Retirement? That’s for factory workers who race pigeons

IT’S 32 years since NEIL TENNANT and CHRIS LOWE formed the PET SHOP BOYS – and they are still getting better and better.

New album Electric sees them embrace their love of dance music, and get their best-ever reviews. After a euphoric show in Munich the pair tell SFTW about their endurance and the latest chapter in their story.

BACKSTAGE at Munich’s Tollwood festival, the Pet Shop Boys are knocking back champagne.

“Champagne? On a Wednesday night!” mocks Neil Tennant as he takes a sip.

“And it’s vintage” (vintaaage in the singer’s North Shields twang).

But there are plenty of reasons for tonight’s revelry.

Firstly it has been a mind-blowing show. The Pet Shop Boys are at the top of their game visually and musically. Dancers with minotaur heads and jackets made of drinking straws are met by thousands of fans for the party of the year.

It is also Neil’s 59th birthday — but the biggest cause for celebration is that the duo have just released their 12th studio album, Electric, to their best reviews in years.

“Years?” shrieks Chris Lowe. “They’re the best we’ve had in our CAREER! And we’re over the moon.”

Neil and Chris have been making synth-pop for more than 30 years, since meeting in an electronics shop on King’s Road, London in 1981.

Neil says: “We do what we want to do for our own personal satisfaction.

“The musical, creative bond between Chris and I is still so strong. We are always working on something new.”

The only time the Pet Shop Boys experienced trouble in their career came in 1999 following their album Nightlife when their promoter went bust. “The album did well but we’d been booked on an arena tour of Britain,” says Neil. “Chris and I said, ‘We think this tour is too big’.

“We were playing Sheffield Arena and there were 3,000 in a venue for 18,000. It was a financial disaster.

“I remember having a minor meltdown and I said to Chris that we should knock it on the head.

“But Chris just never replied. So it was never addressed. So we carried on. And we are still here.”

On stage the pair are phenomenal. Off stage they are also a double act. While Neil is the witty, charming leader, Chris has a deadpan sense of humour unexpected of the persona who hides away behind costume and sunglasses when he’s in the spotlight.

Electric, Pet Shop Boys’ first release on their own x2/Kobalt label, arrives just ten months after their Top 10 album Elysium, their final release with Parlophone, who they had been on for 28 years.

“It does feel like a new chapter for us,” says Chris, 53. “Though when we started the album we were still with Parlophone.”

“Yes, we’d actually been at EMI for longer than anyone else apart from a woman in business affairs,” adds Neil.

“And we were actually in negotiations for this to be released on Parlophone but the Kobalt deal came about and so we decided to go with that. So it does feel new and exciting.”

Seeing the duo perform tonight, an outlandishly stylish spectacle featuring hit after hit mixed with new tracks, explains why the duo have endured.

“I guess we never really feel out of touch,” says Chris. “And age really isn’t an issue as our fans get older with us and we don’t find it hard to pick up new generations on the way.”

So turning 59 tonight. How does that make you feel? I ask Neil.

“I really don’t feel my age,” he replies. “I have friends of all different ages and I’ve always been into popular culture so that keeps me young.

“Even before the Pet Shop Boys I worked for Marvel Comics and then Smash Hits so I like to know what the kids are thinking. Even if I don’t like it, I know what’s going on.

“As for retiring, I never think about it. You retire if you’re working in a factory in Rochdale and you can’t wait to leave and concentrate on your racing pigeons. But my life has never been like that.

“Years ago I wrote Being Boring and when I was a teenager, me and my friends’ ethos was we were never going to do boring jobs. And I’ve never had a boring job.”

Electric, a euphoric collaboration with producer Stuart Price, sees the pair return to their first love, dance music. Price, who is married to Pet Shop Boys’ manager Angela Becker, has worked with The Killers, Brandon Flowers and Madonna.

“Yes it’s odd we’ve never worked with Stuart before,” says Chris. “But this one was perfect for him.”

Neil adds: “You have to thank Chris for where we have gone with Electric. This album started out as a joint thing but it was Chris who took it to another level.

“I was thinking this record was going to be a disco one or even dance remixes, a different version of Elysium with new tracks but Chris wasn’t having it. He drew up the list of all the songs we had then wrote some new songs.

“Then we got Stuart on board and suddenly we had a new album.”

The working relationship between Price and the band was one of trust and order. “We’d arrive in the morning and finish by 6pm,” says Neil.

“And Stuart would have the TV on in the studio with the sound on. ALL DAY,” he stresses.

