Interview: Divine Comedy/Neil Hannon
4 August 2016
Neil Hannon was raised in the town that produced The Undertones, Derry in Northern Ireland. He has been recording under the name Divine Comedy since 1990. Influenced by Noel Coward and the English Music Hall tradition just as much as The Smiths and the subtler end of sixties to eighties singer/songwriterdom, Neil's music often comes with unusual and intricate string arrangements and always surprises with sharp lyrical twists. We're meeting Neil in the swish St. Pancras Hotel to talk about his latest album "Foreverland".
The pat line on the blurb the record company sent me is that this album is about the never-ending happy-ever-after of a love affair - and what comes after.
Would you care to explain where that idea came from?
It comes from experience. I guess you’d call her my partner, Cathy (Davey, Irish singer/songwriter). We got together about seven years ago. It’s been a wild ride. It’s basically about having a girlfriend and all the wonderful romantic bits, and then life ensues.
The seven-year itch?
No itches, no, and no thoughts of itching. It's just – well, she’s an animal rescuer as well as a part-time pop star. She’s definitely a full-time animal rescuer and a part-time pop star! It can be hard. When someone’s putting on a balaklava to go into some tough estate to find poor benighted animals, and I’m going, “but we were having so much fun!”
That must be emotionally involving if not draining for her. I can’t even watch those animal rescue programmes on TV.
Exactly, I have a similar problem. I get far too cut up about it. But we’ve solved the problem by moving to the country, and now we’ve just got tons of animals. She doesn’t feel the need to go elsewhere so much now.
So now she’s a full-time pop star?
No, she’s just full-time looking after Mrs. Wobbles, the pig.
You're having the full-throttle farm house in the country, chopping firewood and all that?
Yeah. I guess so. Frankly, though, I’m not very good at country living. Even though I suppose I spent part of my growing up in the country. A small towns in the country. And my mum is a super horsey person, very much country-orientated. I was always hiding in the attic, writing songs. I was also cursed by hay fever. I those days hay fever was cool and different. Nobody had it. I was the only person in my years who had it. Now, everybody has it, all jumping on the band wagon. I have to say, though, we moved to the country, and suddenly it’s got a lot better. I think pollution has a massive impact.
In fact,you were telling me the last time we met, about ten years ago, that the album you were about to release then had a lot to do with your hay fever…
My God, I’m repeating myself ten years later on!
It was a very different context. You were saying that your hay fever forced you to go up in the attic and sing songs.
Definitely that, and a fear of social interaction. That was the other thing. But I don’t know if the hay fever prompted the fear, or if I was just generally shy. We may have gone off on a little bit of a tangent here.
Is this the first album you’ve devised and written in the countryside?
Apart from the very first one. I guess, yeah. All the other ones have been city-made. Although, I guess I started several of these songs when we still lived in Dublin. Maybe half of them. We got into the country about 2 years ago. I set up the studio in the frontroom, and I’ve had a fun time ever since, just kind of pottering about. I like getting out of bed and knowing that I can just roll into the studio with a cup of coffee and get started instead of having to go somewhere.
Do you manage to stop working in the evening?
Oh yeah. I’m good at stopping. Generally just as soon as I get hungry.
For me, it’s more difficult to stop then to start.
This life goes in such huge cycles. For a couple of years after the last album, I was promoting it, playing shows, and then there was the slightly odd extra projects that I did, and then when I got really stuck into the new album it was just every day, working on it for maybe 3 years. Zou get very institutionalised in a way. Then the recording bit started. I recorded a lot of it at home but then I still had to go to a studio, that was 3 or 4 months going back and forth to London, doing that. And suddenly, since about 3 or 4 months ago, the creative part is over, and now it -s just making videos, rehearsing for shows, doing the shows, more of this (interviews), so even if I had time to work, you just don’t want to. You’re in a completely different head space. Now when I’ve got a day off, I just play computer games. I’m hollow inside now until the next time when I think: oh, God, the tour is over, I have nothing else to do, I can start a new album. Which is a wonderful day.
Have you come across that terribly addictive website that tells you of every airplane in the sky, what make it is, where it’s coming from and where it’s going?
Oh, no! That’s one of my worst nightmare. I’m not a particularly good flier. I’d hate to think about those cigar tubes in sky with all those poor people in it. That's not for me. Maybe trains.
Have you heard the Billy Bragg album he did with Joe Henry? Taking a train from Chicago to Los Angeles and recording the songs along the way?
I love ideas like that. I always have ideas like that. And then I think about doing them, and then I think, no, it needs a 30-piece orchestra, and it needs to be worked on for 3 years. I have wonderfully spontaneous ideas and they never happen because I can’t bring myself to let people hear the raw stuff. It’s awful.
One of the great things about trains, when you live in the city, when you’re on a a train for three hours, that is an opportunity to just sit and look out the window.
