The telling adventures of Saint Etienne – the Sarah Cracknell interview

Despite there never being more than a seven-year gap between Saint Etienne LPs over their 31-year existence, when I think about this London-rooted outfit – built predominantly around Sarah Cracknell and co-founders Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs – the years 1990 to 1995 spring to mind first, treading my own path to their soundtrack.

I always admired where they were at culturally, sonically and visually, and when I hear ‘Only Love Can Break your Heart’, the Moira Lambert-fronted Neil Young cover that launched them, I’m transported back to the summer of Italia ’90, a timeframe in which I introduced my beloved to Cornwall and worked as far afield as the Isle of Wight to earn enough for world travels, while remaining ensconced on the London and South-East music scene.

By the time they re-issued ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ off the back of debut LP, Foxbase Alpha, my backpacking adventures were done but the wanderlust remained, saving up for my next trip, a holiday in Tolon, Greece, serving as a stopgap amid sorting office work-shifts and weekend UK trips visits, with plenty more live engagements but my music fanzine by then replaced by another engineered around frequent home and away Woking FC terrace engagements.

When ‘You’re in a Bad Way’ – still my favourite ever Saint Etienne moment – and the So Tough LP landed in early ’93, I was into my last year in Surrey, still squeezing in social and unsocial hours alongside a Royal Mail day-job but planning ahead to a North West move, Sarah’s festive duet with Tim Booth on ‘I Was Born on Christmas Day’ playing as I carried the next alphabetical third of my record collection into my better half’s Victorian terrace home as she realised I might actually be moving in after four and half years of 500-mile round-trips.

And as the Saints went Europop with ‘He’s on the Phone’ just after my 28th birthday, I’d not long since ditched a fairly miserable stop-gap building society job for uni, setting off into journalism, book and TV manuscripts to one side for a while, a new phase underway.

So when I learned that new Saint Etienne LP, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You – out now via Heavenly Recordings – is all about optimism, youth and the late ‘90s, it took me a while to get my head into that space, recalling where I was then … and Saint Etienne themselves, by then having vaulted the Heavenly Recordings stable gate for Creation, ‘Sylvie’, ‘The Bad Photographer’ and Good Humor signalling a welcome gear change into a less dance-pop era, more akin to The Cardigans, perhaps. But I wasn’t listening so hard at the time, more’s the pity, probably wrapped up in a world of morning and weekly newspaper deadlines, match reporting and occasional Aegean and Mediterranean holidays.

What’s more, by the time of their ambient and trip-hop statement, Sound of Water, in the summer of 2000, I had a five-month-old daughter and life had changed again. And truth be told, it’s only in recent times I’ve caught up with and appreciated both of those records.

Those were the band’s fourth and fifth studio long players, with the new record their 10th, accompanied by a film of the same name directed by acclaimed photographer/film-maker Alasdair McLellan, who also provides stills photography.

Locations in the film – Avebury, Portmeirion, Doncaster, Grangemouth and London – help evoke that era through a fog of memory, the sonic and visual results described as ‘beautiful, hypnotic and all-enveloping’, Alasdair seeing his starting point for the project as ‘an interpretation of my memories from the time I first started to listen to Saint Etienne’s music’. As he put it, ‘At that time, I was a bored teenager in a village near Doncaster, South Yorkshire; a place where very little happened. I now look back at that time as something quite idyllic – even the boredom seems idyllic – and a big part of its soundtrack was Saint Etienne’.

The film premiered last week, kicking off a BFI The Films of Saint Etienne weekend of screenings and Q&As on London’s Southbank, its tie-in LP already inspiring Daniel Avery, Jane Weaver and Vince Clarke remixes, with Saint Etienne also set to tour in November. All of which gave me the excuse to seek out Sarah Cracknell to tackle the band’s past, present and future.

I started by telling her I’d played a lot of the LP that week, first in the background, slowly taking it in more and more, increasingly impressed, having that morning also had a first look at its trailer – additionally intrigued by Alasdair’s film.

“I know. Isn’t he brilliant! He’s been amazing. He interpreted the music so well.”

What came first – Alasdair’s vision, the songs, or a bit of both? Did he work on what you sent him?

