Bob Stanley talks about the band's Royal Festival Hall documentary.
When Saint Etienne were chosen as the first ever artists-in-residence at London's Southbank Centre, their mission was clear: to document the historic £100m reconstruction of the Royal Festival Hall. The resulting documentary, This Is Tomorrow, depicts that process in parallel with the story of the venue's original construction in 1949. It's a beautiful celebration not only of the Royal Festival Hall, but also of a certain British optimism about the power of the arts, and of London itself. For its premiere in June, a full orchestra and choir was brought in to accompany St. Etienne as they performed the soundtrack, with all the musicians recruited from local schools. There's another chance to see This is Tomorrow (minus the orchestra) at the BFI in September, or when it tours the UK later in the autumn, and you can also watch extracts below. The weekend after the premiere, we spoke to St. Etienne's Bob Stanley, who was taking his first day off after weeks of frantic rehearsals and editing.
How did Saint Etienne get into film-making?
For a video, you get a budget of twenty or thirty thousand pounds and it gets shown once in the middle of the night on MTV Germany, and it always seems like a criminal waste of money. So when we did Finisterre we wanted to make a full-length film to go with the album. Paul Kelly, the director of This is Tomorrow, has done almost all our videos as well.
Is it true you decided to put together an orchestra from local schools when you realised you couldn't afford a professional one?
Yeah - the Royal Festival Hall has four resident orchestras and we assumed we could just use them whenever we wanted, but it doesn't work like that: they have to be paid for every rehearsal just like any other orchestra. We were really naïve when we first got to the South Bank, we had all these great plans and then realised you can't do everything you want to. But the education department there is really strong, and really keen to forge links with the local community, so it made sense to get kids from the local schools. They may not have seemed particularly excited because they're all teenagers who are trying to look cool, but hopefully it was a pretty exciting experience for them to be on stage in front of two and a half thousand people. During rehearsal they were texting each other and listening to their iPods, so I thought, 'God, if they do that during the performance it's going to look dreadful', but when it came to it they were really good.
This is Tomorrow wasn't actually the first time you'd performed in the refurbished Royal Festival Hall.
No, when they were first testing the acoustics, we had to help them put together a bill of every type of music that wasn't classical. So we got Bert Jansch, Sonic Boom, Tom Cordy, Billy Childish, and us. But obviously we couldn't tell the public, because if the press got in and the acoustics didn't work then it would have been a PR disaster. But the donors came, lots of people over seventy watching Billy Childish, it was quite bizarre. Apparently when Sonic Boom was on this old woman put her hands over her ears and went into a crash position, like on a plane: 'What the hell is this meant to be?' So I don't know if he picked up any new fans.
Is it true that you've got some of the RFH's original carpet in your front room?
They were just chopping it up and throwing it in a skip, so we thought we had to save some of it. I love the pattern. So we've got the only two bits of original Royal Festival Hall carpet in the world. Luckily most of the furniture in my front room is fifties anyway, so it fits.
The optimism of post-war Britain really comes across in the film. Do you think we've lost some of that optimism today?
Yeah, but for a good reason, which is that everything had been so incredibly bleak after the war that the Festival of Britain raised everyone's spirits enormously. And it was hugely influential - all that coloured formica in fifties cafes, for instance, was based on the Festival of Britain. It's much easier for us to be cynical now when you get something like the Millennium Dome, which is some hideous postmodern version of the Dome of Discovery really. But I think the building itself can still be as inspirational as it was in 1951. I love the idea that you can just go there and see things and meet people and it won't cost you anything, it's a really important space. The more expensive London gets, the more valuable a place like that becomes.
We're living in a time when art is a big part of public life – just as it was back then - but at the same time, it must be worrying for you, as a musician, that so many of London's music venues are closing down.
Absolutely. Soon, central London venues will have to be publicly owned, because otherwise they will all disappear. It's quite worrying. And it's bizarre, because I can't remember gigs ever being so popular. A band like the Fratellis can sell out three nights at Brixton Academy, and they're this really mediocre band - only the biggest bands in the world used to do that. And yet we're losing all these venues. It's all happening so quickly that it's caught everyone unawares. No one's made any preparations for it.
Your time as artists-in-residence is over. What have you got planned now?
I'm working on a book about Jamie Reid's Croydon: we're reprinting all of his seventies suburban press fanzines. It's a situationist view of the suburbs. A lot of the Sex Pistols graphics that everybody knows, like the buses with 'nowhere' and 'boredom' on the front, he did those as early as about 1970. Also we're half-way through making a documentary called Hungry Beat about eighties British underground music from post-punk to the Stone Roses.