Bob Stanley talks Tiger Bay as Saint Etienne prepare to play it in full with the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Barbican

PUBLISHED: 14:13 25 February 2019 | UPDATED: 08:45 26 February 2019

Saint Etienne. Picture: John Stoddart

Saint Etienne. Picture: John Stoddart

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"Going out with an orchestra would have bankrupted us," Bob Stanley says of Saint Etienne's 1994 heyday.

Bob Stanley (L) and Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne on stage. Picture: Steven KempBob Stanley (L) and Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne on stage. Picture: Steven Kemp

That was the year they released Tiger Bay, an LP they are now preparing to play live in its entirety at the Barbican with, er, an orchestra.

Back then, they were scoring top 10 albums, appearing on Top of the Pops and gracing the pages of the NME. Yet for some reason the arithmetic favours them now, meaning they can finally afford to take David Whitaker’s glorious arrangements out of the studio and into the wild.

“The only time we’ve heard them played was when we were recording,” Bob says, “in a church outside Richmond. A guy engineered it who’d worked with the Stones and it was a real thrill to hear.”

The London Contemporary Orchestra – whose back catalogue includes work with Frank Ocean, Steve Reich, Radiohead, Beck and Goldfrapp – will join Bob, and his bandmates Sarah Cracknell and Pete Wiggs, at the Barbican on May 22.

As well as Tiger Bay, Saint Etienne will play a greatest hits set, though the album already features three of their best known singles – Like a Motorway among them.

Unlike its brilliant but disorganised predecessors Foxbase Alpha and So Tough, Tiger Bay had a brief.

“What we were listening to at the time was a lot of early 1970s folk,” Bob recalls, “and also Detroit techno and stuff from Belgium and Holland. We said: ‘Let’s make a record that sounds like both.’ That was it.”

Saint Etienne. Picture: Elaine ConstantineSaint Etienne. Picture: Elaine Constantine

Most of the songs on the album set new lyrics to old folk melodies. In the case of Like a Motorway, the result was married to a juddering, electronic 4/4 beat.

“We rented a cottage in the Forest of Dean and tried to get a kind of bucolic feeling,” Bob remembers. “We took a stack of folk records and thought which melodies would work best.”

You can see the competing influences on Tiger Bay in the album art. Its front cover (bucolic) is a replica of James Clarke Hook’s 1856 oil painting Welcome Bonny Boat, while the inner sleeve (electronic) is an homage to Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express – complete with walkie-talkie, suits and chequered tablecloth.

“We really wanted to release Like a Motorway as the first single,” says Bob, “as it had a bit of both.

“But we got talked into [releasing] Pale Movie. I think it’s a bit of a shame. It didn’t really work as well.”

There were other compromises. While the UK album more or less reflected their original vision, its international release “really messed about” with both the tracklisting and the artwork.

“In America they wanted us to re-record Like a Motorway as Like a Freeway,” chuckles Bob. “We were like: ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’”

Conversely, there’s a song Bob wishes they’d messed with but didn’t.

“Ian Catt, who’s the engineer, did a really nice mix of Former Lover when we weren’t there,” he said. “It was great and we should have put that on the album.”

But he adds: “But I’m very happy looking back and listening to it now.”

One thing that sadly hasn’t stood the test of time is the oil painting that was used to create the front cover, an otherwise faithful reproduction of the Victorian original with Bob, Pete and Sarah’s faces cheekily added in.

After the album came out, Bob managed to bag the canvas – only for it to get accidentally binned some years later.

“I was living in a block of flats with a luggage room, which was basically the cellar, where everyone put their old furniture,” says Bob. “Every so often the freeholder would chuck stuff out that they thought was rubbish.”

He adds: “It’s a real shame. It was massive.”

Bob Stanley, second left, on stage with Saint Etienne. Picture: Steven KempBob Stanley, second left, on stage with Saint Etienne. Picture: Steven Kemp

Reviving the record is a chance for the band to play together again, even though their studio output is steady (five LPs in the last two decades, plus too many soundtracks, side projects and one-offs to count) and they still tour frequently.

“Doing something like this is really enjoyable,” says Bob. “We all live in separate towns now so we don’t see each other as often as we’d like.”

It’s the third time Saint Etienne have played an album in full. They toured Foxbase Alpha when it turned 18 in 2009, and treated the British Library to a rendition of Good Humor for its 20th birthday last year.

“People know what they are going to get,” Bob laughs.

But there are a few surprises – he won’t tell me what – in the tracklisting of the expanded special edition being released for Tiger Bay’s anniversary.

Like Foxbase Alpha, reissued a couple of years ago, it will include the album spread over two 45rpm vinyl records, plus a bonus LP of B-sides, and “a couple of CDs with stuff not available anywhere else”.

Bob Stanley’s CV – reluctant indie pin-up, film composer, archivist, pop music theorist – is almost as various and precocious as those early Saint Etienne albums with their film samples, found sounds and bulging tracklists.

And despite the obvious planning involved in commissioning an orchestra, the same serendipity seems to lie behind this latest project.

“I suppose we were going to do the anniversary box set,” he muses. “We literally just approached the Barbican and asked if we could do it [a performance]. Happily, they agreed, and they suggested working with the London Contemporary Orchestra.”

• Saint Etienne perform Tiger Bay at the Barbican on May 22 from 7.30pm. Tickets are £25 to £40 plus booking fee from barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2019/event/saint-etienne-tiger-bay. The reissued and expanded album is out later this year.

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