Music Interviews

The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon: “My raison d’être was always never to stagnate” – Interview

The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon

The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon

Neil Hannon, the brain behind The Divine Comedy, has achieved unprecedented success since Chris Evans played Something For The Weekend on his Radio 1 breakfast show back in 1996.

The tiny Ulsterman has been working with Tom Jones, Ute Lemper, Robbie Williams, Michael Nyman and Yann Tiersen – and he’s even found time to get married. So how exactly does he find the time to be a genius? We caught up with him at London’s Royal Festival Hall…

“Want a beer?” asks Neil Hannon, leaping over to the fridge, opening its door and revealing a veritable treasure chest of grog, the sort of arsenal that would make Father Jack cry with joy. I accept, and he grabs one for himself too. In a bound he’s leaped past me to the sandwiches table again. He rummages about, sending sandwiches fleeing in every direction. “Ooops… where’s the bottle opener?” I shrug, wondering why so many venues provide bands with riders when basic opening devices are not supplied. Then my fears are confounded as he brandishes the recovered bottle opener at me, almost like a child with a new toy, lets out a giggle, opens the bottles and leaps across to the chairs, where a Dictaphone awaits his every utterance. “You have until two minutes to six.” This is to be a short interview – just 15 minutes to cover a month’s worth of questions. Oh well… We’re underway.

I’d just finished watching The Divine Comedy and their special guests The Monaco String Quartet sound check for their set, and the band had asked for extra time. I’d sat in an otherwise empty hall listening to National Express and Timewatching being played, listened to orchestral arranger and piano player Joby Talbot ask “What went wrong there?” and heard bassist Bryan Mills reply “I played – if I just stop playing it sounds fine…” Through it all Neil Hannon appeared serene. Here we are, after all, in The Barbican Theatre and The Divine Comedy are about to take part in a benefit evening for the Edinburgh Flux Festival. Why had Neil felt particularly benevolent towards this organisation?

“They’re broke, they needed some money. They let us faff around with Michael Nyman a year or two ago, so we owed them one. ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed!'” he says, quoting Placebo. Nyman is just one of a bewildering array of people with whom Neil Hannon has worked with recently; Tom Jones, Ute Lemper and Robbie Williams also belong to this select group of collaborators. There’ve even been rumours about Benny and Bjorn from Abba writing something with him. “People keep ‘phoning up,” he says matter-of-factly, “and to be honest at the moment I’m just getting into practice saying no, because the problem was that we got such good offers that you couldn’t say no – you thought the opportunity would never come again. But they do come, again and again and again and again, so it’s important not to have too much going at once – it just drives me nuts. Everything we’ve done I think we’ve done well, but now’s the time to concentrate on the job in hand, which is all of us being huge pop stars!”

I’d been hearing that Neil wanted to involve the rest of his band in the writing process from now on. Do we expect the next album to be co-written, I wondered?

“The Divine Comedy will always be my band because… I thought of it first!” – Neil Hannon

I’d no sooner asked the question than the swift reply was uttered; “NO! The Divine Comedy will always be my band because… I thought of it first!” he giggles; his personality appears to have changed from zealous composer to giggling schoolboy in the space of a sentence. “I’ll always write the bulk of the songs, but the idea now is really to give everyone total freedom in the band – and to hell with orchestras. We’ve done it. Every time we’ve done an album there’ve been a few more musicians until there were over one hundred on the last album (Fin de Siecle), so we had to hone that down. There’s no point in bringing it back and having a few – we might as well just get rid of them all.”

We’d even heard reports of Neil reaching artistic burnout level, and this being suggested as the reason for his offering the band more freedom. “With every album you just have to find ways to keep yourself interested,” he says, sounding for all the world as if selling half a million records was a burden.

So what should we expect from the next album, with new label Parlophone? Neil decides to interpret the question as a request to define the band. “We’ve always been a confused band; we don’t really know what we are. There’ve always been indie roots there and there’s always been a classical influence and that’s not gonna go away because it’s in…” there’s a pause, while he remembers the diverse musical tastes of his band members, “most of us. There’s always been the pop influence and you can’t get away from that.”

Hmm. Okay, another angle then. What of all the talk at The 1999 Reading and Leeds Festivals about these being the final time many of the songs aired over that weekend would be played? Are we never going to hear Something For The Weekend or Neptune’s Daughter live again?

