Interview: Neil Tennant, Pet Shop Boys
A shorter version of this feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post and Metro.
Neil Tennant is in need of some sea air. He and Chris Lowe have just arrived at Blackpool (“the huge convoy of trucks arrived separately; we rolled up on the train”), ahead of the first Pet Shop Boys show in Chris’s home town in almost twenty years. “We thought it was about time we played it”, he muses. “It’s nice to be here, actually. I like Blackpool.”
Having booked a hotel room on the sea front, Neil has just discovered that his windows cannot be opened without assistance. “I guess it’s slightly odd”, he mutters, as flunkies come and go and window-related negotiations progress, stalling our conversation and prompting courteous apologies from the ozone-starved pop survivor.
The Blackpool date comes midway through the latest leg of the Pet Shop Boys’ seemingly never-ending Pandemonium tour. This particular show has been on the road since June of last year, with a five month break between December and May. A souvenir live album was recorded before Christmas, and the CD has been on sale since February, and yet the show rolls on, evoking unlikely comparisons with the perpetually touring Bob Dylan.
“We actually finish the whole thing with the V Festival at the end of August”, Neil assures me, unaware of the dangerous precedent set by Oasis, whose headlining set at Weston Park last year turned out to be their final performance. But while the Gallagher brothers turned in a bored, lacklustre, last-legs set that shamed their legacy, there seems little danger that disaster will strike twice, especially given this show’s recent ecstatic reception on the festival circuit. “Pandemonium” might not be the first word that you would associate with a Pet Shop Boys concert, but it’s a state of mind which Tennant and Lowe are happy to encourage.
“We always say that a lot of the pandemonium tends to come from the audience”, says Neil. “Since we started at the end of May, we headlined the Primavera festival in Barcelona, then we did a show in a castle in Italy, then we did Glastonbury, and we’ve just come back from the Balaton festival in Hungary, and playing in Munich. And I really think that all of these shows have been the best shows of our lives. I don’t know why, but the experience has been incredible and the show is very tight now. I like to think it’s a very entertaining show. It’s not a bit like anyone else’s show.”
Tomorrow’s performance at Splendour in Woollaton Park – where Tennant and Lowe headline over Calvin Harris, The Noisettes, Athlete and viral YouTube sensations OK Go – will to all intents and purposes be the same visual and musical experience which they brought to Glastonbury four weeks ago. If you caught the set on BBC Three, where it was broadcast live in its entirety, then you’ll know what to expect.
The memory makes Tennant both beam and bristle. “Glastonbury was an amazing experience. We got between forty and fifty thousand people watching. Of course, the media traditionally emphasises rock bands – they’re regarded as more important – but in fact we got an amazing reaction.”
It has been ten years since the Boys last played Glastonbury. “It’s kind of nerve-wracking, because Glastonbury has become such a big deal. Because it’s televised, it’s almost treated like a sporting event by the media, and so there’s something very competitive about it. When we first did it in 2000, we were on the main stage between two rock bands: Ocean Colour Scene and Travis. So we were wondering whether it was going to be our audience. In fact, once we got going, the audience grew and grew, and afterwards everybody said it was a big success.”
“This time, we were headlining the Other Stage. We were wondering how big the crowd would be, because we knew that Muse were on the main stage. But actually, Glastonbury isn’t a rock festival – they call it a festival of contemporary arts – so we got a huge audience before we even started, and the reaction and the energy from the audience was really remarkable.”
For anyone who still nurses memories of those impassive, static television appearances which defined the duo’s image in the Eighties, Tennant’s newly energised, openly enthusiastic performing style – complete with actual smiling, actual waving, and actual invitations to sing along – may come as some surprise. And yet he denies that playing to a festival crowd has changed his approach to his stagecraft.
“No, the show is the show”, he insists. “Maybe if you saw the transmission from Glastonbury, we were very hyped up, in a way. Because it’s a big deal, and of course it’s live on the television. And it’s a different audience. At a concert, people have paid to see you specifically. But at a festival, people have paid for the experience of a festival. So you’re very much aware that while you’re on, there’s a range of other people they could go and see. From the stage, you can see the coming and going of the audience. And at these concerts recently, we haven’t seen a lot of going!”
Of course, having an elaborate and ever-changing stage set-up will always help maintain an audience’s attention – and in this area, the Pandemonium experience is unlikely to disappoint. As Neil explains, the show is a “theatrical, multi-media experience” which splits into four distinct parts. “It’s not a story, but it has a sort of narrative impetus, that takes you through to the end. It’s a very creative show, and people can’t quite believe that it’s based around 250 cardboard boxes.”
Early in the set, as the recent album track “Building A Wall” is performed, these white boxes start to stack up at the rear of the stage, in a manner which might evoke memories of a certain legendary Pink Floyd show. But later on, as the wall disintegrates and the boxes form looser, more disorganised shapes, you might be reminded of the Turner Prize-winning artist Rachel Whiteread, and her recent “giant sugar cube” installation at Tate Modern.
“I’ve never seen the Pink Floyd show”, says Neil. “It’s much more Rachel Whiteread, although I don’t think it’s inspired by her either. Sometimes we might be playing a small theatre in Milwaukee, and sometimes we’ll be headlining Glastonbury – so you want something that’s flexible. That was our original starting point.”
The show starts with a song which, despite topping the charts for three weeks in 1988, remains the least remembered of the Pet Shop Boys’ four Number One singles. For while most people will have no difficulty recalling West End Girls, It’s A Sin and Always On My Mind, they may well have forgotten about Heart. For many years, the track was omitted from the Boys’ live set. More recently, it has been welcomed back into their repertoire.
