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Boston’s Weekly Dig – Chris interview

Slim Shady, Here We Come
by Eric Solomon

I didn’t ask why / though he seemed like such a / regular guy / he said we could be / secret lovers / just him and me / Then he joked / “Hey man! / Your name isn’t Stan, is it? / We should be together!” / And he was passionate / I guess I would rate / him a nine out a ten / by then / I’d fallen in love – an Eminem-esque homosexual experiment from “The Night I Fell in Love” off of Release.

Step One
Being a pop-culture icon is tiresome work, and nobody knows this better than Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant. As the incomparable Pet Shop Boys, the jovial duo has exhausted the annals of cocktail party stardom. They’ve have played a Saturday night in Vegas at $58 a head; given advice to sexually frustrated housewives on MTV’s Loveline; interviewed Madonna over flutes of champagne; partied in the Hacienda’s heyday with New Order, the Happy Mondays, and the Stone Roses; been poster boys (literally) for capturing homosexuality as an artistic issue (along with Boy George, Erasure, and Bronski Beat); been stalked in New York city, chased in Argentina, and proposed to by a band of frothing man flesh in Barcelona. What’s more impressive, they’ve remained culturally and musically relevant for over 15 years, and with the unveiling of their eighth studio album – the much lauded Release (Sanctuary) – Neil and Chris have more experiential knowledge about the world of musical fame and fortune than most, if not all, pop-duo exponents from the 1980s.

“I’m not really all that surprised at how successful the album has been,” says Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys’ latest. “After all, Release was made in nearly exactly the same fashion as our previous seven albums, and,” he laughs sharply, “those seem to have done all right!” Sure enough, like their previous classics, Release was recorded at the Pet Shop Boys’ studio in Neil Tennant’s (he’s the one who sings – Chris plays keyboards) house in the Northeast of England. Despite being recorded in the same location as their previous outings, it’s no secret that Release is a fairly massive departure from their more dance-based outings like “West End Girls”, “Suburbia”, or “Go West”.

“So, maybe we could be accused of mellowing out a bit,” muses Chris. “But that’s pretty narrow-minded, I think. Just because we’re sometimes played on…” He lowers his voice substantially, “…Adult Contemporary stations these days; it doesn’t mean we’ve ditched our edge. At least, I’m pretty sure we haven’t,” he jokes. Well, I’m not sure that the Pet Shop Boys ever had an “edge” per se, but if Chris is worried about Release sounding less culturally honed than their previous work, he’s unduly concerned. Bottom line, this is still a Pet Shop Boys album, and their sound signature is stamped across Release like white on rice. So, what’s different about it then? One word: Guitars.

“That’s absolutely right,” Chris enthuses. “The sounds we’ve used [on Release] aren’t really dancey in the slightest. What we found was that the songs we liked the most, which we wrote this time around, weren’t really electronically based, and having made the decision not to program dance elements, it was very liberating in terms of songwriting. It gave us a whole lot more freedom to experiment…and consequently, the emphasis is more on guitar-based songs than strictly on production.” Of course, what Chris fails to mention in his cursory analysis of Release’s sound is that when guitars are concerned, the Pet Shop Boys only have time for the best. “It’s good to have friends in high places,” Chris reports light-heatedly on Johnny Marr’s (The Smiths, Electronic) widespread contributions to the album. “At first, Neil just did all the guitar work, and of course, it was pretty good, but he just wasn’t completely satisfied. So, I said, we do know Johnny Marr! He conceded, and the rest is history, as they say…” Chris trails off in a way that indicates that since the release of er, Release, he’s done little aside from talk about the ingredients that went into the final product. It’s all got to be a bit tiring, hasn’t it?

And to this observation, Chris perks right up. “It’s not that I don’t like talking about our work,” he divulges, “but do you have any idea how many times I feel like I’ve said the exact some words over and over again? It’s like permanent déjà vu, you know?” I do know. And so, obligingly, happily, gears are switched.

Step Two
As an Englishman, born and raised, Chris Lowe is well aware of the effect British music has had on the American music industry. Nonetheless, for the first time in nearly 30 years, there is currently no British artist residing on the American Top 40.

“Here’s what I think,” Chris answers a question he wasn’t even asked. “At the moment, English music is the most wretched, horrible thing I ever could have imagined. It’s nothing but manufactured pop,” he continues and simmers his voice to a whisper, “…if I hear one more fucking Kylie Minogue sound-a-like!” Chris erupts into a full-blown guffaw. “At this point, American music doesn’t need to be looking elsewhere for influences,” he adds. “Critics said time and time again that modern R&B is where the action is at, and I couldn’t agree more. So, that’s what happening, innit?” Chris looks for verbal approval. “Americans are moving forward musically, while the English are waiting for the second coming of Britpop to emerge.” But what about dance music? “Right, right!” he yips into the receiver. “That’s the only good British export these days, but Billboard Top 40 or whatever doesn’t seem to give a hoot or holler about that!”

But, there’s a certain irony in discussing these sorts of issues with the Pet Shop Boys, who are certainly as popular in America as they are in England. Chris has got an answer for that, too, though. “We’re pan-cultural,” he jokes. “No, really, I simply cannot account for our success with American audiences. Some of our wildest reactions – outside of Latin America, but that’s a whole story in itself – have been stateside, and Neil and I have been nothing but thankful for that.”

So, it’s been over 15 years since Chris and Neil released their debut album, Please, to a sea of pop-hungry audiences. Through dozens of hit singles and a basketful of albums, the Pet Shop Boys have accumulated more exposure to the world than most musicians can even remotely fathom. What could possibly be next?

“Death,” Chris deadpans. “I’ll cling on until Eminem’s lawyers take us for everything we’ve got [see the lyrics above for some insight into that one]! Really, though, I have trouble imagining life as an ex-Pet Shop Boy. So, I won’t.” Fair enough. Given their supernatural popularity, along with the imminent success of Release, it surely seems that Neil and Chris will be a staple in the public’s musical diet for some time to come. “All I’ve ever wanted for us,” says Chris, “is to be quality performers, both within and outside of the studio. And,” he cracks an audible grin, “hopefully to make a few hearts flutter along the way.”

Release is out now on Sanctuary Records. Catch the Pet Shop Boys at the Orpheum this Sunday, May 19, 7:30pm/$46/$36/$28.50.