Saint Etienne: ‘It’s trying to recapture a memory of what it was actually like in the late 90s’

“We’re modernists and I think my definition of modernism is creating something new out of bits that have already been,” says Bob Stanley, one third of indie pop group Saint Etienne, adding a second sugar to his cup of decaff Americano amid the stone-flagged surroundings of Salts Diner.

Saint Etienne

We are here, near his home in Saltaire, to discuss I’ve Been Trying to Tell You, Saint Etienne’s 10th album in a career that began with a bang 30 years ago with their Mercury Prize-nominated debut Foxbase Alpha.

The new record’s “semi-wistful, melancholic” tone, Stanley concedes, is “an inevitable by-product” of the era it looks back on: the years between Tony Blair’s victory in the 1997 General Election and the terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers in 2001. Via eight dreamy, impressionistic tracks – and an accompanying film – Stanley and bandmates Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell sought to question whether this was a lost golden age or a period of naivety, delusion and folly.

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“It’s something that’s clearly not there,” Stanley says, “you know you can’t find it, whether it’s a place or a time, it would have changed, but at the same time, hopefully it sounds of the moment and futuristic.”

The music reflects Stanley’s latterday taste for “things that get called chillwave or vapourwave”, an electronic micro genre that engages with notions of memory and nostalgia.

“I find it fascinating,” he says. “A lot of it is very reflective and nostalgic in a strange way, it’s like trying to capture a memory of somewhere you weren’t because most of the people making this music were either kids or weren’t even born with the samples they’re using, with the 80s in particular.”

Saint Etienne used samples to explore collective folk memory of a “time when people were generally more optimistic in this country, in the late 90s, early 2000s for whatever reason, whether it be blind optimism or people thought maybe the future will be better than today, whereas not many people would say that at the moment, and they haven’t been for a few years.”

“It’s trying to recapture a memory of what it was actually like in the late 90s – that makes it sound like an art school project, which is fine,” he continues. “The samples were of people like Natalie Imbruglia and Tasmin Archer, quite mainstream records, just taking little snippets of them and expanding them, making them seem kind of distant and foggy.”

Once the basic tracks had been laid down, the trio connected them with found sounds from places they had been during lockdown and snippets of dialogue from film soundtracks. “We wanted it to flow,” explains Stanley, “and it was sequenced in a way where if you want to sit down and listen to the whole of it from beginning to end, it should have an arc.”

The film that accompanies the album was made by acclaimed photographer Alasdair McLellan, who grew up in Doncaster. “He’s a Vogue photographer, quite high fashion, very in demand and famous, so we were extremely lucky that he said yes,” says Stanley. “I met him underneath the clocktower in the indoor market cafe in Shipley and we talked through what we might want to do. He did photos of me for (the men’s magazine) Arena a few years ago and we got chatting. Even though he’s a fashion photographer, we’ve got similar aesthetics. He did a photo shoot for Italian Vogue at the Caroline Street Social Club (in Saltaire) and he’s done photos of cooling towers and pylons, we both love the Pet Shop Boys, so there are a lot of things in common. He’s a lovely bloke and obviously he’s very talented. He’s done Marc Jacobs adverts... he put Nothing Can Stop Us, one of our early singles, in a Marc Jacobs advert about 18 months ago.”

Given McLellan and Stanley “both drive up and down the A1 a lot”, the film has “a sort of travelogue aspect”. “All the locations were his idea,” says Stanley. “We told him what the album was about and played him the music and he used his teenage years in Doncaster, remembering that thing where what do you do when you’re a teenager, you walk around the streets a lot because there’s nowhere to go, so he put that in there.”

It’s now 30 years since Stanley gave up a career in music journalism to concentrate on making music full-time with Wiggs, a close friend from childhood. In the beginning Saint Etienne were a purely samples-based concern. “We weren’t musicians,” Stanley recalls. “What happened was Beat Dis by Bomb The Bass came out and Theme From S-Express and they were clearly made up of samples. We thought we could do that, we’ve got record collections, let’s give that a go. So in 1988 we had a crack at making an acid house record which no-one’s ever heard because it was terrible, and then about 18 months after that I think the third time we had a go at making something, we did Only Love Can Break Your Heart, but it was really just for fun to see what we could do, we never thought it would get released or anything.

“Saint Etienne was a name we had at school, it was like our invented band, as people do when you’re a kid. That goes back to when (the French football team of the same name) were in the European Cup final, we thought they sounded very exotic and had a good name.”

Early on, their “modish” idea was to have a different singer on each record, like Soul II Soul. “But as with Soul II Soul and most groups doing that, once you’ve found somebody you really get on with and work well together you stay with them. My girlfriend at the time, I asked if she knew anybody (suitable), and it must have come up in conversation that she knew Sarah from Windsor, where they both grew up, and that was that.

“The only thing we’d heard by her when we first met her was she did a record where she’d done a bit of spoken word in Spanish. Her voice was distinctive enough that we thought she’d be a good singer, even though she was not singing. We went to her flat for dinner and we got on really well and that was that.”

In more recent years, Stanley, now 56, has returned to writing, for the likes of The Guardian and Record Collector as well as a series of books. He was, he says, a keen student of pop music from an early age. “When I was a kid I always liked the look of records,” he says. “I’m much more into records than live performances. I’d look at seven-inch singles and try and read the labels before I could (properly) read, trying to work out what they were saying.

“Then I started watching Top of the Pops when I was little, it was the glam period, that was very exciting. The mid 70s were obviously a bit fallow. Even as a kid 1975 was an objectively bad year for music, but there was also a lot of reissues coming out like The Beach Boys’ 20 Golden Greats and there was a thing called 10 Years of Radio 1 where I heard Waterloo Sunset (by The Kinks) – I could remember it vaguely from back when I was three, and I was only 11 then (in 1975), so I think I’ve always had this thing about looking back at music history as well as being interested in what’s going on at the moment.”

During lockdown Stanley and his partner Tessa Norton edited a book of essays on The Fall. Excavate! also contained ephemera from fans and collectors.

“That was great because that’s the first thing we’ve made together solidly,” he says of the book, published by Faber & Faber. “It was exciting but it was quite stressful. We were lucky we got a lot of the material just before lockdown from various places. Most big Fall collectors do seem to be in the North West. There’s a guy in Bolton who works in a shop called X Records, Barry Reilly, he was really helpful and really nice.”

I’ve Been Trying To Tell You is out on Friday September 10. Saint Etienne play Victoria Hall, Saltaire, November 25.