September 11, 2017 - Sarah Cracknell is an English vocalist and musician best known for fronting the indie-pop band Saint Etienne. Since releasing their debut, Foxbase Alpha, in 1991, the London band have established a devoted following around the world. They recently released their ninth proper studio album, Home Counties, and will once again head out on the road. When asked why her creative relationship with bandmates Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs remains fruitful after two decades, Cracknell breaks it down. "I think we feel very free and easy in each other's company," she says. "Most importantly, we still have fun. That is so important. No one gets embarrassed about submitting an idea or anything. I can’t speak for other musicians, but I think when it starts to no longer be fun, or when people have too much ego or are too territorial over their specific part of the process, it’s no good."

As told to T. Cole Rachel, 2169 words.

Tags: Music, Inspiration, Success, Process, Identity.

Sarah Cracknell on how to be in the same band for 25 years and still enjoy it

From a conversation with T. Cole Rachel
September 11, 2017
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For the record, your idea for our interview topic today is “How to Be in the Same Band for 25 Years and Still Enjoy Doing It,” which seems like an excellent thing to talk about.

I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve been together for that length of time and have somehow enjoyed every single minute of it. I think that is something to be celebrated, quite frankly.

That’s a long time for any kind of creative collaboration. What do you attribute it to?

God, there’s so many things. We have a mutual respect and fondness for each other, obviously, having worked together for so long. There’s no big egos in the band, never has been. I think that’s one of the key things, because it means that we can share songwriting and the creative process really, really equally and totally democratically and no one gets offended or has their feelings hurt. Also, we share most musical duties in the band pretty equally, which helps. Because there’s not someone who only plays guitar or who only writes songs or only plays drums, the duties feel equally shared. I mean, we aren’t all brilliant musicians, but we’re okay.

But since we’re not tied to a specific instrument or role, there is a certain freedom. I think we all write together really well and we enjoy writing as a team. For instance, on the current album there are a couple of songs that Bob [Stanley] wrote most of the lyrics for, a couple of songs that Pete [Wiggs] wrote most of the lyrics for, and a couple of songs where I wrote most of the lyrics. There’s also a bunch of songs where all three of us contributed lyrics. I think some people find that a bit odd, but we all contribute together. I think that’s fairly rare. None of us are particularly fussy about it.

I think we feel very free and easy in each other’s company, which allows us to do that. Most importantly, we still have fun. That is so important. No one gets embarrassed about submitting an idea or anything. That took a little while coming for me because I joined the band after Bob and Pete had already had two singles out and they’d got quite a few ideas together for the first album, Foxbase Alpha. I think they’d been thinking about it for years: “If we ever get to make an album, let’s do this and let’s do this, and let’s talk about this.” So I came in a little bit at the back-end of that, so I didn’t really contribute too much on the first album. I started contributing on So Tough, really, and then it’s been kind of gradual involvement. Now we just all work together really harmoniously, which is great. I can’t speak for other musicians, but I think when it starts to no longer be fun, or when people have too much ego or are too territorial over their specific part of the process, it’s no good.

Your band seems to have the perfect level of fame. You have a devoted fanbase and people love what you do, but—at least from an outside perspective—you’ve never seemed particularly stressed out about becoming a “big” band. Plus, you get to have a normal life. Does that make sense?

That’s right. It makes total sense. I think chasing fame can be the death knell with bands. It’s also different if you have a massive hit, which we’ve never had, not a massive hit. We’ve had two #11 singles in the U.K. and we’ve had Top 10 albums, but we’ve never had that massive hit that changes everything. When that happens then you’re under such immense pressure to follow it up, which must be awful. It must be really hard. I think it’s quite negative to the creative process and the whole “just having fun” part of things that has always been important to us. If everyone’s standing over you waiting for you to follow up that hit or somehow recreate it, I can’t imagine how you feel free enough to create. We’ve had this kind of mid-level success for a long time, and I think it does have a lot to do with not having a huge hit, which is actually fine. That has never been the ultimate goal.

One thing that people often say about Saint Etienne is something to the effect of, “I don’t understand why they aren’t huge!”… but obviously maybe being hugely famous shouldn’t be the goal.

I don’t think it is the be-all, end-all goal for us, no. I remember in the early ’90s when things started really kicking off for us and I used to get invited to lots of fancy events and openings, all these showbiz-y parties. I used to avoid them like the plague, mainly because I was terrified I was going to get drunk and fall over and make a fool of myself in front of photographers. That was my main worry. But also, I think there was part of me that just didn’t like it. It wasn’t fun. I didn’t embrace that whole pop star thing, and I don’t think Bob and Pete did particularly either. I think, probably because we’re quite self-effacing as people. We just like to have a bit of a laugh, really. You can see that in the kind of music we make. I wouldn’t want that to change.

So how do you keep things interesting after 25 years?

