Music Interviews

Interview: Pet Shop Boys

Ahead of Pet Shop Boys‘ 10th studio album Yes, Neil Tennant is in reflective mood on a career that first fired up with West End Girls a quarter of a century ago. “We were singing at the beginning of Thatcherite deregulation,” he remembers, “and now we’ve arrived at the end of that cycle. The beginning of the next, one hopes, and we’re still writing about this kind of thing. And that’s because life and politics are inspirational.”

He remembers back 25 years ago to the miners’ strike, and being in a gay club somewhere in Camden. “The miners’ wives would address the gays, and collect money for them. It was fascinating, the miners’ wives and the gays facing each other. It really feels like, looking back at the ’80s, like it might as well have been the Second World War. A historical period.”

Since then Tennant and fellow Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe have sold over 50 million records, relaunched the career of the late Dusty Springfield, collaborated with everyone from Rufus Wainwright to the BBC Concert Orchestra and penned a soundtrack for a Bolshevik revolutionary film. Now in his mid-50s, Tennant has hooked up with Girls Aloud‘s hit factory Xenomania to make the most poppy Pet Shop Boys album in years. It even sports that upbeat, one-word title: Yes.

“I can’t actually remember specifically when we called it Yes,” he muses, thoughtfully. “It just emerged about half way through recording the album. We actually thought of calling it Pandemonium at one point. We got our designer to do a design, but it looked really terrible written down. We had Yes on a list – it may have come from the Yoko Ono thing (her 1967 exhibition had attendees climbing a step ladder, picking up a magnifying glass and looking at a tiny word written on the ceiling, and the word was ‘yes’), which is such a great story. And for the same reason that John Lennon liked it; it’s an invitation, it’s a door opening, not a door closing. I think that’s what we wanted people to feel about themselves.”

As a duo, Pet Shop Boys are well known as remixers and producers in their own right. So it’s not immediately obvious where Xenomania entered the picture. “It’s good to get someone else’s perspective on what you do,” Tennant says of collaborating. “You want someone who’s got great sounds. They’ll say, why don’t you try that, and the track can be transformed.”

Of the new material he cites Beautiful People as the track most transformed by Xenomania. “It was a folky ballad when we gave them the demo,” he recalls. “It was a really nice demo, and Brian (Higgins, Xenomania’s head honcho) loved the music. These two young Australian guys who work with Xenomania put this drum beat and a guitar and stuff on it, and it immediately sounded a bit ’60s.”

Despite Duffy‘s success in 2008, it wasn’t written to be ’60s, or with her in mind. “But it had a lot more drama than the original demo. So we went in their direction completely and we have a much better record than we would have had. And that’s what you want (from collaboration). We’re happy to invite people in to make things better.”

“To be happy, people want something profound, but often they don’t even look for it.” – Neil Tennant

In this spirit they also brought in Final Fantasy‘s Owen Pallett to burnish the record with orchestral arrangements, as well as old Electronic cohort Johnny Marr. Tennant believes The Smiths‘ legendary guitarist is, despite his iconic work with Morrissey in the ’80s, still undervalued.

“The reason we like to work with Johnny Marr is that he’s a bloody fantastic pop guitarist. It’s an area of what he does that no-one notices. Very poppy, is Marr. He has that deep commitment. Something that comes out of his albums is a feeling of totally uncyncial enthusiasm for pop music – that’s how we can work with him.”

As for the internal Pet Shop Boys dynamic, for the lay observer the assumption is that Lowe is the keyboard wizard while Tennant writes the lyrics. “People tend to assume it’s much more delineated than it is,” he corrects. “Chris will do the rhythm track, but there are many production elements I do. The music’s written by both of us. I’m probably more interested in production techniques than Chris is. Chris likes it when he likes it – his favourite mix will often be the demo, because he likes the vibe. I admire that, but I’m always the one who wants to go into a proper studio and put an orchestra on, a percussionist, all the various things.”

And for the record Tennant doesn’t believe Pet Shop Boys are adequately described as a ‘synthpop duo’. “We’ve never really, at any point in our career, been restricted to synthpop. Even on our first album, West End Girls was not exactly just simple synthpop. We’ve always had different elements. We’ve always had guitars, actually, even though we officially slag off guitars – as a pop instrument they’re great.”

From the mid-’80s till now, Pet Shop Boys and Erasure are often mentioned somehow as ‘rivals’ in the synthpop stakes. They both have gay singers, sport synthpop aesthetics and are made up of just two people, one quiet on keyboards, the other loud on vocals. “But the only rivalry between Pet Shop Boys and Erasure is because of the public!” Tennant protests. “They’ve sort of thrown us together. I think our records and their records are very, very different. Vince Clarke is not quite, but verges on, being a synth purist, while Pet Shop Boys have always been quite orchestral. The tradition of pop we are in, we are electronic, but we’re pretty much in the tradition of Phil Spector really. It’s all hands on deck – not just synthesisers, but guitars, orchestras…

“Their songs are very different. But they’ve got some lovely songs, I think. If there has been a rivalry, it hasn’t really come from Erasure or the Pet Shop Boys. I’ve always found it a bit weird – I don’t really think about Erasure that much, and I don’t suppose they think about us, apart from the fact that we endlessly get compared with each other. We don’t know each other! I’ve only ever met Andy Bell maybe twice. I’ve never actually met Vince Clarke!” He laughs. “I’ve met Bono more times than Vince Clarke.”

