Remembering Things

26 Years Later, the Story Behind Saint Etienne's Genre-Bending Debut ‘Foxbase Alpha’

Singer Sarah Cracknell takes us on a deep dive into the trio's unlikely genesis—just as acid house fever gripped the UK.

by Cam Lindsay
01 February 2017, 8:53am

When Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs formed Saint Etienne in 1990, all they really had was the name, which paid tribute to the French association football club, Association Sportive de Saint-Étienne Loire. The childhood friends had little experience making music, but they had the determination to make it happen and an unlimited range of influences to guide them along the way. Both were avid record collectors and they published a fanzine together; Stanley was a budding music journalist with bylines in the NME and Melody Maker.

Saint Etienne arrived just as the acid house scene was becoming ubiquitous in Britain. Using the primitive set-up of two connected cassette recorders and a record deck, the duo began patching together songs using sample-delic hip-hop (De La Soul, PM Dawn), house and techno, along with the melodies from 60s and 70s pop, not to mention rock and soul as their inspiration. The plan seemed both simple and ambitious at first: use a different vocalist for each song to mirror the diversity of their musical tastes. They got to number three and then pressed abort mission.

Their first single, a cover of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," featured Moira Lambert of shoegazers Faith Over Reason on vocals, and became an unexpected hit in clubs and the indie scene (it would be re-released a few times and become their signature song). Their second single was a cover the Field Mice's "Let's Kiss and Make Up" featuring Donna Savage of Dead Famous People. But something changed with the third single, the Dusty Springfield-sampling "Nothing Can Stop Us." Sarah Cracknell, a friend of Stanley's girlfriend, came in to sing and the rest, as they say, is history.

"Bob and Pete basically had two different singers for the first two singles and I think originally they wanted a different singer for each song, but then realised that would become a logistical nightmare if they toured. They'd need an extra bus just for the singers," explains Cracknell. "So they started thinking about a permanent singer and Celina [Nash, cover star of Foxbase Alpha] put me forward. Weirdly, the record she gave them was a record I did for that label where I'm just speaking in Spanish. Somehow from that they gathered that they wanted to meet me."

For Cracknell, the opportunity came at a time when she wasn't primarily focused on music. She began singing in bands at 15, and even later recorded some club tracks with friend Douglas Benford under the name of Lovecut DB for his label Suburbs of Hell. But her musical aspirations weren't exactly taking off and Cracknell eventually turned to acting. (Her late father Derek was a veteran assistant director. Some of the films he worked on include A Clockwork Orange, Aliens, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, where he reportedly almost convinced Stanley Kubrick to cast the newly born Sarah for the role of the iconic "star child.") But everything changed though once she met Stanley and Wiggs. "I just got a little bit disillusioned because I never quite got a deal," she says of her early attempt at music. "I did a couple of self-funding singles, but I lost the motivation. So I went to drama school for a year, and it was only shortly after I finished school that I met Bob and Pete."

Cracknell went into the meeting aware of Saint Etienne. Not only had she heard their music, but she also owned a copy of "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." "When I first met Bob and Pete, I was already aware of them. So I was kind of a fan anyway," she tells. "We had dinner but just got on really well from the word 'go,' and I think that had to do with us all being the same age and growing up with the same interests. We had all lived on the outskirts of London and had similar upbringings, so we clicked."

Saint Etienne by Joe Dilworth

There wasn't much of a hiring process. Right away Stanley and Wiggs knew they had found their vocalist. "I went in and did 'Nothing Can't Stop Us,' that was the first recording session I did, and it just progressed from there," Cracknell explains. "I don't necessarily remember it being a big conversation. I just fit in. It was almost like it just happened organically. I think the more time we spent together the more they thought it should be me. It did take me a while to get used to their in-jokes. I often sat there and thought, 'I haven't a clue what they're laughing at.' She adds with a laugh: "But now I'm just as stupid and giggly as them. I learned."

Once she was on board, Cracknell soon discovered that recording an album wasn't exactly a glamorous process. The trio set up in the home of engineer Ian Catt's parents home in Mitcham, Surrey. (Catt would become a regular collaborator on Saint Etienne releases, as well as a touring member of the band.) This space brought on some space limitations, and Cracknell found herself recording some vocals in the Catt family's bathroom.

"It was cramped," she recalls. "It was a really small bathroom with just a bath, a small basin and a toilet. The studio itself was just so small, so there was no room to isolate me. Thinking about it now you'd think that the acoustics swimming around the tub inside a bathroom might sound a bit odd but it seemed to work OK. [Laughs.] Sometimes you get good sounds recording in odd places. I have recorded in a couple of bathrooms, yeah. Bathrooms, spare bedrooms, a shed in the garden, a kitchen, all sorts of different places."

Like their DIY methods of composing and recording music, Cracknell approached singing with very little experience under her belt. Aside from the handful of tracks she had recorded prior to the album, she began singing without any formal training. Fully aware of her vocal limitations, she simply went into the recordings using the punk rock spirit of not giving a damn.

"It's not like I'm a great singer. I'm just not," she admits. "I just do what I can with what I have. I've always tried to make my voice sound individual and recognizable. I was a really big fan of Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins, so I liked that idea of using your voice as another instrument. I just got a bit bored of people saying, 'Oh, she can't sing that well.' I never said I could! [Laughs.] I knew I was never going to be some Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey type of technically good singer. I felt like saying, 'Well if you don't like it, stop listening.' It is slightly that punk rock thing of attitude over ability."

