The Pet Shop Boys—Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe—formed in the mid-’80s and became the premier English synth duo of the decade’s second half, scoring major British hits with “West End Girls,” “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money),” “Rent,” a deadpan takedown of the Elvis Presley/Willie Nelson classic “Always On My Mind,” and “Left To My Own Devices,” among others. Since 1993’s Very, however, they’ve mellowed some—Tennant still sings biting lyrics about consumer culture and politics and history, but his love songs have become more tender and humane over the years. Yes, featuring a clever rainbow-colored ballot-box check-mark on the cover (a not-so-veiled reference to legislation such as Proposition 8, which de-legalized gay marriage in California), is their 10th album of new material. The A.V. Club spoke to Neil and Chris separately over the phone from their London homes.
The A.V. Club: When you start writing a new Pet Shop Boys album, do you find yourself competing against your own past?
Neil Tennant: We’re trying not to think about that; it’s probably not helpful. We’re probably trying not to repeat ourselves; you don’t want to do that, though that’s probably impossible not to, to some extent.
Chris Lowe: We never really look back. Actually, we really enjoy writing songs and making records. Sometimes when you work with a producer, they’re looking toward a period that was part of their youth or whatever—they might have a vision for you based on your [own] past.
AVC: Does that happen with you when you’re producing other artists?
CL: I think you do. I think sometimes an artist can really lose sight of what made them popular in the first place. For example, when Dusty [Springfield] came in [to work on “What Have I Done to Deserve This?,” from 1987], she asked, “What do you want me to sound like?” Sometimes you can forget what you’re about. That’s the producer’s role: for a song to be fully realized.
On this album, we worked with Xenomania, who’ve produced [popular UK pop group] Girls Aloud. We started writing upbeat electronic pop songs, and we thought they’d be the best producers for it. The demos are almost there; the producers just help made it better. Three of the songs were co-writes; it was a true collaboration. We’ve learned something from that. They had an idea what the Pet Shop Boys should sound like. They write a different type of melody, which is more hooky than our more melodic style. They will write more than one thing; they’ll keep writing new songs over the same backing track, where we will tend to write just the one. They’ll write several variations, and they’ll try flying it over a verse or a chorus, which is much more fluid. You get some interesting things, which might not quite work. This album doesn’t have one single theme. This one, I think, is a collection of pop songs; we got into writing upbeat pop songs, which we haven’t done in a while. We really enjoyed doing that.
AVC: Do you think of Yes as being particularly thematic?
CL: No. On the last album [2006’s Fundamental], we sort of wrote a manifesto of what we wanted the album to be about: ID cards, war on terror, fingerprinting, how we’re losing our civil liberties. This is more like a collection of greatest hits, really.
NT: Fundamental was trying to capture in songs the age of surveillance and government spying on its own citizens and database culture and all that, putting the personal and political against each other. It was about the zeitgeist. The last song on Yes is “Legacy,” and that’s about Tony Blair as prime minister, about the mess he left behind; it could apply to George W. Bush. You can get the zeitgeist accidentally.
There are [recurring themes], accidentally; there are two about celebrity, and “Vulnerable”—people think it’s me writing about me, but I often pretend I’m someone else. In “Vulnerable,” I’m pretending to be a famous woman who’s pretending to be strong. “Pandemonium” was inspired by Kate Moss going out with Pete Doherty, having a fight with a very unpredictable kind of person. I was thinking of someone very specifically. I know it could apply to a lot more people, and that’s a great thing about a pop song: It can apply generally.
AVC: How closely did you follow the U.S. presidential election?
CL: We followed the whole campaign. For the inauguration, we were in the U.S. embassy in London. It was an amazing occasion; we had Burger King and Starbucks. Fantastic atmosphere—they had one of those brass bands playing. I’ve still got the program, the invite, and the ballpoint pen with the American flag.
AVC: Are you the collector of the duo?
CL: Not really. I just bung stuff in a box. Neil keeps the diary; I just keep bits and bobs of paper and mementos.
AVC: Speaking of diaries, there have been two books following you on tour, and the Pet Shop Boys put out an art book three years ago. Have you ever thought of writing a memoir?
NT: I have, but I’m not interested in doing it at the moment. What’s nice is that I’ve been asked a lot. One day it’ll probably happen, but it’s too early; I’ve got a lot more to do.
AVC: Whose idea was the cover art for Yes?
NT: I have to say it was the designer’s idea. We were originally going to call the album Pandemonium; Yes came about because the album was sounding upbeat. We started to work on different ideas after that; it was almost too simple, too easy.
AVC: What kind of feedback have you gotten from your friends and/or family? Do you tend to play things for them, or do you keep quiet until it’s released?
CL: I used to play works in progress to people, but now I wait ’til it’s finished, because you make excuses all the time: “Well, there’s gonna be an orchestra on it.” Rather than make excuses, wait ’til it’s finished, and then they can say they don’t like it.
NT: We’ll play it to people when there’s a problem with the mix. When we played “Love Etc.,” we immediately had a great reaction to it. My father—who has passed away now, unfortunately—he heard it at the end of last year, he kept playing it on a loop. The kids liked it as well. And you learn to judge people’s reactions, what they really means. I have a friend who says everything is really good, but if she really likes it, it’s beyond great.
AVC: Last year, you produced a cover of the Passions’ “I’m In Love With A German Film Star” for Sam Taylor-Wood on Kompakt, the hip German dance label. How did that come about?
NT: Sam is a friend of ours. In 1997, we did a show for three weeks in a London theater, and Sam designed the production. She used the name Kiki Kokova; the last time we [produced a record for her], she did a version of “Love To Love You, Baby.” I’ve always loved that [Passions] song; it was a minor hit in the early ’80s. We love that chord change. Sam has this very English voice and can [sound] very sexy as well. Kompakt is one of my favorite labels. When we approached them, they really wanted to do it. I hope it’s the beginning of a minor collaboration with Kompakt.
CL: We used to release some records on our own Lucky Kunst label, but it would be easier if we licensed the record directly to Kompakt. We’ve always been excited by labels we liked; early on we wanted to be on Bobby Orlando’s label. We’ve had records on DJ Hell’s label [International Deejay Gigolos]; it’s a bit like collecting labels, really.
AVC: There’s a lot of Kompakt on Neil’s half of the Back To Mine double-CD of songs that you two chose. That collection was eye-opening. Did it take a long time to figure out what to put on it? And was anything left off that you’d really hoped to include?
NT: I could do another one. I just really had a strong idea that I wanted to mix styles of music, but have it all smoothly flow, one into the next. It’s the sort of record you can play late at night; it’s also an intimate sort of record. I really enjoyed sequencing it.
There’s a record by Jóhann Jóhansson; he does electronic music with strings. He had a single called “The Sun’s Gone Dim,” which I would definitely put on the next one if I were doing another one. Sometimes I DJ classical music, and it’s really interesting to hear it played loud, and also to mix. It’s something I’d like to do more.
CL: I think my favorite record last year was “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay. Also, MGMT’s “Kids.” [The] Back To Mine [series] kind of implies obscure records, though, rather than smash hits, doesn’t it? It takes hours going through your iTunes, because you forget sometimes what records you love. That was a snapshot of how I was probably feeling that week. My Back To Mine would change every week.