Bob Stanley: No bear suits. No rabbis. No slow dancing grannies...

Why do bands make dull and costly promotional videos when they could shoot art-house films instead? Saint Etienne mainman Bob Stanley explains how his group did exactly that
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The Independent Culture

It usually starts on a bus journey – top deck, front seat. A snatch of melody, maybe a half-glimpsed newspaper headline, something plants the seed of a song in your head. Work on it in the studio, delete the slightly corny key change and the line about Burger King, concoct an introduction and a coda. Repeat the process 20 times. In no time at all – or, more likely, 18 months – you've been convinced both that the record contains half a dozen dead cert Top Ten hits and that it is a varnished turd, it's five years ahead of its time and it's more dated than Ace of Bass. No matter, the songs are all written and recorded. Whittle the 20 down to 12. Now the fun begins.

It usually starts on a bus journey – top deck, front seat. A snatch of melody, maybe a half-glimpsed newspaper headline, something plants the seed of a song in your head. Work on it in the studio, delete the slightly corny key change and the line about Burger King, concoct an introduction and a coda. Repeat the process 20 times. In no time at all – or, more likely, 18 months – you've been convinced both that the record contains half a dozen dead cert Top Ten hits and that it is a varnished turd, it's five years ahead of its time and it's more dated than Ace of Bass. No matter, the songs are all written and recorded. Whittle the 20 down to 12. Now the fun begins.

I've always been baffled by groups who, having gone through this long creative process, leave the artwork in the hands of a complete stranger. As a teenager I always pored over every detail, every credit on an album cover. Think of the "clues" that people discovered from hours of staring at the trees on Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding (though oddly no one ever asked what those blokes from Bangladesh were doing standing next to him). The best sleeves are a distillation and an extension of the music inside – the Beatles' Rubber Soul, Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures. The video should have added another dimension. In reality, it's become a grossly expensive promotional tool. Beauty and simplicity aren't generally involved. More often a team of 30 people work on a four-minute film that costs £50,000 plus, and usually involves a rabbi, a "frighteningly realistic" bear suit, or someone's gran dancing in slow motion.

The advent of DVD and low-price DV-cameras could put the video into the hands of the artist. Expensive editing suites could disappear as video and film-makers work from home. Rather than record an album and then attach costly videos to 10 of the 40-odd minutes worth of music, Saint Etienne decided to make a film to complement our new album Finisterre, one which – like the best record covers – could stand up on its own. The initial idea was to cover an imaginary 24 hours in London, starting in the east at dawn, then following a mental map of the city until we ended up somewhere near Hillingdon or Hounslow at six the following morning. Somehow it seems like a crucial period to record: London is being rebuilt and re-invented faster than ever. It's the start of a new century – imagine having a chance to capture Paris at the beginning of the last century, a city in flux, just before the arrival of Picasso and Braque. Like the Buzzcocks song, the film of Finisterre has "a nostalgia for an age yet to come." One of the great privileges of being in a pop group is the chance to convey your tastes to tens of thousands of people; through the Beatles I discovered Peter Blake, through The Fall, Wyndham Lewis. Saint Etienne is a group that has always communicated its influences loud and clear, quoting Billy Fury, Richard Brautigan and Julian Opie in music and cover art. But we've always been regarded as an urban group, specifically a London group, and we wanted to show through film exactly how the city has shaped our music. Finisterre is all about our London – John Nash and Berthold Lubetkin, Hendon FC and Hampstead Heath and the New Piccadilly cafe. London like the 19th century never happened, just a straight line from Beau Brummell to Bauhaus.

A major influence has been Patrick Keiller's psycho-geographic film London, which worked around the 1992 general election in a series of long, held shots that made the city seem like it was in a permanent state of civil war between the residents and the establishment. Less well known but just as significant is The London Nobody Knows, a 1968 documentary narrated by James Mason as he clambers through the rubble of the (then derelict) Camden Palace, and written by the unjustly neglected Geoffrey Fletcher. Fletcher wrote some great books, all with a Wilde-like flourish which take you from the catacombs of Camden Town to the public toilets of Holborn. He ignores Primrose Hill and Portobello Road but heads for then-backwaters like Bermondsey and Islington's Chapel Market. He has a predilection for bad rococo Victoriana and helped me discover one of my favourite pubs – the Mitre off Ely Place. "All ages are ages of transition" he says, sketching another brewery or an anarchist bolthole in Whitechapel.

Geoffrey Fletcher's sense of optimism would find a fine home in the London music scene of 2002. Not that there is too much around to truly thrill but the Libertines, Electrelane, and sundry American neo-punk visitors have created a real sense of hope. The end of the 19th century was at least as tawdry, fear-filled and xenophobic as the end of the 20th. It took a few years before the Cubists and the Futurists made the century seem brand new. The cynicism, post-modernism and overbearing irony that characterised the late Nineties have reached a nadir with the Big Brother bearpit. Fran Healy, singer with the hugely popular band Travis, was asked last year which newspaper he read. "I don't read newspapers", he replied. "I don't read, period." Maybe 1999, 2000 and 2001 – years which had been mulled over for a good 50 years in advance – were under such a huge weight of expectation that they were shorn of creativity, of desire.

This means that the immediate future is much freer. The beauty of pop is that there is so much to do, so many places you can take it without blind adherence to a blueprint set down by the Beatles, Nirvana or Boyzone. Pop should provide an ideal for living, something to believe in. New action. When we decided to name the record and the film Finisterre back in January we didn't know that it would soon become the first shipping area to be renamed in over 50 years. Somehow, that seemed quite apt.

Saint Etienne play live, accompanied by their film, at the ICA, London SW1 (020 7930 3647) on Thursday. 'Finisterre' is released on 30 September

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