“First of all, we had another album we’d been making in a tiny studio, with a lovely man called Shawn Lee {who co-produced the band’s last LP, 2017’s Home Counties} in Finsbury Park. It was nearly finished, but then restrictions happened. But also, Bob and Pete started messing around, taking old records and ‘smushing’ them up … for want of a better word!

“Alasdair at first was going to work on the other album, but then heard some of the new songs, and around then our manager said, ‘This is great, you should do an album of this,’ especially now we could do things a bit more remotely. So Alasdair got into it, and started working on it. He’s been all over the country, and it’s amazing what he’s done, especially during lockdown. We sent him songs bit by bit, and then he got the full album, and they work so well as a pair.”

Was Sarah looking forward to the BFI film season and the reaction? Or is it all a bit strange after so long away from the public glare?

“Well, there’s always that feeling, when you put an album or film out. You just don’t know. The people who’ve heard the album and seen the film are all quite close to us, so maybe they’re just saying they like it! They’re opinions we trust, but we just don’t know until it’s out there.

“I was looking forward to the premiere and screenings until they told me I had to be part of the Q&A. Ha! That’s the bit I’m most concerned about!”

Strange, isn’t it, after so long. A few artists I’ve spoken to have never felt more nervous about getting out there again. We want to be, but it’s easy to build it up in your mind that it’s going to be difficult. You can be on a roll, then it stops, and you end up over-thinking it all. Strange times.

“It is, and there’s also, ‘If I start doing this, are they going to stop me again?’. I hope not though.”

The new LP lands 30 years after the release of debut LP, Foxbase Alpha, the latest addition constructed largely from samples and sounds drawn from the years 1997-2001, a period topped and tailed by Labour’s election victory and the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.

Was the optimism of that era a lost golden age, or a period of naïvety, delusion and folly? Well, Bob, Pete and Sarah contest that the collective folk memory of any period differs from the reality, and tell us I’ve Been Trying to Tell You is an album about memory, how it works, how it tricks you and creates a dream-like state. It also taps into the way we think of our youth, a sense of place, and where we come from, the new record made remotely in collaboration with film/TV composer Gus Bousfield, who contributed to two songs and co-produced with Pete Wiggs.

While Pete’s in Hove on the East Sussex coast these days, and Bob’s in Bradford, West Yorkshire, Sarah has been in Oxfordshire a long time now, having bought a house there around 20 years ago, transforming it slowly from the initial ‘wreck’ she says it was. So it seems that the period the LP focuses on also marked the end of her London days.

“Yeah, absolutely. I was living in and around West London. It was nothing like this! In fact, my youngest is now in sixth form and wondering what he’s going to do next, and says he might go to uni or college, but he’s only going to London!”

I’m six months younger than Sarah (she wears it far better, of course) and like her, I guess, first got to regularly see live music and obsess about it from the early ‘80s, yet also – like Saint Etienne – regularly harked back to ‘60s influences. And what I still struggle to grasp is that today the ‘90s are as far away as that era was to us back then.

“You’re making me feel very old now! I know though, and that fascination with that period – especially with my son for the ‘90s – is really the same as us looking back at the ‘60s. It’s just one of those things, isn’t it.”

When we were growing up, we did have all that ’50s nostalgia – from American Graffiti to Grease and Happy Days – but now it’s like, ‘The ‘90s? That was only yesterday, wasn’t it?’.

“I know! Ha!”

But in the same way the ‘60s was about far more than The Beatles and the Stones to me, the ‘90s was about far more than all those nostalgia documentaries suggest. It wasn’t all just about Blur or Oasis chart battles, or The Spice Girls stealing their thunder. And Saint Etienne were a key part of all that.

What’s more, if their latest release is an album about optimism, youth and the late ‘90s, we all need a bit of that optimism right now, don’t we?

“Precisely. For the last 18 months to two years, there’s not been a lot of optimism, and there was around then … although slightly misguided optimism perhaps. It’s about exploring that, and how you can remember things not quite as they were – a bit blurry, through gauze. You don’t remember the intricacies. You just have a feeling about it.”

I get what you say about that period – topped and tailed by Labour’s election victory and the Twin Towers attack – being the end of an era, but it’s easy for us to blank that out now as we hurtle towards new calamities in a period defined by that disastrous Brexit vote, the pandemic, and so on.

