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Making Music interview

Making Music magazine

“Couple of guitars… turn it up nice ‘n’ loud… off you go”

Not content with merely revolutionising electronic pop, the Pet Shop Boys – with a little help from Johnny Marr – have now added guitars to the mix to perfect a suitably shiny and tyiclly astute hybrid.

Andy Basire met Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe to discuss changing perceptions, finding another “side” to Eminem and the “great love” to one Mr Peter Mandleson.

Right, just to recap for those of you who have been looking out of the window and not paying attention, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant met in London way back in 1981. Neil was working for Smash Hits magazine, Chris was studying architecture and they were both demoing songs in Ray Roberts’ studio in Camden. In 1983, Neil – on a trip to interview the Police – took the opportunity to approach legendary “disco” producer Bobby O, who agreed to produce their first single “West End Girls”, actually inspired by Grandmaster Flash’s “The message”. Eighteen months, two more singles (“One More Chance”, “Opportunities”) and a haty piece of Parlophone contractual jiggery-pokery to get them out of the Bobby O contract later, “West End Girls” would be re-recorded by Stephen Haugue – at a slighty slower tempo and with fewer verses – and would reach No. 1 in the UK and US charts.

The rest – inclusing massive record sales, huge theatrical live events, several high profile collaborations, and some of the most beautifully crafted pop moments of the last 20 years – is, as they say, history. Bringing things back up to date, Chris and Neil are now sat sipping mineral water in the Groucho club, discussing their new guitar based album “RELEASE” with Making Music. Hold up “guitar based ?” Neil smiles.

“We used to slag off guitar music in the 80’s”, he concedes, aware of the huge leap some people will need to make in associating PSB with guitars. “All that big stadium rock”, he grimaces. “But the Pet Shop Boys has never been entirely electronic – we were never like, say Kraftwerk or Depeche Mode, there were guitars and pianos on the first album and we’ve always used orchestras.”

“For this album, Chris suggested that I start working with guitar so rather than putting big string pads down we’d use guitar. Chris had also decided to use “real” drum sounds this time rather than electronic drum sounds. Our approach was actually still the same but we just used different sounds.”

“We out down the rhythm track using real drum samples from the Akai and real bass lines”, adds Chris, “then the guitar was added, which takes up quite a lot of space, so we used less keyboard than normal”. He pauses, then frowns, “Anyway, why should we be limited in what instruments we use, it’s ridiculous…”

I tell them someone in the Making Music dengeons had wondered if Neil could actually plat the guitar he’d been photographed with in some of the latest press shots, and he laughs.

“I began playing the guitar when i was 12”, he says, shaking his head. “Admittedly, I’m not brilliant, but I did teach our live guitarist Bic (Hayes, previously of Dark Star) some chords”. (The recent touring party also included Mark Refoy (ex-Spiritualised), percussionist Jody Linscott – who’s claim to fame, Chris informs me, is that she’s the handclap in the Lindum – and long term programmer Pete Gleadall).

“I was showing them the showbusiness chords” he grins and Chris chuckles, “things like major D #m7b5. In fact, when we last played Glastonbury, at one point in the set the only music accompanying my vocals was my guitar playing”.

The fact remains, however that some sections of the music press have failed to laud “RELEASE” in quite the same way they have previous efforts. Perhaps, given that the Pet Shop Boys were far more likely to be seen sporting an ironic arched eyebrow than anything as crass as a musical instrument, it’s not too suprising that some initial reactions have been, well, a little confused.

“I think this is the first time we have really presented ourselves as musicians”, Neil agrees, “Certainly a different perception to us to what people like your friend in the office are used to. We havn’t worked in this way before – we have purposely always made it look as effortless as possible”.

Chris :”We’ve always played down the musicianship angle because that was not ever the point. I guess it’s almost an anti-punk rock thing – using your limitations to create your style”.

Neil nods emphatically, “I think we more or less invented having all of the quipment off the stage. With the development of in-ear monitoring we realised that we could keep the stage clear and present the show as a theatrical event, so I guess we’ve come full circle. We still have a production, but it’s a new way for us”.

“Having said that, we are musicians and we’ve written a great many songs using a comparatively straightforward songwriting approach over the years”.

Recorded, with the help pf Johnny Marr, at their studio in Neil’s house in the North East of England (Chris : “It’s very portable because we take it on tour with us. It’s based around Logic and a Mac, and that generates a selection of Akai samples, we also use a Joni and a couple of NordLeads”), Chris insists “RELEASE” was very much infulenced by location.

“The sound of the album was affected by being very isolated, which was good really, because when you’re in London you spend so much time going out. We also weren’t bombarded with information, so what we wrote came from within. I think alot of of the influences have come, albeit subconciously, from our childhood, “I Get Along” definatley has a 70’s feel”.

