Hello Pete! I’m absolutely delighted to have this opportunity to ask you a few questions about your spectacularly poptastic recent album Music and Words by Saint Etienne that has been out on Heavenly since May. It’s a concept album and the ultimate fan love letter to pop music, where you hit the highlights of the soundtrack of our lives. What was the impetus behind the creation of Music and Words by Saint Etienne? Was it a sudden lightning strike of an idea or did the theme evolve over your recording process?
We were a few songs into the album, with partially formed lyrics and melodies, when Bob came up with the concept for the album. It is a simple idea, but immediately enthused us all. It seemed perfect for the time.
Music and Words by Saint Etienne is not all about shimmering, thumping dance-pop numbers. There are detours into slower-paced, bittersweet balladry like “Answer Song”, the down-tempo tunes “I Threw It All Away” and “Twenty Five Years”, and spoken word segments by Sarah on “Over the Border”. Do you have a preference for the type of song you like to craft? Do the dance-pop selections materialize more easily than your ballads or ambient tunes?
I think that it is always good to have a balance of upbeat and down-tempo, melancholy and joyous. So I don’t really have a preference. Actually, I think the dance-pop tunes are harder to pull off than the ballads and ambient numbers.
On the contemplative lament “I Threw It All Away”, Sarah sing-talks in a regretful tone about lost love and how “…it still feels like I threw it all away / and now I have to pay.” The woodwinds on this song imbue it with a lovely, delicate atmosphere. What types of instruments were utilized?
The woodwinds are all various types of recorder that were played by Leo Chadburn (who makes records under the name Simon Bookish), a friend of Bob’s who is an expert in the field. Recorders have a haunting tone that we felt suited the song more than strings.
Your previous studio album, Tales from Turnpike House, was released in 2005 and it’s a meticulously detailed (and exceptionally melodic) view into the lives of modern characters living in a block of flats in London. What were the vibes after that release? Did you feel a sense of accomplishment where maybe you had achieved what you set out to do in the music realm?
The album was well received critically and we were very happy with it. The concept helped us write lyrics and vary musical styles. Some of the songs are pure fiction, but most relate to real events and emotions transplanted onto fictional characters and settings.
In the interim between that album and your latest, you released the retrospective compilation album London Conversations: The Best of Saint Etienne in 2009. Did you have total control in what songs got picked for this album? What spurred you to work on a new song (at the time), “Method of Modern Love”, for that comp?
Yes, we chose all the songs on London Conversations. We wanted to cover all the styles of songs we’ve recorded over the years and to include as many fan favourites as we could. “Method of Modern Love” was a chance to collaborate with Richard X, and we always like to release singles when we get the opportunity.
I have to ask you about the DJing business. When you spin records, do you mix it up or play a straight set of dancefloor-ready tunes? What gets the floor shakin’ these days?
I always do a bit of homework before DJing. With vinyl, I’ll select a bunch of 7s that I think will go down well at the particular event and put them in my box in rough BPM order. When I use a laptop, I tend to work out a rough set, but usually deviate from it depending on how the crowd is reacting. Sometimes I take things that I love but might clear the floor and I chicken out and play the more guaranteed dancers. I’ve not been DJing much lately but have sneakily tested out remixes of Saint Etienne tracks before anyone had heard them and got some good reactions to those.
You have produced, along with director and frequent collaborator Paul Kelly, several soundtracks over the years, including that for What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? This film has now been released on DVD by Heavenly Films. Can you go into more detail about the crafting of this soundtrack and the actual film itself?
The film was shot over 6 weeks in the summer of 2006. It was an exciting time as we would accompany Paul on much of the shooting, carrying gear, coming up with ideas for the story, etc… It was a part of London none of us was very familiar with and we knew much of it was about to change dramatically over the coming years. The film was commissioned by London art centre The Barbican, with a live performance of the soundtrack at the premiere – which was a deadline that we couldn’t miss. The story and the music were influenced to some degree by films like Kes and children’s school TV shows of the sixties and seventies. We would write sections of music and give them to Paul and he would cut to them and then suggest changes or alternative sections that we would go back and rewrite.
Moving into the present and your endearing video for “I’ve Got Your Music”, who came up with that ‘so simple, but so right’ idea of editing together a variety of music fans holding up their most favorite vinyl records? You have a cameo in the video where you display your fave. Can you go into why you picked that specific album? Mine is Hunting High and Low by a-ha, although for a time I was also considering Life’s Too Good by The Sugarcubes.
It was actually the idea of Julian Fernandez who is our label manager at Universal. He’s a fan of the band and very creative. I chose Head by the Monkees as it is one of my favourite records that has stood the test of time. The sleeve is great for the video and it’s a record that transports me to the time I bought it and when I saw the film. It also gives a real feeling of the time in which it was made.
I was informed that Bob is in the midst of writing a book. Are there any details that can be divulged, like is it music-related, or is it top secret at the moment?
It’s a book about the history of pop music up til 2000, the vinyl era essentially. I’ve had a sneak preview of a few chapters and it’s hard to put down.
It’s so exciting that you are touring select cities in the US and Canada! You also performed at two music festivals before that. How is the tour going?
The tour is going really well. I’m on a train between Portland and Seattle as I write – hoping to see a bear or moose out of the window (just cows so far). The audiences over here are very demonstrative and get into the show right from the start. The venues have all been great too and we’ve got to meet and hear different support acts in each city and they’ve all been ace.