Before discussing their 15th album, the Pet Shop Boys cover a variety of topics. In mid-January, Neil Tennant arrives at Somerset House in London wearing a black corduroy blazer and black rollneck. He compares Chris Lowe’s lateness to a scene from Gormenghast. Eventually, Chris appears wearing a grey Adidas hoodie without his signature sunglasses, and talks about illogical changes to the layout of the Strand, as he was once an architecture student.
We find a meeting space and they coordinate with their publicist for providing drinks and cakes during the break. According to Lowe, who is 64 years old, they enjoy “that large, thick chocolate bar – what’s it called?” In addition to their obsession with Tony’s Chocolonely, they also frequent a nearby deli where Tennant, aged 69, purchases 100% rye bread. This leads into their typical sly conspiracy. “By the way, there is a much larger demand for 100% rye bread than what is being supplied. Everywhere you go, it’s sold out. Why not produce more?”
They are certainly accustomed to having access to rye bread while working at their second studio in Berlin – their most recent album, 2020’s Hotspot, was influenced by visits to the techno club Berghain during lunch breaks. Tennant proudly shares, “I’ve been using Duolingo for two years now!”
According to Lowe, he is nearly fluent at this point.
Tennant admits, “I am perplexed by the unpredictable nature of gender in the German language.” He studies while on the train, and if someone is sitting next to him, he exclaims in frustration every five minutes.
Experience the delightful exchange of banter, ideas, and allusions with Tennant, a previous publisher who emphasizes his words through italics. For 40 years, the Pet Shop Boys have been the most culturally diverse band in the world of pop since their captivating first release, West End Girls. Their flawless synthpop conveys emotion through a fusion of cosmopolitanism, exploring themes of love and loss through Italian subcultures, the Bolshevik revolution, and the works of David Lodge. They propose that it is through culture that we find meaning in our lives, and offer additional songs to continue this journey.
The connection between Pets and our cultural collective consciousness appears to be stronger than ever. This is evident in their recent performances at the 2022 Glastonbury Other stage and their appearances in two films – a rendition of “Rent” in Saltburn by a young man, showcasing the intertwining of desire and dependence, and two spots in Andrew Haigh’s “All of Us Strangers”, evoking memories of queer loss and hedonism. In pop culture, Tennant and Lowe are constantly inspired and motivated, as seen by their discussion of the 1988 Frankie Knuckles remix of “I Want a Dog” in Haigh’s film. It’s as if they are reliving the moment when they discovered the remix in the back of a limo on their way to the DJ’s studio in New Jersey. When the BBC approached them to create a new Imagine documentary, Lowe suggested the idea of using their music as a backdrop to showcase major events that have occurred during their time as Pet Shop Boys, such as New York in the 80s, Tiananmen Square, and homelessness. However, the final film, set to release in the spring, ended up being more traditional in its approach.
The most recent section would naturally incorporate Covid: Hotspot showed up in January 2020, and they needed to close down their hit visit a couple of months after the fact. However, they never stressed that it was finished. Lowe proposed that Tennant figure out how to program, so – all alone in his home in the Kent wide open – Tennant downloaded Garageband, purchased a console, “watched a YouTube film for around 10 minutes, it was exhausting”, and set out on an abundant series of songwriting. Lowe, who got the last train out of London to what he indirectly calls “the country” (“I wasn’t certain in the event that I really could escape, I was somewhat anxious”) sent tracks to and fro, and they took to working distantly. They trusted that visiting would return in light of the fact that during the plague “the theater didn’t kick the bucket”, says Lowe.
According to Tennant, the opposite is true.
Their highly anticipated Dreamland tour officially began in 2022 and will come to a close this summer. They collaborated with producer James Ford, known for his talent with string arrangements on albums for Last Shadow Puppets and Arctic Monkeys. “We also knew from his work with Simian Mobile Disco that he excelled at programming analogue synthesizers,” Lowe explains. “The fusion of these two elements is essentially the signature sound of the Pet Shop Boys: electronic music with strings.”
The result, new album Nonetheless, is gorgeous: buoyant with optimism, it basks in songwriterly lusciousness after a trilogy of harder albums with producer Stuart Price, Electric (2013), Super (2016) and Hotspot. Newcastle-born Tennant and Blackpool-born Lowe stress the northern emphasis on the “None”. It’s a reference to their post-lockdown persistence: “Nonetheless! We’ve carried on and done this,” says Tennant. “There’s nothing more profound than that.”
There is only one song that directly mentions lockdown, titled “Why Am I Dancing?”. In the song, Tennant talks about dancing on his homemade kitchen dancefloor. When asked what music he danced to, he cryptically responds with “dance records.”
“Kylie!” Lowe interrupts, opening the window. Tennant shares that Lowe is capable of performing the Padam Padam dance, as he has a tradition of learning all significant pop dances. However, to everyone’s disappointment, he declines to showcase it.
The 10 songs that follow tell the stories of characters who are pursuing their dreams and searching for fulfillment, convinced that they have found the key to happiness. When I bring this up, Tennant responds with surprise.
Lowe states, “We will accept that.”
