Beyond the Surface: Saint Etienne's Pete Wiggs on How "Side Streets" Came to Him, Where He Gets His Best Ideas, and Cooking as Meditation

05/05/2017 11:03 pm ET

To be one’s true self is the goal in life. This blog series would not exist if it werent for a reunion with an old friend who had all the makings of a modern-day Mozart. But at a pivotal fork in the road, he chose the path behind a desk, instead of one behind a keyboard, which would’ve honored his gift - like Mozart did. Now, 20 years later, he’s unrecognizable, this friend who once had music radiating from every cell, especially when singing in random bursts of happiness. The years have taken their toll - not just in the added 20 pounds that don’t belong, but in the heaviness that comes when living someone elses life, and not one’s true purpose. The life you came here to live.

As a writer, this inspired me to highlight the special souls who chose to follow their true path. The tougher path, but one that honors and expresses the powerful gift of music they’ve been given. To live the Mozart life. May some of their words help or inspire you to find your true calling in life.

A few years back, thanks to SiriusXM’s Coffeehouse channel, I discovered a delightful song called “Side Streets” from a band aptly named Saint Etienne, because the song made me feel like I was on the streets of Paris for some reason. It has a cool, hip (not hipster) vibe, and it immediately took me to another place, even though I was cooking in the kitchen. I immediately had to iTune it. The lyrics were not only animated, but at the same time in a funny way, relatable. I didn’t look anything up, I didn’t need to know anything about the band, I just enjoyed the song for what it gave me, and the vibe it provided me and continues to provide. So I was pleasantly surprised to find out now from Pete Wiggs, who wrote the song, that they’re from the UK. While I can play songs on repeat to where I can’t listen to it again for up to years at times, “Side Streets” has been my go-to song on the weekends, where it’s on permanent repeat mode, especially when I’m whiling away hours in the kitchen.

Saint Etienne will release their new album June 2, “Home Counties,” which is where they grew up. The first single is “Magpie Eyes.” According to the press release, these “16 new songs they have written about a day in the life of this doughnut of shires that ring the capital are punctuated by bursts of BBC radio to remind you what time it is, and all connected by train journeys - main lines, branch lines, commutes, escapes. The love/hate relationship people have with ‘home’ is particularly acute in the Home Counties. Yet Saint Etienne understand that, if you squint, it could be almost utopian.” The band will also be on their first tour of the U.S. in five years, starting on Sept. 24 in Boston, followed by two dates in New York City, ending in Los Angeles Oct. 6.

Pete Wiggs, who wrote “Side Streets,” shares about writing the song, what it means, and how he’s currently getting an MFA in composition and orchestration.

My favorite go-to song on the weekends lately, which I’ve put on permanent repeat mode, is “Side Streets,” which I first heard on SiriusXM Coffeehouse channel some years ago. I even like and relate to the lyrics! Can you talk about that song, how it came about, what it means, was it meant to just be a cool, fun song, which is what it sounds like. It’s this cool, fresh little song that I never seem to get tired of, and usually I replay a song to death and then can’t listen to it again for a while.

When I lived in Croydon about 10 years ago I’d walk past a newsagent’s board that had the latest headline from the local paper. They’d always manage to find the most depressing story of murder, rape or abduction. It was relentless, as though Croydon was Gomorrah or something – that gave me the idea of a song about shielding yourself from the onslaught of negative news. When I’d come home late at night I had the choice of taking the main road or the more ‘risky’ side streets. So it’s about making these kinds of choices – it’s tongue in cheek though as the character - me I suppose - isn’t really very brave and is prepared to do a runner at the slightest hint of trouble.

How do you find inspiration for the music? Is there somewhere deep within where the inspiration comes from? It’s said that when we’re most connected to our true selves - for example, some of the best songs were written in minutes. What’s your take on that, do you feel that in those inspirational moments you’re most connected to your true self? Have any songs come to you in that way, with such ease?

Funnily enough, I woke up one morning with the melody for “Side Streets” fully formed in my head and ran downstairs to hum it into a dictating machine - old school. This doesn’t happen very often and when it does it leads me to believe I must have subconsciously ripped something off - hopefully I didn’t. Other days I can sit at a keyboard plugging away for hours without anything taking hold, but I shouldn’t do that. The shower and car are the places I get my best ideas, both of which unfortunately involve a fair amount of time in which the gem of inspiration to be forgotten - thanks to having to park, dry off etc. I suppose you are right though, it’s when you are not trying that the best ideas come, so they probably are coming from your unconscious ‘true’ self.

Do you have a daily musical process?

It’s not the same every day but about 80% of my days are taken up with some form of music or band related activity.

When did you know you had this gift of music and how did it manifest for you? How did you start to do the human discipline it takes to channel your gift, hone it and bring it forth?

I don’t think I’m gifted at all, it’s a real struggle sometimes getting from an idea in my head to a finished piece of music. I never thought I’d be able to write music and didn’t really try until I was in my 20’s. We started out sampling things and humming things and are indebted to sequencers and musicians like Ian Catt who helped us to translate our ideas. Over the years I decided I needed to learn more and I’ve still got loads to learn, I’m doing an MFA in composition and orchestration at the moment. I’ve known Bob Stanley since birth almost and music was always a big part of our lives, we wanted to be involved, but it was the advent of samplers and relatively cheap computer sequencers that gave us a way in.

There are divine moments of serendipity, where a catalyst opens the door that leads to the path we’re meant to be on, the one where we live out the fullest expression of our true selves. What was that moment for you and how did it happen?