Neil : “Johnny came up and immediately said “Moot The Hoople”
“Then when he played in it he made it more Moot The Hoople” laughs Chris.
Neil : “Another thing is that in the last year there has been something of a resurgence in early 80’s electronic music – it’s become fashionable again, so we quite liked the idea of suprising everyone by turning up with guitars instead. but regardless of what you do, people will always have expectations”.
Chris : “Having said that, all the people that came along to the university tours seemed to love it. We have had some resistance from electronica buffs in the States, but I think it’s more of a way of life over there”.

Equally as important as what’s plucked, banged or prodded on any Pet Shop Boys album is the lyrical content. Rather like the Housemartins, Neil Tennant regards the opportunity to speak to many thousands of people as being far too important to be thrown away on all the standard “moon in june”-isms.

“What we do is put very conversational things into lyrics”, Neil explains, “the kind of thing that someone might say in the middle of a row like, “you only tell me you love me when you’re drunk”, so hopefully there’s somekind of realism there. A lot of lyrics are songwriting cliches, and I like to try and bring onto the music the sort of lyrics that you don’t generally find in songs”. Such as, for example the one we’re reffering to in the office as “the Peter Mandelson – Tony Blair love song” (“I Get Along” ?

Chris has a major laughing fit, leaving Neil to explain, “We always have downtime in the studio where I’ll sit and read what’s going on in the world, and it was all over the papers that Mandelson couldn’t get in touch with Blair andmight never see him again – it was so like the end of a love affair so that’s how I wrote it up. mandelson’s press secretary was asked for a quote, but we were told “Mr Mandelson only listens to jazz and classical music”…

“… and only eats guacamole, pretentious git”, cackles Chris.

Then of course there’s…

“The Eminem lyric ?”, Neil cuts me short, “Yes, that one’s coming up a lot. That was a story about Eminem being homophobic, to which he replied, he’s just representing the ugly side of America and playing a character, so I decided to play a character as well. I chose a gay kid who’s going to see this rapper, gets a backstage pass and ends up spending the night with him. Alot of rappers are unbelievably misogynistic and anti-gay, but why should it be an insult if someone is gay ? It is not insulting, its a fact of life. I know for a fact that some of the big rappers are gay, not Eminem, but I just liked the idea of taking something really ugly and putting it in a charming, warm, human context. And let’s not forget that “Stan” is the only ever explicitly gay love song to get to number one !

“I must admit that i get more upset by the constant use of the word ‘bitch’, which frankly gets on my nerves – I simply dont believe it’s ironic. Rap never started out like that – Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Baambaataa and the Sugarhill Gang were never like that, it was about lyrical inventiveness”.

Chris : “The trouble is, musically, its fantastic, still is. Someone like Dr Dre is an absolutley fantastic producer”.

Our time is almost up, tickets to America need to be distributed, press pictuires need to be poured over, lunch needs to be discussed (a posh one, accompanied by another interview for Neil, falafels and a mull over the tabloids for Chris) and equipment needs rescuing from the BBC. Small talk turns to the magazines recent “sampling equals stealing” debate, which Neil, quite rightly says goes way back beyond the invention of small electronic boxes.

“Oh, that’s always been an issue hasn’t it ?” he says, “I’d have been a bit pissed off if i’d been one of those blues singers listening to Led Zepplin’s first album. Then theres that whole thing of copyrighting folk songs – both Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan have done that…”

Chris is frowning, “Wait, wait, are you saying that you can claim copyright for a song that has already been written ?”

Neil explains, “If you and I took an old song, let’s say “Greensleeves” for example, and did a dance version, we could credit the song ‘trad arr / Tennant / Lowe’, “House of the rising sun is an absolute classic example”.

Chris is still perplexed, “But how do you do that ? I don’t understand”

Neil again : “It’s out of copyright, and we would done the arrangement”

The penny drops and Chris’ eyes light up, “We should get a list of songs like that !”, he declares suddenly laughing like a drain.

Neil, frowning at his partner, raises his voice slighty, “As I was saying, Alan Price is credited as writing that song, and he didn’t. It’s not even credited to the Animals”.

Chris, though is by now totally obsessed with the whole copyright issue. “So when do songs go out of copyright ?” Neil side-steps the question, “The point is…” he declares, giving Chris an old-fashioned look, “The point is, that some of the songs that Led Zepplin used weren’t out of copyright. there’s all these guys living in poverty while Led Zepplin were out swanning around the world, shagging everything in sight making pots of money out of it. Although to be scrupulously fair, there is a “nusical vocabulary” involved”.

Chris is still looking thoughtful but decides to leave it – nonetheless, the seeds have been sown. So don’t be suprised if the next Pet Shop Boys album is a collection of old, out of copyright folk songs given the PSB treatment ! And don’t forget where you read it first.