Words, Music, and Memories
Nov 21, 2012
Saint Etienne's eighth album, Words and Music by Saint Etienne, starts with singer Sarah Cracknell—transported back to a time before adult autonomy—admiring kids with the daring to question authority. "It all happened because of music, I wanted to know why," she says in a beatific whisper. It's a hushed admiration that's drawn out over the album's 13 songs, as the band explores a world where music doesn't just soundtrack life, but rather directs it.
Formed in 1990, English trio Saint Etienne (Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley, and Pete Wiggs) have dedicated the last two decades to their love of the art form, weaving together glittering patchworks of pop, ambient electronics, folk, acid house, and just about every other music ingredient. Theirs is the work of the true fans—musical archeologists able to blow the dust off a forgotten sub-genre or reference and present it in a fresh light. Or, as author Douglas Coupland eloquently wrote in the liner notes of their 1998 album Good Humor, "The words Saint Etienne themselves give me a similar feeling, one of a world in which all the women wear pearls and are able to sing in key, and one where the men drive sports cars and never stumble—a world where nostalgia is beside the point because all of us live inside a bright and glorious present."
Under the Radar joined Cracknell for a teatime conversation in London. She told us about the inspiration behind Words and Music by Saint Etienne, a few of her musical firsts, and why Saint Etienne will always love London.
Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): The theme of the new album is so obvious that I can't believe that more musicians haven't written an album about loving music.
Sarah Cracknell: I think it has touched a lot of people.
Did you set out with the theme in mind? Or is it something that developed as you went along?
We had already started a couple of songs, but not really gotten as far as lyrics and stuff. And then the idea hit us. It's so useful when you have an idea! It means you don't have to pull a lyrical idea out of thin air. You've got something to hang it on. It's quite a useful tool in a way. I know that we'd done quite a bit of "DJ," it was one of the ones that we had started doing the words and everything. "Heading for the Fair" was another one. It's slightly autobiographical—apart from the bit about waiting around for some fair dude the next year. I didn't go that far. But it was about being very young. A young teenager, and the headiness of going to the fair and walking. It used to be opposite my house. It was a small narrow path with playing fields. And they had a fair there every year. Of course, as a young teenager, going down, the music starts getting louder the nearer you get to it. The smell and the lights, and these young guys, it was such a heady mix! But it was also to do with the music and the sound. That thing of approaching it. The build-up of excitement. So that started the ball rolling as well.
There's something to be said for haunting carnival music.
Yeah! And they're all different. Different songs on different rides. They all start mixing up. Depending on where you're standing, one overtakes the other.
And then you get older, and start going to music festivals, and hear music from two different stages, mixed together.
Normally backstage at festivals you're usually between two stages and you just want to say, "Shut up!" Nothing matches and everything is slightly out of sync.
So everything started clicking together after "DJ?"
Yes, it started throwing up the ideas. Bob's writing a book at the moment about the history of pop. So that's on his mind as well, pop in your own lifetime, or music in your own lifetime and how it's a theme to your life.
Do you often go back to visit records that were important to you as a kid or as a teenager?
I do, I'm very much like that. Of course I have children now so I've started playing records to them. My husband got this massive compilation; it's something like 101 punk New Wave classics. The thing is, the kids love it. Things like "Turning Japanese" and "Hong Kong Garden." They're like, "This is great!" It's child music.
Does the music still inspire the same feelings when you listen to it as well?
Oh God yeah! I'm transported straight back.
Do any of the artists mentioned in "Over the Border" still resonate with you?
Bob wrote the spoken word part.
So maybe that's endemic of his childhood.
Quite possibly. Marc Bolan was very important to me as well, because my parents were really into him. Tyrannosaurus Rex had this gatefold sleeve, I remember it well. The three of us, we were born around the same time, so we've had fairly parallel lives and influences, which is probably why we've stayed together for so long.
So you were a part of each other's childhood by proxy, through music.
Yeah. Well, they literally were.
You got annexed in via music.
Yeah. Just the same, it's the silly things, like same TV references, same biscuits we ate, the same sweet rice. You know what I mean? Silly things like that.
So if you would rewrite the lyrics a bit to "Over the Border" what would you include?
There's a real terrible cliché, we're always getting aligned with Beach Boys. Not that we are like the Pet Shop Boys, but they're all banging on about it. But I would put them in there. Between the three of us, the experimental production side of it particularly, that really ticks our box. And it did as a kid for me, that kind of thing really fascinated me. David Essex had a single out called "Rock On," and it was followed up by a single called "Lamplight." The production was mental! If you listen to it now, it sounds really strange now, even though it was such a long time ago. I think I was quite curious about sound, and production, and things sounding different. The Beatles is another one. The production is really out there. Silly things, like when I first heard The Specials, "Ghost Town," when I first heard that, that sounded weird. So it's all those records that really stayed with me.
