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Outback with…Pet Shop Boys

This interview was back in 2009, in a world where Gaga had just appeared on stage with Neil, Chris and Brandon Flowers at the BRITS, U2 were releasing yet ANOTHER boring album and Madonna was still shagging Jesus Luz.

I felt like I was being made privy to so many private industry secrets, from Cher’s ‘Believe’ originally being an indie song to what it feels like to have your song rejected by Kylie and Madonna. 

I’ve tried for hours to cut the interview down but I love both Neil and Chris, their chemistry and everything they had to share. So here it is in all its glory…

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So, how are you both?
Neil Tennant: Very well, thank you.
Chris Lowe: Busy. Although we’ve just had a really nice lunch with wine.
N: It was your idea!
C: It was my idea and I don’t normally suggest a glass of wine but I thought, ‘You know what? Galvin is just around the corner and they do really good food. It’s the credit crunch after all, so it’s ok to drink at lunchtime, isn’t it?’
N: The Credit Crunch…The new U2 album…

[Laughs] Have you heard it?
C: I don’t need to.

        

Pop Justice simply said ‘In the bin’.
N: Oh, see I do think that is slightly unfair. Pop Justice were saying, ‘Seriously with all that promotion, why is this single not Top 10? It only made #11.’ The reason, which we learned from Girls Aloud’s ‘The Loving Kind’ only going to #10, is that to go Top 10 it actually takes a lot of copies. The crazy thing with Girls Aloud was that the B side was only on the 7” and not on the CD.
 
It’s really good.
N: I know, I heard it on Pop Justice. The way I look at it, we’re prolific writers and on our singles you get two B-sides, in fact sometimes you even get three, but of course the rules change every time we release a record. We always try to give value. I always think of singles as a mini-album in a way. I like the classic two track format. Main track, bonus track. You get millions of mixes on one these days.

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On remixes should the vocals be entirely redone or should they just extend the track?
N: I don’t think there is a rule. I like an extended mix. Occasionally, if you go completely off the wall, we take just one line from a song and make it into a completely new record. I think that’s good as well. It’s whether it works as a piece of music. Sometimes you get really crap remixes, which don’t work on any level.

There are a lot of blogs churning out their own remixes.
N: Yes, but it makes it difficult to retain the purity and integrity of what you do. 
C: It’s far more democratic than it used to be.
N: Yeah, I don’t really approve of that.
C: In the old days we were in charge of everything. Now anyone can do a remix and put it out there. It has equal weight. If you go on to YouTube, there might be a remix by someone who has just done it in their bedroom and it has completely equal billing to our mix or one we have commissioned. There is no difference. Some are really good. But it is quite funny that everyone is part of The Pet Shop Boys project. It’s no longer just me and Neil.

       

So, why did you decide to go back in the studio?
N: It’s a natural cycle. I mean our last album was three years ago. We were on tour for pretty much a year and a half. In the middle of the tour we were writing. In fact we were asked to write some songs for Kylie Minogue’s new album [X].
C: Not just us. I think everyone that can write a song got asked.
N: We were touring and both of our male backing singers had submitted songs for Kylie too. None of us got one on. We were also asked to write songs for Madonna.
C: No, we were asked if we had anything lying around.

For Hard Candy?
C: Well, that was before she had decided she was going in an R&B direction.
N: Madonna’s operation is very polite.
C: So, the implication being that Kylie’s operation isn’t.
N: We didn’t hear anything back!
C: I don’t know if ANYONE heard anything back from Kylie.
N: But we like Kylie personally, I’m mean I’m sure it’s not her fault. But Madonna’s operation, before we’d even had chance to see if there was anything lying around, said, ‘Actually, sorry, she’s decided to do an R&B record, so there’s no point.’ So we said, ‘Fine.’ We’d already written something but it’s alright, it’s gone in the ballet. But we write songs once a year because we enjoy doing it.

