Arts

Neil Tennant: Pet Shop Boys are a bit like Morecambe and Wise

As synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys release Hotspot, their 14th studio album, and prepare for the Dreamworld greatest hits tour, Neil Tennant tells Beverley Rouse why his creative partnership with Chris Lowe has lasted for nearly 40 years, and what they do with some of the odd presents they get from fans

Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe

BEING part of Pet Shop Boys is still a lot of fun, Neil Tennant says happily. While other bands bicker, go on hiatus and cite creative differences for their splits, Tennant and Chris Lowe just seem to like working together, even after nearly 40 years.

Their acclaimed 14th studio album Hotspot was released last week and Tennant's enthusiasm seems as fresh as ever.

"We have a lot of fun writing. There's a lot of laughter. We are quite lucky really. I know most people in music have much more difficult relationships than we do," he says.

"It's not just like a job. It's more playful than that. All creativity is out of a sense of play. Chris and I have never lost that sense of playfulness."

Tennant says they both still enjoy "the magic of going into a room and creating something that didn't exist before".

As for creative differences, Tennant simply says if either wanted to do something strongly enough, the duo would just do it, adding: "We can do what we want to do within Pet Shop Boys."

The most successful duo in UK music history are "prolific" songwriters who "chose the 10 tracks we thought sat together" for their largely electronic new album, and even had a few spare for B-sides, Tennant says.

He speaks warmly of Berlin where the pair bought an apartment about 10 years ago and where much of Hotspot was written and recorded.

Background sound from the city's U-Bahn was recorded for Will-o-the-wisp, the lively opening song about seeing an old flame on an underground train, and the duo worked at Hansa studios, where David Bowie recorded Heroes.

"They have a lot of old gear and we used it. You can hear that sort of sound with the album. It's analogue rather than digital."

Hotspot's closing song, Wedding In Berlin, was originally written as a present for an artist friend whose wedding Tennant and Lowe missed as they were on tour.

"We had one copy pressed for their wedding present. They played it at the reception. What was great was everyone kept dancing to it. I hope people play it at weddings."

Tennant may have dubbed Hotspot the band's Berlin album, but his favourite track, atmospheric ballad Hoping For A Miracle, was written after he saw a homeless man on a London bridge, while the emotional single Burning The Heather – which features ex-Suede man Bernard Butler on guitar – was inspired by a drive across moors in Co Durham.

A chance meeting inspired the catchy single Monkey Business, after a stranger who recognised the band in a street in Austin, Texas, told them "I'm just here for monkey business, just playing around".

"He was a real character. He was looking for mischief," remembers Tennant. "Monkey Business has been around for ages. We wrote the basic track in 2015. It wasn't quite right."

After a few final tweaks from Hotspot producer Stuart Price, who also produced Electric in 2013 and Super in 2016, it was ready for release, complete with a fun video set in a nightclub hotspot, where even Lowe shows off some moves.

The band praise Price for making them sound as Pet Shop Boys should and, despite their lasting success, they still clearly feel they can learn from other artists.

They have worked with huge stars, like the late Dusty Springfield and Liza Minnelli, but Tennant also describes the "fantastic energy" created by the "much younger" musicians supporting their forthcoming greatest hits tour.

He also praises Olly Alexander from British synth-pop band Years & Years, who worked with them on the single Dreamland.

"That was a great experience. I think it worked out really well," he says. "He's a different generation from us."

It "would be good" to work with Madonna, he says, and Tennant sounds quite chuffed that she featured his voice on tour as part of the band's remix of Sorry. His vocals also toured on In Denial with Kylie Minogue.

Tennant enjoys working with women and said it was "interesting" to collaborate with actor Frances Barber, who sings Tennant/Lowe compositions as troubled rock star Billie Trix, in the one woman show Musik, which returns to the Leicester Square Theatre on February 5.

They once hoped One Direction would perform their song Winner as the UK's entry to Eurovision, but received no reply despite having been approached several times to write for the competition.

"We would never enter personally," Tennant says firmly.

They will, however, perform to audiences across Europe after their Dreamworld tour starts in Berlin on May 1.

"We have never done a tour like that before. This is going to be wall-to-wall hits," says Tennant, who is hoping the audience will sing along.

Can You Forgive Her? – from the 1993 album Very – is one of his favourites to perform live, while he admits to having been "fed up" with Go West at times, although he loves the audience's reaction to their Village People cover.

He also enjoys dressing up in "crazy" stage outfits.

He explains: "It makes you feel strong, more of a performer. I normally wear Cuban heels for the same reason. It's an important part. I wear make-up on stage. It's like putting on a mask."

He won't, however, be wearing one of the "death masks" given to the duo by a fan in Japan.

"They are in our studio at the moment. They are very macabre. They look a bit like us. Everyone who comes to the studio says, 'What are they?!'"

A less disturbing present came from a fan in South America, who gave Tennant a painting of his Lakeland terrier, Kevin, who has since died.

"It looked just like him. It was painted in interesting colours. It sits in my larder at home. He lives on in this portrait," says Tennant.

Asked how he would like the band to be remembered, he replies simply: "For some songs."

"I think Pet Shop Boys has left a mark as a particular kind of duo," he adds. "When we do interviews in Germany, some of them see us as part of some sort of Britishness.

"It's interesting that there is this thing that Pet Shop Boys are a bit like Morecambe and Wise, these two men in a duo.

"Chris and I are so different. There's something quite powerful about that."

:: Dreamworld: The Greatest Hits Live tour starts in London on May 28. Hotspot is out now.

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