TAS Interview: Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy
It's been 21 years since Northern Irish singer and songwriter Neil Hannon founded The Divine Comedy, a band which, over the years, has slowly shed members, becoming Hannon's solo project. It's an evolution that doesn't surprise Hannon and, given his busy jumble of recording sessions and tours over the last few years, works to his advantage. It might even better serve his lushly crafted songs, which teeter mischievously and mournfully between piquant humor, heartbreak and unabashed romanticism.
As The Divine Comedy, Hannon released his tenth album, Bang Goes The Knighthood, in late May on his own label, Divine Comedy Records. In 2009 with friend Thomas Walsh of Pugwash, the duo unleashed their cricket-centric collection The Duckworth Lewis Method which garnered them a prestigious Ivor Novello Award nomination for best album.
In addition, the National Theatre commissioned Hannon to write his first musical, an adaptation of the Arthur Ransome story Swallows and Amazons, a collaboration with playwright Helen Edmundson (Coram Boy) and director Tom Morris (Jerry Springer: The Opera). The musical will premiere this December at the Bristol Old Vic in England.
Although Hannon has had chart hits, especially during the champagne supernova years of Britpop when the tongue-in-cheek single "National Express" became a radio hit in the UK, The Divine Comedy has always had the aura of a cult pop band, not necessarily what Hannon had in mind, admitting, "I often wanted to write hit singles whether people wanted me to or not."
A week before he embarked on a lengthy tour of Europe and the UK - and on the evening the Mercury Prize awards were handed out in the UK - Hannon spoke to The Alternate Side on the phone from Dublin about his latest album Bang Goes The Knighthood, his nerves over the fast-approaching debut of his musical, and why he's extremely happy these days ... even though he wasn't nominated for the Mercury Prize (and he was rooting for Villagers):
TAS: It was sad that you weren’t nominated for a Mercury Prize this year for Bang Goes The Knighthood.
Neil Hannon: That’s very kind of you. I could do lots of platitudes about how awards don’t matter to me (lauddghs). But funny enough, I thought I had a reasonably good chance this year as well. You know, every album I put out, I wonder whether this might be the one that the Mercurys decide on.
Neil: Oh, but it was. I was also immensely happy for my partner, Thomas Walsh [of Pugwash], on that score. He’s a great writer and deserving of the nomination and it was my first Ivor nomination as well. All these things do come eventually if you keep plugging away long and hard enough. Awards and award nominations are definitely secondary; you have to keep this in perspective. To have a job at all this far into things is quite a bonus (laughs).
TAS: You’re more than twenty years into career, something a lot of artists can’t claim. There must be a satisfaction or strangeness that The Divine Comedy has evolved into a solo project. Did you foresee that shift, back in 1989, that one day, eventually, this would be all yours?
Neil: Ehm ... yes (laughs). To be honest, in many ways it always has just been me and and that is not, in any way, to denigrate the input of my various other bands that have come and gone. At the end of the day, it’s always been my songs and the way I want to record them. Basically on this record it was just a matter of not using as many musicians as before. And even less so when I’m playing live, which is just me.
TAS: You’re touring solo. How has that shifted your perspective on performance and yourself, as a frontman being the only man?
Neil: I knew I’d like it because I’m a natural born show-off and I also I do tend to waffle on a bit live. It actually suits me down to the ground being in complete control of what happens next and being able to judge the mood from moment to moment. I always fancied doing it. A lot of my musical heroes have been that kind of artist. I shall rattle off some names: Randy Newman, Ben Folds, Noël Coward, Tom Lehrer. All of that sort of one-man-and-a-piano kind of vibe. So I thought, yeah, I can do that. So when it came to this record, because of not having a record company, it was also a very good time economically to do so (laughs). It does cut down costs wonderfully.
TAS: You were writing the songs for Bang Goes The Knighthood while working on The Duckworth Lewis Method and writing a musical. So you managed to juggle all three at once?
Neil: It was a very creative period for me, a couple of years previous to this one. I think it was because I settled on doing everything by myself and also having a few things lined up to do, like the musical. The people from the National Theatre in London had been at me to try to do one for a few years so I was like, right, I’m going to sit down and do this. Because of that work ethic you need to sit down every day and work out another bit of the story. It just got the juices flowing, really, and I didn’t know I was writing the next album at the time, but you never really do. You’re just doing odds and sods and suddenly it’s an album.
