“At that time, I was a bored teenager in a village near Doncaster, South Yorkshire; it was a place where very little happened. I now look back at that time as something quite idyllic – even the boredom seems idyllic – and a big part of its soundtrack was Saint Etienne.” Alasdair McLellan is reminiscing about the first time he heard British group Saint Etienne. As a young lad growing up in South Yorkshire, the music conjured a world away from what he knew: it was expansive, it was euphoric, it was escapist. Now a renowned photographer, McLellan’s latest work sees him reconnect with those memories, creating a unique film to accompany the entirety of Saint Etienne’s new record, I’ve Been Trying To Tell You.
Mirroring the record’s sample-driven production, McLellan’s film is presented as a series of cinematic vignettes spliced together to create a hazy, nostalgia-tinged vision of Britain’s youth. Shot in locations tied to McLellan’s personal memories – from Doncaster to Portmeirion, Southampton to London – we cut between a young girl dancing in a fountain to a group of mates having an after-dark rave, an amateur football team stepping onto the pitch and friends leaping into a natural lake. Cloaked in McLellan’s effervescent shimmer, there’s an everyday glamour that portrays the romance of adolescent naivety; an emotive rush McLellan will forever tie to Saint Etienne’s music.
Ahead of the I’ve Been Trying To Tell You premiere at BFI Southbank this Friday, we sit down with McLellan to discuss his new film.
Photography by Alasdair McLellan
Alex James Taylor: I’m also from Doncaster so completely associate with what you say about looking back with affection on times when you felt stuck or fed up. You speak about Saint Etienne being one of the first influences that empowered you to think bigger, can you talk me through when you first discovered them?
Alasdair McLellan: Well they brought out their first single in 1990, so I guess around then. They were one of the bands I listened to a lot when I was growing up – fifteen, sixteen. It was that weird period coming out of the 80s and Saint Etienne just felt very fresh and positive. Their imagery and visual language also influenced my photography, the imagery they create in their lyrics and sounds. So when I first heard this new album, it sounded quite Balearic and, to me, it sounded quite early-90s and reminded me of that era. Because it’s all sample-based, there aren’t many vocals and traditional songs, maybe one or two. So I started to consider the imagery the album conjured and that made me think about what I was doing when I first heard them [as a teenager]. I was thinking about that period going from sixteen to around twenty-five and what that ten years does to you. Everyone says, “Oh it’s the best time of your life, you should be enjoying yourself.” It’s not always like that, but then you look back like, “Oh, yeah it was quite good” [laughs]. It’s strange, I think everything went a bit slower than it does now.
AJT: There’s definitely that aspect of nostalgia bias.
AM: That’s what the album’s about, that weird trick memory and nostalgia plays on you. You start to think about how great things possibly were, but then they didn’t feel it at the time. The band put it in the period of the late-90s, from when New Labour came in to the Twin Towers disaster.
AJT: I know you used to DJ back in Doncaster, were Saint Etienne in your set?
AM: I’m sure they were. [laughs] I resigned from DJing at like eighteen, nineteen. We basically DJed at the youth club one night messing around and then some people liked it and we ended up playing at one of the clubs in Doncaster and did weddings and birthdays and things like that.
AJT: Did the band approach you to make the film? How do you know them?AM: I photographed Bob [Stanley] a few years ago and met him through a friend of mine who’d known him for years. We just started talking and realised that we had a lot in common, and I’d used Saint Etienne tracks for some videos I’d done – I used Nothing Can Stop Us for a Marc Jacobs Daisy advert. I guess they must’ve liked them and then Bob got in touch and said, “Let’s meet up.” So I met him in Bradford where he lives now, in Solitaire, in January 2020, and he said, “We’d love you to do some visual stuff for us.” He talked about the next album and I suggested doing a film it. So that’s how it came about. But at that point they had a different album in mind, it was more song-based and melancholy, folky. Then they put that album on hold because they couldn’t make it due to lockdown. He came back with this new album and I was like, “Wow.” Maybe it was because we’d been in lockdown, but it just felt so positive and Balearic. I thought about what that conjured for me and ended up thinking back to when I first started listening to them and what I was doing at that time. It sort of ended up being a road trip up the A1, going through the UK. For instance, we went to Portmeirion because I wanted to represent Wales but at the same time because it looks like an Italian village and I feel like, even though everyone speaks about Saint Etienne being quintessentially British, I also think they’re quite international – they’d often reference Italian cinema and French football commentary, so Portmeirion made sense for that European feeling.
AJT: There’s also a sense of fantasy and magic about Portmeirion that is also represented by Stonehenge in the film, and even the skateboard ramps in the morning sun.
AM: So there’s a few film references in there, obviously La Dolce Vita with the girl getting in the fountain, it was just a spontaneous thing but I liked that reference to Italian cinema. So then with the skateboarding bit, I was actually thinking about Picnic at Hanging Rock, that sort of imagery. But it never developed further as there was never really meant to be a strong narrative because I think that period between 15-25, obviously in a film there might be a narrative or story arch, but life doesn’t have that. The idea was more of a series of visuals.
Photography by Alasdair McLellan
AJT: It’s interesting because it’s the only time I’ve ever heard a full album – for the first time – fully accompanied by visuals. It really changes the way you listen because it replaces your own subconscious imagery. How did the process work, did you listen to each track and write down notes?
AM: We started filming most of it in August 2020 and finished in April or May this year. I worked out that I wanted it to vaguely be about Great Britain – we initially spoke about wanting to do something with the A1 services but that proved quite impossible – so I just started to film things and would then think, “This would be really great for that song.” I noted down places I’d like to film more than actually considering which bit would go with each song. With the first one, I really love that bit by Marble Arch because it kind of doesn’t look like you’re in London, the fountain looks like it could be in Stevenage or Kiddiminster or something. But that really that was the only video I thought about in terms of the track, maybe the skimming stones bit on the second track too, that song is very dance-orientated and I quite liked the idea of a boy just skimming stones listening to it, as you do.
AJT: It’s got that everyday glamour about it, which I also associate with Saint Etienne. For such a sample, dance-driven album to be released now that clubs and bars are open again, it feels right.
AM: Well let’s hope so [laughs]. I do feel like there’s a real optimism with their music, even though there’s obviously a melancholy tinge to it. That’s something I like, I feel most of the best music has that, particularly with dance music actually, that sense of optimism and euphoria that can often be quite devastating at the same time.
Photography by Alasdair McLellan
Saint Etienne’s new record ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’ is due for release on 10th September via Heavenly Recordings.
The Saint Etienne UK tour kicks off 18th November – full dates and ticket info here.