Interview Saint Etienne: ‘It’s Not Just About Music, It’s About How It Binds Your Life’

Simone Scott Warren sits down with Saint Etienne’s Pete Wiggs.

It’s early Sunday afternoon, and very, very, much the day after the night before. Given the state of our heads (someone has performed open surgery and replaced our brains with cotton wool while we slept, it seems), it’s pretty appropriate that we’re headed off to the Hangover Lounge at London’s Lexington for the afternoon, who are hosting the listening party for St Etienne’s glorious new album, ‘Words and Music by St Etienne’. Painkillers are downed, rehydration is attempted, and before the main event we have the small matter of a date with one third of the band, the inimitable Pete Wiggs.

So, the new album feels a little different, because it’s not a love letter to London, it’s a love letter to music. Is this your (whisper) concept album?
Yes! Well, they all are to some extent. We normally come up with a concept after we’ve come up with three or four songs, because often we’ll record the music, so we’ll have the melody but not lyrics. And then either one song will suddenly start saying something, or an idea comes. Bob came up with the idea for this one, even though it’s quite a broad idea, once he said it, it made it kind of easy to fit things in. And not all the lyrics are, we didn’t want to be a bit too classic in the attic! So it’s subtle in some ways, it’s not just about music, it’s about how music binds with your life. Some of them are about crossroads points in people’s lives, and how that’s soundtracked, the tunes at the time become permanently engrained in your brain.

Do you think most of you moving away from London (Pete now lives in Brighton, Sarah is living in Windsor, only Bob remains in the city), partly inspired the change in the record’s theme?
Umm… I think it just, it was like we did a triptych, the three previous albums were very London, the last one was miniature London, it felt like we’d done that now. I’ve been in Brighton for nearly five years, and before that I was in Croydon for five years, which is sort of London, so gradually we’ve been moving away. I often do interviews and they’re like, where’s your favourite London haunts, where do you hang out, and I’m like, I don’t know, I only come up in the daytime! Arrrrgh. But it’s actually quite good, because the love of London came from growing up around the edges, and wanting to live in London one day, but living away from it, you kind of get that feeling again, it’s exciting coming up here, seeing what’s changed.

The opening track, ‘Over The Border’, seems to exemplify the album’s theme beautifully.
Yeah, it sets the stall! It’s the last thing we recorded actually. Bob wrote the spoken part, it was great when he did it because when we wrote the song, he was like, I’ve got so many good words for this, but when I first saw it, I was like, this is great. It’s probably the song that brings tears to people’s eyes, it did to me as well. He really cracked it, it’s brilliant.

It’s the bit about ‘when I’m older, will Marc Bolan still matter?’ that got me, because so many of my friends have got older, had kids and stopped coming to gigs, and they tell me that actually, it doesn’t really matter anymore, which seems fairly implausible to me.
We were sort of writing it from the perspective of being older, and some of us having kids… (laughs) I mean yeah, that’s sort of the whole thing, the idea was that it starts in the bedroom… not that way! Ha, no, the teenage bedroom, the dreaming in the bedroom, and then it’s about the exploration, going out, being older, thinking about the decisions that you’ve made…
One thing about having children, I mean, me and Sarah both have kids, you find yourself pushing music on them and hoping, and I have noticed, especially with my son, he listens to this album every night. Subconsciously. He listens to it from nine o’clock every night. But it gives you a new burst, you do literally try to see things how they see things, or try to. So how he listens to music, it’s fun, it’s like watching programmes, you watch things that you’d think were mindless rubbish, but it’s like, this is quite good…

Like Peppa Pig?
No, not that! They’re a bit older now. But yeah, you can sort of live through them, you see them getting excited about stuff… bits of songs. And in a way, I mean, when I started listening to music, I liked funny things, novelty music, and you can see them doing it, like finding a line from a song. My son likes ‘Leader Of The Pack’, obviously I foisted it on him, but he likes it because it’s got a story, and I think that’s why I used to like it so much. So he gets into the more visual side of things. Sometimes he gets it wrong, like Nickelback and I’m like… nooooo…

So was there no temptation to release the album, given the theme that it has, on Record Store Day?
Ooh, yes, we should have done something for that at least!

You did do the Pains of Being Pure At Heart remix for it?
YES! We did do that. Although actually, we did that ages ago. It was like, it was last year, I was wondering if it was going to come out, it was kind of a relief when it did!