Do you see much of each other in between?
N: There’s not a lot of ‘in between’ really.
C: We haven’t had a holiday in ages, have we?
N: We had three weeks over Christmas.
C: Well, that’s Christmas.
N: Christmas is not a holiday, is it? Let’s not even go there. I mean, that’s the thing about The Pet Shop Boys…most groups who have been around for a long time have had years where they haven’t done anything. Pet Shop Boys just keeps on going.

Your Wikipedia page goes on and on.
C: That’s another thing that has become democratic, anyone can chip in. Anyone can just go in there, log on and put something up. 

Gone are the days where you get all the info from a press release. Now it is all online.
N: It’s weird that you make a record and it all leaks out bit by bit. I mean we sort of do that with EMI, I think it’s a shame really. I think it’s much better to go in the shop first thing Monday morning and buy the album. 
C: What’s really annoying is someone, who shouldn’t even have a copy of it, reviewing it.
N: Don’t you think the internet is very hierarchical in a fan forum-y kind of way. Someone comes on and says, ‘OK, I heard the album, it’s shit,’ or ‘It’s genius.’
C: But it’s a bit like, ‘Who are you? Why is your opinion worth anything?’ But in the modern world everyone’s opinion is worth just as much as anyone else’s.
N: See I don’t agree with that.

Do you read blogs?
Both: No.
N: I write on our website. We were thinking we needed a journalist who knows a lot about The Pet Shop Boys and then I thought, ‘Oh yeah, me!’
C: Someone who can spell. Someone who doesn’t put lots of exclamation marks all over the place.
N: Three exclamation marks!
C: No ‘lol’.
N: Someone who doesn’t say, ‘Hey guys!!! Great news!!!’ The Pet Shop Boys thing is done in an off-puttingly sober fashion. Our website was based on The Guardian, The BBC News and The New York Times because we wanted it to have a lot of stuff going on but also be a resource. You can go back…see every song we’ve ever done, every lyric we’ve ever written, every tour date we’ve ever played. Ultimately to update a website it takes five minutes. So, of course our website is completely up to date.

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Are you pushing technology with your site?
N: I like it because it fulfills my editorial side - my Smash Hits! side. [Neil was once the Editor of Smash Hits! magazine)
C: We have these meetings with our web designers, I just don’t understand. They say, ‘Oh yes, we’ll do this and we’ll do this.’ 
N: Why does it cost so much money as well? It costs a lot. A couple of thousand quid.

In one interview for the last album you said your next one would be based around religion.
N: Oh, we just say silly things.
C: Did we say that? Oh we talk a lot of rubbish then, don’t we? Particularly in interviews.
N: There are no themes as such on this album. On Fundamental, our last album, we had an idea of a war on terror, on surveillance, that kind of thing. This album is just a collection of songs. As I said, we wrote some songs for Kylie and one of those songs is on the album - ‘Pandemonium’. So we knew we were going to record that because we really liked it. We actually had a couple of other songs for Kylie that we really liked and we thought might be on X, but they’re not.

What are you going to do with them?
N: I don’t know. There’s actually five we wrote. Six. Seven. Eight! We always have a load of songs lying around. We’ve got contemporaries of ‘It’s a Sin’ we haven’t recorded yet. There’s a great one called, ‘I Can Always Rely On You To Let Me Down.’
C: That sounds like a country song, doesn’t it? That’s such a country song title.
N: So, sometimes they finally reappear. What we learned from Xenomania is that if you have things in a song you don’t like, get rid of them, write something new over the backing track.
We’d written some songs that were quite poppy, so we approached Xenomania, they wanted to write a couple of songs with us and we ended up writing four songs together, one of which was ‘The Loving Kind.’ Their way of writing is very interesting because we write songs more or less like Lennon/McCartney, whereas Xenomania get backing tracks, write stuff over it, then write more over that. Then they ‘lyric’ them and see what sounds best. It’s actually a very disciplined way of writing. It’s why they have such unusual song structures.


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Someone was saying they have the radio on, as well as MTV and they just study the Top 40 to write hits.
C: I know where that came from, because I think Brian [Higgins] was a bit annoyed by it. Any studio, people are on their laptops working with MTV on in the background. It’s like any recording studio, the radio will be on. It’s not like everyone is sitting there analysing the music though.

