Years before windows full of old sewing machines lined the country's major shopping thoroughfares, All Saints were synonymous with high quality bangers, top-drawer harmonies and an explosion in sales of combat pants.
Starting life in 1993 as All Saints 126.96.36.199., Mel Blatt and Shaznay Lewis were originally signed to cult British label ZTT. But it was after the arrival of Mel's schoolfriends Natalie and Nicole Appleton, and a deal with London Records, that All Saints exploded, resulting in millions of sales, two multi-platinum albums, five UK Number Ones and songs like Pure Shores and Never Ever that instantly entered the pop canon.
It all went tits up, as these things tend to, and individual careers came and went, as they also tend to, before the band settled their differences for a brief return in the form of 2006's Studio One album. And that, it seemed, was the end of that. Until 2014, when the band popped up, unexpectedly, on tour.
Permanent reunion rumours have been flying ever since. Now here it comes. New single One Strike is an instant All Saints classic, and the band's fourth album, Red Flag, is out in April. (ALERT: It includes a song called Ratchet Behaviour.)
In this exclusive first interview, they join i-D for lunch in Shoreditch to explain why this time round, everything feels right…
So this reunion all started a couple of years ago with some slots as special guests on a Backstreet Boys tour. What happened that turned those live dates into a new album and full-scale comeback?
Mel: We were asked to do that tour, we never got to actually do that many shows back in the day. The chance to do the thing we did the least of, but which we enjoyed the most — performing — was refreshing.
Shaznay: We didn't even make any money from it! We threw all the money into putting the set together.
Nic: And we had the best time ever. It was money well spent. I'd do it all over again.
Nat: We thought we'd just do it for a laugh, but then we just didn't want it to end. We liked being together. We wanted to be together. I mean we hang out anyway, but we wanted to hang out in this world.
Shaznay: The thing is, though, we wouldn't be doing this now if we hadn't made new music that we believed in. As it is, we get to run off and let loose. It's almost like running off and joining the circus again.
Who did you choose to work with on the new material?
Shaz: A great young new producer called Hutch, who's fantastic — we did the single with him. I'd heard his stuff and loved it before we were even working on all this, so this was the perfect opportunity to work with him. We also approached Utters, who worked on a lot of the Maverick Sabre stuff I'd loved, plus Invisible Men, and [previous All Saints producer] K-Gee, who's just family. K-Gee said: "Go and work with other people first then come to me." I think he wanted to size up what everyone else was doing — he's ended up exec producing the album.
Let's talk about the single, One Strike. Where did the song come from?
Shaz: I wrote that with Hutch. What do you want to know?
What's it about?
Shaz: It's about conversations I was having with Nic at the time when she was going through personal things in her life, and as a friend I was just inspired to write about it. When you write songs it's all about feeling.
Nic: We were on the phone for hours.
Shaz: I was feeling Nic's life.
So the song's about your divorce, Nic?
Nic: It's not about the divorce, it's about the moment I found out what he did to me. It's pretty much that.
Shaz: It's about a moment. A phonecall.
Nic: It's in the song! Listen to the song! It's all in there. When you hear the lyrics it all makes sense.
Shaz: The phrase 'one strike' is about how your life can just change in one instant. You can be walking down the road, you've just left your family at home and everything's hunky dory, then when you go back home they're gone. On one side of the door your life's amazing, on the other side it changes just like that.
Nic: You can light a fire with one strike.
Mel: IT'S A FIRE ANALOGY!
In 2009, Mel…
Mel: Yes darling. I know what you're going to say.
Mel: I KNOW.
…"All Saints are never ever getting back together again".
Mel: Yes. "I just want to get drunk."
Yes. Also the last time you spoke to i-D…
Shaz: Oh my God!
Mel: Oh I remember doing this one. Carry on…
…and this was looking back on the last All Saints comeback, which you'd previously said you'd done for the right reasons. You said: "I don't think we did it for the right reasons, I did it for the money…"
Shaz: (To Mel) Did you?
Mel: Yes, because I didn't like it.
And there's more: "It wasn't like we felt we had something to give back to the world."
Shaz: No way! Well that's her own opinion.
Mel: Well that was just me. My heart wasn't really in it.
Nic: That was Mel personally, but it wasn't all of us.
Mel: But it was absolutely how I felt. Because you know what, we got signed [to Parlophone] having not made one piece of music. They signed the idea of us getting back together. I felt fraudulent from that moment on and it didn't feel like a real thing.
Did you like the music?
Mel: It's not my favourite.
Is it your least favourite?
Mel: Yes. But that's why I'm so grateful that we've had this opportunity to do this now because it's completely wiped that bad taste away. Now, in 2016, we've just made my favourite All Saints album. It's the album I've always wanted us to make — and we've made it!
The way you parted company with Parlophone in 2007 seemed quite aggressive on their part — it was only about two months after the album had come out.
