The Lowe Interview In Full
The second installment, this time with the often under-appreciated Chris Lowe:
Andrew Sullivan: You kind of hate fame, right? You think its overrated?
Chris: Yes I do think so. Why anyone would want it, I just dont know.
AS: But people crave it, especially in pop music.
Chris: Theyre fools arent they? Theyre very foolish.
AS: When did you first figure this out because you never went through a phase where you were completely exposed and had to crawl back into a hole. You always kept this mask to protect you.
Chris: I think the driving force was probably shame. I always have a very strong sense of shaming oneself, and you can do that a lot in the public eye, so its best avoided at all costs I think..
AS: When you say shame, ashamed of what?
Chris: I dont know, you can just shame yourself cant you? Actually it was a concept that I learned from friends at university. I had a friend who came down to visit me once and he got off the train and he wouldnt look in the A to Z, which he had in his bag because he though it would be too embarrassing. So he got lost and was powerless to get to me because he didnt want to shame himself.
AS: Because he might look like a tourist?
Chris: Yes, he might look like a tourist. So he sets off in the wrong direction and hours later he emerged. I dunno, maybe thats where it all came from but I find it embarrassing really, fame.
AS: And anonymity you actually kind of like, I mean what was the song, One of the Crowd, which I think is a sort of archetypal Chris Lowe song
Chris: I mean yes its not a very good song [laughs], it has to be said, but the title is something that I would still agree with.
AS: And your loathing for rock and roll .
Chris: Yes, its a very difficult thing to do, to promote a record, do television shows, and to still want to remain private, its really quite difficult to explain to people what youre trying to do. I mean Id actually quite like to be a recluse, but you know, youve got to promote the record as well. So, its a difficult one to pull off really.
AS: But one would imagine your fantasy of making a huge amount of money and finding some fantastic pile to live in, and listen to your favorite music or whatever you want to do. And yet you still seem driven at a prodigious and prolific rate to produce music.
Chris: Well, yeah, we love writing songs. We love going in the studio, making records. Weve discovered that we actually love performing live and putting on a show and stuff. And, you know, its not work at allits something that we actually live for. There are all just fantastic things that have come our way, and things that have given us a lot of enjoyment doing. You know, thats the motivation for the Pet Shop Boys but having said that when you make a record you have to promote it and that does involve having a certain level of profile really. I mean we did a fashion spread for The Guardian recently, and that was like you know [laughs]
AS: Youve always loved fashion right,
Chris: Yeah, we still like putting together a good photograph and stuff, and that in and of itself is a creative collaboration with photographers. But, thats not fame, thats just part of promoting the record that youve made.
AS: Do you regard any of your songs as inherently jokes, are youre trying to make people laugh in them?
Chris: I think were one of the few groups who does humor, intentionally.
AS: Does that come from you?
Chris: No, no I think its Neil. I very rarely come up with lyrical ideas.
AS: When you say you dont come up with lyrical ideas, tell me about the ideas that you do actually come up with, because theres this extraordinary balance of the Pet Shop Boys which makes them interesting. I think either of you alone wouldnt have this kind of effect . youre different extremes in a way, it seems to me. Ive heard somebody say theres this sort of high old proper sort of lyricist in Neil Tennant, almost sort of Cole Porter, Noel Coward. And then there is this driving musical innovation coming from Lowe. I was saying to Neil theres this sort of combination of energy and loss.
Chris: Yes, I think that kind of sums up the Pet Shop Boys, really. There is that, and theres also melancholy thrown in, with uplifting dance beats.
AS: You expect it to go up, and then you suddenly feel its going down, you have that confused feeling sometimes in the middle of Pet Shop Boys songs. When you want to be uplifted and then youre suddenly youll be sad.
Chris: No no, absolutely, if you want to just create a Pet Shop Boys sound instantly you can just program some drum beats and then play an A-minor chord over it: Oh, god that sounds like the Pet Shop Boys Oh, thats their trick is it Actually its a bit more than that, but thats kind of, really, what we do.
AS: How is the process of making a record different now than when you made your first album in terms of the kinds of sounds and music that you can actually make? Is it the same basic technology?
