Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley talks new LP, Kane West remix, tour & more in BV interview
Saint Etienne are gearing up to release Home Counties, the UK trio's ninth album and first in five years. Where 2012's Words and Music was a slick, synthesized love letter to pop, made with a team of pro hitmakers (including Richard X and former Xenomania members Tim Powell and Nick Coler), Home Counties is a literal retreat from the city into the pastoral suburbs. Organic instruments get a starring role this time, making it a bit like 1998's Good Humor. The band still keep an eye on the dancefloor though, and have given over songs from Home Counties to be remixed. Kane West, aka Gus Lobban of Kero Kero Bonito (and PC Music fame), has ripped apart single "Magpie Eyes" and turned it into a squelchy techno groover. Listen to the track, which premieres here:
Bob Stanley, one third of the band along with Sarah Cracknell and Pete Wiggs, splits his time these days between music, new fatherhood and writing. In addition to getting ready for the band's upcoming tour, he's currently working a new book, Too Darn Hot: The Story of Popular Music, which traces the pre-rock n' roll history of recorded music. It's a sequel to 2013's fantastic Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop (which you should definitely pick up) and will hopefully be out in 2018. I talked with Bob about the new album, the suburbs, the new book, The KLF and lots more. Read on:
BV: This is the first Saint Etienne album in five years. How does it come that you make a new record at this point? Are you waiting for inspiration or do you think like "Well, it's been five years, we haven't made a record." How does it come about?
Bob Stanley: I wouldn't say it's waiting for inspiration (laughs), 'cause I suppose we're doing a little something in between. No, I mean generally, it's obviously there's no career path or chart statistics or whatever. No "Highlight Picks" at Billboard to worry about anymore so it's just when we feel like we want to make some new music together. I think with this album, it was really because we were doing Foxbase Alpha shows and doing the anniversary sets together. It just felt like it'd be nice to put some new music out after playing our 25-year-old first album over and over again. So I think that was certainly part of it. It came together very quickly, recorded and mixed in about three weeks, which is kind of a world record for us. So no it wasn't like we spent five years making it or waiting five years for inspiration to strike.
So all the songs were new. They weren't like things you had tucked away previously.
No, I think well ... Sarah had gave us these two songs that she'd done which were virtually finished, which were "Dive" and "Take It All In," which I think were both absolutely 10 out of 10. So it was kind of like that, it set the bar high for us and gave me the confidence to say "Well, we can use this as the basis of a sound,' use the same producer and make a record quickly. Personally, I've always been an advocate of working fast on records and writing to a deadline. It doesn't always mean you're going to write a great song, but you can come up with five times more than if you were worrying about snare sounds. It's much better to have loads of outtakes, rather than spending ages working on one song.
Right, that's better than My Bloody Valentine just listening to tube amps with no guitars plugged in for weeks and weeks. Weirdly I'm currently reading that Creation Records book My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry for the Prize which is also the name of a song on your new album, and there are lots of stories of bands taking forever to make an album. Primal Scream, House of Love, Teenage Fanclub...
Yeah, yeah. [Creation Records founder] Alan McGee was managing us around the time all that was happening and I remember going to see Teenage Fanclub one time in the studio when they were making Thirteen. We went in to the studio and they were all just playing pool, and Alan went mad "Do you know how much the studio cost?! I'm going bankrupt!" That wasn't a very inspiring record either, so I think that one was just a bit short of ideas. We don't feel obliged to make a record every two years. We like working to a set idea, and we came up with the title to this early on. We like to set ourselves a target so it's a bit like a business meeting I suppose.
I know a little bit about the record, "Home Counties" is basically the suburbs?
