This year marks the 30th anniversary of its 1991 debut album, “Foxbase Alpha,” but it’s another anniversary that lingers in the band’s memory, the 20 years since the 9/11 tragedy. And with it, the abrupt drawing down of what had been a curiously optimistic time in both the United Kingdom and the United States. “What’s interesting about British music in the 1980s and the bulk of the 1990s, you had the Tories in power and there was always this kind of edge,” Stanley says via video call from his home in Yorkshire, a framed poster of François Truffaut’s 1968 French new wave classic, “Stolen Kisses,” behind him. “And as soon as Labour won the election in ’97, it’s when everybody went, ‘Ahh.’ Music went really sort of soft and quite peppy.”
It’s that peculiar era between 1997 and 2001 — when political pundits like Francis Fukuyama argued for “The End of History” and liberal democracy’s triumph, “Total Request Live” teen pop grew dominant, the Internet promised to connect everyone, and things would only continue to get better — that Saint Etienne scrutinizes with its new album “I’ve Been Trying to Tell You.” “I think there was a huge element of positivity at-bat,” Cracknell says via video call from her home in Oxfordshire. “I was really positive and enthusiastic. Now I think: ‘Was I?’ ”
It’s that mix of doubt and idealism that informs their resplendent 10th album. “It wasn’t a bad time, but it certainly wasn’t the golden era,” Stanley says. “There was a Charli XCX interview talking about the late ’90s . . . and music was much more melodic and blah blah blah and I was thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s because you were a kid.’ That’s really not how I remember it.”
The inherent fallacy in “how you remember it” becomes the slippery tenet of the album, which forced the band members to scrutinize how and what they truly remember about the era. Stanley remembers growing up with Brits fondly recalling “blitz spirit,” the nightly bombing of London during World War II, a peculiar terror to happily recall. As for the end of the 20th century, Stanley recalls being fed up with Britpop entirely, gravitating instead to German minimal electronic music. (Their 2000 album “Sound of Water” was recorded with German group To Rococo Rot.)
“I’ve Been Trying to Tell You” re-examines that era through the prism of now-forgotten soft and peppy chart fare. “The Japanese call that sort of stuff ‘healing music,’ ” Cracknell says. It might seem counterintuitive to think of wallpaper-y pop hits in terms of healing, but she cites a current example from the U.K. charts: “Will Young’s ‘Crying on the Bathroom Floor,’ don’t know why,” she says with a shrug. “Because of everything that’s going on at the moment, especially with Afghanistan and everything? But I want to listen to that and go, ‘Oh, I just feel a bit better now.’ ”
Digging beyond the bigger acts of that era — Billie Piper, S Club 7, Steps — Saint Etienne samples the likes of Honeyz, Lighthouse Family, Tasmin Archer and Samantha Mumba on the new album. Rather than convene with new songs and ideas to hash out together, the idea for the album came first. “Normally what we’d do is we come up with the ideas and we sketch them out remotely and then go into a studio and put it all together and put vocals on,” Cracknell says. So when covid made the step of convening in a studio fraught with anxiety, the trio just continued working on tracks remotely.
One of the by-products of that remote working is that this Saint Etienne album has fewer vocals from Cracknell than before. It gives way to expanded instrumental reveries, like a 10-minute stretch that drifts from the slow crest of “Little K” to the cloudy thump of “Blue Kite,” suffused with chirping birds, muffled kicks and little glints of harp, gurgling water and subdued guitar. “I don’t care how much I’m featured on vocals, as long as it sounds great, so I’m very happy,” she says. “I wanted it to be smooth, atmospheric and cinematic.”
Perhaps the only artist sampled that U.S. listeners will recognize is Natalie Imbruglia, whose 2001 song “Beauty On the Fire” underpins first single “Pond House.” Paired to a slowed-down drum beat, Saint Etienne conjures a dreamy slice of downtempo electronic music, using Imbruglia’s utterance “here it comes again” to dizzying effect, cycling and looping the voice so that the phrase moves from one of tingly anticipation into one of inevitability, perhaps even the mundane reality of life during the pandemic, repeating ad nauseam.
The idea of mining this particular vein of the pop lithosphere also meant Saint Etienne revisited an old way of working, utilizing samplers to build the songs, a practice the band moved away from in the mid-90s. “It’s really sort of freeing, taking other people’s stuff and making something new out of it,” Cracknell says. “It’s brilliant. I love it.” Stanley says that rather than think of it as the band returning to their “old sounds,” he was instead inspired by the sound of chillwave that arose a few years back.
In their early years, Saint Etienne was cutting edge in its embrace of electronic dance music. The 1990 single “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (a synth-laced take on the Neil Young song) wound up becoming a proper club banger, with remixes from heavyweight producers like Masters at Work and Andrew Weatherall. “I was saying to Bob the other day it’s like when we get remixes done of stuff we’ve done, I’m always more excited about the remix,” Cracknell says. Other early singles found the band being stretched into thrilling new shapes by the likes of Underworld, the Chemical Brothers, David Holmes, Autechre and Aphex Twin. “Weirdly, I went to a fireworks display with Richard D. James on Bonfire Night (also known as Guy Fawkes Night),” Stanley recalls of working with the electronic music legend. “Obviously he’s quite an imposing figure musically, but he’s a really nice bloke, really funny.”
With one hold on heart-on-sleeve indie pop, the other on hands-up club music, Saint Etienne cut across a wide swath of listeners and became ubiquitous in Britain. Which is how in-demand photographer Alasdair McLellan first heard the band. “Saint Etienne’s music has soundtracked my life since I was a teenager,” McLellan writes via email. “Music has always been an inspiration and Saint Etienne are one of a few acts who have helped shape my visual language.” Best known for photographing Adele’s “25” album cover and collaborating with the xx, a few years ago, McLellan used a Saint Etienne song for a Marc Jacobs campaign, and Stanley reached out to thank him.
Learning that McLellan was a big fan, the band inquired about him making a video for the new album. Inspired by what he heard, McLellan instead made a 40-minute film to accompany the album, with its moments of teenagers jumping in rivers, preening before a mirror and just hanging out delivering a timeless feeling. McLellan says the images are “an interpretation of my memories from the time I was first listening to Saint Etienne at uni. Some of the memories are real. Others are what I wish life could have been.” Bored teenagers dealing with the world at large may have more devices in-hand now, but that tumult of emotions and ennui remains the same. One day, this generation will look back fondly on such times, too.
From our vantage in 2021, it’s hard to conceive of just precisely what to feel optimistic about, much less what we will one day look back upon wistfully. For Stanley and Cracknell, that’s precisely the trick of memory and nostalgia, that misremembering. “I think one of the interesting things — which kind of ties in with this album — is already you can see yourself looking back at this period,” Stanley says of just looking back to last year. “There was nothing to do every day apart from go for a walk. So we ended up going to every local piece of parkland or woodlands that we’d never been to before.”
Recounting this, he pauses, before adding: “You can see how your memory can be selective and you can start to forget how frightened you were all the time and how worried you were for your family and friends.”