The second installment, this time with the often under-appreciated Chris Lowe:
Andrew Sullivan: You kind of hate fame, right? You think it’s overrated?
Chris: Yes I do think so. Why anyone would want it, I just don’t know.
AS: But people crave it, especially in pop music.
Chris: They’re fools aren’t they? They’re very foolish.
AS: When did you first figure this out because you never went through a phase where you were completely exposed and had to crawl back into a hole. You always kept this mask to protect you.
Chris: I think the driving force was probably shame. I always have a very strong sense of shaming oneself, and you can do that a lot in the public eye, so it’s best avoided at all costs I think..
AS: When you say shame, ashamed of what?
Chris: I don’t know, you can just shame yourself can’t you? Actually it was a concept that I learned from friends at university. I had a friend who came down to visit me once and he got off the train and he wouldn’t look in the A to Z, which he had in his bag because he though it would be too embarrassing. So he got lost and was powerless to get to me because he didn’t want to shame himself.
AS: Because he might look like a tourist?
Chris: Yes, he might look like a tourist. So he sets off in the wrong direction and hours later he emerged. I dunno, maybe that’s where it all came from but I find it embarrassing really, fame.
AS: And anonymity you actually kind of like, I mean what was the song, “One of the Crowd,” which I think is a sort of archetypal Chris Lowe song
Chris: I mean yes…it’s not a very good song [laughs], it has to be said, but the title is something that I would still agree with.
AS: And your loathing for rock and roll….
Chris: Yes, it’s a very difficult thing to do, to promote a record, do television shows, and to still want to remain private, it’s really quite difficult to explain to people what you’re trying to do. I mean I’d actually quite like to be a recluse, but you know, you’ve got to promote the record as well. So, it’s a difficult one to pull off really.
AS: But one would imagine your fantasy of making a huge amount of money and finding some fantastic pile to live in, and listen to your favorite music or whatever you want to do. And yet you still seem driven at a prodigious and prolific rate to produce music.
Chris: Well, yeah, we love writing songs. We love going in the studio, making records. We’ve discovered that we actually love performing live and putting on a show and stuff. And, you know, it’s not work at allit’s something that we actually live for. There are all just fantastic things that have come our way, and things that have given us a lot of enjoyment doing. You know, that’s the motivation for the Pet Shop Boys but having said that when you make a record you have to promote it and that does involve having a certain level of profile really. I mean we did a fashion spread for The Guardian recently, and that was like you know… [laughs]
AS: You’ve always loved fashion right,
Chris: Yeah, we still like putting together a good photograph and stuff, and that in and of itself is a creative collaboration with photographers. But, that’s not fame, that’s just part of promoting the record that you’ve made.
AS: Do you regard any of your songs as inherently jokes, are you’re trying to make people laugh in them?
Chris: I think we’re one of the few groups who does humor, intentionally.
AS: Does that come from you?
Chris: No, no I think it’s Neil. I very rarely come up with lyrical ideas.
AS: When you say you don’t come up with lyrical ideas, tell me about the ideas that you do actually come up with, because there’s this extraordinary balance of the Pet Shop Boys which makes them interesting. I think either of you alone wouldn’t have this kind of effect …. you’re different extremes in a way, it seems to me. I’ve heard somebody say there’s this sort of high old proper sort of lyricist in Neil Tennant, almost sort of Cole Porter, Noel Coward. And then there is this driving musical innovation coming from Lowe. I was saying to Neil there’s this sort of combination of energy and loss.
Chris: Yes, I think that kind of sums up the Pet Shop Boys, really. There is that, and there’s also melancholy thrown in, with uplifting dance beats.
AS: You expect it to go up, and then you suddenly feel it’s going down, you have that confused feeling sometimes in the middle of Pet Shop Boys songs. When you want to be uplifted and then you’re suddenly you’ll be sad.
Chris: No no, absolutely, … if you want to just create a Pet Shop Boys sound instantly you can just program some drum beats and then play an A-minor chord over it: “Oh, god that sounds like the Pet Shop Boys… Oh, that’s their trick is it…” Actually it’s a bit more than that, but that’s kind of, really, what we do.
AS: How is the process of making a record different now than when you made your first album in terms of the kinds of sounds and music that you can actually make? Is it the same basic technology?
