I met Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys and Brett Anderson of Suede one summer evening in 1996. We had dinner in L’Oranger restaurant, in St James, and I recorded the encounter for Q magazine’s tenth anniversary issue.
Of course, they got on well. Really well. Houses on fire were heard to say, Blimey, those two have hit it off, haven’t they? Yet they’re a study in contrasts, the 28-year-old Suede leader and the Pet Shop Boy, a spritely 42. The younger man is more pale than the living are meant to be. He’s tense-limbed like an angle-poise lamp – only thinner, perhaps – and dressed in moody black. The senior partner is lightly tanned, casually attired and altogether at ease. “Urbane” is a word that springs to mind. The restaurant is swanky but he orders the wines with confidence. Anderson projects a cool reserve, but then warms up rapidly under the influence of Tennant’s gossipy affability.
Both have new records out this month. The Pet Shop Boys’ sixth proper album, Bilingual, is a swaggering, flashy thing, full of dramatic Latin drumbeats. Concealed inside are sober meditations on death, history and self-doubt. Suede’s third effort, Coming Up, inhabits a teenage wasteland of fugitive lovers exchanging make-up, bodily fluids and cheap drugs. But it rocks like mad. The two acts are long-term admirers of each other’s work.
“Are we really putting out albums out in the same week?” asks Tennant.
“Think so,” replies Anderson. “Shall we put the boxing gloves on later?”
Sounds great. But first let’s eat. And talk.
Q: How did you first meet?
BA: Through Derek Jarman. We did a show at the Clapham Grand that he hosted, and Neil came.
NT: I think, Brett, we’re on the same side in a way, in that you’re not just an authentic rock band. Suede are a rock band that’s not really rock’n’roll.
BA: I always wanted more scope than to fit into “the rock’n’roll band” or “the art band”. The Pet Shop Boys are, on the surface, a pop band, but there’s so much more behind it. You have this respect as a songwriter, Neil, which a lot of pop musicians don’t have.
NT: When we started, and when I was working at Smash Hits, I always thought there were two kinds of groups. There was the “regular guys just like you” and there were the aspirational ones, the puffy, pretentious ones. When I was a teenager it was Roxy Music and David Bowie rather than Status Quo or Slade. At the moment we’re going through a “regular guy” phase, with the New Lad thing, which I find boring.
BA: Everything has to be in a category. But the best bands have always encompassed more than one thing, like David Bowie.
NT: When you’re at school, there’s always the kids who don’t like what everyone else likes and they’re the people who end up in bands. When I was at school in the early ’70s everyone liked progressive rock, while I liked David Bowie and T. Rex, who were of course despicably teenage by that point. As Malcolm McLaren was saying the other day, the kids who created punk were Bowie and Bryan Ferry fans who wanted something more.
Q: You must have come to that early’70s stuff retrospectively, Brett.
BA: Yes, I wasn’t there with my glitter make-up. But I got into all that because I was growing up in the early ’80s and there was really nothing there. I didn’t want Spandau Ballet so I got into my elder sister’s record collection, Beatles and Bowie. It wasn’t until The Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys arrived that I was actually into contemporary music.
NT: The ’90s is so different, because parents and children like the same music. I find it disturbing. There is so much bad rock music. At the end of the ’80s people like us thought we’d won the war, we’d finally killed rock music off. Boring, laddish rock music. I liked “Madchester” because it was a fusion of dance and rock. But now, and I don’t mean Oasis, there is a lot of turgid, naïve rock. Dance music tends to be the real underground.
BA: The dance thing is a theoretical thing for me. I can see that it’s the cutting edge, I just don’t actually like it. Music for me has to be song-based.
NT: Dance music used to be song-based, but since the late ’80s a lot of it is drug-based. I’m sure it’s great if you’re off your face, but for me it’s boring. Like you, I like songs.
BA: What was your first band, Dust, like?
NT: In 1970 music was really horrible, unless you liked Led Zeppelin. We used to like The Incredible String Band who were nothing to do with anything, just weird. We only did two gigs. What was your first group?
BA: God… Paint It Black was a goth group, absolutely bloody dreadful. I wasn’t a goth, though. I was in a Housemartins-type group called Jeff once.
NT (visibly shaken): Jeff?
