Pet Shop Boys
A behind-the-scenes glimpse into who does what, and how, in the making of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe's classic synth-pop records.
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are the princes of programmed pop. But, as Ian Masterson discovers, the men with their fingers on the button are Pete Gleadall and Bob Kraushaar...
They hate being described as ironic. Or camp. Or clever. So let's just say this: the Pet Shop Boys make pop music. Their latest album, Very (released as a limited edition double-pack with the dance album Relentless), is the seventh in a line of successes that have kept Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe at the cutting edge of pop and dance music for nearly a decade. But what lies at the heart of these classic club and chart records? What is that impeccable image actually built on? Pete Gleadall and Bob Kraushaar, programmer and engineer respectively on Very, are the two people most likely to know. In this exclusive interview, Pete and Bob talk about working with the Dynamic Duo at the frontiers of serious pop music...
Pete: "I think everyone enjoyed making this album, because the Pet Shop Boys' actual process of doing it was different. What they tended to do before was to hire out a cheapish 24-track studio with some keyboards and drum boxes, and write and play songs or parts straight to tape. Then they'd spend the rest of the album trying to recreate the sounds and feel of the original in a better studio, which pissed them off no end. So for this album they bought their own home studio, and we spent three months there, while they wrote songs straight into the sequencer using their collection of synths and samplers. Nothing went onto multitrack until they were perfectly happy with it. They'd take cassettes and DATs home all the time, listen to them and come back full of ideas about what to change or improve. That process worked for pretty much everything.
"We also laid down some guide vocals at their studio for later reference; I'm not really a proper engineer like Bob, so I just hooked up a Neumann U87 and let Neil sing away. Unfortunately, we didn't have a pop shield, which would have made all the difference to those first takes. I wanted to get a bit of coathanger and some tights, but they definitely weren't going to record anything through an old pair of stockings, so we had to wait for a proper shield. Actually, the coathanger thing doesn't work properly anyway."
Bob: "Yes it does. Perhaps you've just been using the wrong denier of tights..."
Pete: "Their studio is 24-track, but there aren't many songs of theirs that are only 24-track now, so we did as much as we could before going into Sarm West to start recording things properly. You can just do things in a professional studio that you can't do at home."
Bob: "Quite often they'd come back to a track in the studio and want to change something about it - the bassline might not be quite right, or the drums might not be perfect. But a lot of what they put down originally stayed the course. We basically spent three months at Sarm tarting the whole lot up and making it into a proper pop record. A lot of the original instrumentation - about 70% - stayed; Pete meticulously documented all the existing sounds, so that they could be re-used even if the nature of the actual part changed."
Pete: "We'd only really change something if Bob was having real problems with it, and would say 'this is a pile of shite, let's do something about it'."
Bob: "Actually, I think I put it a bit more eloquently than that... like, 'it's not really doing it for me frequency-wise'."
Pete: "Sarm is one of those fantastic studios where the more you pay, the less gear you get! At the top end of the multitrack market you're paying £700 a day for a grand piano and plenty of outboard, but no synths. But the Pets have their own selection of gear now, which is built into transportable pods, and which they've been assembling since their first tour. It's fairly normal stuff, really - some M1Rs, several Akai S1000s and S3000s which can sample for days, a Roland S770, Proteuses, a Matrix 1000, MKS80s and MKS50s... and on the synth front they have a PPG Waveterm, JD800, Juno 106 and Prophet V. We also used my TB303 for some of the acidy bits on the album, and loads of crappy drum boxes on tracks like 'To Speak Is A Sin', which I sampled. Oh, and my TG500 was used quite a lot - particularly for high string parts.
"The PPG and Prophet V dropped us in the shit quite a few times. Basically, you can't move the PPG without it dumping its memory; when we got it into Sarm the presets didn't bear the slightest resemblance to the ones we had programmed at their place. And the Prophet has some nasty MIDI problems.
"The Roland R70 turned out to be a fantastic drum machine for us. We didn't program it, of course - life's too short for that - but we sequenced a lot of the sounds. That triangle is brilliant; the sustain you get is superb. But there are niggles which I'd have loved to have told the designers about before they released the machine - like the bleeding on the individual outputs, which meant we had to record each part separately onto tape.
