Guest Column - Creating the New Elizabethan soundtrack by Saint Etienne

Guest Column - Creating the New Elizabethan soundtrack by Saint Etienne

howeusedtoliveSaint Etienne's soundtrack for the cinematic collaboration How We Used To Live has just been released. The band's Pete Wiggs explains how he came-up with a soundtrack for Paul Kelly's whimiscal look at bygone age through the footage it created.

How We Used To Live is a film that paints a picture of London in the post-war period of the “New Elizabethans” (AKA the 1950s to 80s) using artfully woven archive footage, dialogue and sounds, and backdropped by a newly composed score. Ian McShane is the gravelly voiced narrator whose fictional recollections and witty asides guide us from scene to scene.

This is the fourth full-length film collaboration between director/editor Paul Kelly and our band Saint Etienne and the first to consist entirely of archive footage. Our relationship, however, goes back much further (25 years or so!): Paul has played guitar with us on stage, shot many of our videos and press photos, designed numerous sleeves, logos and posters, and also made babies with our backing singer (the lovely and talented Debsey).

Bob Stanley, writer/historian Travis Elborough and Paul spent many weeks in a small box room at the BFI poring over VHS tapes: some relevant, some fascinating-but-irrelevant, many dull. Then Bob and Travis set about researching and writing the script and Paul started compiling and cataloguing clips.

Whist I did spend several days in the BFI box, my job on this film was to write the music. As a film making team we tend to work for 90 per-cent of the time in parallel rather than in series. So instead of script then shoot/edit then score it all happens at the same time and the film grows organically, each process feeding off the others.

The scope of this film changed during its production, I knew we were making a 70 minute piece and that around 45 minutes of score was needed but initially the time frame we were going to cover was the whole of the 20th century, sequentially. I didn’t want to ape or do pastiches of the music of these successive decades - partly because that would be predictable and uninspiring but also because budget and practical limitations meant I had to do it all ‘in the box’ as convincingly as possible using samples and software instruments.

A lot of the original underscore on the clips we used was very well written and produced but often bombastic and celebratory and perhaps over dramatic to modern ears. The tone of the images and dialogue is wistful and dreamlike and so I went for a palette of sounds and samples from across the time period that aimed to reflect and amplify these feelings.

Sometimes I wrote to clips I’d hacked together myself (that didn’t end up in the film) other times to scenes that had been discussed but weren’t then realised. Paul would edit footage to these pieces of music, and later I would tailor and rewrite to his edits. Sometimes I’d replace a temp track and very occasionally I’d get a finished scene to work on from scratch.

The film gradually morphed to its current non-linear form. It’s an audio-visual pop art collage. A very modern way of using archive to make you think about the past, present and future and I’m very proud to have been a part of it. Pete Wiggs @petewiggs

For more and to order a copy of the soundtrack, head to Saintetienne.com.