They made it sound very dry.
C: No, it’s not like that at all.
N: Hard work and fun. We felt very much at home. We slotted in. We could have had our own room there.

You’ve done a lot of collaborations in the past. Did you feel this was a compromise?
C: Well, we don’t often write with people. Also we regarded them as equal partners and vice versa.

What is your favourite Xenomania track?
C: ‘Call the Shots’.
N: ‘Biology’.

Both Girls Aloud tracks.
N: Well I do like, [sings] ‘Round Round, baby, round round.’
C: Did they write that?
N: Yes.
C: That’s a complete song written by them?
N: Miranda I believe.
C: Well, that is quite amazing then, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure whether that was one of those mash-up things.
N: No, no.

       

They did Cher’s ‘Believe.’
N: That’s Brian.
C: He wrote that.
N: He wrote that as a ‘Stone Roses-type thing.’ Imagine that? It was written in the early 90s and took ages to get recorded. [sings in Ian Brown voice] ‘Do you believe in life after love?’ Just think of it as being Manc. It’s totally imaginable. A great rock song is ‘I Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ by Kylie. [sings it as a rock song]. It’s a total rock song but just not sung as one.

Wasn’t it written by someone rock?
N: Well, it was written by Cathy Dennis but it is the guy from MUD as well. They’re not really rock writers. Often if you slow things down, or speed things up…for example on our album we have a Tchaikovsky sample. He’s tonnes faster.
C: Oh, he’s ‘duh-duh-duh-duh-duh’. I listened to it last night. I was choosing records for Rob Da Bank. I thought, ‘Can I really play ‘Swan Lake’ by Tchaikovsky?’

Why are Girls Aloud so special?
C: Who pulled them together with Xenomania because that was a really inspired move. Was that Louis Walsh?
N: ‘Sound of the Underground’ was a great first single.

Do you respect Louis Walsh?
N: I don’t really know enough about what he does professionally. We have met him a couple of times and I like him. I think he’s funny. We played Electric Picnic a couple of years ago in Ireland, he came to see us and was really nice. He likes Rufus Wainwright too. He always likes people you don’t expect him to like.
C: It’s a great combination though the Xenomania writing team with five really great girls, who looked good, sing, perform. That’s a great combination.
N: There are five strong characters there as well.

Some of their singing live has been under scrutiny.
C: Well pop music is not about being a virtuoso singer. Pop music is about the sound of the record. There are loads of great singers out there. Doesn’t mean that they are going to make great pop records.

Yes. I love Rachel Stevens’ second album.
N: Funky Dory? Or was that the first one?
C: Hunky Dory by David Bowie?
N: The first one was called Funky Dory.
C: Clever.

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The second one was great. The Times gave it six out of five.
N: It wasn’t Xenomania was it?

I can’t remember who produced that one.
N: I remember buying some tracks from her first album because I thought the production was quite good. But when you just run through those song titles, ‘Negotiate With Love’, would The Human League have sung that? I don’t think so. I think that’s what you’re up against. You think of DARE by The Human League. Do you know that album?

Yes.
N: Well, if you are going to comment on Rachel Stevens you should know DARE by The Human League because it’s really one of the albums where the whole thing comes from. It’s an amazingly good album and it hasn’t even dated. But what was interesting about that was that it was much more adventurous and lyrically open. It wasn’t about 1950s song cliches. A lot of modern pop music is like that. You could have sung ‘Negotiate With Love’ in 1957. We expect things to move on, don’t we? It’s the same with us. Fifteen years ago, it was a terrible thing living as a songwriter in London because everyone wrote their own songs and they weren’t very good. Now it’s a great time to be a songwriter. But it’s interesting how it’s gone back to a very formulaic lyrical approach. Not always. ‘Biology’ by Girls Aloud - amazing lyrics. But there’s a lot of stuff like you’ve just mentioned there and I think it’s why it’s not a hit ultimately. Because it’s not engaging with current culture enough. It’s not saying anything new. Pop music is supposed to say something new, or appropriate.

