The Pet Shop Boys

April 2006 - Fundamental Beliefs

The Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are flagging. Sat in the Penthouse suite of the Sanderson Hotel, they've spent the last three days being interviewed by 50 different journalists from all corners of the globe... and I'm last on the list. But that's reason enough for them to break open a bottle of Champagne and to relax a little. Not only is there a light at the end of the current publicity tunnel, but they're also happy to be promoting an album - Fundamental - that seems them re-examine some of their original electronic disco roots. Some critics are already describing as their best work in years...

When you begin work on a new album, do you approach it with a conscious idea of how you want it to sound, or does that develop during the recording process?
Chris: Well we did. We decided this was gonna be minimal electro pop, and then we realised the type of songs we were writing weren't really gonna suit that production, so it changed. It became a big, epic, Trevor Horn-style piece, so that's why we decided he'd be the best producer for them.
The album does have two distinct sounds, with the electro beats of 'Minimal' and 'Intergral', and then the more theatrical numbers...
N: Yeah, they're the electro numbers, and 'Pyschological' as well. I think 'Minimal' and 'Pyschological' in particular are the electro pop survivors. Working with Trevor is interesting because he likes electronic music but he's not frightened to bring in other instruments and stuff which he uses in a very subtle way. We of course get slightly panickey when a guitarist appears, but Trevor uses it in a very subtle way.
Your last album came out just as the whole electro sound was being rediscovered by a new generation... and a lot of artists are pillaging sounds from the 80s at the moment. As artists who helped define the sound of the 80s, how do you feel about this?
N: I don't think, to be typically contrary, the whole electroclash thing was to do with the Pet Shop Boys. We came along later on in the 80s. I think the thing they were doing was much more the Human League 80s, much more stripped down sound and purely electronic. I think of us more as the first sampler group. When we first met Bobby O in New York in 1983 he had an Emulator which he put discs of sounds in and I was fascinated because you could suddenly have the sound of a string quartet, or animal noises, or James Brown... our sound has always been an orchestral electronic sound, and the orchestral sound comes from samples, and I think that's quite different to the electroclash thing.
You began your career as wanting to make a single with Bobby O - is some of this album a return to those roots?
N: Yes, the idea was to do that, but the reality was that I don't think we did. There's not many tracks on this album that you'd think Bobby O might have worked on. I think maybe 'Sodom & Gomorrah Show' could have taken that direction, and maybe 'Integral'. With the 'Sodom & Gomorrah Show' we were actually thinking more of Patrick Cowley [of 'Menergy' fame].
What is 'Casanova In Hell' about?
N: I read a couple of books about Casanova... so it's about Casanova [chuckles]. I was interested in a short novel by a writer called Arthur Schnitzler, and he wrote this novel about Casanova growing old, and it gave me the title 'Casanova In Hell'. In fact, I was thinking of it being the title of a musical, about an old man, Casanova, looking back at all the shagging he's done and all the rest of it. And in the song there's a sort of story about Casanova growing old and trying to pick up a young girl who laughs at the fact that he can't get an erection, and he's so angry about this. He writes about it in his memoirs.
Is it the first pop song to feature the word erection?
N: Well that's what I liked about it. I like the fact that it gave me the opportunity to write in a very direct way about sexual activity. Despite many years of sex and drugs and rock and roll, I can't think of another song that has the word erection in it, and it's sung in a very triumphant way at the end, I think that's the interesting thing about the song. It originally had the word masturbate in but I took it out 'his ageing fate to masturbate, Casanova in hell', but I took it out because we were recording during the Michael Jackson trial and there was so much about masturbation... I just thought I never wanna hear about masturbation again [laughs].
You say it gave you the opportunity to write about sexual activity... did you need that excuse to be provided?
N: I don't mean excuse, I mean 'context' really.
You're not afraid to tackle politics in your songs - but do you, as a duo, always agree on your politics, or are there areas you disagree on?
[Long pause]
N: We do and don't really.
C: On this album we are united [chuckles], particularly on opposition to ID cards, an increasingly authoritarian state, loss of freedom. There's no religion on this though... maybe we should do the religious album next.
What do you disagree on? When was the last time you had a row?
N: We don't have rows. I can't think of one... not like a screaming 'fuck off' kind of row. We've never done that.
Not even on tour?
N: No, if we get irritable with each other, which we can do - it would be weird if we didn't actually - we make ourselves scarce. People always expect that if you're gonna be with someone a lot - which I don't understand - that you're going to increasingly hate them, but it's never been like that for me. A lot of what you do on tour is quite absurd. Some journalists ask the most ridiculous questions. We just had a guy from Sweden who said 'I went to one of your concerts and I was surprised that there were so many straight people there!', I was saying I could probably get a demo started outside this hotel for a comment like that, because it is a totally homophobic thing to say, it's saying that gay musicians are only of interest to gay people, and I said 'it's just not the case, it just doesn't work like that, believe it or not gay people go and see the Rolling Stones and U2 as well.' Sorry, I've gone off the track a bit. We do bicker and point scoring. The last thing we disagreed about was the Iraq War, but that's literally undiscussable, there's no point discussing it.
C: [laughs] There's still a lot of point scoring goes on. It will be 'Look, they've had democratic elections - ha!', and then yes, but look how many people have been killed in that suicide attack today, it's civil war'. It all depends on the news and what's happened on a particular day...
And you never know whether to trust the news...
N: My instinct is never to trust anything reported anywhere by anyone. I honestly think most of it... I think it's really difficult.
C: I stopped watching Sky News during the Iraq War because I found it too biased.
N: The Iraq War tends to be reported as all bad or all good, and the all good seems to have gone down to 'there are seeds of hope there', but... it's impossible to know. The Iraq war is something I formulated an opinion on after reading very carefully about it...
C: But, the person you read has since changed his mind! [More point scoring], so have you changed your mind? [laughs]
Stop point scoring!
N: It's all down to motives - were peoples motives good for going to war or were they bad? I actually feel only confusion about the whole thing, which I don't like feeling, but that's what I feel.

