|Interview with Brian Higgins|
| The production team Xenomania are based south of London in an old house in the small village of Westerham. Here is where their records have generally been written and recorded, and this is where the Pet Shop Boys came to meet Xenomania’s head, Brian Higgins, in April last year.|
They’d approached Xenomania, “Because,” says Neil, “They seemed to be the most interesting and imaginative pop producers at the moment.” “We liked Xenomania’s records because they’re very fresh sounding, very pop,
Chris says. “I remember the first Girls Aloud record that they released,
‘The Sound Of The Underground’, I liked the way they used the guitars and everything — it sounded like a bit of a mash-up of lots of different elements. And I loved ‘Call The Shots’. And then Neil particularly liked ‘Biology’, and was very aware df that, and the interesting song structure. Someone actually criticised Xenomania because it’s just a series of choruses and you don’t get a traditional verse… “How great is that?” says Neil. “I know,” Chris agrees. “Dump the verse in the middle, just have a load of choruses. The sort of songs we’d been writing,
it seemed like X were the perfect choice to produce it.” Nonetheless, from the very start of their first meeting with Brian Higgins, they realised they were meeting someone quite unusual. “He’s very intense. And competitive,” says Neil. “Within five minutes of arriving, I stood up to take my coat off and he said, ‘Oh, I thought you were going to hit me.”’ When the Pet Shop Boys started writing songs with Xenomania a few weeks later, they had to get used to the organisation’s unusual methods — their practice, for instance, of generating multiple melodies over the same backing track and then selecting and collating the best. Neil remembers at first being a little taken aback:
“Where I realised that, having written the melody and the words, you have to write another melody and words, and maybe even another one. But we soon got into that.” A similar process, involving multiple options and redundancy, would take place to create a new song’s words — or, as it is called at Xenomania, “lyricing”. (This Neil would do with Xenomania’s principle lyricist and writer of vocal melodies, Miranda Cooper.) “There was the famous conversation where we said, ‘We don’t call it lyricing,”’ Neil recalls, “And they said, ‘What do you call it?’ and Chris said, ‘Writing lyrics.”’
These new approaches quickly proved productive. “It’s good to have one’s thing challenged,” says Neil, making the point of adding, “And his thing ultimately is also challenged by us.” During the production of Yes, they collaborated on writing four songs (the three on Yes and Girls Aloud’s “The Loving Kind”) and even if they don’t make further records together they may collaborate again together on songs. “I think it would be a shame if we didn’t work together,” says Neil, “Because I think there’s a thing there that he does that we probably wouldn’t do with someone else, and also I think at its best we do something with them that doesn’t sound like their records. I think a unique thing happens that is almost separate from the rest of their oeuvre.
” On May 13, 2009, Literally goes down to Westerham to speak with Brian Higgins about the experience of working with the Pet Shop Boys and related matters. As he is unavoidably detained in meetings for some time,
Literally first has the opportunity to soak up some of the Xenomania atmosphere. The dining room, where Literally waits, is still decorated as the dining room of an old English house, but on one side of the dining room sit three young women lined up in front of their laptops. Each is wearing headphones that they periodically remove so that they confer. Some of the conversation is about the Xenomania ducks — it seems as though some unspecified duck-related catastrophe may turn out to be less catastrophic than at first feared — but mostly they discuss what they are doing. On their computers they each have music;
one helps another who isn’t too familiar with the computer programme being used to understand the colour-coding of melodies, demonstrates how to generate a click track, and passes on various other tips. “Say you want distortion on it,” she explains. “Not that you would…” Young men with floppy pop star hair occasionally flit by. Sometimes — presumably when one or other door in the house is opened for a moment —
Literally can hear a burst of different new Xenomania music. (One is a mix of the Mini Viva song, “Left My Heart In Tokyo”. The rest remain a mystery, though as well as Xenomania’s own stable of artists they’ve just had The Saturdays in and are working on new songs for Girls Aloud.) It appears that at least two of the dining room table women are working through musical ideas and writing words — almost, it seems, as some kind of exercise. “You have to make sure Miranda is muted,” one tells another, “So it doesn’t play her ideas.
” “Have you got just one song?” one asks. “No, I’ve got two,” comes the reply. A while later, with a frustrated sigh: “I hate lyricing. It’s the worst thing.” (Literally is, it must be said, rather thrilled to hear the word “lyricing” spoken in its natural habitat.) Someone asks for directions upstairs. “The green room’s on that side” someone else tells them, gesturing. “The red one’s on that one.” It is decided that a trip to the shops is required. “Can you get some chewy sweets?” the designated shopper is asked. (Neil and Chris were the cause of some fascination at Xenomania due to their habit of visiting the local shop together in the afternoon and buying a single Bounty bar — which contains two chocolate- covered coconut stubs — and then, upon their return, eating one each.) At the dining room table, conversation turns to different lyricing strategies for a song about cheating. One of them suggests that she has to agree with what she writes. “You can create a persona,” another suggests.
“Yes,” the first frets, “But that persona is a stupid idiot.” When Brian Higgins appears, he first asks one of the dining room lyricers to give Literally a quick tour. There are endless rooms, and some part of the music-making process seems to be happening in each of them. First is the aforementioned red room and the green room on the next floor — it’s pointed out where most of the Pet Shop Boys’ singing happened (“Neil mainly but a bit of Chris”) and where Johnny Marr played guitar. “We could hear him in the kitchen downstairs,” my tour guide says. “It was really loud.” Further upstairs there are more rooms, and more people. Some talk about writing “More than a dream”. (Up the top of the house, a fair amount of ducking is required.) Literally is also shown where the crowd vocals were recorded for “Love etc.
” Then Literally is led into a much larger drawing room with a view over the garden. “We’ve been building up for years and years and years,” Brian Higgins says. “We were just in a bedroom above a shop 15 years ago. He apologises for the wait. “Busy, busy, always busy,” he mutters. When Literally mentions the remarkable and large cast of characters here, he says, “It’s very difficult to get in. Everyone’s hand-picked. Your talent just gets you an interview — it’s character and attitude and application that determines things, it’s not talent. Talent just gets you on the pitch. Nobody knows who or what they’re joining when they come here but it’s been thought through exactly how they’ll get on with people, so as a result it’s a house full of enormous ambition but with people who are very, very quietly determined as opposed to showy people: ‘look at me, look at me, I’m the finished article’. I guess it’s full of people who want to be coached, who want to know stuff.
