Tuesday, 12 September 2017
Saint Etienne celebrate the sound of the suburbs by bringing the Home Counties to Common People - Oxford Times 11-05-2017
By Tim Hughes
Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell tells Tim Hughes why the band are finding inspiration from a place they all know intimately: the Home Counties
The Home Counties – the swathe of commuter country embracing London – has a mixed reputation. What is seen as comfortable, affluent and sedate to some, is dismissed as boring, suburban and culturally dead to others.
It’s a place of tidy semi-detached homes, neatly-kept gardens, golf courses, tennis courts, bowling greens, pony clubs and patches of unthreatening countryside broken up by sprawling housing estates.
At the heart of the English psyche, it’s also the land immortalised by John Major as that “country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and... old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’.”
It’s a place close to the heart of the band Saint Etienne, all of whom grew up there – and it has inspired their new album called, reasonably enough Home Counties.
“It’s like a dirty word,” smiles singer Sarah Cracknell, who grew up in Berkshire and now lives near Oxford.
“People think of it as middle class and right wing, but I’ve had enough distance from my upbringing to start to appreciate what it’s all about.
“I grew up in Old Windsor, but went to London as soon as I could – I couldn’t get away fast enough. I now I live in Oxfordshire which, may be in the Home Counties, depending on your definition – and it’s not dissimilar to where I grew up.
“I have retreated to a place very similar to where I am originally from, albeit more rural.”
She adds: “One of the good things about growing up where I did is that it was terribly boring and out of boredom comes creativity. So many musicians, artists, DJs and people in the fashion world began doing what they did because there was nothing else to do. Especially when I grew up, with no internet and no more than four channels on TV.”
It is 27 years since Saint Etienne got together, founded by friends and music writers Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs.
With a name borrowed from a French football club, the group began life as a vehicle for Stanley and Wiggs’s music and featured a floating roster of vocalists, though settled on Sarah after her contribution to the dreamy dance-pop classic Nothing Can Stop Us Now.
“Bob and Pete had a master plan, but I joined later,” says Sarah, who lives with husband, Heavenly Records supremo Martin Kelly, and their children Spencer and Sam.
Taking their cue from 60s pop and soul, 70s rock and 80s dance music, they went on to release dance-pop classic Only Love Can Break Your Heart, and such engaging hits as You’re in a Bad Way, Join Our Club, and He’s on the Phone (itself based on French singer Etienne Daho’s Week-end à Rome), I Was Born On Christmas Day (alongside The Charlatan’s Tim Burgess), and 7 Ways to Love (released under the moniker Cola Boy).
After a series of high-profile collaborations, they moved more heavily into intelligent electronica and film, culminating in 2012’s critically acclaimed synth-pop masterpiece Words and Music by Saint Etienne.
Home Counties is their ninth album. Sarah admits to being a little surprised that they have kept the wagon rolling.
“When we made that first album we certainly didn’t think we’d go on this long,” she says. “But it is also to do with us getting on incredibly well.
“To start with, we just wanted to get an album out – and it was all the ideas we’d ever had since we were 14 or 15, all crammed into one record in case we never got another out.”
Their latest is a collection of 16 songs about life in commuter country, which veers away from the stereotypes and delves beneath the veneer of middle class respectability.
So we have Something New, which has a teenage girl creeping through the front door after staying out all night; the spirit of a suburban poltergeist on Heather, the self-explanatory Train Drivers in Eyeliner, and, in Whyteleaf, a whimsical dream of what might have happened if David Bowie had stayed plain old David Jones and chosen a desk job in Bromley.
The album was produced by Shawn Lee of Young Gun Silver Fox, and features the talents of Dorchester’s Robin Bennett – co-frontman The Dreaming Spires and co-founder of Truck and Wood festival.
The live band features Robin’s brother Joe Bennett, from Steventon, and the legendary Mike Monaghan – who has also wielded the drum sticks for Gaz Coombes, Little Fish, Ralfe Band, Fionn Regan and Willie J Healey, and who lives in Carterton.
Also involved are Augustus (Kero Kero Bonito), Carwyn Ellis (Colorama, Edwyn Collins), Richard X (Girls On Top and Black Melody) and long-time collaborator Gerard Johnson (Denim, Yes). It was recorded in London over the course of six weeks.
So why the Home Counties? “When we decide to start a new album, the mood happens to take us all at the same time. This time lots of things connected. Bob has been writing books, Pete is doing a qualification in film scoring and I have a solo album. But suddenly we started to get a bit twitchy and wanted to work in a studio and write songs together. We just drift along until it happens.
“Bob came up with the idea,” she says. “We often try to come up with a theme. It’s helpful as plucking ideas out of the air is hard.”She goes on: “We all look back fondly on where we grew up. It’s the small things – the sense of community, the beauty, and sometimes the lack of beauty. After all, some high streets are pretty grotty and dated. And, like I said, out of boredom comes creativity!”
The music gets an airing at Oxford’s Common People Festival, on May 27. After that they take it to Primavera Festival in Spain and London’s Royal Festival Hall, before a full UK tour.
While every inch still the blonde bombshell pin-up girl whose image adorned many an indie fan’s bedroom wall in the 90s, Sarah remains level-headed.
“I was very grounded when it all started,” she says. “I realised early on that fans probably only liked me because I was in a band. Some people in bands never realise that and think everyone loves them – which they don’t.
“I didn’t get carried away, and we have always surrounded ourselves with people we really like. It’s like a big extended family, especially in Oxfordshire where many of the band come from. Everybody is talented and nice.”
And she is looking forward to playing Oxford’s second Common People. “I might be slightly nervous though,” she laughs. “There will be people from the school or the pub who have never seen me on stage before and don’t even really know what I do. They’ll be thinking ‘Oh my God!’
“We are not too shocking though, and it is a brilliant festival. We went last year and it was really good!”