The Pet Shop Boys

'Numb' and 'I Made My Excuses And Left' aren't so political - seeming to deal more with heartache - is 'I Made My Excuses And Left' based on a real scenario?
N: The song started... I had the title written down, it's a very journalistic phrase, it has a nice ring to it, like when a journalistic does a drugs sting or something like that and then says 'I made my excuses and left...'. That's where the phrase comes from. Then Chris was crossing Waterloo Bridge one night and sang a song into his phone that he was singing 'I'm all alone again, I'm all alone'
C: Yeah, tragic! [chuckles], with rain coming down...
N: So we took that into the studio and sampled it at the beginning of the record, and I thought 'what could this go into', and then I remembered 'I Made My Excuses And Left', and so I wrote this lyric, and the idea for the song came partly from reading something by Cynthia Lennon, John Lennon's wife, who came back from holiday in 1968, after they'd all been to India. She comes back and Yoko was sitting John on the sofa. She walked into the room, looked at them, she realises that they're an item and she walks out. It actually really appeals to me that story. Of course she married other people and carried on with her own life, and in the song the singer realises at the end that it's a new beginning.
Have you had any heartache yourself recently?
N: The last album was the Neil Tennant heartbreak album, not this one. There's normally one happy, one sad album.
This isn't the looking for love album?
N: Good idea, but I don't think it is the looking for love album though.
You recently remixed Madonna ('Sorry') - When you get to remix someone like Madonna, do you get to do what you like with it, or are you conscious that she might want some trademark Pet Shop Boys spin on it?
N: No, we asked to do that remix. Several reviews of the album mentioned us, and Stuart Price said in an interview that Madonna loves the Pet Shop Boys, and we kinda thought we should do a Madonna remix, that it would be good to bring both of these acts that have been around since the 80s together. We were specifically thinking of doing a mix for G.A.Y, for the people who go there who are very much into pop music...
Why haven't you played G.A.Y?
[Pause] N: It seems a bit retro. No, not retro. I wouldn't feel comfortable playing G.A.Y. [Turns to Chris] He's asking why we've not played at G.A.Y?
C: We've played the Astoria.
N: I don't think I'd feel comfortable. I can't quite explain it. It's almost too pop. Although every time I've been to G.A.Y to see people I've enjoyed it. To return to Madonna though, normally when we do dance remixes it's actually rock records we've remixed, like 'Girls & Boys' by Blur or ''Walking On Thin Ice' by Yoko. This was already a very well-produced, exciting dance record, so we decided to do something we don't normally do, which is to make it sound like a very 80s Pet Shop Boys, and I would sing on it, kinda like a duet, which is something else we'd never done before, so it was quite exciting to do that.
C: What we normally do, our trick, is to speed it up a bit, put four on the floor, put some electronic parts in there, but Madonna already had all of that [laughs], so we thought 'what are we gonna do'. It was difficult because it was pretty much already in the same ballpark as us. It was difficult... the hardest remix we've ever done. If you take something like 'Hello Spaceboy' by David Bowie, it's a real avant garde rock record, but you can hear the potential for it on the dancefloor. But this was already faultless as a dance record, as a pop record it's difficult to know where to take it. We heard it got played at a club in LA, a DJ sneaked a copy in, and at the end it got a standing ovation - I really wish I'd been there because that sort of reaction to something you've done...
N: A friend of ours was at Fire Island in 1987 and they played the 12" of 'It's A Sin' and he said the whole place stopped and applauded...
C: I just love that. It's like in Italy when a plane full of Italians lands and they all applaud.
