a short site about The Divine Comedy

Odd Man In

Neil Hannon started off singing about film and art. Then came sex. Unsurprisingly, he and his concept-turned-band, the Divine Comedy, were labelled both profound and pretentious. Now, they're in a new phase. And Hannon? He just wants to be a normal rock star. Honest

Belfast, on a Friday evening in June. Rainclouds have sent the pink sky to bed early, but a few rays of sun still manage to glint off a freshly-minted Hilton hotel. A cluster of half-built apartment blocks - new homes for affluent, optimistic people who may, or may not, exist - turns to silhouette. The River Lagan is pretending to be the Seine, a loving couple push a pram along the waterside path, and, from an open-air stage, a seven-piece pop band is blasting out Wagnerian, fear-God chords in a song about a country in Scandinavia.

"Safe and clean and green and modern/ Bright and breezy, free and easyÉ Swedunn, Sweedunn, Sweeedunn, Sweeeeeedunnnn!!"

The voice is clear yet powerful; an unnatural coupling of Jim Morrison at his groin-thrusting apogee and Andy Williams at his most cashmere-casual. It probably reaches Stockholm a few seconds later. This is a voice that wants you to hear the words. All of them. The whole sonic smorgasbord seems to reverberate around the hills that surround the city, before returning to its focal point, which, improbable as it seems, is the larynx of a slight, pale, impossibly thin figure standing mid-stage. "Tall and strong and blond and blue-eyed/Pure and healthy, very wealthyÉ ah, Sweeeeeeeddunnnnn!"

A couple of thousand people look on, fumbling in the funny zone between profundity and farce. Sweden? What does one do with one's body when someone's singing their heart out about a socially-progressive democracy?

Minutes earlier, the audience was spilling beer along to the band's Eurovision-style bop about the commercialisation of sex and cheapening of sexuality. People punched the air, though possibly not in outrage at the pernicious advance of Smut Inc., while a terrifying gaggle of pre-pubescent girls snaked through the crowd, re-broadcasting the lyrics as soon as they left the lips of the man on stage. "Ge-ner-a-shun SEX," they screamed with glee in the hardest Belfast brogue available, "respects, the rights, of girls, who want to take their clothes OFF, as long as we can all WATCH, that's O-KAY."

"Lovers watch their backs," continued the man on stage as the band hit cruising speed, "as hacks, in macs, take snaps, through telephoto lenses, chase Mercedes-Benzes, through the nightÉ A mourning nation weeps, and wails, but keeps, the sales, of evil tabloids healthy/The poor protect the wealthy, in this world."

Before the night is out, the band will have gone through a dozen or so songs. It is a curious menu: there's an easy-listening stomper, noting the variety of life you come across on a coach journey; a Bacharach-tinged shout-a-long about life as a new lad; a Carry On-style tale of seduction - "Oh come on, you know you want to" - ridden at, er, a firm gallop; a haunting, ostentatiously pretty ballad about girls, loneliness and escapism that could have come from a White Album-period McCartney; a breezy, sneezy busk about hayfever; a drift over the rooftops, ? la Peter Pan; and an impassioned, autobiographical account of the Troubles - "I was born in Londonderry, I was born in Derry City, tooÉ I grew up in Enniskillen, I grew up in Inis Ceithleann, tooÉ Who cares what name you call a town, who'll care when you're 6ft beneath the ground."

Irony, sentiment, in-jokes, parody, theatrical rock and painstaking arrangement, all hanging on a framework that has as much to do with 30s cabaret as late-90s pop. The crowd loved it. And that, more or less, is a Divine Comedy show.

"You're doing the obvious thing, but using awkward or odd subject-matter, and that's the way I like it." It's a few days after Belfast, and Neil Hannon - creator, songwriter, singer and centrepiece of the Divine Comedy, and, in most ways, the man who is the Divine Comedy - sits in a north London cafe, blithely ignoring the nutritious hummus and bread he has ordered, even though he looks as if he really should not ignore it. His speech is soft, with a trace of an Irish accent so faint it could be north or south. As he talks, he leans forward and blinks big, choirboy eyes. He punctuates his sentences with short, nervous laughs.

