Yes, Actually

5.11.2009

By Andrew Sullivan

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?
CL: It's America's loss. [Laughs] It all started for us in America. We made 'West End Girls' there [in the U.S.]. It got played for the first time, really, on KROQ in Los Angeles, and we've always had quite a big following in the major cities, especially. But you know, American radio sort of decided that's it. I heard a story from one of the DJs at KROQ that the station owner or manager came in one day with a copy of New Order's 'Blue Monday,' threw it onto the desk, and said, 'We're never playing this again.'
And that's kind of how America works.
NT: I think in America we are filed under '80s. The Pet Shop Boys career in America goes from 1986 to 1988, and in fact we have a 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. No one has ever explained to me why that happened, but I just thought, They've had enough of us. [Laughs] I didn't really blame them. But what we liked was going back to being a cult thing, where we've remained, very loyally in America, ever since.

It's a Diverse cult. I'm amazed at how many nebbishy middle-aged Jewish guys are obsessed with you. When I went to the Pet Shop Boys concert here in Washington there were grannies, baby-boomer hippies, and gay men, and then sort of sensitive young twinks, all of whom were singing their hearts out. What does that tell you about America?
NT: We love it. We've maintained that the Pet Shop Boys 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 in America hear a song of ours and think, Oh, the Pet Shop Boys, and they buy a song and suddenly find themselves drawn into the world of the Pet Shop Boys and the records with their one-word titles and their designs and their videos and the recordings with Liza Minnelli and Dusty Springfield and the remixes by Madonna. It's a way of not really competing -- and it's why I'm not really bothered about success in America because we really try to exist in our world. We do things our own way and, generally speaking, it's been the hard way.

Hard, but consistent. You can take an album from the very beginning and the very end and see clear parallels between them. It feels like it came freshly minted, and it keeps coming out in the same way.
Cl: The way we write songs is fundamentally the same, but the technology has changed. But we don't get bogged down in technology. With the Pet Shop Boys, it's about songwriting.
NT: Well, I was quite old when the first album came out. I was nearly 32.

Which in pop star years is ancient, right?
NT: It's insanely old. I was a sort of 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.
CL: The very first songs we wrote, we had a monophonic synthesizer, which I would play, and an acoustic guitar, which Neil played. We used to bang on his tabletop to make drum sounds into two tape machines. So it was just very, very, very primitive. And then we went to New York.

Where you recorded 'West End Girls,' with Bobby O.
CL: What was interesting was that it was all done on a sampling machine. The sounds were taken from other people's records, basically. There was a James Brown sample, the drums from 'Let's Dance,' and I don't know where the bass came from.

Your influences are tremendous, though. It's hard to think of a contemporary group that refers to Gerhard Richter or is aware of Sergei Eisenstein. Your score for Battleship Potemkin is not something your average pop group decides to do. Are you thinking of doing anything else like that?
NT: We are doing a ballet at the moment, for Sadler's Wells Theatre. It's a narrative ballet based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Like all these things, it came along, we were asked to do it. Battleship Potemkin was planned as a free concert in Trafalgar Square. It was crammed with people standing in the rain watching a silent film.

And it was pouring!
NT: Yeah, but everyone stood there and enjoyed it. We did this amazing performance in Dresden that was projected on this big communist apartment block. The orchestra sat in individual balconies around the screen. It was really amazing. We really like [to bring] 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 of a conclusion --

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. It's music that has made me feel less lonely as a human being and as a gay person.
NT: I know this sounds corny, but that's actually one of the reasons we write it.
CL: And you know, it's not work at all -- it's something that we actually live for. We once met these fans backstage. I started chatting to them, and they quickly realized that I simply didn't know enough about the Pet Shop Boys and turned their backs on me and carried on talking. I just got elbowed out of the conversation because I was literally worthless to them. It was really funny.

It's true, though. At some level it's our Pet Shop Boys, not yours.
CL: Quite. I understand that. It's nothing to do with us anymore.

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