We have lots of side projects, some of which are solo things. Bob is writing books, and I’ve had solo records, and Pete’s been doing film school stuff. There are side projects we’ve done together, like films and stuff like that. If all the focus is always on that one project that you do together as a band, then maybe it can become a bit suffocating. Perhaps the fact that we do other stuff alleviates that pressure a little bit. It keeps us happier.

Are you always working on music or is it important sometimes just to turn off and not do that at all sometimes?

I find it easy to just turn it off and not do it for awhile. I’m quite lazy, really, and I like hanging out in the countryside and getting involved in village life and stuff like that. I think Bob and Pete think about music more often than I do. I mean, Bob’s such a collector. As I’m sure you’re aware, he also writes about music. And Pete’s getting really into doing his film school stuff, so he’s doing another degree. I think it’s like an MA or something smart like that, I can’t remember. I think they need music much more in their daily life than I do. I can dip in and out. What happens to me is I don’t get involved in music for a while and then I get a bit twitchy and I feel like I really want to do something. And when I’m in it, I’m totally in it.

This year you’ll be playing shows, including a run of dates here in the States for the first time in a few years. Do you enjoy playing live?

I love doing shows. Part of the reason we’ve been together for so long is that we enjoy traveling and touring. We’re real geeks. We like sightseeing, tasting the local food, all that kind of thing. It’s really good fun for us, and it always has been. Because we like it so much, we get a bit excited for the traveling. We went to Istanbul a few years ago, which was incredible. To be honest, I feel a bit scared at the moment because it’s probably not the best time to travel, but I always get this feeling like I’m really going to make the most of it because I might not get to come to somewhere like this again. You never really know. You don’t know when you’re gonna have the next record out, or when you’re gonna do another tour or whatever. I think we all have that feeling a little bit, so we really go for it when we tour, especially if it’s somewhere we’ve never been to before. We feel so lucky.

Also, It’s not just the three of us. It’s the crew and the rest of the band. There’ll be 12 of us marching around Singapore or someplace, looking at everything and eating all the food. We’re all sort of greedy foodies. I think this contributes to the longevity of the band as well. We don’t find all that unenjoyable. We love it, all that traveling stuff. Of course it can’t always be fun, but I don’t understand people who complain, who turn it into hard work somehow.

By any kind of measure, having a band for 25 years that makes records that people enjoy is definitely success. Has your perception of what it means to be successful or definition of what makes something successful or not changed over the years?

Yeah, it probably has changed. I remember there was a focus at one point, around the end of Foxbase Alpha and going into So Tough where there was a particular excitement because we were having big success and we were on Top of the Pops. That was massive because Top of the Pops had been a huge part of our growing up. Everybody watched Top of the Pops and everybody knew all of the bands on there, and if you went to school and you hadn’t seen the show on Thursday night, you felt like a twit. It was so important. So to be on Top of the Pops was amazing.

So we did start thinking about chart places and sales and things like that, probably more because of the excitement and the thrill of it than anything else. As time’s gone on, I think success is more about people just liking the music. I think there was a period where we were quite concerned if journalists liked the records and if we got good reviews and stuff. Whereas now I think it’s so much about what our fans think. Because of social media, we get an instant reaction from our fans, and that is really important, just as important, I think as anything else. It’s always good to question what your idea of success should look like. It’s not always what you think it is.

It’s good to think about, “Why am I making this?” and, “What is this really for?” If it’s not for yourself on some level, or just because you simply enjoy making songs, then it seems kind of pointless.

I agree. We just never had the same goals as other bands, apparently. For the past 10 years or so we’ve never made a real play, never said, “So, we’ll do this album, put that out, go on tour, then we’ll do another one in three years…” We’ve not done that. We’ve just put a record out, toured and played it to people, and then not planned anything. At some point the stars align and it feels like the right time to make another record, which is how it should be, right? Doing it because you feel compelled, because you have something to say and not out of obligation? Someone said to me the other day, “So what are you gonna do after this album?” I was like, “I don’t know!” I know we’ve got shows to do to this year, but I can’t think past Christmas. I’ve got family to worry about.

Recommended by Sarah Cracknell:

  • There’s a group called Girl Ray—a three-girl group from London—who are great. I like them because they’re really good, but the funniest thing about them to me is that their name is Girl Ray, and their first album is called Earl Grey. I think that is fucking genius.

  • I really love close girl harmonies, girls singing together. I just love it to death. There’s another group called Stealing Sheep, who are on Heavenly. I don’t know what they’ve got out at the moment. Their last album was great. They’ve got a brilliant video for a song called “Apparition”.

  • Okay. There’s another group called The Fernweh who are just genius. They’re from Liverpool and they’re really good.

  • Something that I revert back to listening to all the time is Nick Drake. I remember ordering the box set, Fruit Tree, from Revolution Records in Windsor. I still have that copy. Also Laura Nyro who I could listen to all day. I’m so gutted I never got to see her play in London back in ‘94.