"The songs I find most interesting are not about a tried-and-tested theme," he says. "Even if you're writing about love, you have to come at it from a strange angle. You have to draw people in, with something that's going to confuse them. You can never have in writing what you like to think about yourself. In fact, you can never really get it on a record, either, and that's the closest I'll ever get to the true me."

These are changing times for the Divine Comedy. An entity that, for most of its life, has been little more than an ornate curio in the over-stuffed display cabinet of British pop might soon be getting a glass case of its own. For one thing, the band is mutating into something approaching a collection of equals, rather than a singer plus backing group. After years with a small independent label, Setanta, they have signed up to Parlophone, home to the likes of Blur, Radiohead and Supergrass. There's talk of a US tour. Next month, Hannon marries his long-time girlfriend, Órla Little. He's 28. The Parlophone deal might not make him super-rich, but it's not a bad result for someone who, a few years back, was in full retreat from the world.

"At the time, I had no friends at all, even fewer than I do now, um, and I was sitting in my attic for years on end, constructing this, sort of, er, construct - heh heh - in my head, and on paper and in music." That was in 1990, and Hannon's first Divine Comedy, an indie band, had evaporated after one album. He wasn't mortified. "I thought, ÔAt last I am able to do exactly what I want!' I was living on the dole for the next two years. I've never had a real job. I have a suspicion that if I had had just one ordinary job, the self-confidence would have oozed out of my body." He chuckles at the thought of the oozing.

Unlike most proto-pop-star attics, real or metaphorical, this one wasn't in English suburbia. It was at his parents' house, just outside Enniskillen, in the heart of rural Northern Ireland. Grandfather was an archdeacon, father is Anglican bishop for the diocese of Clogher, and school (grammar) was Portora Royal, which counts Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and Henry Francis Lyte, composer of Abide With Me, among its alumni. It is one of those institutions that people tend to describe as "solid". As hermit-life goes, Hannon's world was borderline idyllic. The house was big, quiet, there was a Bechstein grand piano and no pressure to get a job. He'd spend hours reading, or watching TV. He loved French cinema, Evelyn Waugh, Merchant Ivory films.

Set beside the usual pattern of life in late-20th-century Britain, the spirit of Neil Hannon's childhood was, in essence, genteel Victorian: school, hymn-singing, parlour, church and a firm belief in the notion of "decency". Anglicanism, which in Northern Ireland is adhered to by just 10% of the population, also set him apart. A relatively liberal creed, Anglicanism has been something of a refuge from Northern Ireland's religious tribalism, but the church is also a tribe unto itself - not quite a Raj, but certainly an elite of kinds.

"My parents were amazingly tolerant," says Neil Hannon. "Sometimes, I thought it was because they didn't give a . . ." He stops short, sniggers and then restarts: "Didn't care. But, as it turned out, they were" - he goes into clich? voice - "letting me find my own way in the world. Which makes me incredibly self-centred, because now I think that I can do just about anything. So, it's not all a great idea. Sometimes, you need a bit of discipline."

Hannon does a lot of "just about anything". The Divine Comedy kicked off this year supporting Robbie Williams on his post-Millennium tour of pre-teen girldom. Then they turned up at Aldeburgh Festival, haunt of Britten and Schubert, brandishing an opera singer and string quartet for a late-night "review". One time, the band backed Ronnie Spector. Hannon has also worked with his hero, Michael Nyman. He's cooked up a techno-meets-78rpm rendition of No?l Coward's I've Been To A Marvellous Party for an all-star Aids fundraiser album, and a theme for the TV comedy, Father Ted. He has sung Jacques Brel live on French TV, en Français. Last month, he was at the Almeida Theatre in north London, crooning down Moon River and tackling Kurt Weill, auf Deutsch, in a show put together by orchestral composer Joby Talbot, who is also the Divine Comedy's arranger.

