The last time Saint Etienne played Edinburgh in 2017, the trio of Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs introduced their show with a projection of the words, We Miss Josef K. Beamed out in suitably retro iron-on transfer style lettering, the message was a reference to the city’s influential post-punk band fronted by vocalist Paul Haig and guitarist Malcolm Ross.
Whether an expanded Saint Etienne line-up serve up anything similar prior to their return to the city this weekend for a twenty-fifth anniversary rendering of their third album, Tiger Bay, remains to be seen. The reference nevertheless showed off Saint Etienne’s own indie-pop roots, which they fused with latter day club-land sounds and anything else that took their fancy. This magpie-like pick-and-mix approach chimed with the zeitgeist on their pre-Cracknell debut single, a dub-inflected cover of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart and its follow-up, a similarly jaunty reinvention of Kiss and Make Up by The Field Mice.
The retro-future conceptualism continued on the first two Saint Etienne albums, Foxbase Alpha and So Tough, before Tiger Bay saw them expand their musical palette away from the nouveau swinging London their sound had in part come to define, embracing more pastoral folk stylings amidst the electro-pop.
“We hadn’t really listened to it as an album for years,” says Pete Wiggs of revisiting Tiger Bay. “We’ve always played some tracks live, but I think we’d forgotten what a lot of the record sounded like. At the time, we were listening to folk music and techno at the same time. Most Saint Etienne albums are a product of whatever we’re listening to at the time, and using folk structures and melodies from original songs and seeing if they worked with electronic programming seemed a really interesting thing to do. Working with Rick Smith from Underworld on that was really helpful.”
Tiger Bay’s now commonplace fusion of folk and electronics was way ahead of the game. The most striking example of this was on Like a Motorway, which put new lyrics to the melody from nineteenth century American folk ballad Silver Dagger, and fusing it with an electronic pulse that sounded purloined from Kraftwerk by way of Giorgio Moroder. Two songs, Marble Lions and Former Lover, used acoustic instruments, while an unlikely cover of sixteenth century folk song Western Wind, guest-starring The Lilac Time’s Stephen Duffy, confounded expectations even further.
“We’d seen the lyrics for Western Wind when they used to have poems on the London Underground,” says Wiggs, “and we’d met Stephen Duffy and said we should do something together, but I don’t think he expected that. I think he was probably more expecting we’d do a pop hit.”
The band did score a couple of minor hit singles with the flamenco-inflected Pale Movie and Hug My Soul. The latter featured a lush orchestral arrangement provided by the late David Whitaker, who whose own pedigree included working with Marianne Faithfull, Serge Gainsbourg and Lee Hazlewood, as well as scoring numerous film soundtracks before arranging Tiger Bay. The record’s eclectic nature was compounded by propulsive opening instrumental, Urban Clearway, which sounded like a theme tune in waiting for some lavish TV drama. The baroque dub of On the Shore, meanwhile, was heightened by a honeyed vocal from former Massive Attack chanteuse Shara Nelson.
“I really enjoyed the dancey ones,” says Wiggs, when asked which tracks on Tiger Bay are his favourites. “Urban Clearway, Cool Kids of Death, and weird ones like Western Wind.”
It’s not difficult to make a link between some of Wiggs’ choices and his recent undertaking of a master’s degree in orchestration.
“I think my family had to put up with even more of me disappearing into my cellar studio before coming up into the light,” Wiggs says. “I did it part time over three years, and it was really good for filling in gaps and taking me out of my comfort zone, writing in styles I would never normally consider, and reading sheet music.
“That’s been really helpful with the band, because, as ever, budgets are never really huge, and it means I can write parts for string players without getting everyone together beforehand. I had to do things like gypsy jazz, and I tend to recycle a lot of stuff, so quite a lot of what I did on the course ended up being fed into the last album.”
Wiggs has also moved into film soundtracks, with stand-alone work on Paul Kelly’s film, How We Used to Live, in 2013 following previous collaborations between Kelly and Saint Etienne on Finisterre and What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? A full-length feature film is also in the works, while he has already been working on early demos for the next Saint Etienne record with Cracknell and Stanley. Given the pop conceptualism of previous works, which have included Tales from Turnpike House’s suite of songs set among the inhabitants of a high rise block, and the suburban vistas of 2017’s Home Counties album, where are the band likely to take listeners next.
“I’m not sure yet,” says Wiggs. “But having some kind of concept really helps writing songs, however vague it might be. We’re just starting to get ideas together, really. It’s funny, because in the thirty years since me and Bob started making music together, I don’t think we’ve ever demoed stuff in a normal way, but I think we want the record to have quite a live feel this time.”
For the Tiger Bay dates, Saint Etienne’s regular eight-piece live line-up will be augmented by a string quartet and woodwind section.
“We couldn’t really play any of Tiger Bay live when the record first came out in the way we can do now,” says Wiggs. “I think we spent all the money we had on recording it, and that was it. But this time round we have to work harder. The string section are a bit more professional than us.”
Saint Etienne play Tiger Bay at the Queens Hall, Edinburgh on Saturday.
The Herald, October 17th 2019