That sort of mirrors me and Miranda — we’re obsessed by knowledge. We want to know more about ourselves, we want to know more about how to do things better, we want to know stuff. And so I guess that’s the culture there, and so we look for people who are probably a bit like that. We know we’re not the finished thing. You put us in a corner, I’ll tell you how good I think we are, but that’s to stay back here driving it — at the forefront is: ‘How can we improve, how can we get better, how can we make it more exciting? How can we not go stale? How can we stay exciting? How can we stay relevant?’ It’s all of those questions. Puzzles. Non-stop puzzles. So I suppose this house is full of people who are up for puzzling that out with me, but letting me be the person that actually fills the crossword in, because only one person can do it. But this is a group of people who all want to know the answer as well. So it’s a bit like that… I think that’s what it is.” He adds — he is already on a roll, and Literally, who is anyway quite happy to listen, is yet to get a question in — “But the youngest artist is 15 and the oldest person is 55, and I think that’s fantastic,” which leads h~m to reminisce about his background,
and its probable relevance to how he has come to do things. “I came to it late… I think most people in the music business probably have their first successes or get heavily involved with it in their early 20s — that never happened for me. I had a record deal when I was 19 and then got dropped, and so I had to work in business and write songs at night. By the time I got to 28, 29, we were starting to have hits in the daytime and I was still working — it was only when I had a number one hit in America…” — he is referring to Cher’s “Believe” — “. . .that I actually left work, full time employment. That was ten years ago, when I was 32. So to come to it at 32, I cherish every day.
Because I’d got to the point at about 29 where I never believed I’d ever leave work. I’d started to have hits, but I thought this is the way it’s going to be: I’m going to work in the day and I’m going to have a hit a year, and I’m going to have more money than anyone else I know, but generally speaking this is my life, and I’d accepted that that’s what it was. And then suddenly it changed. And so as a result of that I cherish every moment and every single day, and that’s the truth of it. This is my life. I don’t have a life outside of it,
I don’t want a life outside of it. That’s it. I’m obsessed by it. And very lucky to be able to be obsessed to this degree. But it has to be driven by success. If there’s no success then there are no people — that’s a fact. Otherwise it’s just a weird guy in a house who buys in all these young friends — it has to be successful.” And then, with a little encouragement, he begins to speak about the Pet Shop Boys. Some of what he’ll say today will be news even to Neil and Chris. They’ll turn out to have no idea, for instance, what he had originally planned to say to them on their first visit. “It’s funny,” Neil will say, when told, “Because when we went down there I thought we wouldn’t work with him, I think.” “I didn’t think for a moment he wouldn’t want to work with us,” Chris will say. “It didn’t occur to me.” “I think I was thinking that we were auditioning him,” Neil will point out.
“But I knew they had a whole thing going on.” Before our conversation, Literally has noticed a note on the wall in one of the downstairs rooms that says “Brian, leave by 4pm for a haircut”. If that is a current message, he will turn out to have far too much to say to make it: Do you remember when you first heard a Pet Shop Boys record? Yes. That would have been on Top Of The Pops… I guess it would have been January ‘86. “West End girls”. I was struck by how they looked incredibly different — incredibly different from anything else that was around. I don’t know how I thought about how they looked, but I thought “West End girls” was just an incredible record. Incredible record. So, yes, I remember it very well. What seemed different about the way they looked? I think it was Neil’s long coat. And he wasn’t an obvious front man, I suppose, in the way that people have been projected for years and years and years before then. I think he was more enigmatic.
But the music was the thing that I was blown away by. Just at the age I would have been at — I would have been about 19.
And then I loved the second single, “Love comes quickly”, and obviously that was a relative stiff which was weird. I always found that was strange. I couldn’t understand why it was never a smash. But I was intrigued by the Pet Shop Boys, there’s no doubt about that. I thought the second album was amazing. I was making the album that got me my first record deal when that album came out. And the music I was making was incredibly hip — the house music thing was just exploding in this country on an underground level and I was doing those sort of records and was starting to get a lot of interest because of that. I can’t remember what we eventually called the record, to be honest — it didn’t do anything. But I remember coming back from the studio and listening to their new album on a cassette in the car and feeling very relevant because everything I was doing was very electronically based. It was a continuation of what they’d done on the first album. They’ve always been so strong, chordally, the Pet Shop Boys, as well as melodically. How much did you follow what they did after that? Third album… What was the third album? Introspective. That was the colours? I don’t know. I thought it was alright. But the Pet Shop Boys to me as an influence.., the first two albums. And that’s basically that. That’s where it is.
I know a few songs after the first two albums, but I don’t know that many. Not really. What was it about those two albums? Well, I was obsessed with synthesisers, and I guess my obsession with synthesisers had been based around Duran Duran and the way they utilised synths, which I thought was amazingly clever, and Japan, and Depeche Mode. They were my three groups that I probably obsessed about and aspired to be. But back then, especially where I was from in Cumbria, you’d never see a Jupiter 8 in the flesh, let alone be able to afford one. Because why would one of those ever find its way up there? It never would. So I was just obsessed with electronic music, and its inaccessibility to me made me more obsessed. Particularly as I was a keyboard player. I had what they called a Casio MT-40 keyboard which was a white tiny thing that introduced a range of home keyboards. It was the most repulsive thing going — it wasn’t remotely analogue, it wasn’t remotely like a synthesiser,
so I used to get effects pedals and do anything I could to change it and to make it swirl about with these pre-set sounds. So for me the Pet Shop Boys were the first group that I felt pushed electronic music forward beyond where Japan, Depeche Mode and Duran Duran had taken it. And in many ways the songwriting was superior to those three groups. Undoubtedly — melodically, lyrically, in every single facet. And so I felt that they progressed a genre that I was obsessed with. So I admired them and wanted to know about them because of that.