How did the collaboration with Pete Burns (on 2004's 'Jack & Jill Party') come about?
N: Well... you know... there was this programme called Diners, and we were watching it, and we discovered on satellite that you could change the table you were watching, and Pete Burns was actually chatting to a photographer that we know from America. So, he was in our minds because of that, and we were writing this song for our Greatest Hits album, 'Jack & Jill Party', and we were thinking that he would do a good vocal. So we approached him.
C: I thought you bumped into him?
N: I did, but we were already thinking of doing it with him. I'd had a few drinks and I said to him 'Ere, we've written a song for you', and then he mentioned it on his website, so we sort of had to do it by that point. But it was interesting working with him. He's a very good singer, you know. Pete Burns can make different kinds of records, he's got a very powerful voice.
C: And a very strong personality. Cos we're very placid in the studio. Very calm. Amd Pete Burns comes in, and fills every corner of the studio with personality.
As he did on Big Brother?
N: Oh, that was riveting on Big Brother.
Have you ever been asked to do a reality TV show?
N: I've been asked to do Big Brother and I'm A Celebrity Get Me Outta Here.
You turned them both down?
N: I'd be hopeless. Secondly, I wouldn't wanna do it, and thirdly I think I'd get very claustrophobic. Especially in the Big Brother house. I'd go mental actually.
You've worked with a huge number of people over the years - is there anyone you'd liked to have worked with who has turned down the offer?
C: Well, we wanted to work with Nina Simone...
N: But she died.
C: And she probably wouldn't have wanted to work with us anyway. I thought she was one of the best vocalists - one of my favourite female vocalists of all time.
N: We've always had an obsession with stars, as we don't consider ourselves real stars. Dusty, Liza, Yoko, Bowie, Madonna...
C: Patsy! [laughs]
N: Boy George. I think it's quite a galaxy of stars, and that's what we like. You've got to be in the galaxy of stars to get the Pet Shop Boys mix or production.
Do you think it's impossible to do anything new and original in pop music?
N: No. I think like most things in life, new and original comes about through advances in technology. New technology comes along, someone uses it, pushes it to its highest degree, and you end up with something like 'Blue Monday' by New Order, or 'Music' by Madonna. I also think that in terms of subject matter, you can do new things, which I guess is what we do. Like doing a song with the word 'erection' in it. The world is not full of songs about erections. You should always try and bring new things into pop music.
C: It's great when there is a massive change, when there's something really new, like when you first heard 'I Feel Love' like Donna Summer. I remember hearing that in a school disco and just thinking 'wow'. I love those moments when something totally new comes along, and you just think 'God, that's amazing', but unfortunately, that can't happen that often. Those moments don't happen very often, but when they do, it's so inspiring.
N: Something that defines gravity, defines reality.
C: Yeah, I love those moments. With house music... I mean, it's not quite the same level as 'I Feel Love' by Donna Summer, but some of those avant garde acid house records.
N: Literally avant garde. They could have been made by machines.
C: When stuff like that happens I find it really exciting. When stuff is referring back to the past, even though it can be good, you don't get that same excitement.
Are there any new acts that have come up in the last few years that you get excited about?
