For Hard-Core Petheads: The Tennant Interview In Full

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That Out interview I did with the Pet Shop Boys has been quite a hit with the die-hard fans. So I might a well provide the entire thing. The full interview was in two parts - with Neil and Chris separately (to avoid the classic Neil chit-chat followed by Chris one-liners). It's probably not for anyone not addicted to their music and life and style, but it's crack for a few. Yes, I cannot interview them except as a fan, but if you can get past the cloying schoolgirl fawning, there's some good stuff in here. The video above, by the way, is by Derek Jarman, one of the first PSB classics. So here goes. Neil first:

Andrew Sullivan: Neil how are you?

Neil Tennant: Hi, I’m very good, how are you? Nice talking to you again.

AS: Absolutely, thank you so much for doing this.

Neil: It’s a pleasure.

AS: And thank you for the album actually, the new one anyway, which I probably illegally downloaded in America. But I promise I will buy the actual thing. Tell me, I mean one of the things I want to do with this interview is try and get through to more people that you are not, as some people in the U.S. still kind of want to believe, trapped in the 80s since pop. Not that there’s anything wrong with 80s synth pop…

Neil: We love it.

AS: I love it too. But over 20 years now, you’ve really been the soundtrack, the constant soundtrack, of many lives, especially in the context of the gay movement in these critical years. Am I over-reading these things: do you think the arc of your work covers a real period of history? Do you see it that way?

Neil: I do actually, I think you can see Pet Shop Boys’ ten albums as a sort of social history from Let’s Make Lots of Money to Love etc. They’re both sort of bookends of money culture, the “market is the only thing that counts” culture which we’ve had for over 25 years. And that’s deliberate. One of the things we do is comment on what’s going on, normally in a sort of satirical or ironic way …

AS: And within that also there is the arc of the epidemic which…

Neil: There’s a lot of songs about the AIDS epidemic.

AS: I guess it started with “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” right? Is that the first one?

Neil: Yeah, well what happened was with me, we became famous and my best friend, who I grew up with in Newcastle, was diagnosed with AIDS the same year, 1986. And, that is the description of a conversation we had. I remembered him saying in the very early days, talking about the American AIDS epidemic, and saying it was going to happen in Britain for various reasons. And we were being a bit complacent about it.

AS: Was that the funeral in “Your Funny Uncle?”

Neil: Yes, and it’s the same guy in “Being Boring.” When I grew up in Newcastle I went to this youth theater on Saturday mornings called the People’s Theater. And, sort of my first group, which was actually a folk group inspired by the Incredible String Band, believe it or not, and he was the other guy in it, and there were two other girls as well. And then we split up due to musical differences, namely because he wanted to be the Incredible String Band and I wanted to be David Bowie by that point, but you know he was a close friend and so some of that – “Being Boring” is the description of a party we had; “Your Funny Uncle,” is his funeral; “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” again, was looking back to us as teenagers a bit as well.

AS: And then we have that moment when “The Survivors,” that song…

Neil: Of course. You know I haven’t thought about this for ages, but you’re absolutely right. “The Survivors,” isn’t just AIDS, it was inspired because a girl I used to work with at Smash Hits (a British music magazine) committed suicide. And, it’s a description of her funeral and making me think about, obviously, people who died. But again teachers and artiststhe teacher is the guy we just talked about and that artist is Derek Jarman.

AS: In “suits or sequins”?

Neil: She was in sequins. I was looking around at the crowd actually. Or twin sets and pearls, that’s just being camp. I’ve always wanted to put twin sets and pearls into a song.

AS: I guess that happens with you a lot, there are certain phrases that just plop into Pet Shop Boys’ songs that one imagines were thrown off in the occasional conversation that you just like the sound of, or the feel of.

Neil: Oh I make lists of things I love. Sometimes I just string them all together. But, it’s very satisfying if you have a famous and slightly corny phrase, like ‘twin sets and pearls’ and actually it’s the rhyme that delivers you know.

