Making Reality Romantic: The Pet Shop Boys talk twenty years of pop

Making Reality Romantic: The Pet Shop Boys talk twenty years of pop

What the world needs now is pop, sweet pop, according to Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys. The openly gay duo—Tennant and tech whiz Chris Lowe—deliver just that on their 10th studio album, Yes (Astralwerks).

Keeping up with, if not ahead of, the Joneses, the Pet Shop Boys enlisted hot UK hitmeisters Xenomania (Kylie Minogue, Sugababes, New Order) as producers for Yes. The result has been described as “irresistible,” and “their most accessible album in years.”

Ever since they rocketed up the charts with “West End Girls” in 1986, the Pet Shop Boys have mixed romance and realism to create catchy music with a mature gay sensibility. With lyrics like “I love you, you pay my rent”, Tennant and Lowe consider same-sex love in the age of AIDS and economic extremes. Their deliciously danceable 1987 hit “What Have I Done to Deserve This” resurrected the career of gay icon Dusty Springfield.

As of late, PSB has worked with ‘in’ artists Girls Aloud—scribing their infectious single “The Loving Kind”—and Lady GaGa. They are currently writing a ballet for the 2010 season at London’s Salder’s Wells Theatre. And to keep the rust off, on June 10 they kick-off a ‘high-tech’ international concert tour that begins in Europe and will make its way to America in the fall (no dates have been announced).

Tennant called from London to discuss Yes and its songs, his songwriting process, Boy George and his unusual theory about vegetarians.

WATERMARK: In what ways does Yes stand out from the rest of your catalog, and how does it represent an evolution for the Pet Shop Boys?
NEIL TENNANT: It’s such a bright, beautiful album. I think the first half is almost like a greatest hits; one very catchy, beautiful song after another, each in a different style. It’s the most stylistically varied PSB album, and I think it’s actually the most pure Pop of all of them. It’s quite amazing at this stage to be doing that. If you listen to our first album, Please, it sounds terribly dark next to this.

We need some uplift during this global recession.
We do. I think the Pet Shop Boys make more sense in a recession as well. At least that’s Chris’s theory.

In some ways the song “Legacy” from your new album reminds me of “Being Boring,” and yet it’s also very different.
Over the years some of our music has changed harmonically and musically. We experiment using melodies and chords that are outside of pop music, that are almost dissonant—very broad dense chords—and “Legacy” is an example of that. It’s got a very unusual tone. A friend of ours compared it to Richard Strauss, the German composer.
I think, funnily enough, there are little 60’s things about [the album], too. Like with “Beautiful People”, the Xenomania gang put guitars and drums on it and made it sound very 60’s. Chris and I, who have always been big The Mamas and The Papas fans, suggested these kinds of backing vocals.

Tell us about Xenomania, which many Americans may not be familiar with yet.
They’re the top pop producers in Britain at the moment, particularly famous for Girls Aloud, who had twenty Top 10 singles and are a household name. I love the song we wrote with them; we should record it ourselves at some point. Xenomania experiments with mainstream pop, and I think the most interesting kinds of music [occur] when people experiment in the mainstream.

How did your personal life seep into this album, if at all?
I think people tend to assume nowadays that for art to be viable it has to be personal. I don’t accept that. A lot of these songs are me imagining I’m someone else. In “Beautiful People” I’m imagining I’m a woman waiting in the bus stop in the rain in London. She’s thinking about how shit life is and looking around and seeing a newsstand with magazines like Heat and OK and Hello with Victoria Beckham on the cover and saying, “Yes, I would like to live like that.” “Vulnerable” is me imagining I’m someone I know; a female celebrity who appears to be very tough but is actually quite a vulnerable person. “All Over the World” is a song about pop songs. “Legacy” is inspired by [former Prime Minister] Tony Blair leaving office and how the ramifications will go on forever. The past is always there to haunt you whether you like it or not.

I read somewhere that you wrote “Pandemonium” for Kylie Minogue.
A couple of years ago we were asked to write some songs for Kylie. We particularly liked this one and another one, a really good song called “You’re The Exception That Proves the Rule.” We just stuck it in our ballet because we needed a funny tune. But in fact the lyrics are another example of me imagining I was someone else—another woman. I imagined it was Kate Moss singing about Pete Dougherty when she was going out with him.

Now that’s quite a mess of a romance. Is there anything about vomiting or herpes in the song?
No, it’s a sweet and charming Walt Disney version of their relationship. It’s a Pixar version.

What artists are you listening to these days, and do you like the new wave of synthy pop from Australia and New Zealand like Ladyhawke and Empire of the Sun?
Yes. I particularly love “My Delirium” by Ladyhawke. Empire has one really good song, but I’m worried that they look like MGMT clones.

Let’s talk current events. Boy George was sentenced to fifteen months in prison for some rough treatment of a trick. How do you feel abut the way he’s been treated?
I probably don’t know enough about the case, but I think it’s weird. Okay, Boy George and his pal phone up a rent boy. He comes over and they all do coke together. Boy George [handcuffs] him to the wall or something so insubstantial that he’s able to pull them off the wall anyway, and he rushes out into the street. This guy has obviously been frightened by Boy George. But what amazes me is that in court he gives his version of events… when he was doing coke! I’m not a huge expert on this, but I think coke makes people paranoid. Doesn’t it?”

Gee, where’d you hear that?
That’s what I’ve heard. I think I’ve even witnessed it before. So I think it’s a bit weird. And then George… I thought he would get two weeks or something, but he ends up going to jail for [fifteen months]?

Will you visit him in the clink?
I don’t know him well enough to do that, so no. I do know him, but I don’t think he needs a visit from Neil Tennant.

Do you Twitter? Or Facebook?
We Twitter, yeah. I think Facebook is sinister because you get a network of friends who then get to see who all your other friends are. But Twitter I like. It may become tedious quite quickly, but it’s a fun thing. If you look at Pet Shop Boys on Twitter you will see the empty plate after I’ve eaten risotto for lunch today.

Isn’t Twitter fantastic for celebrities and public figures because it eliminates the need to stalk somebody? Why wait outside someone’s house when you can find out everything happening inside via Twitter?
I never thought of that. That’s quite clever. It’s a very good point… I like it. Stalking is over!

Personal life—are you dating or single?
I don’t comment on those things. It’s personal.

Well, are you happy?
Um… yeah, pretty happy. Reasonably happy. I don’t think you should ever be too satisfied with what’s going on.

I’m going to be in London for two weeks in June. Are there any restaurants you would recommend?
Do you eat meat?

I do.
Well, congratulations. My favorite restaurant is called St. John at 26 St. John Street. Or Great Queen Street, at 32 Great Queen Street in Covent Garden for great English food. If you want vegetarian there’s a good one in Soho.

I’m a meat-eating vegetarian, really. I like vegetarian food. I have my theory that vegetarians don’t like vegetables. If you’ve got vegetarian friends, monitor their diet and see if they eat anything apart from starch, eggs and dairy. They’re not eating the salad; not eating the spinach. They’re addicted to carbohydrates. They’re having rice, pasta, polenta, eggs and cheese. A cheese omelet and French fries is a vegetarian meal. Hold the salad, by the way! (Laughs.) I’m mildly obsessed by this. It’s the meat eaters who keep the vegetables going.

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