Chris: The way that we write the songs is fundamentally the same, but the technology has changed.
AS: Tell me a little bit about that.
Chris: Well, the very first songs we wrote, Neil had a monophonic synthesizer which I would play on. Neil had an acoustic guitar, which he played, and we used to bang on his tabletop to make drum sounds into two tape machines. So, it was just very, very, very primitive. Then, one day, we went into a demo studio in Camden and he had a drum machine, a little drum box, and a synth, an upright piano, and a desk of course, and so the demos started to sound a bit better. But they were still quite amateurish. And then we went to New York…
AS: And then you worked with Bobby O [producer of West End Girls].
Chris: But what was interesting was that it was all done on an emulator, every sound was an emulatora sampling machineso all the sounds from other people’s records, basically. I think it was the drums from “Let’s Dance,” I don’t know where the bass came from, a James Brown sample in there. Everything was played manually, so there was no programming at all involved, so that was a kind of a low tech record, really, to make.
AS: How’s that compared to today?
Chris: Really, we just use technology as the easiest way to get our musical ideas down. We don’t use the technology for the sake of technology, so the process hasn’t changed in any way because you just want to get it down as fast as you can. You can get too bogged down in technology and you can sort of forget what it is you were trying to do. And with the Pet Shop Boys it’s primarily about the songs, it’s about song writing. And you don’t want the technology to become this barrier to creativity, which it can become.
AS: I always feel that the technical music, at least to my ears, didn’t disservice the lyrics and the mood of the entire song. It doesn’t feel in any way that it’s getting in the way. Was I crazy, by the way, to have heard the “Doctor Who” theme song in one of the…?
Chris: Oh, no, but I know how you can hear that though. It’s because of the rhythm, it’s a dud, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh (beats out Doctor Who beat). Yeah, it wasn’t intentional, but as soon as you play that rhythm, you can’t help it.
AS: Every Brit of a certain age immediately thinks of “Doctor Who” when that happens. But then there was also like Barry White, right, wasn’t there?
Chris: Yes, Barry White. “It May Be Winter Outside.”
AS: “Positive Role Model,”that was a sample at the beginning of it.
Chris: There are no Barry White samples on this record. We did use a Barry White sample on a song from Close to Heaven, um, which was…
AS: “Positive Role Model”?
Chris: Positive Role Model, yeah, you know more than me, you should be doing the interview, I should be asking the questions.
AS: I was just going to say how sad I am that I’m so obsessed…
Chris: I don’t know the answers. We once met these fans backstage, there must have been some meet-and-greet, or whatever, and I started chatting to them, and they quickly realized that I simply didn’t know enough about the Pet Shop Boys and sort of turned their back on me and carried on talking. And, I just got elbowed out of the conversation because I was literally worthless to them. It was really funny.
AS: It’s true though. At some level it’s our Pet Shop Boys, not yours.
Chris: No, quite, I understand that. It’s nothing kind of to do with us anymore.
AS: How do you feel about America?
Chris: Well, it’s America’s loss isn’t it? [laughs]
AS: Well you’re kind of an American-o-phile in so many ways. A song like “Go West,” is really a sort of hymn to a certain kind of American optimism and utopianism in a way.
Chris: Absolutely, although it’s written by a Frenchman. [laughs]
AS: The French have always worshipped America far more than Americans have ever worshipped America. They hate it as well, but they also have this idealistic view of America.
Chris: Yes they do, yes. So what was the question about America?
AS: How much time do you spend here?
Chris: Well, you know it all started for us in America. We made “West End Girls,” there, it got played for the first time really on radio in Los Angeles on K Rock, and that one in New York, I’ve forgotten the name of it. So, it all started for us really in America. “West End Girls” was number one over there. We played Soul Train, and we’ve always loved having success in America. We’ve always had quite a big following in America, particularly in the major cities. But you know, American radio sort of decided that’s it. I heard a story from one of the DJs at K Rock, that the station owner or manager or whatever came in one day with a copy of “Blue Monday,” threw it onto the desk and said, “We’re never playing this again.” And you know, that’s kind of how America works, it’s like “That’s it, we’ve done it.”
AS: Hasn’t it changed a little bit?
Chris: I feel like the internet has really freed everything up to an extent, hasn’t it? That radio maybe doesn’t have quite the power that it had before.