Chris: The way that we write the songs is fundamentally the same, but the technology has changed.
AS: Tell me a little bit about that.
Chris: Well, the very first songs we wrote, Neil had a monophonic synthesizer which I would play on. Neil had an acoustic guitar, which he played, and we used to bang on his tabletop to make drum sounds into two tape machines. So, it was just very, very, very primitive. Then, one day, we went into a demo studio in Camden and he had a drum machine, a little drum box, and a synth, an upright piano, and a desk of course, and so the demos started to sound a bit better. But they were still quite amateurish. And then we went to New York
AS: And then you worked with Bobby O [producer of West End Girls].
Chris: But what was interesting was that it was all done on an emulator, every sound was an emulatora sampling machineso all the sounds from other peoples records, basically. I think it was the drums from Lets Dance, I dont know where the bass came from, a James Brown sample in there. Everything was played manually, so there was no programming at all involved, so that was a kind of a low tech record, really, to make.
AS: Hows that compared to today?
Chris: Really, we just use technology as the easiest way to get our musical ideas down. We dont use the technology for the sake of technology, so the process hasnt changed in any way because you just want to get it down as fast as you can. You can get too bogged down in technology and you can sort of forget what it is you were trying to do. And with the Pet Shop Boys its primarily about the songs, its about song writing. And you dont want the technology to become this barrier to creativity, which it can become.
AS: I always feel that the technical music, at least to my ears, didnt disservice the lyrics and the mood of the entire song. It doesnt feel in any way that its getting in the way. Was I crazy, by the way, to have heard the Doctor Who theme song in one of the ?
Chris: Oh, no, but I know how you can hear that though. Its because of the rhythm, its a dud, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh (beats out Doctor Who beat). Yeah, it wasnt intentional, but as soon as you play that rhythm, you cant help it.
AS: Every Brit of a certain age immediately thinks of Doctor Who when that happens. But then there was also like Barry White, right, wasnt there?
Chris: Yes, Barry White. It May Be Winter Outside.
AS: Positive Role Model,that was a sample at the beginning of it.
Chris: There are no Barry White samples on this record. We did use a Barry White sample on a song from Close to Heaven, um, which was
AS: Positive Role Model?
Chris: Positive Role Model, yeah, you know more than me, you should be doing the interview, I should be asking the questions.
AS: I was just going to say how sad I am that Im so obsessed
Chris: I dont know the answers. We once met these fans backstage, there must have been some meet-and-greet, or whatever, and I started chatting to them, and they quickly realized that I simply didnt know enough about the Pet Shop Boys and sort of turned their back on me and carried on talking. And, I just got elbowed out of the conversation because I was literally worthless to them. It was really funny.
AS: Its true though. At some level its our Pet Shop Boys, not yours.
Chris: No, quite, I understand that. Its nothing kind of to do with us anymore.
AS: How do you feel about America?
Chris: Well, its Americas loss isnt it? [laughs]
AS: Well youre kind of an American-o-phile in so many ways. A song like Go West, is really a sort of hymn to a certain kind of American optimism and utopianism in a way.
Chris: Absolutely, although its written by a Frenchman. [laughs]
AS: The French have always worshipped America far more than Americans have ever worshipped America. They hate it as well, but they also have this idealistic view of America.
Chris: Yes they do, yes. So what was the question about America?
AS: How much time do you spend here?
Chris: Well, you know it all started for us in America. We made West End Girls, there, it got played for the first time really on radio in Los Angeles on K Rock, and that one in New York, Ive forgotten the name of it. So, it all started for us really in America. West End Girls was number one over there. We played Soul Train, and weve always loved having success in America. Weve always had quite a big following in America, particularly in the major cities. But you know, American radio sort of decided thats it. I heard a story from one of the DJs at K Rock, that the station owner or manager or whatever came in one day with a copy of Blue Monday, threw it onto the desk and said, Were never playing this again. And you know, thats kind of how America works, its like Thats it, weve done it.
AS: Hasnt it changed a little bit?
Chris: I feel like the internet has really freed everything up to an extent, hasnt it? That radio maybe doesnt have quite the power that it had before.
