Art & Photography

He’s on the Phone: Pete Wiggs (Saint Etienne)

Pete Wiggs reveals the secret to the pop band’s longevity as they release a limited edition book documenting their 25-year career
Saint Etienne by Paul Kelly
For more than 25 years, Saint Etienne – Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell – has been producing music suffused with an exquisite melancholy and their signature indie dance accompaniment. They still command a powerful presence – as a band they’ve achieved that rare and illusive prize in the music industry: longevity. Against a modern backdrop of throwaway culture, Saint Etienne’s resilience and longevity is stark, the novelty of their success ever more puzzling.

Above: Credit, Paul Kelly
Below: Credit, John Stoddart

Saint Etienne by John Stoddart
As a limited edition photography book documenting their 25-year career is released, Port talks to Wiggs about the band’s perennial presence.

Has the process of creating the book revived any long-forgotten memories? Any you’d rather forget?

Yes, and we’ve being re-issuing as well over the last few years, so there’s been a general trawl through our past. There’s something about the photos that really bring it back. There’s some that I didn’t remember doing and it’s nice to see those, particularly the early shots, it’s nice to see yourself looking really young. But slightly tragic when you think you look like that still and you realise, as you flick through, you’re gradually ageing, the hair is changing length, dwindling a bit and going grey.

What has kept you going as a band for 25 years?

Being good friends and enjoying each other’s company. I suppose there have been big gaps between some of our albums, so at the times when we need to put out a new album we’re all fired up. I think the fact that we like each other keeps us together. And we never toured too much, so we didn’t get particularly sick of each other. We haven’t been that famous, so I think that helps.

We’ve always got something to achieve. The critical reception has been really good – that spurs you on. If you’d steadily been getting worse and worse throughout the years, you might give up.

“I think it’s harder for those starting more recently. Even if you’ve done really well, the record companies can be quick to drop people, even if they’ve had a relatively successful album”

Saint Etienne by Paul Kelly

Above: Credit, Paul Kelly
Below: Credit, Joe Dilworth

So group dynamics and personalities are key to your longevity?

Yes, we tend not to have any massive arguments – the odd disagreement here and there. Bob and myself grew up together so we know each other as brothers. And Sarah is really easy going, not at all diva like, which is a really good quality. She’s pretty down to earth and can drink us all under the table. I think part of it is we always have such a good time on tour and probably even more so now Sarah and myself both have kids, so it’s like a little jolly away from responsibility.

How have you had to adapt and develop as a band to survive?

When we started we were very naïve and not very good at playing anything. I’ve learnt more of the technical side over the years, I can do most of it on my own now, producing and things like that. So the change in technology has been really good and we’ve seen a lot of drastic changes in the way people do things. That affects the way you work and keeps things exciting. Bob’s been writing all the time and his writing has got much better. I suppose it’s just a case of you have to keep learning. There was a period in the 1990s when I tended to go out and enjoy myself too much and I feel I wasted a bit of time there. I probably could have done more collaborations and things like that, but I was quite happy. I’m doing that now anyway.

Have you got a favourite side project?

We were artists in residence at the South Bank Centre for a year in the early 2000s. That was pretty amazing because we had incredible access to spaces. We put on a monthly club in the Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer and we were allowed to curate that. And there we made a film about the Festival Hall and did the music live with this orchestra of school kids. Now I’m writing the soundtrack to the latest film (How We Used to Live) myself – it’s all done here at home. I didn’t know we were going to do it live. But we did it at Sheffield Documentary Festival a couple of weeks ago and we’re going to do it at the Barbican in September.
Sain Etienne by Joe-Dilworth
What about the longevity of bands currently?

There are a lot of bands from when we were starting out that are still going. But I think it’s harder for those starting more recently. Even if you’ve done really well, the record companies can be quick to drop people, even if they’ve had a relatively successful album. There are still some brilliant independent labels out there, but no one’s really got any money.

People tend to know a bit too much these days. That can be a good thing, but I used to like the mystery behind bands. I think there’s a sense that it’s hard to come up with something new that people haven’t heard before. I do think we were lucky: it was a good time to grow up, in terms of music, and a good time to be in a band but that’s not to say it’s over for other people, though I don’t think music is necessarily as much of a focus in people’s lives as it used to be.

So where next for Saint Etienne, another 25 years?

I don’t know if I want to keep going that long. We’d definitely like to do another album. When we do the Barbican in September, we’re going to do a set of songs before the film and we’re going to write a couple of new things, do some covers we haven’t done before and a couple of old songs that we haven’t done for ages.

Interview Nathan Ladd

‘Saint Etienne’ is out now on First Third Books. Saint Etienne perform ‘How We Used to Live’ at the Barbican, 13 September. Tickets available HERE