Pet Shop Boys: 'We don't think about the old stuff'
- 5 September 2012
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
After 30 years in the limelight, the Pet Shop Boys are tackling an unusual subject for a pop album - ageing and death.
The Pet Shop Boys are sprawled at opposite ends of a sofa in a perfectly white room on the top floor of their record company's London headquarters.
Neil Tennant, professor of pop and deadpan frontman is on the right, alert and well-groomed.
His partner in crime for the last 30 years, Chris Lowe, is on the left, slouched and sardonic in jeans and a sports T-shirt.
They are here, ostensibly, to discuss their 11th studio album, Elysium.
But, as is often the case with the polymath pop group, the conversation becomes a survey of the entire music scene.
Tennant holds forth on the state of US dance music: "It is the sound of a Las Vegas pool party. The music, and the things they sing, are so crass."
Then he argues in favour of rising concert ticket prices: "If the public were allowed to go through the accounting of the tour, they'd realise why the tickets were expensive."
Lowe, meanwhile, is mystified by the new host of Radio One's breakfast show.
"Nick Grimshaw? The middle-aged architect? What on earth's he doing on Radio One?
"Actually, what a great idea! Why not get a middle-aged architect to do the Radio One breakfast show?"
"And get Zaha Hadid for the morning show!" laughs Tennant, crediting the station's listeners with a fuller complement of cultural reference points than perhaps its controllers do.
But then, the Pet Shop Boys have never been ones to under-estimate their audience.
Their songs discuss capitalism (Opportunities), ID cards (Integral), and relationships of convenience - both personal (Rent) and political (I'm With Stupid).
Elysium is named after the Greek word for paradise and finds Tennant ruminating about ageing and death.
On Invisible, he discovers to his horror, that "after being for so many years the life and soul of the party... I'm invisible".
The closing track, Requiem In Denim and Leopardskin, is a first-hand account of a friend's funeral.
"It's always interesting when you write songs and realise what's going on in your subconscious," says the singer.
"In the past five years, my parents have both died, so I suppose that changes your relationship with the world.
"It makes you think about death, because when your parents die you've moved into the front line, as it were," he adds with a wry smile.
Surprisingly, then, Elysium is an uplifting listen, Tennant's vocals buoyed on a sea of warm electronics and supple strings.
The record's working title, the band confess, was HappySad.
"It's one of our trademarks," says Lowe. "Even when we're superficially sounding uplifting, there's quite often a morose underbelly."
If that suggests the band have followed a strict template for the last three decades, it's a charge they deny.
"We don't really think about the old stuff," says Tennant. "People think you're going to sit down and go, 'let's re-write It's A Sin'.
"It's much more haphazard than that. If we're going to be influenced by something, it's probably going to be a contemporary pop record."
One recent influence was Kanye West, specifically his searingly personal 808s And Heartbreaks album (written, coincidentally, in the wake of his mother's death).
The Pet Shop Boys hired West's producer for Elysium, hoping to harness some of that raw, soulful power.
Tennant describes the results as "luxurious", trading the "sturm und drang" of their mid-80s pomp for a more spacious, elegant brand of pop.
Fundamentally, though, their recording methods remain the same. You might not hear a cacophonous orchestral crescendo, as in Left To My Own Devices, but the Pet Shop Boys are still cramming instruments into every available cavity.
"There's a 20, 30, 40-piece orchestra on two-thirds of the album," says Tennant. "It's just that it's barely audible."
"The music hasn't got simpler, it's often the reverse," adds Lowe. "And sometimes, in order to achieve simplicity, it takes a surprising amount of musical parts."
The band's songwriting has undergone one revolution, however, thanks to Tennant's phone, which has become a repository for song sketches and lyrical ideas.
"I sing-song ideas onto it. And then, if I'm randomly playing my iPod, you hear some ghastly thing that's just street noise and me going [sings randomly] 'zaa shnaya, aaargh nnnneiieghah'.
"The problem is that, in your head, you hear the chord changes - but when you hear it two months later, you can't tell what the chord changes were. You just hear this incredibly derivative, awful melody and you think: 'Why did that seem so good I had to rush out of this shop and sing it round the corner to myself?!'"
One song that survived from a phone demo was Elysium's first single, Winner.
Released during the Olympics, its lyrics, "You're a winner / I'm a winner / Let's enjoy it all while it lasts," became something of an unofficial soundtrack to the games - played between every tennis match at Wimbledon.
But Tennant says it wasn't written specifically for the event. In fact, he originally wanted to give it away.
"We thought it sounded like a boy band song," he says. "It's even got the key change."
"And the bit where the fireworks can come down on X Factor," says Lowe.
"I was also thinking vaguely about Eurovision," Tennant discloses.
"The BBC have asked us a couple of times if we'd be interested in writing a song for Britain's entry. Our feeling about it was that if we had the right song then we wouldn't be embarrassed in giving it to them, and this felt a bit Eurovision-y."
Tennant is cagey on whether the band would have performed at Eurovision - but he believes he has an answer to the UK's poor showing at recent contests.
"British artists - Elton John or David Bowie - have not traditionally wanted to do it because they think it looks too crass. But now reality television is possibly even more crass than Eurovision.
"So I think the winner of X Factor should represent Britain. The timing is perfect. And you will get the A&R input, either good or bad, that goes with that."
But how would he resolve the inevitable tension of an ITV reality show star making their big debut on a BBC show?
"They should just give it to ITV," says Lowe. "I mean, no-one watches it, do they?"
Elysium is out on 10 September on Parlophone Records.