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Brian Higgins interview (Literally magazine, July 2009)
Posted at 11:41 PM, 30 August 2009 -

The current edition of Literally magazine (#34, July 2009) features a 15-page interview with Xenomania's Brian Higgins. Literally is published three times a year and is only available to members of the Pet Shop Boys Club. The interview was conducted by Chris Heath, on May 13, 2009. Some selected quotes from the interview, organized by topics:


Brian Higgins' first steps in the music business

«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 1 hit in America ["Believe" by Cher] 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 to this degree. 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.»


Obsession with synthesizers and electronic music

«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.

«I had a Casio MT-40 keyboard.
It was the most repulsive thing going»
«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 make it swirl about with these pre-set sounds.

«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.»


Xenomania: character, attitude and application determine things

«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. (...)

«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. (...) "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. »


What people want from Xenomania

«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 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. (...) But obviously that sort of mentality, to be able to cope with information on that level, I've trained not just me but myself, 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.»

«(...) 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.»


Bad experiences with big artists

«Everything about us is about enormous enthusiasm for 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 biggest 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.»


The Xenomania system

  • Melody is the raw material
«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 (...)»

«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.» (...)

  • The taste test
«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 nine minute period of time. I then comp those melodies down and then select the ones that I really like. 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. (...)

«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. (...)»

«I wanted to do things that are original and different but still very very commercial»
  • Knitting things together
«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. (...)

«But let's talk 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 around the chorus had to be constant too. (...)»


Where pop and avant garde collide

«I want people to be listening to things hundreds of times and finding nuance that they didn't hear previously. (...) That's how I hear music - looking for the originality and the rememberbility. 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. (...)

«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 don't want anything that isn't a hit. So you have to understand how the things merge together (...)

«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've 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.»


The (new) sound of Girls Aloud

«"The Promise" was the sound of a big group, a group about to be huge»
«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 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.»


Pet Shop Boys - Chris Lowe & Neil Tennant

«Chris Lowe is an electronic pioneer. He's one of the greatest.»
«They're fantastic people. It makes total sense why they've had their career. (...) It's very difficult to survive in the music business for however many years. (...) And I think to do it there needs to be some sort of outstanding qualities in the people, and it was nice to be able to identify outstanding qualities in Neil and Chris. (...)

«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 modern 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 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. (...) 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.

«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, but 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.»


Pet Shop Boys influence

«I thought "West End Girls" was just an incredible record»
«I was struck by how they looked completely different from anything else that was around. I thought "West End girls" was just an incredible record. Incredible record. (...) [Neil Tennant] 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. (...)

«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.»


Where the Pet Shop Boys went wrong

«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 what I 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 Neil and Chris would paint. It was a world in which I felt a part of, and welcomed into by them. (...)»

«I think they ceased to be relevant to a wide audience. (...) I think Neil and Chris became more introverted in the way 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. (...) I think the Pet Shop Boys became about a wry eyebrow. That there had to be something witty in it. Had to be. (...) I think they became more about how clever they could be.»


Working with the Pet Shop Boys: first meeting

«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're not doing it" through their manager. (...)

«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. (...) 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 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? (...) If you get 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. (...)»

[The Pet Shop Boys had no idea that Brian Higgins had originally planned to say no to them on their first visit. «It's funny,» Neil said, when told, «Because when we went down there I thought we wouldn't want to work with him, I think». Chris said: «I didn't think for a moment he wouldn't want to work with us. It didn't occur to me».]


How Pet Shop Boys work together

«I'm obsessed by long term relationships in music -
it's the key motivating factor that bonds us together here»
«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 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 it's 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.»


"Love etc."

«It's very difficult to release a record these days and be successful with it if it doesn't sound like anything else around it»
«I didn't want 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. (...) 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 probably should make". So I sort of relented. (...) 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 said this to Neil last Thursday: "The fact you released 'Love etc.' to me stands you in incredible stead for the next three to four 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. 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.» (...)

  • The disagreement over "Love etc.":
«It was hilarious. (...) Obviously Neil's a very very very intelligent man, and he's self-confident in his own ideas and 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. (...) I think his convictions were generated by his own excitement of how things were going. (...) 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 faults. (...)

«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 artists, whether I'm the artist, Miranda is, Neil, or whoever. (...) 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".»


Working with the Pet Shop Boys again

«I really love spending time with them. (...) 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. (...)

«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. (...) I think our lives are better here and more enriched because of our work with the Pet Shop Boys. I totally believe that.»

[Neil Tennant:«I think it would be a shame if we didn't work together. 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 ouevre.»]


What Xenomania learned from the Pet Shop Boys

«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 [the youngest person at Xenomania is 15 and the oldest is 55], 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 how flexible they were able to be with me, that explains their 25 year career. (...) 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.»

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3 Comments:

Blogger daavid said...

WOW! Thanks for posting this!

August 31, 2009 at 5:21 AM  


Blogger Peibols said...

Really GREAT post.

August 31, 2009 at 11:42 AM  


Blogger Staffantvå said...

no wonder Xenomania's output hasn't been amazing lately when they spend all their time giving massively time consuming interviews :/

September 1, 2009 at 12:11 PM  



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