“Could that be related to the lockdown?” Tennant ponders. “Reaching out? I’m not sure – it’s just what naturally comes out.”
There are a few personal moments in the character studies. One such moment is New London Boy, which is an update of Bowie’s The London Boys and tells the story of Tennant’s move to London in the early 1970s. He got a job in the manuscripts department of the British Museum and lived with friends, experimenting with his sexuality and getting into the glam scene. The song is reminiscent of Being Boring, which reflects on friends dying from AIDS, but New London Boy is more defiant and dreamlike, with references to New York dance records and how Tennant and Lowe came together. Tennant describes it as a rap breakdown in the style of Grandmaster Flash from the early 1980s, which comes naturally to him.
Lowe asks if you will be doing Cardi B, although she is a well-known fan. He mentions that it would require a lot of words.
The record contains numerous depictions of promised lands. The first track, “Loneliness,” provides a helping hand to those trapped in self-inflicted isolation. The romantic “A New Bohemia” is a tribute to the longing for creative havens of the past. “Dancing Star” is a euphoric ode to Rudolf Nureyev, a Russian ballet dancer and former KGB defector, after lead singer Tennant saw a documentary about him. He repeats a line referencing the vibrant music scene of the 1960s that Nureyev was part of: “When the streets of London were filled with pop stars / But the reality is, they always have been.”
Is it still happening? Even though it may come across as a sentimental tribute, “Nonetheless” serves as a loving eulogy for these moments. Tennant confesses, “It’s not as genuine as it once was.”
During the 1990s, it was common to see British pop musicians everywhere, according to Lowe. In the 1980s, they could often be found at the Camden Palace.
According to Tennant, during the 1990s they were acquainted with a lot of people. They would often gather at the Groucho Club, making it a lively scene. It was a time filled with enjoyment, and they also explored other activities such as visiting art galleries and watching ballet performances. However, nowadays, they no longer have that vibrant social life. Tennant believes that the concept of a “New Bohemia” holds a lot of significance. He feels that today’s society is too focused on money, causing everything to become mainstream almost instantly.
However, according to Tennant, as one gains more experience, their thoughts shift towards their desires. As they age, they may not be fond of the idea of giving up.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Pets have been quite active: going on a tour of their greatest hits, embarking on a US trip with New Order, reissuing Chris Heath’s phenomenal books that document their early tours, creating a Radio 2 documentary, appearing in a BBC retrospective, releasing their fourth singles compilation titled Smash, and having an upcoming Imagine documentary. This is noteworthy as the band typically does not indulge in nostalgia, with Tennant clarifying that it’s simply “working on our catalog” and not reflecting on the past. (According to Tennant, Lowe has such a strong aversion to looking back that he caused his father to cry on his first day of school by walking into class without even glancing at him.) At most, it prompts them to question why certain songs weren’t released as singles and to marvel at the fact that a song as “peculiar, very somber, and openly homosexual” as 1990’s So Hard managed to become a hit.
In 2013, they parted ways with Parlophone but have recently re-signed with the label. This decision was prompted by lengthy contract negotiations and led them to explore services from Kobalt. Lead singer Tennant shares that their time with Parlophone was a great experience and they were happy to be welcomed back by the label. They also worked on a project for two years to create a new fragrance that could cater to all genders, with the help of a top perfume designer. However, they were unsure of how to incorporate electricity into the scent and the project’s progress is now unknown. Tennant jokes that their dream is to have all their albums turned into perfumes.
Tennant became well-known for working at Smash Hits before the release of their album Pets, prompting a question in the style of the magazine: what is the scent of their new album? Tennant responds, “That is a great question from Smash Hits. It is not citrusy or sugary. I believe it has a slightly more musky aroma.”
However, there has been a significant improvement since their previous Parlophone album, Elysium, which was released in 2012. The album, although beautiful, had a melancholic tone and reflected the struggles of aging for both men and musicians. It was also created after the passing of Tennant’s parents. Fast forward to 2022, and the members of Pet Shop Boys were featured in a Palace fashion advertisement alongside 90-year-old Joan Collins. Similarly, a Loewe advertisement featuring 89-year-old Maggie Smith recently gained viral attention. Unlike in the past, where Madonna, now 65, was criticized for aging, she is currently touring with great success with her Celebration retrospective. This raises the question – have attitudes towards older individuals changed over the past decade?
According to Tennant, the music industry has become less discriminatory towards age. As they enjoy various chocolate cakes, he and his partner leave behind a surprising amount of crumbs. Tennant attributes this shift to YouTube, where young people can discover and appreciate their parents’ music. He recalls how in the past, one could only remember seeing a music video like “Strawberry Fields Forever” on Top of the Pops in 1967, but now it can be easily accessed on YouTube. This realization came to them when Drake used an unlicensed sample of their song “West End Girls” in one of his songs last year. Tennant’s young nephew informed him about it, and after a friendly tweet exchange, the issue was resolved with Drake’s team compensating them for the use of their song.