        

Who do you listen to now?
N: MGMT I suppose is the loadstone of modern pop.

Empire of the Sun?
N: I’ve only heard two of the singles. With respect to them it is a bit MGMT Part II. The graphics and the whole thing. I don’t really respect that.

They’ve taken a bit of Fischerspooner too.
N: Fischerspooner were always quite underrated, although the songs were never quite as good as they could have been. But nonetheless they had some great stuff. They had their go, there was a lot of hype around THE single. In many ways Fischerspooner really re-kickstarted modern pop. That sort of sound. Slightly minimal, electronic, it was very much a pop sound. It went into the pop mainstream, didn’t it?

There was their Kylie remix as well.
N: Well, I mean the whole electroclash thing by-passed rock music. It went into the pop mainstream. In the same way that in the 80s, hi-NRG music went from in the gay clubs to the pop mainstream, which was a great surprise at the time. 

Chris, what do you listen to?
C: A lot of old stuff. I think that’s one of the great things about iTunes. You end up discovering a lot of new stuff. What have you said?
N: I said MGMT.
C: Well, there’s that, yeah. I often flick through the Top 40. I’ve downloaded a single by Metronomy. Actually I’ll tell you where I get a lot of music from - Soccer AM. I watch it in bed on a Saturday from 9-12. They always tell you what record is playing. I often sit there with my phone downloading songs during the programme.
N: You go on SHAZAM.
C: Oh, yes. I am often in Selfridges mens’ department and I am SHAZAM-ing away while I’m looking at the D2quared collection.

Mine pulled up The Pussycat Dolls the other day, I was ashamed.
N: Lady Gaga writes for The Pussycat Dolls.

I know. Stylewise I absolutely love Lady Gaga but musically I am a bit unsure.
N: Why?

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I thought it would be more Roisin Murphy-esque.
N: Stop right there. She is not Roisin Murphy. So you thought that. That’s your issue. It’s not Lady Gaga’s issue. Do you know what I mean?
C: You have positioned the goal posts and because she has them somewhere else, she’s…
N: It’s like when we did ‘Love Etc.’ someone said, ‘Oh I thought it would be a be a bit ‘Call the Shots’ meets ‘Delusions of Grandeur’ by The Pet Shop Boys.’ I turned around and said, ‘Yeah, you thought that. You weren’t making the record.’
C: It wasn’t our idea.
N: To mix two of our old records…because that’s not generally how people tend to work. They do something different to what they have done before. That’s the starting point, with the aim of trying NOT to repeat yourself. It’s quite difficult trying not to repeat yourself to a certain extent but that’s what you try to do.

Is she not just combining Pussycat Dolls’ music with Britney’s?
N: Has Britney made a record like ‘Just Dance’?

The Blackout album.
N: But ‘Just Dance’ is a good song. Anywhere in the world you went right now you would here that. That takes real talent. Also she has the image and behind that she has been a songwriter for Pussycat Dolls. Although they mean nothing to me.

She is really switched on.
N: She knew everything about us. How?! When we asked her to join us at the BRITS, I thought she’d say, ‘No’. She put that outfit together, the teapot thing. It was brilliant.
C: You know it was actually made of porcelain. She designed it and it looks like an English teapot.

       

And she changed because the paparazzi got her in rehearsals.
N: She might not have known they were filming in the afternoon. I can’t remember.
C: Oh, was she wearing different pants?
N: When we were doing the rehearsal for that on the Monday, I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe we’ve got Brandon Flowers and Lady Gaga doing this.’ At that time they had three records in the Top 10 because Lady Gaga had two and ‘Human’ was still Number 10 as well. I really felt quite chuffed. Also in pop terms they are different species, you’ve got Lady Gaga and Brandon and yet they’re working out their backing vocals together. Brandon is like, [sings] ‘How far have you been?’ and then he says [puts on high voice] ‘I can sing the third above.’ It was a fascinating experience. 

