The English synthpop trio Saint Etienne runs on its own timetable. When the group takes the stage at U Street Music Hall tonight, it will be the first time in almost a decade that it has performed in Washington. But we shouldn’t feel too slighted -- there was a gap of almost seven years between Saint Etienne’s last album, “Tales From Turnpike House,” and the new “Words and Music by Saint Etienne,” which the group released in June.
“I don’t think it had occurred to us that it might have been too long,” vocalist Sarah Cracknell says by phone from Oxfordshire, England. But when she started doing interviews around the release of “Words and Music,” she says, “I was amazed by how many people said ‘Seven years! It’s such a long time since you had a record out!’ And you’d think, ‘Is it really seven years? It doesn’t seem like that long.’
“I think people assume that when there’s not a new record coming out, we’re sitting around twiddling our thumbs. But we’re always busy.”
(After the jump: Sarah Cracknell’s five favorite Saint Etienne songs.)
There might not have been an album, but Saint Etienne, together for 23 years, wasn’t exactly on hiatus: The group served as Artists in Residence for a year at London’s prestigious Southbank arts center; rereleased remastered versions of early albums “Foxbase Alpha” and “So Tough”; compiled a box set of seven-inch singles and a best-of collection with one new track; and created the soundtrack for the atmospheric film “What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?”
After all that, it seems surprising that they had time to make an album at all. “We only ever make records when the mood strikes us,” Cracknell explains. “It’s quite a sort of organic process. You never know what we might come up with.”
Saint Etienne’s career has been one of movement. The band announced itself in 1990 with “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” a dubby, dancefloor-friendly cover of Neil Young’s elegiac 1970 single. On subsequent albums, Saint Etienne began adding samples from classic ’60s soul and R&B tracks to modern synthpop and working with producers who added everything from horn sections to electronica and breakbeats. The sound evolved but never forgot the pure pop and indie spirit that made the band a favorite on the singles chart and at Brit-pop dance parties.
At its core, “Words and Music” is an album about the band’s lifelong love affair with music itself, viewed through the prism of aging. “Over the Border” features spoken verses in which Cracknell reminisces about buying her first single, growing obsessed with Dexys Midnight Runners and Modern English, lying in her bedroom reading music magazines and listening to mixtapes made by her boyfriend, wondering “When I was married, and when I had kids, would Marc Bolan still be so important?” before launching into the hook-filled chorus.
The standout “Haunted Jukebox” is a soulful tune about how memories associated with particular songs linger for decades after. And the nightclub-friendly pop of “Tonight,” “DJ” and “Last Days of Disco” capture the rush of getting ready to go out to see a favorite band or spending a night cutting a rug to the songs you love.
The bonus is that it all would slot nicely alongside “Sylvie” or “Lose That Girl” on a Saint Etienne mix CD, which is what Cracknell says fans can expect at the show Thursday.
“Because this album has a lot of up-tempo, dance-y songs, it’s been quite easy to integrate into the live set,” she says of “Words and Music.” “We know not everybody bought the new album, so [the setlist] is only about one-third new things.”
That’s music to the ears of Saint Etienne’s longtime (and patient) fans.
Sarah Cracknell walks us through five songs representing the different stages of Saint Etienne’s career.
1. “Only Love Will Break Your Heart” from “Foxbase Alpha.” “That’s the starting point. Around that time, we had quite a few things that were slightly kind of dubby. In the early stages, that was the sort of feel that we used quite a bit.”
2. “Nothing Can Stop Us” from “Foxbase Alpha.”
“That’s when we started using samples of lovely ‘60s music and creating songs around them. It’s quite euphoric.”
3. “He’s on the Phone” from “Too Young to Die.”
“This is when we started working with outside producers … a guy called Brian Higgins added the [Eurodisco] beat, so it wasn’t just us at the controls.”
4. “Sylvie” from “Good Humor.”
“The sentiment is so beautiful. It’s a kind of ‘60s thing: Girl jealous of her younger sister and her good looks. And then the recording of that album was quite an experience: We worked with Tore Johansson, who produced the Cardigans, so everyone thought we’d sound like the Cardigans.”
5. “Over the Border” from “Words and Music.”
“It really just sums us up.”