Pet Shop Boys
Apr 19, 2013
After 26 years of releasing albums, you might forgive Pet Shop Boys for no longer looking for new things to do with pop music; after all they've been one of the most renowned electronic pop artists since before most of today's pop music consumers were born (and indeed before they were thought of as consumers). When Under the Radar spoke to singer Neil Tennant about their latest record Elysium, however, we discovered that whilst it may not have been their most warmly-received record to date (although it got its share of positive reviews), it's a project the duo cared about and worked on with great insight.
We also discussed the band's legacy, why Handel wrote great pop music, their pseudo-insiders' reflective view on London 2012, and how even a cynical music journalist can make one of pop's elder statesmen feel old.
Dan Lucas (Under the Radar): One thing that struck me about the album was the variety in the musical styles on there: there's a very noticeable contrast between the dreamier, almost sadder, songs on there such as "Invisible" and "Leaving," and the faster ones such as "Ego Music" and "Face Like That." That decision sort of surprised me because I remember reading something Chris [Lowe] said about being reluctant to include any fast songs at all: I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about that decision?
Neil Tennant: When we started writing this album we actually already had two songs, which were the first song "Leaving" and the last song "Requiem [in Denim and Leopardskin]," which weren't in-line with the context we had in mind. Then we wrote the song "Invisible" which seemed to be the template for the album and Chris almost wanted to go with this all the way through. I went along with that although it slightly worried me because I always think it's good to have a bit of variety, otherwise you might not appreciate it if you're stuck with it a long time. Anyway, we went to Andrew Dawson and went through all of our songs we'd written with him; we followed what he liked as well and that was when we came up with things like "Winner" and "Face Like That" in particular.
You've got this, if not reputation then history of upbeat, danceable tunes and I thought quite a lot of the album was a move away from that. Was that something you were consciously looking to do?
Well if you listen to our first album [1986's Please] there's a beat that just bangs on, and I think we're maybe more famous for the four-on-the-floor thing but the reality is that it's always been possible to view The Pet Shop Boys as an exercise in romanticism and longing, which we visit on a song called "Love Comes Quickly," which could sit on this album very happily. I think that the difference [with Elysium] is that the emphasis is more on the moodier songs: you might say they were slow but Chris would point out that the BPM is actually quite fast.
So it's about having a mood but also about having arrangements which are very electronic but generally sparser with more space in them. I also think having produced it in America with Andrew Dawson after his work with Kanye West gave it a different flavor, which was what we wanted to give a different balance to the sound.
We did write several "up," four-on-the-floor style songs, and we are planning to record them very soon. So there is always an editing choice to be made but we had this thematic idea that the album is about growing old and looking forward and back and at the present so we chose the songs around that theme.
It does sound like a more mature, reflective, wiser album almost...
It's certainly reflective, yep, and we don't pretend to be younger than we are. We're writing songs about our experience of the world and to be honest that's what we've always done: the world is always fascinating and life is always fascinating. We try to tell the truth and the truth is sometimes shocking so for instance on a song like "Invisible," which is about growing old and how when you're older you're invisible: obviously this might not be my experience but it is true for people. We like songs to be told through different eyes and surrounded by mutual music and we've done that for many years.
Discussion of the group's longevity digresses here into an anecdote about how they were No. 1 in the UK with "West End Girls" on the day I was born. Neil shows excellent powers of recollection when it comes to the band's successes albeit with a healthy dose of wry self-deprecation...
What a good day to be born! You must have been born in January '86? Are you sure A-ha hadn't knocked us off the charts by then? Ah no, we were No. 1 for two weeks, that's right, yep. Well thank you very much!
As we were saying, you've had this incredibly long career and you're a band that's pioneered this synthesized pop sound that today seems kind of ubiquitous. Does that create any kind of extra pressure to create something that both stands out from the crowd whilst still being recognizably Pet Shop Boys?
Well we don't just follow fashion anyway but this album, I'm not sure if it stands out from the crowd, but it's not like anyone else's album that's out there at the moment. If we were doing what everyone's doing we'd have made an EDM album, but we didn't want to do that. We've always followed our own instincts and we've made a kind of album we were thinking you could listen to when you come home whereas we've made albums in the past that are maybe for when you go out.
Do you not ever think, when you hear a load of artists on the radio, "They're copying our sound, this is what we do, so we've got to do something different"?
Throughout our career we've always made Pet Shop Boys records. We might have been influenced by dance records, but we're influenced by a lot of things, pop records as well, and we always wanted to create our own sound and develop it and play with it. We've never deliberately worked in the mainstream of pop music while at the same time thinking that's where we should be. I guess with the last album we were working with someone who was right in the mainstream [production team Xenomania, known for their work with Cher, Kylie Minogue, The Sugababes, and Girls Aloud] and we thought this was quite exciting, but we did that because of the songs we'd written and we always choose a producer based on the songs we've written but we've never sat down and said we want to follow the crowd and write loads of hits.
