Bob Stanley tells us more than once during our chat that he really isn't a musician.
That's despite a career in the music industry spanning more than quarter of a century, including a pair of UK Top 10 albums, and with Saint Etienne's latest record Home Counties (opens in new tab) debuting at No3 in the Independent Album Chart in June this year. Not half-bad for a non-musician.
But while the line between 'musician' and 'creator of music' is far too ill-defined for us to argue with any conviction one way or the other, there is certainly an argument that Stanley is not a musician in the traditional sense.
He tells us, in fact, he once politely refused a lesson in traditional music theory from David Whitaker, partly through fear it might undo his own learning. Learning that's occured through countless hours of listening to records and writing about them, hearing tunes in his head and working on them without having read the textbook.
For many of us though, Stanley has pretty much the best job in the world. And when we speak to him, he is – as well as gearing up for Saint Etienne dates at Green Man festival and then across the Atlantic – deep in the midst of musical discovery as research for his latest book: a follow-up to 2013's Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop (opens in new tab) focusing on popular music in the lead-up to rock'n'roll.
Mulling over topics such as his writing, recording sessions with Kylie Minogue and his penchant for vintage studio gear, our only post-interview negative was the feeling we'd only just begun scratching the surface.
Experiments in hardware
What Hi-Fi?: Can you tell us about your general recording process with Saint Etienne, and maybe how that’s changed over the years?
Bob Stanley: We started off by going to a small studio in Surrey, run by a bloke called Ian Catt, which was like a four-track setup in his bedroom. Only Love Can Break Your Heart and the rest of Foxbase Alpha (opens in new tab) was done on quarter-inch tape with a lot of splicing, so we just caught the end of that before everything went digital.
But these days it can be anything, really. We did the last album in Shawn Lee’s studio in Finsbury Park, which is all vintage gear, which was terrific. He’s very adventurous - it was almost like going back to the early days when we’d feed something through a cassette player and dangle a mic over the speakers and get some distortion and some tape wobble, and just messing about with sounds, the kind of stuff we hadn’t done for a while.
I do really like keeping things quite simple. The first couple of albums, it was nice because we’d just started and hadn’t done anything, we just tried to twist things and make sounds we hadn’t thought of, using instrumentation we hadn’t thought of, hiring in other musicians to play – we got a saxophonist down from Milton Keynes once, which was terrible and we had to scrap it – but just doing stuff in a bedroom with a laptop you can lose a lot of that, so it's nice to be in a studio with a lot of vintage gear around.
WHF: So you find it easier to experiment with actual hardware in front of you, rather than using a lot of plug-ins?
BS: Yeah. It’s like when you’re reading an old interview with somebody, if you read it in context in a music paper, and you can see what’s around it, it’s always more interesting and you’ll just get more out of it. I think it’s the same thing with using old gear rather than a plug-in. It’s always going to be more satisfying and can trigger things you may not have thought of otherwise. It’s easy to make mistakes that sound good, as well, which is quite important.
WHF: Do you think working as a music journalist, and writing books about the subject, has affected how you make music?
BS: Not particularly from being a journalist - but I think from being a fan and a record collector then absolutely. I’m really not a musician, and without the technology I’d never have been able to make my own records, but I’ve always had sounds in my head just from listening to other people’s records, I know what sounds I like.
Personally I can’t think of anything worse than being in a four-piece band going round in a Transit van, where the bassist has just written a new song and you’ve got to accommodate him and all that crap. That doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest, I just wanted to play in a professional hall with a string quartet, and sampling made that halfway possible.
Whitaker, Nelson and Minogue
WHF: You have worked with a lot of other musicians over the years, though: is there anyone you’ve collaborated with in particular from whom you’ve learned a lot or was a particular favourite?
BS: There’ve been so many, and if we get on with someone we tend just to carry on working with them.
We did a session with Kylie Minogue once, which was exciting, obviously, and I was amazed at how she did a brilliant first take. I was like, “okay, I wasn’t exactly expecting that”. But she was great, she had a really powerful voice.
