Saint Etienne

The Argus: Saint Etienne, photo by Elaine Constantine Saint Etienne, photo by Elaine Constantine

Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley met in a butchers shop in Croydon in their prams.

Their mothers became great friends and the offspring have done the same. The two boys went to the same school and sneaked into gigs together. They wrote a music fanzine and they started a band.

“It was just wanting to be involved really,” says Wiggs, when we meet for a pint at his local, The Westbourne in Hove, and he remembers his short-lived music journalism exploits. “That is our ethic.”

Together with Stanley he wrote CAFF, and once Wiggs had finished his contributions – DIY word-play collages cut out from the TV Times – they used to sell copies at gigs.

Stanley went on to turn CAFF into a record label and released limited one-off 7 inches by the Manic Street Preachers and Pulp. He wrote for Uncut and Pitchfork.

Wiggs went on to write for dance music bible Jockey Slut, but says it was rarely anything more than a life and times column.

“I look at it now and think blimey, did I write that?”

By this time in the early 1990s, the pair had moved to London and formed the band. Their long love affair with the capital came to define their sound.

Saint Etienne, the duo plus Windsor-born Sarah Cracknell, have now been together unbroken for 22 years.

“We have a really good time together so it works,” explains Wiggs, another London exile who fancied the South Coast as the place to bring up children.

“We’ve never gone bananas on big tours. Me and Sarah both have kids, and so when we’re all away it’s like an away day. She can drink anyone under table.

She doesn’t get hangovers and, a bit like the band, “she can just keep going”.

A Saint Etienne Best Of compilation released in 2008 was called London Conversations.

And the band (currently harbouring ideas for a feature film) made a film to go with 2002 record Finisterre about London’s pull, with people talking about the city and its Eden-like status.

When Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, saw the band’s 2005 film about the Lea Valley, What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?, she asked them to spend a year as artists-in-residence at one of their favourite buildings, the Royal Festival Hall.

They made a film about the building, 2007’s This Is Tomorrow.

“It was first time they had a non-traditional artist doing it. She wanted to shake things up and sometimes we felt like real lemons sitting in these meetings with people discussing art policy.

“Everyone must have been thinking, what the f*** are they doing, we don’t want to listen to that stupid music.”

Wiggs, with the same babyish face which appears on the photos but with whispers of grey in his beard, says they love the role and are often interviewed as semi-ambassadors of the city.

He remembers he always wanted to move north.

“I remember in Croydon I was terrified of the countryside,” he jokes. “I just never wanted to move because of people’s attitudes, especially in the 1980s.

Looking back

“People then were much more right-wing and racist. There was such small-mindedness. It was really anti-gay and you could detect nastiness.

“I’m not the most outlandish dresser, but we had floppy fringes and indie clothes and people would want to beat you up.”

His first gig was at a place in Victoria called The Venue. He was 14, it was 1980 and Orange Juice were on stage.

“It was this crummy venue and you weren’t supposed to get in until you were 18. I looked so young, about 12, but I got in. We saw Everything But The Girl there and Grandmaster Flash, who were hilarious, it was so cabaret.”

He made a special journey to London to buy Grandmaster Flash’s first single as an import. “I thought this is the future of music – it’s mental.”

We’re rowing through the river of memories because over the last five years Universal has released a special edition of every Saint Etienne album.

Among them is Foxbase Alpha, featuring the Neil Young cover Only Love Can Break Your Heart, and Sarah Cracknell’s debut on Nothing Can Stop Us. Then there’s the band’s attempt at folktronica, Tiger Bay, and Finisterre, which featured a cut-up picture of London’s Ronan Point on the sleeve made by the design-conscious band.

“It stems from a DIY ethic, but also liking the Smiths and The Fall when we were young and knowing they came up with the sleeves themselves.

“We used to rip off Fall adverts,” smiles Wiggs, racing through his Harvey’s. “God knows how we got away with it. We did an advert in NME and I scrawled it on a napkin from a restaurant in a Mark E Smith style with all this nonsense, ‘You’re gonna love my band’ and they printed it.”

He currently works from a studio in his Hove basement. He’s been churning out remixes, and is on a break from remixing a Lindstrom track when we meet. He also hosts a radio programme, The Séance, on Reverb FM on Saturdays.

The reissues have had him digging up old tapes and archiving and rescuing old Saint Etienne tracks.

“We don’t often get out our old records and listen to them, but when you do listen to them it transports you back in time to when you made it.

“Obviously records mean different things to different people, but to us it was like having a photo album. Suddenly all these memories come back about what you were doing and how your life has changed.

“Each album is revisiting who you were going out with, the clubs you were going to, and all these murky memories and stories which get mixed up.”

The band always wanted to do another record. The researching spurred them on and inspired the lyrics to studio album number nine, Words And Music By Saint Etienne.

According to the press material, it’s a record which aims to unpack the “special alchemy that transmutes even the most mundane of experiences – walking home with the headphones on at night, sitting in a bedroom with your friends in the day, getting ready to go out on the weekend – into a lingering moment of seamless enchantment”. The slick electro-pop is indeed the sound of maturing musicians with a hand in front and a hand behind. While Richard X is among the producers keeping it sharp, on Over The Border, Cracknell describes how Top Of The Pops was her world atlas as a child.

“The first one on the album is the last song we wrote,” says Wiggs.

“Bob came up with the words when we’d written all the others, but that one sets out the stall of the album, and he really captured our joint experience of growing up and getting into music.”

Plus special guests Scritti Politti.

  • Concorde 2, Madeira Drive, Brighton, Thursday, December 13. Doors 7pm, SOLD OUT. Call 01273 673311 for returns

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