By Michael Hamersly
For two studio geeks who originally never intended to tour, the Pet Shop Boys have evolved into a band that takes pains to make hitting the road a true art form. Concerts by the veteran British dance-pop duo - front man Neil Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe - transcend mere musical performance, copping an over-the-top, theatrical vibe with flamboyant sets, costumes and skits, similar to elaborately themed shows by the likes of Madonna and Gwen Stefani.
The experience turns each Pet Shop Boys classic - West End Girls, Rent, It's a Sin, What Have I Done to Deserve This? - and new tracks from the latest album Yes into miniature one-act plays. For the Boys' Pandemonium Tour, which hits the Fillmore Miami Beach not quite three years after the Fundamental Tour made a stop at the same venue, the group brought back acclaimed British theater designer Es Devlin and energized the music by working with Stuart Price, who produced Madonna's pulsing 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor.
“We've kept the original arrangements of the songs, but they're just sort of beefed up and revitalized, so they sound very fresh and with a lot of euphoria,” says Lowe by phone from London. “There's very much a party atmosphere to the show.”
That apparently wasn’t always the case: “Over the years, me and Neil have become quite confident as performers, because we never really started off as a live group,” says Lowe.
“It's the sort of thing we've learned as we've gone along. We get such a lot of warmth and love from our audiences, and it’s a really fantastic experience for us. When we started, we just thought we were a studio band, and we’d make records and putter around, and we’d make videos. We never thought we’d become a live act. And since then, touring has become one of the big parts of Pet Shop Boys.”
Lowe says he and Tennant always look forward to visiting South Florida. “The first time we came to Miami, the Art Deco district was just hotels full of old people,” he says. “So we've seen Miami change a lot over the years. I can't wait [to visit], because it's a bit gloomy right now here in London. It's cloudy and miserable, so we're looking forward to a bit of sunshine.”
Lowe played a major role in developing the ebullient, sunshine-y sound of Yes.
“On this album, Neil was actually learning to drive, and so I spent a bit more time in the studio than normal,” he said. “Neil would be having driving lessons in the morning, and then we’d come back and work on what I’d been doing in the morning. But we both like to write songs in the evening after we’ve had dinner and a few glasses of wine – it’s a lot more fun then. And writing songs has got to be fun; otherwise, I think it comes across in the finished music.”
Pet Shop Boys songs typically contain a melancholy element, a minor chord or touching lyric that tugs at the heart. But the new songs on Yes are largely bouncy.
“We went into the studio without any preconceptions of what it would be,” Lowe says. “It turned out that we were writing lots of euphoric electronic pop records, and I don't really know why that was - we must just have been feeling it. There's been a resurgence of electronic pop music in Europe with the Killers and Lady GaGa, so it seemed like the zeitgeist was right.”
Working with pop producers Xenomania (Girls Aloud) helped give Yes a contemporary feel.
“The combination of us with them worked really well,” says Lowe. “It's a very shiny, exuberant, euphoric pop album.”
The songwriting process necessitated by Tennant's driving lessons was a departure from the Pet Shop Boys' modus operandi.
“The usual way is, we'll go into the studio together and sort of bang away on keyboards at the same time, almost jamming, really, but using keyboards and drum machines and things like that,” he says. “But sometimes Neil will have written an entire lyric, and I'll write the music and melody to it. Sometimes Neil will have written the bulk of a song, and it'll have a missing bit, and so I'll finish it off. And sometimes we'll just have an idea for a song, like Shopping, and that sort of writes itself.”
Some of the Pet Shop Boys’ best-loved tracks are cover songs, such as Always On My
Mind, Where the Streets Have No Name and Can't Take My Eyes Off of You. Expect more of the same at Wednesday's concert.
One of the Pet Shop Boys’ best-known songs is West End Girls, the group's big break in
1985. Although the song still sounds fresh today, its success surprised the duo.
“We made West End Girls in New York, and brought it back [to London], but we didn't play it to our friends, because we were slightly embarrassed by it,” says Lowe. “But eventually we played it for them, and they said, ‘Oh, wow - this is really good.’ And even though we made a great record, and we were really happy with it, we never saw how it could become a hit. We got a record deal with Epic in England, and it got released. But then one day we got a call out of the blue from someone saying that our record was being played on K-ROQ in Los Angeles, and was Screamer of the Week or something. The first time we went to America to do promotion, the record was already No. 1.”
After almost three decades in the music biz, Lowe, who will turn 50 on Oct. 4, still feels thrilled to be a vital part of it, writing compelling songs and putting on vibrant tours.
“We're lucky enough to still be doing it at our age,” he says. “We're still in our hearts sort of teenagers.”
An Evening with Pet Shop Boys, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9
The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach
Tickets: 305-673-7300 or LiveNation.com; $36.50-$76.50
Pet Shop Boys