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Pet Shop Boys
© John WrightPet Shop Boys

Pet Shop Boys interview

Pet Shop Boys arrive at Sónar with a new show, Electric, designed by the same team responsible for their brilliant Pandemonium tour

Pet Shop Boys' last tour, Pandemonium, was a fantastic thing to behold, and we had the pleasure twice in Barcelona: in 2009 in Poble Espanyol and at Primavera Sound 2010, the festival's 10th-anniversary edition. Now, the veteran electropop duo from London returns to celebrate 20 years of Sónar, with a stellar triple premiere. They'll be featuring their last two albums, the reflective 'Elysium', published in September, and the explosive 'Electric', scheduled for July, respectively the 11th and 12th of their career. Rounding out the hat trick is their new show, which is named after this latest still-unreleased album. Producing Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe's latest project is Stuart Price, aka Jacques Lu Cont, and Madonna's right-hand man in the first decade of the century. After a listen to the first two advanced releases, the dancefloor pumping 'Axis' and 'Vocal', it's clear that the show will be tailor-made for the Festival of Advanced Music.

You're back with a brand-new album, 'Electric', but the last one, 'Elysium', only came out last September.  You finally finished your Pandemonium world tour in Norway last August and you began the new tour in Mexico this March. Is this a particularly creative period for you?
NEIL TENNANT: This has been a very intense creative phase for us. We've done two albums and we've also done this piece about Alan Turing [a musical project based on the life of WWII British code-breaker Turing] that we're doing next year, all this in the last two years. It's been a great time for us. I love the 'Elysium' album, by the way - it's a great album. I hope people appreciate both albums and don't think 'Electric' overshadows it. When you've been around a long time the things you do can get taken for granted!

Many bands do a couple of albums, then trail off. Why do you think this has been such a rich creative time for you?
N.T.: I think the blossoming period started when we did 'Battleship Potemkin' 10  years ago - 2004 in Trafalgar Square. We started to, I don't know, sort of rethink a bit. We did an album ['Fundamental', 2006] with Trevor Horn, and that was a really strong album, then we worked with Xenomania ['Yes', 2009], we did Pandemonium - creatively and in terms of the audience that show was very unusual: the brightly coloured cardboard boxes and all that - we started to realise that we shouldn't be restricted by what we thought people wanted from us or what was expected of us. We should do what we wanted to do. And we wanted to make this very autumnal, smooth album in Los Angeles which turned out to be 'Elysium'. It's got some extraordinary numbers on it like 'Invisible' and 'Leaving' which we do in this new show, and then we found ourselves doing something so fresh with Stuart which was much more Pet Shop Boys than the last album, and that was 'Electric'.

CHRIS LOWE: Also we bought a place in Berlin where we write songs now, and that has had a big influence on us. It's a great place to work, there are 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 energy and excitement on the street: artists have moved there, it still feels very underground, like New York was back then. And I think that gives you a certain creative energy.

You live in the UK most of the time, but it's interesting that you go to Germany to work. You seem to do a lot of things together even though your lives are separate - you go to shows together, share what you're reading and listening to. Do you feel like you're switched on to Pet Shop Boys mode all the time? Is that part of your long-lasting success?
N.T.: I think it's about still finding that incredibly enjoyable. Also in the last few years Chris has started doing the programming when we're writing and that means we've returned to the two of us in a room like it was in the early '80s. It's great because you don't have any self-consciousness. If there's a third person in the room you can't have that. Though interestingly we didn't feel self-conscious working with Stuart Price [producer of the new album, 'Electric'], actually. When we were doing 'Axis' on this album, we did a vocal and it wasn't working so we took it off, and Stuart said, 'Why don't you do a spoken word vocal?' so then I started to pretend to be Madonna: [Neil puts on a husky femenine voice]  'Turn it on... erotica'... [Chris laughs] There are a lot of producers I wouldn't have done that with. So, yes, it's a funny thing how we work and spend so much time together, but very enjoyable. It produces a lot of ideas.

Many bands find their lives and interests drift away from each other, but you both still seem to be into the same things. When you were recording 'Elysium' in LA you ate out and went to gigs together. So you still enjoy each other's company after all this time?
C.L.: Yeah, we went to see John Grant together in Berlin. In fact, we go out a lot in Berlin. It's funny, we tend to go out to see bands in other places far more than we would in London.

N.T.: There we were in Berlin watching Vampire Weekend, and there we were after the show - backstage at Vampire Weekend's gig, how did that happen? [Laughs]

C.L.: We wouldn't have known they were on in London, but in Berlin we're far more aware of bands coming through. We also go to more obscure clubs and see more art. London's got more going on, but we get less chance to fit it all in!

'Axis' is the first single off the new album - it's a bold first statement and very 'up'. Your body of work reflects different sides to the Pet Shop Boys - 'Elysium' was the mellow side and 'Electric' is really pumping.
N.T.: 'Electric' is really meant to be pure enjoyment. Also with the music - without wanting to sound like a muso - it's got more space in it. We realised while making it that it was starting to sound quite early '80s dance, like Madonna's first album. Or Lisa Lisa. Do you remember her? [Sings] 'I wonder if I take you home'... This album has got that '80s freshness while it still sounds, you know, modern. Sometimes I can fall into the trap of thinking that I want to make a statement when actually I think the best statements are quite light [Laughs]. It's better when the statement's lurking underneath. We met a German journalist yesterday who thought the entire album was a very left-wing piece of work because of 'Bloshy', 'Love Is a Bourgeois Concept', the quote from from William Blake's 'Inside a Dream', and the last song starting 'like the people'... [Laughs]. It was funny, he thought it was left-wing polemic. I was quite fascinated by that, but I had to tell him it was a great interpretation but not at all what we intended.

