In the previous issue of Literally, Chris was asked a series of questions he had first answered in the magazine 15 years earlier; this issue it is Neil’s turn. This new interview takes place in the upstairs living room of Neil’s London home on the afternoon of December 12. As the interview is about to begin, a call via Literally mobile phone alerts Neil that Chris has been outside the front door in the cold for the past ten minutes, trying but failing to get in due to various doorbell and phone problems.
|Neil lets him in and, soon; will make tea and ham sandwiches. (The sandwiches are for Chris and Literally; Nell will have a macaroon instead.) First, Chris will disappear downstairs so as not to|
eavesdrop as Neil answers the following questions:What sort of mood are you in?
[laughs] Apart from the fact that my doorbell’s not working, I’m actually in quite a relaxed mood. We’re talking not long before Christmas and I’ve done all my Christmas shopping now, I think, so that’s always a relief. We finished the tour a couple of weeks ago and we’re just starting planning to work on the next album. This December we’re not really doing very much and I’m quite enjoying it because we’ve been rushing round — Fundamental, as an album and as a tour, has taken about three years — and it’s actually quite nice to not be rushing around being a Pet Shop Boy this month. Just to familiarise oneself with one’s home life and everything.Do you like being famous?
It’s not really an issue for me. I don’t feel fantastically famous. I don’t feel any different to when we did these questions 15 years ago. I always think you’re more famous if you’ve been on television quite a bit recently. I think Fundamental has upped our profile because I think I get recognised a bit more than I did a few years ago, but people normally just say… I mean, I was in Selfridges yesterday buying some cosmetics as a present and the woman behind the counter said, “Are you a pop star?” I’ve learned over the years never to beat around the bush with that, I just say, “Yes, Pet Shop Boys:’ “Oh! Pet Shop Boys!” They’re just really sort of interested, I suppose because you’re someone or other off the telly, occasionally. It’s not really an issue. I always think we have quite a nice level of fame. People are generally quite respectful to us.Do you think you’re better friends with Chris now than before the Pet Shop Boys became successful?
Before the Pet Shop Boys became successful Chris and I had known each other just over four years. It’s quite difficult to even look back to then, but for two years of that Chris was at Liverpool University. where he came back to London in 1984 and in less than a year — eight months later — we signed to EMI, and that was that, really. So, yes we are better friends now, because we’ve been through the whole Pet Shop Boys experience so far together, and no one else has. On tour, sometimes it always seems like it’s Chris and I who want to go clubbing, though sometimes it doesn’t. But we still like to goout sometimes. And we have friends in common — we socialise together and with mutual friends quite often. Recently Chris sold his flat in London, and when he stays in London sometimes he stays in my house, so that’s a bit like 1984 again when Chris moved into my flat on the King’s Road for a weekend and stayed for a year. Actually he did the same in my house in about 1995 as well. Chris likes living in other people’s houses, I think.Do you think you’d be friends if you weren’t in a group together?
Well, we were. It’s difficult to speculate on that, isn’t it, because if we weren’t in a group together that would imply that we’d done different things. I suspect we would still know each other if Chris was now a successful architect and I was working in some sort of editorial capacity, and we’d remember those crazy days when we tried to start a pop group together. Who knows where life would have taken us? But it didn’t.Do you really sit round reading history books, drinking fine wine and listening to classical music?
Yes, I do. I mean, it’s not all I do. But I’m sure if you come back in 15 years time it will be reasonably similar, God willing. I still live in the same house I lived in 15 years ago. I socialise a lot and I go out a lot, but when I’m at home… and also I have a house in the North of England, and that’s probably more where I do the reading-history, listen-to-classical-music, drink-a-glass-of-red-wine thing than London is. But I like to be quiet sometimes, and sometimes I like to be by myself, because you can think then. I get ideas for songs quite often when I’m by myself.Do you ever think you’re too old to be a pop star?
Yeah, the last time I thought I was too old to be a pop star was in 2006 when Chris and I performed at Ton The Beach, a Channel 4 youth programme filmed in Weston-super-Mare not long after Fundamental came out. And I looked around at all the other groups on and I remarked to Chris that we were the oldest people there by a minimum of 15 years. Or in my case, 20 years. The next one down the age scale would probably have been Danni Minogue. I thought it was mad that we were even on it. But they asked us to be, and they thought we Were appropriate to be on it. I guess we’re sort of
~ godfathers of pop music, or one kind of pop music.
Do you want to make a solo album?
No. I have no desire to. I don’t feel that there’s something I want to achieve musically that I can’t achieve within the frame of the Pet Shop Boys.How would you feel if Chris made one?
