Right then. There's a Neil Tennant interview coming up, but first let's get some housekeeping out of the way.
We've put together a Spotify playlist of some of the songs Neil mentions during the course of the interview.
(Actually the Demi Lovato one is our fault, apols.)
Anyway once you've got the playlist off and running you can start the interview. It all takes place at the Pet Shop Boys' office, a former architect's office in a quite nice part of London.
So this is where the magic happens.
THIS is indeed where the magic happens.
I didn’t know you had an office here.
Well, it’s top secret!
How long have you been here?
It’s funny. Our accountant said to us a few years ago, "do you know how much money you pay on storage?" And we said, "not really". Well it was an astonishing amount of money. He said, "if you put that into a mortgage, you could buy a little warehouse in Stevenage or somewhere". We said: "great! We’ll buy somewhere in [PRICEY NON-STEVENAGE LONDON LOCATION]!"
And do you use it for storage?
Would you like to see?
At this point Neil leads us into the building's basement. At the bottom of the stairs are two doors. Neil opens the first and we walk into a room with shelves full of old synths and music-making paraphernalia.
This room here is our gear. We’ve got tonnes of the fucking stuff. Obviously we are on tour at the moment so it’s not all here.
Is this all quite recent or is it from ‘through the years’?
Well, this one (points at vintage-looking synth) looks quite ‘through-the-yearsy’. It’s got wood on it, anyway.
Do you remember what you recorded with it?
I don’t know. Unfortunately Chris is at the dentist this afternoon, which is why he’s not here. Anyway the other room is much more exciting.
He flings open the door to the second room full of costumes, memorabilia, props and archive material.
Now! This (points at scale model of ‘Can You Forgive Her’ video) I was given for my 40th birthday by Howard Greenhalgh, who directed that video. We should dust it down and put it upstairs!
What’s that wire coming out of the back?
Does it plug in?
I think it must do! (Pulls pink bobbly waistcoat off rack) ‘I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing!' (Points at suit) Glastonbury 2000. (Inspects jacket) Fundamental tour. (Finds white coat.) 'Go West' at the Brits!
In the bucket!
In the bloody bucket! And this fur coat… (Pulls fur coat off rack) This is from Performance — it’s the fur coat that the singers wore in the famous blowjob scene! (Examines another jacket) The Nightlife tour! Worn with the skirt. That’s a very nicely made jacket, actually — ‘one’ could still wear that…
I can see some pointy hats.
Yes! They’re not the real ones though. The real ones got destroyed at the 'Very' launch party. What do you get the impression of though, from these, is how incredibly low-tech they were.
And this staff, as wielded in the 'Go West' video?
Yes it is! God! (Grabs staff, stands triumphantly)
How does it feel?
It feels pretty good actually.
There’s a certain level of authority to a man with a stick.
The great thing is, you know what you’re going to do when you’ve got a stick. You’ve got something to hold onto. (Opens box) Here are presents people give us, which we can’t bear to give away because they’ve put so much work into them. (Opens another box) This is archive stuff, for a historian of the future. (Flicks through notebook) These are Chris’ notes from the Release tour. Look, here are the notes for ‘Love Is A Catastrophe’, a very underrated song. (Plonks ‘Discography’ display stand on box) Marketing stuff, always worth keeping. A mixing desk, that Polaroid camera you’ve always promised yourself… (Picks up oddly-shaped award) What’s this? (Peers at engraving) Oh, this is only from last year! (Laughs)
What’s in this box here?
(Rifles through box) Discs and tapes. ‘TFI Friday, December 2000 — It Doesn’t Always Snow At Christmas backing track’. Elton John introduced us. There were complaints! (Opens box full of dozens of pairs of sunglasses) Chris Lowe’s sunglasses. Magazines are always saying, ‘can we do a piece on Chris Lowe’s sunglasses’, and we always say we don’t know where they are. Mind you I don’t think this is all of them.
Did you see that man trying to flog Chris’ ‘Suburbia’ sunglasses on that Channel 4 programme, Four Rooms?
Were they actually Chris Lowe’s genuine sunglasses? (Looks disapproving) I don’t think he should have those. They’ve obviously been STOLEN. So anyway, that’s the store room. We do still have another storage place, of course, and that is in somewhere like Stevenage.