Shara Nelson we worked with early on quite a lot, and she was pretty inspiring. She could just ad-lib melodies over the top of backing tracks with complete lyrics, which is an amazing knack – I couldn’t possibly do that.
David Whitaker, who did strings on Tiger Bay (opens in new tab), he was pretty inspiring. He’d worked with Serge Gainsbourg in the 60s, and on film soundtracks, and he was very kind and generous with his time. I think he wanted to teach me the rudiments of playing piano and I was like, “I don’t know if it’ll actually change the way I write”. Because I’m really not a musician – I just get things in my head, hum a tune into my phone and write lyrics in a notebook – I think if I learn the way chord progressions should go then it might change the way I write, so I said it was very kind of him but I didn’t want to do it.
WHF: Do your collaborators generally have much input, musically, or are you driving it mainly?
BS: It depends. The times someone’s had more input is probably when we’ve had a producer: we did Good Humor (opens in new tab) with Tore Johansson in Malmö, who wanted to be in control, so you’d make suggestions and he’d nod sagely - then you’d realise three hours later he’d done something completely different. Which is fine because, if you work with a producer you trust, you’ve got to let go sometimes.
But mostly I think we have a strong idea of the kind of production we want almost at the beginning of each album. It takes some time to become apparent what the lyrical direction will be and stuff, but we’re basically the producers - we get other people in occasionally, but we tend to produce everything.
WHF: So do you have the album pretty much planned out before you come to recording it?
BS: Not very often. We did that with Good Humor, because everything was demoed, everything was basically written before we went to Sweden. But normally we’ll all come up with songs independently of each other, sort of half-finished, then work on them together in the studio.
With Home Counties we had an idea of where we wanted it to go lyrically pretty early on, which was basically looking back to where we grew up and how it feels now, after the Brexit vote; the basic lyrical idea works around that. But we don’t have a big chart on the wall with everything we’ve got to do, it’s looser than that, but by the time we’ve got three or four songs in we’ll have a strong idea of where it’s going sound-wise and lyric-wise.
WHF: And getting to the production: is there an aspect of the mix that perhaps matters most in getting it to sound right?
BS: Well really just making it sound like a unified album, I suppose. We always make the albums to be something you’d sit down and listen to in one sitting, I think because that’s what we grew up with.
Rather that than like a Nicki Minaj album where you’ve got three or four bangers at the front, then you’ve got the ballads or whatever, and it’s clearly not meant to be sat down and listened to in one go. That’s the overriding thing, I think - it’s not about mixing individual songs, it’s about getting the whole thing to have a sort of warm feeling and a continuity.
Mixtapes and vinyl
WHF: In terms of listening, what are your listening habits? What do you listen on?
BS: I’m a big vinyl fan, so I’ve got a big record collection for when I’m at home. I’ve got a Michell Gyrodec turntable I got 20-odd years ago, which is lovely. I listen to a lot of stuff in the car - because I’ve got a toddler so I don’t get much opportunity to sit down, so I listen to CDs in the car.
I’m not anti-CD in any way at all. I mean, it’s quite weird we’re going through this period where cassettes have had a revival and CDs are 50p in charity shops; I’m not getting rid of my CDs, and I’m sure there’s going to be a big swing back towards them at some point.
WHF: So what is it about vinyl you tend to prefer?
BS: I think if you’ve got a nice deck to play it on it’s going to sound probably punchier and warmer than most CDs; I mean CDs can also sound terrific, obviously, if they’re mastered well.
But I like going through charity shops and picking up singles of things I’ve never heard of, and it’s having an original artefact as well. I’m a terrible hoarder: I’ve got loads of old magazines and I collect first-edition books. So it’s about having the artefacts as much as anything.
But I really like the idea of sitting down – and you can do this with CDs as well – but just sitting down and pressing play rather than listening to something on your laptop or your phone, which becomes much less involving. It’s the same with plug-ins: it’s just a less of a complete experience, you’re going to miss something, there’ll be something lacking.
But with vinyl, when I was a kid I loved the record labels, the typography, the logos and the look of a seven-inch single. It is really that as much as the sound of the thing.
