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IMS Ibiza Keynote Speakers: Pet Shop Boys

From West End Girls to Berghain Sunday sessions

After Pete Tong jokingly admitted that Neil Tennant's suit attire was intimidating his casual threads, he let spill to both Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys that they had been on IMS's wish list right from the very beginning - nine years ago. Quick to joke back and in a move to pass the buck, Tennant divulged that “one of the band has been quite reluctant about it.” Lowe's signature shades gave nothing away, but a shrug and an all-telling grin said it all.

“It's almost impossible to know where to start,” was Tong's observation after completing his Pet Shop Boys homework via Wikipedia - if you haven't checked out the band's densely-worded page, you'll be in there for some time - with an internet-stalling number of tabs opened by the end of it. Tong's grilling took off from 32 years ago and he passed the baton to Tennant to lead us into the band´s history. When he first met Lowe, he was working in book publishing, but had always had an interest in singing and songwriting. At the start of the '80s, Tennant laid down some cash on his first synthesiser - which they later donated to the Hard Rock in L.A. – and on getting home to experiment with it, he realised he didn't know how to squeeze a sound out of it. If it wasn't for this hitch, he might not have ventured down to his electrical store for a sonic solution and met Lowe - which is how it all began.

Lowe's first contribution to the discussion was to admit that post electrical store hook-up, they never had a plan. The non-plan soon took them to Unique Studios in New York to work with Bobby O, an American record producer who Tennant sought out when in the U.S working for Smash Hits magazine. It was here, in 1984, that the original first version of the hip hop inspired 'West End Girls' was spun into production. It didn't smash the charts, but the original ramped up support from underground and college DJs in the U.S, before the duo were signed to EMI and the track was re-recorded as the mammoth dance and pop classic it's extolled as today.

Remixing, as Tong presumed, became an obsession of theirs in the following years, with Lowe adding they've always loved remixes: “some people are quite precious about what they've done, but we actually really enjoy having someone interpret and take what you've done into a completely different direction. And it's really exciting when you receive the remix and you like it.” With their early Disco remix collections, it was a case of who hadn't been let loose on a Pet Shop Boys record. In there you had E Smoove, Arthur Baker, Jam & Spoon, Morales, and even Frankie Knuckles, which had them driven out to Jersey City in a limo – as all '80s popstars should – to listen to his rework of 'I Want A Dog'. Originally “whimsical” as Tennant described it, Knuckles had worked his magic on it to become an “unbelievable, authentic-sounding track”. To this day, their tracks are still a source of inspiration to dance music maestros, with Carl Craig, MK and Gui Boratto, all lending their touch. Roles reversed, they've done their fair share of hooking tracks up with a different sound, including those from Madonna and The Killers, but when the Bee Gees - one of Lowe´s favourite bands of all time - asked them for a re-spin, it proved too intimidating a task for Lowe and unfortunately, he turned it down. Their method of reconstruction is to turn it into a Pet Shop Boys record, which by Lowe's account is easier when applied to rock records as opposed to dance.

A turning point for the band came 12 years in, when one of their records didn't crash into top chart position and they thought it might all be over, until they started working with Trevor Horn - “Well, you know you have your great phase which I once called our imperial phase,” recalled Tennant, “and then you get into sort of survival period, but we've really always been about songwriting, making what we hope are great sounding records, and trying to put them on the dance floor as well.” Horn is also about creating pop songs that have a contemporary dance beat with a big production sound, and like them, likes to bring in ideas from outside pop music. Tennant's self-labelled survival period saw them revolutionise the approach to playing live, becoming known as a festival band and collaborating with Dusty Springfield - for Tennant was a special moment - albeit initially scary because of her star status. While they might still be in this period of survival, they have a firm grip on existing as they continue to churn out material, with their last offering, Super, landing this April.

Past and future discs aside, it's not all work and no play for the Pet Shop Boys, as a story of their new obsession with the famous Berlin clubbing haunt, Berghain and the Panorama Bar, was confirmed as fact. “We both go there, but we go for pre-lunch drinks…couple of glasses of prosecco,” Lowe divulged, before Tennant claimed Sundays as their Berghain day for a dose of tunage and people watching. Touching on Ibiza as a clubbing Mecca, Lowe is the Balearic stalwart, despite his first impression being that it was a great island, but no good for clubbing because he hadn't yet got a handle on the late clubbing habits of the locals. DC-10's Circoloco is now his favourite Ibiza haven, and he “loves that demented clown looking down at you.”

To this day, their tracks are still a source of inspiration to dance music maestros

Reaching back through the decades to the early years of clubbing in New York in the '80s, Lowe was quick to enthuse over their luck at being around for those glory years, when clubbing was a bit dangerous, and they experienced the likes of Paradise Garage, Danceteria and the Funhouse. Tennant also chipped in with memories of the few times spent at the club that replaced Studio 54, describing “that thing in New York where you got a whole incredible range of people - from drag queens to punks - and suddenly at about midnight, upper East Side dinner parties would arrive wearing tuxedos. You'd turn around and Andy Warhol was there," before going on to note an “incredible mix of everyone that really was a very New York thing and I think that's one of the great things that we still like about clubbing - when there is that feeling that a community is being created out of a disparate group of people and it's not all about money - it's about being there and forgetting about what's going on outside.”

Having never taken a real break from recording, they're asked what it takes to stay creative for such a prolonged period, to which Tennant explains "it's like you're exercising - you have to exercise the muscle of creativity to keep the muscle strong. As a lyricist I continuously have ideas and write them in my phone." The Pet Shop Boys' touring schedule is also relentless, and Lowe candidly points out that it's because "we get to earn some money now, so that's why we go on tour, otherwise we'd just sit at home making records."

DC-10's Circoloco is now his favourite Ibiza haven, and he “loves that demented clown looking down at you.”

Remaining ambitions for Tennant lie in "chasing the idea for that sort of perfect record that's exactly the right balance of euphoria, intelligence, sound, crazy instinct." And when asked what they'd be doing if they were 19-year olds today, Tennant's drive would be to start a rock band because rock nowadays is "up for grabs, there's nothing interesting happening in it and yet there's a huge audience out there and a huge history." For Lowe, the DJ booth is a zone that lies outside his talent bubble, as it's simply "really hard." After recently DJing at his sister's party, when he had drinks thrust at him mid beat matching, cracked out the same record twice and was unable to find the songs he wanted, he said he's "nothing but admiration for DJs," and that got a huge round of applause.

As a genuine fan of the Pet Shop Boys, and having seen them live at Sonar festival in Barcelona with their biggest fanboy - my grandad - it was fantastic to hear the pair on stage breaking down their career candidly and compellingly, with plenty of intentional and unintentional homour packed in for entertainment.


WORDS l Aimee Lawrence PHOTOGRAPHY l James Chapman

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