"We want to write songs and then deconstruct them," says Bob Stanley. "We want to get weirder and more album oriented. It would be easy to do stuff that's weird that people would find hard to get into, but it would be really brilliant if we could combine both the pop instantness and the weirdness."
Foxbase Alpha, Saint Etienne's critically-acclaimed debut album, was undoubtedly the most deliciously disorientating suite of sound produced last year, and now it looks as though Stanley and his partner, Pete Wiggs, want to expand on the ambient weirdness found on the second side of the LP.
Ironically, their new single, ‘Join Our Club’, is probably the least idiosyncratic thing Saint Etienne have done (it's an all-out bid for a chart hit), but other completed tracks for the new album indicate a more exploratory approach. A track called ‘Calico’, for instance (which features an eerie rap by Q-Tee), is psychedelic, dub-crazed film music, a James Bond theme from an alternative universe, pure kitschadelia.
"The new stuff we've been doing is even weirder," Stanley explains. "Some of it's a bit scary. We spent six weeks in the studio and ended up with two songs and loads and loads of scary bits of songs."
THE EMPIRE FIGHTS BACK
Saint Etienne are diversifying, not just because it's sound business practice, but because one moniker isn't enough to contain all their ideas and impulses. In a couple of weeks, they'll be releasing the first singles for Ice Rink, "a beautiful pop label specialising in maverick genius", funded by Creation. Pete and Bob's sonic empire consists of Oval ("a South East London group, friends of ours, they use real guitars and have two girl singers"), Elizabeth City State ("a bit soulful, lots of string arrangements, their first single's gonna be called 'V-Neck'"), Golden (three girls singing sombre, sepia-tinted Sixties folk harmonies over a House groove) and Sensurround (featuring John Robb, music journalist and ex-Membrane). He and Pete are already planning the Ice Rink compilation, which they hope will consist "entirely of Top Ten hits, but we'll do it whatever happens."
"We're not Svengalis," says Bob. "We might produce the groups, but they're writing all the songs and have their own sounds already."
Not that Saint Etienne have a problem with the Spector tradition of producer megalomania and conveyor belt brilliance. Pete and Bob have no truck with the trade rock belief that ‘manufactured’ pop is ‘shallow’ and ‘unauthentic’.
"We like pop because it's fast, instant, and glamorous", says Bob. "Rock groups like The Doors lack humour and suffer delusions of Messiah-like grandeur".
The B-side of ‘Join Our Club’, ‘People Get Real’, is a mellifluous diatribe against people who venerate ‘real soul’ and condemn House music as ‘unauthentic’. "It's about Kenny Thomas," Bob adds, "and the impending jazz-funk revival. Jazz funk, Kiss FM, it's miles more offensive than any heavy metal."
POP FOR POP'S SAKE
Sometimes it seems like Saint Etienne songs are born of Pete and Bob's rarefied, pop-for-pop's-sake aesthetic, rather than being examples of heart-felt, thorn-from-personal-experience communication. Pop as object (‘What a fab single!’) as opposed to pop as subjective outpouring (‘That really moves me’).
"We're somewhere between the two," says Bob. "Neither of us have really suffered enough to write anything really heartfelt. But the songs aren't totally vacuous. We like disposable pop, but we also like music that's enduring and high art. I'll still be listening to Tim Buckley or Laura Nyro in ten years, but I doubt if I'll be listening to disposable Stock Aitken Waterman-type pop in a year, it's just good for its moment."
Are they motivated to make pop by anything apart from a love of pop?
"Not really," Bob replies. "We definitely want to do something that's not been done before. I've never wanted to be in a group unless there was at least a chance of being as good as my favourite groups. During C86, a lot of my friends were in groups doing really shit music, and they kept asking if I wanted to be involved, and my argument was that unless I could get string arrangements on my records I never wanted to make one. So now we have, by default, using samplers. I won't be happy until we've written songs that can make people burst into tears, something that terrifyingly beautiful. I want to change the way people record, to create sounds that are widely imitated. Some of our next LP is getting there, a lot of it sounds frightening. Some of it sounds like the Far East. It could be brilliant, but it could be our downfall."
HOW DO THEY DO IT?
A Saint Etienne song starts with the pair humming melodic ideas into a tape recorder. Then they gather a few records with beats or sounds that they want to sample, and go into the studio. Messing around on the mixing desk, Pete and Bob recreate the complex arrangements they hear in their heads.
"It's all production and arrangement," Pete explains. "Production in getting other people to do stuff. Our engineer, Ian [Catt], helps us realise our ideas. We just record the basic track and then play with it until it sounds like we want it to sound. It's an advantage that we're not musicians, we just have sounds in our heads, and no preconceptions about their feasibility or what sounds right. Anyone could go in and make a record, but not everybody can make a good record."