We head back upstairs, where Neil makes a cup of tea.
When did you start work on the new album?
Well if you remember, when we saw you in Berlin…
This was at the 'Elysium' launch where you told me, on the day your album was released, that you already had another one ready to go?
That’s right. And you couldn’t believe it. But we had! Well, pretty much. But then we were writing this piece about Alan Turing, and we ended up writing new songs, like ‘Bolshy’ and ‘Love Is A Bourgeoise Construct’. ‘Electric’ was originally an eight-track album until two and a half months ago Chris made some demos at home. I remember I was cooking and flicking through things on my computer and I thought, "what’s this track?". I thought it was something on the Kompakt label. Then I realised it was Chris, and I sent it to Stuart Price, who produced the album, saying "why aren’t we doing this?"
If you were thinking of it as an eight track album, were you originally thinking that it would be the next album in the ‘Disco’ series?
Well I think it’s more than that. When we started work on it, it was more Chris’ project really, and we agreed that it wasn’t going to be ‘Disco 5’. But it still had the slight feel of a side project. But then last year we sat down and said, "what is this? Is this the Pet Shop Boys' twelfth studio album?" And the answer was: YES IT IS. And there was something rather exciting about bringing out an album — originally it was due to come out in April — eight months after our previous one. David Bowie did it with ‘Heroes’ and ‘Low’, why can’t we?
Is it quite a recent development in pop, to create an almost artificial delay between albums? You release an album, go on a long tour and nothing from one campaign can overlap with another? It seems that at one point people would just whack out albums as soon as they were ready.
Well when ‘Ziggy Stardust’ by David Bowie came out it was very soon after ‘Hunky Dory’. Me and my brother already knew every song apart from one, because he’d already played them on Sounds Of The Seventies on Radio 1. And so with this album, we decided that we were going to go on tour, and start the tour playing songs that hadn’t been released yet. Yes, we decided, we’re going to do that. Of course, as ‘the singer’, at the front of the stage, I was slightly nervous about this.
Because you thought it would all end up on YouTube?
Well, the YouTube thing kind of worked for it — again, I thought back to me and my brother Simon already knowing ‘Ziggy Stardust’ before it came out, and it just helped to create the excitement. So I was quite happy that it was a way to get the songs out. My nervousness was more about whether the audience would be bored to death. We made the incredibly crazy decision — not that I had much choice in it — to dump ‘Go West’ as the final encore, and do ‘Vocal’ as the last song. I was very reluctant about this. All the way through the concert I’m thinking, “I’m not looking forward to this”. So we come back on, and I start singing: “I like the people…” The audience look puzzled. “I KNEW IT!” I think. “I knew this was going to happen.” Then it goes into “It’s in the music…” Well, the whole place erupts. WHOLE PLACE ERUPTS. For a song they’d never heard. There is, nowadays, a very strict ‘you can only play your hits’ thing. Which I don’t really agree with. If I were to see David Bowie live, I don’t really want to see ‘The Jean Genie’ followed by ‘Suffragette City’ followed by ‘Let’s Dance’, great as they are; I want to hear something from side two of ‘Heroes’, or something from ‘Diamond Dogs’. Because I’m a fan. I know a lot of people won’t agree with that, of course. But on this new tour we have two new albums to play songs from, and they all work really well. And everything is ‘Electriced up’.
How is everything ‘Electriced up’? Have you just put a donk on everything?
It’s funny, you used to say ‘put a donk on it’ a lot, but I only discovered last year, while working with Stuart Price, that there’s an actual fucking video! I had no idea! I sort of knew what it meant, but I didn’t know it actually referred to an actual song!
What did you think of it?
Well, it made me want to put a donk on everything. Also with this album, we were inspired by the EXTREME irritation that someone had written a review on iTunes, slagging off ‘Elysium’, saying they wanted “more banging and lasers”. And in fact, we thought, “alright then — more banging and lasers, here it comes”.
Is ‘Vocal’ about a particular night out?