"Chris still uses a Fairlight to write on - quite a few of the songs had basic demos done on that. But we had nightmares trying to make it talk to everything else over MIDI, so I just dumped its sequences into Notator on the Atari, which is what we were working with at the time. Both Very and Relentless used Notator, although they've since changed to a Macintosh running Notator Logic, which is much more accessible."
Pete: "Chris likes to hear a lot of bottom end on their tracks, which is why they bought the massive ABES subwoofer for their Dynaudio monitors. He was going into clubs and hearing this fantastic depth to records and thinking, 'well, why don't our records sound like that?'..."
Bob: "...which is why we recorded the album on analogue tape. They've used a lot of digital multitrack before, but this time they wanted that sound you get from analogue recording. So we taped the whole lot on 48 tracks of analogue, with no noise reduction, on Ampex 456. There was a big discussion over analogue versus digital - Neil likes the 'presence' of digital - but everything went to analogue first.
"It's the same thing with Neil's vocals. Because he likes to enunciate things clearly, and speak quite a lot, you have to find a way of recording his style to suit the rest of the arrangement. In this case we went for a Neumann TLM170 microphone, feeding two Urei 1176 compressors, one after the other, giving us a lot of compression, without sounding overcompressed."
Pete: "The bass was all either Moog or Juno, both of which have a terrific bottom end. Chris would actually like to use the Moog live, but it's a bit of a nightmare recalling patches on stage. Mind you, it would be a bit of a laugh..."
Bob: "Both Neil and Chris know exactly what they want in a track. You can't try and pull one over on them; they're so in control of everything they do, and that applies to the studio as well, unlike a lot of bands. They notice and hear everything - there might be a hundred parts blasting out of the mix and Neil will notice the one stuck or duff note. It's quite incredible. And they're very, very specific: Neil might say, 'oh, this needs a high string part playing this line', or 'this really needs a sixteenth tambourine'. But at the same time they experiment constantly. They might flick through the sounds on a synth and find something that just works instantly."
Pete: "People often don't realise Chris' input to the whole process. He basically writes the bulk of the backing to most of the songs, and quite often the melody lines as well, which Neil embellishes and develops. He likes to work really, really quickly, because he's full of ideas, and you have to keep up with that - which is the whole point of using sequencers for me.
"One thing Chris is very good at is picking up on mistakes and using them. He's inclined to insist on something he likes, whether it's a mistake or not. He's good on homing in on idiosyncracies that you might think are wrong, and you'd have to do again. If we're playing percussion or sequenced lines he'll immediately jump on the one that sounds strange, and turn it into something brilliant! They'd never done an album before with the same programmer and gear from the word go, and I know they really enjoy the flexibility and experimentation that it gives them."
Bob: "And the good thing is that they realise the amount of tweaking that needs to be done to achieve certain affects, and they're happy to leave you to it without breathing down your neck; that's how the doppler effect on that pad sound on 'To Speak Is A Sin' was achieved. It took ages, but everyone loved the result. The dancey bits on the end of 'Go West' are another example; that was Chris flicking through sounds on the JD800, playing bits he liked, while I was messing around with a Pultec passive filter on Pete's TB303. It means you get a constantly changing, developing track. And we recorded the vocals on 'Yesterday When I Was Mad' through a set of headphones..."
Pete: "I think everyone loved doing this album - it was such a laugh, to be honest."
Bob: "There were very few sticking points really. 'One In A Million' was re-recorded three times - the final version was done on the very last day in Sarm. And one of my favourite tracks, 'Shameless', had a very dense arrangement that took a lot of time, and they ended up getting fed up with it. It became a B-side to 'Go West', instead of being on the album."
Pete: "When we'd finished Very we went back into Sarm and recorded Relentless in about three weeks, which was superb fun. They were well chuffed with that, because it burst into the DJ charts at the same time as 'Go West' - a whole dance album in the charts at once. Very pleasing."
Bob: "That was a great thing to do, because not having dominant vocal lines gives you a lot of space to experiment with the really brilliant instrumental lines they write. We ended up getting really mental with effects and things."
Pete: "It's all really frenetic, because they can have two or three studios at once; at the end we had Stephen Hague mixing in Rak, Bob editing a half-inch tape, me fiddling with a TB303 line with Chris for one of the tracks on Relentless, and Neil working out a string part. Completely mad. But they do want to get everything exactly right, which makes everything so much better; you have to do that when you set out to make a modern pop record."
Interview by Ian Masterson
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