“Everything we do really stems from being record collectors rather than musicians,” says Saint Etienne's Bob Stanley, speaking from a London flat that's packed with wax — everything from The Beatles to Bartok. “I suppose that's where we're basically different from most bands. When we started, we were fairly heavily inspired by hip-hop from a production perspective because of the way a song is constructed with breaks. That's something people weren't really doing with pop tunes at the time, and it seemed like an obvious way of making music without having to learn how to play an instrument, which had always been my dream.”
Although Stanley's assessment may be a tad facetious — over the years, he and bandmate Pete Wiggs have acquired more than a passing facility with a vintage Sequential Circuits Pro-One mono synth and its companion, the trusty Prophet 5 — it's true that excessive crate digging has played a vital role in the sound of Saint Etienne. Going back to their earliest single (a 1990 clubbed-out cover of Neil Young's “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” with Faith Over Reason's Moira Lambert out front), the production duo's encyclopedic knowledge of Brit pop, American soul, '60s psychedelia, quirky film scores and all the spaces between helped fuel the evolution of their sophisticated, lounge-friendly dance music.
Tales From Turnpike House (Savoy Jazz, 2006) picks up conceptually where the group's Finisterre (Mantra, 2002) album and documentary film score left off, capturing a day in the life of a suburban London town block. The story line is guided by the supple voice of Saint Etienne's longtime lead singer, Sarah Cracknell, who channels Karen Carpenter (on the sunny-sounding “Side Streets”) and Dusty Springfield (on “Dream Lover,” vaguely reminiscent of Burt Bacharach's “The Look of Love”), as well as countless other chanteuses with a silky confidence that mirrors the album's breezy mood.
“I suppose Sarah is actually being different characters in each song,” Stanley suggests, “so maybe she had that in mind when she was singing them. I mean, ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’ is pitched just about as low as she could possibly sing, and in ‘Sun in My Morning,’ her voice sounds like it would break if she went any higher. She always just goes and does it the way she thinks it should be done, and it suits the song really nicely.”
Tracked and mixed almost entirely with producer and multi-instrumentalist Ian Catt, whose partnership with Saint Etienne stretches back to 1990, Turnpike House retains the spatial warmth that any true rare-groove enthusiast would demand. Live acoustic and electric guitars, bass, keyboards, flutes, strings and painstakingly layered vocals are rendered by a slew of top-notch musicians, including cellist Hugh McDowell (a veteran of the original Electric Light Orchestra), Tony Rivers (a Beach Boys alum who lends a Brian Wilson — esque flair to the vocal arrangements on “Sun in My Morning” and the closing track “Goodnight”) and Xenomania (a live band, led by Brian Higgins, that co-wrote and co-produced two tracks on the album). With so much talent at his disposal, Stanley says, the songs almost create themselves.
“Speaking for myself,” he explains, “I just get tunes from walking down the road. Normally, I'll just go home and hum them into a MiniDisc recorder, and then I go to the studio and play them in a very basic version, which Ian normally knocks into shape. Ian has loads of vintage gear — Neumann microphones, [UREI] tube preamps and all that — with a Pro Tools setup, so he's always ready to record a part himself or get somebody else in to play it.”
Turnpike House has been out since last year in the UK, but three new songs on the American release make it well-worth another taste — especially the glam-rocker “Oh My,” which Stanley likens to a lost David Essex vs. T-Rex mash-up, with Thin Lizzy thrown in for added sass. Whatever the musical influence, for Saint Etienne the vista is always wide open. “We're more comfortable with our ineptitude now, I think,” Stanley jokes, referring again to his keyboard chops, “but it's really the listening that does it for me. I mean, just about anything can give you inspiration; it's what you do with it that makes the difference.”