Were there key soags for you apart from “West Ead girls” aad “Love comes quickly”? “Tonight is forever”, I think it was called — I loved that off the first album. Second album, I liked the album version of “Heartbeat”, didn’t really like the remix. Didn’t like “It s a sin — that was never my type of song. But I thought “Heartbeat” was incredible. “Rent”, things like that. “King’s Cross”. They’re the ones that immediately spring to mind. I also loved “
It’s alright”, which came much later. And I liked their remix version of the first album as well. Aad what caught your atteatioa at all after that? I liked the verse of “Being boring”. I liked the intro of the Kylie duet they did towards the end of the last decade, with the choirs at the beginning. That’s probably about it, really. I’m very competitive musically, so I couldn’t name loads of songs by any group that I would say really mean a lot to me, so the fact that there’s seven or eight with the Pet Shop Boys that genuinely do for me is a lot. Did you thiak about them at all ia those years, aad thiak what you thought they should be doiag? Yeah, I felt — and Neil knows this — that they became less and less broad, lyrically, and they ceased to speak to me. And I just felt that whatI was getting, rightly or wrongly, was Neil’s personal life. And I wasn’t interested in Neil’s personal life.
I was interested when I felt they were talking to me, and when I felt they were talking about broad subjects. And the amazing soundscapes that Chris and Neil would paint. It was a world in which I felt a part of, and welcomed into by then. Obviously a lot of songs are personal, but if you’re interpreting a song as a listener as a broad meaning, that’s their prerogative. When I felt that they stopped inviting me into their world and talking about purely their own one and telling me what that was like, I wasn’t so interested. And was there anything musically that you felt wasn’t… Yeah, I think the rhythm programming had gone. Didn’t you say, when you started working with them, something like that they hadn’t made a good record since 1988? Yeah. Or ‘89. Something like that. But I believe that to be true. As a fan of theirs.
I’m sure if I trawled through all the records I’m sure I’d find things that contradicted that, but generally speaking I felt that. So what was your instinctive reaction when they approached you? I didn’t want to do it. Because I’d just had a difficult experience with another big group, in Franz Ferdinand, and I thought, “Well, these lot will be worse.” But I respected them so much, and respected the request so much, that I felt it was better to let them know that face to face, as opposed to a dismissive “No, we’ve not doing it” through their manager. So you thought you were meeting up with them to gently say no thanks. Yeah. So what happened when you met them? I told them about why I felt I would be bad for them, because I know what I like and I don’t understand what I don’t like, therefore I dismiss what I don’t like. I don’t dilute, I don’t have a committee.
I have no interest in what I don’t like. End of story. And so I’ll always walk. So I wanted to highlight that. I said that and they said, well, we really want to work with you now, because we think you’ll push our standards far higher. And I thought, well, that’s good. That made me more interested. Because I wasn’t trying to put them off, I was just telling them the truth. I felt that they would be very difficult because they have a clear vision, and so do I… and so what happens in that situation? But I think they came to me because they knew that they’d identified something from us that they wanted, and I was pretty much saying, “Well, you know, you can’t break off the bit that you think you like and leave the other bits aside because I won’t let you do that.
” If you get me involved with this I really am involved with it and you have to be prepared to go through that with me, and it’s not always an incredibly pleasant experience. What was the thing you thought they just wanted to get some of by working with you? I mean it more from the perspective that obviously no one asks to work with me unless they’ve heard something on the radio or seen something in the charts that they themselves relate to. You wouldn’t want to work with me if you’d heard loads of stuff that you didn’t relate to because that wouldn’t make any sense. So therefore people are coming to me already with a quality idea in mind, because they’ve heard it. They want that.
They want whatever it is they’ve heard applied to their project. But people need to understand that when they hear something that we’ve done on the radio, a process has been followed to achieve that. It isn’t just something that I pull out of a hat. A very particular, precise procedure has been followed which is supposed by a philosophy which is supported by a mentality which is supported by a lifestyle — the whole thing goes back back back back back. It’s a puzzle to me, and I’ve puzzled it all my life, and I guess I’ve worked with people that I’ve been with for thirteen, fourteen years and we’ve puzzled it out together… and we’re just not interested in the way other people do things. And we’re not interested in celebrating in the way other people celebrate. We’re just not interested in anything other than the way we want to do things, I suppose.
And it’s a mentality that you can’t break, because it makes us unhappy and then you won’t get what you want anyway. Everything about us is about enormous enthusiasmfor something. And therefore big artists can come in and they think “they’re the flavour of the whatever, let’s take their thing and then we’ll do what we want with it…” Well, no, that’s not acceptable anyway. I’ve had that experience happen where the big artists were fine until they got into the mix room and then they basically pulled the record to pieces. So I took my name off the record and the writing credits off the record. Because they’re assholes.
And they sold about 20,000 copies, and they’ve never been seen since. So big artists are often jerks of the highest order. And often people say don’t meet your heroes because you’ll be let down, and I sort of understand why people would say that. But, no, I think at the end of the day they came to us because they knew that they needed something that was more relevant than they themselves were able to provide, which is very, very good… which is why they’ve had such a long career. Because they’re bright. And they know when they need help, I think.
And so that was basically that, really. I think they wanted some sort of regimented creative program — but, I think they would agree, it’s totally creative, within a very regimented structure. In fact it’s so creative to the point where Neil would think that the chaos of the creativity was overwhelming at times. That’s how creative it is. But obviously that sort of mentality, to be able to cope with information on that level, I’ve trained not just me but myseW Miranda, Tim, we’ve trained our minds to think that way for many many many many years. That’s why you couldn’t really copy our way of working — because you’d be overwhelmed with it. So what else happened in that first meeting? Did they play you songs? Yeah, I think we went through 12 or 13 songs. I think by that time we’d agreed that I would only get involved if we co-wrote a handful of things, to make it interesting.
