‘The 90s seem like yesterday’: Saint Etienne on 30 years as pop auteurs

Sarah, Bob and Pete talk about recording their mesmeric new album via Zoom, the reality of the 90s and the oddness of pop parenthood

In the concrete balcony bar of the BFI Southbank on a late summer’s afternoon, three old friends are sitting on mid-century seats, talking about the passing of time. Thirty years ago this month, Saint Etienne – Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell – released their debut album, Foxbase Alpha, which stitched together samples from Dusty Springfield, the Four Tops and James Brown records, clips from old films and electronic beats that had their heart and soul in the clubs.

Renowned music journalist Jon Savage wrote the sleevenotes, laying out how their approach to music-making could be a blueprint for a new kind of British pop culture. It might come from somewhere like London’s grimy Camden Town, home to “a myriad of sounds, looks and smells from all over the world, each with its own memory and possibility”. In Saint Etienne’s London, Savage wrote, you could immerse yourself in dub, reggae, old psychedelia and Northern soul, combining these sounds with contemporary ideas.

Savage was partially right – a new music culture did emerge a few years later, when Camden became the centre for Britpop, a scene that fairly quickly evolved into a caricature of itself, all guitars, lads and union jacks. Saint Etienne, a British band with a European name, had a much broader outlook. (How different things might have been if their approach defined the times and made the headlines…)

Ever since that early 90s moment, Saint Etienne have made music, often intensely cinematic, that leaps between pop, glam, electronica and folk, weaving in samples as it goes. This month, they release their 10th album, the mesmerising, ambient and reflective I’ve Been Trying to Tell You. Their brushes with the mainstream include collaborations with Girls Aloud producers Xenomania, DJ Paul van Dyk and Kylie Minogue (she covered their song Nothing Can Stop Us on the B-side to Confide in Me back in 1994), 17 top 40 hits, nine top 40 albums and several joyous turns on Top of the Pops.

“Always on the fringes of fame!” says Wiggs, laughing shyly – he’s all silver-bearded sharpness and owlish glasses, an evergreen mod dad. Stanley sits next to him in his perennial polo shirt (they’ve known each other since they were babies) and singer Cracknell sits opposite, daytime chic in black blouse and gold jewellery – she keeps the feather boas for which she’s known for the gigs. The boys met her in 1990 when they were trying to find a new singer for every song, like one of the contemporary bands they found fascinating, Massive Attack; she joined a year later, because the combination just clicked. “I made them pasta with pesto and sundried tomatoes in it – very posh – they were sold,” Cracknell says. “And I’ve been trying to shake them off ever since.”

Watch a trailer for Alasdair McLellan’s film of I’ve Been Trying to Tell You

Made via Zoom during lockdown, the first time they have recorded an album while not together in a studio, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You uses samples from songs that were big at the time but are now largely forgotten. Harpsichord figures from songs by late 90s R&B trio Honeyz are slowed down and stretched; a vocal from Natalie Imbruglia, on lead single Pond House, appears like a sun-dappled mirage (she’s already tweeted her excited approval). It also comes with a film, their latest of many cinema projects over the years (often accompaniments to albums; the BFI is currently hosting a retrospective of their films). It is directed by high-fashion photographer Alasdair McLellan, a long-term Saint Etienne fan who used Nothing Can Stop Us in a 2019 Marc Jacobs perfume advert. It moves through modern Britain from Doncaster to Grangemouth, Avebury to Portmeirion, shot in saturated colour with young models, the melancholy and optimism all of adolescence all sewn together.

Saint Etienne in 1991 (from left) Bob Stanley, Sarah Cracknell and Pete Wiggs.
Bob Stanley, Sarah Cracknell and Pete Wiggs in 1991. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images

Saint Etienne’s story begins in 1966 outside a butcher’s shop in Croydon, south London. Stanley and Wiggs’ mums, both working-class women moving towards more middle-class lives, were queuing up outside, their young sons in pushchairs. They became lifelong friends and Wiggs grew up in awe of Stanley, who was 18 months older than him: “I was always so excited to see him because he was obsessed with music and would play me records all the time. ‘Hooray! We’re going to see Bobby!’”