BA: Suede are my only real band – we started about ’88. We put an ad in the NME for a guitarist, and the influences were The Smiths, Bowie, Pet Shop Boys and Lloyd Cole.
NT: And in those days you had Justine? (Brett’s then girlfriend Justine Frischmann, now in Elastica and girlfriend of Damon Albarn from Blur.)
BA: Me and Matt Osman, Justine and a drum machine. You don’t know what you’re doing when you start off.
NT: Does it embarrass you, talking about Justine?
BA: Not at all, she’s still a good friend of mine. I see her a lot.
NT: What about Damon?
BA: No thoughts on the person at all. He exists. (Adds mysteriously) If you’re not careful I’m going to start talking to you about Erasure.
NT: Somebody told me that Erasure really like us. I felt so guilty. It’s interesting, though, that Justine has been in your life and in Damon’s life. It’s like a plot for a TV mini-series.
BA: Yes, it’s an odd little history… (Skilfully changes subject by hailing conveniently passing waiter. Orders main course with no starter.)
NT: Do you listen to a lot of old records?
BA: I do. I try to listen to new stuff, but there’s so much out there. I recently got hold of Scott Walker albums – Suede have always been compared to Scott Walker and I’d never listened to a single one. It’s so brilliant and rich. What about you?
NT: I listen to music from all over the place. I might think, Oh, I’ve never listened to Tim Hardin before, so I’ll buy a CD of his. There’s always music from the past. I never listened to Jimi Hendrix when I was a kid, but I do now. I listen to a lot of classical music, and that is such a big area – it’s fantastic to discover it.
BA: The Beatles’ records are brilliantly timeless.
NT: Yes, they’re not charmingly dated. They’re just fresh. What I like about Trash (first single off the new Suede album) is that it’s what I call an ice rink record. When we were kids we used to go to the North Shields ice rink, and it’s like that echoey big sound. Tons of reverb, not quite real. Where were you brought up?
BA: Hayward’s Heath.
NT: Where’s that?
BA: You wouldn’t want to know. This grotty little place. On the way to Brighton there’s a train line, you look out the train window and there’s my dad, driving a taxi.
NT: It must have been fascinating to grow up quite close to London. Where I grew up, in Newcastle, London might as well have been New York.
BA: As a kid, walking past the station you knew that each train was going up to London and you’d think, I wish I was on that.
NT: When I was 13 my father had to do some work for the day in London. We got up at four in the morning and drove down from Newcastle. He let me wander round the city all day by myself. This was 1967.
BA: The year I was born.
NT: All the hippies were hanging around Piccadilly Circus. And I couldn’t believe how many theatres there were on Shaftesbury Avenue – theatres actually lined up next door to each other! Amazing.
BA: You were born close to Newcastle but you strike me a London person. When you came here to live, did you have a cloth cap and everything?
NT: I was never like that. At school they used to call me “Poshy” because of my accent. My brothers had real Geordie accents but for some reason, some genetic blip, I didn’t. But London is very romantic – I’ve always been obsessed by the idea of escaping into the city at night.
BA: You can disappear into it, be what you want. But tell me about Chris. How do you feel about working with the same person for 15 years?
NT: Chris and I get on very well.
BA: He’s a mysterious guy, isn’t he?
NT: Chris is much more talkative and outgoing than I am, in his private life. Of course he’s the opposite in public. He likes to be mysterious because he likes to keep his private life private.
BA: That’s totally fair enough. Everyone should be allowed that.
NT: It’s an interesting relationship. The most difficult thing in the creative process is being self-conscious about what other people think. And the only person I’m not self-conscious with is Chris, and vice versa. That’s really why it’s worked. Also, we look at music differently. He’ll say, Oh, I love the bass sound on that record. I would never say that. I’m always saying, Isn’t that a great tune, or a great sound. I look at the whole thing.
BA: I think you need that duality. You need a technician and a romantic to make a great record.
NT: Romanticism is terribly important in records. Your music is very romantic too. But then, Chris can get romantic about a bass sound.
Q: What is your frame of mind, Brett, as you release this third album?
BA: It’s really nice to come out of all the shit we’ve been through. People have made so many wild assumptions about the band (guitarist and co-writer Bernard Butler left the band before the release of their second album, Dog Man Star). You sit there letting people shout their mouths off. At the end of the day, we’ve just made a record that we’re proud of. For the first time in the band’s history, I don’t care what anyone thinks. I wanted this album to be more human than the last one, which was quite cold. I also like the fact it’s only got ten songs on it.