“It drove me MAD but Stuart said it gave a rhythm to the day.

“We’d get to the studio at 11.30am in time for Escape To The Country and then go for lunch when the antiques thingy was on. Then we’d get quiz shows followed by some Australian kids’ TV programme. Once the news came on we’d know it was six time for home.”

The group experimented with different styles but both Neil and Chris agree it has always been about the songs rather than the producer.

Neil adds: “When it comes to producers, it’s always the songs and who they suit. For Fundamental (their 2006 album) we got Trevor Horn in as we knew we were going to make a big production album so who better than Trevor?

“Then on 2009’s Yes, the songs were really pop so we went to Brian Higgins and Xenomania. And it was amazing.

“Then the next album, Elysium in 2012, it was a reflective, Los Angeles album. We wanted someone who had worked on those great Kanye West albums, so we approached Andrew Dawson and that record has a great production. They are all different statements and that is what keeps us ticking.”

The appeal of Pet Shop Boys, a duo who have sold 50 million records worldwide, is that there are no egos and no squabbles. While Neil credits Chris’s “desire to make music 24 hours”, it is Neil’ s restlessness that drives the work.

Says Neil: “I feel sorry for Chris having to put up with me. I’m this restless person.

“We saw this programme about The Beatles where John and George were moaning about Paul being on the phone, wanting to go into the studio. Chris was laughing saying it was like me.” Both Neil and Chris say making Electric was such an exciting time that they are planning two follow-up albums soon.

“The idea is to make a trilogy,” says Chris. “With Stuart involved though I’m not sure we’ve told him yet,” he cackles.

There are so many high points on Electric that it’s hard to single out tracks. Love Is A Bourgeois Construct “is pure Pet Shop Boys with that title,” says Neil.

“The lyric came from a novel by David Lodge called Nice Work. Putting such a literary phrase into a title for a pop song appealed to me out of bloody-mindedness really.”

And their cover of Bruce Springsteen’s The Last To Die was suggested by Chris’s sister.

“We listened to it on my iPhone,” says Chris. “And it has this great guitar riff that we could imagine being on a Pet Shop Boys record.”

Neil adds: “When we did that song with Stuart, it sounded like The Killers. It is like an equation — Pet Shop Boys performing Bruce Springsteen, produced by Stuart Price equals The Killers.

“Because we know Brandon Flowers brings together the influences of us with Springsteen. He’s a huge fan of both.”

Opening track Axis is classy — and inspired by Madonna.

Neil laughs: “Axis had a rubbish vocal at first. Then I pretended to be Madonna on Erotica and said it in an American accent. Now when I hear the voice at the start of the show, I don’t think of it as me but my alter-ego, ‘The Electric voice’.”

“It was such a fun album to make,” says Chris. “And it’s been great to see audiences let themselves go at the shows. And that’s what people want from Pet Shop Boys.”

Another standout is Thursday, a duet with rapper Example.

“Us with Example, who’d have thought?” laughs Chris. “Basically we needed a rapper and Stuart suggested Example.”

Neil adds: “I was worried that Example would groan at the prospect of working with us too but he agreed — but only if he sang too.

And two weeks later he came back with the whole part written. We got to meet when he played at the O2 with us in June in London.

“He was really nervous. He came with his whole family — his mum, dad and new wife (Erin McNaught). He said it was as nerve-racking as when he used to do his MC battles.”

Pet Shop Boys’ show ends tonight with an encore of old and new. Live favourite Go West is followed by their 1985 No 1 West End Girls and then new single Vocal, a song the audience doesn’t know — not that you can tell by their wild reaction.

Neil says: “The whole audience went crazy. I thought, ‘Wow!’ Then the laser kicks in.

“Tonight, everyone was raving!”

“And thank god those lasers worked,” says Chris. “They cost a bloody bomb. It’s what most of the budget went on.

“But we’ve always been up there as a live act. We’re not just studio boffins. That’s why we were able to headline Glastonbury in 2010 at the same time as Muse. We had as big a crowd too.”

Neil adds: “We follow our instincts. Nothing is ever planned and responses to our music often puzzle us. But that’s what keeps us together and will keep us going for a long time yet.

“It’s all about the music, it’s in our songs. The feeling of the warmth around us all is so strong.

And that’s really what we’re setting out to do. We’ve always tried to create our own crazy Pet Shop Boys world and bring as many people into it as we can.”

Taken from: The Sun
Interviewer: JACQUI SWIFT