I-Spy, 1921 Fifth Ave, 374-9492, Fri Sept 22, $13/$15.
NO ONE COULD ever accuse Saint Etienne of not trying. Over the past decade, the trio--Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs, and Sarah Cracknell--have released six very creative albums sprawling the musical spectrum: '60s girl pop, tearjerker ballads, folk/ techno, ABBA-inspired floor fillers, '70s FM. This year, Saint Etienne have released what could be called the first "minimalist art-disco" record of the new millennium, Sound of Water. Produced by German electronic trio To Rococo Rot, Sound of Water's somber lyrics, about urban and earthly decay, are wistfully sung over basic techno beats à la Kraftwerk, with lovely blips and blurps as background noise to lush orchestrated melodies. Throughout their career, Saint Etienne have enlisted up-and-coming producers and remixers--the likes of Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Death in Vegas, Masters at Work, and Tore Johansson--many of whom went on to eclipse Saint Etienne in fame and chart success. And while Saint Etienne may have never garnered a single hit or been able to crack the album charts in America, play their "Best Of" CD at any party and people will exclaim, "Oh God, I love this song!" to any number of tracks, even if they can't tell you whose song it is that they love.
Saint Etienne's uniquely genuine take on "retro-pop" isn't about record sales--the band is more concerned with implanting memories into your head. Their spooky power has given them a handful of fanatical supporters. Go on eBay at any time, for instance, and you may find rare Etienne CDs trading hands at upward of $400. Japanese and French releases are snapped up by Saint Etienne fans every bit as frenzied as pre-pubescent girls at an 'N Sync record release, or Dutch fans at a Pearl Jam concert.
Miraculously, after a decade of working together, Saint Etienne scored their first top-five hit in the U.K. this year with "Tell Me Why," a collaboration with popular trance DJ and producer Paul van Dyk.
Now Saint Etienne wish for you to join them, as they ditch the past they've so richly mined, to take a peek at the future with their most provocative album to date and a live show to promote it. The tour will bring Saint Etienne back to Seattle for the third time in as many years. On stage they are brilliant. Sarah, in her painted-on leather pants and shimmery spaghetti-strap halter tops, exudes a flirtatious sexuality, making constant, direct contact with the audience. I got the opportunity to speak with her about the show while we were both in London.
On Sound of Water, I hear influences ranging from the Carpenters to Kraftwerk to Can.
It's great to hear someone say that. We feel we've been working on really different stuff for years, but I suppose this album just sounds so drastically different that people really noticed it.
Why did you choose to go with To Rococo Rot as producers?
We had originally given them a track to remix, but after hearing their CD The Amateur View, we knew that we wanted to work on a larger scale with them. Whenever we've tried to do something sort of minimal on our own, it always ended up sounding sort of hollow. They really worked amazing stuff on the material we gave them. It's very spare musically, but sounds quite lush and full.
What about the reaction from your label? Sound of Water is a total departure from anything Saint Etienne has done before, and the first single, "How We Used to Live," is a triptych lasting nine minutes.
We have a really brave label. They were great. They gave us free rein to do that. I mean, it didn't get any radio play, but the single really stands on its own. And it really shows the faith they have in our ideas.
I find it strange that you're on Sub Pop in the States, because I don't really perceive you as being part of the Sub Pop "sound."
No, but they've been great. We really love working with them--they're so nice, and they've let us do whatever we want. We feel very lucky.
Critically, Sound of Water is getting good reviews in the States. How about over here in the U.K.?
A good reaction from the dance crowd, and surprisingly good reviews from, you know, the intelligentsia: the Times, Observer, Mail, etc. They're saying we've grown up [laughs]. There are those who think it's commercial suicide, but we'd get that inevitably from somewhere.
This album is much less London-centric and focused on your own pasts than your prior work.
Yeah, it's much less nostalgic I think in that sense, though I believe Sound of Water is still a little hopeful about the past and future. But you're right, it's not full of all sorts of references from our childhoods--no TV theme songs, snippets from obscure movies, and that kind of thing.
I didn't realize until I came here how much you reference London in your older records. Walking around the city, I'm constantly reminded of imagery from your songs--street names, neighborhoods, parks, tube stops. It makes the songs so much more visceral.
That was sort of the intention. I suppose it's surprising to physically see the idea of what we're singing about. We have a song called "Archway People," and people have told me they moved to Archway because of our song, and they hate it there. I tell them we weren't trying to be nice to the area by naming a song after it. The song itself isn't that nice to the area. It's really an awful neighborhood. When I first moved to London I lived in Archway, above a gun shop. It was horrible. I was so happy to move.
What producers and remixers have you been working with since the album, and whom do you want to work with?
Well, we just got a brilliant remix from Hybrid for our upcoming single, "Boy Is Crying." And Paul van Dyk just remixed our first single as the flip side to that. So that's quite exciting as well. It's going to be a sort of double A-side with a new song called "Northwestern."
You seem to have a consciousness about discovering and helping all this new talent. Do you ever feel a bit jealous at your collaborators' chart success? A little like "always the bridesmaid"?
Yeah, I mean everyone wants a hit, but we aren't bitter. These are people we respected enough to want to work with in the first place. We're quite proud of them if they become successful. And it's always tricky, the chart thing. I mean, if you have one hit you feel under pressure to follow it up with another. We really like where we're at right now.
Do you like touring?
Pete and I love it. Bob hates it. Though he will be coming with us on the western leg of the tour, you won't see him on stage with the band. He's probably going to DJ before our sets from his collection of amazing '60s pop rarities.
Seeing as it will be your third time in Seattle, is there anything you're going to try to do that you haven't had time for on your past tours?
Everything. Since Bob will be there, we're going to make him do all the press so Pete and I can finally enjoy the city.