On the subject of remixes, there’s a deluxe version of the album right? With mixes by Summer Camp and Two Bears?
Yeah, we did a kind of swap on some of them, and there’s Erol Alkan, Kisses, Beat Connection on there…

How do you go about picking who you want to do it?
Ummm… well, some of them we paid for, some of them we did swaps, it depends on whether people are up for it or not. Part of it was just thinking about people that we thought seemed like they might… like us. Or had a similar aesthetic… Please like us! It’s funny because when you do these kind of things, you don’t often get turned down, but you just think, oh they might not be into it. But mostly everyone does it, and that’s nice.

Do you ever worry when you’re handing these things over, especially with something like the ‘Foxbase Beta’ remixes [Richard X remixed the whole of ‘Foxbase Alpha’] because that’s such a well loved album?
Yeah, well with that, because it was Richard, and he’s such a pro, you think, this will probably be okay… A lot of the mixes it’s like, if they don’t quite get it right it’s not the end of the world, it’s not like it’s a whole album. On the flipside, doing remixes is really nerve wracking, when you send it off, it’s like, ooh, do they like it? Because I like to change things quite a lot, change the key, mess around with it. I remember when we first started out, and there was the Weatherall mix of ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and everyone was saying, oh, that’s the version to have, and we were a bit like, hmmm, I thought ours was better! So I can see that now, especially with youngish bands, if anyone says, that’s better than the original. Now, we’re older, we’re more like, I agree.

You worked on this record with Xenomania? I have this ridiculous image of mad musical scientists in a Xenomania lab, trying to concoct the best musical melody of all time and taking it to Neil Tennant (who is the Wizard of Oz in all this), who decides whether or not it’s perfect. Is that a true representation?
It’s more of a country house than a laboratory! But all the people we worked with on this record, they’ve kind of left, so we were in their home studios. It’s now Ex-Xenomania. X-Xenomania – that’ll look good written down! But yeah, it moved from one place to another. But we were in one that’s like a big country house with a pool outside, different rooms, different sized bedrooms all converted to studios, big fireplaces, and you’d bump into Girls Aloud in the kitchen, and we’d be like, ooh!

What prompted you to work with them?
It started with ‘He’s On The Phone’, actually, way back then. Brian Higgins, who set up Xenomania, he did the mix of that. So the association started then, and we’ve kind of worked with them every since. So we stuck with various people. But luckily they’re all based near Brighton.

The first single from the album was ‘Tonight’, which is about the excitement of going to a gig – do you still get out there?
Not that much, actually. Now that I’m in Brighton and lots of things happen, I can be near them! It’s funny, you know, when there’s a band playing, and you get excited…

Did you get to any of The Great Escape?
Not this year, normally I do and I love that, it’s really exciting because you can just wander around different parties… You end up missing half of someone’s set, and after you’ve had a few, you do just think, ah, I’ll just stay here. But it’s really good, they have some bands on the Pier as well, it’s really good seeing bands on there. I think it’s a really good thing. But weirdly it coincides with the Brighton Festival, so it gets a bit confusing, it’s a shame because they should’ve set it on a different weekend really. Spread things around.

Your album artwork came as a bit of a surprise to me personally, because I have the original screen print on my living room wall. Where did you come across it?
Bob saw it and he thought it was brilliant. We got in touch with the designers, they’re called Dorothy, it’s an art collective rather than a person, and they were really up for it. They let us substitute some songs, I think there was a Meatloaf song on there originally… and it’s been transplanted to Croydon where me and Bob spent our teenage years.

If you have that on your gig posters, it’d be awesome because there’s so much to see…
Yeah, we were really pleased with how it turned out. We have got posters and t-shirts and things for sale at the gigs, maybe tea towels…

On the subject of the live shows, we should talk about Primavera…
Yeah, we’ve been bumped up a bit…

Just a bit, with Bjork cancelling, you’re headlining?
I know, it’s terrifying! It’s quite funny because Sarah said, is everyone free to do it on a different day? And it was yeah, that sounds good. And then we realised what had happened… I had a look at Twitter and there was a couple of people like, nnnaaaah, only a couple! But it was just the fact that they asked us to do it. It was great. It’s brilliant. It’s such a good line up, to be on top of it, is like… wow…
Last time we did it, we had to fly off to Ireland the next day, so we didn’t get to stay the weekend, this time we actually get to stay the night. But last time we had about three hours in a hotel room and then we had to fly off. I remember getting a call saying, come down to the lobby, and I’d woken up with a glass of cava in my hand. I was trying to stay awake! But I thought that was quite good, I didn’t spill it!

One final question, and we have to ask: is Marc Bolan still important?

Saint Etienne’s new album ‘Words & Music By Saint Etienne’ is out now via Universal.

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