I tend to think of the 2012 Olympics as the end of the era now, as loosely defined in Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s celebration of all that was good about the UK in the preceding years at the opening ceremony – not least the NHS and Welfare State. But maybe you’re right too.

“I know what you mean about that whole 2012 Olympics – I’ve never felt so uplifted. I was watching it with the whole of my husband’s family in Italy. It was amazing and made me feel really positive. A good point.”

Am I right in thinking Saint Etienne were there when they were levelling the land ahead of the construction of the Olympic Stadium?

“Yeah, we were filming in the Lea Valley. I was only there a couple of days, but Pete was there the whole time, I think. I don’t know if this is public knowledge, but they started filming, and then it was announced. So it was a good job they’d started documenting that site, before it completely and utterly changed.”

Idly flicking through Wikipedia, I see you’re down, genre-wise, as an exponent of house, alternative dance, synthpop, indie pop and alternative rock. And that’s just you, not the band. But I guess it’s good that people still struggle to put definitive labels on you.

“Yeah, I’m very proud! I didn’t know that. That’s really interesting. That’s great that I’m not to be pigeon-holed!”

Does it surprise you that this is somehow the 10th Saint Etienne LP, 30-plus years having passed? Because despite what I said before, it seems an age since I first heard ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and delved deeper.

“It does … and then it seems like yesterday! I was talking to Bob yesterday – we were doing an interview together on Zoom – and because the guy was asking specifically about Foxbase Alpha, at that point – and I think all three of us would agree – we were amazed we’d even made an album, let alone consider making another one … let alone this many!

“I think before an album’s out, we don’t really know if we’re going to make another one, ever, to be honest.”

I suppose that keeps you on your toes.

“Yeah, and I think that’s probably got a lot to do with us not having been on a major label … or at least always through an indie. We’ve never been locked into five albums or something ridiculous like that!”

How aware were you of ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ when it came out? Did you hear that before you were involved?

“Yes, I did. I was a big fan of the record, and the reason I ended up meeting Bob and Pete was through … I grew up in Windsor, and was good friends with a lot of people there, and can’t remember who it was who first played that to me, it may have been my friend, Jonny Male, but Bob was going out with a girl from Windsor who I knew, called Celina …”

Was that Celina Nash, who’s on the debut LP’s cover?

“That’s right, and I heard the record and really liked it, and Bob and Pete were looking for someone to sing ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’. That was it, really. That’s all they were looking for. What they wanted was a different singer for different records, so she put them in touch with me.”

Like Erasure, the original premise for Vince Clarke was to have different vocalists. Which is possibly the first time anyone’s compared you to Andy Bell, another singer who came in to do a job and stuck around, to great effect.

“Ha! Yeah. My theory is that touring would become a logistical nightmare – you’d need one bus for all the singers, and another for the rest!”

It’ll be 30 years and six days between the release of Foxbase Alpha and the new record. And seeing as you mentioned ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’, Bob sees that as the first song him and Pete wrote with lyrics, and reckons – according to a piece he wrote for Robin Turner’s book celebrating Heavenly Recordings 30th anniversary, …Believe in Miracles, they ‘got very lucky in the studio’. Was that a special moment, hearing that track back in the studio for the first time?

“Yeah, absolutely. It was amazing. I was surprised, and I think they were! Like you say, they hadn’t really written anything before. But I think that was a confidence thing – they just didn’t know they could write, but once they started they were on a roll.”

You say of the new record, “It’s the first sample-driven album we’ve made since So Tough and it’s been a really refreshing experience, such fun! It’s both dreamy and atmospheric, late summer sounds.” Is there a sense for you that So Tough was the first proper album, in that you received writing credits for ‘Avenue’ and ‘You’re in a Bad Way’? Or did you already feel properly part of it?

“I think I already felt part of it. Bob and Pete had known each other since they were tiny, and they had a lot of in-jokes. It took a while, but I never felt they were laughing at me … at least I don’t think they were! They would just be sniggering about something in a corner.