“It’s not going to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We’ve sold about half a million records – obviously a lot of them to the same people, but still there are a lot of records out there and people wouldn’t have bought them if they didn’t want to hear them occasionally. So it would be silly to say” – switches into camp theatrical voice again – “‘no, I can’t be doing with that anymore’. So we’ll play them. Every time we do a new album we rearrange the old stuff to suit the new.”

A good example of this cycle of rearranging would be the recent B-side Europop, updated to late ’90s Europop from its 1993 original recording.

“Yeah, exactly,” intones the little man opposite. “Every time we go out and tour live we try to pick songs from previous albums that we’ve not actually done before – and there are plenty of them.”

What was the last count of recorded The Divine Comedy tracks? I’d make a rough estimate of 100 and let that stand until someone emails me the correct figure. Taken collectively, that would be a rather crowded bath, even allowing for some bathwater.

“Very dodgy… you don’t have to buy it, okay?!” – Neil Hannon on the album Rarities

With a new record label to jump through hoops for, one might ask where Neil’s interest lies this time round, but there have recently been some new influences in his life. This summer he was married in Dublin to Orla Little and they have moved house, all this while A Secret History nudged its way into the top three of the UK album chart. But Neil and Orla will not be alone in their new home… There’s been much made in the music press recently about Leia… He brightens at the mention of the name. “Yeah, we’ve just bought a puppy, so that completes the family circle,” he offers. “I don’t know if she’ll be a tour dog, but she could grow to be a studio dog.” But there are no plans to increase the size of the Hannon family just yet, he says; the dog is quite enough for now. He’s too busy renovating and writing. I’m surprised to hear the two words in the same sentence…

“In my little basement flat in N10 we have a room for writing,” Neil shares in whispered tones, “it has a computer, keyboards, stuff like that, but I wouldn’t say it would be in any way a studio. That would imply that it would be for recording and apart from dodgy demos it isn’t.” The recently released Rarities CD, part of the limited edition of A Secret History, is a case in point, he says. It is “very dodgy; you don’t have to buy it, okay?” Too late for that… besides which, it is a lovely album.

Of course not everyone thinks as I do about Neil’s music. He has personally taken an inky battering from the music press, having been dismissed as a “Scott Walker Mini Me” and for being pretentious, accused of sneering at the working classes with National Express. Thousands of people thought National Express was a fun song with a great beat to it; not so the inkies. Neil pauses for thought, then takes the opportunity to round on his detractors.

“Well, I mean, pretention; the very word. Surely that’s exactly what everybody in this industry does, pretend to be something or other. A lot of people go ‘keep it real’, but what exactly are they keeping real? You’re basically keeping some mythical ’60s rock attitude real, which is fake anyway. So I pretend to be clever! As for ‘sneering’: well, that just drives me nuts. Most other lauded songwriters in the history of pop have observed and written about what they see and National Express, even though it was a bit of a silly song, is pure observation, nothing made up – I’m on this bus, this is what I see. ‘The family man/manhandling the pram/with paternal pride’ is me having a dig at my brother for having a kid and being ’90s Man, you know, and he’s not exactly working class. Besides, what is working class any more? The boundaries are so immensely blurred. It annoys me that people can be so bloody stupid. They’ve taken an image that I used for Casanova, one about which I said blatantly at the time I was just having a laugh about, that it wasn’t me at all, but they want to believe it. They keep on and on about this elitism which was never there! But it’s their problem.”

“We’ve always been a confused band. We don’t really know what we are…” – Neil Hannon

The music press thus despatched, what does Neil make of the record-buying public? His most recent single, Gin Soaked Boy, wheezed its way up to a peak of Number 38. After the success of National Express wasn’t he expecting better things?

“Whether the public liked it or not we’ll never know. Nobody played it on the radio and we didn’t get any TV!” He’s in jovial spirits about this anyway. It’s not like he’s just released his first single, after all. The Divine Comedy have been around for a very long time. “But I’m perfectly calm about it,” he confirms. “The Certainty Of Chance got to Number 41 last year, so we were not pressured. You win some and you lose some. To be honest we’re veering away from having to have constant pop hits because we’re calmer now.”

I’d once seen an article in which Neil was asked to name his favourite Divine Comedy track and he said “They’re all my children and I love them all equally”, but please, let’s say you were on Desert Island Discs and you had to pick one Divine Comedy track to take with you. Which would it be?”

