Prior to the U.K.’s COVID-19 shutdown in 2020, Saint Etienne had been working on a new album inside a small, London recording studio. The album (which, by singer Sarah Cracknell’s estimates, was about two-thirds complete) was put on hold with the onset of the pandemic. In the meantime, the long-running indie pop trio got sidetracked with a socially-distanced musical experiment – and before long, a whole new concept album emerged.
“We didn’t know what the end product would be,” says Pete Wiggs on a recent Zoom call from his home studio in Hove. “We weren’t thinking this would be another album.” And yet, that’s exactly what it became.
I’ve Been Trying to Tell You, out September 10, is the tenth full-length album from the British trio. In the 31 years that have passed since Saint Etienne’s first single, a cover of Neil Young’s song “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” the group has forged a path that crosses indie pop, dance, and experimental electronic music. They’ve moved dance floors with songs like “Nothing Can Stop Us” and “He’s on the Phone,” garnered critical acclaim for albums like Sound of Water (2000) and Words and Music By Saint Etienne (2012) and have kept diehards hooked with their fan club releases and other limited edition material.
One of those rare releases – specifically a 2018 EP called Surrey North – serves as a precursor of sorts for I’ve Been Trying to Tell You. Wiggs had wanted to further some of the production techniques used in the making of the EP. “I got some new toys, some new software, that I wanted to explore,” he says.
The concept, though, came from Saint Etienne member Bob Stanley. Wiggs explains that Stanley had wanted to use samples from a specific period of the 1990s and to pull from releases that were fairly popular at the time. Ultimately, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You includes barely-recognizable snippets of hits from artists Natalie Imbruglia, Samantha Mumba, The Lightning Seeds and others.
“We got really into it and then Sarah did some vocals on quite a few and it became something bigger,” says Wiggs. At one point, they realized that they had grown more fond of this project than the album they had been recording pre-pandemic.
Saint Etienne worked on the songs remotely, with Wiggs in Hove, Cracknell in Oxfordshire and Stanley in West Yorkshire. Cracknell recorded vocals with her son as engineer and sent the pieces to Wiggs. “I wouldn’t necessarily know where they would go, so I could pick and choose and treat them like samples in a way and chop this out and play around with it,” he says.
Cracknell, too, says she was interested in something more “atmosphere-led” rather than focusing on the lyrics. “I thought that it would be nice to have something where you imagine something, a bit cinematic, in your mind,” she says. There’s also a nod to the Cocteau Twins in her approach for this album. “I’m a bit of Cocteau Twins fan and I like that Liz Fraser used to make up words and things, her own vocabulary, so I have a bit of that as well,” says Cracknell.
The samples are primarily culled from music released in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a conceptual decision that reflects the theme of the album. “The concept behind that was that it was a period where the Tony Blair government had come in,” says Wiggs. “Initially, everyone was very excited and optimistic about things. Then, it all sort of went wrong with various wars and things like that. Big business still being involved. It wasn’t as great as we thought it was going to be.”
The songs are all named after horses who ran in the Grand National race between the years 1996 and 1998, which parallels the historical reflection. “There’s a sense of optimism with betting on a horse, but it often goes tits up,” Wiggs points out.
Photographer Alasdair McLellan created a film to accompany the album, and both are a poignant reflection upon memory at a time when the music and fashion surrounding the turn of the 21st century has come back in vogue. “I suppose that I think that there’s a lot of looking back and referencing those years in popular music now, especially here – lots of people are doing songs that sound like they’re from that period and it’s influenced a lot of people,” says Wiggs.
He adds, “Bob was saying that kids maybe think of it as being all great back then.” Wiggs contemplates the possibility that Saint Etienne, at one point, may have felt the same way about the music and culture of the 1960s.
“I think that we’ve always tried to make music that reflects stuff that we like and we’re really into music from the past, but we’re always trying to make something new,” he says. Wiggs notes the advent of 21st century technologies that allow producers to closely mimic the sounds of old soul records. “Sometimes it feels like that’s a bit of a pastiche,” he says, “but, maybe, in the ‘90s, if we were able to do that, we would have done that.”