AS: Or “Positive Role Model.” Tell me, am I completely crazy to think that has some possible double entendre.

Neil: No. I mean, yes you are crazy, it doesn’t. Positive Role Model is a satire about, um, rehab and sort of the AA, NA thing, which actually I think does great things for people, I know a lot of people who’ve gone through that. Again, like so many things, it actually comes from meeting someone at the club and he was saying he was back on everything. [laughs]. “Here we are, back where we were / back on everything. I want a positive role model.” It wasn’t about HIV positive, no.

AS:  The other theme that I’ve noticed, and that has shifted over the years, is really religion and <i>Fundamental<i>, which I think is your best album since <i>Behaviour<i>… That’s a dark album, I mean there’s a sense of foreboding in your recent work of, I guess the combination, as you put it, of religion and nuclear energy. You have a fear of fundamentalist religion. But, you also have a fear of the police state, which is kind of responding to some of the threat [from fundamentalism].

Neil: Well, also I have a fear of the two of them coming together.

AS: You should live in America…

Neil: Well, you should live in Britain. Actually, we don’t have fundamentalist religion, but we’re sort of starting to get it though. I find the whole surveillance society claustrophobic. I don’t see why when we’re walking down the Kings Road in Chelsea, I should be filmed by these massive cameras. The logic is, the technology’s there and somebody’s going to sell it to you, and you’re not going to be the personyou the local government, the national politician, is not going to be the person who’s going to turn around and say, ‘No I don’t think we should do that,’ in case something happens. Because then they’ll say, ‘If we had 50 big cameras that wouldn’t have happened.’ And really, music’s driven forward by technology, society’s driven forward by technology. One of my brothers actually works for a consultancy that’s been involved with ID cards. And he’s saidwell, actually he’s backtracked nowthough, he used to say, that the technology exists and they’re going to use it, so get used to it.’ And I don’t think we need a database state. I don’t think it’s healthy. I don’t think we should create an apparatus, which is open for, firstly, abuse of course, but even being cocked up by some complete moron because that’s what normally happens. They actually don’t know how it all works anyway.

AS: It’s not the conspiracy theory of history; it’s the cock up theory…

Neil: Oh I’m much more of a cock up theory person.

AS: I think anybody’s read history knows that these technologies, there are moments, I mean… just the Credit Default Swap, brilliant idea until someone cocks it up, and we have a global recession.

Neil: So we’ve been through a very dark period, let’s face it; this decade has been pretty dark really since 9/11 and the rest of it. And it wasn’t really set up to be like that was it, at the beginning.

AS: I mean, this is the sense one has that technology and the rise of a certain kind of fundamentalism, which might actually be a neurotic response to technological change in some respectsa clinging to certain certainties that reassure usbut, one gets a sense that there’s nothing we can do against this, that these forces are so powerful…and your songs in a way don’t really offer solutions-

Neil: No they don’t intend to, otherwise one would be a politician.

AS: “Luna Park,” for example, can you explain to me the metaphors in that. I mean, it’s a fairground. Is it a metaphor for the West in this period?

Neil: It’s probably even America. Someone is looking at a fairground at night and all the lights and people screaming on the Big Dipper, and the rifle range, people shooting and winning a teddy bear, and all the rest of it. I mean it’s not a particularly original metaphor, but also not really about just one country. It’s about why people enjoy being scared, and is that used politically? People go on a Big Dipper to be scared, don’t they? Do you do that politically? Because I think it is done politically, and I think America at that particular timethe American president and his cohortswere doing that.

AS: Although obviously the original terror was utterly understandable.

Neil: The original terror was understandable, yes. Of course it was, of course.

AS: It’s the job of politicians to calm that down rather than stir it up.

Neil: There was a moment, at that period, where American had the moral leadership of the world, and threw it away. And it could have been an amazing moment actually.

AS: And, Obama is a belated attempt to regain it at some level.

Neil: Yeah, I think he probably is.

AS: You have your usual skepticism.