In their early 20s, Stanley and Wiggs made six issues of a fanzine together, Caff, which later had a spin-off label that released pre-fame records by Manic Street Preachers and Pulp. It led to Stanley writing for the Melody Maker, which introduced him to musicians who could help him and Wiggs make their own records. Samplers were getting cheaper, which meant they could emulate new house and hip-hop artists they loved, such as De La Soul and S’Express. “It was an incredibly exciting time,” Stanley says. “People who were just messing around were getting into the charts with their songs, not being on the margins like DIY artists were 10 years earlier.” “And we loved older records we’d randomly found in the record shop just as much as what was going on at the time,” says Wiggs. “We just wanted to see what happened if we stuck it all together.”

Cracknell, from west of London, out in Windsor, had a very different childhood. Her mother, Julie Samuel, was an actor who starred in The Avengers and Emergency Ward 10, while her father, Derek Cracknell, was first assistant director on huge films, including Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Live and Let Die. Cracknell remembers spending time on film sets as a child, being taught alongside the children of Roger Moore and Julie Andrews. “My mum was meant to be teaching me, but I just snuck in the back [of the class], so she could go and sit by the pool with a martini.”

She started playing in bands in the 80s, and when her father was working in London, he used to note the details of her gigs on the film production’s call sheet. “7.30 at the Fulham Greyhound! He’d encourage everyone to come along, which was amazing, really.” He never saw her have success in music, as he died of pancreatic cancer, only months after his diagnosis, in May 1991. “The band were a perfect distraction when Dad died,” she says, adding that she’s never been asked about this before. “But it was a split screen of feeling, really; really sad and a bit lost. And [when] we played our first Glastonbury or did our first Top of the Pops, I’d be there thinking, ‘I really wish Dad had seen this’.”

That intense emotional time tightened the friendship between the new friends, who shared common ground: they were pop-music-and film-obsessed kids growing up close to the edges of London, its thrills dazzling on the horizon. They wrote about the capital and making it sound magical. They soundtracked my early years in the city, helping me fall in love with it; I loved 1993’s gentle Mario’s Café, which I visited in Kentish Town, and their clubby epic Girl VII, which talked about Gospel Oak and Silvertown in the same breath as Sao Paolo and Costa Rica. (A few years later, I co-founded a fanzine about London, Smoke: a London Peculiar, which eventually led me to music journalism.)

Saint etienne at the 02 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London in December 2012.
Performing at the 02 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London in December 2012. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Redferns/Getty Images

Bob has said before that Saint Etienne felt part of London back then, but they also felt “out of it”; they hung around the same parts of town as big bands such as Blur and Elastica, but only really felt a kinship with Pulp, who became famous, and Denim, who didn’t. Instead, they made art that tried to capture London in moments in time, like their 2002-03 album and film project Finisterre, which documented the city after the projects built for the millennium, and the 2006film What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, which looked at the Lower Lea Valley about to be transformed by the 2012 Olympics, shot in their signature style with footage and stills of cityscapes layered over recordings of local people reflecting on their environment. “London changes all the time and that’s kind of what’s great about it,” Stanley says, “but now you have places like Homerton or Tooting all looking the same, and so many people working in the city that can’t afford to live there and that’s not a great change.” All the band live elsewhere now – Stanley near Bradford, Cracknell near Oxford, Wiggs in Brighton. “And I get lost walking down the road in London now,” Wiggs says. “Oh God,” says Cracknell. “So do I.”

I’m Trying to Tell You’s hazy musical style is influenced by something unexpected: YouTube videos made by younger people Stanley became obsessed with a few years ago. “It was this warped, woozy music like chillwave or vaporwave, but it’s mostly samples of 80s American music, set against stills of abandoned shopping malls. There are virtually no records or CDs [of this music] – it’s all on YouTube and it definitely seems outside of the conventional music industry, which I find fascinating.”

Stanley is the band’s resident pop geek, publishing acclaimed books (including 2014’s whip-smart history of pop, Yeah, Yeah Yeah, and this year’s Excavate!: The Wonderful and Frightening History of the Fall, co-edited with his partner, artist and writer Tessa Norton, as well as compiling crate-digging anthologies with Wiggs. Some might accuse him of wallowing too much in the past, but he’s not having that. “I don’t think it’s nostalgic to be fascinated by the Chartists or the Bauhaus, or the Beatles for that matter. It’s about history.” It’s also about having a modernist approach to creativity, he says. “And my understanding of modernism is that it’s about borrowing the best bits of the past when you’re creating something new. That’s how you progress. ‘Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat’ as Neil Tennant said in Left to My Own Devices. You can’t ignore history.”

