Sunday, November 23, 2014
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Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant on Bruce Springsteen, Alan Turing and the EDM backlash

Playing the Mann Center on Sunday night.

Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant on Bruce Springsteen, Alan Turing and the EDM backlash

Pet Shop Boys bring their Electric tour to the Mann Center at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
Pet Shop Boys bring their Electric tour to the Mann Center at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Pet Shop Boys play the Mann Center in Fairmount Park on Sunday evening, in support of their energetic new Electric and last year's more becalmed Elysium.

One afternoon last week, I chatted on the phone with Neil Tennant before he and silent partner Chris Lowe played the first of their two sold out shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York. That interview was published in Friday Inquirer Weekend section and can be found here.

The 59 year old Pets mouthpiece, who was a pop critic for Smash Hits magazine lo those many years ago, had lots to say about many other things that couldn't be included in that story due to space limitations, including the provenance of the band's 1987 song about canine companionship and loneliness "I Want A Dog." No, he's never owned a chihuauhua. "But I did have a friend who said 'I want a dog. A chihuahua. I've only got a small flat.' That tells you all you need to know about my songwriting process."

 

Q: You guys have been making electronic music that is dance music and is also pop music for a long time now, and EDM has been big in Europe and the rest of the world for decades. Now it's huge in America. Why do think that has finally happened, and are you surprised it's taken this long?

A: Well I think a few things came together in America. The DJ culture, which has been around in Britain since the late  '80s - I mean we actually wrote a song called "DJ Culture" in 1991 - has been growing for a few years. But it became more poppy with David Guetta and that kind of thing. Also you’ve got this moment when hip hop and R & B met European dance music and P Diddy went to Ibiza and discovered dance music. And David Guetta who really writes pop music, started inviting someone like Snoop Dogg to guest on his records. And suddenly there was this giant melting pot where everything turned into EDM. Everything is EDM.

And also at the same time. You have the festival thing, that was  big in the UK and Europe and now all of a sudden you have Coachella and everyone wanted that. So because it's America, it becomes unbelievably big, all in a monolithic way. We all might wake up tomorrow, and we’re all like, 'Well enough with that."

Which I'm sort of expecting to happen In the same way in that in America disco became so massive then all of audden you couldn’t get arrested, where in the rest of the world it was huge, among other things, and then afterwards disco sort of carried on on its own.

When we started [in the 1980s] we were told never to use the word "disco."  And then of course we made an album called Disco and it sold 3 million copies.  It's funny, I was in Miami the other day walking around South Beach and EDM was coming out of every cafe. I heard that song "Pump Up The Jam," remember that? "Pump up the jam, pump it up, pump it up." That's EDM, and that song came out 22 years ago.

It is kind of fascinating. There must be a drug aspect that I’m just not really familiar with. Mid-America suddenly just discovered ecstasy, or something else. That is obviously going on.

Q: So you expect an EDM backlash?

A: When something becomes so omnipresent, you can get sick of it. I can get sick of it. I don’t see what Chris and I are doing as EDM. It's sort of  of fragmentary. It does have a link to EDM, because we make ‘electronic dance music’. But we do something that’s a bit more coming from a subculture. You can't really say that Kraftwerk make EDM, because they don't. It’s a different sort of inspiration.

I wonder if the generation will stick with dance music. I think they might.  I do think it’s a great time to start a new kind of rock band, though. Rock music is sitting around waiting to be reinvented.

Q:  What would that new kind of rock band be?

A: If I thought about it, I wouldn’t tell you. I would create the group… I think the problem is there isn’t a creative rock band. The Killers, maybe? There's room for more. In Britain we have seen the overwhelming sound of pop music become singer songwritery acoustic music. Ellie Goulding and Laura Marling, that sort of thing.

Q: How did you come to record the Bruce Springsteen anti-war song, "The Last To Die"? Were the politics the draw?

A: Chris' sister is a fan. She suggested it to us. Then we listened to it, and it has this really great guitar riff that became the synth riff. And then of course we agreed with the politics, too.

The chord changes in his songs work quite well with electronic dance music, which makes sense when you think about it, since he had that big breakthough hit was a song called "Dancing In The Dark." You could do a whole album of Bruce Springsteen songs.

Q: Or he could do a whole album of Pet Shop Boys songs.

A: Yes. We wouldn't have a problem with that.

Q: Tell me about A Man From The Future, the project you're working on about Alan Turing, the gay British computer scientist and mathematician who helped break the Nazi code in World War II, and later committed suicide when he was 41.

A: It's a piece ... assumes cultural voice ... for spoken word, electronics and orchestra. It was inspired by a
docudrama made in the UK about Alan Turing's life that we both saw. I was familiar with him before that, but it's very good film. And Chris and I were thinking abut writing another ballet after the one we did a few years ago [based on Hans Christian Anderson's story The Most Incredible Thing]. A very interesting subject for a ballet that has to do with mathematics and could have very interesting choreography.

And of course once we started writing we threw that out the window. And it turned into this piece with narration and its basically seven scenes with key moments in the life of Alan Turning.

He’s at Cambridge and he comes up with the idea of the modern comtputer, the Turing machine. In the second World War he helps to solve the Enigma code. And him being gay, he lives openly as homosexual, and then he's arrested for homosexual activity by the police and he kills himself.

This is a man whose reputation really grows every day. He discovered things in the '50s that scientists are only catching up with today. We called it A Man From The Future because he was from the future in terms of technology but also because of the way he dealt with his sexuality in such a frank and open way. It would have been fine if he lived 50 years later.

Q: Will it be a Pet Shop Boys album, or a theatrical performance, or what?

A: It's going to be a concert eventually. It's going to be presented as a live performance. It's an unusual piece. It has spoken word, singing, electronics, and there's an orchestra as well. We did one piece called "He Dreamed Of Machines" with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra last year. We've got three offers to put it on in 2014, so we don't know where it will be yet.

Tickets for the Mann Center show can be found here. "Axis" and "The Last To Die" are from Electric are below, as is the Alan Turing piece "He Dreamed Of Machines."

Previously: The Lindsey Buckingham Appreciation Society at Johnny Brenda's Follow In The Mix on Twitter

Dan DeLuca Inquirer Music Critic
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