The Idolator Q & A: The Pet Shop Boys

Apr 21st, 2009 // 8 Comments

The idea of even speaking to the Pet Shop Boys–one of my favorite acts–was nearly too much for me to take, and it completely obliterated any pretense of journalistic cool I might have previously had. What do you ask Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, who made me nearly burst into tears when they performed “It’s A Sin” at the Arizona State Fair? I managed to largely keep it together, share a few memories about the aforementioned fair, and talk a bit about the new album in chats with each member–although for some reason my digital audio recorder decided to only record Chris when he sang a portion of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” near the end of our discussion. He’s a delightful interview, however, one who laughs more than I would have imagined.

DG: I’ve really been enjoying the new album, and on my end, it seems like it’s more romantic, maybe, than the last few albums with their more political edge. Is that intentional?

NT: It’s definitely a more pop album than the last album, or the last couple albums and the last one before that was more dance oriented than pop. Yeah, It’s definitely a pop thing. It’s almost in a way, it sounds like more of a greatest hits album, because it’s one kind of pop song after another. There’s quite a lot of energy and different influences, different styles. There’s a real rush of energy on the first half of the album, where the second half is a little bit more experimental.


DG: Is that a product of the collaborations?

NT: It came about…it’s just what we wrote really and how we structured the album. We approached the producers Xenomania, because they were the pinnacle of pop producing at the moment, and we had written these very upbeat pop songs and we thought… I don’t know if you’ve heard them over there, but they’ve done a great series of records with a group called Girls Aloud…


DG: I like Girls Aloud a lot.

NT: Yeah, I think they might have had an album released there now. Over here, they’re household names, and they have this cheeky single called “Biology” that I thought was very fascinating in its strange structure, but in the end it’s quite catchy. We wondered how it would be working with them, and I think they did a really good job. Also, I think people have an idea of what the Pet Shop Boys are meant to sound like and they had a very strong idea of what we should sound like, and I suppose they helped us sound like that.


DG: I guess I feel like I have a hard time pinning that down. I know…

NT: Well, so do we. I think there are quite a lot of different Pet Shop Boys, so which one do you want? People often think of a cliche of the Pet Shop Boys as like “Go West,” really, which was relatively late in our career. Whereas, there was of course the Pet Shop Boys of “West End Girls” where we were hip-hop influenced, trying to be rappers, actually. There’s the romantic loveworn Pet Shop Boys of “Love Comes Quickly” and there’s the sort of satire of “Opportunities” or “I’m With Stupid”. So, there’s quite a few Pet Shop Boys, and you get practically all of them on this album.


DG: That’s something I was noticing with people who asked me about the album. They would ask if there was something for a particular point in your career that they attached themselves to, if there was something like “Being Boring” on the album, or in my case, one of my favorite songs is “Home and Dry.” Do you think there’s something for every fan of the act to attach themselves to?

NT: Almost, I don’t know if there’s anything like “Home and Dry.” Actually, “Home and Dry” is one of my favorite songs of ours. I really love it. You know Brandon Flowers from the Killers told us that when he comes home from tour, his wife plays that song, and one by U2 whose name I can’t remember now. I like it, I think it’s sort of beautiful, but at the time, seven years ago, it was a new Pet Shop Boys that some people had a quite a hard time dealing with. I just think it’s a beautiful song. On the new album, with “Love etc.,” which is a single over here although I don’t know what happens with singles over there, it sounds really fresh and quite different than what we’ve done before, but yet it sounds like the Pet Shop Boys and it captures a sort of lightness that’s the sort of pop record Xenomania is known for.


DG: With the Brit Award and the album coming out, as the tenth studio album, I was thinking back to the time of “West End Girls” and artists that were on the chart at that time and artists I thought of as your contemporaries like New Order, that you’re essentially the last one standing? Is there a guideline for the act at this point, do you have peers?

NT: We probably tend to look at contemporary artists, we don’t tend to think of ourselves on those terms. We don’t look that far behind, but we don’t really look that far ahead. We still do largely do what we want to do. We write music for pleasure, as much as anything else. I think Chris and I managed not to lose that childish sense of play, like, I don’t know, making a sandcastle. I think as contemporaries, I suppose you might look at Madonna, or broadly speaking Depeche Mode, or Morrissey, maybe. George Michael? Those might be our literal contemporaries, although they all started before us. Maybe Kylie Minogue is not that far off, around the same time. I just think of how amazingly fast the time has passed, although we’ve never really stopped. Like Madonna, we’ve never stopped. We’ve never broken up. The Pet Shop Boys have just been there, carrying on.


