We’re in an inner sanctum of EMI’s Brook Green offices in west London and, were a pin to drop, its sound would reverberate all about. It’s the quietest record company office ever. “It’s always like this,” Neil Hannon whispers as we close the glass door separating the silent interview room from silent corridor. “You go round and try and do a cheery ‘HI!’ and they look shocked that somebody’s talking.”
We’re here for a chat about The Divine Comedy‘s new album Victory For The Comic Muse, his third for the major’s Parlophone label. The band’s 1990 debut was Fanfare For The Comic Muse, and we couldn’t help but notice a similarity of nomenclature. Is there a link? “It means it’ll be my last album. I’m going to wrap it all up and go away and live on a Polynesian island, and die,” he says archly.
He’s of course being divinely comedic. “People have leaped to a bizarre conclusion that it’s the last record,” he explains. “It’s not, of course – because I don’t know what else to do. I was watching A Room With A View for the fifteen-hundredth time and remembered, ah yes, that was a good quote. So I just kept the original quote. It felt good with the music and it had a certain ‘ha-ha!’ quality about it.” After all is said and done, what is the victory? “One could say that the main victory is still being here.”
He confides that he didn’t think people would remember Fanfare, an album long ago deleted and many times disowned. “I’ve moved on from that (position),” he corrects. “I’m not now disowning it; I’m just saying it was a bit crap. I think I went a bit over the top for dramatic effect in the old days. Really it’s just a mini album that was the sort of thing that a little band straight out of school would do if they’d listened to too much R.E.M..”
His listening habits in the intervening years haven’t vastly changed, he says. “The Flaming Lips. Nina Simone. Err… Arctic Monkeys.” Oh? Sensing how that sounded he explains, “I’m not trying to be clever and contemporary; it’s just that I think they’re very good, even if you always sound a bit crap namechecking them. But compared to every other band in the country they’re about twice as good.”
“My production technique is to throw lots of stuff at it, and hopefully some of it will stick.” – Neil Hannon
Victory For The Comic Muse, it goes without saying, does not sound like the Arctic Monkeys. Rather it is almost an anti-concept album of classic songwriting, comprising various tracks from stillborn projects herded together and whipped into shape. If its predecessor Absent Friends was grounded in personal experience, Victory sees the return of Hannon the suave, detached observer. “A lot of Absent Friends was real and a lot of it wasn’t,” he recalls. “It was inward looking; not in a bad way, but in a comfortable domestic way, whereas this record is a bit more ‘everything’s cool, I don’t need to worry so much’, so I can afford to look out and have a bit more fun.”
Fun maybe, but at a near-frantic pace. “I was busy doing all of these other things, and I really hadn’t thought about making an album. But I had so many songs that were almost finished that I thought I might as well, and do it as quickly as possible to prevent myself from overcooking it.”
Regeneration, his first Parlophone album, took four and a half weeks of studio time; Victory took just 10 days. “I wanted to record it mostly live with everybody there, and they’re bloody expensive these musicians, especially the good ones,” he says. “So that concentrates the mind. But mostly it’s because I get really bored if I take so long. You make problems for yourself if you’ve got the time in which to do it. So I thought I’d give ourselves a ridiculous deadline. We did 18 tracks, so if four or five of them were totally rubbish it wouldn’t matter.” As it turned out, not enough of them were rubbish. “Sixteen of those tracks could’ve been on the record; it was really hard to pare it down. In the end I just went for the ones that seemed to go well with each other rather than those that were particularly… better.”
One track that didn’t make the final cut was his most political song yet. “I don’t know what to do with poor old Guantnamo,” he says. “It expresses a sentiment that I wanted people to hear. But it totally didn’t work on the album; it just kind of threw the whole thing out of whack. So MySpace seemed like a good place to deal with it; it meant we didn’t have to have it hanging around and people could make of it what they will.” But Fin De Siecle’s concluding track Sunrise, about the Troubles, was surely political too? “Sunrise is hopeful, more elegiac, where the lyrics weren’t overtly political,” he counters. “Guantnamo was basically just an argument; I was trying to second-guess everything that people would come back at me with. It’s a sort of polemic, and that was far too heavy. Everything else on this album is rather small character-portrait kind of thing. It’s on a much more personal basis. Guantnamo just didn’t work.”
