Page last updated at 08:38 GMT, Monday, 16 February 2009

Saint Etienne's two decades of pop

Saint Etienne
Saint Etienne are Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs

By Mark Savage
BBC News entertainment reporter

When I first meet Saint Etienne, it's a balmy September day and glamorous singer Sarah Cracknell has just taken her youngest son to school for the first time.

"One of my friends has already phoned me up in tears," she says. "So I'm glad I've got an interview to distract me."

Our chat has been arranged to discuss the group's greatest hits CD, London Conversations, which catalogues their evolution from indie dance pioneers to elder statesmen of British pop.

"You don't really ever revisit your old stuff, so when I heard this compilation I was quite proud," says Cracknell.

Saint Etienne
Cracknell was originally supposed to be one of several guest vocalists

"I puffed out my chest a bit and thought, 'that's a good body of work'."

It is however the band's fifth anthology (songwriter Bob Stanley admits this is "slightly embarrassing").

But it marks the start of a campaign to remaster and reissue their entire back catalogue.

Yet, a couple of weeks later a fault at the pressing plant destroys the first batch of CDs and the album's launch is delayed until now.

The incident is oddly fitting for a band who have never quite managed to crack the top 10 despite 20 years of chart success.

Stanley says Saint Etienne's position as perennial pop also-rans has "served us quite well".

"If we'd had a big push from a major label, we'd either have got too big for our boots or sunk without trace," he reflects.

London loves

The upside of the pressing plant mix-up is that it allowed the band to steal a few weeks of studio time with pop maestro Richard X (Sugababes, MIA, Pet Shop Boys) to record new single Methods Of Modern Love.

With Cracknell's vapour trail vocals and a beat that is crunchier than the credit crisis, the disco-pop gem sits comfortably alongside past hits such as Join Our Club and You're In A Bad Way.

Their music is a broad church - pop, dance, folk, rap, happy, sad, epic, orchestral, euphoric, melancholy, kitsch and camp.

Saint Etienne
Kylie Minogue and David Essex have both worked with the trio

Oddly, they were once lumped in with Britpop - a scene Stanley dismisses as "bitchy, cocainey and unpleasant".

While Blur and Pulp spent the 1990s sneering at British culture, Saint Etienne were busy writing wistful love letters to the UK's tenements, tube stations, milk floats and motorways.

This led to the popular perception of the group as a London band, something Stanley says "used to bother us quite a lot".

"I think we were slightly unfairly pigeonholed," adds Cracknell. "But there are probably more London references in our music than anything else.

"And maybe my voice sounds has something to do with it. I pronounce quite well. A bit like Sandie Shaw."

The singer grew up in the "very posh" outskirts of Windsor and says the capital was "like a magnet".

"As soon as I was old enough to get on a train with my friends, we would come up to Kensington Market and King's Road and Portobello Market.

"It's my favourite city in the world - there's always some subculture that's going on, creating something new and exciting."

Sarah Cracknell
We would be the ideal band to do a soundtrack for the Olympics
Sarah Cracknell

Saint Etienne started as an "imaginary band" - a nom de plume for Stanley and third member Pete Wiggs when they were DJing and making compilation tapes for friends.

"It was imaginary because we couldn't play any instruments," laughs Stanley.

"With the advent of sampling, it meant that they could go and make a record," Cracknell explains.

She was introduced to the duo by Stanley's girlfriend, initially to sing on the playfully Gallic Nothing Can Stop Us - but she ended up sticking around for two decades.

Her lyrics have a keen eye for domestic detail, which was influenced by her father's job as first assistant director to Stanley Kubrick.

"I was often allowed to go off to very exotic locations," she reminisces.

"Doing things like Bond films in New Orleans and Jamaica - that was quite exciting. And it really has influenced me.

"There's a huge atmosphere that goes along with film sets. There's a smell, a sound - everything about them. I'm quite romantic, quite nostalgic about the whole thing."

Saint Etienne have themselves branched out into cinema, making a clutch of films about London. Stanley, meanwhile, moonlights as a music journalist and A&R manager.

The proliferation of activities has slowed the band's musical output over the last couple of years, but they confess to having started "leisurely" sessions for a new album.

Saint Etitnne
The group were named after a French football team

"Pete and Sarah have kids and we all live in different towns now so we can't just pop round to each other's houses now and jam," explains Stanley.

"Not that we ever did."

There is "no point" in releasing new material before 2010, he adds, because of the band's reissue campaign.

In the meantime, commemorative concerts are planned to coincide with the re-releases - and the band hint they may play each album in its entirety.

The concerts (in London) will only re-emphasise Saint Etienne's position as national treasures, an achievement that embarrasses them in a fittingly English way.

"It's very flattering," says Stanley. "When you start out, that's what you want - you want songs to lodge in people's minds."

"It's nice to be considered a British institution," Cracknell contemplates. "But it makes me feel quite old."

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