POP MUSIC : 10 QUESTIONS : The Pet Shop Boys

Dennis Hunt is a Times staff writer.

I n the skyscraper of pop, dance music is the basement. In terms of critical respect, it's down there with heavy metal. The common complaint: Dance music is nothing but a mindless, recurring beat accompanied by frivolous lyrics.

To many critics and pop fans, the Pet Shop Boys are just another synthetic entry on the crowded, largely faceless dance-club circuit, and they dismiss the duo's records as simply pretentious disco.

But there is considerable ambition and skill behind the music of lyricist and lead singer Neil Tennant, 35, and composer-keyboardist Chris Lowe, 30, whose international hits include "West End Girls" and "Always on My Mind."

In their new EMI album, "Behavior," the British team seems to take its boldest step toward greater artistic respectability, placing more emphasis on intimate, autobiographical lyrics than a never-ending beat.

To draw attention to the album, Tennant and Lowe next year will tour the United States for the first time.

During a recent interview in a West Hollywood hotel, Tennant and Lowe--who have also produced records for Liza Minnelli and Dusty Springfield--were outspoken about critics and the state of American dance music.

Question: Since "Behavior" offers less dance music, do you worry that your old fans might be turned off by it?

Lowe: I can't say that we really care. We haven't fallen into the trap of trying to make records strictly to please our audience. It's calculated and it's no fun. It's better for us to come up with what we think is good and not try to second-guess the fans. If it's good, the fans will like it too. But they can't be the first priority. That's how you wind up making bad records--records you don't really believe in.

Q: What has been the critical reaction to the new album?

Lowe: Because there's less dance music on it, rock critics feel more comfortable with it. People say it sounds so much more mature, which means it has less dance music on it. These are supposedly compliments, but they're not really. I love dance music and this positive reaction to the album is basically a negative reaction to dance music. That's crap as far as I'm concerned.

Q: Why the change in your new album?

Tennant: We got away from the high-energy dance music to experiment with different dance rhythms and a different sound. For a change we wanted to get into more personal music. We got away from the high-energy music just to change--nothing more complex than that. Also, in England, dance music is changing. They're making mellower records. The dance music is almost New-Agey. We still love high-energy music--don't get me wrong. Over there, we're practically the only people who still make high-energy dance music.

Q: You've received much more critical acclaim than most dance-music artists, but you've taken your share of critical potshots too. Do you value that critical opinion?

Lowe: Forget it. What you learn from critics is how to be nasty and how not to be understood. Many of them write reviews that make no sense--even if it's praise. Based on their opinions, you can see most of them don't understand what we're doing or trying to do. I've always thought of the critics as the enemy. If the critics like you, you've failed somehow. Their discussions about our music are often way off.

Q: Considering your reputation for intelligent lyrics, doesn't it bother you that most dance-music fans care only about the beat and don't really listen to lyrics?

Tennant: Not really. That's the nature of pop music. It's superficial music that can be enjoyed on a superficial level. I actually like it when someone says they like our songs because they can dance to them. The content of the song may be lost on them, but that doesn't make me feel bad. And it doesn't make me feel bad when I'm talking to someone about a song and I realize they've missed the whole point or they don't understand it at all or they've read something entirely different into it. If they've just gotten into the beat, at least the song touched them somehow.

Q: Some skeptics are suggesting you're finally doing a U.S. tour to boost a career that has sagged somewhat in this country in the last two years. Is that true?

Tennant: Not really. The reason we're finally doing a tour is because we have the resources to do the kind of show we've always wanted to do here. We've avoided touring all these years because we didn't want to compromise and do it in a way we didn't way to do it--in a very cheap and standard way. We've figured out how to do concerts without losing tons of money. Also, the record company would like us to tour. They'd like us to have a higher profile. But we're not doing it because we're worried about our career in this country.

Q: When you finally toured last year, how did you like it?

Tennant: At times it was thrilling. I realize what it's like to be a footballer who's just scored a goal--the way people shout, throw things on stage and chant your name. It can be exhilarating--one of the grandest moments of my life. But it's not always that way. After a while, the thrill is gone and the whole experience becomes sort of boring--even with the high points.

Q: You often hear that American dance-music is stagnating. Do you agree?

Lowe: Yes. In America, you can't tell one dance record from another. You can't tell Jody Watley from Paula Abdul from Janet Jackson. There are so many creative producers and writers in this country, but their talent is going to waste. They're in a horrible rut. Some of it is very hard to listen to. If dance music is to survive in this country, it has to change--get some variety, respond to new influences.

Tennant: Dance music in this country is based on a stagnant idea--making records based on what's a hit at the moment on radio. The dance-music artists are perceived as copying what's going on at the moment--which is true, really. When you make records based on that approach, you're at a creative standstill.

Q: What's the key to improving American dance music?

Tennant: The problem is radio. Radio adheres to this formula sound, which influences how records are made. All the producers and writers and artists want their records on radio so they make records to fit the formula. All that needs to be done is for one major radio station or two to change formats and break away from the formula and be successful and the rest will copy that new format, since radio stations are copycats anyway. Music that's interesting and different is being made, it's just not being played. American dance music needs an experimental period--like what was happening in house music when it was developing in Britain. It was an exciting time, with no musical boundaries, and room for all kind of experimention.

Q: Is dance music in Britain more respected and creative?

Tennant: Yes. I don't mean to sound like I'm praising my country at the expense of America, but dance music in Britain tends to be the motor of music. Not rock or R&B; or rap, but dance. All the stylistic changes normally come out of dance music. For instance, all the rock groups in Britain use these drum samples, which come from dance. But people in dance music in Britain can afford to be brave and do what they want to do, without worrying about whether it's going to be a hit, because over there radio is different. It doesn't call the shots the way radio does over here, so the dance-music atmosphere is much more creative. People think our music is so different and unlike other dance music. That's because it was nurtured in that British environment that has fewer rules. If we had been working in this country, trying to get a start, we'd probably sound like all the other dance-music groups. What a horrible thought.

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