It started off as a joke — based on the fact that dance songs don’t have vocals any more. So it’s got the line “I like the singer, he’s lonely and strange — every track has a vocal, and that makes a change”. Which was rather camp. But then it turned into something quite heartfelt. I can remember us being on the Discovery tour in Brazil, and on the last night of the tour we were all on the dancefloor — me, our dancers, Chris Lowe, Chris Heath, in this club in either Sao Paulo or Rio, and it was just brilliant. I remember having a very similar experience when we were somewhere during the era when ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ was out, which is quite a long time ago…
It’s fifteen years ago!
It can’t be fifteen years ago. God, is it that old? I thought it was ten years old. Anyway, you couldn’t get enough of that record at the time. I remember looking around and everyone was just so happy. Also with ‘Vocal’, while I didn’t do the rave thing in 1988 and 1989, Chris saw the light then and I was thinking of that from his perspective. It’s actually a very sincere song.
It’s quite ‘It’s Alright’.
Embarrassingly for him, our lighting director on the current tour said to me, ‘it reminds me of an old song called ‘It’s Alright’, have you ever heard it?” I said, “heard it? We had the fucking hit with it!” But yes, it is quite like that. It’s about what music does to people.
Is it true that Chris Heath wrote a book on the Discovery tour — but it will never come out?
I don’t think we’re sure where the manuscript is. It might even be in the cellar below us.
Why didn’t it come out?
Well, it was too much like the previous book. Also, there was too much stuff that couldn’t be printed. (Chortles) I think we’re going to publish it posthumously. There’s another one too, actually, from when we went to Russia. I don’t know where that manuscript is either. It’s not that the content is shocking, necessarily, just what we say about other popstars. I’ll say to Chris Heath, “I’m sure I would never say such a thing about Bono.” “Yes you did.”
I guess you started going out in the 70s — between then and now, which has been the best decade to go out dancing?
The first club I ever really went to was this club on Neal Street, in London. It was a gay club — we used to pronounce it ‘Shag-o-ramas’, but it was spelt Chaguramas. It’s the name of a Spanish sheep or something. I was 18, coming down from Newcastle, and I used to go to Shag-o-ramas on a Saturday night with my two friends from Tottenham. It was so expensive and we were so poor.
How expensive is expensive?
Well, half a pint of lager was fifty pence. And fifty pence then must be eight pounds now. It was inconceivably expensive. We’d maybe have one drink each. And that was when disco music was really just starting. They’d play ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ by Lou Reed — which was meant to be a dance record. They’d play ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ by The Temptations. We used to go crazy to that. And then I didn’t go clubbing for a while, but in the early 80s I met Chris and we started to go clubbing. We’d go to The Bell in Kings Cross, but the most fun was when I went to New York for Smash Hits in 1983. I was living in a quite smart flat on the upper west side with the designer, Kimberley Leston, who sadly killed herself in the 90s. But every night — I was only 27 — we used to go back to the flat from work, have a Chinese takeaway, then at 11 o’clock we’d be in a taxi heading downtown from West 80th Street to Avenue A to go to The Pyramid, or Area. Area was my favourite club: every month they changed the way it looked. You used to walk down this corridor and they had glass boxes with living human artworks in them. I remember once being at the bar and turning round to ask Kimberley what she wanted to drink, and Andy Warhol was standing behind me. There was an amazing mixture, which has never really happened in Britain, where you would get club kids, and boys wearing cut-off shorts and nothing else, but also the entire uptown crowd would come down too. So you’d have people in tuxedos and ballgowns mixing with drag queens. The music was amazing. And before that, when Chris and I went to New York to record with Bobby O, Arthur Baker was in the studio next door, and we’d go to The Funhouse, which was a club for Latino and Hispanic kids, really. And Jellybean Benitez was the DJ. There we were! In the booth with Jellybean! He was going out with Madonna at the time, of course. So that’s my favourite club period, but I think Chris would say the rave scene in 1988 and 1989. And one of my favourite club memories is of being in a club in Naples, rapping ‘West End Girls’ with Miss Kittin. These days, when we’re in Berlin, we go to Berghain.
What happens there?