AS: No, and its also much more, obviously, bottom up as it were.
Chris: Tits up.
AS: What did you say?
Chris: I said tits up. Sorry. You know its late on a Friday, Im getting a bit silly. They probably dont say that in America, do they: Its all gone tits up.
AS: No, its like cock up; theyre very English expressions. The first time I was in an office here, years ago when I sort of hadnt gotten totally used to American slang, and an office worker, a friend of mine said to another, Well I was going to have a date with this guy last night, but I blew him off instead.
Chris: (Roars with laughter) Yeah. Hmm.
AS: Yes, my eyebrows went up a little bit.
Chris: What, where do you?
AS: I live in Washington.
Chris: Oh Washington, wow, hows that?
AS: Oh, Ive lived here for years, I love it, I love it.
Chris: Actually, In Spring, Ive been there in Spring, its fantastic isnt it? The blossoms on the trees is just amazing. Theres such different parts of Washington
AS: Yeah, it is, its beautiful. You came here, I saw you here, I saw you when you came years ago on your first tour in 91 to the AU sort of gymnasium.
Chris: Oh right.
AS: One of the people jumping up and down
Chris: Right, was that the first time we came to Washington?
AS: Yeah, and
Chris: Oh right, because we went to a really dodgy club after that, it seemed so dangerous, and dont know if it was, it just felt so dangerous.
AS: Really? It was probably was really dangerous in 91.
Chris: Yeah, it was sort of a house club in some part, it was like oooo.
AS: There was a great old house club here in the late 80s called Clubhouse.
Chris: Oh, maybe that was it, you know what that might have been it.
AS: It was mainly African-American I presume.
Chris: Yes, it just felt like it was in a rough part of town.
AS: A lot of your music expands various aspects of gayness, but theres some kind of hardcore music for boys, a kind of almost masculine-feminine balance in Pet Shop Boys as well.
Chris: Well, I love what you would call boys musicyou know, The prodigy, banging techno, music that girls generally dont like. Thats a bit of a crass statement, isnt it, but you know what I mean, so I think that is quite laddish, so there are elements of that in the Pet Shops Boys, but not just that.
AS: Over the years of course club music has gone through various transformations; have you tried to accommodate that? How do you keep up with that?
Chris: Well, we like clubbing. We havent been doing it that much recently but then we started going clubbing to clubs that have started playing pop music and Italo-disco, so all the trendy clubs in London dont really play mainstream club music any more; everyone is back in the 80s again, and then you have all the electoclash stuff, and then theres clubs that play Britney Spears and Girls Aloud. Its much more varied now. I mean, when house music came along, that was itthere was only house music. Now you tend to look for more interesting club scenes.
AS: Dont you have to get there in the early hours of the morning; at some point is that not going to get a little old for you? Ive stopped going out.
Chris: Have you stopped going out, though, because the clubs arent very good?
AS: Well, actually I stopped going out because I got married.
Chris: Thats fair enough. I go to Ibiza every year and I dont have a problem going out there at all. In Berlin they take dance music very seriously, and we went to a night of impenetrable electronic dance music, and it was so impenetrable that you couldnt actually dance to it, so everyone was just standing around. I thought, well, thats really taken it to an extreme, hasnt it? Just a load of intellectuals standing around chatting.
AS: Shouting, actually. Are your big dance numbers designed to be in clubs?
Chris: I dont know, that the thing. Dance music is about having a good time, and a lot of dance music is very serious now. When progressive house and progressive tech came along it was kind of serious, but its all context as well. Theres a great club in London called The Secret Sundays, and its on a Sun ay afternoon and its outdoors, and its mainly Italians that go, and they all look great, and theyre dancing on the tables, and lifes a party, and theyre totally into the music, going mental, and thats when dance music is really fantastic, I think.
AS: And somehow you got that growing up in Blackpool.
Chris: Im sure its from growing up in Blackpool, because I worked as a glass collector (busboy) Ive seen people having a good time to music, and I had a good time collecting glasses to the music. I would wait for a good record to come on before venturing into the hall to collect the glasses, because, you know
AS: Youre what they would call a buss boy in America.
