Of all the music that can be said to have soundtracked the 1990s, at least once you step beyond the Alice in Grungey Britblur axis with which the history books now berate us (was 1998 really the year of Rialto? No wonder nobody remembers it), few bands did the job better than Saint Etienne.
Across their first three albums at least, and a wealth of perfectly poised singles and remixes, Saint Etienne were not simply the antidote to all the soul searching, needle poking, belly aching fol-de-rol that passed for teenaged kicks elsewhere.
They were also one of the few musical moments when a love of the past and a taste for the present could combine without turning into something that wasn’t as good as either. Sixties soul merged with modern dance, Brill Building pop played through a prism of London fog; and purveyors of the kind of records that make every day feel like summer.
Unless it’s a song about autumn, spring or winter. Or Christmas. Saint Etienne recorded some great Christmas records.
They’re still at it today, as well, with a new album being talked about for next year, and some live shows geared around their Foxbase Alpha album on the horizon. But there’s so much more going on as well. Bob Stanley authors pop histories and oversees the gorgeously retro Croydon Municipal label; Pete Wiggs works in the world of soundtracks; and vocalist Sarah Cracknell has just released a solo album, Red Kite – which, apart from upholding every last tradition for which the band is so justly feted, also shatters the eighteen-year silence which followed her debut, 1997’s Lipslide.
Cracknell sat down with Goldmine to field the most blindingly obvious question of them all -why so long since Lipslide?
SC: “No particular reason, just a little gap in the Saint Etienne schedule, the same as last time. Bob’s pretty busy writing at the moment and Pete’s been doing some fab film soundtracks. I had two songs kind of floating around, but the rest was written with the album in mind over a few months.
“Quite a few of them were written with Carwyn Ellis who coproduced the album along with Seb Lewsley, some with Mark Waterfield and Lawrence Oakley, who I have worked with a lot over the years, and a couple with a local friend of mine Robin Bennett from the Dreaming Spires. I also covered a beautiful song called ‘The Mutineer’ by Loose Salute. A lot of the writing was done in my home using just guitar or my Wurlitzer Butterfly Grand Piano, a beautiful thing.
GM: Tell us about Carwyn Ellis – how did you come to work with him?
SC: “Carwyn is amazing, he writes great songs, plays beautifully and has fantastic production ideas. I knew I would be in safe hands working with him and Seb Lewsley. I knew them both already, I’d done some recording with Seb years ago at Edwyn Collins’ studio, and had got to know Carwyn over the last few years.
GM: You also work with Nicky Wire and the Rails….
SC: “I’ve known Nicky since our early days on Heavenly, we were label mates with the Manics. Recently I’d heard some solo stuff that he’d done, and just felt his voice would be perfect for ‘Nothing Left To Talk About,’ it’s got so much charm. He’s also fond of a feather boa, like me.
“James used to play guitar live with Saint Etienne a while ago, so he’s a friend and I love The Rails. I knew that he and Kami would bring something extra to ‘Take The Silver,’ a sprinkling of fairy dust!”
GM: You’ve mentioned going back to old Marianne Faithfull, Beach Boys, Joe Meek, Felt etc records while you recording Red Kite. What was it about those (and others) that attracted you?
SC: “There was quite an assortment of influences, some of them for the production style and some of them more for the feel. We wanted to feature some lesser-used instruments like the Beach Boys, Joe Meek and Ennio Morricone have.
“[For example], ‘Never Too Late’ is one of my favourites; we really wanted to do something that sounded a bit 60s baroque pop, and I think we pulled it off. I also really like ‘On The Swings,’ it was one of those songs that just fell in to place. I think it was the first vocal I did, so it feels a bit special to me.
GM: What would you say is your personal “golden age” of pop music – and how has that rubbed off on you?
SC: “Well, I guess for me it would have to be 60s and 70s Pop, the former because it was probably the greatest, and the latter because it was such fun and I remember the mid to late 70’s. A decade when bands made an effort and looked like they were in a pop group!
GM: You’re about to go on tour – who are you using as accompanying musicians? And how does the new material translate to the stage… it’s such a beautifully produced record; will you be trying to recapture that? Or are you going to allow the songs to speak for themselves?
“We’re trying to re create the album as much as we can, the live band is made up of Carwyn and two other members of his band Colorama, plus Joe and Robin Bennett from Dreaming Spires. They’re all great musicians! And they all sing!”