If Tennant had ever fallen out of love with Heart, he is not about to admit it now. “The audience normally sing along, so it’s not that forgotten. And it’s a lovely song. Every night that we sing it, I think what a clever song it is: the melody and the way it’s structured. It’s a very warm song, and that’s what I really like about it.”
As for Always On My Mind, the song’s seemingly warm and heartfelt sentiments are undercut by Tennant’s final line, delivered just as the track starts to fade. “Maybe I didn’t love you”, he sings once more – and this time there’s no qualification, just a brutal full stop.
“The song is sung from the point of view of a selfish and self-obsessed man, who is possibly incapable of love, and who is now drinking whiskey and feeling sorry for himself. It’s a completely tactless song. And I guess I never told you” – here, Neil places withering emphasis on the word “guess” – “or, you know, I guess I could have held you. So actually, “maybe I didn’t love you” is a completely logical conclusion. It was written originally as a country song, and it’s a very maudlin and in my opinion slightly cynical country song. I sang it on the record like that. At the same time, it’s a beautiful melody.”
Another unlikely cover is saved for the show’s climax: Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, mashed up with Tennant and Lowe’s 1988 hit Domino Dancing. But as unlikely as the song choice might seem, Neil has a full explanation for its inclusion.
“When we were working on the last album, that Coldplay record had just come out. In fact, we heard it from EMI even before it came out. Viva La Vida was a very unusual song for Coldplay. It bears no relationship to the rest of their catalogue. It’s what we call a “four on the floor” dance record – and it sounds like a Pet Shop Boys record. We suggested doing a remix for them, and I think they were quite into the idea.”
“I don’t know if you remember what happened with Viva La Vida, but it was the first record that the public ever made a Number One hit, without it actually being released as a single. So it was too late. But Chris and I always had this idea that we would like to record it, and turn it into the Pet Shop Boys record we always felt it could be.”
“Because we have the song Se A Vida É, we thought we’d go into Viva La Vida. We call it Se A Vida La Viva, so it’s a sort of Latin section of the show. Chris had the idea of putting the Domino Dancing riff over it, and it works really well. It’s a great audience sing along as well.”
“In fact”, he continues, warming to his theme, “we were in St Petersburg on the very first day of our tour – and of course, the song is all about “St Peter won’t call my name”. So we shot some film of me wandering around the statue of Peter the Great in St Petersburg.” How very conceptual. How very Pet Shop Boys.
Although Domino Dancing’s comparatively low chart position effectively ended what Tennant has subsequently called the group’s “imperial phase”, what followed was not a dramatic fall from grace, but rather a graceful abdication of their position as the UK’s top pop act.
“You know that sort of thing is never going to last”, he explains. “So we just carried on following our instincts, and doing the kind of thing we wanted to do. In the Eighties, the Pet Shop Boys was a singles band. In the Nineties, the Pet Shop Boys became an albums band. In the following decade, the Pet Shop Boys became a touring band, as well as being a singles band and an albums band. We branched out into a variety of other projects, and we have evolved a combination of music and theatre in our performances, which I think has influenced a few people – but I also think it’s something that really only we do. Digital music frees you up for a lot of visuals, because we don’t have a drum riser on the stage, for instance. And so, twenty-five years after West End Girls, here we are. I think it’s a tribute to actually not being about fame, and not being about celebrity, but being about songwriting and creativity.”
It sometimes feels as if you’re following a seamless master plan, which you’re executing with absolute certainty. I imagine you getting together for planning meetings once a year, and deciding on your theme word for the year – like “Yes” or “Fundamental”.
What’s great is that – as we have actually written this ballet now – after we do the V Festival in August, I don’t really know what we’re doing. There’s something quite liberating about that. We don’t really think more than a year ahead, to be honest.
I’d like to know more about this ballet.
It came about because a friend of ours is a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet. He phoned me up one day, and said he’d been offered a solo slot at Sadlers Wells, as part of their summer season, and would we write something for him. He was actually thinking of a male Dance of the Seven Veils. And I said: well, I don’t know, I’m quite busy at the moment, but I’ll ask Chris. To be honest, I forgot all about it.
But by a weird coincidence, Chris phoned me up two days later and said that he’d been reading Hans Christian Andersen stories. There was this one called The Most Incredible Thing, and he thought it would make an amazing ballet. So we decided that because of the synchronicity of that, we should do this.
We met Sadlers Wells, who are an amazing organisation, and we’ve subsequently written this three-act ballet, which is a mixture of electronic music and a small chamber orchestra. It opens on March 20th next year at Sadlers Wells, and goes on, I believe, a ten week tour. It might even go to Nottingham!
We are on the map for this sort of thing.
I know you are! I think you’ve got a good theatre for dance. So hopefully it will come to Nottingham. It was very exciting. What we wanted was to update the idea of a Tchaikovsky ballet, but do it with modern electronic music.
Do you get any say over the staging, or is your contribution strictly musical?
Well, we’ve developed the story. It’s a four page story, although in fact there’s so much in that four pages, you could have made a ten hour ballet out of it. We’ve been involved with a playwright called Matthew Dunster, in developing the scenario to write the music to.
When it comes to the staging and the choreography, they do very kindly ask our opinion. But Chris and I think we should just let them get on with it, really. We don’t claim to know anything about ballet.
People have said, are you going to be in it? (laughs) Actually, there is a non-dancing role: the king. I keep hinting to people that maybe I could play it. But they haven’t taken up the hint. (laughs)