“I felt very comfortable with them, and think with Foxbase Alpha, because of the Mercury Music Prize nomination, blah blah blah, I already felt quite a part of the band. But I know what you mean – with So Tough, that’s when I started to put my ideas across. And I’d been writing songs since I was about 15 … in my band.”

She sounds almost apologetic at the end there, but I’m not letting it slip by. Was that with her Windsor outfit, The Worried Parachutes? 

“Oh God! How did you find that out?”

Sorry, I did warn you I’d been delving online.

“Hilarious!”

Tell me more about that band.

“Err … kind of electronic pop, lots of keyboards, three girls originally, all from Windsor. We sort of folded, then the bass player and I went off and did our own thing for quite a few years. His name’s Mick Bund. We had two bands together. I stopped doing that around ’87 and went to drama school in ’88 for a year, thinking I’d be an actress. I always had an interest in that. I came out and did a few fringe productions, then met Bob and Pete.”

It was clearly meant to be. So were songs like ‘You’re in a Bad Way’ new, or something you’d had a while?

“No, that was new.”

Although I’ve been in Lancashire since early 1994, my roots are in Guildford, moving north between the recording and release of the third Saint Etienne LP, Tiger Bay

“Oh really. Home Counties as well, then!”

Definitely, and Windsor’s Community Arts Centre and The Old Trout were fairly regular venues for me from ’88.

“Oh, I played there a couple of times!”

I thought you might have, with London and the South East my patch in the days I wrote a fanzine, going up to town, seeing bands all over …

“Yeah, didn’t we all!”

Exactly, and the subject of Windsor-born Andrew Weatherall – three years Sarah’s senior – has come up a few times lately in interviews, Brix Smith talking of his inspirational words and Dot Allison about the compilation tapes he put her way, introducing her to new sounds. How was it with Saint Etienne and Andrew?

“Well, I knew Andrew from Windsor, but he got involved before I joined, with ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’. I didn’t know that then, but that was via Jeff {Barrett, the Heavenly Recordings head honcho), who put Bob and Pete Andrew’s way. But I knew Andy from when I was about 15. He was an incredibly influential person, such an inspiration, so funny, and really warm. He was just lovely, and it’s terribly sad …”

We’ve all got stories of people we’ve lost this last year or so, but he was one of the more high-profile departures.

“Oh God, yeah, and he was so loved. I went to the funeral and there were so many people there … and a lot of tears.”

Going back to your Windsor days, did you know instinctively where you wanted to be and what you wanted to do? I’m guessing acting was just part of the bigger picture – performing and doing something creative.

“Well, yeah, I knew from when I was really small that I wanted to be on a stage, doing something creative. My Dad was in the film industry and I’d go on set and on location, and just loved everything about that and any kind of creative process. I was writing poems and doing drama exams at school,  singing … It was always something I wanted to do.”

Sarah’s father, Derek Cracknell – who died a few months before Foxbase Alpha’s release, and to whom her 1997 debut solo LP, Lipslide, was dedicated – had a distinguished film career, more than 50 assistant director credits ranging from the Boulting Brothers’ Heavens Above to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, Bond movies Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun, through to 1989’s Batman. He also took that iconic photograph of six-year-old Sarah used on the cover of So Tough.

As for the new record, the guitar line underpinning ‘I Remember It Well’ reminds me of ‘Dreaming’ by Blondie. In fact, you could argue that track is more ‘Dreaming’ than ‘Dreaming’.

“Ha! I suppose it is, isn’t it!”

Similarly, ‘Fonteyn’ has a bit of ‘Love is in the Air’ about its main hook. I guess what I’m saying that while Saint Etienne from the start were very much about the future and possibilities, you always had a foot in pop’s past too.

“Yeah, we love things from the past, absolutely, but like to turn things into something we feel is looking to the future. Exactly what you just said, really! And the thing about using samples again is that it’s such good fun, making something new out of something old.”

I suppose the concept of music being married with something visual, filmic and the world of multi-media has always been there, not least with your film soundtrack contributions, on Finisterre in 2002 with its accompanying DVD, and the Royal Festival Hall artists-in-residence project.

“Yeah … it’s not a surprise, is it!”