It’s the best club in Europe! It’s a converted East German power station. It runs from Friday night until, I think, Monday night. Maybe even Tuesday morning. The great thing, when you get to a slightly advanced age, is you can go at midday on Sunday. Chris and I sometimes go with friends for two hours, have a couple of drinks, then go out for lunch! (Laughs) You stand at the bar, you hear what they’re playing, it’s quite interesting. I can’t really be bothered with clubbing now though — I’ve put in forty years. I deserve a long service medal!
You know how everyone’s gone bonkers for this new album and seems genuinely very excited for it?
How does that make you feel about the way people responded to the last album?
The reception was quite muted.
I think we feel frustrated about the last album because we don’t like to feel boxed in as to what we’re ‘meant’ to write and record and put out. Chris and I had for a long time wanted to make a ‘Los Angeles’ album, with a very smooth sound, and we made that album with ‘Elysium’. I mean one track, ‘A Face Like That’, could be on the new album. In some ways it should be. I think it’s an amazingly good album, I’ve got to be honest with you. It’s one of the albums I feel most proud of. But for people who don’t really know us, and have a sort of an idea about us, ‘Electric’ is more what the Pet Shop Boys are meant to be. And it was interesting making that album with Stuart. What’s strange with this album is that Stuart decreed, at the start, that we would work on the songs in alphabetical order. And they’re still in that order, so it starts with ‘Axis’ and finishes with ‘Vocal’. ‘Love Is A Bourgeoise Construct’ was originally just called ‘Bourgeoise’, which is why it comes after ‘Bolshy’.
What, the whole album recorded in alphabetical order?
Yes! ‘Axis’ was the first song that was finished, and ‘Vocal’ was the last.
Broadly speaking, you worked on all the tracks at the same time, though?
Not really, no. There was one point when I had to go away somewhere for a few days and I said, “can we work on ‘Bourgeoise’ when I get back?”. I got back and Chris just went, “sorry, we worked on that while you were away because it was next in the alphabet”.
Did you ask Stuart why you were working in alphabetical order?
It’s pointless to argue with Stuart. In the same way that Stuart has, in the studio, daytime television on. Which is fine. But he has it with the sound up. (Looks aghast) This is unique in my experience. I normally ask for the TV to be turned off as I find it too distracting. Stuart wasn’t turning the television off. “It gives a rhythm to the day,” he said. You’ve got the property programmes, then the news, then this quiz programmes, then children’s TV, then you go home. I was in Peter Jones the other day buying a lead and they had one of those shit quizzes on the TV there…
The Chase is good, with Bradley Walsh.
Oh we only had the BBC on. We had Escape To The Country.
Before you go any further, what lead were you buying in Peter Jones?
My luggage got lost between Bogotá and Mexico City and I’ve got a new MacBook which, annoyingly, has a different size charger. Which I think should be illegal. Anyway, I had to get a new one, so I did. And of course, at that point, my bag reappeared.
You’ve covered Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The Last To Die’ for the new album. What would you like Bruce Springsteen to think of your cover?
I’m sure he’s going to think, “wow, that’s a good song I’ve written”. We’ve brought out its full potential. It was Chris’ sister who suggested that. It’s got a very good guitar riff, so of course you immediately think, “great, that’s the synth riff”. Then in the studio we turned it into a vocal riff. It’s a powerful song, I like it.
What did it feel like being an unsigned band?
Well it didn’t last very long. We were out of contract the day ‘Elysium’ was released. Actually, they had six months to pick up the option, and in fact at one point ‘Electric’ was going to come out on Parlophone. It was a very indecisive period for Parlophone, what with EMI’s sale to Universal, and partly they didn’t want to pay us the size of advance that the contract decreed, which I sort of sympathised with them over actually.
Why did you sympathise with them?
Because it was rather a large advance and maybe our record sales don’t justify it. (Laughs) Although, I don’t know, maybe market the records better? (Laughs) But then Angela, our manager, was talking to Kobalt. I was interested by them. They’re a huge publishing company, they’ve got everyone from Paul McCartney to Max Martin, but then they released Nick Cave’s album. And we actually thought that Nick Cave was quite a good comparison in a funny way to the Pet Shop Boys — a cult artist around the world. So we thought, “well, let’s see how Nick Cave does”. I was thinking, “yeah, Number 36 week one”. Actually, it was Nick Cave’s highest-charting record of his career around the world. And we thought, “oh, actually they can do it”. And at that point we signed to Kobalt.