“I’d say Tonight We Fly because… it is nicely proportioned, and what it tries to say it says correctly and in the right order, and it is a nice tune. But to be honest there are loads that I love. I wouldn’t write them if I didn’t.” I can’t help but agreeing with him, an observation that elicits a giggle. What does Neil say to people who think he’s selling out by not writing albums like ‘Liberation’ and, more specifically, Promenade, on which Tonight We Fly appeared?

“If anyone seriously expects me to write like I did when I was 21…” he pauses dramatically before psychoanalysing why he writes differently now. “You write differently, you think differently as you get older. I couldn’t write like that now even if I tried, and I wouldn’t want to. My raison d’être” – said in such a way as to make one giggle – it sounded like a hiccup but I’m reasonably sure it wasn’t – “was always never to stagnate, never stay in the same place too long. I think that’s what I’ve achieved. So no, I’ll never go back there. But there are elements of all those albums that come back again and again. But if you like those albums, I’d say listen to those albums!”

“I didn’t need that sort of artifice to hide behind…” – Neil Hannon

Looking at the newer stuff, Too Young To Die needed to be discussed. One of the final tracks on A Secret History and one of only two new songs from that album, it was thought by some to be ironic, a swipe at commercialism or some such. Still others thought it was about changing record companies; Neil is keen to put an end to such rumours. “In Too Young To Die everything is pretty literal. It’s less to do with changing record companies and more to do with a change in attitude, trying to regain lost youth.” The door is banged again and Neil gives in, revealing Stuart “Pinkie” Bates in need of a beer and some sarnies. Neil resumes his narrative whilst Pinkie fills up a plate. “I didn’t go to university like him over there,” says Neil, pointing first at his accordion and Hammond player, then at me, “and I’m sure you did as well. And everybody says they had a good time…” and Pinkie assures us through a mouthful of sandwich that he didn’t do any work. “Well, exactly!” says Neil. “But I was sitting in a room in Tottenham trying to write songs and having a beastly time.”

That’s what the suit was all about, apparently. “I felt so anonymous then, and I thought people would recognise me with the same attire on permanently – but it’s all just a matter of accepting that you don’t really need all that. I didn’t need that sort of artifice to hide behind, and that’s what I had been doing.”

He’s now sat in front of me wearing trainers, beige chords and a khaki shirt, a far cry from his foppish days that were in evidence as recently as the Fin de Siecle tour. “I don’t want to look too scruffy, but I suppose I do… oh dear, look at those trousers…” But he likes this pair of trousers and that’s the final word on the matter.

Talking of things much liked, it was recently announced that Meltdown 2000 is to be put together by one Scott Walker – previous comperes include Nick Cave and John Peel. “I’ll be there every night,” says Neil, immediately. “I don’t know if I’ll be playing or not; that’s up to Him, isn’t it? I’ve not met Him yet. I thought I’d get the chance when we were recording the Ute Lemper thing but He changed His mind about which studio He was going to be in at the last minute. I considered popping in and hiding in a closet – but it’ll happen, at it’s proper time.” And on leaping out of said closet, what would Neil say to the man who inspired him, I ask, somewhat sheepishly, still unsure why my voice is working. “Wbleuobww…” he offers, and sniggers.

“My raison d’être was always never to stagnate…” – Neil Hannon

For some reason or other I wanted to know what Neil thought of the Web; there were at least an hour’s worth of other things I wanted to know as well, but time was like an ever-rolling stream.

“I haven’t quite worked out what you’re supposed to do with the web,” – that hiccup again – it seems to appear whenever says a word or phrase seriously that he finds ridiculous, “or what you’re meant to be looking for. The idea seems great, but I sit there going, ‘hmm, what should I do?’ So I looked up philosophy and it gave me a nice little potted history, and that was nice. But there was no contemporary philosophy, nobody talking about stuff – I couldn’t find anything. And I don’t want to join a Beverley Hills 90210 channel…”

What about a Divine Comedy mailing list? I wondered if he’d seen any web sites, chastising myself as I did so for being vainglorious. Ach well, what the hell.. “There are so many of the bloody things now – it’s ridiculous. They’ve suddenly just proliferated.” The collective pride of the webmaster fraternity thus bashed, I found myself agreeing with him – there were over 30 sites last time I looked.

Perhaps it’s a measure of the man that his wearing of trainers is cause for society’s comments. I’m left to deliberate as he leaps off the chair and scampers away.

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The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon: “Songwriting, apart from anything else, is catharsis. I needed to cathart!” – Interview