And fascinating. Because I certainly didn’t want to just produce an album of songs for someone else. They played me through a load of stuff and I think I picked about eight or nine that I would have been motivated to turn into records. What was the difference between the ones you were choosing and the ones you weren’t choosing? Probably just the content of the songs, I suppose. And the voice. It is all about, to start with, you have to have a voice. I felt he was singing too high in certain songs and I said, what would it be like if he dropped that a semi-tone, dropped that a tone. All these different things which they went away and did, and those things sounded better, I think, because of it. And I just think it was about the lyrical content. I was saying, “What’s that about? What’s this song about?” I’d be asking him. How broad was it lyrically? I didn’t particularly want to make any records based on the things that had concerned me of the records of theirs that I’d lost touch with. So I picked the ones that I felt I would be motivated to turn into records, bearing in mind that we had nothing to do with them particularly other than we needed to modernise them and make sure than sonically they sounded very good. Once you’d decided to make the leap to do it, did you still have reservations? No, because I think the speed with which Chris Lowe came out and said, “We definitely, definitely want you to make this record.
” He was so adamant about it that I thought, “Well, you guys know where you’re at here. Because I’ve said to you all the things that should really bother pretentious artists that aren’t self-aware as to the quality of their own material and it hasn’t bothered you, it’s actually motivated you, which says to me you’re in the right frame of mind to work with somebody like me.” And so I felt fine about it. It’s all about people’s reactions. If they’d gone a bit, “Hmmm,” I’d have thought, “You know what? There’s a train that leaves here at twenty past four.” But they were motivated by my focus. Directness. Well, I’m not direct, I’m very focused. I know what I want.
So that motivated them. It was an instantaneous motivation thatwasn’t a ploy or an act or anything like that, so I immediately felt heifer. Obviously I had preconceptions as to how I thought they might be, and they sort of answered those that they weren’t that very quickly. And that’s why they’ll have a 20-year career, or have had one, and are still very relevant, whereas obviously lots of other artists who on the surface might be hipper than them won’t be here in a few years time. Because they don’t have that intellectual understanding. And that’s what doing well in the music business is all about. Where are you? You need to know. And I think they knew that.
When they came down to work for the first time, what was that like? It was fine. We knew how we wanted to write so they had to get with our writing program pretty quickly. Which was a bit worrying for Neil, I think, but he got into it, and was very happy. I didn’t know the dynamic in a writing situation between him and Chris so I was asking a few questions and eventually was able to ascertain that we had to give Chris a melodic input and the best way to do that was to put him in a place on his own with some music and get him to start writing out melodies on the keyboard which is what he did. And it was fantastic.
And he really loved it. But I think we’d reasoned out that was the best way to do it. As Chris went upstairs very happily Neil said, “You didn’t really well there.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “Oh, he’s walked out at this stage before now.” He said, “However you did that, it was very good.” And then I went up to see Chris an hour or so later and he was genuinely beside himself, happy happy. But that’s Chris. Do you remember what he was working on?
I think he was working on “The way it used to be”. He heard that very quickly and wanted to work on it. I think they found this idea of generating many multiple melodies over something, and then selecting from them, somewhat unusual. Obviously I’ve been writing songs my whole life.., at a piano, melody, lyric.., can do it all, to a very very very very high standard. And I know how to get it out of other people as well.
And so I probably consider myself, rightly or wrongly, a melodic expert. The expert on it, I suppose. I do feel that way about it. If a melody’s crap, it’s crap. There’s no debate about it. I don’t like it. It’s obviously a bit difficult because something such as that is so subjective, but generally speaking I think I know. I have to believe that. It’s not that I can hear every hit that’s in the chance, because I can’t — it isn’t about that. But I only understand what I understand. Therefore, through understanding and watching other people write, and observing how they write, I tried to come up with a way that ensured that people didn’t get stuck in melodic cul-de-sacs, where they would spend time polishing ideas that basically weren t any good. Melody is the raw material of all songs.
It’s not lyric, it’s a melody. It’s a tune. That’s what people latch into first: do they like the sound of that, and the voice that’s resonating, and all those sorts of things. So therefore I avoid cul-de-sacs: “right, here’s the verse”, and then you write whatever verse you think’s good, “and then we’ll write this, and then we’ll write a chorus”. It’s not that it doesn’t work, but I find it really boring and it means you can spend a hell of a long time working on ideas that ultimately aren’t going to go anywhere. And so therefore I encourage true melodic expression whereby you’re confident enough in the surroundings that you’re in to basically pour into a Dictaphone every melodic idea your brain can give that piece of music within a six, seven or eight minute period of time.
Nine minute period of time. I then comp those melodies down and then select the ones that I really like, that I hear. And then I’ll make a gut decision as to whether or not I think there’s enough melodic content with which to make up a song. And then once that’s decided that yes there is, therefore you go about the process of lyricing all of those things. You lyric everything, you sing everything, and then it’s based upon the best vocal performances. Because you may well write a lyric that’s fantastic against a melodic thing that when you get in the studio doesn’t actually sound that great, so you’ve got to get rid of that immediately.
So it’s all based on the taste test, I suppose. The vocal has then got to deliver the whole thing, so basically you line up the top six, seven, eight vocal performances and then you have the intellectual challenge of knitting it together, which I love, and which is fascinating. And very challenging. Are you surprised that more people don’t make records this way, or is it something that only works because it’s very specific to you? It’s obviously very specific to us. I can only say to you that the challenge built within it is overwhelming sometimes. It’s very hard. And we’ve trained our minds to work this way over many many many many many years. So I think to some people it would probably be nonsensical. But let’s talk about an example of a track that clearly uses that system. “Under Pressure”,
David Bowie and Queen, there’s virtually no repetitive parts in that song. Now, I didn’t listen to that as a young guy and think, “oh, that’s the way to write songs”. It’s just the way I fell into it, wanting to do things that are original and different but still very very commercial. I found that I was becoming obsessive about knitting things together. A chorus is obviously constant, but I didn’t understand why everything else around the chorus had to be constant too. I can’t remember my precise motivation for doing it or why it’s ended up that way, but it sort ofjust has, really. I’m clearly not the first person that’s done it before.