Days later, they were in Dublin, supporting REM in front of a 30,000 people packed into Lansdowne Road stadium, and came within a plectrum's pluck of out-rocking the Georgians. Two weeks ago, after taping a performance of their new single for Des O'Connor Tonight, they headed off to rehearse with Ute Lemper, queen of Weimar-style cabaret, for an album of new songs that will also feature Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Scott Walker and Elvis Costello. All Mine, a cover of the Portishead track which the Divine Comedy has recorded with Tom Jones, is released next month. Clever stuff and populist stuff. Weird stuff.

If there's a common strand in Hannon's peculiar CV, it's Europe. Or rather, it's his fascination with a particular version of Europe - that of Jacques Brel, nouvelle vague cinema, late-night bars, angst. "It's something that has been lost," he says. "The tradition of the French realists, people like that, singing terribly passionate songs about ugly subjects - subjects that don't get into songs any more because of the American influence." And it's there, too, in the artwork for his record covers - Venice, Vienna, Gustav Klimt, fallen empires, sadness. Tristesse takes on R&B.

"I love melancholia," he says, rolling his eyes in mock camp. "Can't get enough of it." Well, you have written some unbelievably sad songs. "Well, thank you - and I think there are sadder songs to come," he laughs. "But there is something wonderful about sad songs. You can really get your teeth into them, as a listener.

"I'm not a music historian," Hannon continues, "but something's been lost -there are some subjects you're just not allowed to write about any moreÉ Brel, Brecht said things straightforwardly, in no uncertain terms. There's something really, really beautiful about taking the ugly, mundane side of life and putting it into an epic format.

"A lot of what people thought was so great about British pop music from the 60s on was just how good bands were at being American. I'm a Europhile, without doubt. In a way, the UK is the least European country. It's so Americanised, and I really dislike that. I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to McDonald's and suchlike. America is a great nation, and it's made some of the best music of the 20th century, and the best art. But I'm afraid of it consuming Europe and European culture." The Divine Comedy will not be playing EuroDisney.

It's six years since the release of Liberation - in effect, Hannon's creative debut. The 13 songs on the album mixed unashamed, almost obsessional literariness with a nursery-rhyme sensibility and medicinal dose of melancholia. String quartet, Wordsworth, harpsichord, melodrama, F Scott Fitzgerald and plastic, FM-radio Europop. Grand as its ambitions were, the Divine Comedy of the time was, well, Hannon and no one else. Somehow, the whole unlikely contraption held together, critics hailed it as a rare gem of English pop - and it didn't sell. "It was a liberation from having to sound like anything else," he says now. "I'd spent my time trying to sound like a combination of indie bands, and it was eye-opening listening to Scott Walker and Kraftwerk and Michael Nyman, things like that." The follow-up, Promenade, saw the whole conceptual circus decamp to the seaside to follow a couple through a day of splashing, boozing and fooling around. Heavily influenced by the music of Nyman, at one point the record pays homage to French cinema: "When the lights go out all over Europe, I forget about old MGM, Cos Paramount was never Universal, And Warners went out way back whenÉ Doris Day could never make me cheer up, Quite the way those French girls always could." The lyric of another track, The Booklovers, comprises a list of more than 70 literary greats, from Aphra Behn to Salman Rushdie.

Almost at once, the Roundhead faction within the music press began to cry "pretentious", holding that bookish irony, complex orchestration, shameless conceptualising and obscure subject matter simply did not belong in pop music - songwriters were allowed to be clever, but not Cavalier. "I've only read about 20% of the names on The Booklovers' list," says Hannon, a tad defensively. "But who could have read all those? I was always prepared for the cries of ÔPretentious!', but that's precisely why I did that song - it's the absolute peak of pretentiousness, making pretension into an art form of its own. This is not something that worries the continentals. It's a purely British and American thing."