There was this one bit which was unfortunate TV editting, where Brandon rolls his eyes next to Lady Gaga as if to say, ‘What am I doing?’
C: No, no, no.
N: No. He’s such a sweet person. He’s very handsome. I always find it very exotic that someone like that would be interested in The Pet Shop Boys, New Order, The Smiths and The Cure. They come from such a different background. He asked us loads of questions about it all. That’s one of the fascinating things about pop music, isn’t it? You never know where it’s going to land. That’s what’s interesting about The Killers, I think, because you can see it’s got that North American Mid-Western rock with those ‘three other guys’ and then at the front you’ve got this kid from Outer Space with his feathers. Then of course he’s completely happy with all of that.

With The BRITS, there were stories that they were going to give your Award for Outstanding Achievement to George Michael but he got busted again so they withdrew it.
C: I didn’t know this.
N: It’s not true. I can tell you right now exactly who else was up for it and it wasn’t George Michael.
C: Has he not got it?
N: No. I’m sure they would have or will give it to him. But that story is bollocks. I honestly know who else was up for it and one was American and one was English.
C: How would that work?
N: They were going to bend the rules.
C: We Brits have never bothered about a minor scandal.
N: We like them!
C: We live off them. We dine off them!
N: With George Michael, it’s about re-marketing isn’t it? It’s called re-positioning.

Where do you hear your influence in music today?
N: I don’t really care about all that. The reason we asked Brandon Flowers to do all this is because of ‘Human’. In practically every interview they did we were mentioned. I don’t think it sounds that much like us but I know where they were coming from.

It’s the Stuart Price thing as well.
N: It is. But I’m aware that we are a reference that is made. If you put us into Google, which I do, just so I can get things for our website, it’s always to do with other groups. We’ll be mentioned in a review of some group in Alberta, Canada or something. ‘Oh they sound like The Pet Shop Boys’. I think that’s particularly the case at the moment. I just think it’s a general climate of electro-pop. I think we are one of the most famous electro-pop groups. I think it’s possible to hear the influence of Depeche Mode too.

They’re back too.
N: Well, like us they probably make an album every three years. It’s possible to hear a more doomy sound that they have in things. But all pop music, to a certain extent, is an accumulation of things that have gone before anyway.
We have carried on doing pop music pretty much consistently since we started. Therefore we are always going to be a reference when you are doing electro-pop because we’ve done it for so long. If you do guitar based rock with harmonies, people will say it sounds like The Beatles. If you do synth-pop with beautiful string sounds and a melody which is not agressively Amercian, people will probably say it sounds like The Pet Shop Boys.

You have played some massive venues like The Tower of London and Trafalgar Square. Are there any other unusual venues you would like to play?
C: Well we are playing the O2. Let’s just plug that shall we? Actually I have been to the O2, I went to see Barry Manilow there. I love Barry Manilow.
N: I’m annoyed I didn’t go.
C: It was fantastic. I have seen him many times.
N: I was a bit sniffy about it on the day.

We got his CD the other day and I was a bit unsure.
C: Well, maybe you’re not the right generation.
N: Which one is it?

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The Greatest Songs of the 80s.
C: Oh THAT one? Oh I see.
N: Is that not quite good?

No. He sings Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up.’
N: Oh, he does it in the same style.

I think that album was actually Number One in America.
N: This album you’re sneering at…
C: You want his Greatest Hits like, ‘Made It Through The Rain’.
N: [sings] ‘Looks Like We Made It.’ It’s all about that.
C: What’s really good about Manilow is that he does this Vegas thing, in the middle of the song, while the band is still playing, he’ll slow it down and tell you a story about that song. Then the band swells up and you get that massive chord change. I saw him at the O2 and it’s great. Places to eat. It’s a destination.
N: That’s what you say, isn’t it? It’s a destination.
C: There’s a club there as well.
N: Wembley Arena is definitely not a destination.
C: It’s the opposite.

Anywhere else that is not a traditional concert venue?
N: We nearly did Battleship Potemkin in front of Admiralty Arch with the audience in The Mall. But if you want to play The Mall you have the Prince Phillip problem. Prince Phillip apparently controls what happens in The Mall. He doesn’t like things like that. 