But I think it’s about personality — you’re pursuing something that’s remarkable, original, makes people sit up and take notice, but at the same time has enough catchiness and commercial awareness to draw them back to it again and again and again. I want people to be listening to things hundreds of times and finding nuance that they didn’t hear previously. What is that? Is that a scream for attention? I don’t know. I don’t care. But that’s how I hear music — looking for the originality and the rememberability. It’s the hardest thing, to get the balance between those two things. I’m interested in where avant garde and pop collide. But the “pop” word is critical within that. “The Sound Of The Underground” is very traditional — the verse, bridges, are all the same, and that record is regarded as a very genre- defying pop record. But “The Show” is incredibly complex in the way it’s knitted together, and it hangs by a thread. If you altered one of the parts, it definitely doesn’t work.
But something incredibly original done in the right way is the most pop thing on earth, isn’t it? Yes, completely. I’ve just gone beyond the point where you would start at the verse and finish the verse then go to the bridge and then finish the bridge then go to the chorus and finish the chorus, or whatever. I think you can achieve all that by doing it in a wider, broader way. And I think the path to true originality is that at some stage the originators must be confused. They have to be. If you are to achieve something with true originality. And I know people could read this and say, “well, he did that, and that’s not particularly original”. I can only say I aspire to it. Whilst, at the same time,
I’m obsessed with hit records. I’m obsessed with hit records. I don’t want anything that isn’t a hit. So you have to understand how the two things merge together, because a cool record that isn’t a hit is a waste of time. It is, for me. A waste of time. A cool record that’s not known by anyone, it’s a waste of time. It’s about trying to get your music played to as wide an audience as you possibly can and trying to fulfil as much of an original aspect within that as you possibly can. So it’s a very challenging burden that you place on yourself. But I think it’s at the core of why we ye had such a long, long run of hits, and why so many of those hits have got really particular highlights within them that don’t necessarily relate specifically to anything else around them at the time they’re released. And I think that’s a good body of working. How smoothly did the writing side of it work with Neil and Chris? It was great. It was really good. I think Neil got into it because he realised he was writing stuff initially that was good and then five minutes later he was writing something that was better. I think Neil would admit himself that the first thing generally he would come up with himself, that’s what he would run with, and that’s what I’m trying to block. Don’t back your first idea because it might be the third one that’s the winner.
But songwriters generally are arrogant, and I would include myself in that — the first thing you do that you like, you think that’s the one and you follow it. And I’ve seen us write too many bad songs, or average songs, that followed that. So our system defuses songwriter arrogance and puts a much more labour intensive melodic aspect to it. You work for the melody a bit harder. Most songwriters, and as I said I’d include ourselves in there, can fall into the trap of thinking that the first thing they’re enthusiastic about is fantastic, and that’s a big error if you’re wanting to have lots of hit records. What was the first song you were writing with the Pet Shop Boys that really seemed to come together? I think it was “The loving kind”. That was the first thing that we did down here: myself and Miranda and Neil. What was the process whereby you realised they had doubts about it as a Pet Shop Boys record and then you thinking of another purpose for it? I think because the backing track for “The way it used to be” and the backing track for “The loving kind” had similar sort of chordal sentiments — fairly nostalgic, fairly downbeat,
uplifting though — and Chris had his heart set on “The way it used to be”, I think he saw “The loving kind” as a competitor to that song and as a result of that he was reticent. How did you feel about his reticence? I thought, fair enough. We’d agreed to do three songs, and once I agree something I agree it. There was four. So Ijust said to him, “Make a decision — I need a decision right now.” Were you already thinking:
this could work for Girls Aloud? I think once they made a choice I immediately thought that it could work for Girls Aloud. Did you at any point think they’d made a mistake, not doing it for themselves? I sort of didn’t care, really. I never thought about it from that perspective. Because we were only going to do three songs. We already knew “Love etc.” was going to be the single — that was always decided from day one. And therefore I didn’t think that they were making a commercially dodgy decision. Because “Love etc.” was the one they wanted. They felt they had to release “Love etc.”. Even before there was a song on it they wanted “Love etc.”.
Even before it was called “Love etc.”. They were adamant about it. Because the backing track wasn’t supposed to be available to them, right? Yeah. I didn’t want to give it to them. Because it was earmarked for another project. Yeah. Did you mind when they were keen on it? No, I didn’t mind, I just wasn’t going to give it to them. Chris kept on about it, and he could see that I didn’t want to play it. I don’t think Neil got it initially.
Chris got it. I think Chris got Neil onto it, and then Neil eventually said, “Can we hear that piece of music?” Then he started to bang on about it. Then I was lying in bed one night, and thinking “for fuck’s sake…”, and then sort of thought, “No, I can see it. This is a move that they could and should probably make”. So I sort of relented. Did it easily and quickiy find its way to what it became? In terms of the raw material, we got stuck into it straightaway. There were probably lyrics being sung down the afternoon we got stuck into it.
Were you very confident about it straightaway as something that could be a lead single? Yeah. I think the first 45 seconds, minute of that track are as good as anything we’ve done. They’re amazing. So, yeah, it had all the potential. It had its own complexity that needed to be worked out, as all our tracks often seem to have. What did it have that seemed special to you? Well, it was very different for them. It was much more aggressive, which is not a word you would apply to the Pet Shop Boys particularly. It was aggressive which I really liked — I’m a very aggressive person and I like music to attack.
To shoot you in the arm a bit. I want that from it. There’s a driving aspect to a lot of the music we’ve made over the years. Girls Aloud are different because Girls Aloud have become such a big group that it’s up to us to deliver what they need to fuel the Big Group-ness.
So Girls Aloud’s records were more driving and pumping and innovative then than they are now because that’s not what’s required. They need to be fulfilled as the big stars they’ve become, so “The Promise” was the sound of a big group, a group about to be huge. They needed the theme tune to that. They didn’t need “The Show”. They didn’t need “Biology”. They needed the theme tune to the biggest girl group on the planet, and that’s what we felt “The Promise” said to us. That’s where I’m doing the right job for the girls. But generally speaking my own default position in music is to have something aggressive.
