Pet Shop Boys: Pet sounds

From Greig to Queen, from Eno to The Killers, you'll hear them all in the Pet Shop Boys' perfect pop world. Chris Mugan watches the synth sophisticates at work in the studio

Wednesday 17 July 2013 01:05

As locations for through-the-keyhole exposés, recording-studios can be unrewarding places. Indeed, the one owned by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys, in a quiet part of central London between Shoreditch and Clerkenwell, is as utilitarian as you'd expect.

It is, however, also clean and chic, with comfy seats and a cream curtain along one wall. The opposite wall is filled with racks of electronic equipment, and keyboards and synthesisers take up most of the middle space. It is the room of a team who keep to a routine, yet the pair are polite hosts. Tennant ushers their PR officer out and brews up himself. "He does a nice cup of tea," says Lowe in his light west-Lancashire accent, more garrulous than his po-faced image in publicity stills would suggest.

His musical partner returns to take command, in a dry, clipped North-eastern accent pitched somewhere between Alan Bennett and a cool English teacher. He could be a writer talking about his forthcoming local history of the North Shields, rather than a pop star about to make a cutting-edge album. "I quite like working here," he says. "It's good having a routine when you're trying to write songs. I get the Tube, commute from Chelsea to Blackfriars. It's like having a job. We do 11am to 6pm."

Never mind the old adage "have guitar, will travel"; the modern set-up is just as portable. Much of their last album, 2002's Release, was recorded at Tennant's Co Durham home, and the same gear also goes on tour with them. "It's been at Glastonbury. Recording and live gear is all the same thing nowadays," Tennant says. "We recently had the studio in Naples. We decided it would be quite nice to go somewhere else for two weeks. We hired a room overlooking the Bay of Naples. Beautiful view - we could see all the way to Capri."

"They have some great DJs down there," Lowe interjects, name-dropping the New York house legend David Morales and the French electro upstart Miss Kittin. "I sang 'West End Girls' with her on stage," Tennant adds. "I was going to do 'Passion' by The Flirts, but I didn't know where I was after the first song."

The all-girl Eighties trio created by the pioneering American producer Bobby Orlando turn out to have been an important influence on the Pet Shop Boys, especially in the elegantly simple tones and disco beats on "Passion", as Tennant explains. "That was the record Chris acquired when we had just started writing songs together, and he said: 'This is what we should be like.' Then, a year later, we were working with Bobby 'O'."

Now The Flirts are one of the Pets' picks for their instalment of Back to Mine, the compilation CD series that gives the likes of The Orb and New Order the chance to share with fans what music they listen to at home. Tennant and Lowe have provided a disc each, which together plot a freewheeling route through classical composers such as Elgar and Greig, as well as Italian disco, electro and Dusty Springfield, with whom the group worked in the late Eighties.

Tennant is especially proud about how the discs together show the Pets' influences. "If you played my album over Chris's, you'd get his basslines and electro bits with my strings over the top; you'd get our sound.

"I think we both like music with a lot of emotional content," he continues. "There's a song on Chris's disc that we were going to do with Dusty, 'Ti Sento'. She was always very good at those Italian ballads, like 'You Don't Have to Say You Love Me'. It came out about the time we were working with her, but we always thought we'd do another record with Dusty."

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"She'd have enjoyed working today," Lowe adds. "Dusty would have put her voice through an auto tuner. She'd have gone, 'If a computer can do it...'"

It helps that the pair had different ways of selecting their tracks. Lowe plumped for The Flirts among a selection of dance obscurities that range from camp disco to a full-on gospel choir. This leads to discussion of how dance music has got progressively faster, at least outside London. "When we were last on tour we came across that," Lowe says. "You didn't come out, Neil, but we found a rave in some farm in the middle of Dorset. We were in this pub, and these lads said this thing was on. And there it was, in this farmyard."

He admits that his selection is made up of tracks he would play to people after they had come back after a night out, including Queen's "The Show Must Go On". I wonder whether this is one of those guilty pleasures - a record you normally wouldn't want your mates to know you enjoyed. "I love that record and I'm not ashamed to say so," Lowe says. "I think it's their best song."

"That's totally against our ethos," Tennant butts in. "We don't respect the idea of cool."

"I have no shame," Lowe continues. "It reminds me of being at school or uni, because I was the only one that admitted liking 'Bodytalk' [by Imagination]. What really got me was when we used to go out at the weekend, have a really good time dancing to disco, and then everyone would listen to something different and say it was rubbish."