TAS: Do you alight upon a character or theme and that chatters in your head? I’m thinking of songs like “The Complete Banker,” which came out of a very visceral place and idea of who that character might be.
Neil: I have a notebook and it generally seems to be that I write down a title or an idea in just a few words. I think I was listening to the radio, to some idiot banker trying to make excuses for why the bank I was banking with at the time was going down the tubes. I’m pretty sure I went, “The complete banker. That’s quite good. I’ll write it down.” After that, I’m usually messing about and I get a tune together and I have a flick through my notebook and more often than not a particular idea or lyric just attaches itself naturally to that tune. And I work from there.
TAS: This album feels very personal as well. So many songwriters do so well writing from a place of romantic disappointment or despair. But it seems that you’re elevated by the opposite. This album feels so warm and loving. You sound utterly in love.
Neil: (laughs) Well, it’s odd the way things work. The love songs were largely written before [I met] the person I ended up singing them about. Oddly. But I’ve always been interested in writing the perfect love song or such-and-such genre song. You can get a lot out of taking a theme and just working it. Everyone has the capacity to be angry or in love or like a drink (laughs). So even if you’re not feeling that way at a time, you can certainly write about it with sort of a remote sense of imagination (laughs).
TAS: “Have You Ever Been In Love” - had I not known it was you - I would have thought was a Brill Building or Hal David/Burt Bacharach song. But it’s a Neil Hannon song ... with your distinct imprint.
Neil: I’m not trying to recapture that era or anything, [but] why were those songs so captivating? I’m trying to answer that question by writing one myself. The fact that when I sang it I was completely feeling every word of it, helped a great deal, I think. People do tell me that the album sounds vastly more positive (laughs). More optimistic, maybe, than the previous albums.
TAS: Perhaps as you approach 40, you’re more assured of who you are and don’t have to prove anything anymoe?
Neil: When I’m talking to more lightweight media outlets, shall we say, I do make the flippant joke that I was always old, and my body is catching up with my soul. I think my sort of songs benefit from wisdom, years and experience. A lot of it is to do with observation and life. The more you see of life, the more it helps the songwriting. It’s not the kind that revolves around youthful bravado. I think that gives me the capacity to grow in years, rather than wane.
TAS: Is there a freedom, having your own label, in not chasing after a hit single or answering to label executives?
Neil: The irony is that I often wanted to write hit singles whether people wanted me to or not! I grew up on pure, classic, British pop of the ‘78-’83 variety. I think that’s ingrained in me and I’d find it really difficult to write a really out-there, arty thing. I just like catchy tunes (laughs).
TAS: “At The Indie Disco” is a bit like that.
Neil: There was no indie discos where I grew up, in the sticks. Often the best things are written about how you imagine other people live. Jealousy! I dunno. Obviously I went to discos, but they were rubbish and didn’t play any music I wanted to hear. I still tried to dance with girls and failed. It’s all in there, really. I enjoyed silly lines, like, “staring at each others’ feet,” because it’s sort of romantic and silly and the same time. Very resonant to me of the shoe-gazing era.
TAS: Your foray into musicals with Swallows and Amazons at the Bristol Old Vic seems so natural.
Neil: I think I have the potential of being good at it, but I have an awful lot to learn. When I came to try to adapt this [Arthur Ransome] story, Swallows and Amazons, into songs, it was a good deal harder than I imagined. I didn’t write the dialogue - I’m not crazy - but I did want to write the songs, music and lyrics. The problem is when you’re songwriting, straightforward, you can tell the story and it’s all, "She did this and he did that." That’s not how it operates in theatre at all. It’s quite hard to know what people are saying, what they’re allowed to be singing. I think it’s five years since I said yes to the National. I’m terrified. I don’t know how able you are, if the first one goes down the tubes, to write another one. So I hope the first one will be critically well-received.
TAS: What sort of musicals have you admired?
Neil: Well, not many. That’s why I’m doing it because I think I can equal or beat most of the people who are writing them at the moment. I swing from strange humility to absolutely ego-centric madness. Ones I like best are most of the [Stephen] Sondheim [musicals] like Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George is fantastic. Going back a bit, I’m a massive fan of Cole Porter’s musicals and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, though that's more an opera. I like a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein and things like My Fair Lady. It’s around the late 60s where it all started to go wrong. I absolutely hate Andrew Lloyd Webber. But each to his own.
