U.K. indie-pop trio Saint Etienne has gained a cult-like, if increasingly large, following in the United States over the past two decades - enough to lure the band back Stateside for the first time in nearly seven years for a tour in support of its latest album, "Words And Music By Saint Etienne."
With a distinct blend of dreamy vocals from lead singer Sarah Cracknell, dance beats from co-producers Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley and obscure film-dialogue samples peppered in along the way, it's a formula that has inspired many Best New Music reviews on Pitchfork - not to mention been emulated in recent years by the likes of bands like The Avalanches, Air France, The Go Team! and The Radio Dept.
But all that cultural reverence hasn't translated to consistent record label support. Since 1991's "Foxbase Alpha," the band has seen its U.S. releases shift from Warner Bros. Records in the early 90s to Sub Pop from 1998 to 2001 to a brief stint with Beggars Banquet for 2002's "Finisterre" and, most puzzlingly, Savoy Jazz for 2006's "Tales From Turnpike House."
"Words and Music" was released digitally in May by UME, Universal's digital arm, with enough support to help the set debut at No. 26 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart in June. But for a physical pressing of a deluxe edition featuring 8 tracks exclusive to the U.S., the band went the self-release route after talks with Universal (including a scrapped plan with Casablanca) fell apart. Instead, the band is making 2,000 copies exclusively available to fans who come to see them on their current U.S. tour, which wraps this weekend in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The eight-piece disc includes songs written and recorded during the making of "Words And Music," as well as covers of Scott Walker's "Manhattan" and Amy Winehouse's "Just Friends."
Giving U.S. fans extra material is nothing new for Saint Etienne - 1998's "Fairfax High," 1999's "Places to Visit" EP and 2001's "Interlude" were all U.S. exclusives released through Sub Pop, while 2006's "Turnpike" was released with a bonus disc, the children's EP "Up The Wooden Hills." The strategy was created in part to create value for albums released sometimes months after they're available in the U.K., but also to pay tribute to the scavenger hunt-like trips the band's members would make to the record store for their own favorite bands growing up.
"We're such big pop fans, I know that if a band I liked had extra bits on it I'd be more likely to buy it," Stanley said in an interview with Billboard before the band's packed show at New York's Webster Hall. "I think people appreciate it."
It's all three members' longtime love of music and discovering new bands that inspired the songs on "Words and Music," a shimmering dance-pop concept album with 13 songs all about being a music fan. The creative process was further accelerated by the exhaustive reissues of the band's entire catalog, from "Foxbase" all the way through to "Turnpike," each of which included a bonus disc's worth of B-sides and alternate mixes as well as a copious amount of liner notes about each album's genesis.
"We'd been doing a lot of interviews putting together the reissues, so as we looked at that we started thinking back quite a lot about the various stages in our lives," says Wiggs. "We've all got kids who listen to music now, and the way they listen to it is a lot different than how we grew up listening."
Lead single "Tonight," for example, is an almost real-time list of thoughts running through a fan's head on their way to a gig (the chorus' opening lines: "maybe they'll open with an album track / or a top 5 hit / no turning back".) Elsewhere, songs like "Twenty Five Years" and "Haunted Jukebox" find Cracknell and co. reminiscing about the songs that continue to follow the band around. Says Cracknell, "We all grew up around the same time, so that feeling of the journey of music is something we wanted to capture."
Current single "I've Got Your Music" was particularly inspired by the uniquely modern, breathlessly romantic experience of taking your favorite songs with you everywhere via portable devices ("When I'm alone / in my 'phones / I feel love / in digital stereo.") But for the music video, the band wanted to pay homage to a more analog past-time, asking fans to submit videos of themselves holding up vinyl sleeves of their favorite records. The diversity of the results was surprising - or lack thereof, as it were.
"It was quite funny, when we got them all initially it was like, 'Ok, we can really see who our demographic is - people who look very similar,'" Stanley says with a laugh of the band's largely white male fan base. "So we got some more young girls, even put our kids in there." A fan's dog even makes an appearance, jamming out with headphones to his favorite Kraftwerk LP.
Up next for the band: more reissues (an updated version of 1995's remix album "Casino Classics" and a deluxe edition of Cracknell's solo album "Lipslide") and an upcoming book about the evolution of pop music written by Stanley, a music journalist who has contributed to The Guardian and Pitchfork. Plus: more remixes under the Saint Etienne name (led by Wiggs) for artists like Lindstrom and El Perro Del Mar. Wiggs also recently wrapped production work on the upcoming second album from L.A.-based Balearic-pop band Kisses. "It's kind of a weird thing in a way, collaboration with other people without them being in the room," Wiggs says with a laugh.
Past remixes have included The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, The 2 Bears and The One AM Radio - all bands that have likely gained inspiration from Saint Etienne over the years, but often find themselves the subject of mutual admiration. "We've kind of chosen to remix bands in a way that they might like us. You can tell if someone has a similar aspect and just hope that they say yes -- that's the dream," Wiggs says.