Pete Wiggs from Saint Etienne on the band’s intriguing new album

Saint Etienne

British band Saint Etienne release their 10th studio album today, and it’s an intriguing collections of songs that push the trio into new territory, while also managing to retain their trademark sound and aesthetic.

I’ve Been Trying To Tell You sees the band deliver a series of tunes that are beautiful hazy pools of surprising sounds, with vocal lines drifting in and out, looped sounds and glistening textures. The album is equally reminiscent of some of their past work, while at the same time offering something new and fresh.

Childhood friends and former music journalists Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs formed Saint Etienne in 1990. They planned to use a variety of singers on their first album Foxbase Alpha. Their initial success came with a radical reworking of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart, which featured vocalist Moira Lambert.

For their song Nothing Can Stop Us they collaborated with Sarah Cracknell, and she soon became the permanent third member of the group. The band has built up a loyal fan base who love their combination of dance music, serene melodies and thoughtful lyrics.

Over the last thirty years the band has released studio albums, soundtracks, rarities collections and some seriously good remix projects. Along the way they’ve collaborated with Massive Attack singer Shara Nelson, Kylie Minogue, Paul van Dyk, Tim Burgess and French artist Ètienne Daho.

Their work has embraced elements of traditional folk tunes, glorious 60’s pop and the latest club sounds. It’s a recipe that makes the band sound incredibly unique.

Chatting to OUTinPerth, from his home in Hove near Brighton, Pete Wiggs (pictured right) agreed that one of the challenges for any band is exploring new territory, while hoping to retain the loyal listenership you’ve built up over many years.

As Saint Etienne began experimenting with new techniques and producing their latest tracks they started to get excited, “We were really pleased and excited and thought ‘Oh is interesting’, we know what we’re doing.” Wiggs said of their reaction to their latest work, “but we hoped we wouldn’t lose some of our fans.”

“We think some people will like it, because it in some ways it sort of harks back to how we started making music, because it’s very sample based. So people that like Foxbase Alpha, we thought ‘they’ll probably like it’, but then some of the fans that maybe came along for Good Humour or Finisterre might find it different. It’s a bit less ‘songy’.”

While the band’s debut album was very sample based, their subsequent work has seen them completely create their own sounds, and the trio are masters of writing a great song. For this outing though, their music is based around samples and while singer Sarah Cracknell is a big part of the sound, there’s not a single track that falls into the ‘verse, chorus, bridge, chorus’ template.

The album’s first single Pond House showcased the distinctive sound of their latest collection.

Wiggs says the sampled based sound the band pursued on I’ve Been Trying To Tell You evolved as they began working on the record.

“It just sort of evolved, we’d done this kind of free CD that we gave out gigs a couple years ago, and that was very sample based and we enjoyed doing that. And then there’s some some new software things that came out and I was like quite itching to go play around with them.

“We’d started working on a different album actually, but we couldn’t get in the studio. So we were sort of, just exploring those kind of concepts.” Wiggs explained.

With the impact of Covid-19 the band members decided to do something they’d never done before, work remotely for the complete creation of the record.  The album was created with Wiggs in Hove, Sarah Cracknell in Oxford, and Bob Stanley based in Bradford.

“Funny enough, it’s not that much different, because we did we all demo things separately, or with other people, and then we get together.” Wiggs said of the group’s creative process.

“We often do send things to each other, I’ve got this idea, send it off, and then the others will work on it. Someone sends me stuff and then we’ll add our ‘two penneth’, and then when we get together in the studio, sometimes we re-recorded the whole thing, or we just take bits of what we’ve done. It’s a bit similar in a way, but this is a more extreme version, without actually going to a studio at the end.”

Saint Etienne

Bob Stanley came up with the idea of building the album around samples from music released between 1997 and 2001. The election of the Labour government in Britain, and the fall of the Twin Towers in New York serving as two flags to swim between.

Wiggs said there were two strands to the idea behind the creative limitation. Firstly, the band saw the period as a time of forthright optimism in Britain, and secondly it’s a period that people have begun to mythologise and look back upon fondly.

Back in the late 90’s the band were drawing inspiration from their love of the 60’s, here they are drawing on people’s growing love of the late 90’s.

The songs that are sampled on the record however is not the music the band were loving back in the day, rather it’s the music everyone was listening to at the time.

“The samples we chose weren’t, without being mean or rude, they weren’t necessarily things we’d be listening to. The idea was that is, you’d go and get your hair cut, and it might be on, and on the radio, in the car, and things like that. So they’re all kind of really mainstream kind of things. Not necessarily stuff you know, not cool particularly. Instead it’s a sort of challenge there.”

On Pond House the lyric of “Here it comes again, cannot outrun my desire” which repeated throughout the record, is inspired by Natalie Imbruglia’s 2001 single Beauty of the Fire.

“The idea was to sort of really slow things down, pull them apart, and create something new. So it’s not supposed to sound like 90’s music, but it was the palette. Sometimes when you want to come up with ideas, if you restrict yourself, you can actually be more creative in a way.” Wiggs said.

The second single released off the record is Penlop, a laid back and romantic tune. The video contains a brief moment of nudity.

Over their thirty year career Saint Etienne have developed a reputation as a band that are quintessentially British. Wiggs says it comes not just from their sound, but also the aesthetic the group choose for their record covers and videos.

“Bob described it quite well, the other day, he said, “We’re more into stuff like, the chips sign outside of a fish and chips shop that’s revolving in the wind.” And we think that’s funny or amusing, represents Britain, that’s just kind of suffering.”

I’ve Been Trying To Tell You by Saint Etienne is released today 10th September. Check out the band’s massive discography too – it’s worth a visit. 

Graeme Watson


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