“There’s an awful lot of received wisdom from books and films added to people that I have met.” – Neil Hannon
Happily, plenty else did. “Mother Dear and The Light Of Day were written for other things that didn’t take place; films, mainly, though it’s not that anybody from these films had asked me to do anything. I’d just asked my publishers what films are being made, and what sort of songs they’re looking for; then you write songs, put them out there and hope people will pick them up. Which I’ve never done before, but it was a laugh; it circumvented my usual inability to be simplistic. With Mother Dear, it’s so nice to have just written a song in an afternoon with not too many chords, not as high-falutin’ in theme. I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of me doing it. I think not since before Casanova came out have I been able to do that.”
The album’s towering highlight is the lushly arranged A Lady Of A Certain Age, a wrenching character study. “I was very pleased with that one, I must say. It’s one of the very few times when I’ve come up with a good idea and actually seen it through to the end,” he says proudly. “It’s like a lot of the songs where there’s an awful lot of received wisdom from books and films, added to people that I have met.” It follows possibly the jauntiest opener of any Divine Comedy album, To Die A Virgin. “People might feel a little queasy listening to this 35-year-old talking about incredibly hormonal teenagers,” he admits, “but I feel that, if I can write songs about old ladies, why can’t I write songs about teenagers as well?”
So we have old ladies, teenagers… and an Italian aristocrat? “Count Grassi’s Passage Over Piedmont was originally an instrumental,” explains its creator, “but then it just felt a little ‘so what’. So I thought it’d be nice to give it some words. I was leafing through my notebook and I remember writing down this title which was on a picture of an 18th century balloonist, on the wall of a French hotel. I kind of… extrapolated.”
This is what Hannon means by ‘having some fun’; he is ultimately someone who loves mucking about with words. “It’s really just a very good excuse to put lots of nice words in a song,” he admits. “It’s about the poetry, the interweaving of the nice sounds of the words and the music. There is no vast idea, though I did like the thing about ‘go back whence you came, the swallows cry’ – it’s like the birds are thinking, ‘you’ve ruined the planet and now you’re coming up here to do the same’!” Then he becomes his own reviewer and adopts a ‘reviewer voice’. “It’s an ecological song; that’s what it is; I’ve decided! And the music underneath is a strange conjunction of Philip Glass and Johnny Cash.”
“It’s about the poetry, the interweaving of the nice sounds of the words and the music.” – Neil Hannon
Hannon is operating as he sees fit, his artistic decisions based on solid experience. As he was in his Liberation and Promenade days, he is once again composer, arranger, singer, performer and producer; Nigel Godrich, who produced Regeneration and mixed Absent Friends, is not involved this time. By turns the responsibility thrills and scares him. “I’m simultaneously the most confident man in the world and also know that I am an utter bluffer. I know that I’m bluffing sometimes, but the bluffing is very real,” he admits.
“But I concluded after Regeneration that, much as I liked the finished product, I just didn’t really get on with the idea of anybody having that level of control over my ideas. It didn’t matter so much at the time with Regeneration, because I was in a bit of a quandary about how it should sound anyway; I didn’t really have a big idea. But afterwards I felt a little like, ‘Is this my record?’ It was hard to talk about. So I decided to go back to the old ways of just telling everybody what to do.”
Victory was in consequence down to his methods alone. “And my production technique is to throw lots of stuff at it, and hopefully some of it will stick. Actually all my production is done at home on my computer before we even start. It’s all about arrangements. Very little happens after that. We just record.”
It’s what he does, and he’s pleased to still be doing it. “I’ve always been ridiculously lucky, but some people say you make your own luck,” he says. What’s been the secret of his success? “I’ve always been positive, and I’ve always kept trying to keep myself interested. I think the problems for others happen when they try to please others rather than themselves. There’s no point chasing any of it; it either comes to you or it doesn’t.”
The Divine Comedy’s album Victory For The Comic Muse is out now through Parlophone.