Nile Rodgers from Chic is back on the scene with Daft Punk making the hit of the summer with 'Get Lucky'. It's a good time to be expressing your disco side, isn't it?
N.T.: I think we are suspicious of 'going retro' or making a tribute to a sound. Daft Punk's album is a very ambitious piece of work, obviously, but it's a tribute to late '70s, to soft rock, Giorgio Moroder, Chic, etc. That is an undervalued period and you know we always champion the disco period, but we made a record years ago, 'New York City Boy', ['Nightlife', 1999] with David Morales, and we had Vince Montana doing one of his famous string arrangements and it was recorded in Philadelphia, and on the last album we had backing singers who worked on Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' and all the rest of it, but we never really try to make a retro sound. But with Daft Punk... the only thing that makes it Daft Punk is when the computerised voice comes in. Otherwise it could be back then. I keep thinking Art Garfunkel should start singing! Because I love the ballads on it.

Why did you choose to cover the Bruce Springsteen song 'The Last to Die' on 'Electric'?
N.T.: Chris's sister told him she'd heard this really good Bruce Springsteen song so we called it up, bought it on iTunes, and the real reason we decided it would work for us was because it has this great guitar riff - 'dum, dum, dum, dum-dum-dum' - and we thought it would turn into a great synth riff. Then Stuart Price suggested we make it into a vocal refrain, which is what I did. And also the chords really work with four on the floor - and now we're doing it in the live show it's a really fantastic piece of writing. It's inspired by a quotation from John Kerry - who fought in Vietnam - and he 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, so it's a very powerful song, and it works with the four on the floor. Once our producer Stuart Price got his hands on it, we realised that Bruce Springsteen + Pet Shop Boys produced by Stuart Price =  The Killers! [Laughs]

You've worked with Brandon Flowers of The Killers before, in passing collaboration, and with acts like Scissor Sisters. Artists like these have cited Pet Shop Boys as a big creative influence on what they do. Do you feel there's an exchange or are people coming to you for your wisdom and experience?
N.T.: I think what I quite like is that people often do what they think sounds like us. 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 - we've done it in a cartoony way or in terms of presentation, or we've done it in an oblique way with no expression at all, like 'Actually'. And, um, you sort of worry sometimes about how people actually take what you do, then you realise a generation has come along who have just assumed it and taken it on board and enjoyed it, and that's quite satisfying. And also, with someone like Brandon Flowers - because you can get paranoid about your less successful records - it's nice to know his entry point on the Pet Shop Boys was 'Nightlife' and 'Release'. I said to him, 'Oh we've never written a Christmas song,' and he goes 'Yeah, "Birthday Boy" off "Release",' and I said, 'Oh yes, I'd forgotten that!' That's an album of ours a lot of people wouldn't have heard of.

Bands like The Killers are seen as 'proper' rock acts, and you've covered the likes of U2 and Bruce Springsteen, but Pet Shop Boys hardly ever seem to be off the road these days, either. It's amazing to think it took you so long to do your first tour.
N.T.: Yes, in 1989. And then we didn't do another one for eight years! But I think now we've developed this sort of pop music hybrid, and this is our third tour working with Es Devlin [award-winning stage and costume designer] who's done opera and theatre and worked with people like Kanye West and Lady Gaga. For the Pandemonium show - people enjoyed it so much, and this time we took the title 'Electric' and Es created this set that followed on from Pandemonium, but we ended up scrapping it because we did a show in Mexico and the lasers we were using worked so powerfully with the music that we decided to go with that. So then Es redesigned the whole set.

So what can people expect to see on the 'Electric' tour?
N.T.: It's a very energetic, slightly darker show than the last one, and more powerful. It's still got a whole slew of hits in it, but it's darker. We use two dancers, but they do specific things, rather than just doing dance routine-y things. And it's in four parts - so we chose songs around those four themes. The first part, for example, starts with an excerpt from 'The Rite of Spring' by Stravinsky because of its reference in 'I Wouldn't Normally Do this Kind of Thing' ['Very', 1993]. Part two is the scary part, with barking dogs - that theme seems to run through Pet Shop Boys doesn't it? [Laughs] Erm, the third part more romantic, and the fourth more hit-based, but it's a very energetic show. It's longer than normal, but it really moves fast, it's more of a dance show.

But you didn't see yourselves as live performers and now you're hardly off the road. Why's that?
N.T.: Initially one of the key issues was financial: if we were only going to tour and lose money, what's the bloody point? Apart from that, we wanted to make statements. Particuarly with 'Performance'. And that wasn't easy to do live. But then the world opened up - suddenly you're playing in Beirut and Bogotá. So it made it all more feasible. Plus, we love playing live!

Why did the world open up, do you think?
N.T.: Communism collapsed, gloabalisation and the internet happened. People can see things and they think, I want that too. And the global market for music is huge now. Also for dance music. And people want to see something fresh, so they want to see it live. At same time we have a fan base around the world - that's an amazing thing, really. But we really changed as an act when we got into the live thing. I think that's only in the last 10 years. What drives Pet Shop Boys is putting on a show and trying to do something that looks extraordinary.  And sounds extraordinary.
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