Others loved it. Cult status among students and what would once have been called "bohemian circles" pushed Promenade into the indie top 10. Hannon was on his way out of the attic. "I told you about going mad, didn't I? The mirror thingÉ" The hummus in front of him is still virgin territory, and its custodian has gone back up to the attic for a moment. "It was just a slight sort of hysteria, but then, that was all wrapped up with going completely into myself, almost like an implosion." Again, he laughs. At one point during his creative retreat, he recalls, he spooked himself out after staring in a mirror for too long. He had hallucinated, for a second or two. He was scared. He started to think about women.

"Casanova is the part of me that just wants to shag everything in sight." Casanova was released in 1996. And where the previous two albums focused on passive pleasures and non-penetrative courting, this one revelled in the deed and all its works. Aged 26, Hannon was doing "it" in public. Something For The Weekend and Becoming More Like Alfie were top 20 hits, and to his dandyish wardrobe of bespoke suits Hannon added the uniform of the Euro-smoothie - cravat, shades, leer. Somewhere about his person, you felt, he would almost certainly have a packet of executive-class condoms, each bearing his personal monogram. Casanova went gold. All hail the king of Britfop.

That's the thing about Hannon. One minute he's all sensitive-confessional, telling you about his upstairs freak-out and the beauty of sadness, the next he's acting the lad, guffawing about booze and broads. The change can be disorientatingly swift, not to say plain odd. At one point in the cafe, for instance, it looked as if he might actually eat some of his bread, but the moment passed when - for some reason known unto God and to no one else - he suddenly came out with a low, smutty phwoarrrr, in full, Becoming More Like Alfie glory. Indigestion, most likely.

It's the same with much of his music. There's innocence, fun and love, but, more often than not, there's a serpent in the garden. He can work an audience, flirt with it, play the randy, suave bastard with a gin-and-tonic in one hand and a microphone in the other, but half-an-hour later you'll bump into him and he'll be walking around, locked hand-in-hand with his girlfriend, and looking every inch the little boy who's still up long past his bedtime. Is he Giovanni Giacomo Casanova or Christopher Robin?

"At school, I wanted to be bigger than my social standing, which was virtually non-existent. Music became the only thing that I was in any way, er, you know, brought to people's attention by." There's a pause, then he elaborates. "Girls, basically, you know. I don't think I would ever have had a girlfriend if it weren't for music. That's the basic, fundamental reason why anyone gets into a band, but it's the fundamental reason why anyone does anything. To be honest, everything always comes back down to, you know, ÔWill it get me laid?' I always thought, if I could be a pop-star, anybody could do anything . . . I'm such a bad person for the job. I mean, look at me!" He grins, and waves his hands in the direction of his virtually non-existent chest: "Hardly boy-band material!"

"Casanova was confessional, in a 'I'm a sick bastard' sort of way," he chortles. "At the risk of sounding a bit crap, the actual meaning of the title of the band is what I'm consistently trying to do on record, which is the sort of sacred and profane battle within all of us. We all yearn to be monks, but we all, er, want to get down and dirty, you know?"

Sacred and profane. A while back, Hannon was asked to perform on local TV in Northern Ireland. He chose, among others, a sedate Victorian hymn, Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind. The song is not, in any way, rock and roll. "It's my favourite hymn," he explains, innocently. "It's a nice tune. I probably did more religious music than any other for the first part of my life.

I was in the school choir and the church choir, and that took up quite a lot of time. But it was also a social necessity, because I didn't know how to go out, where to go to meet people, so the choir was one of the few times I went out."