So for the Pet Shop Boys to get into that idea as well with that record I thought was great. There was a moment, wasn’t there, when you and Neil got into quite a disagreement? Yeah, it was hilarious. What do you remember about that? Obviously Neil’s a very very very intelligent man, and he’s self-confident in his own ideas and all that sort of stuff. And I think he told me how something was going to be before I’d finished my own experimentation process of it, and I just… I won’t be told in that sense. You can ask. Or whatever. But generally speaking it was that. I need to cross all the “t”s and dot every “i”, particularly in a system that’s as strange as ours. Sometimes it’s about going away from something just to come back to it. And to have surety, to have knowledge, that you did everything and tried everything to make things as good as they can be. And I just felt his excitement was interrupting that process.
That’s the point I’m making: you can’t break off the bit that you want and then decide to curtail the involvement there because you think you’ve got what you want. You can’t do seventy per cent down the track and then stop. You go the whole hog. And I’m the only one who knows that journey. So I think it was that. I think his convictions were generated by his own excitement of how things were going. Whereas when I hear something I think is amazing, I’m excited for about 15 seconds, and then that’s it. I never feel the same way about it again, unfortunately. I’m looking for the faults in it. That’s all I do.
And so I have great moments with all of the records that we make but they’re very small and very quick. And after that I start looking at the problem and the faults. Did it end up more like he wanted it to be, or more like you did? I probably need to remember specifically what it was about. Was it a structural thing or a lyrical thing? I can’t remember. Wasn’t it about whether you repeated something in exactly the same way or made it different? That’s exactly what it is.
Neil wanted to alter the lyric on the second half of the second chorus, or something, and the lyric that had been done sonically wasn’t good enough. It just wasn’t sitting correctly. And so the debate was whether it was better to repeat something that worked or change to something that didn’t work — the change on paper looked good, but didn’t sound good. So it’s better to repeat something that sounds great as opposed to change something and sonically lose that standard. It ticks an artistic box, it doesn’t tick the listener’s box, and I will always be on the side of the listener, not the artist, whether I’m the artist, Miranda is, Neil, or whoever.
It doesn’t matter. You have to deliver for the listener. So I think that’s what it was about. The second half lyric that Miranda and Neil had come up with wasn’t good enough and I didn’t like it. The words didn’t sit as well as the first half did. And so I said, “Well, if you’re not going to make it better then we’ll run with the first half again.” Which he objected to, because he wanted the lyrical expression. I said, “Fine, well choose fucking better-sounding words then.
” It was a bit like that. And what happened in the end? It changed. I think all of us eventually were crunching words. And this went on for weeks — not the argument but the need to find better- sounding words. Eventually we got it. It was a completely valid discussion. At the end of it Neil said something like, “The South Bank Show should have filmed that.” As you worked on the whole record, were there songs that you thought were the key songs or potential singles? I thought at the end of the day that they were really serious about wanting to make a statement with their first single, which I thought was really admirable, and I thought it was the right thing for them to do. So after that I thought, well, you re doing the bravest thing here by really altering your sound and altering your perception completely,
so therefore it isn’t really for me to suggest what happens after that. So I never took an interest in it particularly. I don’t have one to this day. It’s their career. They need to run with the singles. Do you not even have an opinion of what you think the singles should be? Not really. I only have opinions where I think it can be felt or heard. I don’t sort of opine for the sake of it, generally. I don’t bother.
Because it’s a waste of effort. I think they need to run with this album and live with this album and everything else, and they’re experienced enough to know what should be coming after it and everything else, so I would just tell them to get on with that. And they’re songs that they’ve written themselves, so I think they need to do that. If it was our album and we’d co-written the whole thing I think I’d probably have much more of an opinion on it, but as I didn’t, I don’t think it’s valid. So do you have a much more proprietary feeling about the songs you’ve co-written on the album than the others? No, no, not at all. Not at all. I committed myself to spend as much time on their songs as the ones I’ve co-written, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. If I say I’ll do something I do it to the absolute letter. Which are your favourite songs on the record? I really like “Love etc.”. I really like “King of Rome”. I really like “The way it used to be” — I think that’s one of their best ever records. I really like “Legacy” — I think the string arrangement in “Legacy” is just incredible. They’re the four that immediately spring to mind, so those four. Were there any where, at any point, you wondered whether they should be on the album? No.
We were pretty ruthless. “The way it used to be” has got a fascinatingly un-repetitive structure. Was that Xenomania’s input? No, no, Neil pretty much mapped that out himself. He loved it. I think I interjected at one point, said, “Come on, this guy’s going on and on, we need to break it up here.” But generally speaking Neil had it mapped out in his own mind and I think he got 70 per cent of it right. We altered 20, 30 per cent of it. Which songs were hardest to realise? “Love etc.” was hard, to get that one right. We spent a lot of time on that. Some of the tracks that we built up from scratch like “Building a wall”.
Generally speaking, though, it was pretty easy — it wasn’t a difficult process. It was fine. We made things like “Beautiful people” from scratch, and made three versions of the same record then layered them all on top of each other to create this very dense sound. We had a meeting, we sent all the musicians off very specifically to do three separate versions of the same song — three separate drumbeats, three separate everything — and they all came back and we collided it all together and it sounded great. So, yeah, it was quite easy. Just the detail. Moderuising sounds and stuff like that is what a lot of the effort went into. Were there typically things that you’d have a different perspective on to them, where you’d want something more one way and they more another? No. I think generally.., they were finished with the record when they came to me, they felt they’d thrown their best ideas at it, certainly the eight or nine songs that were their own. And obviously “Love etc.”, “The way it used to be”, and… what’s it called? “More than a dream”. “More than a dream”. Sony — I always used to forget what that was called. I never could remember what it was called. Because it actually started life as “Where the animals are”, or “Where the creatures are” or something…
“Where the wild things are”, I think. Yeah.
So I would say to him, “What’s that wild creatures song?” He’d say, “It’s ‘The way it used to…”’ — no! I can’t remember its name now. What’s it called? “More than a dream”. “More than a dream”! I’d always refer back to the wild creatures thing. So… we were basically just sort of updating things. I think they just loved hearing all these ideas flying around in their songs, and I guess the brutality with which ideas were rejected, they loved that as well. They knew we really meant it. Then afterwards you mixed the bonus album. Yeah. We did a load of work on it before we’d really agreed to do it entirely, I think. I can’t remember why. And they came down… I think we’d left the album in our own minds. We’d gone, we’d left the building, we were onto other things, and all that stuff, so it was weird to go back on it, and I think had they not liked what we’d done we’d have dropped it immediately. And we sat down and listened to everything and Neil produced this long list of negatives. And I was thinking, “Here we go… I know where this is heading…
” I let him get through about four things and I said, “Neil, do you flicking like this? Where are we with this?” He said, “No, it’s incredible — I just want to change these things.” I said, “Alright, OK, fine.” So we were able to finish it.
