Neil Tennant: Pet Shop Boys

Neil Tennant, the openly gay vocalist half of the British synthpop duo, talks to Fridae about pop music, politics, and why they wrote songs to warn of the dangers of policies propagating fear and hatred. A Fridae Exclusive!

In June 1987, the Pet Shop Boys released their #1 hit single It’s a Sin. I can actually remember watching the music video as a uniformed schoolboy in Hong Kong – the weird Catholic imagery and indefinite guilt must have somehow struck a chord in my seven year-old body (perhaps because my teachers had already told me off for kissing boys).

Of course, back then I couldn’t have understood the significance of the Pet Shop Boys’ artistry. Not only were they cranking out groovy music with intelligent lyrics; they were also crafting a tantalising new image of what a male pop star could be – smart, classy and edgy in their avant-garde suits from Issey Miyake or Stüssy; stationary on stage but surrounded by glorious theatrical flourishes of Derek Jarman’s film or Zaha Hadid’s architecture.

There was also a delightful androgyny to their aesthetics, and a queerness to their lyrics – remember songs like New York City Boy,Can You Forgive Her, or their cover of the Village People’s Go West? – that made them into gay icons long before vocalist Neil Tennant came out of the closet in 1994. (Keyboardist Chris Lowe, the quiet one in the hat and sunglasses, is still notoriously private about his love life.)

The two are now firmly established as music legends, and it’s frankly amazing how they’ve managed to stay united, hip and relevant over the 26 years of their existence. Fridae readers might know some of their recent work, such as Metamorphosis, Being Boring, and The Night I Fell in Love, which addresses gay issues more directly. The group has also collaborated with a blitz of iconic artists, such as Elton John, Robbie Williams, Liza Minelli, Kylie Minogue and Madonna. They have even been wired enough to take the leap into cyberspace – just last month, they held a free music festival in the online virtual world of Second Life.

Readers in and around Singapore, however, should soon get to see the duo in the flesh, as they are making an appearance at Singfest, Singapore’s largest outdoor music festival. Organised as a marathon event over the two days, Singfest boasts a staggering array of big names – Sugar Ray, Cyndi Lauper and Shaggy will be sharing the stage with the Boys on Wednesday, August 8. On Thursday, the indie, punk and rock scenes take over, with Gym Class Heroes, Avenged SevenFold, Hinder, Crowned King, MXPX, The Academy Is…, The Noisettes and Cobra Starship, not to mention Malaysian band One Buck Short and Singapore band the Great Spy Experiment.

This won’t be the first time Pet Shop Boys is in Singapore – Tennant tells me they have toured Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore aplenty, but is annoyed that their agent hasn’t contracted them to go further afield in Asia, to Taiwan or South Korea. He also professes a great love for Hong Kong, which he and Lowe sometimes visit just to soak up the bustle and excitement of the atmosphere.

And though Tennant generally disapproves of celebrities acting as pundits, he has plenty to say about the dangerous process of labelling in politics, gay or otherwise. On the next page, he talks about his music, theatre and the insidiousness of identity cards.

æ: Age, sex, location?

NT: 53, male, London.

æ: Tell us, how did you get involved in music?

NT: I wrote songs from a very, very early age… from when I was 8 or 9 years old. When I was 12, I got given a guitar, and as soon as I learnt a new chord I would write a new song.

And fifteen years later, when I was 27 years old, I met Chris Lowe and we became the Pet Shop Boys – I was a journalist at the time. And then we had a big hit with West End Girls and that’s when we went full time.

æ: What part of your work would you say you’re proudest of?

NT: I feel proud about probably everything we’ve done, really. When Pet Shop Boys started, we tried to write our own kind of pop song that would reflect the world around us; that would have some kind of satirical humour about taking real life, the things people say to each other, and putting it against beautiful music.

I think we’ve written songs that are unique to us, a commentary on the world, a commentary on the way life really is. And that’s what I’m proud of, really.

æ: Tell us about your performance style.

