Interview: Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley on their gorgeous, hallucinatory new LP ‘I’ve Been Trying to Tell You’
Inspired by "liminal" YouTube videos featuring '70s and '80s pop hits slowed to a druggy crawl, Saint Etienne's 10th album, I've Been Trying to Tell You, is unlike any the UK trio have made before. (Read our review.) Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell put their own spin on the genre, mostly sampling mostly forgotten UK pop hits from 1997 - 2001 (Natalie Imbruglia, The Lighthouse Family, Samantha Mumba, more) which was an era of hope in Britain between Tony Blair being elected Prime Minister after an 18-year conservative Tory reign, and the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
It's a hallucinatory, dreamlike album about how memories change and become distorted over time, but more than anything I've Been Trying to Tell you is a vibe and a mood that recalls the last days of summer and youth when life was good and carefree, or at least seemed that way. It is also distinctly a Saint Etienne album and, in a discography with very few low points, one of their best. You can listen to the album, along with a playlist of the songs sampled on the album, below.
That vibe is even more apparent in the impressionistic I've Been Trying to Tell You film that was directed by high fashion photographer Alasdair McLellan who sets the songs against slow motion images of impossibly good looking young people living carefree lives against idyllic settings including Portmeirion ("The Village" in The Prisoner), Avebury, Doncaster, Grangemouth and London. More than a companion piece, the film is arguably the best version of the album and is especially great on a big screen with a great sound system. It's streaming in the UK via the BFI but North America will have to pick up the DVD.
Just ahead of its release, I chatted with the band's Bob Stanley over Zoom about the new album, the era its drawing from, working in lockdown, the groups sampled on the album, the decline of the single, and Saint Etienne's upcoming plans which include a UK tour and a 30th anniversary box set of their second album So Tough.
Earlier this summer when we were talked about your book on The Fall, you you casually let it leak that that a new record was coming very soon. You weren't kidding.
I wasn't allowed to talk about it at the time, so yeah, that might be the first time I mentioned it.
I've Been Trying to Tell You -- I think it's terrific, unlike anything you guys have done before and as many others have noted, it's got this half-remembered dream, fuzzy memory feel to it. Clearly this came from somewhere other than just sitting down with an acoustic guitar or a keyboard.
It came from just listening to a lot of things. People have been putting up tracks on YouTube for the last decade or so, sort of tagged "liminal" or whatever, and they're almost always other people's records slowed down or distorted or turned into something new. And they're almost always based on American yacht rock or '80s R&B. I've had that stuff on in the background when I've been working quite a lot in the last few years, I suppose, and so it kind of seeped in. We had no real intentions of it being a new album. Initially, we were just kind of playing around. We did an EP that sounded a bit like this that we gave away at a Christmas party about three years ago, but we were just messing around. Because lockdown happened, we had more time to mess around.
We played it to Martin, our manager, saying, "Well, maybe this could be a fan club record." And he said, "Well, I think that should be in your album because it sounds interesting and unlike anything you'd done before." So then we just worked on it. We'd probably been working on it at about three weeks at that point, and then we spent about another two or three months fine tuning it, as you do. The idea was, instead of focusing on the kind of memories that people have been evoking in these almost all-American YouTube clips, we thought, "How about remembering a specific time in Britain?"
At the time we were thinking about the general lack of optimism about the future. No one really talks about the future anymore at all, because everyone is scared of the future. But at the end of the '90s, people were still talking about the year 2000 obviously and looking into the future. So that was the period we picked, starting with the Labor Party winning the election in Britain in '97 to September the 11th, when obviously kind of the modern world as we know it began really. That was the timeframe, and we were just trying to evoke memories of that period.
This is your first record you've had with samples on it of any kind of sort of major way in a long time since So Tough, right?
I think it's probably the first time we've ever done an album where it's almost entirely based around samples. We worked around samples of things and built on them. I suppose Foxbase Alpha itself was a bit like that, but even So Tough, quite a lot of the tracks on that started from scratch. A couple of people said, "Oh, it sounds like your old stuff," and I was a bit disappointed when they said that, because it doesn't sound like anything we've done before. So I'm glad you said it doesn't, but I suppose that's what they mean, is it's sample-based.
I suppose there are antecedents, like that dubby instrumental on So Tough, "Railway Jam." I can hear some of those vibes running through this a little bit.
Yeah, that makes sense. It's quite weird, because we're about to start putting together So Tough 30th anniversary box, so maybe that was back of our minds as well. We haven't said that to anyone yet, but that's going to happen. There's a scoop.
Not to get too sidetracked here, but the box set version of the new album looks amazing.