It sounded great. It was a hipper version of the record. I thought the song quality was really high on the record and I wanted to make it a listening album as much as a sort of dance-y sort of record, but balancing those two things out. We didn’t make that first record as ultra-snazzy electronic cutting edge as you possibly could, because I don’t think that would actually sit with who they are and where they are in their careers. You’re trying to balance it out — you’re nodding to the past, you’re nodding to the future, but you’re not ruthlessly trying to turn it into some sort of ridiculously ahead of its time type thing, because that’s not what’s required at this stage in their career. I wanted to just people into the idea that these guys can write really fantastic songs. And “Love etc.”, sonically, will take on anyone. Will take on all- comers. So I didn’t think they needed an album of that sort of challenging stuff. But the remix album afforded us the opportunity…
and them, it was their idea, it wasn’t our idea, and they wanted to do that: make it more dancey, more electronic, more everything. And I think that’s the right place to do it. I don’t think the album suffered because it’s not full-on nosebleed stuff. I think it was an album to be listened to, first, but very relevant, second. Working with them, what did you learn about them, and how they work together? What did I learn about them? I think they’re fantastic people. They’re fantastic people. It makes total sense why they’ve had their career. Which is good, because you’d be disappointed if it didn’t make any sense why they’ve had their career. It’s very difficult to survive in the music business for however many years, I think. Really difficult. Very few people do it. And I think to do it there needs to be some sort of outstanding qualities in the people, and is it was nice to be able to identify outstanding qualities in Neil and Chris, which I could, and did, quite easily really.
Chris lives his life in a euphoric state of mind or a doomsday state of mind — it’s one or the other.
I don’t think it’s anything like bipolar, he’s just like that. He’s capable of enormous euphoria, and that’s what comes out in his music, and he’s exceptionally bright, and he’s got a very good heart, Chris Lowe. And he’s an electronic pioneer. He’s one of the greatest. So you’re working with one of the greatest modem musicians of all time with Chris Lowe. And so to have such a personality that’s capable of reaching such scales of happiness sort of makes sense. That it would have to be a person like that that could have done some of the musical things that he’s pulled off over the years. That’s how I sort of summed up Chris Lowe. A real lover of life. But also this doomsday aspect as well, which is hilarious. He really makes me laugh when he’s like that. It’s quite funny — there’s some S bends going out of Westerham and on one of the bends there’s an old house, and I remember driving Chris back to the station and he said, “Oh, I couldn’t live there.” And I thought, “Why would you ever want to live there? Why are you thinking that way?” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because I’d stay awake all night waiting for the juggernaut to tear into the house.” I thought, “That sums you up.
” I thought it was hilarious. But seeing how happy he is in music, and seeing music come together, he has incredible enthusiasm — a super-human level of enthusiasm. And that’s great to see. I love it. And…? Neil’s an intellectual — very, very, very clever, incredibly charming, very bright, very quick- witted, but probably believes everything he says is right. Everything. So therefore he probably needs someone to catch him a little bit just to make him question himself a little bit, because he’s fearsomely clever, but he’s not always right. But what a fascinating guy. He’s amazing. Do you get a sense of why they work so well together? Yeah, I think so. I don’t know. Let me think about this.
They dovetail perfectly, because Neil is an extrovert in some ways, and I think Chris is, but he’s more reserved with it. You only see Chris when he wants you to see it, whereas Neil’s a natural performer I suppose. And that to me is where it’s at — there’s so much power in Chris, but it sort of comes out through Neil to a certain degree. You understand Chris’s power within the project, and everything else, is pretty huge, but I think Chris clearly admires Neil. And Neil’s outward confidence and outward expression, and all of those different things.
You can see the fact that they both still really admire each other. I see that very clearly — I love it. I love things like that. I love longevity in relationships, because it requires flexibility and a lot of love and a lot of care for the other person, and altering yourself to fit. And I’m obsessed by long term relationships in music — it’s the key motivating factor that bonds us together here. I’ve been with Miranda every working day for 13 years, and its more fun today than it was a year ago, and than it was two years ago. I’m obsessed with that. It’s the binding force that keeps us altogether here. Tim I’ve worked with for 14 years, Nick Coler ten years. So therefore if you’re coming into situations with people who you obviously admire from afar, don’t really know them very well, and you can see how much mutual admiration and enthusiasm they maintain for each other, that’s really good, because it helps you to understand what it’s all about. I’ve obviously been with other groups where that’s not there — absolutely not there in the slightest.
There might be a bit of respect but there’s nothing else. How have you felt about how the album has been received out in the world? I think it’s great. I think they’re always going to have difficulty in this country, because this is the hippest country in the world, hippest city in the world.
Radio One is such a hip thing, youth- driven. And to be fair to Radio One, the average listener is thirty or something and they’re doing everything they can to get that down, which I think they need to do. We knew they loved the record but we always knew that it was sending out all of the wrong signals to people above them and to the wider audience if they got totally involved there. It’s a really difficult one. I wish we’d met the Pet Shop Boys 15 years… well, if I say 15 years ago it wouldn’t be any good, because I was really crap 15 years ago. I wasn’t a patch on what I am now, in terms of my understanding of things and stuff like that. But if I was me now and I could have met them 15 years ago, then fast forward 15 years again and they’d have been played on Radio One. I think the difficulty with Radio One and the Pet Shop Boys is what’s happened in the last number of years.