DG: How do you keep up that pace, keeping that relationship with Chris?

NT: I think it’s because we do projects–and I think this is what makes the Pet Shop Boys unique–everything we do, like our tours, are like an event. We just got off a tour in England and in the Far East with Derek Jarman, a director of these avant garde films. Just a few years ago, we were asked to write a soundtrack to a silent film called The Battleship Potemkin which we performed outdoors, and we did that, it was a really big event. I think that’s what keeps up going as well; we like the things we get offered. I like the fact that we’re sort of balanced between low art and high art, and we’re not afraid of any of those. We’re writing a ballet next, and I think some people might think that as being pretentious, but I don’t think it is. It’s for dancers, and we write dance music. We love the commercial opportunity to writing a pop song.


DG: Is there still a lure, a desire, to rush the top of the charts?

NT: Of course there is, there always is. I think if you asked those contemporaries like Madonna, Depeche Mode, they’d say the same. I think all musicians want a hit record, because they want to have an audience, that validation.


DG: [I stammer on here nervously about something too loudly for my recorder to handle, including pointing out that my friend Casey asked me to mention to the band that "Being Boring" nearly brings him to tears of joy, but the point was that they have a sort of legendary status here of dedicated fans, at which point Neil bailed me out]

NT: I think what we always aimed for there, and what we’ve quite nearly become, is a genre of our own. We’ve always tried to play our own music, inside our own cultural world where we could invite people in, like Dusty Springfield or Liza Minnelli or Bernard Sumner or Johnny Marr…likeminded people. Or Derek Jarman, creating a paralllel universe. So, at the same time, there’s still the music, so if you like the Pet Shop Boys, you might like to be introduced to all these other things.


Pet Shop Boys [Official site]
Wrapping Up Pet Shop Boys Week With My Five Favorite Tracks [Idolator]

  1. omgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomgomg

  2. Great interview Dan. I can’t imagine getting to interview one of your all time favorites.

    Good job on picking Neil’s favorite song as your favorite. I have a fear that if I ever meet my favorite musician and tell them the one song of theirs that moves me above all else, that they’ll turn around and tell me they hate it. Or that it’s one they wrote in five minutes at the label’s insistence.

  3. i would love to see more Q&As on this site.

  4. @moomintroll: Seriously — my favorite PSB track is “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” and it’s got a fairly unromantic backstory; they collaborated with a career pop tunesmith and had a bit of a row with her while trying to write it. Sometimes you just don’t want to know how the sausage gets made.

    Great job, Dan.

  5. “We just got off a tour in England and in the Far East with Derek Jarman, a director of these avant garde films.”

    Not to quibble, but maybe there’s an error in transcribing. Derek Jarman died in 1994. Were they on tour again with the show he originally staged for them in 1989?

    Btw, I saw PSB the last time they passed through LA at the Wiltern, third time I’ve seen them (Jarman tour was the second.) Incredible performance, people there from ages 16 to 60, dancing through the whole show.

    One more thing: What pissed me off about Love, etc. is that it was released a month earlier in the UK than in the US. I tried to BUY it from the Amazon UK MP3 Store and other download sites but found it impossible to do so since I live in a country where it still was, technically, not released. So I downloaded it (the entire album, the day after it was released in the UK) from Limewire. Why, in the age of the internet, haven’t music labels learned that once product is available anywhere, it’s available everywhere? I’ll buy the CD now that it’s out here, but initially they lost a download sale by denying anyone outside the UK from buying even the download. No wonder the labels are caving in.

  6. April 4th? Have I been paying that little attention?

    This was fantastic; thank you.

  7. @Chris Molanphy i’ve been listening to “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” for the last day or so, after having soaked up the new record (which is their best since, i dunno, Very). it’s a perfect slice of ’80s pop. it just *sounds* good — slick in all the right places, great harmonies, perfect melody. talk about underrated ’80s singles…

    also, the band collaborated with Sam taylor-Wood and released a cover of “I’m In Love with a German Film Star” on Kompakt last fall. how did i miss this?

  8. jasmine wok

    I feel like crying about the pet shop all the time

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