I would be curious that he wanted to make one, because I would be interested to know what he wanted to do. Maybe he’d want to make an instrumental album. Not that I wouldn’t mind making an instrumental album, really. But if he wanted to, that would be fine.Do you think it annoys Chris when you sing songs for Electronic?
Well, Electronic hasn’t operated, of course, for many years, but as a contemporary comparison, last year I was executive producer of Rufus Wainwright’s album. I don’t think it’s annoyed Chris really. I think I would probably be more of a collaborator with people than Chris would, though I don’t know. Something like doing that with Rufus wasn’t a lot of work, and it’s got more in common with being a judge for the Turner Prize than working with Electronic, because it was interesting watching how something else happened outside the Pet Shop Boys, just as with the Turner Prize it was interesting seeing a lot of contemporary art in a short space of time. Rufus Wainwright works in a very, very different way from the Pet Shop Boys and makes very, very different music, and it was very interesting to see all that come together. So, like the Turner Prize, it’s a learning process — I feel like I’m learning as much as I’m giving.Does Chris really annoy you?
No. Chris has quite a lot of anger, I think, sometimes. Only maybe on tour, when we both get tired. He has more anger than I have. I know quite a lot of angry people. Janet Street-Porter — angry. I think I don’t really operate through anger. [Laughs] That can probably make people angry. Generally speaking, from day one, I get asked things by people all the time, and I have to make sure that Chris has been told or his opinion ascertained, and acted upon, and it’s sort of exhausting, that. Chris doesn’t have to do that for me, and I’ve always had to do that. I think it’s because I answer the phone more or something. But it’s a frustrating thing because you can get into a position where Chris is, “I don’t know about this, no one’s asked me.” That’s been the same since the Tom Watkins days.What do you think you do that annoys him the most?
I think just generally being oneself can be annoying for someone else. And the dynamic in the Pet Shop Boys has always been tat we operate in completely different ways, which is a strength. But it’s a weakness if it annoys Chris or it annoys me…Do you think you’re too bossy?
No, I think I have strong ideas rather than being bossy. I think in terms of bossiness Chris is bossier than I am [laughs] which is not what people think. Chris is a very strong-willed and assertive person, assuming he’s interested in the relevant particular subject.Do you think of songs all the time?
Yes, I do. Often when I’m reading I get a line from a book, maybe a tiny piece of dialogue, and think, “oh, that’s a good line” and write it in my phone. [Looks in his phone] The most recent thing I’ve got in there is “talking to a woman in love”. That doesn’t seem to be such a good idea now but it must have seemed at the time. I suppose you could make something of it. It’s a line from The Master And Margarita, the Russian novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, which I was re-reading until this morning.Do you keep a pad beside the bed? No, I use my mobile phone.Do you ever wish that you were still a journalist?
Never. I frequently get asked to write things for magazines or a newspaper, but I never used to bash out articles really quickly. It always used to take me a long time to write something, and I find it very hard work and solitary work. What I love about the Pet Shop Boys is that it’s a collaboration between the two of us and you can bounce ideas off each other. I used to like the editorial work at Smash Hits for exactly the same reason. Sitting by yourself, writing an article… I can’t be bothered.Why don’t you drive?
I’ve now got a provisional driving license and I’m in theory learning how to drive in the New Year. The reason I never learned to drive is because for many years I’ve lived near central London where it’s difficult to park, and I can use public transport and all the rest of it. But I also have a house in the north of England in the countryside and sometimes it seems a bit ridiculous I don’t drive so I was
thinking that I might finally learn. I don’t know if I’m going to, but that’s the plan. It slightly scares me, driving. And I still don’t think people should drive round London. I have friends who drive around London from A to B and I think it’s crazy. Chris doesn’t do that, generally. Too much traffic, pollution, all the rest of it. I don’t know why people don’t walk. I walk a lot. Chris does as well. Yesterday, after I went to Selfridges, I walked home. There’s a funfair in Hyde Park, and I walked through it. I like to see what’s happening on the streets. You get a lot of ideas when you’re walking because you see things. I even occasionally get the tube, but I don’t really like getting the tube because I’m a bit claustrophobic. And I get taxis, which is driving around London, I suppose, but it’s sort of public transport rather than private cars driving around unnecessarily.Why did you get your hair cut so short? My hair’s been short since 1990,1 think. And that was because it was just getting so thin. When you haven’t got a lot of hair you have to have it cut more often, really. You have to have it cut about every two weeks because the sides grow in a very clumpy way.Have you ever thought of growing it out and seeing what happens?
No, I haven’t. I can’t see the point. What’s left would still be curly though.When did you last cry?