Mel: It's just completely invalidated everything, our entire career. It put me off! I didn't want to sing again! I was DONE. Shaz: (Signalling to waitress) CHEQUE PLEASE! (Guffaws) I didn't know that actually. It's quite hard to hear. I feel sad that she felt like that because, well, I love everything we've done. I feel bad that you felt like that, Mel.
Mel: It wasn't so much the songs — just the way it was done. Being signed before we'd made any music. You know me, I'm quite militant when it comes to integrity. It's important to me.
So agreeing to perform on those Backstreet Boys dates was perhaps a bigger step for you, Mel, than for the rest of the band?
Mel: It was definitely a decision that wasn't instant - but thank God I made the right decision, because it was the best decision I ever made.
How do you feel about all this Shaznay?
Shaz: I'm shocked! (Laughs, while looking actually quite shocked)
Nic: I love what we've done in the past but I love what we're doing now in a different way. This time round it feels like everything's happened at the right time. It feels good. It feels really good.
And you're definitely back together for the right reasons this time?
Mel: Absolutely. We wouldn't have done it for any other reason.
Shaz: The right reason is our relationship with each other — it's nothing to do with the industry, or making money, or selling records. We were friends before we made music together. Whenever we've worked together the only right reason to do anything is because of our relationship with each other.
Your new album's called 'Red Flag' — what would you now see as the red flags if problems started in the band?
Nat: We know each other so well now that if someone went quiet, we'd pick up on it. And as soon as we pick up on things they're dealt with.
Nic: It's not even quietness — it's a look, it's a feeling. We know, now, when something's not quite right. We see each other's red flags now.
Looking back to All Saints' first run of success, are there things you'd do differently?
Nat: We were very young, and very naive.
Mel: It's a confidence thing, really. When you're young you think other people know best. Ever since, if anyone ever asks me for advice on their way up, the first thing I say is: it's all about you. Keep it tight. Keep it all about you. If you're strong as a band, you'll be fine.
What other advice would you give to a band like, say, Little Mix, if they asked you how to deal with the media?
Nic: Don't talk over each other.
Mel: But also, fuck media training. Say what the fuck you want.
When a band's at the top, do you think there's a way of prolonging that success — or does each act have its own natural narrative that can't be altered?
Mel: I think if you've got any sort of plan, it's the wrong plan. You shouldn't have a plan when start a band or you start making music. It's not about plans and timetables and schedules. You've just got to do whatever you want, and make the music for as long as you need to or want to.
Did you not even have a plan right at the very start, when you and Shaznay were in All Saints 188.8.131.52.?
Shaznay: Well it wasn't even a plan -- it was a dream. Go on the Smash Hits tour, go on Top Of The Pops. That was it. I remember laying in my bed, dreaming about how amazing it would be if we ever got on Top Of The Pops.
Well that went alright, didn't it?
Shaz: Yeah it did, actually. (Laughs)
Those elements of your dream — Smash Hits, Top Of The Pops — have disappeared. How would the All Saints of the mid-90s have coped in the Instagram era?
Nic: I can't even take a selfie! Do you know what, I think I'm kind of glad we weren't involved in all that. Everybody's addicted to it. We're just addicted to each other.
Mel: The one thing I do like is that even though what you see is still not real, and even though it's less romantic in a way, social media does take away some of the mystique of fame. It takes away the idea of fame making you different from everyone else. You've got to see the positive in everything. I try to, anyway — that's what happens when you get old!
Shaznay, you worked with Mutya Keisha Siobhan on their comeback a few years ago. From the outside, how did you view the dynamic of a girlband getting back together after a difficult falling out?
Shaz: I was really happy for them! Before we were even signed to London Records, when Mel and I first started All Saints, the people we initially worked with went and found those first three girls, Keisha Siobhan and Mutya. We've kind of done the same path as them so for me to work with them was lovely. Their voices together have a distinctive sound, like ours. I enjoyed seeing the three of them back together. Loved it. I champion those girls.
They'd be good to tour with.
Mel: They would actually…
And London Records has started up again, just for your new music?
Shaz: Yeah — we really wanted to set up our own label but when the opportunity to run it through London came up it felt nice to go back there. It's cool. We were like, 'can we buy it?' And they were like, 'we can't just go round letting people buy labels off us'.
Mel: The actual response involved the phrase 'lunatics running the asylum'.
Twitter went briefly berserk on January 1 when you posted the first new All Saints photo. Were you surprised by the reaction?
Nic: It scared me. But you know, it's not really fear — it's excitement and anticipation. It's exciting, fun, scary, all at the same time. Putting that new photo up was a bit "oh my God it's real!". But the moment this interview comes out it's really real.
All Saints' single 'One Strike' is released on February 26; the album, 'Red Flag', follows on April 8
Text Peter Robinson
Photography Paul Phung
Stylist Liz Mendez
Make-up Celena Hancock using MAC Cosmetics
Hair Nick Peter
Photography assistant Lily Vetch
Styling assistant Emma Frisby