Saint Etienne on “Home Counties” - The Extended Q&A Interview

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Sep 12, 2017 Photography by Rob Baker Ashton Issue #61 - Grizzly Bear
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The quintessentially English pop trio, Saint Etienne are back with their first new record in five years. Home Counties is both an homage to and cathartic re-visitation of the suurbia surrounding London where Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley, and Pete Wiggs grew up. Writing independently of each other, the band members convened at producer Shawn Lee's studio in, ironically, central London to record an album that reflects their roots both geographically and musically while at the same time taking their usual unique look at the state of the world today (see Stanley's thoughts on imagining David Bowie in "Whyteleaf" or his vision of a glam rock train drivers' union). Fans will note the reappearance of connecting audio clips between songs, such as Stanley and Wiggs used to use on the mixtapes they made for each other, that were prevalent on the bands' early records. And a sound that echoes the straight-up pop of 1998's Good Humor, and the more experimental electro-pop of 2001's Finisterre, while continuing to take in their love of the '60s and '70s. [Note: These are extra portions of our separate interviews with Bob Stanley and Sarah Cracknell, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on Saint Etienne.]

Bob Stanley

Aug Stone (Under the Radar): You've been using the audio sample snippets again, recalling the old days. What brought those back?

Bob Stanley: Oh [thinks]...I suppose we haven't done that for a while, I haven't really thought about that [laughs]. Given the idea of the album, and the idea of writing about the home counties, I think we just felt that it needed a thread running through it which was easiest to create using snippets of real or fake radio programs so as to take you through the day. It's very BBC, I mean the home counties are very BBC. It's kind of like an official version of what Britain is like, I suppose. So we had that in mind.

How did you come up with the idea for the "home counties" concept?

To be honest, I literally just saw a book in a second-hand shop called The Home Counties and thought it was odd that nobody had ever used that as a title of...anything. It was a guidebook to the home counties, it wasn't a novel. It's a very odd term. There doesn't seem to be any single definition of why these counties are called "the home counties." But it feels like a kind of corner of England that runs the country basically. Londoners definitely don't run the country. They are generally much more left-wing than the rest of Britain, the home counties are definitely not very left-wing. [Laughs] It's where we all grew up and it's where Pete and Sarah both live again now with their families. There's plenty of fertile ground for lyrical ideas. Once we had the title it came together very quickly.

Can you explain the term "home counties?"

Basically the counties that ring London. Berkshire, Surrey, Essex...etc. Suburbia really. Towns that if you grew up there, you definitely gravitate towards London if you're remotely ambitious. You wouldn't want to stay in those towns. Quite a lot of wealth but also a lot of rough towns as well.

How did you start working with [producer] Shawn Lee?

Me and Pete met him years ago at [U.K. pop production house] Xenomania with Brian Higgins. Maybe 15 years ago. I hadn't seen him since. And Sarah had done these demos with him. Which sounded so good we thought it'd be crazy to not try to do the whole album with him. We met him when he was a guitarist playing on Sugababes and Girls Aloud records in the early 2000s. We've got pretty similar tastes in music, he's a massive soundtrack and library music fan.

The first song is called "The Reunion." Any significance in the title?

No. It's just from a [BBC] Radio 4 program called The Reunion. [The concept of the show is to] get people who worked on some big event back together and go over their recollections of the event. That bit of music always just makes me laugh, it's quite prissy and [laughs] sort of awkward sounding at the same time. It's [1880s Hungarian composer Franz] Liszt so it's out of copyright so we can just replay it and open the album with it. Yeah, it was like a reunion between us, we hadn't made a record together in five years so it tied in nicely. It was there to set the tone for the rest of the record.

Tell me something you haven't told anyone else about the record.

"After Hebden" is basically about moving to Yorkshire. I'm in Yorkshire half the time now. Hebden is a small town in West Yorkshire that we seem to play in once a year now. And [our label] Heavenly does a weekender there every winter. It's a nice small mill town. It's a very relaxing place to go, unless it's flooding. "After Hebden" was me reflecting on how my life has changed in the last couple of years, having a baby, and spending a lot of time driving over Moorlands, looking at this beautiful desolate countryside.

How much fun was it to write "Traindrivers in Eyeliner?"

It was a lot of fun. I've got friends who hang out in the train drivers union, ASLEF, quite a lot. Like most unions it gets portrayed by the British media in quite a bad light but in reality they've all got record collections. I was interested to find out that one of these people was into heavy metal, one was into post-punk, one into '50s rock 'n' roll.... So I just put them all into the lyric and imagined them having a union conference where they're planning to incorporate all this into how the railways are run. [Laughs] My vision of Britain in the future.