Tell me about the beguiling yet rather mysterious ‘Penlop’, not least as it’s maybe the track we hear you most on (and is my favourite number on the new LP). Is there a story here about travel and Bhutan, perhaps?

“Erm … I’m avoiding talking about that kind of thing, and our lyrics. There’s a lot of stuff, vocally, on the album that’s pretty abstract, and it’s meant to be part of the music. There’s no lyrical narrative. The narrative really comes from the film. When they’re paired together, the music just goes with it.”

So the ear, and in this case the eye too, is the beholder perhaps.

“Exactly! We don’t want to spoil it. It’s like when you imagine lyrics from other songs. Often, when you hear what it really is, you’re quite disappointed – the version in your mind was a lot better.”

That took us briefly to The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’, and how I was initially disappointed discovering Hugh Cornwell wasn’t in fact laid down with his ‘mancherums’ – which I presumed were some kind of exotic, potent Far Eastern cigarette – but that, ‘with my mind she runs’.

“I always thought it was something Asian, like a guru … a kind of ‘Sexy Sadie’!”

Ah, whom of course ‘laid it down for all to see’ … and ‘broke the rules’. Maybe Sarah’s interpretation wasn’t so far from mine after all.

Saint Etienne have clearly come a long way from Foxbase Alpha, so to speak, the band that told us ‘London Belongs to Me’ back in September ’91 having put their latest record together remotely, in Bradford, Hove and Oxford. And you can’t say that about many LPs, surely.

“Exactly! And it worked really well, thanks again to my useful youngest teen, who’s really good at ProTools and all that sort of thing. He recorded it and was my vocal engineer! To be honest, without him I’d have had to learn how to do these things.”

Incidentally, you probably know this, but Sarah has two sons with husband Martin Kelly, Saint Etienne’s manager and Jeff Barrett’s former label partner, who also co-founded the legendary Heavenly Social club and was with fellow Heavenly act, East Village. But I’ll let her carry on …

“We’ve done so many Zooms that we feel we’ve seen each other a lot, but I said to Bob yesterday, ‘When did I actually see you in the flesh the last time?’. At least 18 months ago. I’ve at least seen Pete – he came here one day.”

I was interviewing someone recently who told me he was so relieved ours was a phone call rather than a Zoom – it meant he didn’t have to worry about what he was wearing and that he might occasionally be staring off into space.

“Yeah, I know! And where I am, there’s broad daylight straight in my face. It’s really brutal!”

And would you be tempted to follow that remote formula again, or will it be about sharing rooms next time?

“I think we’d like to share rooms, to be honest. We often start sending ideas across, then we’ll all make up tunes, scribble some words, then we’ll go in a studio, start pulling it together.”

Well, long may it continue. This LP’s getting under my skin, and I’m looking forward to seeing the film too.

“Oh good. I think you’ll love that. It really adds to it. It’s a good combi.”

I’ve Been Trying to Tell You is out now via Heavenly Recordings (HVNLP196) in digital, vinyl, CD, CD-DVD and boxset formats, with details here. Rough Trade also made it their September album of the month, offering an exclusive sky-blue vinyl edition with three-track remix CD involving mixes by Daniel Avery, Jane Weaver and Vince Clarke. There’s also a Heavenly edition with free flexidisc (linked via their Bandcamp shop here), and a ‘super deluxe’ limited-edition boxset with signed prints, film poster, DVD, exclusive 10” vinyl and 12” album.

The film of the same namepremiered on London’s BFI Southbank HQ in early September, with the trailer here, part of the Films Of Saint Etienne season, screenings accompanied by Q&As with the band and their collaborators, also including This Is Tomorrow, Asunder, Finisterre, How We Used to Live, Lawrence of Belgravia, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? and Saint Etienne: Shorts Programme.

Saint Etienne tour dates: Glasgow St Luke’s, November 18th; Sunderland (venue to be confirmed), November 19th; London’s Alexandra Palace Theatre, November 20th; Bristol Trinity, November 23rd; Birmingham Institute, November 24th; Saltaire Victoria Hall, November 25th; Liverpool Grand Central Hall, November 26th; and Hove Old Market, November 27th, with tickets available here

For all the latest, keep in touch via the official Saint Etienne website and via Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, with more links available via Spotify and YouTube.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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