Probably when I heard Dainton was killed. And at the funeral. And after we did a tribute to Dainton on the last night of the tour, we made a little DVD of the performance for Mandy, Dainton’s widow, and I was sent one to check it looked airtight, and I found myself… there were tears running down my cheeks.You don’t cry very often?
I went to see a play recently at the National Theatre called War Horse. It’s an amazing production. It’s about a boy and his horse at the end of the First World War, and they get separated. At the end I was crying — I think at least half the audience was. It’s incredibly moving at the end. I often find myself almost crying at things in the theatre or films.When do you feel happiest?
There’s not a particular formula, I don’t think, forhappiness, or one particular situation. I think I feel happiest when I’m in a relaxed situation with friends and everyone’s getting on and it’s fun and easy. I can feel very happy waking up in the morning, thinking either “we’re doing this and this and this — I’m looking forward to doing all of that”, or conversely waking up in the morning thinking, “oh, I’ve got nothing to do today — how great”. Sometimes coming off stage when it’s been a really good concert and everyone’s happy, I can feel very contented then and pleased about things. I’ve said this many times to people but it’s an amazing thing when you come off stage and all the audience is cheering and all that stuff, because the vast majority of people don’t ever have that in their lives, and it’s something we take for granted as part of the job, because it is part of the job. But it is actually also quite a moving thing sometimes. I remember a few years ago when we played the Dominican Republic and we got this amazing reception and it brought tears to my eyes. There are occasions like that where the warmth of the audience is so great you feel slightly overcome by it. It’s a very nice feeling, that.How have you changed over the last 15 years? I don’t know if I’ve changed very much really. I’ve got less definite, maybe, about things. I was going to say that your view of the world gets more relaxed as you get older, but I don’t think mine has, actually. You can also become a grumpy old man, which is a c1ich~ I’m trying to avoid because I think it is a cool, and a lazy thing. But I do think the world is changing and I honestly believe that we are becoming less free and that society and technology and the way people behave is so much more intrusive than it used to be. I don’t think that’s an opinion — I think that’s a technologic call sociological fact.What you do now, in everyday life, is recorded by people and filmed by people, and I don’t think it used to be like that, and I don’t think we’d have ever wanted that, but I still don’t think people really think about it. If you go on about it now, people tend to look at you like you’re some sort of David Icke mutter, but I don’t think it is being a David Icke mutter. I’m not suggesting there’s some massive conspiracy, I’m just suggesting that technology has a momentum and we go with it. We think: if it’s invented, we must use it. I think we’re starting to turn society into a kind of electronic dictatorship. And I don’t remember consenting to it. That’s what really bugs me. The thing that really bugs me about illegal downloading of
our music, for instance, is not just the theft aspect, it’s always been the lack of respect for you. The lack of consent. Your consent is not asked to download your new album — that you’ve spent a long time making and paid for — before it comes out. It’s the lack of consent that bugs me, and that’s what I feel about surveillance and all the rest of it. I’m not actually a paranoid person, but I think that’s what is happening.When I talk about it to people in politics sometimes they never seem to regard it as an issue. I was very pleased when Shirley Williams, the old Labour then Social Democrat politician who must be in her seventies now, said she would go to prison rather than have an m card. I don’t know if I would have the courage to do that, but I think she’s right, because I just think it’s mad.Could you imagine the Pet Shop Boys ever splitting up?
I could imagine it, but I don’t think it would happen. We have a lot we want to keep on doing that we re looking forward to doing. I think the Pet Shop Boys’ song writing is as good or better than it ever was. Maybe it’s changed a bit in that our music is much more sophisticated sounding — if you play Fundamental next to Actually it’s a much more sophisticated record. But actually if you played Introspective next to Actually it’s a more sophisticated record. There’s been a sort of musical learning that’s gone on, but I think melodically and in terms of lyrics it all feels fresh to me. We make our kind of music. Occasionally we do something in a totally different genre, just to prove we can, like in Closer to Heaven there’s, in my opinion, a really good r’n’b record, “I’m going to get him out of my system”, and we wrote that because the genre seemed right for the scene in the play but also partly just probably to prove we could do it.But I think as a kind of sub-genre of music, which is what the Pet Shop Boys is really, it’s something that has remained interesting and valid and fresh. The one thing that might annoy us, and there might be an element of vanity in this, is thinking that people take you for granted, because I think the quality of what we do is very high.So you think the Pet Shop Boys might go on more or less forever?
Well, again, we don’t really think like that. [Laughs] But, given that we don’t think like that, we’re not thinking that they won’t go on forever. It’s like a triple negative.