Pet Shop Boys interview
After nearly 30 years, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are still serious, still funny and still willing to push the envelope
Tue Jun 18 2013
© John Wright
‘What really drives Pet Shop Boys,’ says Neil Tennant, as we sit in a corner of the Hoxton Hotel, ‘is putting on a show and trying to do something that looks extraordinary. And sounds extraordinary.’
‘Our last show was very unusual,’ he continues. ‘The brightly coloured cardboard boxes, the dancers – we started to realise we shouldn’t be restricted by what we thought people wanted from us. We should do what we wanted to do.’
Now they’re back with more. In London briefly, before the suitcases are repacked, Neil Tennant and PSB co-conspirator Chris Lowe are bringing their new show, ‘Electric’, to The O2 as part of a world tour that began in Chile in May.
'This album’s got that ’80s freshness but it still sounds modern'
Tennant and Lowe are on good form. They are about to release their first studio album (also called ‘Electric’) on their own label, having left Parlophone in 2012 after 28 happy years. ‘Time for a change,’ Lowe says with understatement, but without bitterness. Relaxed, they make each other laugh. According to Tennant, the new show is ‘very energetic: more powerful than the last one. It’s still got a whole slew of hits in it but it’s darker.’ There’s an excerpt from ‘The Rite of Spring’ by Stravinsky and some barking dogs, but ultimately, says the singing half of the band, it’s a dance show.
In the same week they are introducing a special screening of ‘Battleship Potemkin’ as part of their friend Yoko Ono’s Meltdown festival. Then next month, ‘Electric’ is released. The album is a chunky helping of upbeat, archetypal Pet Shop Boys dance music, and confirmation, following Nile Rodgers teaming up with Daft Punk, that this really is the new summer of disco. The album is produced by dance-pop guru Stuart Price; it features London rapper Example; and, true to Tennant’s dry eloquence, it rhymes (on the rousing ‘Love Is a Bourgeois Construct’) ‘Goldhawk Road’ with ‘penal code’.
‘I like writing those sort of humorous lyrics,’ explains Tennant, placing deliberate emphasis on those last two words in his trademark style – almost like Alan Bennett in his considered and articulate phrasing. ‘Putting in those super-prosaic things against rather lush dance music. The album is meant to be pure enjoyment. We realised it was sounding quite early ’80s dance, like Madonna’s first album. Or Lisa Lisa? Do you remember her?’ Tennant breaks into song – ‘ “I wonder if I take you home.” This album’s got that ’80s freshness but it still sounds, you know, modern.’
‘If we were only going on tour to lose money, what’s the bloody point?'
Pet Shop Boys have been sounding modern since their first single was released in 1985 but it took them a further four years to go on the road. In 1989 filmmaker Derek Jarman directed their first ever tour. They played in front of 7,000 people in Hong Kong on their opening night, and they’ve never looked back. So why did it take them so long to discover their rock tour side? Tennant says financial constraints were a big issue: ‘If we were only going on tour to lose money, what’s the bloody point? But then the world opened up – it was possible to find the audience. Communism collapsed, globalisation and the internet happened. Now people want to see something fresh, so they want to see it live. We really changed as an act when we got into the live thing.’
In the last ten months they have finished two albums (before ‘Electric’ came last September’s ‘Elysium’), worked on a forthcoming musical project about World War II codebreaker Alan Turing, and taken part in two of the key London 2012 events. After appearing on chariots playing ‘West End Girls’ at the Olympic Closing Ceremony they were also persuaded to play the Team GB parade in September after personal approaches by both Boris Johnson and David Cameron.
© Carlos Hernández Llamas
'There we were in Berlin watching Vampire Weekend'
More than 30 years on from the day the pair first met, in an electronics shop on the King’s Road, they show no signs of winding down. Chris Lowe is usually perceived as the ‘silent’ partner, standing behind his bank of keyboards. But off stage he laughs and chats as much as Tennant. He believes that buying a place in Berlin where they could write new songs has had a big influence on their creativity: ‘It’s a great place to work – so few distractions, life’s easy. Also you get a real energy from the place. It reminds me of New York in the ’80s, it has that excitement on the street: artists have moved there, it still feels very underground, like New York was back then.
‘We went to see John Grant in Berlin, didn’t we?’ Lowe asks Tennant. ‘In fact we go out a lot in Berlin.’
‘There we were in Berlin watching Vampire Weekend,’ adds Tennant. ‘And there we were after the show, backstage at Vampire Weekend’s gig: how did that happen?’ He leans forward and laughs at the thought, mildly self-mocking.
Over the years, they have collaborated with artists Sam Taylor-Wood and Wolfgang Tillmans, and with choreographer Javier De Frutos at Sadler’s Wells. In 2011 they toured as Take That’s support act, and they have worked with Lady Gaga, Scissor Sisters and The Killers.
But Tennant politely sidesteps the suggestion that musicians like The Killers’ Brandon Flowers approach them as some kind of Oracle of Pop. ‘What I quite like is that people often do what they think sounds like us,’ he says, ‘and we normally don’t think it sounds like us. I think we’re just quite flattered and surprised by it. Through our entire career we’ve tried to present things in a way that sometimes means people don’t know how to take us. For example, we don’t like to do “serious” by being serious. And you sort of worry about how people interpret what you do, but a generation has come along who have just accepted and enjoyed it.
‘I think it’s about still finding the whole process incredibly enjoyable,’ he continues. ‘And not feeling self-conscious. When we were doing “Axis” on this album, we did a vocal and it wasn’t working, and Stuart said, “Why don’t you do a spoken-word vocal?” So I started to pretend to be Madonna.’ Tennant puts on a husky, transatlantic voice: ‘“Turn it on… erotica…” Just having fun.’
So how did they come to cover a Bruce Springsteen song on this album?
‘It’s “The Last to Die”,’ says Tennant. ‘Chris’s sister told him she’d heard this really good Bruce Springsteen song. We decided it would work for us because it has this great guitar riff. It’s a really fantastic piece of writing. It’s inspired by a quotation from John Kerry – who fought in Vietnam and appeared in front of some Senate committee in 1971, and he said, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Bruce Springsteen revived this in the wake of the Iraq War. It’s a very powerful song, and it works with the four on the floor. Once Stuart got his hands on it we realised that Bruce Springsteen + Pet Shop Boys, produced by Stuart Price = The Killers!’
Springsteen is also back in London this summer, but in the last decade even The Boss would struggle to claim Pet Shop Boys’ live chops, while other renowned kings of the festival circuit have paid their respects.
‘Which one is the tall one from The Chemical Brothers? Is it Tom?’ asks Tennant.
‘Well, I met Ed once, and he told me he was watching us at Glastonbury on telly a couple of years ago and he phoned Tom and said, “Are you watching the Pet Shop Boys? You’ve got to watch it, this is the gold standard of festival performance!” That’s pretty satisfying.’
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