Meet: An interview with Saint Etienne

“Sorry if i kept you waiting, I was mucking around with a Vocoder and lost track of time”

To be honest, my conversation with Pete Wiggs doesn’t get any less scattershot as it goes on.  If he were given the task of telling his life story on the pages of a novel, he’d probably count as an unreliable narrator.  Not through design, just because (on the basis of our half-hour on the phone together) he’s not got the best memory of what went where.

Pete and I are speaking because Saint Etienne are celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2014.  They’ve a new book out, collecting promo and other pictures from across their career, along with liner notes from the band.  Alongside that full-on retrospective the band are also touring in support of their film ‘How We Used To Live’ (playing the soundtrack live).  If you’re lucky enough to get hold of a copy, you’ll notice that Pete doesn’t feature quite as much as Bob (Stanley) and Sarah (Cracknell).  The book has sold out of its limited edition (signed by the band, with a limited edition disc inside) but the standard version is out on 3 June.

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(picture by Paul Kelly, taken from ‘Saint Etienne’)

The fact is, though, that Pete is an equal third of the band: writing, producing, making the music (including playing keyboards and so on in their live set-up).  He’s also a frequently funny interviewee, making both of us laugh warmly throughout. The process of putting together ‘Saint Etienne’ was “really good fun, going through pictures and trying to remember where they were taken and what we were up to at the time”.  Given how far the band have travelled, the successes that they have, and the fads and movements in music they’ve transcended, you can forgive a memory that isn’t itself photographic.

Pete says that the band were often corrected by Martin Kelly, their manager, as they trawled the archives.  Perhaps he’s their best eye-witness then: there but not in the spotlight, able to absorb and archive it all as it happened.  Pete acknowledges that it has been “brilliant to find things that we didn’t remember – a mug that I don’t recall existing and clothes that I can’t remember wearing”.  One of the most amusing things for them (albeit something perhaps not fully documented in the book…) has been to see some of the “cruddy clothes that we wore … when we were really skint”.

The story of Saint Etienne begins with Bob and Pete meeting as children.  As Pete puts it in the book “Bob and I met when we were toddlers before going to school together. Our mums met outside the butcher’s when our prams bumped together !”.  After messing around together musically for a while they formed Saint Etienne and, after originally intending to use different singers on each release (Bob’s notes say that “We wanted to be like Soul II Soul”), they worked with Sarah and the three of them kept on going. Pete and Bob “have spent the best part of our lives together” including sharing flats and, although there has been the “odd disagreement” they have all “had such a laugh together”, still fervently enjoying getting out on the road.  Pete classifies touring as being a “real reversion back to our 20s – perhaps not quite as hardcore as it used to be – we do start off definitely thinking we’re going to have an early night”.  He does concede that there has been a fundamental change to earlier tours in that now they tend to enjoy more of “finding posh restaurants” than they might once have done.

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(picture by Phil Nicholls, taken from ‘Saint Etienne’)

They’ve recently been back to Japan and America – places that they loved touring in the past and, for the latter, somewhere where Pete feels they are most successful, albeit “just in the big cities – we have a very strong following there.”  Other places with a noticeably strong love for Saint Etienne include Spain and Scandinavia.  I wonder why that might be, always having felt that Saint Etienne would resonate more strongly with a domestic audience.  He thinks it’s because they’re fans of “a mixture of electronica and melancholy”.  I ask if it might also have something to do with the very strong sense of Britishness, of British places, in Saint Etienne’s work.  Pete isn’t sure but does mention the time that they met Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland (who wrote the liner notes to 1998’s ‘Good Humor’).  However British and supposedly urbane and sophisticated they might be, when Coupland asked Pete to be the sommelier over dinner, Pete “destroyed [Doug’s] image of what he thought we were – I had no idea what one was”.  (As an aside, this at least is an anecdote backed up by his bandmates, see Bob Stanley’s 2009 interview with Drowned In Sound).

I tell Pete that when I first heard Saint Etienne I was scared of them.  1991’s ‘Foxbase Alpha’ album and 1992 single ‘Join Our Club’ seemed like the most unfathomable sounds to ears that had only recently been opened up to indie guitars.  I wasn’t ready for the crossover between indie and dance, let alone dance music itself and when my friend André tried to turn me on to Wiggs and co. I baulked.  He can see that that period featured much more dance-friendly output but they “wanted to make every album sound different”. “We didn’t want to get pegged and each album is the result of relating to whatever we were listening to at the time.”

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(picture by John Stoddart, taken from ‘Saint Etienne’)

He feels that they “probably made the right decisions” in choosing what direction to take.  They could have followed 1995’s ‘He’s On The Phone’ with “something similar and gone really commercial” but didn’t.  Pete wonders if at the height of Britpop  they “could have tried to muscle in” but, as it was, “we were having too much fun going to clubs.”  We discussed briefly the recent splurge of Britpop retrospectives, featuring lots of cautionary tales, and he supposes that “we might have sunk if we had done it, we might not have been able to come back from that.”

If anything, he sees their activity in the wake of the various bigger hits that they had as “slightly coasting !”  “We did lots of stuff overseas; we were working on Heavenly Sounds; we did a lot of DJing.”  Pete reminisced about being asked to do the theme tune to TV drama ‘Cold Feet’ – the meeting never got set up and the offer fell through, all because of a letter getting lost.  Apparently Sarah was originally in the frame for the ‘Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)’ gig (that launched Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s solo career) but the offer never reached her.  Whatever might have been, Pete is “comfortable” with what they have achieved over this last quarter-century.

There’s no standing still, or getting stuck in remembrances, of course; the band are looking ahead to Sheffield Doc/Fest where they’ll be accompanying their film ‘How We Used To Live’, playing live, on 12 June.  ‘How We Used To Live’ features footage of post-war London and continues a fascination that the band have with the city, following on from their collection of films ‘A London Trilogy’, part of which was commissioned (‘This is Tomorrow’ (2007) during their stint as Artists-in-Residence at the Southbank Centre.  After the film shows at Sheffield Doc/Fest they’ll be hanging around for a Q&A session with the audience, and that format will be taking in further venues after June, including, hopefully, Picturehouse and Curzon Cinemas.

Beyond that, there’s “nothing fully planned, but there is an intent to do … something !” Bob Stanley has written a book about the history of pop and Pete can see “more book offers” lining up.  It would be “good to get back in the studio” and they have “recorded a single” although there are no details about what or when. So for the moment, immerse yourself in old London town with this trailer for their lovesong to England’s capital, try to find yourself a screening, remind yourself about the length and breadth of this remarkable band’s back catalogue, and cross your fingers that there’ll be something new out before too long.  At the very least, should you catch them live, you can expect to talk to them as well: “we’ve been doing a bit more meeting everyone afterwards, coming out to meet the fans. I’m still a bit nervous about it but we wish we’d done more of that before.  We used to think it would be cheesy or starry, but actually, it’s been nice to do that.”  Quite old-school, quite British, wouldn’t you say ?  But then that’s probably fitting.

The ‘Saint Etienne’ book can be purchased through First Third Books Ltd and, although you can’t get your mitts on it until June, you can pre-order now (I’ve seen it and it is stunning):

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