The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy,
interview by Alexander Laurence

The witty and smart songwriter, Neil Hannon was born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland in November of 1970. Though best know as frontman for the Divine Comedy, he also released several critically acclaimed albums during the 1990s as a solo artist. He is the one consistent member of The Divine Comedy whose contributors are constantly changing, though some members like Joby Talbot have been a mainstay since 1994.

During the late 1990s, Neil Hannon found himself collaborating with other artists and finding success in the form of a few hits songs. The Divine Comedy's album Casanova had a few top 20 singles in 1996 including "Something For The Weekend" and "Becoming More Like Alfie." A few years later, their well-received fifth album Fin De Siecle provided the band with the single "National Express" that went all the way to number 8 on the charts. Additionally, Hannon has worked with many great artists in the music business including Tom Jones, Ute Lemper, Michael Nyman, and Yann Tiersen to name a few.

Celebrating ten years as a band, Divine Comedy released A Secret History: The Best of The Divine ComedyRegeneration in 2001. Nigel Godrich (Kid A) produced the distinctly different-sounding record which was given mixed reviews and was darker in tone than what many had come to expect from the band. in 1999. With this album, the band ended their longtime relationship with the Sentanta label and signed with Parlophone releasing the appropriately titled

I met Neil Hannon in LA on his recent solo tour of the United States. He was scheduled to play many small clubs including Joe's Pub and Cafe Largo. This tour would be followed immediately by a month-long tour with Ben Folds in March of 2002. We walked around the neighborhood talking. The smell of pollen was in the air.

The Divine Comedy, photographed by David Robinson, London 2000. Regeneration album shoot
AL: What is your impression of the United States?
Neil: I have been here before. I am doing this tour with Ben Folds. It's going to go on forever. I'll be speaking like an American by the time I leave. Usually I am here for five shows in New York City, San Francisco, and LA, and then I don't come back for three years. It's good to do a solid chunk of touring. Maybe I will get over my fear of this country.
AL: Some bands won't even bother to come over. You have the balls to come over to play and look the American public in the eye and say "Quit talking. Shut the fuck up!"
Neil: (laughs) Yeah. I can do that because I can only play tiny shows here where you can get annoyed by people talking. We've always had problems getting records released over here. It was great to get this one out on Nettwerk Records. We created a little buzz about three years ago, but we were never able to follow it up over here. (we walk by a store) Maybe we should go shopping?
AL: Is that what you do when you are here? Go shopping?
Neil: No. That's what my wife would do. We came over here about a year and a half ago for a little holiday.
AL: So what happened to your trademark suits? I remembered that I was shocked two years ago when I saw you in London with trainers and gym clothes on. You were rehearsing and waiting for Radiohead to finish Kid A, so you could start on Regeneration with Nigel Godrich. What has happened since that time?
Neil: We waited a long time for them to finish Kid A. When they finally did, we started the record with Nigel. He did have a forceful hand, but he would never make us sound like Radiohead. Or make us do what they do. He does other bands. He working on the new Beck album.
AL: You wrote most of the songs on acoustic guitar for this album. What was the recording process like and how was it different than before?
Neil: What was mainly different was that I wasn't acting as the leader. I didn't lay down the law like I used to do. The idea was that people should try different things. All of the band did contribute. It was nice because it was the first time that I felt that I was just the singer.
AL: You have abandoned some of the wacky elements found on the past recordings such as "National Express" and "Generation Sex?" Are you worried you left some fans behind in doing this?
Neil: I hope that we didn't leave anybody behind. I don't think it should be an exclusive thing. You just have to make the record you want to make, and hope that people will give you the time of day. In Britain, the new album didn't seem to match up to people's expectations. They wanted the same old orchestral kitsch. You just have to try new stuff and keep evolving. I thought that this would be a good next step. I didn't sit down and think "Okay, I am not going to make any jokes." It's just what came out. I was in a more contemplative mood generally.

AL: Yeah, there is a darker tone to some tracks like "Regeneration" and "Eye of The Needle."
Neil: Maybe in the past, some of the songs that were dark, were melodramatically dark. There were still a lot of dark things. Maybe I just hid them better. The song "Here Comes The Flood" is apocalyptic and dark. But yet, you wouldn't think about it because it set to a Broadway big band scenario. It's almost like a James Bond theme. I suppose that there is less hiding it on this album. That's what Nigel wanted to achieve. He wanted to strip away the more cheesy and kitsch elements and get to the bottom of the meaning. I love how it sounds.
AL: This time out you didn't quote any lines from film, like you did before with "Funny Face."
Neil: This time I didn't watch as many movies. (Laughter) It's amazing that we have brilliantly walked around a few blocks and we have yet to find a cafe. A cup of coffee would be great.
AL: I think that we are coming up to a Starbucks. Do you feel that you are walking around in circles in life?
Neil: It's others who are leading me astray.
AL: I've never been in this part of town before. What do you think of this neighborhood?

Neil: It's cool. I can smell the cut grass. You don't see this sort of stuff. One street is totally commercial and the next one is residential. You don't get that in London.
AL: Do you read a lot of books?
Neil: No. I actually have bad concentration. What happens to me is that I read a line from a book. Then I go "Great idea for a song." Then I go off and I forget to read the book. I have difficulty with that. But occasionally I do find a book that I cannot put down. I have recently read the books of Philip Pullman. His Dark Materials Trilogy. They are great. Everybody should read them.
AL: What is the song "Eye of The Needle" about?
Neil: In the Bible it says that it is easier for a camel to get through an eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. But everyone rolls up to the church in their fancy cars. I was just reminiscing about going to church as a teenager. I wanted desperately to believe in all of it. I never managed to. I am certainly very spiritual but I am certainly not religious.
AL: Are you hedonistic?
Neil: I am not very hedonistic either. I don't make good use of my lack of religion. I have a perfect stability. Lack of religion does not preclude morality. I am weighed down by stacks of morals.
AL: Well, there is secular humanism. Man is the measure of all things.
Neil: I am not much of a humanist. We are a lot to blame for the state of the planet. I am a "Me-ist."
AL: Really? Good for you. What drives you creatively?
Neil: The thing that drives my music is the complete love of making music and writing music. Everything else in my life pales when set against the raw excitement of writing a new songs and going "Yes, that's cool." Basically the drive behind my career is a necessity in order that I can make another record and so people will give me money if they sell.
AL: Will The Divine Comedy every be a proper band?
Neil: I don't see the point of changing it now. What is in a name? I think that The Divine Comedy sums it up best what I do. It's as good a name as any. I never thought Neil Hannon was a good rock star name.
AL: How do you feel about this tour in March with Ben Folds?
Neil: It's the biggest tour that I have ever done. It goes on forever. My wife just had a baby so I need to get back as soon as I can. It's the guilt trip tour. I don't feel good about it at all. But I can't say no.
AL: What should they expect?
Neil: They should expect me standing on the stage with a guitar trying to figure out what to play next. The problem when I play by myself is that there is far too much freedom to mess around and do the wrong thing. There's nobody to tell you to shut up. I'll do songs from all the albums.

-- Alexander Laurence