But both acts’ focus on and understanding of what works as pop music has underpinned their long-lasting careers. For Tennant, pop music “does two contradictory things. It is escapist, but it’s also real. It takes its inspiration from people’s experiences. Pop music is going through a phase at the moment of being almost social realist, with Lily Allen, Kate Nash, Mike Skinner… And I actually think some of that music loses out on imagination and artistry in the process, but it’s interesting that pop music can do both things simultaneously.”

He cites Beautiful People as an example of covering both bases in one track. “It’s very much written at ‘street’ level,” he explains. “I imagine a woman standing at a bus stop in the rain in Lewisham or somewhere, and she can see the news stand and it’s covered in Heat magazines and what have you, and Grazia, and she’s thinking she’d like to have that kind of life rather than standing waiting for a bus in the rain. The music represents the glamour that she’s aspiring to, but the melody has a kind of earnestness which is the reality of life.”

This juxtaposing of real versus escapism runs right through Pet Shop Boys’ catalogue. “A lot of our songs are about very real situations put against beautiful music,” he agrees. “If there’s a Pet Shop Boys formula, that’s what it is.”

It’s a formula they’ve well applied to the new album’s lead single Love, etc. “It’s saying that what makes us happy and satisfied and fulfilled is not shopping in Ikea or Selfridges, it’s love, and affection, and friendship, and meaning,” he says emphatically. “That’s what keeps you fulfilled. The idea of shopping is really to reinvent yourself every single day with the retailing experience. It’s never going to be profound. Ultimately to be happy, people want something profound, but often they don’t even look for it.

“And what’s striking sometimes in travelling around is people live lives where there’s so much surface. Surface is so boring. I suppose that’s why people take anti-depressants all the time. It’s so banal. There’s no philosophy to it, there’s no art to it, no beauty to it. I think they live like that by eating sugary drinks and shopping.” Love, etc. is, he says, “broadly speaking a political song, although it’s an anti-consumerist, anti-market song, if you like, to a certain extent.”

Elsewhere his lyrics don’t always have linear meanings, such as on Building A Wall. “It’s various impressions put together to create an atmosphere. It occurred to me, walking down the street reciting it to myself. I did actually build a wall,” he remembers. “Well, not personally; I had a wall built in my garden. I was just thinking about walls. The Berlin Wall. The Roman Wall, just up the road from where I was brought up. It got me to thinking about my childhood, and how different Britain is now. And how with ID cards and that kind of thing we are building a wall in many ways to keep ourselves in, not to keep people out. It’s a world in which your people are deliberately restricting their options out of fear.”

“I could never vote Tory, but in many ways that’s a tribal thing, not an intellectual thing.” – Neil Tennant

On their last studio album Fundamental, particularly the final track Integral, Tennant’s lyrics rounded on New Labour. On the surface Yes may appear to be a less political record, but Tennant feels otherwise. “The last song Legacy is in my Tony Blair trilogy,” he explains, “after I Get Along and I’m With Stupid. Tony Blair’s last words to the House of Commons were, ‘That’s it, the end’. That’s the opening line of Legacy. The idea behind it is a Tony Blair situation where someone has all that power and they leave it, and it’s unbearable. They have to go from this great, heroic stage they bestrode to suddenly…”

He pauses. “Did you see that film Margaret, where Lindsay Duncan played Margaret Thatcher?” I did, I say. “There’s a bit at the end where she goes, ‘What am I going to do?’ That’s what Legacy’s about. Someone giving up power, status. I was just struck by politicians, when they’re in power, talking about what their legacy will be. It seems to me an incredibly vain way to behave. I don’t think Harold Wilson talked about legacy, or Churchill. It’s a very narcissistic way of looking at things; everything is a reflection of yourself. And then you come back to earth with a crash – at the end of the song, it says about when the Carphone Warehouse boy has been on the phone, he wants to upgrade the mobile you own, it’s just that that’s your lot – you’re going to (live a) real life now. And it wonders whether you can deal with it.”

Tennant is, of course, erudite on the New Labour project more generally. “Tony Blair’s government equalised the age of consent and brought in civil partnerships,” he reasons. “And I think they’ve genuinely tried to do things about child poverty. But what distresses me about what happened to New Labour is what the last album was about. ID cards, surveillance, locking people up, trying to get rid of habeas corpus, all of these civil liberties things. For some reason when a centre-left politician comes to power they feel the need to be macho about law and order.

