For every Eton, there’s a Slough. For every Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, a Gemma Collins. The home counties of Saint Etienne’s ninth album are those that don’t get hymned by the stockbroker belt Conservatives.They are the places of forgotten bands like Soul Family Sensation and the Onlookers, of new towns and railway stations, of motorways and industrial estates. It’s the heart of Britain, unpopular as that view might be.
What’s remarkable about Home Counties (and its predecessor, Words and Music) is that Saint Etienne, in what might have been expected to be their dotage, are making the best music of their quarter-century career. Freed from the pressures of worrying their single might stall at No 41, they record now only when they have something to say – like AC/DC, Saint Etienne make an album every five or six years, and if you want to hear it, you have to wait.
All three of Saint Etienne are home counties natives. Stanley and Pete Wiggs hail from Reigate in Surrey, singer Sarah Cracknell from Old Windsor. “Growing up in Reigate, we were on a slightly different wavelength to most people, and people that we felt connected with over the years say they felt the same,” Wiggs says.
“Pretty much everyone we grew up with was drawn to London,” Cracknell adds. “It was like a magnet. Because we were close enough it wasn't difficult to go up every weekend, which is what I did, or to move to London.”
“London is basically socialist, but you have this ring around it that is definitely not socialist, which is also probably the bit that runs the country,” explains Bob Stanley. “The country isn’t run by Londoners at all; it’s run by people in the home counties. That’s a negative. But there’s also a huge amount of modernist architecture in the home counties, more than there is anywhere else in the country. And new towns. There are a lot of things that are quite adventurous, but the rest of the country hates the home counties, understandably – it hates them more than it hates London. If it knows what they are. You’d probably still get called a cockney if you were from Berkshire or Essex.”
Saint Etienne's home counties was one in which a less regulated society meant it was possible to do things you could never get away with now. “My friends used to go the pub from school and get changed out of their school uniforms in the toilets into their civvies and then go and get a drink,” Cracknell says. “Imagine doing that today! It did lead to a group of quite creative people. People who ended up in bands, who performed in the pubs, people who got into fashion and DJing and the dance music scene when it started. So it did create this bubble of interesting people.”
Both Wiggs and Cracknell have moved out of London, following parenthood, and have decided to, in Wiggs’s words, “reclaim the home counties”.
And the songs they have written are glorious things. If the last album, Words and Music by Saint Etienne, had been the group effortlessly proving that state-of-the-art pop was something they could provide without breaking sweat, Home Counties is a relaxed record, skipping through the styles, with sonic inserts – it opens with an introduction marking this as a Radio 4 kind of record (in March, Wiggs and Stanley also appeared on Radio 3, as part of Hull’s City of Culture celebrations, meaning they have now had a wholly natural place on all four of the main BBC radio networks – them and the Beatles, then).
Underneath, though, is a very understated kind of subversion. Train Drivers in Eyeliner becomes the first Saint Etienne song to make reference to Whitesnake’s Fool For Your Loving, as it details the musical tastes of senior members of the rail union. How do you find out the musical tastes of senior members of Aslef? “By hanging around with people who know them,” Stanley says, gnomically.
Whyteleafe is one of the album’s centrepieces, named for a suburb of Croydon, the town that was Stanley and Wiggs’s metropolis as teenagers, in the days when they would get a bus to a pub just inside the London postcode zones, just so they could say they’d been for a drink in London. It’s based on the story of someone who ended up staying in suburbia, working in the kind of job millions of people end up doing, who had a flash of realisation in June 2016 that maybe he made the wrong choices with his life when he discovered he was the only person in his office to have voted remain in the EU referendum. Yet, Stanley insists, it’s lighthearted – as is Heather, written by Wiggs, which became “loosely” about the Enfield Poltergeist halfway through writing. “No one was called Heather in the original incident,” Stanley observes. “But it’s a realistic name for a suburban ghost.”
Having growing children has revitalised Saint Etienne’s relationship not just with geography, but with pop music. “I’m revisiting it through my children,” Cracknell says. “At the moment I really like a station in Oxfordshire called Jack 2, which is all electronic music and grime, and I really love it. I sit there in the car with the kids and listen to it, and I’m really reengaging with chart pop. So much chart pop is reengaged with the early 90s. I went off pop for a bit, but I love it again.”
They’ve noticed something different, though – that their kids don’t need to feel ownership of the music, physically or spiritually, the way they all did as teenagers. “Music is just a thing you have on,” Wiggs says. “My son doesn’t need to know all the details behind it.”
“They aren’t bothered by what the artists stand for, what they believe in,” Cracknell adds. “That kind of thing has gone slightly, which is a shame."
Saint Etienne still believe in pop, though, and Home Counties is delicious restatement of core values – if anything, it’s a more accomplished return to the sound and working methods of the Saint Etienne so many people fell in love with in he early 1990s, aided by producer Shawn Lee (Young Gun Silver Fox). “It’s a return to the way we used to write stuff,” Wiggs says, “singing stuff back to him and asking if he could recreate it. Which he could.”
For some years now, when Saint Etienne go into the studio, one or other member will fear it is for the last time, that they won’t be back. The record gets finished, and the three members – still, after all this time, quite evidently friends in a way that groups who ruthlessly pursue success are not – drift apart, come together again for the occasional show and tour, drift apart again. And then five years have passed … “and we get itchy feet”, as Cracknell puts it.
Thank heaven for those itchy feet. And welcome back to suburbia, Saint Etienne.
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