It's the ring of counties around London. So London isn't included, but it would be like ... Middlesex, Surrey, Essex -- not that these will be familiar to Americans -- it's a lot of suburbia, a lot of people who get the train into work to London. So it's not London politically, it tends to be pretty right-wing ... "stock-broker belts" would be another phrase that people use to describe the area. But it's where we grew up. Me and Pete were in Surrey, and Sarah was in Windsor, in Berkshire. A lot of bands are from the home counties. The Rolling Stones are from the home counties, so it's kind of like ... the sort of dull suburbs and small towns that inspire you to move to London, because its not far away. Like most people do with their home towns, the three of us have got a love-hate relationship with it. It's a beautiful countryside, some amazing places and some beautiful architecture, but it's kind of ... very conservative places, which is like the heart of England. And it's an interesting phrase, home counties, that kind of suggests that the rest of the country really isn't home. Sort of an arrogant name.
You said it's associated with sort of right-wing, and just the time table.... you were writing a lot of this when Brexit was happening, right?
It was all just after that. There's nothing especially direct about it. However, we were actually in the studio when the American election happened, and the lyric to "What Kind of World" -- "What kind of world is this that we're living in" -- we wrote the lyric the next day... It obviously colors the record. You've always gotta write about that's going on around you, even though it wasn't directly about Brexit. London was strongly "pro remain," but when you go to suburban London it was like less strongly "remain", and then when you got to the home counties it was like "LEAVE." Of course all these places have like no immigration, high employment, nothing, no reason at all to leave but.... they're idiots (laughs).
So when you came up with the idea of the record, did you -- maybe on a whiteboard, start writing down song themes, or character sketches. The record sort of feels like a whole bunch of character sketches to me. Did you come up with "Oh, I want to do a song about the train driver"?
No, not really, because it was all done so quickly. We decided that we'd all write songs independently and bring them to the studio. We always basically do that, start a song, bring it in then work on it together. But we were working so quickly, all three of us were finishing writing in the studio and then working on it with Shawn Lee the producer. But no, no, no, there was no whiteboard. (Laughs.) Though funny enough, we have done huge whiteboards before, it's always fun to have in the studio to see where you are with each song, but not this time. Lyrically, was a loose cycle, we didn't want to talk about it too much because then you're basically under pressure. It's better to keep it a loose overall subject and then you can write things, maybe nostalgic things about where we grew up. "Sweet Arcadia" I wrote about settlers in Essex who built these strange shanty towns in the '20s and '30s. So really it's all over the place, lyrically.
What do you write on? What instrument?
Well, Pete's got his home studio. I tend to hum melodies into my phone and write lyrics on a piece of paper. And I think Sarah does the same. Pete's more technically capable than me.
Who is the main songwriter for "Underneath the Apple Tree?"
That's Pete's backing track and Sarah's lyric.
If I was your A&R guy, that would be what I'd push for to be the single.
That's interesting! wanted to start the album with that, but because we're democratic, I got overruled. But it was a very strong opening track. I was gonna say, I think the lyrics were about when she was a kid, she buried her pet cat that had died under the apple tree. It's all a bit more opaque than that, but that was the inspiration.
So what can you tell me about the Kane West remix of "Magpie Eyes"? How do you go about selecting remixers these days?
Kane West, as you may know, is Gus of Kero Kero Bonito. So Gus was working on a couple of songs from the album as well which made him a shoe-in for this. Kane being his house alter ego. I think my favorite music in the last two or three years, new music, has been the PC Music. As he's one of the top guys in the collective, I was thrilled to get a remix from one of them. That would be great to get a Danny L Harle remix if we could. That was very exciting for me, though I'm a bigger PC Music fan than Pete or Sarah. That scene definitely divides opinion.
Do you listen to a lot of new music at this point?
Well, currently I'm writing a book about the birth of popular music which begins at the start of the 20th century, with ragtime and 78s, and then up through the '50s. So, to be honest, that's what I'm listening to most of the time and have been for the last couple of years. You probably can't hear the influence of that on the album, though. (Laughs) So yeah, it's a bit weird, because I feel like I've lost touch with what's going on now. Obviously, I'll hear new music. If you recommend things, I'll hear it, and ... someone put me onto vaporwave, actually, just before we started doing the album. I was listening to a lot of that, which I'd completely missed when that was actually happening. I started two years too late on that. I liked a lot of that. But no, really, I've been listening to Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong and Mel Tormé.
And reams of sheet music.