You’ve got your own new label, x2, through Kobalt. How does it work?
With this model, Kobalt don’t pay you an advance. And an advance is sort of the ‘point’ of a traditional record label: they give you an advance, you make a record then they own the copyright, rather bizarrely. Which I’m amazed nobody’s challenged yet. Anyway, with Kobalt they don’t pay you an advance so in a sense you ‘invest’ your recording into the project, then they do marketing and distribution and manufacturing, and then you get a vastly higher payoff. Vastly higher. Assuming it sells. And it feels like a partnership, not like you’re working for someone. Actually, to be honest, with EMI it always felt like a partnership anyway.
You mentioned Max Martin and Paul McCartney just then. Who’s best?
You can’t really… I mean if you were to look at career overall, Paul McCartney hands down. But Max Martin helped to create the modern sound of pop music.
So who pays for a video now? Obviously the artist always ends up paying for the video anyway, but when it came to ‘Axis’ for instance, did you think ‘Parlophone would have paid fifty grand for this video’?
Parlophone would never have paid that.
Are you more careful with your money now?
We were careful with it anyway, with Parlophone. The period when we spent the most money on videos, believe it or not, was ‘Nightlife’. Those videos were all phenomenally expensive: ‘I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More’, ‘You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk’… The record didn’t sell that badly, you know, around the world. I’ve got a few gold discs in a box somewhere…
Do you keep all your discs in boxes?
In my house in Durham, there’s a place that we used to use as a studio, and in the toilet there are some gold discs. It’s a very random selection of gold discs: a Taiwan gold disc for ‘Very’, for instance.
Why do people put gold discs in toilets?
It’s because you don’t want to… Well actually, they’re not that great looking really. But it’s great to have them, I’m not knocking that! It’s good in a toilet so people can sit there and look at them. It’s a sort of ‘not taking them too seriously’ thing…
Is it a bit of a humblebrag?
It’s not a humblebrag.
Well, sometimes it is. It’s the one room of the house that you know people will visit.
Now you see, you’re looking at that as someone with no gold discs. (Guffaws) And let’s focus on which toilet they’re in. Mine are in the toilet of the studio — only used by me, Chris and Pete Gleadall. If you want a humblebrag — we worked with Blue Weaver in 1985 — he did the song ‘I Want A Lover’ on our first album — and in his toilet was a multi-platinum disc for ‘Staying Alive’. Now, I was impressed by that, humblebrag or no humblebrag. One way to handle hold discs, which don’t really work as art, but I’ve seen this in other rock stars’ houses, is just to have a corridor RAMMED with them. Now that looks great, and it does, almost, turn into art.
With this new label you’ve started, is there anyone you’d like to sign to it?
Yes but we don’t know who. The problem is that I don’t like that much stuff at the moment. I hate all acousticy stuff. I used to say, many years ago, ‘I’ve got this vision of a blonde boy playing guitar, at Number One in the charts’. This was when the Spice Girls were huge and a boy playing guitar having a hit was inconceivable. And now here we are.
It’s interesting at the moment that most pop seems to be one of two extremes: on one end very subdued and on the other really boshing ‘EDM’ or whatever…
It would not be a bad idea if the two extremes came together. I wish people would rediscover poetry. I don’t mean Wordsworth — although there would be no harm in that — I mean: “This is what it sounds like when doves cry”. Who’s going to write that nowadays? It’s an amazing line. I don’t think it even occurs to anyone now that there’s a subject for a song other than oneself.
If someone came out with ‘When Doves Cry’ now, don’t you think they’d be shot down as pretentious?
No. I don’t think they would. If ‘When Doves Cry’ came out now, you’d think it was amazing. But at the moment it seems there’s no imagination, imagery, or a subject other than oneself… There’s no imagery or metaphor.
There’s quite a lot of metaphor on the Demi Lovato album. Well, ‘Skyscraper’ is a simile, but it’s a strong one.
Maybe I should listen to that.
How about inventing a pop band? You can do this now!
