A concept album about Brexit and the home counties may seem a tough sell, but that’s exactly what Saint Etienne have made – and it’s one of the outstanding albums of 2017 so far. Chris Parkin meets Bob Stanley…
On their 1991 breakup song Girl VII, Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell reeled off a long list of places that included London’s Primrose Hill, Canonbury and Plumstead Common, among other more exotic locations. But there was no room for Horsham or Tunbridge Wells or Chelmsford.
Those humdrum home-counties towns and cities just didn’t tally with the vibrant, groovy pick ’n’ mix of acid-house-infused electronica and indie-pop that dominated the band’s wonderful debut album Foxbase Alpha. But since the EU referendum, the theoretical line dividing London from what Bob Stanley calls “not London” has become more significant. And it’s both the ‘B’ word (ending in ‘exit’) and the counties orbiting London that inform Saint Etienne’s ninth album, released in June.
“We were in Amersham when the referendum campaign was on,” recalls Stanley, who recently moved out of the capital to start a family. “Someone had this massive billboard in their garden: ‘Get Out Of The EU!’. It was, like, are you actually mad? This is really not like London. So there was this idea of feeling uncomfortable in the place we grew up in, but we didn’t spell it out to each other. We just used the home counties as a theme, without saying, ‘Right, we’ve got to write about Brexit.’”
Diamonds in the rough
Despite growing up in the home counties – Stanley and Pete Wiggs in Surrey (Reigate); Sarah Cracknell in Berkshire (Old Windsor) – this is the first time Saint Etienne’s psycho-geographical pop has focused so explicitly on those places. But the trio aren’t giving these Leave-voting counties a shoeing. They’re almost reclaiming them. Says Stanley about his own memories of Reigate:
“Growing up in a place where there’s nothing to do apart from walk up the North Downs or go to the pub, there’s a freedom to think for yourself. It’s no coincidence The Bromley Contingent and Stanley Spencer came from the home counties. Self-invention is easy if you grow up in suburbia – David Bowie.”
These personal songs, then, which skip along to a soundtrack of suburban disco, electronica and lo-fi chamber pop, see the band returning to find diamonds in the rough in Woodhatch, Whyteleafe (“The Stockholm of the 90s,” sings Cracknell) and that most maligned of all English counties.
“I’m obsessed with pop music. there’s always stuff to discover”
“It’s a living cliché for most people,” says Stanley of Essex, the topic of Home Counties’ spectral-pop standout, Sweet Arcadia. “But there’s a thing there at the moment called Radical Essex. They put on talks about the strange architecture there, the weird communities that are almost like social experiments. The Crass house [Dial House] is there. Sarah was born in Essex and had friends who lived on a weird commune out near Bradwell nuclear power station. It’s a fascinating place.”
There’s a hauntological thread to Home Counties, too, inspired by the group’s fascination with “what happened before”. One example Stanley cites is the old Basildon of self-managed plot lands that were wiped out and replaced with homes.
“Like in Halloween, when they build on the Indian graveyard – it’s an Essex version of that,” he laughs. Train Drivers In Eyeliner, inspired in part by Earl Brutus’s glam-hooligan-turned-train-driver Nick Sanderson, who died in 2008, tackles another unexpected subject: the listening tastes of railway workers pootling around the home counties. “Nick was a member of ASLEF,” says Stanley. “He talked about setting up a splinter union, just to cause trouble. He was going to call it ASLEF 2.
But I’ve still got friends who spend a lot of time with ASLEF. So I was like, ‘Oh, what kind of music are they into?’. ‘So-and-so is into heavy rock; so-and-so is into post-rock’. They certainly sound more nuanced than the RMT.”
Top of the pops
These lyrical concerns, brought to life by the sweetly observational voice of Cracknell, are only to be expected from a band who’ve always taken a keen interest in now-unfashionable moments in pop culture. And not just on Saint Etienne’s albums, either. Stanley and Wiggs’ English Weather compilation for Ace Records recently focused on obscure UK rock released between psychedelia and prog, while Stanley’s first book about pop history, Yeah Yeah Yeah, devotes – as the Guardian pointed out – “more pages to Lieutenant Pigeon than Led Zeppelin”.
His follow-up, Too Darn Hot: The Story Of Popular Music, will explore “ragtime to rock ’n’ roll”. Whether it’s for a clutch of new Saint Etienne songs or an individual project, digging around in a forgotten past for inspiration is second nature for a non-league football enthusiast and record collector like Stanley.
“I’m just obsessed with pop music,” he says. “There’s always stuff to discover and see how it falls into place and how it fell into place at the time. I suppose the social history aspect fascinates me more than most people; things like the rewriting of history so that Iggy Pop is on a par with John Lennon.
I find that annoying. Incorrect. Even talking about things like Basildon again: the idea that Depeche Mode could come from there. Or that The Cure could come from Crawley. I find that fascinating. Geography and place and popular culture and sounds and music and art – they all connect.”
Stanley can always be found in the quieter sections of record shops, away from whatever genre’s currently in fashion, or picking up charity-shop gems that have been languishing in a shoebox for ages. But even Stanley has noticed there’s more competition these days.
“In the early 90s, Ace put out some compilations of British girl singers, and it felt like the only people who collected that stuff were me and the people who worked for Ace – and we all knew each other. We’d swap tapes. Now there are people collecting that stuff all over the world.” He’s seen the same thing happen with glam. But there’s one area where Stanley is left to his own devices still.
“This is very trainspotter-y, but hits from the 50s on 7″,” he says, a little furtively.
“The very first 7″ singles. I’m kind of fascinated by them because of what they are. The historical significance. Of course, a lot of the time, the music isn’t especially good, but I’ve probably got a higher tolerance for Perry Como than most people.”
Under the influence
This brings us neatly back around to Saint Etienne’s music. Throughout their career, there’s always been a magpie-like, cut-and-paste quality to their sound – a peculiarly distinctive mish-mash of new and old discoveries. It’s no different on Home Counties, with its sun-dappled exotica and girl-group pop sidling up next to bucolic disco and Dexys soul.
If you ever find Stanley, Wiggs or Cracknell wielding an obscure 7″ single, it will almost certainly influence a future Saint Etienne track.
“I remember Noel Gallagher did an interview,” laughs Stanley. “He goes, ‘Yeah, this kid gave me a tape of The Left Banke; never heard of ’em, but guess what? It’s brilliant!’. The interviewer asked, ‘I know them, will they influence the album?’.
‘Of course not! Can you imagine Bonehead playing the harpsichord?’. But it’s odd not to let what you’re listening to or reading inspire what you’re working on.”
Noel should perhaps think again.
Because by sponging up musical influences, headline-news stories and obscure modern folk tales, Saint Etienne have turnedwhat could’ve been a potentially quite unappealing concept album about Brexit, rail-replacement buses in Crawley, non-league football grounds and the forgotten phenomenon of the Enfield Poltergeist into an absolute triumph.