Long time PSB fan Andrew Harrison sits down for an hour with Chris Lowe to talk Blackpool showbiz, big coats and the problems with EDM
Much as Paul McCartney wrote the melodic (if perhaps ingratiating) Beatles songs and John Lennon the abrasive sloganeering ones, there’s a widely held belief among followers of the Pet Shop Boys that you can divide their catalogue into “Neil” albums and “Chris” albums. In this reading the former are the wistful, witty recordings where Neil Tennant explores the nocturnal complications of being forever a stranger in a big city: Nightlife, Release, late-period LA elegy Elysium and of course the mother of all Neil-ism, Behaviour, home to the sublime ‘Being Boring’. “Chris” albums such as Introspective, Very or 2013’s back-to-lasers rebirth Electric, on the other hand, are replete with bangers, dedicated to all things euphoric, all-electro-all-ecstatic tributes to the Chris Lowe watchword “Wahey!”
“It’s not really like that,” says Chris Lowe, who this afternoon is plonked on a sofa in the Pet Shop Boys’ compact yet discreetly well-appointed studio in creative East London. “We are quite different people. Neil is always on the go, he’s always got something in the diary, whereas I’m content to just cook something simple and watch television.
“But musically we are… I don’t know, we just gel. It’s not as if I only like uptempo music and Neil only likes folk-inspired ballads. There’s never any tension, or me saying, ‘This isn’t banging enough.’ We both like a bit of everything. We’re both as happy to be in Berghain on a Sunday afternoon listening to electronic beats as we are listening to Dusty Springfield tearing her heart out.”
As is the case with the best duos in music and beyond, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (always in that order, like Ant and Dec) are two complementary personalities who combine to create a third: Tennant/Lowe. And sometimes it’s Lowe, with his daft hats and his giant complicated coats and his almost heroic refusal to smile in photographs, who seems like the guardian of the essential Pet Shopness of the Pet Shop Boys. That, and his famous off-the-cuff manifesto from a 1986 US TV interview which PSB quickly transplanted onto ‘Paninaro’, a song from the days when b-sides could become as famous as a-sides: “I don’t like country and western. I don’t like rock music, I don’t like rockabilly or rock and roll particularly. I don’t like much really, do I? But what I do like, I love passionately.” His refusal to join in, to play the game, to participate in pop’s fake joviality from 1980s Top Of The Pops to modern talent show, is as much part of PSBs’ enduring appeal as the songs.
“We had a video director once who said I stood still very well,” Chris informs me proudly. “It’s not easy, you know. A lot of people can’t do it. It’s an art form.” Pet Shop Boys first appeared on the national stage at the height of 80s pop positivism: big smiles, big hair, ruinously expensive videos, Smash Hits, the lot. “Everyone was so active. It was a big party where everyone was having a great time and smiling at the camera. Thumbs aloft! We just didn’t want to do that. So we ignored the cameras and the jollity of the situations. Let’s face it, it’s easier to stand stock-still isn’t it?”
Thus was a persona born – Pet Shop Boys, the grumpiest men in pop. They also became easy to parody, which Chris loves, be it French & Saunders sidekicks Raw Sex or Flight Of The Conchords doing ‘Inner City Pressure’. In PSBs’ early days of performing ‘West End Girls’ on TV Chris used to wear a leather jacket whose sleeves were slightly too long. All you could see was one finger poking out. “And my sister used to do this terrible impersonation of me with just this finger, poking, and looking miserable…”
Pet Shop Boys are now 35 years into a creative partnership which has evolved from the hit factory of the ‘West End Girls’-to-‘Domino Dancing’ Imperial Years via an exploratory middle youth which encompassed latin pop, ballet, musicals and even Johnny Marr-assisted indie rock on 2001’s ‘Release’. Now they have arrived back where they started, returning to primal electro and hi-NRG octave basslines, and feeling remarkably modern with Electric in 2013, their first post-Parlophone record on their own label x2.
They might no longer have hits in the conventional in-with-a-bullet sense. But in every other respect they’re still right in the melée – touring extravagantly, writing out-and-out singles (‘Love Is A Bourgeois Concept’, ‘Vocal’, the deliciously poignant current one ‘The Pop Kids’) designed for an imaginary, less focus-grouped version of the charts, fulfilling their duty to be popular. They are the pop act that art people love, the living blueprint for every frosty synth band ever to stand motionless behind a keyboard – although when off-duty Tennant and Lowe are tirelessly entertaining. And they have become something unique in British music: an actual grown-up pop group. Neil (61) and Chris (56) use the primary colours of popular song and electronics (their highest term of approval for a dance track that bypasses the conscious mind and goes straight to the body is “moronic”) to look at adult life – straight, gay and TBA – in this strange time when ageing seems permanently deferred.