No, sorry, I meant does it not feel as if the crowd is following you, not you following the crowd?
Ah right sorry! The thing is I don't see us as pioneers of electronic music where I'd think of someone like Kraftwerk, The Human League, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, OMD, and what have you. Those were the records we were listening to and in a way I guess that makes us The Last Great Synth Duo but not pioneers.
What we were was the first sample group. I mean our first record, "West End Girls" was made in New York and every single track apart from my voice was a sample. We were really, really happy about samples, I mean I was able to take samples of real thinks like smashing glass and cars passing.... You could make your record sound like a film and we were, and are to this day, fascinated by that; "West End Girls" starts with someone walking down the street like the beginning of a film. So I suppose I think we were sample pioneers.
I notice that you've credited Handel as a writer and cited him as an influence on "Hold On," which to me doesn't really seem typical of your influences. What was the thinking behind this and what elements of his work did you try to bring into the song?
I'd heard a piece of music by Handel on the radio called "Eternal Source of Light Divine" and I just thought what a great thing it would be to make a pop song out of it and for some reason just thought of singing "Hold on, there's got to be a future." I downloaded the sheet music and Chris programmed the whole thing in—the whole chord change but not Handel's melody—and I wrote the lyrics and painstakingly set them to a melody. So it's my lyrics, but Handel's fantastic chord change.
The other obvious thing is that it's a very beautiful piece of music and a very optimistic piece of music. We're not always known for being optimistic; I know people have criticized it for being a bit "We are the World" but fortunately Chris and I have always loved "We are the World." [Laughs]
We also had this idea for an album of backing vocals and I became slightly obsessed with this '60s vocal harmony group called The 5th Dimension. For "Hold On" originally we were going to have the backing vocalists sing the whole song but then we realized that it, er, wouldn't have been our record anymore.
Another one that stood out was "Ego Music," which is quite a scathing song but it's not quite clear who the target is: the attention-seeking, tabloid-courting pop stars who will do anything for their 15 minutes of fame or the vacuous, faux-pious stadium rock stars [Coldplay] are both possible targets.
Well it could be all of those, but it's really about contemporary attitudes in pop music and people using confession as a basis for songwriting and their careers. I suppose there's nothing wrong with it but often I think artistry suffers with that. But then really it's about social media...really it's about Twitter and people posting on their Facebook "oh my life is so blessed" and that kind of thing. It's boasting and people are now boasting about their humility: that's what the song's about really.
It's a pretty pervasive attitude throughout the world. The Guardian had an article about what they called "humble bragging," which is fairly self-explanatory; people pretending to be humble but actually bragging about something. It's a really funny article, but "Ego Music" is essentially about that.
The lead single, "Winner," seems to fit thematically quite nicely with the Olympic Games earlier this year. Was that intentional given your involvement with the closing ceremony?
The song was written when we toured with Take That, playing Wembley Stadium for eight nights, which was phenomenal. We'd leave the stadium every night as Take That were going on to their song "The Greatest Day" and Chris commented that we'd never written a mid-tempo anthem, which [Take That's] Gary Barlow seems to specialize in.
So we sat down in Manchester to write a mid-tempo anthem and I started singing "you're a winner." I think channelling "We are the Champions." There's a line in that song that I don't like, "no time for losers," so "Winner" is about success being so fleeting that you need to enjoy it for that second because it's not going to last. It's an anti-triumphant song about winning.
Believe it or not we were originally going to offer it to the BBC for the Eurovision Song Contest, because the BBC had asked us twice to write an entry so we were going to give it to them but then... well we just didn't and Andrew Dawson said "you've got to record this one, it's a great song" and having recorded it, it seemed crazy not to put it out during the Olympics.
How did you come to be involved in the closing ceremony?
We were asked about it months ago, back in April I think it was. They explained to us that they were doing this massive collage of British music and they wanted us to sing "West End Girls" because of course it's a song about London and they wanted a London street party. In fact we know the designer, Es Devlin, who has done our last two tours so we had no concerns over the people involved.
I also think we had the artiest bit [of the ceremony]. You know, we weren't pandering to the masses; we were doing the full on Pet Shop Boys, pointy hats—which we first did when you were about eight years old. I loved the whole thing; we went into the stadium which had this wonderful atmosphere and when the first notes were played the whole place erupted. It was a great feeling, a really great feeling going around, knowing you're on television for the whole world, something I don't suppose we'll ever have again.
I also felt quite proud that we'd been asked to represent British music. What's fantastic about the United Kingdom is that we could have had about six weeks of closing ceremonies just because we've got so many artists and people known around the world, it's really quite remarkable.