Being one of the most influential and highly regarded pop acts in the world definitely has its privileges for the Pet Shop Boys.
Case in point: Earlier this year, the duo received the high praise that is the British Phonographic Industry’s award for their outstanding contribution to British music at the 2009 Brit Awards in London.
“It’s quite a nice feeling,” out singer Neil Tennant said about the accolade. “Officially, we don’t really believe in awards, but when the music industry decides who to go to give this outstanding contribution award, it’s quite nice that they agreed to the Pet Shop Boys. You tend to think of the music business as being biased toward rock music. I think one of the reasons was it’s been 25 years this year since our first record came out. We’ve had a prolific 25 years. So it was a good feeling.”
It also didn’t hurt that the prestigious award was presented to the pair in spectacular fashion by some high-profile hit-makers, some of whom were babies (or not even embryos) when the band started out.
“What was also very nice was in Britain, you got 12 minutes of live television to put together this performance,” Tennant said. “That’s a terrifying thing. It’s a very long time in television. We put together this performance, a medley of songs, with Lady Gaga and Brandon Flowers of The Killers. It was a very satisfying performance. The production lasted 10 minutes and Brandon made a beautiful speech. I felt quite proud of the whole thing.”
The Brit Award was just the latest in a string of proud moments for Tennant and fellow Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe. The duo exploded onto the electronic/synthpop dance music scene in the early 1980s with a string of hit singles and albums (“West End Girls,” “It’s a Sin,” “Suburbia,” “Always On My Mind” and way too many others to list) that have endured much longer and more successfully than the music of many of their peers, the major exception being Depeche Mode.
Tennant distanced himself from the dark pop of Depeche and creditshis and Lowe’s approach to songwriting for the Boys’ continued and long-running success.
“For us, the most important thing is to write songs that mean things to people that can be moving, sad or make you dance,” he said. “All of life can be in them. That’s what they mean to us at the end of the day. When you get to Depeche Mode, of course they’re great songwriters, but it’s like a sound group. The Pet Shop Boys are more about melody, words and the chord changes. Also, if you listen to our albums one after the other, you know the songwriting has developed and it’s going to be a lot more sophisticated. We have more in common with a band like Steely Dan than we do with Depeche Mode because it’s quite a sophisticated approach to music that you try and make it sound simple.”
Their sophisticated simplicity is more than evident on their latest album, “Yes.” Tennant said that, unlike on their last album, neither he nor Lowe had a particular theme in mind when they set out writing and recording it.
“For the last album, ‘Fundamental,’ we had kind of a manifest about the kind of things we wanted to say about the way the world is going,” he said. “This album, we just wanted to write pop songs. You can look at it afterward and see there are subconscious things about money and fame and celebrity, but there was no overall idea at the beginning. We sequenced the album so the first half was almost like a greatest-hits record: You’ve got these very tuneful songs one after the other in different styles. The rest of the album is more experimental pop. The thing we did try to do with this album was experiment with pop songs with chord changes and structure in particular. I feel very proud of this album. It’s something quite complicated that sounds very simple.”
Some of the songs on the new album might be about fame and celebrity, but Tennant said those are two things neither he nor Lowe are concerned about or pursue as individuals.
“We don’t really operate as stars because we are not physically or mentally those kind of people,” he said. “We’re a brand, kind of like ABBA was in a way. It’s more about records. Chris keeps a very low profile. He’s always worn a cap and glasses so when he goes out people don’t recognize him. I get recognized more because I’m the face of the Pet Shop Boys.”
Speaking of their roles within the group, Tennant said their working relationship in regard to songwriting hasn’t changed much over their more-than 25 years together.
“We established early on a way of working, which is we go into the studio and we say to each other, ‘Have you got anything?’ There’s more of a Chris influence on the music because when we were making the album, I was learning to drive. We wrote the songs in my house in North England. So in the morning, I’d have a driving lesson for two hours and Chris would sit in the studio and write stuff. Then I’d come in and sing on it.”
What has changed over the years is the influence of synthpop and electronic music on popular music as a whole. For the better part of the 1980s and ’90s, electronic music was on one side of an imaginary line and rock, hip-hop and R&B seldom crossed that line. Today, many top rock and hip-hop musicians constantly employ the sounds and technology associated with electronic music.
The widespread influence of electronic music came as no surprise to Tennant, who said that innovations have always driven new music.
“The way music has developed is through technology,” he said. “It’s the way it has always developed. Jazz music was invented because someone invented the saxophone. Rock music was invented because someone invented the electric guitar. So when someone invented the synthesizer and then the sampler, everyone was going to use them. Rock bands use quite frequently as much electronics on stage as a pop band or an electronic band. Electronic-music technology advanced so much in the last 30 years in such an amazing way that it has transformed music.”
Transforming music is something that comes naturally to Tennant and Lowe, as their talents are very much in demand as re-mixers for artists ranging from mega-pop stars like Madonna and Tina Turner to rock bands like Blur and The Killers.
Tennant said he enjoys remixing other artists as much as he does writing and recording for the Pet Shop Boys.
“Doing a remix is a bit like doing a cover version because you get inside someone else’s song,” he said. “I’ve even sang on some of them because it’s fun and gives it a unique quality that we can bring. It’s a very different thing working with someone’s already-existing material than coming up with something new yourself. We do it because it’s fun.”
While the list of artists the Pet Shop Boys has remixed is impressive, Tennant said he’s been longing to work with one in particular but hasn’t yet.
“We’d actually quite like to do a record with Stevie Nicks because I think she’s got an amazing voice,” he said. “In the 1970s and ’80s, I used to hate Fleetwood Mac [Editor’s note: Didn’t we all?] because I liked punk and the rest of it. It was only in recent years that I realized what an amazing voice she’s got. I heard this song she wrote, ‘Has Anyone Ever Written Anything for You,’ and it’s such an amazing song. She’s got such an amazing voice. We like working with women, from Dusty Springfield on. We’ve just written a song for Shirley Bassey who’s making an album with the guy who writes music for the James Bond films. She’s a fucking amazing singer and she’s 72.”
The Pet Shop Boys are currently on the U.S. leg of their Pandemonium Tour in support of the new album. Tennant said the makeup of the audience at their live shows is largely affected by where they are and how the music press perceives them.
“In Germany and Belgium, the audience is really quite young,” he said. “It depends if you’re on the radio. If you’re on the radio, young people come and see you. If not, you’re an ’80s act. America is the only country where we’re classified as an ’80s thing.”
But it’s the group’s ability to tour under their own steam and not as part of some nostalgic package tour that separates it from most so-called ’80s acts.
“The Pet Shop Boys have carried on doing what they do, changing and getting better,” Tennant said. “No one says that Paul McCartney is a ’60s act. He’s carried on doing work. At one point you could regard Elton John as being a ’70s thing but he survived and does new work. That’s what keeps people going, the new work. Otherwise you just turn into a greatest-hits act.”
The Pet Shop Boys perform at 8 p.m. Sept. 6 at the House of Blues, 801 Boardwalk, Atlantic City, N.J. For more information, visit www.petshopboys.co.uk or call (609) 236-2583.