“It’s got a bit of a bad reputation, the home counties,” says Pete Wiggs, explaining how Saint Etienne turned to their origins for inspiration on the group’s first new album in five years, which they’ll be bringing to Sheffield’s City Hall Ballroom on tour next Saturday.
“Certainly I think of it as being the stockbroker belt, and kind of dull - but we just thought, let’s say ‘This is where we’re from!’”
The indie trio - singer Sarah Cracknell, plus musicians Bob Stanley and Pete - all grew up in the ‘doughnut of shires that ring the capital’, as they call it, before launching the band in London proper, and now live scattered across the south of England.
“When you’re young you kind of want to get away from the boredom, but when you get older you’re married, and locked into a location, and there are things you miss or like now that you didn’t then.”
While 2012’s Words and Music by Saint Etienne focused on the ways music can affect the lives of those to whom such things matter, the new LP, called Home Counties and released tomorrow (Friday), features 16 songs that trace a day in the life of the loosely-defined region, which generally includes places such as Kent, Surrey and Sussex.
The songs came quickly, says Pete, spurred on by time constraints and the fact they were ‘itching to write new things’ after a spell celebrating the 25th anniversary of Foxbase Alpha, their debut album from 1991, which fused house music with a retro sensibility.
“It was the fastest we’ve ever recorded an album, actually, because we set ourselves a deadline. And we didn’t over-fuss, as well - one thing you can do is keep going back and tweaking things. I quite like the immediacy of it.”
The synthetic, dance-pop sound of Words and Music has been replaced with something more varied and organic - an awkward word, Pete admits, but ‘it’s difficult to think of another one’.
Underneath the Apple Tree is a Northern Soul stomper, Magpie Eyes offers a cooing electronic tale of a commuter who misses out on his children’s upbringing, while Whyteleafe muses dreamily on David Bowie’s fate in a parallel universe if rock stardom had never beckoned.
There are instrumental interludes, too, and a cameo from BBC Radio 2 DJ Ken Bruce, who hosts a brief version of his Popmaster quiz.
“He was lovely,” confirms Pete happily.
The new musical approach was aided by producer Shawn Lee, a virtual one-man band by all accounts. “Not only is he a really good drummer, he can play loads of stuff, and do backing vocals.”
The spectre of Brexit and Donald Trump arises at points - the song What Kind of World bemoans the US election result.
“At any big election or major shift that seems to go against what we’d want, we always seem to be doing something as Saint Etienne, so we often have these doom-laden breakfasts where we say ‘We can’t believe it!’”
And Pete says the album’s overarching theme caused the band to consider what life would have felt like if they’d never left the suburbs.
“You make a choice between having a day job, and giving it up and having a go, moving to London. There are people who regret not doing that, and I was lucky to get a chance to do that at a really good time. I thought I’d kick myself if I didn’t give this a go but it turned out well for us.”
And the topic will resonate with Sheffield listeners, too. “Lots of people will move on from where they grew up, or want to, so I suppose people will connect with that feeling, even if they missed out on it.”
The City Hall set will likely feature ‘six or seven’ new tracks, some Etienne classics - and real percussion. “We’ve got a drummer, which we haven’t had for a while!”