Cracknell may have been Saint Etienne's vocalist, but she didn't actually write the words she was singing—Stanley wrote the lyrics at the time. However, over the coming albums, those roles within the band began to blur. "[I didn't write] so much on Foxbase Alpha. I mean there might have been the odd bit here or there, but on [1993's] So Tough I started contributing, and then more on [1994's] Tiger Bay," she says. "Again, it happened very naturally. It's not as though I was desperate to write. It wasn't like they were desperate for me not to. Do you know what I mean? It just evolved. Since [1998's] Good Humour we just wrote everything together. Somebody starts a song, and then the other two chip in and add bits, and write a verse. There are no egos involved when it comes to writing. We just want it to sound good and it's worked well. It's been 25 years, so I think we just know how each other thinks."

Released on September 16, 1991, Foxbase Alpha bewildered and impressed critics for its genre-bending tapestry of club rhythms, sugary melodies and diverse influences. For Sarah, Bob, and Pete, this dream of releasing their very own album had become a reality. "I think more than anything we were just really excited to be making an album," she says. "The first album always has that melting pot thing, which is great. I really love that. You're not sure if you will ever make another one, so you just put every idea you have and cram it in as best as you can, in case you never get another opportunity. I like the fact that Foxbase is so mixed. There are all sorts in there and that makes it a really interesting album. And there is that kind of naiveté to it, which I really like. Obviously [Bob and Pete] were such fans of music they took to it very easily because they're big fans of melody, pop, and melancholy as a deep feeling in a song."

The critics at the time agreed with Cracknell. Major 90s music mag Select awarded it four out of five, declaring it as "not just a very good album, it's funny peculiar and funny ha-ha, and its prog-dance-reggae-pop-football Album of the Year." The Face called it "a blinding debut," and legendary critic Simon Reynolds reviewed it for Melody Maker, which Stanley had been writing for, describing it as "One of the most pleasurably perplexing things I've heard this year… breathtakingly fresh and unforeseen." He also compared it to Primal Scream's Screamadelica, which was released the following week.

The comparisons to Screamadelica made more sense than perhaps any other album back then, and even now. Both were born from a growing fascination with the acid house craze, and despite getting lumped in with the scene, neither was particularly easy to classify or slap a single genre tag on. They traversed everything from pop, indie, folk, house, and dub, yet created something completely new with their influences. As Reynolds stated in his review, both albums were "examples of pop scholars transcending their record collections." You'd be hard pressed to find collectors of music as obsessive and inspired as Stanley, Wiggs, and Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie. Foxbase Alpha and Screamadelica were products of its creators owning vast and diverse, and in these cases, similar record collections. "I don't think [ Foxbase Alpha] fit into any particular category because it involved so many genres of music," Cracknell explains. "I think it was quite difficult to pinpoint it. I mean it is kind of avant-garde-indie-dance-pop. There was the French pop influences as well. It's all a mixture."

Foxbase Alpha and Screamadelica would cross paths again nearly a year after their releases when both albums were nominated for the inaugural Mercury Music Prize, a fledgling award based on the Booker Prize that acknowledged the best in British and Irish music. Their fellow nominees included U2's Achtung Baby, the Jesus & Mary Chain's Honey's Dead, and Erasure's Chorus, among others. But no one quite understood how much of an honour the nomination would be in the years to come.

"I don't quite know what we gained from it really," Cracknell says. "I can't remember because Primal Scream won for Screamadelica. [Laughs.] It wasn't such a big award ceremony at that point. Probably now more people would be reached, but because it was the first one nobody had really heard of it. I guess it got us a bit of attention though."

One thing yet to be determined when making Foxbase Alpha was how Saint Etienne would perform the songs live. Once Cracknell was instated as a full time member, they seemed to have solved their singer problems, but Stanley and Wiggs weren't exactly professional musicians capable of recreating the sound collages they built in the studio. Also, the gear available at the time was not exactly friendly for every day use in a live setting.

"I don't think we every thought about it as a touring thing, so it was quite difficult to put it together," says Cracknell. "We had a few problems along the way. We worked with ADAT for a while, and that was a big problem. A lot of that technology back then wasn't so advanced. It wasn't designed for touring, it was designed for using while sitting still in the studio. On the opening night we played Shepherd's Bush Empire, and the ADAT was stopping halfway through a song and then rewinding to the beginning. [Laughs.] We had to stop one song and start again. We called up the manufacturer and told them about this and they said, 'No, no, they don't do that.' But no, there were over 2,000 people that heard it! They were very dismissive of my argument. But live we've always changed depending on the album."

Thankfully performances of those songs got easier with time. Since 2009, Saint Etienne have performed Foxbase Alpha in its entirety on different occasions, and thanks to the advancement in technology they've done it with fewer snags. "We did a few Foxbase Alpha shows recently and we had quite a lot of computer bits because there was no other way to do it," she says. "There would be no point because the samples and drum loops are essential. If we recreated them they would sound too different and people would be disappointed."

These performances along with the recent reissue of the album have made Foxbase Alpha a fan favorite. Debut albums by beloved bands such as Saint Etienne often find a special place in a fan's heart, but often times the band doesn't necessarily agree with it being worthy of that distinction. In an interview with the Guardian last year, Stanley said he understands why fans might have an attachment to it, but would be "disappointed if it was people's favourite Saint Etienne record because I don't think it's the best one." Cracknell shares the sentiment.

"I can totally understand why [he said that]," Cracknell says. "A lot of people when they were at college, it's such a growing up phase with so many different memories, emotions and experiences attached to that time, that if that record is the soundtrack to it, then of course it's going to be your favourite album. There is a lot of fun about Foxbase Alpha as well. It's a fun album. I think it just came at a really crucial time, 1991."

Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.