We can — don’t think Chris hasn’t suggested it. Chris, in fact, wants to launch a range of hotels called x2. The hotel thing gets mentioned all the time. He also, always, wants to launch a range of underwear.
Would it be worth the BBC approaching you to be a coach on The Voice?
Have you already said no?
No, but I have already said no to American Idol. We talked about this at Glastonbury, I think.
Yes we did.
American Idol approached me when Simon Cowell left to do American X Factor, to see if I would be interested in being considered to replace him. They wanted me to fly to Los Angeles for an interview with them and, frankly, I didn’t want to fly to Los Angeles for a half hour interview. I said, “I’ll do a conference call”. I was at my house in Durham, and my dog was barking all the way through it. Anyway, they were very nice. The man talking to me was FRENCH! You don’t expect that, do you? “Neil!” he says. “We love you! You’re so opinionated!” And I said, well, I’ve never seen American Idol but I don’t like the sound of it. “Well this is why we love you! You’re so opinionated!” And I said, I’ll probably just be really rude to everyone. “This is why we love you — you’re so opinionated!” (Sighs) Anyway, I got them to send me a DVD of the programme. I watched the first two minutes and I just thought, “I can’t do this”. I couldn’t do the bit where you come out, holding hands with the judges, and just stand there. I was flattered to be asked, though.
You seem like quite a strange choice for American Idol.
Do you know what they wanted? I think they wanted a bitchy gay Englishman, and I think someone said, ‘get that guy from the Pet Shop Boys’. Well that’s what I assume. My issue, as much as anything else, was that I don’t think it’s possible to be ‘Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys’ and ‘Neil Tennant, American Idol judge’. I think the Pet Shop Boys ‘project’, as we call it nowadays, would have been totally compromised and I would have just become Neil Tennant the TV personality. I’ve never had any interest in that sort of thing — and I’ve had some quite interesting offers over they years to present arts programmes for BBC2 and Channel 4.
What did you think of the Daft Punk album?
It’s very ambitious. This has been the year of two amazing marketing campaigns: David Bowie’s, and Daft Punk’s. They both revolve around neither artist having made a record for a while and creating a lot of anticipation.
He says, releasing his second album in the space of a year.
Exactly! (Laughs) The total opposite of what we’ve done. But they’ve also been about selling an idea. If you compare it with us, we go to Los Angeles, we make an album, we use the people who sang on Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and all the rest of it, but we don’t make a big deal of that. We mention it in passing — we don’t say ‘we’re making a classic Los Angeles album and we’re drawing upon the history of Los Angeles to do that’. We don’t like to do anything that’s retro. We like to think, in our own way, that we’re moving on. Although with Daft Punk it’s exciting to think they’ve worked with Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers. It’s a soft rock album really, isn’t it?
It’s interesting that people have said ‘oh here come Daft Punk showing the EDM lot how to make dance music’, because it’s not really a dance album. It would have been great if they’d stormed back with a smart electronic album to show the world that yes, you can actually make bright and brilliant dance music… This feels a bit like backing away from the fight. I mean if you walk away from a fight you win in a way, but not as much as you win by knocking someone out.
I mean on Nile Rodgers’ tracks he’s really earning his share — the first track is really just Chic, isn’t it. Have you read the Nile Rodgers book? It’s very good. He defines a pop song: the verse is only an excuse for the chorus, and the chorus is only an excuse for the breakdown. I said to Chris, ‘we should paint that on the wall of the studio’. It’s totally true. What I like on the Daft Punk album are the ballads: track two, for instance. They sound like Art Garfunkel is about to come on and sing. It feels like a very interesting and luxuriously created and expensive record and the idea is presented that this isn’t the sort of thing people do nowadays, although if you go to Los Angeles or Nashville you’ll find people doing that seven days a week. But they don’t have a computerised vocal on it.
Who would you like to produce your next album?
Stuart Price. ‘Electric’ is the first album in a trilogy. I think it works, as an idea. The way the three of us work together is unusual, it’s not like any other album experience we’ve had. He seems to bring out the best in us, and he has the nerve to totally overrule us, which is probably quite a good thing.
Would you let him join the band?
He can play live with us if he likes, but I don’t think he’d want to join the band. The Pet Shop Boys is a duo.