NT: We don’t do a conventional sort of rock show. We’re interested in theatre; we like the look and feel of theatre. Every time we do a show, we work with a theatre designer; this time we’re working with Es Devlin, she’s a well-known opera designer in London. We’ve worked with a lot of designers – like the architect Zaha Hadid; she did our show in 1999.

We’ve worked hard over the last 30-odd years to design a kind of pop music theatre, which is the show we’re bringing to Singapore.

æ: What artists do you admire?

NT: Musically, I’ve always admired David Bowie, Kraftwerk; I used to like early hip-hop; I listen to a lot of German electronica music under the label Kompakt, I like the French pop group Air and LCD Sound System. And a lot of classical music; my favourite music is in some ways classical music – Bruckner, Shostakovich, Bach.

æ: Could you tell us a bit about your coming-out story?

NT: It was in 1994… I was going to be interviewed by a new gay magazine in the UK called Attitude, and it was just four years old, and I thought it was a bit ridiculous to talk to a gay magazine and not to mention I was gay. It wans’t really a big deal; everyone who knew me knew. It seemed like the right time to do it, since I was going to turn 40.

æ: How do you feel about the gay community in the UK today, though?

NT: I think it’s changing. Some people would prefer to have a kind of gay ghetto, but I think it’s gradually going to fade away. Whether you have children, whether you have family ties and responsibilities, that says more about you than if you’re straight or gay.

æ: Yeah, I’ve noticed you’ve always resisted being labelled – you’ve even spoke out prominently against Tony Blair’s proposed introduction of identity cards in Britain.

NT: They’re both the same thing, in a way. There’s an increasing trend in the world that every individual has to be defined on a piece of paper or a plastic card to prove who they are. In the same way, sexually, people like to know whether you’re gay or straight, and there’s no middle ground.

When you’re gay and you’re a musician, people will then present you as a gay musician, with the inference that your audience is only gay – as if there’s no way your audience could be straight. And that’s a kind of homophobic prejudice; it’s a way to marginalise you.

æ: How does that apply to gay people here, though?

NT: Well, I think in Asia you have a very different situation than in Europe and America. Everything I say about being gay is based on the fact that in Britain, we have equality before the law, and it’s not necessarily the defining part of your life. But when your sexuality is illegal and liable for prosecution, being gay is the essential part of your life, because it could get you into trouble – I know that in some parts of the world, gay people live in fear.

What I hope we all aim for is to get to the point that being gay can be irrelevant, like the colour of your skin or how tall you are. What’s the situation like in Singapore?

æ: There’s a law that criminalises it, but the government claims it won’t prosecute.

NT: But it’s awful to be only tolerated… At any moment, that policy could change, and it’s difficult to respect a system that has that law in it. I think people have the right to be what they are, and I don’t think the government has a right to turn people into criminals.

æ: I remember your last album, Fundamental, was actually dedicated to Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, the two Iranian 16 year-olds who were executed for gay sex in 2005.

NT: Our idea in making that album was to try to capture in music a sort of picture of the world since 9/11; the sort of tension and fear and the way fear was used as the driving force behind a political programme which ultimately curbs people’s civil liberties.

And we dedicated it to the two boys because they were victims of a different kind of fear; the fear of homosexuality. The fundamental religious law applied was a severe example of civil liberties being not disrespected, but destroyed.

I think it’s a kind of warning of where things can end up if people fear and hate each other, if governments can hate the people they’re governing, if there’s just a policy of hate – two boys being strangled before a crowd of 2,000 people.

It’s like the case of the identity cards – we shouldn’t have to prove ourselves to the government. I think the government has to prove itself to us.

æ: What’s next on the calendar for you, then?

NT: We’re headliners of the Summer Sonic Festival, which is in Tokyo and Osaka. We’ve been on tour every year now – this tour finishes in October.

In 2004 we wrote a musical score for the silent film, Battleship Potemkin, and we did that for a concert in Trafalgar Square in London. We’ll be bringing that to Russia and the Ukraine.

The next thing we’re going to write is an electronic music ballet to be performed in London. And I’d also like to write some new pop songs.

Taken from:
Interviewer: Ng Yi-Sheng