Neil: No, no, no, we love Obama [said deadpan]. We’re <i>crazy<i> about Obama in Europe, we’re all Obama crazy, we are. I think everyone thinks he’s sexy. There’s a great picture of [German chancellor] Angela Merkel on the cover of Der Spiegel, we’re in Berlin, yesterday. She’s looking at Obama, and she just looks love lost, and he’s looking unbelievably cute and so smooth. Lovely teeth, as my mother would say.

AS: And he glides, he has a great physical fluency about him.

Neil: He actually would have made a very good cardinal, that sort of gliding across St. Peter’s square thing. He does. He’s got that kind of bearing. He’s just brought back dignity, which is an amazing thing to put back on the cultural agenda: dignity. He wears a suit so well, doesn’t he? He speaks so well. I mean one of the particularly difficult things about Bush was listening to him talk. People used to say that Tony Blair was a good orator,  which I never got cause he’s sort of a bit corny, and he did that thing of talking in tenses with no verbs. But Obama is actually an orator.

AS: It’s a strange mixture of the cadencies of the black church with the intellect of Harvard law school, which is quite a powerful combination.

Neil: It is very powerful, because he doesn’t say, necessarily, what you want to hear. Just the other day, and this is a very trivial example, he was with Gordon Brown, and as everyone in Britain has to be laddish and cool, someone from the press asks Obama what he thought of England’s chances playing Ukraine at football that night, and Obama, rather than doing that ‘down with the kids’ thing said something along the lines of ‘I have difficulty enough understanding baseball let alone getting involved in European football.’ So he just didn’t go with it, and I thought, ‘Good for you.’ At the moment he doesn’t do the bullshit.

AS: No, he actually he has a sense that he has a life, and he doesn’t need to be loved all the time by everybody in the roomhe can actually say something that someone might actually disagree with or not find that congenial. For a black man in America, to be that self-confident, and not actually have to try and pander to what he might think a majority prejudice is even more of an achievement I think, just personally as a human being.

Neil: Anyway that has transformed the world though… There’s a slightly corny song on our album called “More Than a Dream,” which was written when he was slugging it out with Hillary, and you could feel last year the potential for the world to change away from the sort of paranoia, justified as it may be, to something different. And, that’s what we’re riding at the moment, although of course we wrote that before the economic crisis.

AS: There’s a buoyancy and positivity about the new album; it’s saying however fucking grim it’s been, there’s still love, there’s still joy, there’s still possibility. This is one thing that I think is true through all your musica combination of great enthusiasm intertwined with a great sense of loss. And, in some ways, that’s the Lowe/Tenant combination. It’s loss and energy at the same time, which is a complicated thought for people to have.

Neil: It’s also romance and realism though, it’s also the ideal and the reality. The inspiration for so many of our songs comes from real life. And then it’s put maybe against a beautiful or exciting musical backdrop, and also the way in which the personal and the political interact with each other. Opposites have always fascinated me really.

AS: In some ways it’s the balance between those two opposites that keep the Pet Shop Boys alive. It’s an equilibrium you have between different things, between ballads and techno energy, and between the past and the future. You’re very historically minded.

Neil: Well I read all history.

AS: There’s always the subjunctive [in songs like] “This Used to Be the Future,” which is an immensely sad song in a way.

Neil: Well, you know, the future was going to be bright. You grew up in the same potential of the same future.

AS: When you look at the reality or the ideal of the gay movement, your music is obviously very universal in its language and its emotions but it has also spoken to gay men for the last 20 years, which is really half the time since Stonewall. How would you think of the reality and the ideal in terms of how gay lives have shifted over that time? And, how have you reflected that or tried to express that in some way?

Neil: Well, that song you referred to earlier, “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” has a bit about someone in high heels quoting magazines or something. That was my experience of gay clubs when I came to London in 1973, and gays in those days, the gay thing was all very zhuzhy. It was before clones or people dressing like skinheads or something.

AS: What was that word? Zhuzhy? Can you translate that?