It sounds like you really took to heart that line about "The strange and important sound of the synthesizer."
Yeah, it was such an important thing.
Were you a reader of music magazines as well?
Yeah, I started off really early with some Fab 208 when I was a kid. Then Smash Hits was really important, and Select. Bob and Pete used to make fanzines and things. Bob still is a writer. He writes for the Times now. Yeah, they used to make fanzines and things. A few of my friends used to do that kind of thing as well.
It's a shame that fanzines seem to have moved to the Internet.
I suppose people have blog sites and things. That's the equivalent I would think. It's putting yourself out there rather than printing your own fanzine and handing it out at gigs. It's the same kind of thing, isn't it? [Laughs] I'm not brilliant; I'm crap at things like that. I didn't even take to the metric thing very well. I still think in Fahrenheit, which is what you do. The rest of Europe is in centigrade. It means nothing to me! Weights, I'm pounds and stones. Again, it's kilos and stuff, which I don't do. Meters, I do miles and feet and inches. With computers and all that, I'm not on Twitter; I'm not on Facebook.
It's funny you would say that. In my head, Saint Etienne is, well I hate to use the phrase "ahead of your time"—it sounds so cheesy—but it's true.
Bob got dragged into this technical world, kicking and screaming. He was the last person in the world to have a mobile phone. Now he's gone way past me. He has a Twitter account. Blah blah blah. Pete's the one who's the more technically-minded of us. He uses his computer for all its facilities, where as I just use it for email. Even email, I got dragged into that. So few people have my email address. I can count it on two hands. I always figure, the more you put out there, the more people keep coming back at you.
Your single "Tonight" is a pretty accurate recounting of a pre-concert experience. Do you remember the first time you saw a band live?
The first band I went to see, oh God, it was Stiff Little Fingers. I was really young. I went with a boy who was older. I think I was about 13 or something. I stood at the very front. He muscled his way to the front. I remember thinking I was going to die. The barrier was at my ribcage and the crowd kept surging forward. "I'm going to die. I'm really going to die! In front of Stiff Little Fingers!" So yeah, that was probably my first gig.
That's a better story than most. Did you go to a lot of gigs throughout high school and college?
Yeah. Around that time I went to see Siouxsie and the Banshees. When she was doing Creatures. A group called Carmel, I went to see them. After that I got into the early '80s type of music. I went to see Felt and Primal Scream, and bands like that. It was a nice period for music, because you could get into a whole scene. And I was old enough then to get into it and really explore it. I had a lot of friends, and we were all into the same kind of music and same bands. It was really exciting. It was during the time when those bands could be really secret and private because they weren't being played on the radio or television. No one really knew about them unless they were buying the NME.
There is a thrill to finding your own musical secret.
Absolutely. And it doesn't last for very long now. Five seconds! So yeah, I kind of miss that. It was a really special thing.
Do you get a lot of feedback from Saint Etienne fans that have gone to a show and had that kind of magical live experience like you describe in "Tonight?"
Yeah. It's very nice. I've seen people crying during certain songs during a gig, which is quite funny. [Laughs] That's the thing; we've never lost our own love for that feeling and the excitement of going to a gig or finding a new album.
So after you're married, and after you have kids, can Marc Bolan still be as important?
Yeah, definitely. You pass it on [to your kids]. You pass it on until they're bound to turn around and say, "I hate your music. It sucks!" If that didn't happen I'd be worried. But for the moment you can force-feed them things that you like, and that you know they'll like. Marc Bolan for kids is great. It's all gobblygook words here and there, and a larger than life persona, which I really like. I loved that whole glam thing. I loved bands having proper identities. A band itself looked like they were in a gang together. They had the right clothes. I love all that.
Was that something that you ever tried?
Yeah, we have done things like that. There was the gold lamé phase, Bob and Pete had a gold lamé suite made each, and I had little gold lame hot pants. Stuff like that. We find that we tend to turn up to things wearing a theme going on accidentally. Weird! [Laughs] We seem to get into the same sort of look around the same time. Of course, theirs is a more masculine version.
After so many years of being a pop envoy for London do you still look at the city the same way?
Definitely. Definitely. The thing that has been fascinating is it's an ever-evolving city. But not in a crap way. There's some things, you go, "Oh no, the cafés are closing!" That's very sad. Or some of the pubs closing that's pretty heartbreaking. But it does grow. I grew up about a half-hour, 40 minutes outside, being drawn like a moth to a flame. It's magnetic. I wanted to be in London as soon as I could. It's not lost its appeal.
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