Neil Tennant Q&A

pet shop thingIn early March, I wrote an article for The New York Times about the American debut of The Most Incredible Thing, a ballet based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, with choreography by Javier de Frutos and a score by the Pet Shop Boys. It was a pleasure to report for many reasons–not least getting on the phone with the brilliant Neil Tennant, one half of the Pet Shop Boys (along with Chris Lowe). Our conversation covered more territory than there was room for in the article, including an update on what the duo have been working on lately–so here are some highlights from the interview.

What surprised you with this whole experience of The Most Incredible Thing?

I was amazed how good it was. (laughs)

The Most Incredible Thing seems like a very Pet Shop Boys idea, but it’s even more a very Pet Shop Boys title.

The title was probably the single thing that most attracted me to it initially!

Tell me about the section of the score with the clock.

We decided to be quite literal and put the clock ringing for each hour. It’s meant to sum up all aspects of human life—

Well, that’s not too ambitious.

It’s not, is it, in twenty minutes? A baby is born, it’s got religion, it’s got the Ten Commandments in there, it’s got a rocket going off to the moon. I was very pleased when we stuck it all together. I think we’re going to do another ballet. Pop musicians who write ballets—it doesn’t happen that often. I mean, Elvis Costello did one [Il Sogno]. He actually wrote an orchestral score.

You’ve always had songs with the trappings of the classical world, like “My October Symphony” or name-dropping Debussy—it’s almost like you were anticipating that you’d move in this direction.

We always had theatrical ambitions, and that’s because of our backgrounds. Chris’s mother was a dancer and his grandfather was in a musical act called The Nitwits. And they were a comedy jazz group, sort of trad jazz, and they used to play in Las Vegas during the sixties–Chris’s grandfather lived in Las Vegas. So Chris is accustomed to this way of looking at things: actually putting on a show. And I was an amateur. As a boy I was in the youth theater in Newcastle, where I grew up. But I also wrote a play and put together some shows and put music in them–even when I was seventeen I was doing that. So for both of us it seemed like a natural way of going about things.

The Most Incredible Thing score integrated electronics and orchestral arrangements. Could it work as an amateur production with a schoolmarm on piano?

Yes. I mean, you’d have to do a piano score first. I think the next ballet we do will either have only electronic or only orchestral. It actually might be only electronics. It’s always quite a problem with electronics and orchestra together, getting the balance right. The guy who mixes our sound in our concerts also does a lot of classical stuff in Germany–he does Pet Shop Boys but he also does the Berlin Philharmonic. So he’s got those skills. You’ve really got to balance the whole thing very carefully. And also, sometimes a melodic line sounds like it’s being played by the orchestra and actually it’s being played on the keyboard and vice versa.

Years ago, you said something—I think to Chris Heath–that maybe the Pet Shop Boys could change every year. One year it would be four girls, and the next year four elderly men.

Well, you know, we never did it. But as you say that, I immediately think what a great idea it was. You know we got that from Menudo? When we first went to New York in 1983, there was this show “Menudo” on the television. And it was, like, five Mexican boys or something? And when one of them got to sixteen they got thrown out and a younger one came in. There was something fascinatingly brutal about this idea.

What else are you working on now?

We have just been in Berlin for two weeks, writing some new songs. And we’ve done it a different way. We didn’t really do any writing last year–well, we did a tiny bit–’cause we were on tour quite a lot of the time. But I wrote lyrics and I decided to email them to Chris and it turned out that Chris had set most of them to music. So we’ve suddenly turned into Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

And the thing is, ultimately Chris writes the music and I sing over it. But when Chris writes the melodies, he doesn’t write the melodies I would write. His are more complicated and so I have to learn his melody but then suddenly it all falls into place. So we’ve written some songs that might be on the next album, who knows? Who knows when the next album will be, but we’ve started that process. We had a fun two weeks. We like writing songs, writing music, we enjoy it.

That’s good. It’d be a long life otherwise.

People in the press often think you’re doing it for the money or because you have to. But really we do it because, right from the beginning, it’s fun and exciting having new songs at the end of the day, even if it’s never released. It’s a great feeling, a new song.

posted 27 April 2018 in Articles and tagged , , . no comments yet

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