An Interview with Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys.
By Lawrence Ferber • Photo by Alasdair McLellan
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. As of late they’ve also worked with “in” artists Girls Aloud (scribing their infectious single, “The Loving Kind”) and Lady GaGa, and are writing a 2010 ballet for London’s Salder’s Wells Theatre. On June 10 they kick off a “high-tech” international concert tour.
Tennant gave me a call from London to discuss the album and its songs, his selections for a trio of mixtapes/playlists, and an unusual theory about vegetarians.
Lawrence Ferber: 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 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 in events to be doing that. If you listen to our first album, Please , next to this, Please sounds terribly dark.
We need some uplift during this global recession.
We do. I think the PSB always make more sense in a recession as well. That’s Chris’ theory.
In some ways the song “Legacy” reminds me of “Being Boring,” yet it’s such a different creature.
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 ’60s things about [the album], too. Like with “Beautiful People,” the Xenomania gang put guitars and drums on it, made it sound very ’60s, and Chris and I, who have always been Mamas & 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 20 Top-10 singles and are a household name. I love that song we wrote with them—we should record it ourselves at some point. They experiment 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’s the case. A lot of these songs are me imagining I’m someone else. In “Beautiful People” I’m imagining I’m a woman waiting at the bus stop in the rain in London thinking about how s–t life is and looking around and seeing a newsstand with magazines like Heat and OK and Hello with Victoria Beckham on the cover, thinking, Yes, I would like to live like that. “Vulnerable” is imagining myself as 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 Tony Blair leaving office, about how when you do something, the ramifications of it go on forever. The past is always there to haunt you, whether you like it or not.
I read that you had written the song “Pandemonium” for Kylie Minogue.
We were asked a couple of years ago to write some songs for Kylie’s album, and we wrote some songs and she’d record them. We particularly liked this one, and a really good, funny song called “You’re the Exception That Proves the Rule,” which we just stuck in our ballet. We needed a funny tune. . . . This was another example of imagining I was someone, and, as it was going to be sung by a 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 it. It’s a Pixar version.
I just watched the animated video for Yes’ first single, “Love Etc.” The graphics are completely trippy.
It’s by this Dutch guy, Martijn van Dam. He’s got such a strong graphic style. We found it quite psychedelic. It was the quickest video shoot we ever did—it took about 4 1 / 2 minutes [for each of us].
What artists are you listening to these days, and do you like the new wave of synthy pop from Australia and New Zealand like Lady hawke and Empire of the Sun?
Yes. I particularly love “My Delirium” by Ladyhawke. Empire have got one really good song, but I’m worried they look like MGMT clones.
What songs would you put on a mix tape or iTunes playlist today?
What configuration or personality am I appealing to? [ Laughs ] I’ll tell you what—as my computer’s in front of me, we’ll do three different configurations. Here’s one called Roll on Babe : “Roll on Babe” by Vetiva. “Baby I’m-a Want You” by Bread. “Against All Odds” by Phil Collins. I know people slag off Phil, but it’s a f–king amazing song. Here’s a playlist called Bitch : Do you know the series Summer Heights High ? Well, the first track is Mr. G’s “Naughty Girl (Paul Mac’s Extended Mix).” “Do I Look Like a Slut” by Avenue D. “Munchausen” by No Bra—it’s a London duo. “C’est Beau La Bourgeoisie” by Discobitch. “Filthy Heteros” by Tom Stefan. My final mix is going to be New Quiet , a mix of Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Fordlandia , my favorite album of the year so far, and, slightly worryingly, the Norwegian Arve Henriksen who does ambient jazz.
Let’s talk current events. How do you feel abut the way Boy George, who was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment in January, has been treated?
I probably don’t know enough about the case, but I think it’s weird. Okay, Boy George and his pal have phoned up a rent boy. He’s come over, and they’ve all done coke together. Boy George [handcuffs] him to the wall or something, so insubstantial he’s able to pull them off the wall anyway, and rushes out into the street. This guy has obviously been frightened by Boy George. What amazes me is this guy in court 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, goes to jail for [15 months]?
Will you visit him in the clink?
“Well 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 and allow people to see who all your friends are. But Twitter I like. It may become tedious quite quickly, but it’s a fun thing. You look at Pet Shop Boys on Twitter and 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 get an actual look inside it, and know everything happening, via Twitter?
I never thought of that, that’s quite clever. It’s a very good point, I like it. Stalking is outdated!
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. Any restaurants you would recommend?
Do you eat meat?
Well, congratulations. My favorite restaurant is called St. John at 26 St. John Street. [Another one is] Great Queen Street, at 32 Great Queen Street in Convent 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, 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. n
Lawrence Ferber is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to OutSmart .