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Pet Shop Boys interview

The most successful duo in UK music history talk creativity, touring and their new album, 'Electric'

© Jon Wright

The Pet Shop Boys' first single was released in 1985 but it took them a further four years to go on tour. Rock music was for the road, electronic pop was for MTV. In fact, it wasn't Neil Tennant's talky vocal style or Chris Lowe's inability to even muster a wiggle behind his bank of keyboards that put them off, if was just that, as Lowe put it at the time, most big gigs were so predictable that you might as well save yourself time and head straight to the bar. In 1989 they got filmmaker Derek Jarman to direct their first ever tour. They went from the confines of the studio to playing in front of 7,000 people in Hong Kong on their opening night, and they never looked back. Twenty-three years on, with covers of U2 and Bruce Springsteen songs in their vibrant and varied repertoire, Pet Shop Boys spend more time on the road than those rock legends themselves. They play Le Rex in Paris on 11 June.

You're back with a brand new album, 'Electric', but the last one, 'Elysium' only came out last September. 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 a piece for next year about Alan Turing [the genius World War II codebreaker, who committed suicide after the British government prosecuted him for his homosexuality]... all this in the last two years. It's been a great time for us.

Many bands do a couple of albums then trail off, why do you think this has been such a rich creative time for you?

Chris Lowe: 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.

You seem to do a lot of things together even though your lives are separate - you eat out and go to shows together, share what you're reading and listening to. Is that part of your long-lasting success?

CL: 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. We also go to more obscure clubs and see more art.

Your body of work reflects different sides to the Pet Shop Boys - the previous album, 'Elysium', was the mellow side and 'Electric' is much more 'up'.

NT: 'Electric' is really meant to be pure enjoyment. We realised while making it that it was starting to sound quite early '80s dance, like Madonna's first album. Sometimes I can fall into the trap of thinking that I want to make a statement when actually the best statements are quite light. We met a German journalist yesterday who thought the entire album was a very left-wing piece of work because of 'Bolshy', '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.

So what can people expect to see on the 'Electric' tour?

NT:
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. It's in four parts, and we chose songs around four themes. The second 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'. It's the scary part, there are barking dogs – that theme seems to run through Pet Shop Boys doesn't it? [Laughs]

Pet Shop Boys hardly ever seem to be off the road these days. It's amazing to think it took you so long to do your first tour...

NT:
Yes, in 1989. And then didn't do another one for eight years! Initially one of the key issues was financial: if we were only going to tour and lose money, what was the bloody point? Apart from that we wanted to make the 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 Bogata. So it made it all more feasible. Plus we love playing live!

Why did the world open up?

NT: 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; that's really only in the last ten years. What really drives Pet Shop Boys is putting on a show and trying to do something that looks extraordinary. And sounds extraordinary.

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