Yeah, I hope it does. Just with the nature of pressing plants and stuff, everything comes at the last minute, so I haven't seen it yet, but yeah, it should look great. I know the photos exist because we had to sign them all. 9 (Laughs) Alasdair McLellan, who's done the photography and the film, is amazing. He's so talented and we're very lucky. We're very lucky that he's a fan of what we do. He normally works with Adele and people like Beyonce. His work is amazing, and then there are the French designers, M/M Paris, who did the sleeve and likewise normally only work with ultra high-end people. So we've been quite lucky there. It looks amazing, I mean it should look amazing. I love the sleeve. I love the photo so much. It's one of my favorite covers already.
With McLellan's film, this record is such a total package. Everything goes together and compliments each other.
Obviously we always try and do that but I think this is the first time we've actually had a film like this. The Finisterre film came out like a year after the album, so this is the first time that we've actually had a film that accompanies the album at the same time. The images in the film and kind of the narrative arc as is in the film is clearly also trying to reclaim memory. It's about misremembrance and how you might think about your teenage years, and everyone looks as gorgeous as the models do in this film, and in reality, you probably didn't look that good. I certainly didn't when I was 18 anyway. Sarah probably did. (Laughter)
I'm not wrong in that what dialogue there is in the film, it's all just lyrics from your records, right?
Yeah, that was Alasdair's idea, which I really liked. He asked if he could do it and I didn't really know how he was going to do it, but yeah, it's great. I love the way that the models are obviously unfamiliar with the songs, the lyrics, because they were born when some of the songs came out. So yeah. I think that works really well. That was his idea. He knows more about us than we do. He has b-sides and stuff that I've completely forgotten about.
As you said, all the songs that you sampled on here, they're all from that certain area of time. Were these all songs that you knew well? Because I knew only one of these songs, to be honest.
No, not at all. I mean, we wanted it to be by people who were kind of having hits in that time frame because otherwise it wouldn't really be relatable. It had to feel kind of like a foggy memory of an average day in that time period. We wanted it to be people you would have heard on the radio at the time, so we were trolling through albums. I mean, Samantha Mumba, Dido, The Lighthouse Family... We wanted mostly British records, we wanted to keep it quite tight. We could have included American records but we would have felt like we were being a little looser. So yeah, no, they were not songs we knew already. I think that The Lightning Seeds some ought to remember from the time...
That's the only one I know.
Actually, The Lighthouse Family I remember really well. "Raincloud." It was a big radio hit. It wasn't a particularly big hit, but I just remember that little bass piano motif that runs through it, which is what we worked on, what Pete worked on, on the album and then took it somewhere quite different. So no, no, we didn't want it to be songs we were overly familiar with or actual major hits, because it could have ended up sounding like a remix album if we just had that.
Did you become fans of any of these songs in the process?
It wasn't stuff we disliked in the first place, but I think that that period is really interesting because you had everything... maybe this is in Britain, but I think because we'd had this awful government for so long, for 18 years, and it was such a relief when they finally went, that I think everyone just had this huge sigh of relief for about three years. Britpop kind of had been gone really and left nothing in its place, so what you had instead was a lot of bubblegum pop in the wake of the Spice Girls. You had B*Witched and Billie Piper and S Club 7, Steps. I'm sure none of it meant anything in America, apart from the Spice Girls, and indie basically barely existed. I suppose Radiohead became huge. And then there's this sort of mainstream, semiacoustic stuff, like The Lighthouse Family. All of it was very, very soft and it felt like everyone was just putting their feet up and there was no edge to any of it, which is fine by me. I'm a big fan of bubblegum. I don't need anything to sound especially edgy for me to enjoy it. So I think it's a really interesting period, and then it's kind of like when Britney and Christina Aguilera have hits in '99, 2000, that kind of moves everyone towards R&B over here and you get groups like Mis-Teeq, and it gets better basically, but that little sort of bubblegum period, soft pop period, I found quite interesting. That's the stuff we're sampling.
On that note I thought we could go through all the samples on the album. "Music Again," samples "Love of a Lifetime" by Honeyz, a group I'd never heard of until I saw the samples list off this record. Do you remember how you came across this song?
Yeah, by listening to a Honeyz album on Spotify. (Laughter) That's going to be a story with all of these, most likely. I mean, they had a couple of big hits in Britain. I guess they were probably a British version of En Vogue, but really nothing like En Vogue. They weren't as good as En Vogue. It seemed sort of more like some adult R&B over here, middle-aged in a rather rude way. They had a couple of okay hits. So just listening to their album, that song I really liked. That's the intro basically looped with Sarah's vocal on top. That's kind of all we took from that really, just that little acoustic guitar, but yeah.
Did you just find a playlist of songs from that era that somebody else had put together and sort of...
No, no, no. We looked for all ourselves and just swapped... We sent each other tracks, did a shared Spotify playlist and then narrowed it down to the ones that we liked or the ones that either Pete or Gus Bousfield, who worked on the album as well, thought they could do something. So we had this huge, long list originally, and ended up with just five samples, maybe. Six, is it? I can't remember.
