What kind of quality of life do you enjoy in a suburb? For the London-based electro-pop band St Etienne, the question of the city and the suburbs has been a career-long concern. And it has been encapsulated in their signature clean, clear perfect-pop songs such as “Like a Motorway” and “Mario’s Café”. But the band’s three members, Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, are originally from the Home Counties – the genteel, conservative commuter towns beyond London’s suburbs – and have returned there for their ninth album. Rich pickings for a band that mixed a sense of the 1960s with a strange vision of the future. “Metroland” indeed.
Monocle: How would you define the Home Counties?
Bob Stanley:I always thought they were the ones that literally bordered London. But once you look into the definition of the Home Counties, or why they’re called the Home Counties, it doesn’t seem like anybody actually knows. There isn’t a strict definition.
M: Which Home Counties are you
Sarah Cracknell:I was born in the Royal Borough of Berkshire.
Pete Wiggs: We were Surrey, me and Bob.
M: What were they like to grow up in?
SC:*** It felt very much like orbiting London. That was quite significant for the three of us. We just wanted to get to London because that was where all the best things were happening. As soon as I was old enough to get on a train without an adult, I was off to London every Saturday and Sunday.*
**PW:Up until the age of 10 I was in nice, idyllic, villagey Reigate, and then I moved to Croydon. So my memories of the early part are all parks and greenery and shopping parades and fun. Croydon was more suburban and kind of dull but that may be just because it coincided with my teenage years, where you’re more prone to boredom.
SC:If you live away from where you grew up long enough, you can start looking back at it quite fondly. I really enjoy looking back but it was really boring in Windsor. There was a cinema but that closed. There was literally nothing to do. But out of that came quite a lot of creativity. Lots of people I know had bands or became DJs or designers – it made people’s imaginations work better than if they had fun stuff on their doorstep.
M: You all moved from the Home Counties to London when you were younger, as people do. Have you moved back?
SC:Yes. Well, Oxfordshire. We’re not sure if that counts.
PW:I’m in Sussex. I did move back to Croydon, though, for five years, when I had kids. For some reason.
BS:I’m in London but Yorkshire half the time, which definitely isn’t a Home County but that added some distance to my memories of growing up there. That was one of the things I was thinking about when we were making the album. The other was the Brexit thing – London being pro-Remain and the Home Counties generally not at all. I remember driving through Amersham, in Buckinghamshire, and someone had put this massive Leave sign in their garden, the size of half a house. It must have taken them ages. I just thought, “What the hell is wrong with you? There’s no immigration here at all.”
M: The Home Counties do get rather stereotyped as a haven of stockbrokers. Is that fair?
BS:All anybody knows about Surrey is that there are loads of oligarchs who keep getting drowned in the bath and nobody knows how it happened, or loads of commuters coming in from Dorking or wherever. But topographically it’s a really interesting county – the North Downs are beautiful. So one of the things about the album is feeling a bit uncomfortable with the place – I think everyone feels a little bit uncomfortable about where they grew up – and also wanting to defend it.
SC:The people I grew up with weren’t all horrible right-wing fox-hunting types.
M: Saint Etienne aside, do the
Home Counties have a rich
BS:The Rolling Stones are from Dartford. Depeche Mode are from Essex. Suede... I’m trying to go around in the circle now. The Stranglers. Sham 69. The Jam. Paul Weller’s defensiveness was always quite amusing. He should just relax and say, “Yes, I’m from Surrey” rather than having this defensive working-classness. My dad was from a working-class house in Dorking: you do get working-class people in those towns.
M: Starting with opening track “Reunion”, the album is punctuated with snippets of radio – are those vérité or recreations?
BS:“Reunion” is a programme on Radio 4 on Friday mornings that literally sounds like the most Home Counties thing in the world. It’s this slightly awkward, prissy bit of music – Liszt, apparently, which I didn’t know. The ident is a recreation – it’s the actual Ken Bruce [from BBC Radio 2, recreating his “Popmaster” quiz], who was quite happy to do it.
M: Why did Whyteleafe, in Surrey, rate a song of its own?
PW:It’s near where my dad lives. I almost ended up moving there; I’m glad I didn’t. There’s nothing there but a giant Ann Summers factory, which must affect the local mentality. My brother worked there packing dildos, though not for very long. It’s a pretty dull place and I think encapsulates that aspect of the Home Counties. So the character in the song never gets away from it and kind of typifies failed dreams.
BS:I like the football club. I’ve been to see Whyteleafe quite a few times. Very nice ground. It’s quite an odd place. It’s in a valley and it was used in “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”, which is obviously meant to be set in the north of England. There’s this shot over this industrial landscape, of gasworks and stuff, and it’s actually Whyteleafe.
M: “Home Counties” sounds generally fond of its subject. Was that always the idea?
SC:I didn’t have any particular intentions of that sort but it has turned out fairly affectionate, hasn’t it?
PW:A lot of it is based on memories and appreciating things from a distance so I think that those things have come across.
Five Home Counties locations mentioned on ‘Home Counties’
A town and borough in West Sussex. As it is home to Gatwick Airport, it is technically visited by millions of tourists annually but they tend not to stay much longer than it takes to collect their bags. The Cure formed in Crawley and John George Haigh – the Acid Bath Murderer – committed several murders in West Green in the late 1940s.
Seaside town in Essex, never quite the same since English people realised that they can take holidays abroad. Still has an airshow, though.
Suburb of Reigate, a commuter town in Surrey. Famous former residents of Reigate include Spike Milligan, Margot Fonteyn, Mia Farrow, George Best and an allegedly 100-year-old parrot that (extremely debatably) was taught by Winston Churchill to curse Adolf Hitler.
Weird desert of shingle consuming a promontory of Kent. Home to a nuclear power station, though given the desolation of the landscape it might be hard to tell if it suddenly becomes contaminated.
Village on the border of Surrey and the London borough of Croydon. Very possibly now best known for the Saint Etienne song of the same name.