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They began as an acid house act doing a disco cover of Neil Young's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart'. Then they took a break, discovered big beat and became wine waiters for cult author Douglas Coupland. There's never a dull moment with Saint Etienne
Paul Nolan, 26 Sep 2002
Stalwarts of the English indie scene since the release of their 1992 debut album Foxbase Alpha, London-based art-pop trio Saint Etienne seem gradually to be returning to their acid house-inspired dance roots. Their sixth album, Finisterre, merges leftfield electro sounds with lyrics which are permeated by an urban sadness that runs through much of the best of English pop, from the Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys to Blur and Suede. However, from the sleeve – a photo of a destitute flat-block – on in, Finisterre reminds this writer of nothing so much as Luke Haines’ excellent follow-up project to The Auteurs, Black Box Recorder.
“Well, Luke is a drinking buddy,” laughs Bob Stanley, co-writer and multi-instrumentalist in Saint Etienne. “I suppose we’re coming from a similar sort of place. There is that English melancholy running through a lot of the bands you mentioned, and us too. Living in London, we have a love/hate relationship with the city – I think everyone I know here has probably thought at some point about how great it would be to move out to Dorset or Suffolk. But there are plenty of things I love about cities as well.”
One of which, presumably, is the nightlife. During their lengthy sabbatical from Saint Etienne in the mid-nineties, Bob and bandmate Pete Wiggs DJ-ed regularly at legendary London club, the Heavenly Social. It was here, of course, that big beat was born. Did it feel like something special was happening at the time?
“Yeah, it did, to be honest,” answers Bob. “It was really exciting. It’s funny looking back on it now, because it was in this tiny little room. The original idea behind the Social was that people could play absolutely anything they wanted, and obviously that was very healthy. In the end that kind of took on a direction of its own and you ended up with big beat. “
A notable feature of Saint Etienne’s work is the attention to detail they pay not just to their music, but to its presentation as well. Each of their albums is immaculately packaged, and feature sleeve-notes from writers like Simon Reynolds, Julie Burchill and, perhaps most impressively, Generation X author Douglas Coupland. Did the band ever meet Coupland?
“I never did, although Pete and Sarah (Cracknell, SE vocalist) went to his house,” recalls Bob. “They were on tour in Vancouver and went to his place for a dinner party. Pete had to be the wine waiter for the evening and he was incredibly embarrassed. It was a very Douglas Coupland scenario – apparently he has an amazing, Frank Lloyd Wright-style house, and everything is exactly like you think it’s going to be… I missed out!”