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Interview: Pet Shop Boys

Pet Shop Boys recently released a new album, Elysium, their eleventh full-length since forming in 1981. With pop radio currently drenched in electronic music, their method of merging standard pop structures of chorus and melody with progressive electronic beats (which made them astronomically popular in the UK in the late 1980s) feels incredibly pertinent at the moment, but Elysium is a pivot away from their usual high energy fare into something much moodier and, at moments, quite sad. One song in particular, "Invisible," which is about being a musician and a gay man in your 50s and growing old in a youth-obsessed subculture, is especially moving. We spoke with Neil Tennant (who makes up one half of the duo with Chris Lowe) about the new record, Rihanna and feeling blue.

You worked on Elysium in Berlin. Did you go out clubbing for inspiration? We weren’t really thinking in terms of clubbing for this record. We used to go out clubbing a lot when we were younger, but not so much anymore. I think this is the sort of record you play when you come back from clubbing. We had this idea quite early on of making a kind of mood album. Chris wanted to do kind of one mood all the way through. We wrote “Invisible” and we suddenly liked this more sparse, but still very electronic sound. And then we had this idea of maybe working with someone who worked on Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak album. That’s how we got Andrew Dawson to produce—right from the credits of that record. It was interesting to us that someone like Kanye suddenly went electronic and kind of European on that record. We wanted to change our sound a bit, and we knew if we worked with someone who works with hip-hop but is still into electronic music that it would just balance the record differently.

A mood record is a good way to phrase it, and there are two really distinct moods on the album: one very happy and empowered, and the other super sad. I think it’s just the way I am as a person. I think all of our albums might have that mood swing that you’re talking about. To me that mood swing is just life. The goal of Pet Shop Boys from the very beginning was to put real life against beautiful music. It’s like social realism against romantic and exciting music. And the hum-drum life is actually full of inner, pent-up emotion and frustration and excitement and sexual desire and longing. And so you often get the violent mood swings.

What about that sad mood, though? “Invisible” is about getting older and disappearing and is very much a downer of a song. Chris suggested we write a song called “Invisible” to make an issue of our age. I said, That’s funny, because I had already started writing a lyric called “Invisible” a while beforehand. We were on the same page. I’d read an interview in a newspaper in Britain about a woman in her 40s who said, When you’re in your 40s and you walk into a party you may as well be invisible, and it’s the same thing if you’re a gay man. And then someone said to me, It’s not the same if you’re a famous gay man. And I said, That’s true, but not totally true.

Do you really feel invisible? You just performed at the closing ceremony of the Olympics.
If you mean career-wise, no. I’m not singing about the Pet Shop Boys' career. I’m not just singing about me, I’m singing about archetypes. I’m thinking again a little bit about that woman I read about in the paper, I’m thinking about what Chris said to me. And also I think about aging, generally. It doesn’t have to be that bad, but it can be that bad.

On “Your Early Stuff,” you’re singing about people who don’t care about you now and just care about the songs you wrote when you were young. It came about because I travel around London in a taxi, and London taxi drivers often recognize me. And almost every day of my life in London I have a conversation with taxi drivers, and they want to make a point, You’re not as successful as you used to be, are you? But they’re not going to say it like that, so they ask questions like, I suppose you’re more or less retired now? Which is one of the first lines of the song. And actually the taxi driver who said that to me, this was a few years ago, I said, Actually you’re driving me to the BBC where we’re going to shoot Top of the Pops. And he was completely flabbergasted by this news.

Quite a lot of people want to discuss or make a reference to the idea that we were sort of amazingly huge for several years at the end of the ’80s and then the early ’90s, and then quiet. In lots of musical criticism, there’s this idea that the early stuff is somehow the purest stuff—the real holy grail, the best. I don’t really think it necessarily is. It can be, but I don’t personally think that with us it is the case. Some people reading this might think I’m deluded or something, but I think Pet Shop Boys’ output is surprisingly even in quality. There’s never a moment where we’re just coasting. Each album is different. We set out with some kind of idea of what we want to do and we spend a long time and effort and care in getting it to a state where we’re proud of it. Some things are going to have different levels of success, but a lot of this returns us to our old friend, age. It often depends what age you are. If you heard “West End Girls” when you were 15 it really meant something to you. Nothing is ever going to mean as much as that to you when you’re 45. It’s quite difficult to feel as strongly as I did about David Bowie in 1972, though I still enjoyed his later records. It’s not just about the artist, it’s about the audience.

I’ve heard that for the rest of your life your favorite time in pop music will always be the time when you were getting laid the most. And more than that, discovering all of those things. It’s the soundtrack to the discovery of your life.

How does that make you feel when you’re making a record? Do you worry about sounding young? That’s not really our role in the record.

So many pop musicians music are making electronic music now, but you guys were some of the first. Rihanna, David Guetta, Calvin Harris—do you like them? Well I like Rihanna. I think she’s great. But a lot of the music I don’t find that stimulating. It’s the influence of what we would call ‘Euro cheese” in contemporary music, and I am surprised to find that in America. But then, the American, British, European thing—America always gives us the update of R&B, and we give it the update of electronic music. There’s been tremendous travel, tourism, between the two worlds, since, I don’t know, Puff Daddy went to Ibiza or something. And since rappers started taking Ecstasy, which came from New York in the first place, I believe. It’s quite a fruitful mingling of electronic fluids.

I think Elysium is very predictive of what’s next. It’s so loungey, and after David Guetta, don’t you think people just want to chill? I like hard music. But the compressed MP3 hardness is very aggressive. Some great music is aggressive, but there’s kind of a mean aggressiveness. And still with the money thing, I’m amazed that it hasn’t gone away. It’s interesting. The EDM thing, I predict, will be like disco in America. You will have too much of it, and everyone will hate it. At some point everyone will turn into hippies. We just wanted something that was more beautiful than everything else we’d been hearing.

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Interview: Pet Shop Boys