HEROES AND VILLAINS
So who, in their opinion, are the all-time most pernicious forces in pop since the beginning? Who's had the most malign influence? Pete says The Doors. Singer Sarah Cracknell says Tina Turner. Bob says Eric Clapton and Cream. Pete, warming to the theme, adds Frank Zappa. And let's not forget Phil Collins.
"The worst thing about people like Phil Collins," grimaces Bob, "is that his records have taken on the status of classics for people like Capital Radio. They're the songs people will remember the Eighties for. They've become bonded to the time and, historically, will suppress what ever else came out at the time that's more deserving.
"Then there's James Brown," Bob continues. "We don't like funk. We don't like slap-bass. I can't get into Parliament and Funkadelic at all, it's too prog, too muso."
And how about heroes, the artists who should have changed the face of pop?
"David Essex," they reply. "The production on 'Rock On' doesn't sound like any record ever made, and his first couple of albums were totally weird. Cockney Rebel were weird, too. Early Fall doesn't sound like any records ever made. There was hardly a wasted B-side back then. The Fall should have given up in the early Eighties. No one's ever picked up on the deliberately badly recorded approach of a track like 'Spector Vs Rector'. Erm, who else? TV Personalities, of course."
"I really admire people who can sit down and write reams of hit singles," says Bob. "I don't just mean Lennon/McCartney or Goffin & King. Martin and Coulter were amazing – they wrote 'Back Home' for the England World Cup Squad in Mexico in 1970, then they wrote 'Sugar Baby Love' for the Rubettes in '74, which is total genius, just one of the most perfect songs ever written, and then they wrote a brilliant disco hit of few years later called 'Automatic Lover' by Dee D Jackson. What talented blokes! Any old style, Martin and Coulter could write a song to order."
Saint Etienne don't like anything that's overwrought (Robert Plant), and are totally opposed to over-emoting. Sarah's vocals are very cool and contained, a stand against what she calls "the arrogance of passion. That kind of thing's about taking yourself too seriously."
CURATOR VERSUS CREATOR
"We were talking to a friend about our record cos our friends never really say what they think about it," says Bob. "And he said it couldn't possibly be the future of music because it used loads of things that had been and gone, and stuck them together. And I said: same as Primal Scream and Massive Attack."
It seems that the state of the art is ‘record collection rock’, pop based around the elaboration of your own idiosyncratic hierarchy of taste. The only scope for new frissons comes when hitherto outlawed, neglected or denigrated sound-sources are introduced to the canon of admissible influences. Screamadelica, Bandwagonesque, Foxbase Alpha – this meta-pop can be glorious, but are there limits to it?
"I don't think there are any limits to it at all," says Bob. "It's a lot more limiting when you get someone forming a band who's only heard music from the last two years, and thinks Jesus Jones are better than The Beatles. If someone's got a large record collection, there are so many loose ends in pop history that nobody's ever followed up that there's limitless work to be done reinterpreting the past. It's never gonna be a dead end."
Obviously, pop's always worked like this. Even The Rolling Stones began as obsessive collectors of blues records. The difference between then and now, though, is that the Stones went on to create, inadvertently, the soundtrack to their era. Today's record collection rock has drifted off into its own self-referential universe, with little connection to life as she is lived.
"I can appreciated the Manics and Fabulous trying to agitate against that, saying that E has turned an entire generation into brain-dead idiots. There is so little energy about in music. I suppose somebody who's connected with the outside world would be into The Prodigy. Techno's the pulse of Young Britain, it's so exciting that you probably don't need Fabulous or the Manics if you're young."
With this new breed of rock scholars like Bobby Gillespie, Norman Blake and Stanley & Wiggs, sooner or later one has to deal with the word ‘trainspotter’. When Bob tells me he's desperately searching for the one and only album by New Musik (early Eighties New Wave abominations) I can't help admiring the sheer sickness of his obsession, but I also wonder whether he's really a suitable role model for a generation.
Wiggs and Stanley aren't candidates for shaman-hood, that's for sure, but they do mourn the disappearance of freaks, aliens and mad prophets in pop (the Kevin Rowlands, Adam Ants and Gary Numans). They know they just don't have it in them to be that stellar, that egomaniacal. They belong in a different category – the great British eccentric.
Here's Bob on Pete: "Peter often has trouble communicating with people. It's weird, but he's a completely different person on the phone. There was one time he was in Paris, and he was ringing me every two hours. He rang just to ask if he should buy this doughnut he'd seen in a bakery. He was ringing his family all the time, too. By the time he got home he'd spent over a hundred quid in calls."
Here's Pete on Bob: "Bob is fascinated by lasers, he visits the London Laserium at least twice a week, and even has a low wattage laser installed in his bedroom. When he dies he wants his coffin to travel through a laser tunnel projected down the aisle of the crematorium."
And Pete on Pete: "The reason I am in a band is that I do whatever the decade dictates: in the Eighties, I was a top businessman; in the Seventies, I was a kung-fu expert; and, in the Sixties, I was a child."