theartsdesk Q&A: Pop Duo the Pet Shop Boys | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Pop Duo the Pet Shop Boys
theartsdesk Q&A: Pop Duo the Pet Shop Boys
Electronic pop institution talk Olympics, the recession and their new album
Pet Shop Boys are the kind of national treasure that make the English so inscrutable. For 30 years they have made pop music that is sophisticated, camp and deadpan, an unlikely formula which has shifted over 100 million records, making them the most successful pop duo ever. Their 11th studio album, Elysium, will be released on 10 September. Recorded in Los Angeles, it is a slower, more sumptuous work than their fans have become used to. Could it be the time has come for a change?
The pair have always projected a strong public image, part act and part their own eccentric selves, but when I meet them on the fourth floor of EMI's swish steel and glass HQ in Kensington their demeanour is quite unexpected. Rather than being cold and clever, the duo are warm and funny. As I walk in they are talking about both of their recent Mediterranean holidays. Then the subject turns to Brussels sprouts, the new must-eat vegetable in Los Angeles. Singer Neil Tennant, dressed in a sharp black shirt, is the more loquacious. Keyboardist Chris Lowe, in his crumpled shirt and dirty trainers, interjects in droll Northern tones.
I've been playing Elysium continuously for the last week, but it’s not the first thing on my mind as I sit down. I can't stop thinking about their striking performance at the Olympic Closing Ceremony. Twitter gave the impression that some viewers felt underwhelmed by the whole show, but you would need a heart of stone not to have raised a huge smile at the section where the boys where wheeled around the track looking like monks with enormous conical hats on their heads.
Pet Shop Boys perform at the Olympics Closing Ceremony
RUSS COFFEY: Your appearance in the closing ceremony was a real highlight. What was the experience like in the stadium?
NEIL TENNANT: It was exciting. Firstly the whole thing was done with volunteers. Normally when you go on stage there is a tense and professional atmosphere. But at the Olympics there were also thousands of these volunteers performing who were completely excited and also taking everyone’s photographs. That doesn’t normally happen backstage. I was slightly nervous. We were on stage for two minutes. We came on in our chariots with the bicyclists in front, like being in a procession. We had to turn, I think, right into the stadium for “West End Girls” and at that point it was the Grenadier Guards playing Blur, and you could hear the whole stage cheering.
CHRIS LOWE: Being pulled on the back of that chariot sort-of-thing. What would you call it?
NT: A rickshaw?
CL: A rickshaw? Tuk-tuk? Whatever it was, it was a bit like flying around the stadium. You felt like you were flying.
NT: You wouldn’t normally stand up in a rickshaw would you? We didn't see a lot of the other acts because we were backstage. Of the section we saw, I thought the Spice Girls came across really well. I thought the whole thing in the taxis was really good. And I thought Fatboy Slim was great. But, overall, maybe there should be less of more people. I liked the bit we were in - a musical collage starting with Madness, the Grenadier Guards, then us, then One Direction. And Ray Davies doing "Waterloo Sunset" was really great. I think when you had people doing very long songs, it got boring. Annie Lennox did something obscure, and George Michael did two songs. Less was more exciting. The original idea was a collage. I wish they had done more of that.
CL: It was great backstage. It was like an Eighties European TV show. We were always flying off to Europe to do some show like this.
NT: In Germany usually.
CL: Or Italy, and backstage there would be George Michael playing bar football or Annie Lennox doing yoga.
Do either of you play sport?
NT: I run. But jogging, it’s not really a sport is it? I don’t play competitive sport. I also swim. But I don’t swim competitively. Obviously.
CL: Well, I’ve got a table tennis table. It’s an Olympic sport! And I play tennis every now and then. I’d like to do a lot more really but we don’t really have very much time.
Your single “Winner” suggests that you caught Olympic fever. Did you?
The BBC have twice asked us to write the Eurovision song contest entry for Britain
NT: No we didn’t. We put out the song because it was evidently relevant and we knew that if we didn’t put it out when the album came out in September everyone would say, "Why didn’t you put out that song during the Olympics?" The song was written during and after the Take That tour last year. Every night we would leave the stadium and Take That would come on singing this song they had called “The Greatest Day”. Chris said, "Why don’t we try writing a mid-tempo anthem?" We finished it off in the autumn, but the truth of the matter is that, from my perspective, I was thinking about the Eurovision Song Contest. The BBC have twice asked us to write the Eurovision entry for Britain and we thought if we had the right song we might give it to them. When we started writing this it seemed to be like a Eurovision Song Contest song. The references to competing, in my mind, at the time, were about entering Eurovision and it coming from Kazakstan.
CL: They did rather well in the Olympics, didn’t they? They did better than Switzerland.
What’s in the name Elysium and how did you come to record with Kanye West’s engineer?
NT: Well, we wanted to have a name that suggested that this was a different Pet Shop Boys album. So we didn’t want to have a jokey, ironic title. In downtown LA there’s a park called Elysian Park and we went for walks with friends there, and that gave us the idea for Elysium. It seemed a very beautiful word. It touches on afterlife and death and paradise, all themes contained in the album. When we started writing we thought it might be right to make the album in LA, as we realised we'd like lots of smooth LA backing vocals on it. The last two Kanye West albums have been very electronic, and we became intrigued by the idea of trying to achieve a similar stripped-down electronic sound. We went through various credits and this name Andrew Dawson came up. When we looked him up, we saw that he had worked with Kanye but also he’d worked with a range of other artists from classical music to Drake.
CL: He’d also worked on Fun’s album.
NT: With the international number one act that is Fun!
