The Soft Parade

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o all the cultural phenomena attributed to Saint Etienne —They helped usher in Britpop and lounge culture! They pioneered sampling! They made Douglas Coupland cream his pants! — now add this: they are the first band in recent memory to record a tribute album to themselves. Since their first record, 1992’s Foxbase Alpha, the British trio of Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell have displayed a pop sensibility schooled in Bacharach, acid house and Swedish acoustica, their diverse influences held together by Cracknell’s velvet-goldmine phrasing. Early albums So Tough and Tiger Bay proved the shortest distance between the dancefloor and the bedroom was the space between your ears; later efforts like Good Humor and Sound of Water skimmed the spare, icy surface of Swedish minimalism and Krautrock.
Their new album, Finisterre, is named for an old BBC radio show that gave shipping forecasts, and it’s a pleasure cruise through familiar territory. The album turns up the tempo and reinstates the spoken-word elements and guilty-pleasure beats of the band’s early days. From the Euroclank of “Action” to the ’60s piano ballad “Stop and Think It Over” and the ’80s synth party of “Rockpalast,” Finisterre is pure Etienne: a trip through the nouveau retro filter that comes out sounding definitively, beautifully now. We spoke to programmer Pete Wiggs on the phone from London. — Michael Martin

Nerve: As a band that has reacted to various musical styles, on this album are you reacting to anything that’s going on in the world?
Wiggs: I think I’ve been affected just by living in London. Our world’s changing, but London’s changing quite a lot. Loads of people are moving there, lots of buildings are being knocked down. I suppose it’s happening everywhere as well; high streets are being taken over by the same shops. Globalization, I suppose. The underground is buckling under the strain.

“Soft Like Me” has a British female rapper freestyling over an extremely twee, Carpenters-esque chorus. If Saint Etienne were called upon to produce Lil’ Kim or Khia, how would you remake them?
It’d be tough, wouldn’t it? Stop swearing, I’d say. Honestly, I think that hip-hop and R&B is the most interesting music being made, from a production perspective. Stuff like the Tweet album. There are so many good songs on that. With hip-hop, you do seem to get more adventurousness in production, and then everyone copies it. It seems to move forward more than rock music does. It seems to just endlessly go backward and forward again.

Have you heard the Streets?
Yeah, that’s our favorite album of the year. It came out while we were recording, and it gave us a bit of a kick up the ass. It made us realize that this is an exciting time in music, that things were a bit crummy. The Streets album is funny and amazingly relevant, and it just seems to describe loads of people’s experiences. It reminds me of bands like the Fall and the Specials, how they used to be into doing a routine.

Why the return to dance music?
I don’t think it was a conscious decision, really. It’s just upping the tempo a bit. But it seems that dance music has gotten more interesting lately. The last couple of years, I got really bored with it. I like this electropop stuff, electroclash, Miss Kitten. It’s ’80s-based, I suppose, but at least it’s kind of mixed with new sounds. There’s a bit more personality and humor in it; you actually have acts as opposed to just another faceless record.

Electroclash is referential toward the ’80s in the way your band, in the ’90s, was referential toward the ’60s. But electroclash is more overtly derivative, it doesn’t sound so new.
I don’t know. Quite a lot of it is just copying. But when we started, we were lucky. There was a change in technology that made it easier to mix things up and create something that sounded new at the time. It’s harder to do that now.
The good thing about electroclash is that it’s not a piss-take. A few years ago, you only heard the ’80s referred to in a comedic way. Now everyone thinks the ’80s are great, but ten years ago, it was considered the worst time. But obviously the ’80s were awful. There was some good music, but most of it was rubbish. With the benefit of hindsight, you can pick out what’s really good from the period.

Writers tend to love your music: Douglas Coupland and Simon Reynolds have written very passionate liner notes for your last two albums. Why do you think that is?
Our lyrics are quite vague, actually, but it creates images. I always think of our songs as being little films or little stories, and they’re quite atmospheric. That’s the only explanation I can think of, ’cause we’re not great literary giants.

Where do the spoken-word bits on Finisterre — “Rock could be so good, but we’ve made it all so rubbishy” — come from?
A TV play from 1976 called Jumping Beanbag. A fantastic thing they’ve got on video in the UK. It’s got a million quotes. I think it’s supposed to be serious. It’s about a band that forms in school. They call themselves a Greek metal transvestite band, and it just goes horribly wrong. It’s brilliant.

What’s up with the ingenue obsession? “Sylvie” was a song about jailbait, then you have “Jeaneane, just nineteen” on this album. Do someone in the band have a Lolita fetish?
Nah, “Jeaneane” just rhymed with “nineteen.”

Will you leave any era unplundered?
It was kind of grim in the mid-’70s and mid-’80s. The mid-part of any decade, probably. The mid-’90s were pretty crap as well. Just before we came on the scene, of course.

Has Sarah’s new baby changed the group dynamic? Not so far. The first tour bus experience is coming up. We go on a European tour this weekend, and it’s going to be quite different. There’s going to be a special baby area in the front.

So the band aides will be in the back. Yeah. Nah, I’ve got to behave myself, ’cause I’m going to be a dad. It’s just not going to be as rock ‘n’ roll as it used to be. [pause] Not that we were that rock ‘n’ roll in the first place.  


© 2002 Michael Martin and Nerve.com.