Saint Etienne: why London's still calling

With their eighth album about to be released, Saint Etienne take us on a guided tour of the city that has coloured so much of their work

The wind is blowing the rain up the Thames from the North Sea. The trees that line the South Bank are shivering with each gust and the windows of the Royal Festival Hall's cafe are spattered with water. Nevertheless, it's spring: the trees are laden with buds and from time to time the sun forces a golden arm through the clouds.

It's a very Saint Etienne kind of a morning. Theirs is music suffused with an exquisite sadness, a melancholy so fragile it can be banished with the merest glad thought, just as the sun can sweep away the rain. But it's exactly the wrong kind of morning to suit our plans. No one – not the band, not me, not the photographer – is bursting with excitement about the prospect of standing on successive street corners in the drizzle as we traverse the city celebrated in music and film by Saint Etienne, visiting the landmarks of their past.

Which is why our London tour diverts from the streets to the pub later that day, a cavernous former cinema on the Holloway Road – the A1 – where old men nurse pints and Sarah Cracknell, Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley retire to a corner and reminisce. "It's been really, really good fun," Cracknell says, considering the 21 years of the group's existence. "There haven't been any low points." Then she adds, darkly: "Apart from Chessington World of Adventures."

"You know the puppet show in This is Spinal Tap?" Stanley asks. "It was like that."

"It was a charity event," Wiggs explains. "We'd been persuaded it would be a good thing to do. It was for the Variety Club of Great Britain. We were supposed to be bringing lots of press with us but we didn't realise that was our job. So they were cross we didn't bring camera crews. It was a PA – we were miming – and before us there were Australian clowns driving miniature cars and motorbikes, playing electric guitars while they drove. When they came off you could hear the roar of applause. Then Judith Chalmers interviewed Sarah on stage, and it was really awkward because she had no idea who we were. While that happened you could hear the flip-up seats banging as people left. The interview went on for ages because I didn't realise we were meant to be on stage. We heard the backing tapes start and ran on. My keyboard wasn't even plugged in – the plug was just dangling at the end of the cable. The only people left in the audience were these kids at the front in wheelchairs who couldn't get out. Afterwards, one of the clowns came up to me and said: 'Never mind, mate.' And we didn't even raise any money for charity."

It seems fitting that Saint Etienne's most shaming moment came in the suburbs. They were suburbanites who escaped to the city at the earliest opportunity. Wiggs and Stanley grew up in Croydon, south London, a musically mythologised map of which appears on the cover of their new album, their eighth, Words and Music by Saint Etienne, where Wiggs, even as a child, would gaze in awe at the London portrayed in the TV series Paddington. Cracknell lived in Old Windsor: "As soon as I was 15, my friend Alison would get on the train at Ascot and I'd get on at Egham and we'd go up to Kensington Market. Well, at first it was to go ice skating at Richmond. We were serious about our skating."

Childhood friends Stanley and Wigg were so in thrall to the capital they'd all but lie to themselves to feel part of the city. "The cachet of London was such that we used to go to pubs by the nearest stop that had a London postcode, because Croydon had a Surrey postcode," Wiggs remembers. "So we'd go to Norwood and New Cross, just to go to the pub. 'We're out in London tonight! Going uptown!'"

Nevertheless, for a group who employ London and its landmarks almost as a character in their songs – not for nothing is one of their best-ofs called London Conversations – they seem to have slipped almost by accident into being chroniclers of the place. "I don't know why that is, apart from writing ourselves," Stanley says. And in the great psychic divide marked by the Thames that separates one sort of Londoner from another, they come down firmly on one side. "South London's not really London, is it?" Stanley says. "It's just an endless suburb. Also, there's obvious musical heritage in the bits of London I'm drawn to – Joe Meek in the Holloway Road. And Muswell Hill always seemed like a grimy place from the Kinks."

We assemble at the Festival Hall in part because Saint Etienne were artists in residence there in 2006/7, and in part because it seems such a perfect symbol for the group: London's past, present and future in one concrete shell. For all their sense of history, Saint Etienne's music has always been sleekly modern, even as it nods to the past. And while Cracknell mourns the steady loss of London's old-fashioned pubs to the gastro invaders, and Stanley moans about faux-gentrification that does nothing to improve a street except drive out its previous inhabitants, Words and Music doesn't sound like the work of Luddites. It was recorded with former members of the Xenomania writing/production team, responsible for the success of Girls Aloud.

"We were all working at Xenomania at various points in the last few years. It was pretty inspiring – you'd start really basically, sitting in a room humming melodies into a Walkman," Stanley says. "Then you'd take them into another room and work on them until they sounded like hit records. Alesha Dixon would make tea for everyone; Nicola Roberts would be watching MTV next door – I never heard her speak; Neil Tennant would call you up to the studio to put handclaps on something – it didn't bother me too much that he called me 'Lawrence'. It was an ideal setup, like the Brill Building, but with soft furnishings and a big picture of Serge Gainsbourg on the wall." Again past, present and future combined.

After the Festival Hall we go to 83 Clerkenwell Road, where we stand outside the offices once occupied by Creation Records, then by Heavenly Recordings, Saint Etienne's long-time label. Though Saint Etienne have often stood on the fringes of scenes – indie pop, indie dance, Britpop – they've never been at the centre of any. "There was more of a connection with Heavenly, through the Social [a club set up by the label] and the people there. We made loads of friends and that felt like a community," Wiggs says.

We hail another cab and head north. Stanley points out the pub that marked the westernmost outpoint of the Kray twins' empire; we bemoan the Islington Academy, a venue built in a shopping centre – until Saint Etienne remember that they, too, have played in a shopping centre, at the opening of a Virgin Megastore in San Sebastián. And we arrive at the site of Saint Etienne's old rehearsal studios on the Holloway Road, now long gone. We stand in the rain staring down an alley at nothing, getting wet. At which point the pub beckons.

Before she heads back to her current home in Oxfordshire, Cracknell talks about what would have been our next location – her mid-80s flat just up the road in Archway, above a gun shop, where she was too terrified of her surroundings to do much more than venture out for kebabs. "Whenever we left the flat there'd be kids shouting abuse at us. So for food we had a sack of potatoes and I'd make tuna surprise." What was the surprise? In unison, Wiggs and Stanley answer for her: "No tuna!"

Instead of going out, she and her flatmate would hook up the radio to an echo unit, get stoned and watch cricket with Brian Johnston's voice reverberating round the room. "But it was good," she says. "It made me feel on the edge."

Stanley raises an eyebrow and laughs. "On the edge of Highgate."

Saint Etienne tour the UK from 22-28 May


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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