Neil, I wanted to ask why you came out so late in the media?
N: Well, why should you do it at all? Why is it late or early?

To me, it comes down to whether pop stars should be role models.
C: No, we’re not role models.
N: We don’t agree with that. We’re anti-role model.

Were the press trying to hound you out?
N: No.

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So why?
N: The reason I came out, which was just before my 40th birthday, was because I was in a relationship.
C: Well, you were asked for Attitude.
N: It was for Attitude.
C: We wanted the cover.
N: Well, talking about role models, when Attitude came out in 1994, Attitude was a new kind of gay magazine and I thought it was really good. I said to our PR, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t mind doing an interview with them.’ He said, ‘Oh, they’ll put you on the cover.’ We didn’t have a record out or anything. I thought, ‘Well, I suppose I may as well just tell them I’m gay really. I’m a gay man.’ He didn’t ask me. So I thought, ‘You know, I’m in a relationship, I’m quite happy.’ The reason I hadn’t said it before was that I always thought I would get typecast by the media and as a result of that I did. The Pet Shop Boys have been typecast by the media ever since.

Do you regret it?
N: No, I don’t regret it but I regret the way the media deals with the issue because media is sort of gay friendly. But when I presented an award to Madonna at the BRITS, Chris Evans was hosting and I think he is quite a nice guy. But on the night you couldn’t hear the announcements backstage and before I came on he said, ‘Most people here will bend over backwards for the record industry, here is someone who will bend over forwards.’ Now is that a gay friendly, amusing joke? Or is it homophobic bullying? Or is it somewhere between the two? The audience were shocked. I came back and said, ‘What did you just say?’ as he walked off stage. By the time EMI phoned the following morning, the producer had already taken it out. Now that is a little microcosm to the media’s attitude to gays. Friendly and humorous. They prefer it friendly and humorous otherwise it gets a bit sordid. So maybe on the one hand we say ‘Oh you don’t need role models’, maybe you do need role models. But I think the way the whole gay scene has changed, it’s great that it’s so open and stuff, I still feel it’s become a very restricted identity being gay. I think the straight media has a very restricted idea of it, which I think the gay world, and indeed media, panders to a bit as well. There’s definitely an idea of what it’s like being gay. Many many many cultural assumptions. All those things I am very uneasy with, I don’t feel comfortable with. It’s nothing to do with having a homosexual sex life. It has to do with all the assumptions that come with the word gay.

I don’t always read gay press because I don’t need it to feature in everything I read.
N; Because you are being marginalised and I know from being in The Pet Shop Boys that there are times when we will be marginalised. When people will think when you’re gay that you are only of interest to gay people. That’s is a ridiculous thing to say. I’ve told this story so many times. When Dusty Springfield died, I agreed to do some interviews about her, the first queston to me was, and this is because I am ‘Neil Tennant’ talking about ‘Dusty Springfield’, ‘Why was Dusty such a gay icon?’ That’s it. That’s the whole of Dusty’s career reduced to two words. Gay. Icon. Is that what you’d say about Ella Fitzgerald? Janis Joplin? No, it’s what you say about Dusty because you’ve heard she was gay. You know what? To be marginalised as you can tell makes me angry.
C: Seething. You’ve gone red.
N: It makes me angry because Dusty Springfield is actually the best woman singer to have come out of this country, ever. In terms of pop music. I think that’s a problem. I sort of feel there needs to be a debate or a convention about what it is to be gay nowadays. Years ago when I was sitting in Derek Jarman’s house, and he and Ian McKellen were arguing about how to lower the age of consent, which those days was deemed almost unimaginable. It was a different thing being gay. It was a genuine underdog then. But I always used to say that if gays and straights have equality, the issue of where you put your dick should just be personal. With some people it is just irrelevant. With my parents, both of whom died recently, it was irrelevant. By the time they died they had sort of lost interest. I think that is the best thing. It is only your sex life. There endeth the sermon.

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