Whereas other groups that are more mature, if you like — say U2 — were able to keep their finger on the pulse commercially, longer, and as a result of that they still get played because it’s like an unbroken chain. Whereas I do believe that the Pet Shop Boys’ chain did break. And that mightn’t be something that they want me to say, or necessarily believe to be true, but as an ex-fan I absolutely believe it to be true. I think they ceased to be relevant to a wide audience. And that’s what the problem with Radio One is. It’s like they’re coming back… but you’re coming back at this age, this level of maturity, whereas U2 have been around a bit longer but they’ve never broken that link. What’s the quality of U2’s records and stuff like that, I don’t know. But things like “Vertigo”, regardless of their content as a song and the age of the person writing lyrics like “vertigo…” — I mean,what does that mean? -but the point I’m making is, it sounded like a hit. It sounded like young.
They sustained that. And I think Neil and Chris became more introverted in the way in which they were looking at it, and that’s probably where they lost it slightly. I think their problem is that they didn’t work with enough producers that were songwriters in their own right, because I think had they done that more pressure would have been put on the songs. I think as they got older they tended to work with people who were getting older as well. Before doing this did you even listen back to the last couple of records to see where they were coming from? I listened to the last album, yeah. I thought it was airight. But it’s difficult. I think the Pet Shop Boys became about a wry eyebrow. That there had to be something witty in it. Had to be. “I’m with stupid”. All these different things. Really, just write a great song.
Write “West End girls”. Write something that will really resonate with people. Whereas I think they became more about how clever they could be. But that’s me as a critic of them, so whether or not that’s right I don’t know. But that’s just my perception of them. They’ve made loads of records I don’t know anything about, that I’ve listened to the first singles and thought, “Nah, that’s not going to happen.” Do you think you’ll carry on working with them? I really love spending time with them. Me and Miranda actually went out with them last week, which was great to see.
So yeah, I think so, if they wanted to. Yeah. I’d love to get Chris down here to do some music, and for me, Neil and Miranda to sit and write against it because I think that would be good for everybody. I think we can continue on in that perspective. If they wanted to make another record with us and stuff like that then… yeah. It’s a nice thing to do. As I said, I don’t do too much of that sort of thing — I have to really believe that there’s going to be an enormous commercial point to it.
Only because of what we’re prepared to invest in it, emotionally and time-wise and at the expense of other things we’ll let go because of it. But I would probably make an exception for them, because I do think that they’re fantastic people. Was it a success from Xenomania’s point of view? Listen, I think our lives are better here and more enriched because of our work with the Pet Shop Boys. I totally believe that. And so I think that’s really good. I mean, I don’t know, it’s really difficult because we’re so awkward — we only know what we know, and we know it better than anybody else. So as long as that continues to be successful then we’ll continue to be awkward with it.
And not wanting to dilute things or play a game or do a project so that you can wear a badge saying “we did that”. Because that doesn’t mean anything. We’re Xenomania, so fuck you! Seriously. That’s how we generally view it. Is that arrogant? I don’t know. I think all successful music entities have their own very strong thing. I’m lucky — ours is 12 years, 13 years long. And you obviously have a deep sense that those feelings are a big part of what makes it happen. Yeah. I don’t know.
I spend my life puzzling. That’s what my life is — a succession of puzzling.
And whether or not you’d be involved, where do you think the Pet Shop Boys should go from here on? Well, I certainly think that from a touring perspective they’ve got a fantastic business there, which is great. Lots of people will pay to come and see them — I think that’s a great thing. I think — difficult to sort of say really — I think they’re a heritage act. And the beauty of being a heritage act is that you can entertain lots of people in the live area. I still think they have a chance of selling records, as long as records continue to be sold, or having airplay, or being relevant.
As long as they remain committed to the attitude that they had when they wanted to work with us, which was to be relevant and to work with people that can make them do that, and make them try to aspire to higher standards. I think if they continue to do that… I said this to Neil last Thursday: “The fact you released ‘Love etc.’ to me stands you in incredible stead for the next three to fours years.” Because it’s very difficult to release a record these days and put it out and be successful with it if it doesn’t sound like anything else around it — it’s really hard. Because obviously everyone’s worried about the recession, independent radio’s worried about advertising revenue, all those different things, and so therefore it makes it far easier for media in general to be more herd-like than they normally would be anyway.
So therefore it’s very difficult to suddenly come and land with something that doesn’t sound like anything else. I think the fact that they wanted to do it, and they embraced it, and they were absolutely determined to do that, that attitude says to me that they’re going to have a lot of fun over the next three to four years. Because they still want it. And they sort of know it when they hear it, and they’re right in that. So I think their instincts are very good. So I would have thought the future’s very bright for the Pet Shop Boys, because of that attitude. What do you think they learned from working with you? I don’t know. I think our enthusiasm for pop music, and how important we think it is, and how seriously we take it, and how hard we’re prepared to work at it, and everything else, that would have reminded them of what they would have been like, I would have thought. Did you learn anything from them? Completely. I thought it was fantastic how they are with each other.
We’re about longevity now at Xenomania. You can’t get away from it — we’ve been around a long time. Because we have such a youth development policy here and are very very very free and open with our experiences, so therefore you’re merging very experienced people with very young people and it’s all meeting and colliding in the middle together, that in itself gives us the fuel. Because we’re only going to win if we write better songs than everybody else and our records sound more interesting and more original than everybody else, and the only way that’s going to happen is for us to have a very open mind as we go forward. And so seeing how they are and seeing how flexible they were able to be with me, that explains their 25 year career.
That explains it all. So I was able to learn from that perspective, about embracing new methods, and new everything. But we sort of stand for that to a degree. I think it’s locked into our culture. So maybe they confirmed that our culture’s a good thing. Maybe. Possibly. And I think it was fantastic to see how considerate they were to each other, because that holds the key to our own longevity, that the key people within the organisation here, the chief writers, look after each other and take care of each other and then willingly pass that knowledge on to younger people who give us their fearlessness and allow the whole thing to collide. So Pet Shop Boys and Xenomania was a bit like Xenomania within itself. The age gap between the Pet Shop Boys and the key Xenomania people they worked with — myself, Miranda and Tim — is mirrored identically internally within Xenomania. It’s a generational thing. It was confirmation of lots of things. But it was probably more about how they are with each other, and that explains why they’re so important and why they’ve had a great career and why I think they’re still relevant and they can still be relevant. So, yeah, I’ve learned a lot.