Saint Etienne their Mercury prize award at the Savoy hotel, London, in 1992.
With their Mercury prize award at the Savoy in London, 1992. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images

When Covid hit, the band struck on the idea of taking samples from a period currently being referred to by younger artists such as Charli XCX and AG Cook. Cracknell loves the resulting album: “It’s all hazy, late summer sounds – and it was so nice to do something like this during multiple lockdowns, and so nice to see each other, even if it was only on Zoom.” She recorded her vocals in her son’s bedroom; Wiggs worked at home, as did Stanley, but later hooked up with composer Gus Bousfield, who contributed to two tracks. They decided to look at the less well-know styles songs that were actually all over the radio in the late 1990s – styles far removed from indie and Britpop. “Because it frustrates us how history gets rewritten,” Stanley says. “That’s part of the theme of this record – it’s an attempt to reclaim memory.”

The idea of reappraising our received version of the 1990s is something the band have often discussed. Stanley says he finds it odd that “Britpop people have taken over the music bits of the BBC… ex-members of various bands being presenters or whatever. That doesn’t help what we remember.” What was exciting then, he says, was rave, hardcore and breakbeat, jungle and drum and bass, music that was developing constantly. “Every couple of months there was something new. It was constantly evolving.” We discuss the famous cover of Select magazine in 1993 that first introduced Britpop as a concept: Saint Etienne were one of the bands. “It had us, Pulp, Denim, Suede and the Auteurs as well – we all sounded completely different. By the time Britpop became big, that sound was much more homogeneous and by 1997 it was quite dreary – and suddenly everyone was splintering off into different things.”

Bob Stanley, Sarah Cracknell and Pete Wiggs at the BFI, London.
Bob Stanley, Sarah Cracknell and Pete Wiggs at the BFI, London. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

What do the band think of the argument that Britpop – and its fetishisation of Britishness – was one of the building blocks towards Brexit? Wiggs nods wearily; Cracknell offers a theatrically miserable shrug. “You can definitely see things within the stereotypes of Britpop that tie those things together,” Stanley says. “It snuck certain associations into popular culture.”

The album also explores a time where Britain last felt optimistic, they say, although it was tempered by disillusion even shortly after New Labour was elected. “We must be near the bottom of it for politics now, though,” says Stanley.

Cracknell and Wiggs have kids in their late teens who are fascinated by the 1990s (Stanley is merely an observer of this phenomenon: his son with his partner, Norton, is only five). I wonder if they cling to that period because it takes them to a mysterious world just before they were born – so close to them, in a way, but also so out of touch. “It’s a bit like us having a fascination for the 60s at a similar age, just in a different way,” Cracknell says. “I mean, for us, the 90s seems like yesterday, but for them, it seems like a really, really long time ago.”

Wiggs’s son is heavily into Suede, he adds – he seems to find this strangely funny“out of nowhere… but what’s strange is we don’t hear it that much. We normally think of teenage bedrooms with loud music coming out - kids these days are always using their headphones. And they can access so much music so easily, which of course we couldn’t, so they have these very intense, private worlds.” They sense that this way of consuming music – being able to access any period, at any time – has also broken down the generation barrier. Wiggs talks about how his daughter came home from school recently, dying to talk to her dad. “The teacher was showing some examples of good basslines in music and he put on the video for [Saint Etienne’s 1990 single] Only Love Can Break Your Heart and there I was in her classroom! The teacher didn’t know!” How did your daughter feel? He answers shyly, but happily. “She said she was proud.”

Their kids are also at the stage when they’re worrying about what it will be like to be an adult, Cracknell adds. “And we all remember that. I was talking to my youngest the other day, who was worrying about growing up, [saying] that there’s no need to worry. ‘When you get to my age,’ I said, ‘you still don’t feel fully grown. We’re all still trying to get there.’” I suggest that I’m Trying to Tell You places this feeling mesmerisingly in music – that however old we are, we’re all trying to shape our lives and make them new. Stanley smiles. “Music is still one of those things that takes us all back to moments of optimism, isn’t it? You forget that a little bit more as you get older.” I’m reminded of Savage’s description of Saint Etienne’s debut three decades ago, about a band attempting to elevate life into art. “How to make sense of this?” Savage wrote then. “Go with the flow, find what has been forgotten, put it together in a new way… the idea is mental freedom: transformation of the familiar.”

• Saint Etienne’s new album, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You, is out now on Heavenly Recordings. Last-minute tickets for the BFI screenings of Lawrence of Belgravia (3.30pm, 5 September) and What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (6.30pm, 5 September) are available at whatson.bfi.org.uk


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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