GQ&A: Pet Shop Boys

What happens when you’ve actually transcended national treasure status? It’s an unusual conundrum to face when the milieu in which you operate is unashamedly pop-oriented, yet it is one Pet Shop Boys might be familiar with. With Elysium, their eleventh studio album out this month and a presence in both the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics, these are presumably good times for one of the world’s most successful pop duos.

Expert articulators of what used to be known as the zeitgeist, Elysium throbs in places and pulses gently in others, one elegantly clad foot on the dance floor, as is the Pet Shop Boys way, irrespective of their advancing years, while still pondering exactly what happens when the party is finally over.

On songs like the opener ‘Leaving’ and the almost transcendentally beautiful ‘Invisible’ – the video to which was created by Los Angeles-based artist and film-maker Brian Bress – there’s a more sombre mood than we’ve heard from them since perhaps 1990’s elegiac Behaviour. Then again, the apparently Lady Gaga-skewering ‘Ego Music’ might be the funniest thing they’ve done in years. met Pet Shop Boys in London, the third time we’ve interviewed the pair. ‘Oh, it’s you!’ Chris Lowe says chirpily, before using our acquaintance as an excuse not to rouse himself from the EMI sofa he’s sprawled across. Neil Tennant is dressed in black, and apologises for fiddling with his iPhone before giving your correspondent his undivided attention. He will refer to the Elysium ‘campaign’ throughout – in conspicuous inverted commas – both a reminder of how arch he can be, but also just how long he and Lowe have been at this malarkey. It’s intimidating and as such we hastily junk the notes we’ve made: instead over a wide-ranging chat we discuss Julian Assange, Putin’s Russia and the allure of writing ‘woh, woh, woh’ songs… You recorded Elysium in Los Angeles, which got me thinking about what a Pet Shop Boys LA record could sound like. Were you tempted to go all Joni Mitchell and hang out in Laurel Canyon…

Neil Tennant: Oh, I love all that. Our ex-manager Jill [Carrington] said, ”Breathing Space’ is just James Taylor, isn’t it?’

Chris Lowe: The songs were written in Berlin actually. If we were to actually move to Laurel Canyon, God knows what would happen.

NT: I read a book about [famous Sixties session musicians] the Wrecking Crew while we were there, and I became mildly obsessed with them.

Glen Campbell was a member of the Wrecking Crew…

CL: [face lights up] Did you go to his most recent London concert? He’s still amazing. The first concert I saw was Glen Campbell. My first, and I may have seen his last. His most recent album, Ghost On The Canvas, is great.

‘Wichita Lineman’ is surely one of the greatest songs ever written.

CL: Jimmy Webb was an amazing songwriter. David Bowie ripped it off, of course…

NT: Yes, on ‘Starman’. The ‘duh-duh-duh-duh’ bit leading into the chorus. ‘Wichita Lineman’ doesn’t have a particularly unusual structure. But what it does have is what I think there isn’t very much of these days – it’s pure poetry. It’s also slightly mysterious. [drops voice] What is a ‘Wichita Lineman’? Actually I know it’s a guy who travels around fixing phones lines, but the words sound so poetic and beautiful you almost don’t want to know what it is in case it spoils it. Jimmy Webb, at his height, reinvented the pop song. That Richard Harris album MacArthur Park, his work with the 5th Dimension… actually some of the backing vocals on the new album were influenced by [the latter’s] ‘Up, Up and Away’. That’s a direct LA influence. [pause] We’ve always steered clear of the gospel choir. It’s too much of a stereotype… it’s cultural tourism. But on ‘Hold On’, we got all the singers on the album to appear on it together. Originally, we wanted them to sing the whole song. But it might have seemed weird not to sing on one’s own track.

CL: That said, Barry White didn’t sing on [every] one of his songs…

Each PSB album has a specific city sound and mood. Please and Actually are very London, Behaviour was done in Munich…

NT: …Bilingual is South American. Yes was done with Xenomania – so that’s our Kent album! Release was done in my house in Durham. The LA sun was obviously appealing but we always go to a producer to achieve the sound that was indicated in the original demos. ‘Invisible’ had a lot of space in it and a sub-bass feel, and that’s when the Kanye West thing came up, the 808s & Heartbreaks’ sound, and we decided we wanted to work with Andrew Dawson.

Did you see the Watch The Throne tour?

CL: No. But everyone says it’s great. The one with all the cubes…

NT: We share a stage designer. Es Devlin and her cubes. And the cubes turned up in the Olympics closing ceremony.

Didn’t you think the opening ceremony had shades of Pet Shop Boys about it?

NT: Same designer again! The cyclists with the pointy hats have been a nod to us, in our Very period. When we went to the meeting several months ago, they had it all drawn up and there were even little figures with pointy hats on.

I understand that GQ’s editor Dylan Jones wrote an article for i-D in 1986 that help inspired your most celebrated B-side, ‘Paninaro’…

CL: No, no, no! Absolute rot. We wrote it because we spent all our time in Milan!