Bob and I used to write a fanzine called “Caff” and we’d met a localish band called “The Field Mice” and made friends with them, they said they’d used this studio with a great engineer, who could play stuff too (Ian Catt) – you should go and record something. My brother Dan had just met a singer called Moira who had a great voice and Bob and I were having a Neil Young phase. So we went to Ian Catt’s with Moira and made “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” We played it to Jeff Barrett who Bob knew as the Happy Mondays’ press man and he told us he was just about to start a record label, did we want him to put it out? Serendipity all round.

What inspired this blog series was seeing an old friend who has a special gift of music, but didn’t choose that path, who, 20 years later, isn’t living the life he thought he would live. People who make music and get to travel the world doing so are a rare example of a life where one is able to honor and channel their gift of music. What are your thoughts? And do you feel you’re consciously living the life you thought you would be living?

I started out down the straight and narrow path and was working in an accountancy software firm! Always a bit nerdy and I liked computers, and the regular drinking sessions, but I was daily feeling this isn’t really me, what will life be like in five years time, etc? I was very lucky that the series of events above was taking place, things seemed to be moving, the music scene was very exciting in 1990 and I had a chance to be part of it. So I handed my notice in - we’d been offered an album deal - so I thought this might be short term but I’ve been offered a lifeline, I’d kick myself if I didn’t take it. I am often very thankful that I’ve been able to stay doing this for such a long time, I’ve got some incredible memories and have made some great friendships and can’t imagine doing anything else.

I’ve said in that blog post about living the Mozart life, that it may be a tougher road to choose, but you’re fully living your true selves, being most true to yourself. Do you resonate to that? You did not choose the 9 to 5 path. But to embark on this path you chose, was that difficult? You didn’t know you would get here.

It was risky and could have all been over in the blink of an eye and the first year year or so we were really skint, we got invited to loads of flashy events but could barely afford to get a drink.

How did you know that this is your life path, your calling? How does someone know when they’re on the correct path?

There was a funny moment just after I’d handed in my notice when I went to a work picnic on Highbury Fields and someone came up to me and asked me for an autograph. It had never happened before and it was like I’d set it up, one of my former colleagues said “I thought you were mad to leave, but good on you, you’ve done the right thing.” Once we met Sarah and started writing our own stuff, we became a thing, a unit, it felt right.

What is your idea of success, especially on the path you chose?

Some of my favourite music is like an entity, a world I can enter and momentarily lose myself in. If I can be a part of providing that for others then I have been successful. One of the best compliments I could receive is ‘that brought tears to my eyes,’ not because I’m a sadist, but because it means the music has created an emotional response.

Life gives us catalysts, a release valve, which often is our lowest point in life, that allows us to push up to the next, hopefully better chapter. Like a desert, wilderness period in life, that helps raise our consciousness and stay true to yourself and your own path. What was that low point for you that helped you push yourself further, evolve and do better, and what did you do when you had that epiphany?

Having my first child Harvey in 2003 gave me a sense of purpose and a new lease on life as I’d lost my way a bit in the early 2000’s with lots of late nights, pub lock ins and wasting time playing video games.

It’s been a tough time for music, losing many of its legends or those we grew up with whose music was our soundtrack. What are your thoughts on time, how it seems to go by faster each year. Perhaps it’s made you reflect on what you want to achieve in the time we’re given here? Do you think about time much and what you want to achieve in the time we have?

One positive side of music legends dying, is the realization of how many people their music affected or touched. They have a kind of immortality in the sense that they live on in their music and it people’s memories. Time definitely goes by faster each year. There’s loads of things I’d like to do in music and film. I’m not bothered about achieving anything in terms of ‘legacy’ and try not to think too much further down the line into old age. I still have a very childish sense of humor and in some ways haven’t changed much over the last 25 years.

Unlike any time in history, we’re in an overwhelming digital era. There is so much detritus, noise and schadenfreude. What’s your view on that, and how do you find quiet in this era? What do you do to connect with your Higher Self, your true self? How do you ground yourself, focus on your own life path and purpose?

Apart from the shower and driving - alone - with the radio off, the closest I get to meditation is cooking. I can get totally involved in the “now” of chopping, peeling and frying, etc. I often turn off the radio if I need to totally free up my brain. My wife and I listen to mindfulness recordings in bed too - exciting, eh!

I’m a firm believer in doing mitzvahs, especially in the tougher times of our lives. To give back, be of service in some way, to use our time most wisely, can only help us in the end. What are your thoughts and do you try to do your own mitzvahs to help others, even in the smallest way?

It’s a good philosophy. Sometimes I feel I’ve not been doing enough for others outside my immediate circle though. I think we should live in a society that looks out for everyone, and I’m saddened to see education and health services being eroded by cuts.

What advice do you have for people who have the gift of music, but don’t know how to start channeling it, to develop that gift and bring it out?

It depends what you want out of it. There’s nothing wrong with playing just for fun or to no audience but yourself. There’s so much stuff on the Internet that if you want to improve you can get loads of tips. Listen to lots of music, find out what you really like, watch music rockumentaries, go to loads of gigs.

What do you do to help pick yourself up when you’re feeling down, and help you stay the course? Is there a song you play that inspires you when you’re needing some inspiration or to pick yourself up?

I’m very easily absorbed by television or film, especially when watching something with my kids, so if cooking has failed and alcohol inappropriate, and the subject matter not closely related to whatever’s getting me down, then a burst of that will normally do the trick. I wish I had a go to song for cheering up purposes, something random like “Hello Dolly” but I don’t, any way I’m generally quite cheery.

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