“They have this obsession with creating a database, basically spying on the citizens, using the terrorist issue, not trusting the citizens. We went through the entire IRA campaign and we didn’t lose civil liberties because of that, nothing like what’s been proposed since 9/11. It’s absolutely absurd and very dangerous. It changes our entire relationship with the state. We’re now coming to the situation where we don’t approve of the state, the state approves of us. Or not. I think it’s horrible and sinister. I don’t even know that the politicians doing it are thinking of it like that. I think they think opposition to it is just hysterical. But they are putting together an apparatus which is creating that kind of situation.”

Has Tennant been on Question Time? He’d be good. “I now vote Liberal Democrat, but I don’t know how effective they are,” he continues. “Political parties in this country were based on different economic opinions, but now they all have the same opinions. I suppose you also vote tribally. I could never vote Tory, but in many ways that’s a tribal thing, not an intellectual thing.”

He may well never bring himself to vote Tory, but Pet Shop Boys recently gave away a CD of their music through the none-more-Tory Mail on Sunday. Some Pet Shop Boys fans were, to put it mildly, amazed at the tie-up. But, as with Blair’s legacy, he sees two sides to this. “I think they’re small-minded and ber-bourgeois, and when you come from the north they seem very south-east. But I seem to remember that the Daily Mail led the campaign helping Stephen Lawrence’s parents to identify the killers,” he says.

“I wouldn’t buy the Mail. But the music business has changed, and that’s how people do things nowadays. They pay you a load of money to release it, we get a lot of CD advertising. You send a Trojan horse into 2.2million homes, if you like, of Pet Shop Boys music, which we’re happy for people to have in their homes. I don’t think (the Mail papers are) any more homophobic than society generally is. I don’t think they’re racist, do you? I think it’s just something people like to get on their high horses about, but it doesn’t really bear scrutiny.”

“We don’t approve of the state; the state approves of us. Or not.” – Neil Tennant

Indeed the music business has changed, and it’s to their credit that Pet Shop Boys are moving with the changes. “It’s a totally different way of operating,” he says. “Your records are made in technologically a completely different way. People consume them in a completely different way. We didn’t make this album in a big 1,500-a-day proper studio; we made it in my house in County Durham and Brian Higgins’ place in Kent. That’s all changed, and the way it’s distributed has changed. Things like the Mail on Sunday thing – it would’ve been inconceivable for us to do that a few years ago. Whether one likes it or not, it’s how music is promoted nowadays.

“The Mail on Sunday is, in this instance, a radio station playing the Pet Shop Boys. All music artists now are multi-platform; we can’t just release a record on vinyl and take it down to a record shop. It worked like that when we started but it doesn’t any more. And you have to accept it.”

Given the changing nature of the music industry, what does he think new artists starting out should do to get their music heard? “I’d almost think that if they didn’t know what to do then there’s no point doing it,” he sighs. “It’s all so superficially democratic now. I assume they’d do the MySpace thing, and all the rest of it. Even if I’m not totally convinced it produces talented artists, I know that record companies take notice of that.

“When Chris and I were taking round cassettes of four songs in 1983, we put them through the door of EMI. But you were never going to get anywhere off a cassette. In many ways, having a MySpace site is no different to having a cassette, but for some reason, maybe because it’s got pictures attached to it, it seems to have more credibility.”

And what of artists emerging in 2009, 25 years after he and Lowe did? “We’ve just booked Frankmusik as support for the O2 Arena show. He looks good – I’ve seen pictures of him,” he says. “And I like the remix he’s done for us. But the amount of hype new groups get can be a dangerous thing. People are going to turn on you very quickly if they don’t like what you do, and that would worry me.”

He cites another of the class of 2009’s Next Big Things as an example. “Florence And The Machine got this award, BRITs critics favourite or something, and I didn’t think it was a very good idea having that award and also accepting it. I thought it was likely to turn people against (the winner) and maybe raise expectations that can’t be fulfilled. Estelle got it last year. Or was it Adele? I think it’s better when people emerge organically, but it’s quite rare now.”

Pet Shop Boys will emerge organically into the O2 Arena in June. “We’re playing one night; Michael Jackson‘s playing 50,” he laughs. “We’ve not played anywhere that big for a long time, at least in Britain. We’ll be doing a world tour after it.” After a quarter of a century, does he still love heading out on the road? “We are carrying on. The Pet Shop Boys always carry on. I don’t know if we’ll carry on touring for ever – as I get older I might get fed up with that. But Pet Shop Boys always do things they say they’re never going to do.”

Pet Shop Boys’ album Yes is released through Parlophone on 23 March 2009. Pet Shop Boys, with support from Frankmusik, play the Manchester Apollo on 18th June and the O2 Arena, London on 19th June. They headline the Latitude Festival’s final day, 19 July 2009.

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