Neil: Zhushy means sort of fabulous, maybe trailing a scarf, maybe wearing nail varnish, very fashion-y, maybe with long hair that you flicked back over your shoulders. Zhushy [laughs]. That’s what they used to say in London.

AS: And then what?

Neil: And then this is when I got alienated from the gay world, this is when I went through my famous heterosexual period, everyone looked the same. I never got that. To this day I’ve never got the everyone looking the same thing.

AS: The Muscle Marys?

Neil: Yeah, but this was the clones and the checked shirts and the 501s, you know.  I mean, now you can look back and it seems sort of endearingly kitsch with the same mustaches. It’s <i>Tales of the City<i>, you know, it’s that period. I found that alienating because it seemed sort of professional and narcissistic and just about doing sex really well. Do you know what I mean though? And, all of that I don’t find very sexy. [laughs[

AS: There was a personal gym here called Training for Results, and we used to called it Muscles for Sex. It perfected the art of turning the male body into the male equivalent of Samantha Fox as it were. And these would then rub against each other indefinitely. Has that changed? When I listen to a song like “Home and Dry,” it feels like this immense transition to a sense of domesticity, of familiarity, almost of the countryside, one feels. Is that just your own life?

Neil: I think that’s just part of growing older, you know. My life is still pretty urban, to be honest, but I also have a place, where we wrote this album actually, in County Durham, near the moors. “Home and Dry,” I think is really a bit of a rock starry kind of song, it’s about traveling all the time. Specifically it’s about that what I think is a very desolate feeling, flying overnight from New York to London. You wake up and the plane is bumpy and the Atlantic is below you and everyone is asleep and all the shutters are down and you can’t get the window open because it’s dark everywhere. There is something incredibly lonely and desolate about that ,and that’s really what I’m writing about. But it’s also that ‘Joni Mitchell rock star always traveling’ thing as well.

AS: Do you think that the transition from the epidemic to the period of marriage rights is something that you’ve tackled?

Neil: I haven’t tackled the sort of partnership thing, but if I did it would be satirically. It’s quite a good idea actually

AS: Have you ever thought of getting married?

Neil: No I haven’t. I haven’t been in a relationship where I’ve wanted to, firstly. I might have done it years ago but then it didn’t exist.

AS: Do you think its existence will change the way gay kids will grow up and think of their futures? Will it alter gay culture dramatically?

Neil: Being in the city when they brought it in, I said, “Well that’s great, they’re going to invent gay divorce.” And of course they did invent gay divorce.

AS: You’re not a cynic really, are you?

Neil: I’m not really a cynic. You’re right, I’m not.

AS: I’m not listening to your music and thinking cynicism is driving it.

Neil: My cynicism I don’t really put into the music. I do have cynical streaks and occasional there is something in there. My longing goes into music.

AS: There’s also a Catholic defense of love in there. I know there are a lot of songs that hysterically take the piss out of Roman Catholicism but there’s also an underlying sense of humaneness in your work that seems to be quite Catholic in its instruction.

Neil: I think I probably get that from my parents who became liberal Catholics. My parents, both who died in the last 12 months, had an amazing journey; my mother once apparently asked my sister, ‘Is Neil on of <i>them<i>, and of course they’d read I was gay in The Sunday Times. In our family it was because we never talked about sex, let alone being gay. But they went on this amazing journey where they quite liked the fact you were gay by the end, they didn’t mind that my sister was divorced and remarried, whereas in the 1970’s they would have been appalled, aghast beyond belief.

AS: But they were still Catholic?

Neil: But they were still very Catholic, and when we brought out “It’s a Sin,” it was quite interesting, because people took it really seriously; the song was written in about 15 minutes, and was intended as a camp joke and it wasn’t something I consciously took very seriouslysometimes I wonder if there was more to it then I thought at the timebut the local parish priest in Newcastle delivered a sermon on it, and reflected on how the Church changed from the promise of a ghastly hell to the message of love.

AS: Have you thought about going back to the Church?