He proposes an idea. “I believe that pop stars have achieved something that was once thought to be exclusive to old blues musicians – they have become a type of ‘authentic’, timeless… I think the public has embraced this. Some may call it nostalgia, but I believe it is a yearning to witness the revival of an authentic movement. Age no longer seems to be a determining factor because the music itself has not aged.”
In April, it will have been 40 years since the release of West End Girls, although the version produced by Bobby O rather than the well-known 1985 hit produced by Stephen Hague. The two members of the band, known as the Pets, first met three years earlier in a hi-fi store in Chelsea. This chance encounter seems even more extraordinary in a time when meeting strangers often involves using an app. At the time, Lowe was admiring equipment that he could not afford, while Tennant had unknowingly purchased a synthesizer without a built-in speaker and needed a connector. “What surprises me is that the man actually soldered a jack plug to the prongs so it could fit into my 1970s stereo port,” Tennant recalls. “I could smell the soldering.”
The perfumer was seeking the scent of electricity. Tennant was taken aback, exclaiming, “I never even considered that!”
They are hesitant to examine the reasons behind their long-lasting relationship. According to Tennant, analyzing it could potentially ruin it. Instead, they have come to terms with its inevitability. Their meeting was coincidental and led to their collaboration in writing songs. It’s quite extraordinary, so they prefer not to overthink it.
Although there are many dreamers among us, practicality often disrupts their visions. The Schlager Hit Parade is a comical tune with a prominent bell accompaniment, poking fun at the postwar pop phenomenon in Germany that aimed to create a sense of joy and prosperity. “Cheers to Europe’s health! / Let’s hope it lasts…” Tennant exclaims. In Bullet for Narcissus, the perspective of President Trump’s bodyguard is explored as he comes to terms with his fate of sacrificing himself for a man he despises. When discussing the possibility of Trump serving a second term, Tennant remarks: “It’s a topic that is not up for discussion.”
The flip side of idyllic life on Nonetheless is essentially a form of escapism. In the midst of all the current negativity, the only silver lining seems to be technological progress. “Trump, Putin, and all these terrible, so-called strong leaders, along with the ignorance and hostility that drives them,” he remarks. However, he holds a more optimistic perspective on the ongoing debate surrounding gay rights. “During a conversation with a friend, they mentioned that we may have to fight for these rights all over again. I disagree – I believe it is the success of the gay agenda that triggers this hostility. And those individuals are simply backwards and unsuccessful.”
The speaker believes that it is time for a British election. He predicts that history will remember the Tory administration from 2010 to 2024 as one of the worst due to the challenges faced during this time, such as Brexit and Covid, and the growing wealth gap. He also criticizes the Labour party for constantly being in conflict and not being left-wing enough to win elections. He believes that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership actually helped Boris Johnson win the election. As someone from an older generation, he finds it strange that there is an attempt to return to 1970s politics, when the focus should be on moving towards a bright future with a socialist agenda.
The individual questions whether society still values the idea of working together. The only time people seem to defend it is when discussing the NHS. He believes that people must come together in order to achieve success. This is also evident in Jon Savage’s recent book, which explores how LGBTQ resistance has influenced culture. The act of going to a club, which is becoming less common in British society, is also an example of a collective experience.
According to Tennant, politics is detrimental due to the presence of corruption and self-victimization. This theme is reflected in their new song, Loneliness, which addresses the growing issue of isolation among the elderly. As Tennant approaches his 70th birthday, he emphasizes the importance of staying curious and connected to one’s community in order to maintain vitality. He cautions against falling into a pattern of self-victimization, as it can be incredibly damaging. Tennant also praises Troye Sivan’s latest album for its unapologetically queer content, noting that there is no trace of self-victimization in Sivan’s music.
“Perhaps the underlying positivity is what drives the album’s longing. I have always had a feeling of unfulfilled desires within me. Although, I must admit, they have been fulfilled many times!” Nonetheless, the longing persists, he explains. “It’s my default state to yearn for something different or something better.”
When asked if he can envision doing this at the age of 80, he responds that there probably won’t be a specific time of retirement. Instead, he’ll suddenly realize that he hasn’t seen certain people in a while.
This year, there is a lot of work to be done. Along with the current tour, there is also a repeat performance at the Royal Opera House, following one in 2016. Tennant says, “We are the only ones crazy enough to do it.” Even though they wrote enough new songs for two albums, there will not be a part 2. Tennant explains, “Instead, we have a full stage production called Naked, inspired by The Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s full of catchy tunes!” (Why Am I Dancing? is a reimagined version of a ballad from the show.)
According to Lowe, do not expect that to happen anytime soon. It is not worth contemplating a world without Pets. However, their vision of innocence and potential has left this world slightly improved.
It’s time to have a discussion about the upcoming album. Prior to leaving, Lowe searches through the neglected bag of pastries, knowing that Pets always have an insatiable hunger. However, someone has already eaten them. “Neil has taken a bite out of all of them!”
However, on 26 April, “Nonetheless” will be available on Parlophone. Also, “Dreamworld: The Greatest Hits Live at the Royal Arena Copenhagen” by the Pet Shop Boys will be shown in cinemas on 4 February. The Pet Shop Boys will be performing at the Royal Opera House in London in July.