NT: Albums all have too many songs these days, because you can have 72 minutes on a CD. You can never get to know them. We try to structure them as albums.
Q: There is a very international, exotic feel to the new Pet Shop Boys album, isn’t there?
NT: Chris and I went to a bar in New York called the Sound Factory and they had all these guys playing samba drums, this incredible noise. Also, they had these guys dancing on leaves, wearing only flags to cover their modesty. We took the whole idea for our show. A few months later we saw this Glaswegian group Sheboom, these women who make their own samba drums in a huge council estate. They were brilliant. So all these things came together. We just like the energy and the noise. We also felt that British pop music had become so parochial, with so much about The Kinks. That view of Britain in the ’60s, that psychedelic suburban put-down, was a bit corny even then, and it’s been revived. It seems great to me to come from Newcastle and be popular in Brazil. It’s genuinely thrilling. We played a stadium in Bogota, and Chris is from Blackpool.
Q: While the Pet Shop Boys have acquired a global flavour, your characters, Brett, still appear trapped. Their means of escape are all mental, not geographical. You have one new song classically entitled Picnic By The Motorway.
NT: Great title!
BA: When I was a kid, I remember my aunt and uncle would make boiled eggs and sandwiches, and stop the car in a lay-by on the way to Cromer. I have a bizarre image of all these crashes going on and people sipping their tea.
NT: It’s very common, that sort of thing – it’s always fascinated me.
BA: It’s very English, like the scene in Carry On Up The Khyber where they’re getting bombarded and they carry on eating their soup.
NT: You have this fascination with these terrible, trapped English lives, don’t you?
BA: I know. I can’t get away from it. I tried desperately to be international on the last album but you can’t escape where you come from. It’s the way I write best. How about you?
NT: I tend to write about me or people around me. We’re always meant to be ironic, but they’re really just bits of my life. You tend to disguise it to make it less embarrassing.
BA: I might start with a person in mind, then I try to make it universal.
NT: I do as well. If I take sexuality, people ask, Why don’t you say “he” in the song, rather than make it multi-gender? But I always like people to think the song could actually apply to anyone. It’s a big debate in America, though, whether writing in that way is in fact a cop-out.
BA: It pisses me off that if you use “he” in a love song, people just assume it’s a love song to a man. But I’ll often use “he” because the song is about me, from the point of view of someone looking at me. People have a very binary system – this is a love song to a man, or this is to a woman.
NT: When you first came along you had this bisexual thing. How do you feel now about your legendary quote?
BA: Oh God. No regrets about the quote, only about the shit I got from it.
NT: I thought it was great. What was it again? “I’m a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience”?
BA: No, it was “I’m a bicycle that’s never had a puncture.”
NT: I loved it. Keeping your options open. Nowadays you’re not allowed to keep your sexual options open. It irritates me. When I said I was gay, I never did it before, because I didn’t want to be “gay Neil Tennant”. I don’t like to feel enclosed by it. In centuries to come people will look back on the 20th century as the century of violence and sex, when people were judged on their sexuality.
BA: It’s, You either belong to our gang or you don’t. But I don’t want to belong to anyone’s gang.
Q: Do you regret anything you’ve done? Or do you agree that we’re more likely to regret the things we haven’t done?
NT: Someone asked John Betjeman before he died and he said he wished he’d had more sex. I read that at a very young age and thought, Wow, I’m going to bloody remember that. You can go through your life not having enough sex because you’re too busy.
BA: I think everyone feels that way.
NT: Sex can become so complicated – it’s such a bore and everything. But at the end of the day you’d have to say it’s pretty much worth it! Sex is very funny when you’re famous, don’t you think? Have you ever had somebody who’s having it off with “Brett from Suede”?
BA: Yeah, there are so many mind games going on. It’s like, why are you doing this?
NT: There have been occasions, not very often I’ll admit, when I’ve realised somebody is having it off with “Neil from the Pet Shop Boys”. And I think, That’s really tacky, I don’t think I’d have it off with him.
BA: It really cheapens it. You’re in the middle of it, really getting off on it, and you think, Oh my God, hang on…
Waiter: I am sorry to interrupt. But would you care to see the dessert menu?