Neil: No. Actually I’ve become less religious as I’ve got older. Even when I wrote “It’s A Sin” part of me was probably still a Catholic. The thing that I always liked about Catholicism they got rid of! I liked the Latin and the incense and the sort of music and plainsong. When I was eight years old I could sing the Latin mass in plainsong because I was an altar boy.

(Neil and Out sings Latin plainsong)

It was ghastly to hear all those boys sing. It was a like a football chant. But there was something very beautiful about that.

AS: As an observer of your music, I still feel that. When I first walked into a big gay disco which was God knows how many years ago and it was full of these lights and dry ice and music that was sort of anthemic, my first thought was, “This is like a Cathedral, this is like a Church.” The combination of this transcendent music, a lot of which was chords, like organ chords because synth pop actually has a close relationship to the kind of organ music you might have in church

Neil: Oh it does!

AS: I thought the whole thing was a sort of sublimated secular version of high Catholic drama. There is nothing more, in some ways, Broadway than the old Catholic mass. When people ask how many gay people are in the Church, you say, ‘Well, who do you think created the Vatican High Mass?’It was some tortured queen.

Neil: Particularly in the Anglican Church! The irony of them having a debate about homosexuality, I always think, “If we take all the homosexuals out, love, what’s going to be left?” Particularly in high Anglicanism.

AS: Well, high Anglicanism was where gay men went to experiment. But also that awful gay sin of gluttony, that they never know when to stop. There is a sense of which the whole thing is overwrought and overdone that you couldn’t actually see the hand in front of your face after a while. 

Neil: Yes, well I have always liked incense though.

AS: Tell me why you think America is still a relatively resistant market for you. Why are you not the household name here that you have become elsewhere in the world? I’ve heard somes theories that it was the “Domino Dancing” video.

Neil: I think that’s bollocks personally. I think in America we are filed under 80’s. The Pet Shop Boys career in America goes from 1986 to 1988, and in fact we have a continual string of hits at that point and we’re always on the radio and then suddenly, weirdly with the song “Left To My Own Devices,” it was all over. It happened like that. It was all over. No one has ever explained to me why that happened but I just thought they’ve had enough of us, you know [laughs]. I didn’t really blame them. Suddenly they’ve had enough.

AS: That’s the radio right?

Neil: I’m talking about the radio. We of course never used to tour, that people found completely bizarre.

AS: Although I did see you back in the day at some American university, like 20 years ago

Neil: The first tour that we did was in 91. We did a big tour, but you see we were already, as we put it, down the dumper in America by then. But what we liked was going back to being a sort of cult thing, where we remained, very loyally in America, ever since.

AS: Whenever I write about you on my blog I’m amazed at how many middle-aged Jewish guys are obsessed with you. When I went to The Pet Shop Boys concert here last time in Washington I had never been to a pop concert like that. There were grannies, baby-boomer hippies and gay men, and then sort of sensitive young twinks, all of whom were singing their heart out. What does that tell you about America?

Neil: We love it. We’ve maintained, The Pet Shop Boy, are always an alternative to what’s going on. It’s 1992, it’s all about Nirvana, but there’s still The Pet Shop Boys. It’s 2009, it’s all about The Pussycat Dolls or something, but there’s still The Pet Shop Boys. And I imagine that people here hear a song of ours and think, “Oh The Pet Shop Boys” and they buy a song and suddenly they find themselves drawn into the world of The Pet Shop Boys and their records and their one word titles and their designs and their videos and their records with Liza Minelli and Dusty Springfield and their remixes by Madonna and their duets with Robbie Williams. We set out in the world to create a world. It’s a way of not really competing and it’s why I’m not really bothered about what you’re saying about success in American because we really try to exist in our world. We reflect the real world and bring it into our world, but in terms of rock music we never tried to belong to the latest thing in rock and pop music. On the current album we have, to clearly contradict myself, worked with contemporary pop producers but even so we’ve made them like us; they haven’t made us like them. I think that is why people, of different ages and backgrounds and sexuality and all the rest of us, respond to The Pet Shop Boys, if they do, because Pet Shop Boys is unique. It’s not like another group. We do things our own way and, generally speaking, it’s been the hard way.