Exactly. I don’t get to go on trains half enough. Those wonderful times in my life when – ah, I have to be in Glasgow, and I’m in London! Train! That’ll take four hours! "Why don’t you take the plane?" I’ve written some of mybest stuff on trains, on long long train journeys.
What’s your longest train journey?
It’s never been much longer than that, London to Scotland. Even when we did most of a European tour by train when I was playing solo we went from maybe Hamburg to Stockholm, that's quite a long way but not that long. I’d love to do the Transsiberian Railway one day. There is something about the movement, and yet being on the ground.
You said that you had these spontaneous ideas which never happen because you can’t bring yourself to let people hear the raw stuff. Is that the Michael Jackson perfectionist streak in you?
No, I think it’s – what it is, is – I'm trying to pin-point exactly what it is. It’s that feeling, if I just knock it out, it’ss somehow not good enough if it doesn’thave that amount of work done on it. There’s a piece of my brain that says: how can something that has 70 people playing on it not be as good as something that has one person playing on it? Which is a terrible thing. I know, logically, that that can’t be true. But I can’t get away from it.
The protestant work ethos ( Neil's father was a Church of England minister)
That must be it. I’m sure Roman Catholics can play solo much easier. But you see, I’m different again, Anglican, it’s a bit wishy-washy. We don’t dig the pope, but we do dig the incense.
How isolated are you in your farm with your pig?
Funnily enough, we thought we’d be terribly isolated but you get there and you realise, actually people do live just next door! There are people everywhere! There’s ladies in fluorescent orange with headphones on, jogging, down the road. It's no difference. They might as well have a coffee and yoga place round the corner.
It’s like Switzerland, you’re walking up a mountain and suddenly you’re overtaken by ten lycra-clad huffing and puffing cyclists.
Cyclists! Can you imagine cycling up a mountain! It’s bad enough cycling on the flat. All of this physical activity, I cannot even approach the idea.
This relative isolation in the countryside – have you found a difference in your creative thinking?
I don’tknow if there’s a difference. I think it’s just a purification. I do feel slightly more liberated from society and from the kind of day to day. Part of it is the guilt of knowing there’s a city out there and you should be doing something. Whereas in the country I have none of that guilt at all. I have moderate guilt that I should be spending more time with the donkey.
You have donkeys as well?
Oh, we have everything, horses, donkeys, chickens, pigs.
All rescued from Dublin?
From all over, yeah. Four dogs. It’s a bit of a menagerie. I love a big pack of hounds. Great fun. I’m never lonely. Being away from the city gave me a little more time to think. A little more room to really stare at the wall and go into that trance.Which I remember really well from when I was in my late teens, early twenties,I used to stare at walls all the time. And then maybe through the late 90s and 2000s, there never seemed to be enough time. Part of it was parenthood and divorces and the like. Just life. Life is kind of time consuming. And you don’t get to be selfish enough to make art, haha. So it’s nice to get to a point where everything’s eased off a little.
You recorded most of the new album at home and some extra bits at RAK Studios?
Not RAK. It was a funny little studio, Master Chord, which nobody has ever heard of becauseit’s run by this – erm, shall we say – ebullient Italian. He just decided to build a top-notch studio under his suburban house in North London. He had to demolish his house and then rebuild it on top. Obviously it had to be the same otherwise the neighbours would have been in uproar…
He must be a bit loaded.
Well, I didn’t ask. It’s really state of the art old fashioned, a big SSL studio with a beautiful live room, a beautiful grand piano. Amazing. I went there quite a bit and then finished the orchestra bits in AIR. Jake Jackson, the guy who engineered the album, I got him because he was more used to doing film soundtracks and such like in AIR. And I was going for that. He found Master Chord.
Is the female voice on it, is that herself?
Herself. Yeah. Cathy Davey. We both got chucked off EMI at the same time. But we hadn’tmet until afterwards.
You’ve been by yourself as an artist for ten years without a label, you’ve been looking after your own stuff?
Yes, in terms of Divine Comedy records, yeah. Well, two of our albums and a couple of cricket albums. I go through a services company, PIAS, and then various companies to market the records.
What difference has it made to your work, being by yourself? You still have loads of instruments on there.
It’s made no difference whatsoever to the albums. I’ve always pretty much worked the same way. It’s just that the home recording aspect has become more possible. It’s more possible now to record things at home and have them end up on the album. That’s the only difference. Previously, I didn’t have the equipment. These days, everyone has ProTools at home. Luckily, my girlfriend had a few nice mikes and we had a lots of instruments when we pulled it all together. I could probably record an album at home but it would be a very different kind of album.
Your first album after EMI actually sold better than the one before.
I Can’tremember. That was "Bang Goes the Knighthood", isn’t it? The difference probably was just because it was all us and so we concentrated a bit harder. That was always the problem with a major record label, it was always the problem with an independent label as well, it was people who’s careers don’t depend on your music, people who’re into you, but they’re not THAT into you, so they’re never 100% focused to make it work. Whereas our lives depend on how the records do. So, yeah, we’re very focused.
