a nice catch-up with sarah cracknell of saint etienne
Ahead of the twenty-fifth anniversary reissue of their debut album Foxbase Alpha we catch up with Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell to talk feather boas, Top of the Pops and the unbeatable importance of a good refrigerator.
The last time we had a proper chat with Sarah Cracknell of indie-popsters Saint Etienne it was back in 1993. Jurassic Park was in the cinemas, Bill Clinton had just become the 42nd President of the United States and Donald Trump was but a deranged glint in Middle America's eye. Doesn't time fly, eh? Since then, the band have released eight studio albums, a succession of increasingly refined singles and, as of tomorrow, a brilliant reissue of their 1991 debut Foxbase Alpha (not bad when you consider none of them could play an instrument). Described, in the pages of this magazine, as "everything that is brilliant about British independent music: the sublime pop of Sarah Records, the ambience of 4AD, the dub of On-U Sound and the house of Kool Kat", it is, quite simply, an essential release, a record to put your trust in and make you smile.
"I think they saw it as a melting pot of ideas," says Sarah, of an album that began life with founding members Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs a year earlier. "Everything you've ever wanted to say and write about is all in the first album because you've been thinking about it for years." Did you expect to still be talking about it two and a half decades on? "I really wasn't expecting that at all," she replies. "It's been a joy really."
Hello Sarah. We've read a few old interviews with you and in a lot of them you talk about your fridge.
I remember that! That was when I had this big, cream, round at the side, gorgeous fridge. It died in the end, sadly. I have a really nice fridge now though. Brushed steel. A little cold water dispenser.
Lovely stuff. Did you always want to be a singer?
I think I wanted to be a vet when I was very little. And then I think I wanted to be an actress. And then a singer. Well, I never really wanted to... I just wanted to be a band. I hadn't really sung very much at all. Just in the school choir.
Would it be fair to say it was the theatrical side you were attracted to?
Yeah, I think it was. But I was also very moved, from a very early age, by music. I listened to a lot so it wasn't like I wasn't into it. I just never thought, oh, if I want to be in a band, I'd better learn to play an instrument. Which would have been a good idea.
Well, Saint Etienne were the right band to join if you didn't want to learn.
I know! So I met someone who was starting a band and they just said, we need a singer and I said I'd do it. Having had little to no experience really.
What were you like at school?
I don't want my children to read this, but I was quite naughty.
You were expelled, weren't you?
I was expelled. But they did let me back after my dad went in.
Come on, what had you done?
I was expelled for skiving one afternoon. It was that kind of school. Really strict. And I'd skived off to go to the cinema with a then boyfriend. And we got spotted by one of his teachers who then called his mum who then rang my school - she never liked me - and said, "I think he's with that Cracknell girl". And so I came home not knowing anything was amiss, to be greeted by my parents at the kitchen table glaring at me. But I wasn't like really, really naughty. I was just a bit… One of my school reports, we quoted it in a fanzine years ago, said, "If Sarah concentrated as much on English as much as she does on pop music and boys, she'd do a lot better". So I think I was just very distracted. From about twelve, I'd had enough. I just wanted to be out there.
What records were you listening to growing up?
Luckily my parents had a good taste in music, so we had quite good music at home. We had the Beatles and Beach Boys and the Carpenters, who I love. And then, of course, I'm old enough to remember glam being on Top of the Pops and being very much into things like T-Rex. I loved T-Rex.
What was being on Top of the Pops yourself like?
It was great, actually. It was such a big dream and, everybody knows, but when you get there it's like, oh, it's quite small! And there's one audience that they shift around from stage to stage. But it was great when it was at Elstree and you used to be able to go to the bar and there'd be all the Eastenders cast in there. We'd sit there Eastenders spotting and meeting other bands and things. We did it loads at one point. I don't know how we got away with that.
Have you pinpointed why people like Saint Etienne so much?
A lot to do with the fact that we're not just a guitarist, a drummer a bass player, which often means you have a very similar sound. Our sound is really eclectic and changes all the time. Within one album, it can span all sorts of genres of music and stuff. So that helps. Although we've got a lot of melancholy, we're fairly upbeat. It's quite up-lifting. So people go away from it feeling alright about the future. I don't know why else. Because we just keep going!
What was the first single you ever bought?
The first single I bought was by David Essex and it was called Rock On and I bought it because it sounded a bit otherworldly. It had this really weird production. I actually really, really liked David Essex. I think I sought of loved him.
You certainly weren't alone in that in 1973.
It was the sparkling blue eyes! We got to meet him actually. He came and did a track on one of our albums, which we co-wrote with him. The day didn't go as I'd planned it. Meeting your heroes, you sort of expect everything to run really smoothly. We were recording in a house right out in Coulsdon near Croydon and I'd had a baby. He was quite young then and normally perfectly behaved, but he decided to scream for most of the day. I felt like we'd invited him to some sort of cottage industry. "Where am I? Who is this child? Don't they know that I'm busy?". He did a bit of that [taps wrist] on his watch at one point but he was very charming and very funny.
What else were you into growing up?
As a teenager I was just obsessed with clothes. I used to sit and get the paper on a Friday and circle every jumble sale I was going to go to on the weekend, workout my route and come back with bin liners full of lurex and anything feathery or sparkly.
You're quite partial to a feather boa. Where is the best place to get feather boas, out of interest?
The best place to get feather boas? John Lewis. Can you say that?
They might send us some.
Yeah! That would be good. I don't think they've changed the price in the last ten years and they don't shed feathers everywhere like most others. John Lewis all the way!
Foxbase Alpha, the 25th anniversary release, is available from tomorrow (Friday 13 January).
Text Matthew Whitehouse