AS: No, and it’s also much more, obviously, bottom up as it were.
Chris: Tits up.
AS: What did you say?
Chris: I said tits up. Sorry. You know it’s late on a Friday, I’m getting a bit silly. They probably don’t say that in America, do they: It’s all gone tits up.’
AS: No, it’s like “cock up;” they’re very English expressions. The first time I was in an office here, years ago when I sort of hadn’t gotten totally used to American slang, and an office worker, a friend of mine said to another, Well I was going to have a date with this guy last night, but I blew him off instead.’
Chris: (Roars with laughter) Yeah. Hmm.
AS: Yes, my eyebrows went up a little bit.
Chris: What, where do you?
AS: I live in Washington.
Chris: Oh Washington, wow, how’s that?
AS: Oh, I’ve lived here for years, I love it, I love it.
Chris: Actually, In Spring, I’ve been there in Spring, it’s fantastic isn’t it? The blossoms on the trees is just amazing. There’s such different parts of Washington
AS: Yeah, it is, it’s beautiful. You came here, I saw you here, I saw you when you came years ago on your first tour in 91’ to the AU sort of gymnasium.
Chris: Oh right.
AS: One of the people jumping up and down…
Chris: Right, was that the first time we came to Washington?
AS: Yeah, and…
Chris: Oh right, because we went to a really dodgy club after that, it seemed so dangerous, and don’t know if it was, it just felt so dangerous.
AS: Really? It was probably was really dangerous in 91.’
Chris: Yeah, it was sort of a house club in some part, it was like oooo.
AS: There was a great old house club here in the late 80s called Clubhouse.
Chris: Oh, maybe that was it, you know what that might have been it.
AS: It was mainly African-American I presume.
Chris: Yes, it just felt like it was in a rough part of town.
AS: A lot of your music expands various aspects of gayness, but there’s some kind of hardcore music for boys, a kind of almost masculine-feminine balance in Pet Shop Boys as well.
Chris: Well, I love what you would call boys musicyou know, The prodigy, banging techno, music that girls generally don’t like. That’s a bit of a crass statement, isn’t it, but you know what I mean, so I think that is quite laddish, so there are elements of that in the Pet Shops Boys, but not just that.
AS: Over the years of course club music has gone through various transformations; have you tried to accommodate that? How do you keep up with that?
Chris: Well, we like clubbing. We haven’t been doing it that much recently… but then we started going clubbing to clubs that have started playing pop music and Italo-disco, so all the trendy clubs in London don’t really play mainstream club music any more; everyone is back in the 80s again, and then you have all the electoclash stuff, and then there’s clubs that play Britney Spears and Girls Aloud. It’s much more varied now. I mean, when house music came along, that was itthere was only house music. Now you tend to look for more interesting club scenes.
AS: Don’t you have to get there in the early hours of the morning; at some point is that not going to get a little old for you? I’ve stopped going out.
Chris: Have you stopped going out, though, because the clubs aren’t very good?
AS: Well, actually I stopped going out because I got married.
Chris: That’s fair enough. I go to Ibiza every year and I don’t have a problem going out there at all. In Berlin they take dance music very seriously, and we went to a night of impenetrable electronic dance music, and it was so impenetrable that you couldn’t actually dance to it, so everyone was just standing around. I thought, well, that’s really taken it to an extreme, hasn’t it? Just a load of intellectuals standing around chatting.’
AS: Shouting, actually. Are your big dance numbers designed to be in clubs?
Chris: I don’t know, that’ the thing. Dance music is about having a good time, and a lot of dance music is very serious now. When progressive house and progressive tech came along it was kind of serious, but it’s all context as well. There’s a great club in London called The Secret Sundays, and it’s on a Sunday afternoon and it’s outdoors, and it’s mainly Italians that go, and they all look great, and they’re dancing on the tables, and life’s a party, and they’re totally into the music, going mental, and that’s when dance music is really fantastic, I think.
AS: And somehow you got that growing up in Blackpool.
Chris: I’m sure it’s from growing up in Blackpool, because I worked as a glass collector (busboy) I’ve seen people having a good time to music, and I had a good time collecting glasses to the music. I would wait for a good record to come on before venturing into the hall to collect the glasses, because, you know…
AS: You’re what they would call a buss boy in America.
