 11-5. We can do stuff afterwards. When we tour, we don’t tour for too long as well.

How long did it take to make Finisterre?

Bob: Eighteen months I think. Which is really a long time for us. Pete was setting up a studio in his flat. We didn’t start off as quickly as normal I suppose. Pete was learning how to operate everything and Sarah and I just read the paper (laughs). Most of it though was done in 4 or 5 months.

Much has been said and written about Saint Etienne going back to “their old sound.” Was this a consciencious effort on your part to have the album sound a particular way?

Pete: We didn’t with this one. The last couple of albums we sort of worked out how we wanted them to sound before we even wrote the songs. With this one we wanted to write songs until we had enough songs we liked and hoped that some sort of direction would occur. It wasn’t intentional.. It sort of got harder and more electronic as it went along. When we recorded it we’d go out to bars in London they were playing the Normal, Human League and early Depeche Mode. That had an influence. Then the Streets album came out which was a big influence on us at the end.

Your tour for this album is a short one. Are you coming back around to the states soon again?

Sarah: It is a short tour of key cities.

Bob: We picked good ones.

Sarah: Then we get back to the U.K., go to Belgrade. We are off to Spain for three shows. It’s more like a holiday. It’s kind of different. I’ve got a baby now. I can’t drag him along for too long.

Do you think having a shorter tour has helped bring more out in your gigs?

Sarah: Yeah because soon it starts to be something you do every night for months. It loses spark. I think we’d get bored. We get frustrated when we cant go and record things and write things.

Is it harder getting your records played over here than in Europe?

Bob: It varies with records, doesn’t it? In Europe we get played more; Australia is doing well for us right now.

Sarah: It changes from record to record.

Pete: America was big on “Good Humor.” It did well on college radio and it was the biggest radio period we’ve ever had. There’s no explaining that. It wasn’t so popular elsewhere, but in the States and in Norway it did really well.

Sarah: That’s right (laughs).

Bob: It’s good fun. It means we have more focus on other countries, in places where we’ve not been before.

Sarah: In a way, also I think we get sort of fed up with the British market. It’s cynical and flighty. It’s nice to be able to think a lot about other places, other countries that are more open minded and have have less preconceptions about us. You can ignore Britain if it’s getting on your nerves really.

When you record is there a regular routine that Saint Etienne follows? What is the process in the studio?

Sarah: It varies. Anything can trigger a song.

Bob: We tend to construct, then deconstruct.

Pete: Somebody will come up with an original idea like a lyric, chords, sounds, or a melody. It could be anything. We tend to work on things together.

On Finsterre, there seems to be a current theme of tearing things down and starting over. There’s some songs about new beginnings.

Pete: I think it has a lot to do with living in London. It’s the first time we recorded an album in London in a few years. The last couple were done abroad. I think it’s about Britain or London specifically. It’s not really about us as a band. I think ’cause it’s like a new century and waiting for some explosion of some sort. Which is going to happen in the next few years. Things are getting really exciting.

On this record, Saint Etienne went back to using sound clips for song introductions. How does that come about? Does one of you just go and find stuff or is it stuff you look out for?

Bob: It’s quite a mixture really, isn’t it? A little bit of a stream of consciousness. Lots of collages. A lot of advertising and found quotations, films, books and sounds.

Michael Jayston (a venerable British character actor) worked with you on this album. Did you have him come in and read the intros?

Bob: He came around to my flat and we sat on the other side of a screen while he read them out.

Pete: He was up for it. He thought it was funny which we were pleased with. We sent him a list of them before he came in so if objected to them or something. He was great, a really nice guy.

How much control do you over the band’s presentation: videos, photos, etc.?

Sarah: We have a lot of control over that. You have to. The way you are portrayed and the way you are put across is really important. I don’t understand bands who don’t pay attention to that sort of thing. I just thing it is important really. We are lucky that we have people who are good at things like artwork or videos on a shoestring.

Do each of you have a favorite track on the album?

Pete: The title track. It’s the last thing we did as well and I think it sort of holds the whole album together really.

Bob: Mine varies form day to day. Today it is “Shower Scene.” It has that sort of teutonic beat.

Sarah: Mine varies as well. I like “Amateur.” I like singing it. I like the attitude. It’s quite wordy.

You recently recorded “Got It Together Again” for a Lee Hazlewood tribute (Total Lee) CD. How was that experience?

Pete: It was great. I knew Nathan Bennet through my wife. He’s a brilliant bloke and he’s into a lot of the same stuff as us. He’s got a great speaking voice.

Did you meet Lee Hazlewood?

Pete: I met him (Lee) at a High Llamas gig. I was scared to death to meet him but he was great. He bought me whiskey all night. He was quite lovely.

Sarah, how did the others take your decision to make solo records?

Sarah: Very well.

Was it weird being on Sub Pop?

Sarah: No, not really. We had been on Creation for a long time and were used to being the weird one on the label.

How did the band form?

Bob: Me and Pete have known each other since we were babies. We went through school together. The first thing we did together was in 1988, which was a acid house record. It didn’t work out. In 1990 a friend of ours started a label and we recorded two singles. Then we met Sarah and its gone down hill ever since (laughs).

What is next for Saint Etienne?

Bob: We are looking forward to making new stuff, really. We’d like to do some film soundtrack work.

Pete: I think we’d like to do some more instrumental stuff.

Sarah: I really haven’t thought past the new year.

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