With "Sweet Arcadia," you seem to close albums with songs that have spoken verses, is there something to that?

That's why we opened the last album with "Over the Border" because we didn't want it to become too much of a thing. "Sweet Arcadia" is about Essex and about how a lot of small towns in Essex basically grew out of shanty towns between the wars. It's a really obscure piece of history but bizarrely there's actually a piece in The Independent today online. They're called plotlands settlements and they're really written out of British history. They're very interesting, almost like outlaw towns. They grew up by finding a hole in planning regulations, buying a plot of land and building a shed to move into rather than a house, and people moved out of East London into these shacks. They're all over the country but they really proliferated in Essex. Obviously a lot of them have gone now because it was mostly in the '20s and '30s. So they've literally just fallen apart. They're fascinating odd little towns that seem very, very non-English. Renegade small towns. The song is about how people have an idea of what England is, cricket and the village green and all these terrible clichés, but it's actually much more interesting than that, not surprisingly.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

For the band, we're doing a U.S. tour in October.... Festivals, playing Green Man for first time, I'm really excited about that. Pete's doing a degree in soundtrack composition. I'm working on a new book, a prequel to Yeah Yeah Yeah, where I write about the birth of popular music, which gives me the opportunity to watch lots of old Fred Astaire musicals and listen to ragtime. [Laughs]

Is the book as mammoth as the last one?'

Yeah, I think it has to be really otherwise it'll look like I haven't tried as hard so... [Laughs] There's a lot to cover.

Sarah Cracknell

Aug Stone (Under the Radar): The new record is quite stylistically diverse...

Sarah Cracknell: I'm not sure why it's quite so eclectic in style necessarily but I'm quite pleased that it is because we haven't done that for a while. I like the sort of melting pot of the earlier albums, the first two particularly, it's got a little flavor from lots of our past albums all in one record. We worked with a few different people on the writing. We wanted to have all these little interludes between songs as well which again is harking back to our earlier records. A nod to the past.

Explain the term "home counties."

Well, it's a dirty word in this country, everyone thinks it's full of Tories [members of the Conservative political party]. It's kind of a commuter belt, all the various counties that surround London. I grew up in Berkshire, Bob and Pete grew up in Kent and Surrey. Very shared experience, similar upbringings. I think when you grow up really close to a city, certainly for me and them, I was desperate to be there and to live there. As soon as I was old enough my friend and I would get on a train and go ice skating in Richmond or go up to Kensington Market or the King's Road looking at clothes and things and I moved to London permanently when I was 17. It's like a magnet, I was definitely drawn to it. I thought "there must be something really exciting going on all the time in London" and where I grew up in Windsor and Berkshire it was incredibly boring, apart from I had a really great friend group. But the place itself was pretty boring. They didn't even have a cinema in Windsor, so everybody just ended up forming bands or getting into clothes and things like that, clothes designers, DJs. We were so bored there was nothing else to do. Out of boredom comes creativity, I think. Home counties is a bit leafy, bit suburban.

The standout pop tracks to me are "Out of My Mind," "Unopened Fan Mail," and "Take It All In."

"Unopened Fan Mail" I wrote with my friend Robin [Bennett] who lives near me, he plays in the live band as well. I like the feel of it, it's quite summery. It's a love song really. "Take It All In" is just about slowing down and being aware of what's around you, and not taking anything for granted. "Out of My Mind" I wrote with my friend Mark Waterfield, who I've written a few songs with before. We always tend to go quite poppy when I work with him. We did "Good Thing" together. Mark is really good at that slightly New Order-y pop melody, he's really good at straight-up pop melodies, I really enjoy working with him. Bit Beatles-y the middle eight, that's who I had in my mind when I wrote it anyway.

You seem to close albums with songs that have spoken verses.

Yeah, we have done that a bit, haven't we? I suppose it's quite a good way of winding down, like when someone's doing an aerobics class or something and at the end you have the wind down period. The more calmer, reflective bit to bring you down from all the euphoria and see you on your way home. It's like that really.

[Note: This article originally appeared in the digital version (for tablets and smart phones) of Under the Radar's Summer 2017 Issue (July/August/September 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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Nauka jazdy - Gdańsk
September 14th 2017
1:27pm

I first hear about this band.