Even though there’s no such thing as a “Chris record”, the Pet Shop Boys’ new, thirteenth album Super (released on April 1 exactly thirty years and one week after their debut Please) is quite Chris. Blindingly bright, relentlessly uptempo and driven by fluorescent electronics and hammering, out-and-proud 80s drums, it’s a continuation of Electric’s synth-born reboot but with the colour and contrast turned up still further. Stuart Price produces once again. The sound texture is Berlin and they wrote many of the songs there, but recorded them at Price’s place in Los Angeles.
Do the Pet Shop Boys feel they have to travel to remind themselves who they are and what they’re good at?
“Actually where we are rarely affects what we write,” Chris admits, “except when we were in South America and we heard a lot of reggaeton. We’re the opposite of Damon Albarn and – what’s it called? – world music. We don’t go to Africa and come back with lots of African vibes. Wherever we go it always ends up 80s electro,” he admits, laughing.
“People go to Berlin to write some cold electronic music. They want to be David Bowie or U2. We went there and ended up writing this very lush orchestral LA album [2012’s Elysium]. So there you go. Although,” and his mind starts to wander, “having said that I would quite like to go to Turkey and make a really authentic-sounding Turkish-influenced record. I love that sound actually…”
When I wonder if the banging side of PSB is winning the battle in their mature years, Chris says that they’ve actually been sitting on a ton of ballads and slow tunes for the planned third in their ‘triptych’ of records with Price.
“The feel of Super is purely down to the songs we chose,” he says. “We wrote some quite dark techno tracks and some much more pop things at the same time, but we wanted this one to be basically Electric, only more so. There’s going to be a third one and that’s when the melancholia will kick in again.” The lack of any need to fit in with Radio 1 has its advantages too. “We don’t have to concentrate so much on traditional pop structures any more. We’re freed from the shackles of classic pop – or we can put them right back on again when we feel like it. To be honest I’m not even sure what pop music is any more.
“We tend to work in a vacuum now,” he says, “more so than we ever did. We know we’re not going to get played on much radio so you’re free to do what you want.” He sips his water and grins. “It’s very liberating.”
As any Pet Shop Boys enthusiast knows, future keyboard wizard and Blackpool native Christopher Sean Lowe began his life in music playing the trombone (pop fact: he would play and in fact invent hi-NRG trombone on the track ‘I Want A Lover’ from their debut album). It started with his grandfather who also played trombone in the RAF band, the Blackpool Tower Ballroom orchestra and later a comedy jazz group called The Nitwits.
“When I was very little, a toddler in fact, we all went to Paris to stay in a caravan park on the Bois de Boulogne for the summer,” Chris recalls with glee. “Grandpa went off to perform with topless women at the Lido on the Champs Elysée until the early hours.” The ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ video – showgirls, velvet drapes, tuxedo’d sidemen, tears in the dressing room – was ready in waiting.
“The fact is, I’m from a showbusiness family,” Chris says. His mother was a dancer who worked in numerous shows around Blackpool; his father was as a sales rep for the gas board. Chris played in a local brass band, the Norman Memorial Band (they’re still going) and with the cadet force at school. There’s still a lot of Blackpool in him, he thinks. “I was there just the other day, walking along the promenade. There’s a very distinctive air quality. Growing up there, it’s a fun place with lots of nightclubs and bars. Everyone’s there to have a good time. I think that rubbed off a lot.”
In 1976, when disco appeared, Chris began going to clubs like Man Fridays with their plastic palm trees, and got a job collecting glasses in the Dixieland Showbar. “Being in a musical environment with lots of people who were having fun to pop music… that made an impression.” He studied architecture in Liverpool at the height of punk rock – “we went to Eric’s and saw people like The Vibrators, which was fantastic, and get records from Probe where Pete Burns worked” – but kept his hair long. “I love subcultures and youth movements,” he says, “but I’ve never joined any of them. I’ve always stood around on the periphery, watching.”
The first time he encountered the New Romantics was at a Roxy/Bowie night in Liverpool. Everyone was dressed up except Chris who was wearing what he wears now – jeans, sweatshirt, trainers. Later, when he moved London for architectural work placements, he’d go to the Beat Route in Soho or the Camden Palace where everyone dressed as flamboyantly as ever they did in the Capital. “And here’s me, jeans, sweatshirt, trainers… Steve Strange said, ‘I wouldn’t have let you in.’ Everyone’s been working all week to get their outfit right, and I turn up and ruin the whole thing.” He has another sip of water. “Nothing’s changed really.”
In August 1981 he famously ran into Neil Tennant in an electronics shop on the King’s Road. Chris was just browsing; he can’t even remember what he was looking for. In those days he read hi-fi magazines because he couldn’t afford to buy a decent stereo. But this encounter proved to be one of the most fortuitous chance meetings in all pop. Tennant and Lowe discovered a shared interest in underground club music and synthesisers. They talked a lot about David Bowie, and music – all music. Within weeks they were were working on songs together. “It really was completely by chance,” Chris recalls. “As George Michael said, turn a different corner and we never would have met… I don’t know if people believe in fate but it’s difficult not to when you meet a complete stranger and you fit perfectly with them musically. Funny, isn’t it?”
