It’s easy to forget how important St Etienne were to the Britpop era, writes Ed Power.
It’s the perfect moment for a chat with Sarah Cracknell of St Etienne. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Summer Of Britpop — when Blur v Oasis made international headlines, Supergrass’s ‘Alright’ was all over radio, and zipped-up Adidas trackies and mockney accents were de rigueur.
At the centre of this union flag-bedecked maelstrom were Cracknell and St Etienne, flag wavers for a sepia, seaside holiday vision of Englishness and among the first Britpop acts to make the charts.
St Etienne may not have been the most popular of Britpop groups — though they certainly sold a lot of records — but were unquestionably among the scene’s handful of true innovators.
“We were one of the first bands from our background to be played on [BBC] Radio One,” Cracknell remembers. “Up to that point, they would never have played left-of-centre indie, indie-dance… whatever you want to call it. Prior to us, it just wouldn’t get a look in.
They came to attention as part of the Heavenly Social, a collective of artists centred around a club night run at the Albany Pub near Paddington station in London.
As breathlessly relayed via the pages of the NME and Melody Maker for several years, the Heavenly Social looked suspiciously like the centre of the pop universe. Watched from afar in Ireland, it seemed impossibly exotic.
“It was a great time to be young. We hung around with people like Primal Scream and the Chemical Brothers. It was fantastic,” Cracknell says.
“You’d end up writing off your entire Monday. Then you’d end up writing off Tuesday too. A friend of mine got the sack ’cos he was writing off every night of the week except Thursday. It was a happy, crazy time.”
St Etienne were founded by north London school friends Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs. Initially, the plan was for a rotating cast of vocalists.
That was the basis on which the pair approached Cracknell during the recording of their 1991 debut album Foxbase Alpha, which they are to reprise in its entirety at the National Concert Hall next month.
“It was a progression,” Cracknell recalls. “I went from singing one song to working with them more and more. Initially, the idea was to come on board for a single. They had this madcap concept of a different singer for every release. That was until someone pointed out that logistically it would be a bit tricky to do on the road.”
To her consternation, Cracknell was initially perceived as nothing more than window-dressing. Stanley and Wiggs were assumed to write the songs as she grinned for the cameras and flaunted her cheekbones in photoshoots.
“It did bother me,” she nods. “We were always a three-way collaboration. The thing is, I’m the sort of person who doesn’t get stroppy enough about that stuff. I decided that, with time, people would work it out for themselves without me shouting about it. Actually, it took a while for that to happen.”
Twenty-four years on from Foxbase Alpha, the three members of St Etienne have grown up but not apart.
Stanley, a jobbing music journalist prior to the band taking off, still writes and in 2013 penned a definitive study of popular music, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop. Wiggs composes soundtracks and DJs. Cracknell, for her part, lives with her husband and two children in Oxfordshire and balances St Etienne with a solo career.
“We have all sort of grown up together,” says Cracknell. “We met in 1991 and hit it off from the start. There were so many shared references points — we liked the same sort of things as teenagers. We used to buy our clothes from the same secondhand shops, had fallen in love with the same films and records
“There is a deep understanding and we are incredibly supportive of one another. Everyone is really busy and we come together when it feels right.”
From record sleeves to fashion choices, St Etienne always communicated a unified sensibility. When you purchased one of their albums, you weren’t simply acquiring a collection of songs — you were buying into a distinctive world view, with one foot in an idealized past and one in a glittering future.
“The way we dressed was the way we dressed,” says Cracknell.
“We were very focused on artwork and never put that in the hands of other people. I don’t understand why bands don’t care about that side of things. It’s the whole package isn’t it? You can’t separate the two.”
Cracknell released her second solo record in June. A quarter-century from Foxbase Alpha, the music industry has changed beyond recognition, she says.
Now music is something we access for free, with artists scrambling for other ways to earn a living. She doesn’t pine for the past. What would be the point?
“St Etienne have seen all these stages because we’ve been around so long,” she says. “You can never figure out what is going to happen. As soon as the internet came along it was obviously going to change everything.
"You can’t moan about it — and you certainly can’t turn the clock back. It is difficult to make money from selling records. But if you’re the sort of person who just needs to record an album, you are going to do it regardless.”
St Etienne perform Foxbase Alpha in its entirety at National Concert Hall, Dublin, on Tuesday, September 8.
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