One, two, three, four...six. Two tracks don't have any.
No, no. They're things that were us sampling ourselves.
Next up is "Pond House" uses Natalie Imbruglia's "Beauty on the Fire." The vocal hook basically of "Pond House" comes from her song, right?
Yeah, that's her vocal. Actually, her tone isn't that dissimilar to Sarah's. I mean, I think a few people thought it was Sarah, but it's actually Natalie Imbruglia. But that's a really nice song.
I also thought it was Sarah at first, because again, I'd never heard that song before and didn't know.
Did she have a hit in America at all?
Yeah, "Torn" was huge.
That was her huge hit here, too. I mean, she had other hits, but that's the one that everyone remembers.
"Torn" is the only one that I really remember, but I'm sure she had other ones, but this one was not a hit.
No, no, no, no. It was a small... I think it was a top 40 here.
Okay. And then you mentioned The Lighthouse Family's "Raincloud," which is the basis for the next track, "Fonteyn." This is the one that reminded me of "Railway Jam," it's kinda dubby.
Yeah. I mean, I remember that from waking up in the morning and I would listen to Radio Two. I don't know what the equivalent of Radio Two would be in America, those stations that used to be... well, I suppose it would be easy listening.
Right, okay. Yeah. That's what it is. I mean, yeah. They played that. They played that a lot when it came out. So I remember it makes me think of lying in bed in the morning in 1998.
"Little K" uses Samantha Mumba's "Until the Night Becomes the Day." What you were saying about the optimism of the time, the chorus of that song is, "Everything will be okay," or something. It's the most sugary, positive song I'd heard in ages.
Well it wasn't once we were finished with it.
Yeah. I mean, again, it's a nice sort of atmospheric intro on that... Pete worked on that. I love that. "Fonteyn" was originally about eight and a half to nine minutes long. I think we got talked into chopping it down to something more manageable, but I loved the way it was just really hypnotic. So maybe we'll put that out as a bonus track or something, the original, full length version. "LIttle K" was always that length, but again, I love Sarah's spoken vocal on that, and the way Pete played with it is... I don't know. It sounds like sleepwalking. It's really nice. I'm like one of the kids in the video. I relate to that. I used to sleepwalk all the time.
The last two samples in the record, they dip a little bit further back into the '90s, right? The Lightning Seeds' "Joy" was maybe 1990 [1989, actually], I want to say, and then Tasmin Archer's "Ripped Inside," that's off her first record, which I think was '93 or something.
Yeah. I suppose their records, you could have heard on the radio in that time frame. Tasmin Archer is from around the corner from where I live in Yorkshire now, so it felt nice to have her represented on that, a small town called Guiseley. I've gone and watched the football team there quite a lot. Also she was huge for five minutes here. I don't know if she had any hits in America, but "Sleeping Satellite" was a #1 single here. She won a Brit award as best newcomer and stuff, and nothing else happened really. As for The Lightning Seeds. Maybe they had a greatest hits album out around that time or something [They did - Ed], because they would have come up on a playlist for some reason from that time period. They quite likely had a greatest hits by then, I guess, but I think that was the follow-up to "Pure." It was quite a long time before '97.
They were one of those fluke British bands that had a hit in America. "Pure" was a hit everywhere, and then nobody cared about Lightning Seeds at all in America after that, but I know they continued to be quite popular in England, I know.
Yeah. Well, they had their massive football record.
"Four Lions," right?
I'm always adding a lion.
Four Lions was a Chris Morris film.
Right. That's right. Ha.
Which is a great film. But yeah, [Lightning Seeds leader] Ian Broudie is a super talented songwriter. I don't suppose he ever really saw himself as fronting a band. I think "Pure" was a sort of fluke here, and then he had to do it, but I love The Wild Swans. Was he in Care as well? I think in the '80s. I loved a lot of the stuff he did in the '80s. He was such a good songwriter.
"Joy," it is already very sort of chilled out, almost R&B. I really love what happened when you slowed that down to a crawl. "Penlop" is one of the best, one of my favorite songs on the record.
Oh, great. Thank you. The way it kind of builds and then you think it's gone up to the level it's going to finish at, and then it goes up another level. That was all Pete's work. I love when Pete does that. Again, there was a longer version of that, which maybe we'll put out at some point. It's quite weird. I've got to say, it's quite weird putting out singles when they're not real singles. You just go to radio or press with an album track and there's absolutely no kind of physical format whatsoever. I find that slightly odd, but that's just because I'm a bit onerous, I suppose.