TAS: And now you’re about to embark on a massive tour of Europe and the UK.
Neil: What was I thinking? I feel absolutely exhausted just looking at the schedule. I’ve been doing odds and sods since May, every weekend, so I’m totally not going at this dry. But I need to learn a few more songs. Problem is that I’ve got an awful lot of them and it’s hard to remember them all. But it doesn’t seem to matter when I forget lyrics.
TAS: Do you make up new ones?
Neil: No, I’m quite keen on keeping the old ones (laughs). The audience never seems to mind when greatly when I go dry on stage. We all have a laugh. But I feel slightly mortified. It’s going to happen every gig, and not to care.
TAS: Are you coming to the States at all?
Neil: Unfortunately, not at present. Hopefully we can sort something out for next year. These are difficult times in the music industry and there’s not a lot of cash floating around. So it’s quite hard to make that investment. My records haven’t really sold in the States and I don’t mind. I don’t hold a grudge because some of my biggest fans are American. But it’s had to justify the outlay, especially if you’re not shifting any units. I have to talk like this now that I’m the boss of a record company (laughs).
TAS: You’ve worked with so many interesting people, like Thomas Walsh, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Carl Baråt from The Libertines. What makes a collaborator interesting for you and who would you love to work with?
Neil: The people who I might say I’d like to work with are far too scary to every contemplate. Like Steve Reich. I’d love to hang out with Randy Newman, but I doubt that he needs me. I saw a great show of his in Vicar Street, Dublin. I’ve worked with so many people I’ve really admired. Michael Neiman and Ben Folds. I’m doing pretty well on that score and it does take a few months off my life every time I go into a room with someone who is well-known because I’m quite, not shy, but I tend to denigrate myself and my abilities when faced with people I admire. It’s hard work.
TAS: You enjoy it though?
Neil: Yes and no. I want to feel that I need to do it because it works creatively, but sometimes I’m on the way to the studio to work with Charlotte, the guys from Air and Nigel Godrich and I’m thinking, what the hell? This isn’t what a small chap from Northern Ireland was meant to be doing (laughs). I’m just a little provincial boy who wrote some funny songs. You start to doubt yourself, but I’d like to challenge that and push myself.
TAS: You grew up in Northern Ireland, your dad was a minister, and you came of age at a time that punk was at its zenith, seguing into New Wave. Did you listen to a lot? Were there a lot of older brothers and sisters listening to music?
Neil: Yeah, I put a lot of it down to the fact that I had two older brothers who were listening to a lot of music that would have scared me at the time. It was a very real emotion to me to be physically frightened of strange music that I hadn’t heard. I’m pretty sure New Order scared the pants off me when I first heard them. I didn’t understand, what is this music? He’s not singing in tune and its got no middle in it, no pretty chords like ELO (laughs). So it was a challenge to a listener and in the beginning I shied away from the less melodic stuff. But then came back to it with a passion later on. Although my music is largely quite melodically intricate and lots of harmony going on, I like to think that I come at it from an angle of the less comfortable music of the 80s. I think my indie ethic still holds. You’ve got to be sure of why you’re putting in a chord, not because it sounds nice (laughs).
TAS: Do you recall hearing an album that made you want to try harder as a musician? Something that gave you a different door into songwriting?
Neil: I started writing songs around ‘83 or ‘84 when I was about thirteen or fourteen and that was around the era of a lot of Sting, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, before I discovered alternative music. My first songs were very much about politics, being anti-war and stuff like that. A small teenage boy really doesn’t know about human relationships. It was REM, really, that convinced me that I could do it properly. I was a huge fan of theirs in the 80s. There’s no band that I admired more then and sort of less now. It’s bizarre (laughs). I don’t want to do them down as people - they’re great people - but I really wish that when Bill Berry left that they’d shut up shop and done something else. I think my favorite album is Green, actually, and that’s when it all started to tilt. It’s funny, the biggest must-do-better [album] was around ‘95 when I was recording Casanova, my third album, I heard Common Peopleby Pulp and I though, “aw, s**t.” (laughs). That kind of shook me up a little.
TAS: You named yourself after Dante’s The Divine Comedy and I wondered - what is your version of purgatory?
Neil: Purgatory for me would be an eternal afterlife!
TAS: If you could write your famous last words?
Neil: (laughs) That’s tempting fate to a degree! Make me another toasted peanut butter and Marmite sandwich. Because it will be the death of me!