In the sleeve notes for Saint Etienne’s new album, Home Counties, writer Andy Miller references an illustration from Judith Kerr’s famous children’s book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Mummy, Daddy and Sophie are pictured walking arm in arm along the street. It is early evening. In the background, there is a red double decker bus and a row of shops, including a small toy shop, a clothes store named Melinda and a fish monger. The shops are closed but lights are on in the windows of the flats above and street lamps give out a yellow glow in the dusk.
“It looks just like the street I lived in as a boy … a suburban English high street of the late 1960s or early 1970s, rendered as a child of those years might like to remember it,” writes Miller.
It is this image of seventies suburbia – of unremarkable, could-be-anywhere high streets and neat cul-de-sacs – that inspired Saint Etienne’s first album in five years.
Home Counties reflects on life in Essex, Surrey, Berkshire and beyond – on the beauty to be found in England’s southern suburbs and the eccentricities of life there. There are field recordings of church choirs and birdsong as well as the voice of Ken Bruce and a track that follows a train pulling out of London and into the country. The band says the record is an exploration of what defines the Home Counties and the mixed feelings many former residents have about the towns and villages they grew up in.
“Feelings of nostalgia for the suburbs amongst those who have lived there tend to be mixed at best,” writes Miller in his sleeve notes. “It’s an ambivalence you can hear in Ray Davies’ songs for The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society … or in the young Paul Weller from Woking’s lyrics about Saturday’s Kids or 5 o’clock heroes…. It’s the place we waited years to leave and the place we still call home.”
Scott King’s artwork for the record aims to capture this ambivalence and a sense of finding beauty in the mundane. The cover features a photograph of band member Bob Stanley’s childhood home in Reigate, Surrey under a bright blue sky. The super saturated colours conjure memories of summer afternoons and British heatwaves – of children ‘playing out’ and adults having barbecues and garden parties.
“I had it in mind that the sleeve should be like an old Butlins postcard by John Hinde – this very saturated and nostalgic image,” says King. “We were also looking for something very ordinary, a sort of ‘nothing image’ that somehow illustrated the banality and beauty of suburbia. Bob [Stanley] came in with a series of images and we chose this one, his old childhood home – it was perfect, and made the idea very personal. But, the house image was only ever half of the idea.”
The other half of the idea was to cover the record sleeve in stickers. Pink, silver and rainbow-coloured foil stickers list unremarkable facts about the album: the fact that it contains 16 songs about southern England and is made by “skilled musicians with over 25 years experience”.
“I imagined these stickers being added by an over zealous record company exec, anxious that the record should sell, anxious not to lose his job,” explains King. “He collates more and more facts that he hopes will help promote the album – trawling up trivia like “Largely Recorded in Berkshire and Kent” – then he invests in all these eye-catching foil stickers for the cover, with which he goes berserk … of course he has no interest in the design, so he ruins the very ‘graphic design’ things like the tiny title at the top and the boring image (as he sees it) of a semi-detached house.”
The gatefold art for the LP edition of Home Counties features a black-and-white image of an unremarkable high street, annotated with mundane stories about its residents. Graham Baxter’s Peugeot 206 runs “a good 74.5 miles to the gallon” and Mandy Bussen – who lives above Best-One – likes to listen to Another Level.
“It’s very much about minor incidents, local nothingness … banal stories/info over a nowhere place,” says King. The inner sleeves feature outlines of Surrey and Essex with coloured dots representing recent petty crimes committed in the area. Crimes are listed on the reverse of each sleeve and include shoplifting and texting while driving. A CD edition depicts five home counties and crimes from vandalism to affray.
King often thinks up detailed back stories when working on album art – a process that usually results in added features such as download cards, stickers or prints (see his album art for Earl Brutus).
The 2 LP edition of Home Counties comes with an art print and sticker sheet, allowing fans to create their own version of the cover, and a download card that shows Nelson’s Column in London without the column (an “imagined riposte to London from the Home Counties”, according to King).
The font used on stickers and the album’s cover was selected by Stanley: “He’s a great fan of lower league football and Davida is ‘all over the ground of Guiseley AFC’ apparently,” says King. “I did try to dissuade him from this font initially, but he was not to be moved – it was the only thing he dug his heels in on – and it looks great, so I’m glad we used it.”
Home Counties is out now on Heavenly Recordings. See heavinglyrecordings.com or saintetienne.com for details. You can also listen to a BBC 6 Music interview with the band about the album here and see more of Scott King’s work at scottking.co.uk