Do you know what happened to Keith, the bloke who started Setanta Records, your first label?
I met him just the other day. Sadly, it was our old drummer Meggie’s funeral who died about a month ago. He is dealing in vintage books. To be honest, I still have a bit of a problem with Keith. He’s aproblematic individual. Our time with him was very much a double-edged sword. Without him I would never have got a start. And yet, he held me back as well. But that’s history.
Which ties in with what you said about record labels holding you back because you are not totally their only focus.
It’s not generally their fault. It’s usually to do with trying to get the other bands on the label to do well which can sometimes rebound on the more successful acts. It’s called cross-collatoralisation. It’s not meant to happen, but anyway.
Back to the record, then. I was particularly taken by the ending of the song “Other People”. Was that something that happened in the studio and you thought, actually that fits quite well?
Well, let me tell you, Other People, the vocal, it was recorded on this (the mobile),it’s still on here, actually. I was in London, and I wrote a few words down, and I thought, that’s quite good, and a tune came into my head, obviously I had no instruments, so I thought I’d better record the tune quickly before I forgot it. And what I sang is exactly what is on there. I just put a string ensemble on it. You can hear the buses going past on the Kilburn High Road. That’s why it goes blablabla at the end because I ran out of words. I thought, this is the bit where I shall finish it later on, and you know, etc., and I never did. I liked it that way.
"How CanYou Leave Me on My Own?" A quite common feeling amongst blokes, I suspect.
It's sometimes nice to pinpoint areas of peoples’ lives that don’t get written about in songs. I think I’ve been thinking about that songs for 15, 20 years. And finally I wrote it. It’s not rocket science.But it’s a cool little song about becoming a cave man. It’s also got Wayne, the donkey on it. That’s the real donkey. When I was recording it at home he insinuated himself on to the ending by accident, through the window. I thought:that kind of fits because donkeys sound inherently moany. So I’m just gonna record him properly. I went to Cathy, how can I get him to do the noise? “Just shake some food at him.” And it was true. I did it and he went (makes very gooddonkey noise). Right on cue. I could actually get him to do it on stage.
You mentioned other projects you’ve done in the meantime.
Yeah. Various doom-laden operas. I did a mini-chamber opera based on the writing of Frank Alva Buecheler, a contemporary German playwright and producer. He’d done this kind of diary of a young man who’s dying of cancer. So I gave it a go. It’s actually on the limited edition album. And I did a little thing for the Royal Opera House. They had a series of "opera shots", they call them, half hours by people who shouldn’t write opera.I was one of them, and I proved that I shouldn’t write opera. I enjoyed writing it, but I think I tried to make it too grand, too epic, for the amount of instruments we were able to afford. So it came off sounding a little bit school-play-ish. Everyone involved did as well with the material as they could. But I’m gonna need a little bit more experience in that field. It was a great experience, but it’s all a little stressful in that world. I did a piece for the Royal Festival Hall, too, for their big organ. I’m sure I did something else, but I can’t remember.
What was the Royal Festival Hall piece?
It was called "To Our Fathers in Distress". They refurbished the massive organ in their main hall, and they asked people to write commissions for it. And they said you can have a choir as well. Yeah! And they said, you can have some strings as well. OK, I’ll have some strings, and it turned out to be the BBC SymphonyOrchestra. I tried to keep it pretty simple because I wanted to show off the organ more than the strings.
Is that your Michael Nyman influences coming to the fore again, or have you moved on?
No, I’vealways liked Nyman – when he’s being proper Nyman and not trying to be someone else. But I listen to a a lot of classical music and I hope some of it rubs off. My problem is the lack of theory that I have because I’m not very well educated in music.
Is that the direction you’re trying to move in – the witty pop songs on one side, and the gloomy classical stuff on the other?
You’ve got to have a bit of both. And everything in between. Sometimes when I’m writing the slightly throw-away pop songs, I’m thinking: hm, am I throwing away my life here? But then, when I’m writing the long doom-laden stuff I’m thinking: oh, my God, it’s too much like hard work! I like having a foot in both camps.
Last time we talked about your plan that you were going to co-write songs with other people, and that would be your pension fund. How did that work out?
It really didn’t work out at all. I tried. I had goes writing with various people. Nothing that came out of the sessions was any good. Even for crappy pop songs, they weren’t any good. I think I have the kiss of death on anything vaguely commercial. You have to be very simple and very straight down the line. I just don’t think I’m made for that, really.
One more question – what's the story of your pig?
We have three pigs. Fred, Penelope and Mrs Wobbles. I kind of feel Fred and Penelopeare Alan Bennett characters and they’re definitely Northern. Fred says “this is our Penelope, and she’s a right good lass.” And Penelope goes: “Oh, Dad, shutup!” And then Mrs Wobbles is this crazy old woman, like a dowager duchess, who was almost dead when she got to us but Cathy nursed her back to life, and now she’s kind of wobbling around – I couldn’t possibly do her voice.