a short site about The Divine Comedy

Divine Valentine

With the release of a new mini album and about to embark on a nationwide tour, Nathan met Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy on, of all days, Valentines Day to talk about orchestras, lurve and beards.

The new Divine Comedy album, A Short Album About Love, is, as you might have guessed from the title, about love. Have you always wanted to make a themed album?
Well, Casanova had a pretty definite theme as well, but below the belt, but this one’s a bit above the belt. The sort of torso area. The next one will be the head.

The album is also, as the title suggests, a mini-album. A cynic might say that you thought ‘Wait a minute, we’ve got a few fans at the minute. Lets bring out an album even though we haven’t got enough songs to fill it.’
That is a very cynical viewpoint. For Valentine’s Day, obviously, for marketing, it’s great. If people knew the amount of hair pulling out and hard work that went into this album, they would hardly say it was just a quick time-filler. I did want to get another album out as quickly as possible because I like to be prolific. I didn’t want it maturing in the mind of the general public that all I was about was shagging. Mr Loverman. I wanted to give the nation the antidote to Casanova before they all went out and shagged themselves senseless.

That’s very magnanimous of him, and if he manages to make a few quid into the bargain, then so be it. Neil does seem pre-occupied with love and sex, and is seen as something as a love god. However, he’s also a serious musician. Doesn’t he sometimes want to be seen as such, rather than a slimmer, shorter Barry White for the 90s?
I think that people know which is right and which is wrong. I’m not a love god, I’m a love demi-god. What I do is art, it just happens to be quite popular as well. I think my media image is a caricature, it singles out a particular element of your personality. The music is a caricature of me, and the media image is a caricature of the music. By the time it gets to the people who buy the records, they cannot possibly get a true picture of me, and I wouldn’t expect them to. The best way of them knowing anything about me is from the gigs. With or without the orchestra, its the songs that count.

Oh yes. The orchestra. What should people expect from this, in terms of how it’ll change the Divine Comedy live experience?
Well, you’ve got more things to look at. It makes me look a lot smaller…

At this point, Neil forgets that he’s supposed to be in a love mood, not a sex mood. Indeed, he forgets he’s supposed to be talking at all. He stares wistfully at a particularly prominent pair of breasts walking past, and sighs.
Ah, university.

Is this a reminiscence of former campus glories for the softly spoken Irishman, or is he just being a dirty old man, admiring the cleavage of the younger generation? Was Neil ever a student himself?
No. I’m sure it’s great fun, but it would have taken another 3 or 4 years out of my schedule, and its taken a full seven years to get this far. I think to be at this stage if I was 30…you’d get tired, and I wanted to get going pretty quickly.

Let’s not forget that Neil isn’t in one of these bands who’s released a couple of singles, been played by Chris Evans and then found themselves snorting coke from a supermodel’s navel in between Top Of The Pops appearances. Casanova was the band’s 3rd album. What’s it like then, having this fame malarkey forced upon you?
Well I was walking around this place, looking round, and not a flicker of attention from anybody. Maybe its just the beard, or maybe its the unwashed, hungover look which makes me blend in with the locals. I don’t feel particularly famous, so its very hard to answer that. You want fame because it is a symptom of success. Its like an interesting by-product, neither good nor bad. It just is. Its a good temperature gauge of how well you’re doing.

Does the fact that you’re almost a one man band place more pressure on you?
This is where people get it wrong. It isn’t just me, I lead from the front, you know. Its pyramidal, and all things emanate from the pointy bit at the top, and I am the pointy bit. I couldn’t possibly do all of this without the band. The band themselves, the main band of six people, I’d like to go up to them and say ‘Did you know I am The Divine Comedy?’ They’d punch me.

Though he does have a band behind him, a quick glance at Neil’s album covers will inform you that its his baby. What, I wonder, made you want to have this baby in the first place? Was it your passion for Stravinsky and Ravel?
It was a very strange sort of journey from watching Top Of The Pops as a kid, to thinking ‘That looks like a laugh’ to thinking ‘Well, maybe I could actually do it’ to thinking ‘I’ll do it because I can’t think of anything else to do that’s in the least bit worthwhile. [These days] I don’t listen to much music, and the music that I do listen to is very old. There are few contemporary hit makers that are any good. The most interesting bits are obviously the techno bits. Underworld and Orbital and…erm…Bjork, they do marvellous things with it. Of course, an awful lot of it is complete drivel. I’m not a big classical buff, there’s an awful lot of it that I can’t stand. I think it was actually Stravinsky that said that there’s only two type of music. There’s good music and there’s bad music. There is no genre that’s particularly better than any other. Pop is no better and no worse than high classical. Good pop is better than bad classical, and good classical is better than bad pop.

Of course, everyone has to like techno nowadays. Liking Stravinsky, however, is more uncommon, but there are one or two bands around who bear some similarities to The Divine Comedy. Bands like My Life Story and Jack are doing similar things, whilst on late night TV’s Adam and Joe Show, Neil’s record collection was found to have Tinderstick’s second album on the top of the pile. Is there a new wave of orchestral pop (NWOOP, anyone)?
I get a lot of freebies, you know. The Tindersticks album was a definite freebie, and I never listen to it. I hate it. I hate all that uh-hu-hu [a passable Stuart Staples impression]. He never actually sings a note, and any notes that he does sing are two tones apart. I don’t think he has a very large range to say the least. I can’t for the life of me understand what its all meant to be about. Its all just atmosphere. Its film music. Its quite good, if you take it as film music.

Realising that I’m the interviewer and Neil is the pop star with a soundcheck to get to, I don’t waste time telling him why The Divine Comedy are an insignificant pile of shit next to the splendour that is the Tindersticks back catalogue. Instead, I move on and change the subject. How has Valentine’s Day been for you historically, and how many cards did you get this year?
I’ve no idea, they’re probably all in the office. You see, I’m on the road. If there are any lying on my doormat at home, I will only get them tomorrow when I go home. I’m afraid I don’t know. I got one from God, though. I was sitting in the diner earlier and a nice hand, obviously a representative of God, said ‘Here’s a Valentines Card. Remember, Jesus loves you.’ Well, at least somebody does. It wasn’t just for me. Not just the famous can be singled out for God’s attention. I think my worst must have been every Valentine’s day that’s ever happened before. Its always been a bit miserable. Its a silly idea, it just makes people get annoyed. And it makes money for people who release records in the same week.

Finally, to the real meat of the interview. Its been sat there for the entire interview, looking uncannily like so many ageing toothbrush bristles attached to Neil’s face, which he twirls from time to time. Tell me, why did you grow a beard?
It grew itself, really. I stopped shaving, and there it was. It was an inability to forsee how many people would look at me and go ‘Why did you grow a beard’. If I’d known, back then, just how many people would comment on it, I probably would’ve kept shaving. It’ll be whipped off as soon as spring comes along. Its very nice in the winter. It just keeps the face warm.

Nathan Smith
RetroActive Baggage No. 17, 03/1997