I've Been Trying To Tell You

I've Been Trying To Tell You

Saint Etienne’s 10th studio album wasn’t supposed to sound like this. By early 2020, Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs, and Sarah Cracknell had almost completed a different set of songs. But as lockdown took hold, there was no way to mix them and work paused. While they waited, the trio picked up an idea that was easier to explore from their own homes, one first investigated on 2018’s Christmas giveaway Surrey North EP. A few years earlier, Stanley had become drawn to vaporwave, a sound he’d found on YouTube. Bedroom producers were warping and tranquilizing ’80s R&B and setting it to images of abandoned buildings. The hazy sense of nostalgia intrigued Stanley. “The music that gets sampled and images that get used are American or Japanese,” he tells Apple Music. “So, we thought, ‘What if we use British imagery and samples to try to evoke a period in recent British history?’”
They settled on 1997 to 2001, a period beginning with the installation of the Labour government and ending with 9/11. It felt like the last time Britain had been buoyed by widespread optimism and was an age that people were increasingly looking back on with yearning. “A lot of the problems we have at the moment, like social media, barely existed,” says Stanley. “The internet barely existed. The climate catastrophe—everyone knew it was possibly going to happen, but no one realized it would accelerate as fast as it has.” Exchanging files and thoughts across email and video calls, the trio foraged samples from the era’s R&B and pop, stretching and reshaping them into eight hypnotic pieces full of summery warmth and reflection. Melodies take hold slowly but doggedly, melancholy occasionally draws in like evening shade, and a gauzy sense of reverie acknowledges how nostalgia can blur details. “The whole point is memory is a very unreliable narrator,” says Stanley. “Every period has its grimness but, with the ’90s, it’s easy to see how people are focusing on the positivity. When we were teenagers, we really looked back at the ’60s and thought what an amazing period that was. But what we were looking at was The Monkees rather than people being lynched in the South.” Here, Stanley guides us along a journey through a half-remembered past, track by track.
“Music Again” “It’s basically Pete’s work. We just found the samples together and he extended that and made it into a hypnotic, repetitive pattern, and Sarah wrote her lyric over the top. I like the fact that when I’ve mentioned that there’s a Honeyz sample [‘Love of a Lifetime’], people are like ‘obscure R&B band’ or whatever. But they obviously weren’t. At the time, they were all over Radio 2; I think they had a couple of Top 10 hits. We really wanted it to be something you might remember hearing, so it might actually jog a genuine memory from the time. So, the samples [on the album] were all from mainstream acts, just not the most obvious songs.”
“Pond House” “[The sampled track, Natalie Imbruglia’s ‘Beauty on the Fire’] got in the Top 30. With a lot of the samples, we were listening to albums from that period and just hearing if there was a snippet of something that we could use and expand. It’s almost like trying out a new instrument, trying out a guitar pedal, just seeing if there was something we could do with it. We were looking for good productions from the time, relatively smooth. I have playlists of all the ones that we never ended up using. There’s a song called ‘Sky’ by Sonique, a couple of Jamelia things—‘Antidote,’ ‘Life.’ Maybe we’ll use them in the future. Mel B’s solo stuff, Martine McCutcheon, Lutricia McNeal.”
“Fonteyn” “[The sample is] a Lighthouse Family song, but it’s not the biggest hit, ‘Lifted’; it’s a relatively minor single [‘Raincloud’]. I remember hearing them on Radio 2 at the time, and I always really liked the bottom end of the piano working as a bassline, so that’s what we used.”
“Little K” “We were just going back and forth, but basically Pete was sending us things that were essentially finished. It was like, ‘Well, this is terrific.’ Then Sarah would write lyrics and come up with the topline, then he’d fit them in and cut it up a bit like he did here on ‘Little K.’”
“Blue Kite” “Pete did this in his studio at home. It was using bits of our own songs, from the early ’90s I think. That kind of abstraction reminds me of My Bloody Valentine, even though there’s no obvious guitars on it. I think it’s sad they never made another album 18 months after Loveless. Because I remember Colm, the drummer, was getting really into jungle, and I think they probably recorded stuff. I was thinking, ‘Wow, where’s this going to go?’ Then they just don’t make a record for 20-odd years instead. There were so many directions you could go in the early ’90s and so much music being made where you could take inspiration from it, from contemporary stuff. I think that really gave us a palette that we could use, as well as stuff from the past that we already liked—psychedelia, Northern Soul, or whatever.”
“I Remember It Well” “I worked with a guy called Gus Bousfield, who does a lot of TV and film work. He’s an engineer, producer, and a multi-instrumentalist. That’s the kind of person I need to work with because I can barely play ‘Chopsticks.’ It’s great to have someone who can do everything you want. Gus recorded [the sampled conversations here] in an indoor market in Bradford. They’re heavily distorted and it sounds like human language, but you really can’t work out a single word. He plays guitar on this, which has a slight Twin Peaks feel.”
“Penlop” “I think this probably had the most time spent on it. Pete did a version that was about eight minutes long. It got more distorted towards the end. I just love the way it has a part where it drops down, then comes crashing in. And then it goes up another level after that.”
“Broad River” “The piano part is the intro to a Tasmin Archer song [‘Ripped Inside’]. That’s all we took from that, I think, a bar of piano or whatever, two bars. It’s funny because a lot of people have said, ‘Oh, this is the first time you did sampling since [1993 album] So Tough.’ And it isn’t. I suppose we’ve just not used it as obviously. There’s plenty of things we’ve recorded over the years which have samples on them, but you can take a bit of an existing song and make something completely new, with a completely new atmosphere. I think this is one of the cases, because I love the way it sounds on ‘Broad River’ and the Tasmin Archer song is obviously a fair bit darker.”

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