N: Yeah [pause]. I always like to live a bit in the mainstream. I really liked, last year, Stuart Price's remix of 'Mr Brightside' for The Killers. In fact, 'The Sodom & Gomorrah Show' rhythm track is very influenced by that. There's a guy called Nathan Fake, I like him. It's all backing tracks with no vocals on. I listen to tonnes of electronic music, that I just have playing in the house, for the ambience really. But every now and then you get a record... I really wish there were more records that were fantastic collections of pop songs, but I don't think you get many of them really. I think The Killers album was pretty much that. I liked most of the tracks on it quite a lot. In a way, I don't like the Arctic Monkeys like that, although I'm quite an Arctic Monkeys fan, but I don't find myself excited about it. I don't like the social realism. I've never really bought into a celebration of normal life. I prefer it when normal life goes on the skids, because then it gets interesting and you can big it up, which I guess is what we do. 'I love you, you pay my rent', you know? But I think 'I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor' was a really good record, but there's this assumption of normality, and we're just normal people and there's all these pretentious wankers out there...
C: No-one said it was fancy dress!
N: Exactly! Well, I'm on the side of the pretentious wankers.
I read a very old interview with you Chris, I think in Smash Hits, and you came out with a quote which I'm gonna throw back at you. 'I only really like bands when they begin to slide from the top. I think they make more interesting music. I only really liked Adam & The Ants when he began to slide...'
C: You couldn't possibly apply that to us!
Do you remember saying it?
C: I don't remember saying it, but I talk a load of rubbish in interviews.
N: That was you being provocative. I don't agree with it. I think Adam Ant's best records were made before he made it big.
C: I can't remember his records after being big. Did he make anything?
N: He made 'Apollo 9', and that other song - 'Vive Le Rock' - that he plugged at Live Aid. He had the same manager as the Police and they said you can't have Sting unless you also have Adam Ant - Miles Copeland.
C: After commercial success, the artist can get bored with that sort of songwriting and can go up their own arse a bit, and at that stage they can be a bit more adventurous and experimental, and maybe I found that a bit more interesting than commercial pop success. Possibly.
N: I think the Pet Shop Boys, quite rightly, are always judged in terms of pop music, and pop music is always judged, quite rightly, by commercial success, so it's a rod that we've made for our own backs. If you were to apply Chris' criticism to the Pet Shop Boys then it would be us in 1990 making Behaviour, because in 1990 we were regarded - in those brutal terms - we had peaked. Although we hadn't, because 'Go West' was a huge success for us. We probably did make more interesting records, because we made 'Being Boring' and released it as a single, which didn't exactly have hit written all over it. But we've never had a lot of fear about putting stuff out, and that was 15-16 years ago. It's an interesting thing. You have your massive moment of pop success, which for the Pet Shop Boys lasted two and a half years, or its very core was even just 1987-88, and that core fuels the rest of your career, which has highs and low and all the rest of it. I could sit here all night and argue that our work, quality-wise, has been completely consistent. There's always going to be fans looking for the Holy Grail, like the day 'It's A Sin' came out, well, that's days never gonna happen again, but we've had a remarkable run of records... we care about pop success but we care more about the records we make. I think every record we've put out, we've thought that it's a really lovely and fantastic record. I think with this new record, it sounds more commercial and bigger and shinier. I know that people in the media have reacted very differently to it than they did the last album. We could have got Trevor Horn to do the last album and made it very big sounding, and maybe we should have done.

An abridged version of this interview was published in Boyz,
May 2006 David Hudson


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