AS: In this country it’s sort of the inverse of marketing in as much as the audience finds you and then they communicate from the bottom up. It doesn’t feels like there is a grand conspiracy when a new album comes out to bludgeon us to death through marketing or publicity.

Neil: I know what you mean. We’re a sort of a secret, as well. You know there was always that thing when you were kids and an underground group like Tyrannosaurus Rex became T. Rex and were suddenly huge teenie bopper idols and their original fans all hated them because they’d sold out. I think our fans quite like the level we’re at because it’s sort of like secret society, it’s not a mass following..

AS: It’s hard to think of a contemporary group that refers to Gerhard Richter or is aware of Sergei Eisenstein. Just one last thing about that, that most people in The US also will not be aware of, is your Battleship Potemkin score. That is not something that your average pop group decides to do. That’s also your own world? You’ve always had a long interest in Russia history

Neil: Always, yes.

AS: That’s come through your work from your  work from the very beginning. Are you thinking of doing anything else like that?

Neil: We are doing a ballet at the moment, for Sadler’s Wells. It’s based on a story by Hans Christian Anderson. It’s a narrative balletlike a Tchaikovsky ballet it tells a story. Like all these things it came along, we were asked to do it. Battleship Potemkin, the ICA asked us to do it. We’ve always liked events. Battleship Potemkin was planned as a free concert in Trafalgar Square, which it was done. It was crammed with people standing in the rain watching a silent film. It was amazing really.

AS: And it was pouring!

Neil. Yeah, but everyone stood there and enjoyed it. We did this amazing performance in Dresden that was projected on this big Communist apartment block, and all the orchestra  sat in individual balconies around the screen. It was really amazing. In Newcastle Upon Tyne we did it in one of the shipyards that was shut down two months later, and we really like the sense of an event to what we do. That’s why we do the theatrical things onstage because we want to bring out the meaning of what we do, not disguise it. And on that bombshell

AS: I’m so grateful! As a fan I’m so excited you’re still producing stuff and it genuinely improves the quality of my life on a daily basis. And it makes me feel less alone. It’s music that has made me feel less lonely as a human being and as a gay person.

Neil: I know this sounds corny but that’s actually one of the reasons we write it. It has the inspiration in me that it makes me feel less alone, and it sort of expresses that.

AS: As you put in the new album, you could not live in private, alone. Right? Is that about you?

Neil: It’s not actually; it’s about a woman I know. It’s sung from somebody else’s point of view. I’ve realized it applies to a lot of people.

AS: You must be one of the few male writers that consistently write from a woman’s point of view.

Neil: It’s really interesting. The song, “Pandemonium” is Kate Moss singing about Pete Dougherty. Originally it was written for Kyle Minogue, anyway, and she didn’t record it.

AS: When you write these songs for people do you have an idea for them or do they ask?

Neil: They asked us to write for Kyle, and so we wrote a couple of things and this is one of them. And I like the opportunity of writing from the point of view of a woman, like we wrote the song for Girls Aloud recently, and again it was writing from a point of view of a woman. I think it’s interesting imagine.

AS: Your voice seems utterly the same.

Neil: I think I’m very lucky. My voice hasn’t gotten lower as I’ve gotten older. In fact, it may have gotten higher. I think I tend to sing too high nowadays just because I can and some people prefer the gruffer voice I used to do in the beginning. I think I sound much younger than I am, which in pop music kind of works.

AS: And you sound the same. It’s a great consistency. You can take an album of yours from the very beginning, and the very end, and see very clear parallels between them. It feels like it came freshly minted and it keeps coming out in the same way.

Neil: Well I was quite old when the first album came out. I was nearly 32.

AS: Which as a pop star is ancient, right?

Neil: It’s insanely old. I was a sort of a formed person. I’d worked for 10 years in publishing. I’d written songs seriously since I was about 14, and then I met Chris and I realized what I didn’t know about music.

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