Chris: Is that what a bus boy is? Now a bus boy, for me, implies someone in hotpants at Studio 54.
AS: I think that’s a buff boy [laughs]. Have you ever had any interaction with leather bars.
Chris: We once went to the Mineshaft, just before it closed. We went as tourists, really. It was empty, and it was all a bit depressing, but it was operating as a charity I think. I think it had charitable status, or something, but that’s the only time we’ve ventured anywhere like that. It was all a bit sad really, just rows of empty bathtubs that had once seen better days.
AS: The golden showers had finally stopped.
Chris: Oh, now that’s a good song, isn’t it? What’s it called? It mentions golden showers in the song [sings a bar of the song, goes off to ask Neil, What’s the song about golden showers?’ Come back…] Frank Zappa! He’s talking about the tower of power… Do you not know it? Oh, it’s brilliant. I don’t know how we got onto this. It’s about a transvestite. It’s really, really a hilarious song, talk about humor in music, late 70s Frank Zappa, he’s dressed as an Arab on the album cover. It’s a guy’s name,.. It will come back to us when this conversation is over probably.
AS: When you put your humor in your music, do you think of anybody else that’s ever done that who is a model for you?
Chris: No, that’s just us, we’re not influenced by anybody, humor in music normally isn’t very good isn’t it. Also, we don’t actually have any jokes, although some of Neil’s lyrics are fairly funnywe’ve got a B-side coming out which has a really good line: “At self-promotion he’s a master / Although the midweek is a disaster.” [Laughs] You don’t get that from Bono!
AS: The funniest thing I’ve ever heard, actually, is [your cover of] Where The Streets Have No Name.”
Chris: That’s not meant to be funny. [laughs]
AS: It takes the piss out of a self-important song, and turns it into something far more fun. Am I wrong about that?
Chris: Well, I don’t particularly want to go to war with Bono.
AS: You did go to war with him. You’ve gone after him. Your Eminem song was fucking hilarious. You have Sting in “How Do You Expect to be Taken Seriously?” Am I wrong about that?
Chris: I don’t think that’s about Stingit could be about a number of people.
AS: You’re denying it all now.
Chris: Yeah, yeah, I’m choking down, now… Anyway, we do humor, well Neil does humor.
AS: Do you consciously write gay anthems in a way? I know they’re more complicated and interesting than that, but you have done some really gay anthem songs quite consistently. Is that how you see what you do?
Chris: No, I think we’re aiming more at the football hooligan end. [laughs] We’re aiming for football terraces. No, we like anthems, and an anthem is an anthem. We don’t think in terms of an audience. Obviously the songs find one, but it’s not something you go searching for.
AS: Yes, but Go West for example.
Chris: Actually, we did thatNeil, what where we doing in Manchester?yes, Derek Jarman had an art show, and there was a party afterwards, and we just thought it would be good to do a cover version, and I thought it would be a really good song to do, because the meaning of the song had changed since it was originally made, when it was all about going west to find a better life, and how the optimism of that sentiment had changed, and the meaning would be different in the 1990s, so it would have an inbuilt sadness to it.
AS: Fundamental is a deeply sad and worried album in a way, and Love Etc seems as if it’s come through that, and it’s just fuck it, let’s have a good time’. Is that part of the arc?
Chris: Yeah. For Fundamental, we actually wrote a list of the subjects we wanted to cover, whereas for this album we just went into the studio and wrote a load of pop songs. I don’t know why they turned out the way they did, but we realized that we were writing a lot of upbeat, shiny pop songs. I think we always tend to react against the previous work. I don’t know where it comes from, it’s just how you are feeling at any given time. We were very annoyed about the surveillance culture, and all the ID cards.
AS: Let me just ask you, is the melancholy at bay? Are you the melancholic influence in this?
Chris: [Thinks for a while]. I think we’re both everything. We’re not manic depressives, at all. I think the thing is, you don’t want to see the worldgod, I hate talking like this, getting all serious… I tell you what, over a few pints you can get a few rants.
AS: What are you wearing?
Chris: Very American today. I’m wearing a Ralph Lauren polo shirt in white; a pair of D-Squared Jeans, and a pair of Adidas trainers… and looking great!