The Pet Shop Boys broke through at a time when the bright, ultraconfident megapop of the early 80s was dying. ‘West End Girls’, a substantial worldwide hit and a UK number one in 1985, announced them as a more restrained proposition, better suited to commenting on an era defined by the downside of conspicuous consumption. People who weren’t sure what irony meant decided that the Pet Shop Boys must be ironic, because how could anyone present themselves as an anti-pop star and really mean it? The Pet Shop Boys’ deadpan reserve provided a coherent identity and a readymade guide on how to do things (example: when Radio One asked them to create a generic jingle for the station, they recorded a snippet which went “This is a generic jingle/Pet Shop Boys”). It also proved to be an excellent way to cope with the ups and downs of the pop life.
“I have a very detached way of dealing with everything,” Chris explains. “I’ve always just looked on rather than feeling like I’m a part of it. I think it comes from the fact that it’s just very odd to become a pop star at all. It’s got a built-in surreality to it. From that moment onwards. nothing seems totally real. If weird things happen it’s almost like it’s not happening to you. Even if things aren’t go particularly well it’s still interesting, isn’t it? In fact in many ways it’s better.”
So are Chris Lowe and Chris from the Pet Shop Boys two separate people? Well… no, he says, because that would imply that there’s some sort of act going on. And the Pet Shop Boys are not an act. “But,” he admits, “that is how I feel when I’m going onstage. There’s this person going onstage and it’s not me.”
The person going onstage has needs, specifically the Chris wardrobe. “I love coats,” he beams. “I’m from the North West of England – we’re all about big coats.” The mirrorball jackets with matching helmet or the coat with neoprene straws, they’re hot as hell and very uncomfortable but that’s showbusiness, isn’t it? Sunglasses too, “always the most satisfying purchases.” The camouflage-pattern metal ones that he’s wearing for the Super pictures came from Matthew Williamson in Mayfair. As soon as he bought them he went into the Y-3 shop and saw a camouflage hat. “I thought, it’s fate again. The whole thing is a look.”
He admits that he misses the old gladiatorial days, when pop group went up against pop group in Smash Hits, Radio One, NME and Top Of The Pops. “I do miss going to the San Remo pop festival and Paul Weller and Bananarama and everyone would be there,” he says. “Great days. You felt like you were all in it together. It’s a shame that we’re no longer part of that.” The social media technologies which replaced that world of pop media are a poor substitute, he thinks. Neil and Chris stopped going on Twitter as themselves, as opposed to operating a band account, some years ago. “That sort of direct contact is stifling, I think,” says Chris. “It takes something away. You can end up checking Twitter before you go to bed. It’s claustrophobic.”
We’ve always known what Chris Lowe doesn’t like – country and western, rock and roll, smiling in public. It turns out he’s not too keen on contemporary EDM either. “It’s basically rock music, isn’t it?” he says. “It’s rock songs but played on electronic equipment. That’s why I don’t feel any connection with it.” So I ask him how he’d characterise what he does like. He flounders a little.
“I like… what do I like? It’s hard to put into words. I like music to be uplifting, but it doesn’t have to be fast and banging. Sad music can be uplifting too. I have folders full of emotional stuff to light a candle and get in the bath to, and wallow. I love a good wallow. So it’s complicated. Upliftingness is what I like. An emotional reaction. I mean, listen to this…”
He pulls out his phone and locates his current favourite, a song called ‘Hotel Home’ by Molly Nilsson which PSBs’ friend Joel Gibb of The Hidden Cameras introduced them to. It sounds like Nico singing ‘Wrote For Luck’. The piano’s terribly out of tune. But there’s no denying that it’s a bit special. “I’d love us to do a remix of this,” Chris says. “What’s she singing? ‘Hotel home, you’re never on your own…’ I don’t know what it means but I can relate to it.”
Then he scrolls to another folder to play me a remix of ‘The Pop Kids’ by Israeli DJ Offer Nissim. “Most bands hate their remixes, don’t they?” says Chris. “I love ours. It’s the only time I get to listen to the Pet Shop Boys as a surprise. This has got a fantastic Pet Shop Boys moment on it.” While he’s searching for the song he tells me about the time they were at a club in Mexico. Neil came running over, all excited about the track that was playing. Why can’t we make records like this?, he’d asked. “Neil,” Chris replied, “this is us.”
“Right, here it is.” He presses play. The low-key original ‘Pop Kids’ has been steroid-injected with clanging latin drums which give way to an early breakdown. The beats fall away, strings billow and Neil breathes “Oh, I like it here/Oh I love it.” Chris is laughing with delight.
“Can you imagine Neil with a wind machine and his hands in the air? I can picture it,” he beams. “This captures everything about us: ‘I like it here – I love it.’
“I mean, at the end of the day, that’s all you really need to know.”
Taken from: The Quietus