Tennant, meanwhile, chose his favourite tracks for late-night listening. This sophisticated chill-out album takes in classical orchestration, modern minimalist compositions and ambient electronica, apt for a character who, although a partygoer, is avowedly happy with his own company.

"I just went through all the CDs that were by the player, and that took up a large part of the album. Then I added things so you could go between electronic, ambient and classical music."

Through his long-standing devotion to classical music, Tennant discovered the German composer Torsten Rasch, who was brought on board to score the orchestral parts to the Pet Shop Boys' soundtrack for Sergei Eisenstein's classic 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, about a 1905 uprising by Russian sailors. Tennant and Lowe had been commissioned to write a new score ahead of the film's screening in Trafalgar Square last September. In the end, they were pleased with how their sounds and the orchestra meshed.

"There's always that problem with electronic music, what's live and what isn't," says Tennant. "What's the point of being there? Sometimes Chris just stands around." Lowe agrees - and exclaims, "Why am I playing this? It's all in the computer. There's literally no need for me to be here." "Because they're paying to see you do it," Tennant answers. "People think the music gets into the computer by some weird system that doesn't involve you playing it, when of course you put it in yourself. It's just recorded and then you fiddle around with it. People say Kraftwerk sound great live and of course they do, because there's no live elements."

Since then, the group have been inundated with offers to take Potemkin on the road. So far, though, they have agreed to perform this autumn only in Germany, ahead of the release of their soundtrack.

They are more comfortable talking about their forthcoming album, in its early stages and due for release next year. Judging by a snippet of work-in-progress, synthesised sounds are back to the fore. This is a departure from Release, which featured more guitar-based arrangements, thanks mainly to Johnny Marr (since Tennant contributed to Electronic's first single in 1989, Marr and the Pet Shop Boys have often collaborated).

"The next album's definitely going to be more epic," Tennant argues. "We haven't done that for a long time, and the songs we've been writing are more like 'It's a Sin'. We've been working with Trevor Horn again [he produced 'Left to My Own Devices'] and he wants us to do something that sounds like Pink Floyd."

Lowe, though, insists their next album will be a pop album. "We're trying to do pop songs at the moment. It was quite a nice break to do long stretches of music that didn't need so much structure, but it's not influenced the new album. Though we are going more electronic."

Is that a reaction to the more guitar-orientated Release? "It's not only that, it's just that all these keyboards that we used to have," He points to the instruments in the middle of the room. "They are all plug-ins for the computer now." Suddenly animated, Lowe heads to a computer with a couple of screens over by the window. He brings up a variety of keyboards on the monitor that look exactly like old-style synths, even the sort of archaic telephone exchanges where Brian Eno would plug in the cables.

"They are all in here and they exactly like they used to be, even these vintage analogue keyboards we used to have. It's just given it a new lease of life and made it really exciting again."

It must also help that the state of pop has improved. While Release was written for charts dominated by Pop Idol clones, now there has been a renaissance in acts with attitude. Tennant, a former Smash Hits journalist, immediately voices his enthusiasm. "What we've had in the last year, even less than that, is suddenly what I really like - pop music with integrity and presented really well. Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs..."

Lowe adds The Killers.

"Now, that is a fantastic pop record," Tennant continues. "We've played Las Vegas twice and [The Killers' front man] Brandon Flowers saw us both times. I did wonder how this new generation would get on, so it's nice they are coming through. The Kaiser Chiefs' drummer came up to me at the NME awards and said, 'My Dad went to school with you.' I said, 'I'm not old enough.'

"Gwen Stefani, the Scissor Sisters. With Rufus Wainwright and Sondra Lerche, you just go for the talking between songs as much as anything. You feel more at home in the music scene. It feels more creative. We've been waiting for boys in groups to start wearing make-up for years."

"You have a sense of belonging," Lowe adds. "Like with clubbing, you can imagine slotting us right in there. We feel we have more relevance."

As his singing partner ends an anecdote about how you can hear his vocals in Kylie's current show, Lowe wraps up the session. It is 6pm, and work is over for another day, plus they are excited about going to see the Billy Elliot musical. The Pets have long been known for their irony, but they still have enthusiasm to spare.

'Back to Mine: Pet Shop Boys' is out now on DMC

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