The tempo on Elysium is a little slower than maybe we’re used to. There’s also a lot about growing up. Are you reaching a new stage in your career, or was this merely the influence of being in LA?
CL: It’s the infirm album. We should have called it Pet Shop Boys Infirm, a jokey title. We chose the songs that were slower. We have written some faster songs in this period but we decided to go for a more uniform feel throughout the whole album. Although there are a couple of fast songs. In fact “Leaving” is a fast song even thought it sounds slow.
NT: Even though it’s slow, it’s fast?
CL: Well, it’s definitely a slower mood.
NT: Chris wanted there to be no fast songs at all.
CL: I always want that.
NT: There are, of course, a load of fast songs lurking around that we are planning to finish off and record soon. We had 25 songs for Andrew Dawson in LA. It wasn’t our intention originally to record “Winner”, we were going to give it away, but Andrew said, "You really have to do this one." On the album I think it sits in really well. But “Winner” is not really that fast, is it? It’s quite slow. “Face Like That” is the stomper. Again we weren’t totally sure it was going to be on the album, but again Andrew wanted it.
Watch the video for "Winner"
There’s a song called “Your Early Stuff” on the album. Is that a dig at some direct comments that may have been made about the length of your career or more a reference to your evolving sound?
NT: It’s a compilation of remarks taxi drivers have made to me; a playful reference to how long we’ve been around. People who don’t really follow music might think that you’ve retired or that you haven’t done anything since the Eighties. I live in London and I travel in taxis a lot and very often someone will make some remark about the Pet Shop Boys. Every single line in that song, every single thing has been said to me.
We’re not on Facebook. We think it’s sinister and horrible. Pet Shop Boys are but we’re not
CL: One of the great things about when you start off is that you are very naïve musically. When you hit upon three simple chords you are over the moon about it. It comes with a lot of energy but then you tire of those so you end up going for more complex chord arrangements and therefore it changes the music you’re making. It’s not a deliberate progression. More something that happens naturally. It would be quite nice to go back to naïve pop writing.
NT: I don’t think that our chord changes have ever been that simple…
CL: …I’m thinking of “Let’s Make Lots of Money” and things like that…
NT: …That’s true. "West End Girls" though has really complicated chords. [Neil thinks for a moment] … “Winner” was pretty simple, though.
Songs like “Invisible” make allusions to growing up and getting older. Are you now beginning to feel your age?
NT: Well, doesn’t everyone always feel their age? I don’t think that it is any different for us than for anyone else. I don’t really feel my age. A couple of months ago, Chris said something about living somewhere and he said, !It’s the sort of thing I might do in my fifties" - and then he realised that he was in his fifties. But I feel it’s like that for everyone. The issue is that we operate in the medium of pop music, which is partly a young person’s medium. I looked at the chart the other day and I realised that since the last album, only three years ago, we’ve entered this strange world of somebody or other featuring somebody or other. Every other track is Calvin Harris featuring Nikki Minaj or with Snoop Doggy Dogg or someone.
CL: Or featuring three. David Guetta doesn’t just have one or two.
NT: Well, why would you? And I suddenly thought we are not in that world.
CL: Why not throw Jessie J in there?
NT: Why not throw in Jessie J, why wouldn’t you?
CL: Is it to get each other’s Facebook friends? I bet that’s what it is. You could accumulate everyone else's friend list.
NT: We’re not on Facebook. We think it’s sinister and horrible. Pet Shop Boys are but we’re not.
CL: It’s great watching their share price tumble, isn’t it? I have really been enjoying the schadenfreude.
Another song on the album is called “Ego Music”. Who are you having a go at?
NT: I'm having a go at the insincere sentimentality and faux humility of modern young popstars but also the way that is expressed through social media, through Twitter and stuff like that. It's so evidently insincere and, in some ways, patronising. So it's a satirical song. The revival of the Pet Shop Boys satirical song.
In the middle of a recession artists can keep people's spirits up. Is "Hold On" an effort to do this? And, if so, do you feel guilty about avoiding the pinch?
NT: Yes, “Hold On” is a kind of anthem for the recession. I don't know if you know but it's based on a piece of music by Handel. I heard it on the radio one day and I thought, it's kind of poppy this Handel thing. I wondered if we could adapt it and started to sing "hold on" over the top, and then I downloaded the entire piece of music. I wrote these words and Chris then set them to music. It was actually a very difficult song to sing but it is very hopeful. The backing vocals have a very Los Angeles thing. A bit like The Fifth Dimension. There's a Los Angeles tradition of these fantastic backing singers. People keep saying to me it sounds like it's from a musical, which wasn't our intention, but I know what they are saying. It must be the most optimistic song we’ve ever written. But everybody feels the pinch, including us. We're sitting in a company in crisis at the moment. A declining industry. The Pet Shop Boys are feeling the pain.
CL: It's all the internet’s fault by the way. It's all your fault. Magazines are collapsing, newspapers, the porn industry has gone all because of the internet. It's been a disaster.
Are you touring the album soon and, if so, what can people expect?
CL: Are we going to? Well, we're still touring the last one. We're going to Norway this week.
NT: We're finally doing the last date of the last tour.
CL: Then we are going to start on another show at starting in February next year in South America. We don't know what we're doing yet, but we're going to be thinking about it quite soon.
NT: We're also doing a live event in Berlin on 5 September to launch the album. We're doing six songs in a theatre in Berlin, and it’s going to be streamed by electronic means over the world.
CL: That's going to have completely new staging, very simple.
NT: There's just going to be two of us on stage.
- Pet Shop Boy's new album Elysium is out on 10 September
Pet Shop Boys live at Glastonbury 2010
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?