I'm guessing you were fairly obsessed with the charts and stuff like that as a kid. You probably knew midweek chart positions and stuff like that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm looking forward to midweeks on this. (Laughs) Actually, we'll have a reasonable midweek and then a plummet on the Sunday. That's normally what happens. But it's easier on midweeks. But it's weird, because midweeks actually get broadcast on the radio now, where obviously they were an industry secret for forever. Now, I suppose just because everyone can find out online that Radio One actually says what midweeks are now.
Yeah. I didn't know about it until I read former The Fall bassist Stephen Hanley's memoir, The Big Midweek.
How weird. Was he talking about The Fall's midweek chart positions then?
Yeah, I guess that was the joke with The Fall. Like in the '80s, Beggars Banquet would tell them that a record was on the way to go to the top 10, and by the time the week's charts came out, it had dropped down to 37 or something like that.
To be honest, that's par for the course with a lot of groups their size and our size. So Tough and Tiger Bay were both #2 midweek. Both stayed in the top 10, but obviously you think on a Sunday, "Maybe actually it might even be number one." No, no. Something will drop it.
You guys should have put that on the hype sticker. "Number 2..."
(Laughs) In small print, "midweek."
I love it when you find old, mostly European singles, and they will say "#1 in the USA or Britain" as a selling point on the sticker the front, and it's like, you know that it wasn't. On some chart it was #1, but it wasn't really #1.
Maybe the dance chart or something like that.
Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Another thing I wanted to mention about the record which I think is unique, most of the songs, they really only have one lyric. Did that have to do with the album's ideas with memory, as if that was the only lyric you remember?
It's more like, I think Sarah wanted her voice to be more of just an instrument than it normally is, I suppose. She's a huge Cocteau Twins fan, which is pretty awesome, so I know that's why she didn't really want... I haven't asked what the lyrics are or what the words are. I don't know what all of them are. Obviously some of them are easier to work out than others, but yeah. So she was recording stuff and then either Pete or Gus were taking what she sent them and then putting it on the record, not necessarily in the way she might have expected it to go on record. So it was nice to sort of collaborate in this slightly abstract way because we weren't all in the studio together. It probably wouldn't have sounded all that different if we had all been in the same place at the same time. But just because of the nature of using samples and playing with them, most of that would have been done in a home studio anyway. And then we'd have probably just done the vocals in the studio together. But to your question, I don't think it's particularly to do with memory. I think it's just, she wanted it to be part of the record as an instrument, her voice.
The box set you guys are putting out has two extra songs on it. Is there any particular story behind those?
No, no. They're just extra songs that we couldn't fit on the album. I think the album was actually a little longer to start with than the couple of songs. The set got tweaked, so it comes in at about 41 minutes, I think. But no, no reason. That was done at the time as -- and it's a Christmas single as well we've done -- which is called "Her Winter Coat," which we're hopefully going to a video for and actually be in the video. That'll be fun. We've got to find somewhere that looks wintery in November, I guess. So I think probably Scotland, I think.
Were there any songs that you had wanted to sample and you just either couldn't get the rights or couldn't figure out exactly what to do? Anything that almost made the record and didn't that you can talk about?
No, not really. I mean, there was... No, not really. I think Martin, our manager, did a great job of managing to clear every sample we used with the artist and the publisher. And because we were sort of playing with their original idea, not everyone was likely to agree to. I think everyone was very nice about it. It just took a little longer than maybe he was hoping it would because of paperwork and Covid, because nobody was in their offices, but everyone was very nice.
So no, there was nothing we couldn't use. Like I said, it came together very quickly. So basically the ideas were all coming together inside the month, the rough versions in three to four weeks. So once we had done that, we never really thought about recording anything more than that, because we already had more than enough for the album. It was just a question of working on the ones we liked the best and tightening them up a bit, and then putting the linking parts between songs.
Saint Etienne are touring in November. Have you worked out how this record is going to fit into everything else? Just when I listened to it, I was like, "I don't know how they're going to play this."
I think we're going to play two or three songs off it. We were thinking maybe we could show the film before we play and then not do any songs off the album. That felt a bit odd, but also playing the whole album seemed quite weird, because what's the point in playing it live when it's nearly all samples? So I mean, we're going to pick two or three of the songs and try and work out how to do them, but we haven't actually thought about it very much yet. I'm sure we'll make it work. Our band are great, very talented. It'll be a challenge for them. Not for me. I'll be sitting there reading the paper, hoping that they can put it together.
Saint Etienne November Tour Dates:
11/18/2021 - Glasgow, St Lukes
11/19/2021 - Sunderland, to be announced
11/20/2021- London, Alexandra Palace Theatre
11/23/2021 - Bristol, Trinity
11/24/2021 - Birmingham, Institute
11/25/2021 - Saltaire, Victoria Hall
11/26/2021 - Liverpool, Grand Central Hall
11/27/2021- Hove, Old Market Tix