Chris: Is that what a bus boy is? Now a bus boy, for me, implies someone in hotpants at Studio 54.
AS: I think thats a buff boy [laughs]. Have you ever had any interaction with leather bars.
Chris: We once went to the Mineshaft, just before it closed. We went as tourists, really. It was empty, and it was all a bit depressing, but it was operating as a charity I think. I think it had charitable status, or something, but thats the only time weve ventured anywhere like that. It was all a bit sad really, just rows of empty bathtubs that had once seen better days.
AS: The golden showers had finally stopped.
Chris: Oh, now thats a good song, isnt it? Whats it called? It mentions golden showers in the song [sings a bar of the song, goes off to ask Neil, Whats the song about golden showers? Come back ] Frank Zappa! Hes talking about the tower of power Do you not know it? Oh, its brilliant. I dont know how we got onto this. Its about a transvestite. Its really, really a hilarious song, talk about humor in music, late 70s Frank Zappa, hes dressed as an Arab on the album cover. Its a guys name,.. It will come back to us when this conversation is over probably.
AS: When you put your humor in your music, do you think of anybody else thats ever done that who is a model for you?
Chris: No, thats just us, were not influenced by anybody, humor in music normally isnt very good isnt it. Also, we dont actually have any jokes, although some of Neils lyrics are fairly funnyweve got a B-side coming out which has a really good line: At self-promotion hes a master / Although the midweek is a disaster. [Laughs] You dont get that from Bono!
AS: The funniest thing Ive ever heard, actually, is [your cover of] Where The Streets Have No Name.
Chris: Thats not meant to be funny. [laughs]
AS: It takes the piss out of a self-important song, and turns it into something far more fun. Am I wrong about that?
Chris: Well, I dont particularly want to go to war with Bono.
AS: You did go to war with him. Youve gone after him. Your Eminem song was fucking hilarious. You have Sting in How Do You Expect to be Taken Seriously? Am I wrong about that?
Chris: I dont think thats about Stingit could be about a number of people.
AS: Youre denying it all now.
Chris: Yeah, yeah, Im choking down, now Anyway, we do humor, well Neil does humor.
AS: Do you consciously write gay anthems in a way? I know theyre more complicated and interesting than that, but you have done some really gay anthem songs quite consistently. Is that how you see what you do?
Chris: No, I think were aiming more at the football hooligan end. [laughs] Were aiming for football terraces. No, we like anthems, and an anthem is an anthem. We dont think in terms of an audience. Obviously the songs find one, but its not something you go searching for.
AS: Yes, but Go West for example.
Chris: Actually, we did thatNeil, what where we doing in Manchester?yes, Derek Jarman had an art show, and there was a party afterwards, and we just thought it would be good to do a cover version, and I thought it would be a really good song to do, because the meaning of the song had changed since it was originally made, when it was all about going west to find a better life, and how the optimism of that sentiment had changed, and the meaning would be different in the 1990s, so it would have an inbuilt sadness to it.
AS: Fundamental is a deeply sad and worried album in a way, and Love Etc seems as if its come through that, and its just fuck it, lets have a good time. Is that part of the arc?
Chris: Yeah. For Fundamental, we actually wrote a list of the subjects we wanted to cover, whereas for this album we just went into the studio and wrote a load of pop songs. I dont know why they turned out the way they did, but we realized that we were writing a lot of upbeat, shiny pop songs. I think we always tend to react against the previous work. I dont know where it comes from, its just how you are feeling at any given time. We were very annoyed about the surveillance culture, and all the ID cards.
AS: Let me just ask you, is the melancholy at bay? Are you the melancholic influence in this?
Chris: [Thinks for a while]. I think were both everything. Were not manic depressives, at all. I think the thing is, you dont want to see the worldgod, I hate talking like this, getting all serious I tell you what, over a few pints you can get a few rants.
AS: What are you wearing?
Chris: Very American today. Im wearing a Ralph Lauren polo shirt in white; a pair of D-Squared Jeans, and a pair of Adidas trainers and looking great!
Taken from: andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com
Interviewer: Andrew Sullivan