Right, I've been listening to piano rolls.
I imagine how big this book will be. How far are you into it?
It's not nearly finished. It's going to take me a little while longer. We've got a baby now who's 14 months old, so ...
Thank you! That's kind of a ... change there, our abilities to do anything, really. So yeah, when he was born, I didn't write any of the book for about six months. But I've gotten back to being able to dedicate at least one day a week to writing, which is great. My deadline's Christmas, which is probably a bit unlikely.
I'm a huge fan of your last book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop. The only thing it was missing was an accompanying Spotify playlist of all the songs you talk about it.
Yeah, I just figured that somebody else would do that. And they did. There's quite a few, I think. Someone did, like, every single song mentioned in the book.
The thing that struck me with Yeah, Yeah, Yeah was that -- here's how I approached the book initially -- I went immediately to something I already knew about and I enjoyed it so much I knew that everything else would probably be just as interesting.
Oh, that's good. Yeah, I mean ... good to hear. Was there anything you discovered while you were reading it that sticks out?
You know, it was like two years ago, so it's a little fuzzy. I didn't really know all that much about techno, to be honest, and you really opened my eyes to a lot of that stuff. Also I remember being turned onto The Equals and I definitely dug into them more through the book.
Oh, really, wow! Good! I thought I barely mentioned them, that's good.
Also, after reading the chapter on The KLF I wished you'd written an entire book about them.
That's quite funny because I did a thing for the Times of London, they asked me to do a thing about the 20 best bands that ever existed. At #1 I put The Beatles, number two, the KLF. We got lots of angry letters from retired majors or whatever. Then they got in touch with [KLF member] Bill Drummond and he wrote like a response to it saying I was an idiot and that The Rolling Stones should've been #2. (laughter).
That's great. As far as The KLF's supposed return this year...do you have any theories on what's gonna happen on August 23rd?
No. Hmm, well.... there's a book, isn't there? No, I've no idea. No idea. We'll see what happens.
So you're touring here later this year. The new record has more of an organic feel, almost like [1998's] Good Humor. Will it be a different live configuration this time?
Yes, it will suit the new album. So it'll be quite different, and different than what we did last time. Someone mentioned Good Humor the other day, actually. It's probably true. Probably not lyrically, but yeah, not a million miles away. When you make an album in a studio full of vintage gear that's going to happen.
I saw the In Good Humor tour in New York and that was a real treat, so ... I would love to see you guys with more of an actual band again. Not that I didn't like the last tour, but you know.
Yeah, it's always fun to mix things up. Makes things more interesting for us. Generally, the feeling I get from lots of fans is they're quite happy when it's a purely electronic setup, but we've got a good band. We've also got a new drummer we've never worked with before, who's doing his first gig in about 10 days. Yeah, it'll be good and I'm really looking forward to it.
Speaking of Good Humor, the 20th anniversary is next year. You did the 25th anniversary for Foxbase Alpha last year. Are there more reissues on the way?
I think we're thinking of doing a So Tough 25th anniversary box set next year, and then Tiger Bay a year on from that. So we've been going through our photo albums and everything, so I'm pretty sure that's the plan. We've been talking about playing Good Humor live, we'll see, we've got a band that can do it as well. That would be good fun.
I think that's my favorite record, like all in all.
That really was a lot of fun for me, because we had taken a break for a while before it. Sarah did a solo album, me and Pete ran a record label so getting back together for that, we all lived together in a house in Malmo, Sweden for six weeks. It was a bit like being in The Monkees.
Catch Saint Etienne on tour in the U.S. this fall.
Saint Etienne - 2017 Tour Dates
Sep 24 – Boston, MA – Somerville Once Ballroom
Sep 25 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom
Sep 26 – Brooklyn, NY – Music Hall of Williamsburg
Sep 27 – Washington, DC – U Street Music Hall
Sep 29 – Chicago, IL – Park West
Oct 2 – Seattle, WA – Neptune
Oct 4 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
Oct 5 – Pomona, CA – Glass House
Oct 6 – Los Angeles, CA – The Fonda Theatre