WHF: You mentioned your Michell Gyrodec turntable; what else is in your system?
BS: I’ve got an Audiolab amp. I’ve got to get some new speakers - I haven’t got very good speakers at the moment, I can’t even remember what they are, but I’m not really getting the best out of the amp or the deck with the ones I’ve got.
I’ve got a CD-R machine – I love making CDs for friends or just in the car. I know you’ve got Soundcloud and everything else now, but I think just having a thing where you can make your own sleeve is still a nice personal thing to give to somebody.
I still use MiniDisc as well, which I find very easy to put ideas down on or if I’m doing a compilation I’ll do it first on MiniDisc, where it’s easier to shift the tracks about or do edits. It’s quite a weird thing that it’s proper vintage gear as well now; they’re getting quite hard to come by.
WHF: So if you were making a compilation or a mixtape today, what sort of stuff would be going on there?
BS: Well quite often it’ll be singles I’ve found recently, which would mostly be from 50s to late 70s, and just putting them in a listenable order and making copies for some of my mates if they want them.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Duke Ellington recently, and a lot of crooners, because I’m writing a new book about the history of popular music before rock'n'roll, from the first 78s and the industrialisation of sheet music, right up to rock'n'roll and trying to make sense of that. So I’ve been listening to a lot of big band jazz and swing, a lot of crooners and lots of Duke Ellington.
A neverending voyage of discovery
WHF: When you’re writing books, how much of it comes from an existing interest in a style or period of music, and how much is a journey of exploration and digging?
BS: That’s a lot of it, finding new things. I mean, just now someone played me something by Jack Warner, the actor, Dixon Of Dock Green: it’s a kind of mad, groovy thing he made in 1971 that I’d never heard before in my life. It feels like, that era, it keeps going.
I’m 52 now and I’m never running out of things from the 60s or 70s. Even on British labels, you’d think by now they’d be exhausted but I’m still finding things all the time.
With the book I’m writing now, it really is going back to a period I hardly knew anything about before I started writing the book. So it’s a mixture of social history, discovering new music and making links between very famous people and where they fit in to the story really. Discovering things like Bing Crosby having such a big part in the turn of tape-recording and doing the first ever pre-recorded radio show – I didn’t know that about him at all, I love finding out stuff like that.
WHF: Does it ever get too exhausting, where the digging really begins to feel like work?
BS: Obviously every day is different and if you’re writing you’ll know what it’s like – some days you can just sit down and write 2000 words in 45 minutes without stopping, and that’s great, but it doesn’t happen all the time. And the subject I’ve picked for myself is so huge, it was a bit of a daft idea in the first place, so it’s never going to be straightforward.
And just having a big record collection in the first place, I’ll sometimes look at it and think, “What am I doing? I can hear 95% of this by pressing a bloody button on my laptop”. Obviously I’m very happy to have my record collection and I’m very happy to have the job that I’ve got, but like any job you can get a bit stressed sometimes.
WHF: But you never get to the point where you just don’t want to listen to another record?
BS: No, no, I don’t think so. There’s always going to be something I want to put on; I can’t think of a time where I’ve looked at my record collection and thought I haven’t got a clue what I want to listen to, so I just go and put Fifteen To One on or whatever’s on the telly.
WHF: Are there some records in your collection you just come back to all the time, or maybe that have particularly inspired you?
BS: I’d say FBI by The Shadows, which is one of the first records I heard – my mum and dad had it in their collection. Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell; Strings of Life by Rhythm Is Rhythm; On Me Not In Me by Earl Brutus; and Make Me Believe In You by Patti Jo.
WHF: And if they were going on one of your mixtapes, which of your records would you add to the compilation?
BS: I’m not sure, maybe Avenue. I’ve just got really good memories of doing it: it’s an eight-minute collage of little bits of songs that took us quite a while to do, and I was just really proud of it when we’d done it. And people seemed to like it too, which is always nice to get a little bit of affirmation. So yeah, it’s probably one of the things I’m proudest of.
Shop Saint Etienne records (opens in new tab) on Amazon
Find Bob Stanley's Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop (opens in new tab) on Amazon