The ensuing album still possesses both a certain buoyant naivety and a sense of city-as-our-playground excitement – as opposed to their subsequent London-centric albums such as 2003’s Finisterre which also revels in the city but comes from a place of knowledge, instead of carefree thrills like the exuberant ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ or adoring ‘London Belongs To Me’. Part of that comes from the events surrounding the record’s creation. Firstly, there’s the political climate, with Stanley recalling that “Margaret Thatcher resigned while we were recording the album. The first thing we did, naturally, was go round the off-licence and go and buy a bottle of champagne at four in the afternoon. I remember that very clearly. There was definitely a lot of optimism in the air and you can hear it in lots of other music, not just ours.”

“The first three years of the decade are quite often the best three years of that decade, and I think that’s certainly true of the eighties and the nineties.”

There’s a theory that the records released at the start of the decade are its most important because they offer a window into what people believed the ensuing ten years would be like. “I think that’s true,” he says when the notion is put to him, and the first three years of the decade are quite often the best three years of that decade, and I think that’s certainly true of the eighties and the nineties. I can’t really think what’s happened in the first three years of this decade…maybe not so exciting. But I think you’re right about the records at the start of the decade, and how they maybe give a false sense of what the rest of the decade will be like because nothing stays the same for ten years. When we were being lippy in interviews we’d say that we recorded our first song in January 1990 because we thought we were going to soundtrack the decade! Which obviously never does, except for maybe The Beatles and David Bowie. But you may as well be ambitious!”

But as much as the album as the album is influenced by its external factors, so too was it by the circumstances of its creators at that time, with Stanley and Wiggs having properly moved to the city for the first time, shacking up in Tufnell Park. The world that exists on Foxbase Alpha of discovering the city was a direct reflection of their lives at the times, a time where “it was the first time we had a flat of our own and we had a thing of picking up the A-Z, choosing a name and driving out there to see what it’s like. I’d never heard of Haggerston or Arnos Grove and what to some people are quite nothing places and we just wanted to investigate the city. I think that comes across in the record.” The way that they were discovering and exploring London was in turn borne out of having seen and heard of all the failed attempts at living in the city and their tales of bedsit existences and depleting funds. In reference to that, Stanley says that “we were also trying to create a London that we wanted to live in rather than seeing the whole city as it was. Everyone has their own mental map of a city and you can find bits that you like and find sense of it that way, and certainly in London that’s almost the only way to make sense of it, or else you can very easily get swallowed up by it and end up going back from whence you came feeling quite bitter about it. We were old enough to be aware that that could happen, and also we wanted to have a great time as 25-year old single blokes living in London.”

For Stanley, the experience of making a début album heavily indebted to its surroundings so soon after moving there unsurprisingly changed their relationship with the city. Some came from the experiences following the album’s release, as he recounts that “because the album was so London-focused – and it really was because we’d just moved there and were writing about our environment – we became seen as a London group almost immediately and found ourselves being asked about being a London group in interviews. We got quite tired of that after a while, and moved away from that on our second and third albums.” But in other, more fundamental ways, making the album enabled Stanley & Co to complete their move from outsiders to city residents as “we all grew up in the home counties, but even growing up in Croydon London seemed like a very long way away to me as a kid – a massive city ten miles up the road. But moving there and making the album in a very short pace of times meant that we became Londoners in a very accelerated way.”

The experience took Stanley full circle from a time where he used Madness and The Kinks records to create his own picture of the city long before he moved there himself. As we talk, he reflects on how from his window he can now see the respective areas the bands grew up and he adds that “when I came to London those were the parts of the city that I was really seeking out, and I’ve not been disappointed. I can look out of my window now and see where The Kinks grew up”. But in a kind of psychogeographic play it forward, Saint Etienne’s work has similarly shaped the city for other people, a point Stanley himself concedes as he recalls how “because we got successful relatively quickly, we did feel…not necessarily a responsibility, but that we had that ability to write about London and shape it for people who didn’t live here”. He remembers how 1993 B-Side ‘Archway People’ – “and I blame Pete for this because he wrote it!” – has led to him meeting two people who moved to Archway as a direct result. “Which is weird,” he muses “because the lyrics of the song aren’t meant to be particularly chirpy…”


But is having that ability to shape people’s perceptions of anything, let alone a city, something that difficult to reconcile? “I don’t think it’s difficult to reconcile. It makes me feel slightly uncomfortable when people get the wrong idea of what we think about the city, like those people did with ‘Archway People’ but Madness and The Kinks’ records are pretty impressionistic and unless you’re actually going to talk about bus timetables you’re always going to give somewhat a slightly skewed version of the city you’re writing about. That doesn’t worry me and it’s always quite touching when someone tells me that they moved to London on after hearing one of our songs.”

What’s impossible to ignore is that the London that shaped Foxbase Alpha – and the idealised, almost utopian city that Saint Etienne created throughout their work – doesn’t exist for most now living in the capital (incredibly, their visual love letter to the city, Finisterre, which sat alongside the corresponding album, touched upon gentrification and regeneration back in 2003). Stanley marvels at the fact he and Pete Wiggs could afford to live in a two-bedroom flat in Tufnell Park back in 1990 while simultaneously admits that everything in the capital at present feels like it’s living on borrowed time. He says that “it just feels like whenever you find something you enjoy in London you’re worried that the space you’re in or what you’re doing will be swallowed up by developers in a few weeks. If you find a nice café or something and think ‘bloody hell, how did I not know this place existed before?’ you just know that it’s probably not going to be there within the next six months.”

“I can’t think of any point in London’s history where that’s happened before.”

He looks closer to home to further document the changing face of the city, recounting how “there’s a little row of terraces next to us where we live and the developer’s just gone and made an offer to the three owners to demolish it and build a six-storey lock of flats. I mean bloody hell! I can’t think of any point in London’s history where that’s happened before. It might have have happened in central London if someone had a one-storey café on Goodge Street and I can see why that would happen, but not in Zone 3. It’s just changing so quickly at the minute and you do get worried. I got a questionnaire from Haringey council the other day about how often and how I use the park and you think “why are you asking this, are you going to build on the park next?” Stanley remains the only member still living in the city – Wiggs is now in Brighton, Cracknell in Oxford – and he admits that he finds going to other cities a freeing experience, one which “feels like there’s been a physical weight lifted off you and nobody talks about house prices”. “I find it depressing” he sighs “and it’s a matter of having to accept that London does change all the time.”

Change is also something that the band are going through at present, with the jettisoning of old material coming in preparation for a new record – their tenth – coming next year. “We’re recording a new album at the moment” Stanley explains “so it’s going to be an intense few weeks. Then the album will be out in the spring and we’ll be doing festivals and gigs next year. We’ve never been the hardest working group in showbusiness. We’ve always done things at a fairly leisurely pace but I think next year will be quite busy. It’s another reason why it’s good to put something that’s 25 years old to bed, really. We certainly don’t want to keep playing our back catalogue for however long we keep going. It feels quite comfortable putting it away and moving on, really.”

But has he any final thoughts on their first forays and what it achieved, now it’s been put to bed? “It seemingly did succeed” he reflects “because people still really love that record, which is funny because it seems such a grab-bag of sounds to me and every record we’ve done since has been a lot tighter. But there’s a naivety which people still find appealing.”

[types field=”album-artwork” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” resize=”proportional”][/types]
[types field=”release-name”][/types] – [types field=”act-name”][/types]
[types field=”release-date” style=”text” format=”F j, Y”][/types] – [types field=”label”][/types]
[types field=”buy-link” title=”Buy”][/types] [types field=”text-widget”][/types]

<< Previous Page