Saint Etienne on “Home Counties”

Ever-Expanding Circles

Sep 11, 2017 Photography by Rob Baker Ashton Issue #61 - Grizzly Bear
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"We spend a lot of time together outside Saint Etienne, hanging out and doing other projects," Saint Etienne singer Sarah Cracknell reflects. "We end up making another record when the time feels right." The English trio's output may have slowed since their slew of '90s hits but new Saint Etienne material is bound to excite any indie-pop fan. Cracknell got the ball rolling for Home Counties, their first new album in five years, recording demos with producer Shawn Lee that very much impressed bandmates Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs. "She played us 'Dive' and 'Take It All In' quite early on," Stanley recalls. "And they sounded fantastic. 'Dive' is like the great post-Spice Girls solo single that never happened. She set the bar very high for me and Pete."

With Cracknell's demos sounding so good, the band thought it'd be crazy to not do the whole album with Lee. Writing independently of each other, the trio convened at Lee's central London studio and finished the record inside one month. "Once we had the title it came together very quickly," Stanley confesses.

The "Home Counties" concept came from a guidebook Stanley saw in a second-hand shop. "I thought it was odd that nobody had used that as a title. It's a very odd term. The home counties are the counties that ring London, suburbia really. But it feels like a kind of corner of England that runs the country. It's where we all grew up, and where Pete and Sarah both live again now with their families. There's plenty of fertile ground for lyrical ideas."    

Cracknell expands on this, "Where I grew up was pretty boring, so everybody just ended up forming bands or becoming clothes designers or DJs. Out of boredom comes creativity, I think." And so the record takes us through a day in the life of what Stanley calls "an official version of what Britain is like," complete with snippets of radio and musical interludes that recall the mishmash of the band's early records.

"Whyteleafe" is a microcosm of the record as a whole, and contains many of the components that fans have always loved about Saint Etienne. A pompous tongue-in-cheek harpsichord intro swells into a gorgeous verse recalling their Good Humor record. The pre-chorus sings of the scenes in '60s Paris, '70s Berlin, and '90s Stockholm before returning to the narrator daydreaming in the ethereal chorus in this small town in Surrey. Stanley recalls, "Whyteleafe is near where Pete and I grew up. The song is really about somebody who lives in a small town in the home counties who feels like they're the only person in the office who voted 'Remain' in the Brexit referendum. I was also imagining if David Bowie had never made it and just stayed in the suburbs and had an office job. There's a couple Station to Station references in there, and the opening line is pinched from The Thin White Duke. To be honest, I'm pretty sure that Bowie would've voted 'Leave,'" Stanley laughs.

By focusing the record on the home counties, Saint Etienne feel that they have reclaimed them. "With distance you become more fond of where you grew up," Cracknell explains. "I was fighting to get out of there as a teenager but now it's quite nice to revisit these places in order to write songs. It's been quite an adventure."

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

www.saintetienne.com

 

 

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