NT: We first went there in January 1986 and I remember it was snowing. We went to a club where all the cool Italian kids went. They were sort of Goths who liked The Cure and Pet Shop Boys, and they discovered to their horror that all we could talk about were these paninari. Kids on their scooters. Chris started dressing like them. We did the song and Dylan wrote that article. To be fair, I think he knew about them separately…

CL: We wrote it because you could go ‘woh, woh, woh’. We were obsessed with songs that had ‘woh, woh, woh’ in them. Remember ‘Tarzan Boy’ by Baltimora? And do you know who we’ve passed that mantle onto now? Chris Martin. Every Coldplay song now has it.

NT: That’s because you can have a hit around the world and no-one knows what you’re talking about. You’re playing stadiums and you want everyone to sing along.

Speaking of stadium singalongs, when I first heard your single ‘Winner’ I thought you had creatd an Olympic song…

NT: That came out of the Take That tour. We’d leave the stadium as they were going on to a song called ‘Greatest Day’. Chris said, ‘I think we should try to write a mid-tempo anthem’.

CL: We don’t normally do mid-tempo. We do fast or slow. There’s no middle ground with us, it’s one gear or another. I like the way the audience does this [sways arms] to every Take That song. It’s a scarf-waver…

NT: In the hotel in Manchester, Chris played this chord change, and we were talking about anthems like ‘We Are The Champions’.

Wait – the Pet Shop Boys wrote a song in a hotel while you were on tour?

CL: Very rock ‘n’ roll…

NT: Really, the influence of the Eurovision song contest was paramount, because the BBC have asked us twice if we’d write a song for it. We said we might, if we had the right song.

You wouldn’t, would you?

CL: No.

NT: No. But ‘Winner’ became known as the Eurovision song. I was thinking that it was about someone coming from a village in eastern Moldova and ending up winning the Eurovision song contest. Then we thought it was a bit boy-bandy, so we thought about giving it to someone. But Andrew Dawson, who produced the album, absolutely loved it. Then we thought, if we’re releasing an album in September and there’s a song called ‘Winner’ on it, the whole world would ask why we didn’t you put it out before the Olympics? In Britain people have been a bit sniffy about it, but it’s doing well in Japan and Germany.

You’ve written in the past about the UK’s surveillance culture. Julian Assange: genius or narcissistic idiot?

NT: Oh, narcissistic idiot. He seems to think he’s a world leader. He talks through the media one-to-one with Obama. But who elected Julian Assange?

CL: [indignantly] Who elected the Pope?

NT: The cardinals…

CL: Yes, but we didn’t…

NT: We’re not Catholics.

CL: But we’re all affected by his pronouncements.

NT: The Pope has slightly more legitimacy than Julian Assange, Chris. Only slightly, granted.

CL: Not from my point of view, he hasn’t. Julian Assange and the Pope – they’re one and the same.

NT: Now you’ve just bigged Julian Assange up, by mentioning him in the same breath as the Pope!

Russia figures prominently in your work…

NT: We’ve been to St Petersberg eight times. In fact, I’m surprised we haven’t done an album there. We once went when Brian Eno was living there, doing an Enoesque experiment on what it was like to live in Russia for six months.

In the wake of the Pussy Riot controversy, and the fact that you were one of the signatories in a letter to The Times, I wanted to discuss it with you. Many still insist that it’s the sort of place that needs a strong leader.

NT: Hmm. Well, it’s changing – Russia now has a middle class. Go through Moscow airport now, and it could be anywhere. It used to be rather dank and smelly. Now it could be… Düsseldorf. The people who used to have a tough life there are now looking at what the rest of the world is doing and they no longer feel the need to have a strong man at the top. Of course, Moscow and Saint Petersburg are a bubble, and the bits in the middle might be different, as it is with the Mid-West in America. But even there, I don’t think that gap is as great as it used to be, because of television and particularly because of the internet. People around the world don’t want to put up with the bulls*** any more. With Putin, there is unnecessary corruption and bulls*** getting in the way. I don’t think they want that kind of figure any more. Although Putin did give Russia back its confidence and self-image after the Yeltsin years. It doesn’t feel like the poor man of Europe any more. Putin and China in the digital age is a weird dialectic of incredibly democratic and a crushing surveillance culture. We’re seeing how that works now. [pause] Have you heard Pussy Riot’s single?

CL: [animatedly] Is it any good?

NT: It’s certainly got a good bit in it. It’s punky, but rather good, although I never really liked that whole Riot Grrrl thing. It may actually already have had an effect. They could have been sentenced to seven years, and they got two. There was a rumour that Putin actually did intervene. The same day the Russian courts pronounced that there wouldn’t be a Gay Pride in Russia for 100 years. It feels like the Government is saying to people there who aren’t compliant, uncomplaining citizens, ‘you can do this stuff, but only so far.’ That sort of thinking is bound to have an impact.

Taken from:
Interviewer: Jason Barlow