Religion stalks Hannon's work, but it keeps to the shadows. One of his early songs, Ten Seconds To Midnight, is, in form, a hymn - a countdown to the end of everything but love: "Ten: apes turn into men, and grapes turn into wine; how we made it to nine I'll never know," and all the way down to, "Three: from this balcony, the two of us can see, the house where we first met, one wet Sunday."

Hannon explains: "I kind of wrote the tune, then there was something my mum was involved in, Women's Institute or something like that, who were looking for a song, and for a time I was thinking about using that. The only thing I could play, hymn-wise, on the piano was Abide With Me, and it's very similar in chordal technique "

"For a long time I enjoyed the idea of God. But it's a strange thing, hearing so much of it every Sunday, and more besides, that I came to the end of it all thinking, ÔWell, I still didn't know what half of it was about.' You got read the stuff, but I rarely actually worked out why it was meant to be relevant to me. My dad will probably think, ÔI tried to tell you often enough in my sermons, but you weren't listening.' Well, I listened to my dad's sermons a lot, because there was a lot of wisdom and knowledge being imparted there."

Hannon soon tired of the Casanova image and decided to embrace love - big-time. For the Divine Comedy's 1998 album, Fin De Siècle, he enlisted the help of a 30-piece orchestra and a bouquet of lavishly-arranged songs, awash with romance of the velvet hearts-and-champagne kind. It was as if, after getting his end away in truly epic style, he'd begun to feel guilty and was offering the lucky lady a big bunch of flowers. Testosterone levels falling, he turned to the end of the century. For the first time, Hannon approached big themes - sex-as-commodity, social collapse, chaos theory and, in Sunrise, Northern Ireland - without the cushion of irony. Fin de Si?cle took Hannon well and truly out of the attic.

"There's only so much irony people can take before they start to say, ÔWell, he never says anything he means, so we might as well not listen to him.' With a song like Sunrise, if there was the slightest hint of irony the whole thing would have collapsed. It's probably the last time I'll refer to the Troubles. The one thing that gets me about the Troubles was what a complete irrelevance it is in the modern age. Like, why - why - is this so important? It's people that are important.

"There was a huge contrast between what was going on in my family life and the world outside. It totally confused me and messed me up, because the worst thing is that I've this pathological hatred of argument, and I'm forever trying to agree with people I shouldn't be agreeing with. It's a really bad habit."

If not exactly a family, the present incarnation of the Divine Comedy is a close-knit affair. For Hannon, it's a kind of cocoon. This is by design. Needing to tour the Casanova album, he took on two friends from Portora school, bass player Bryan Mills and guitarist Ivor Talbot, rather than hiring session-players. "Ivor was the only person in school who could actually play his instrument properly," explains Hannon, for some reason grinning like a Cheshire cat. "And Bryan was always somebody I never really got to grips with in school because he was too charismatic. He, sort of, was obviously the other Ôcreative dude' in the school, soÉ" He re-enters jokey high-camp. "We couldn't possibly work together!"

That's more or less the idea behind the new Divine Comedy - less of a presentation, more of a rock band. They might visit the higher climes of the singles chart more often, and even the Roundheads might warm to them, but it's no longer Wordsworth or Jules et Jim.

This doesn't seem to bother Hannon. "I've always wanted to be in a band. I've never wanted to be stuck on my own, because it's no fun. I don't see that it always has to be my warped mind transferred to vinyl or CD. I love writing songs, but I'm completely fed up with not being able to listen to my records because of the fact that it's like, um, it's too me. At this stage in my life, I really just want to be a rock star. Just something really nice and simple, like going on stage with a good band."

Defensive ironies gone, a band made up of close friends, marriage. It's a long way from Enniskillen. "I'm awkward now, but I was totally geeky back then," he says. "It's just been a slow process of joining the rest of society over the years. You can never go back to your shell."

The Divine Comedy's new single, The Pop Singer's Fear Of The Pollen Count, is out on Monday. The album, A Secret History - The Best Of The Divine Comedy, is released at the end of this month. The band plays the Reading Festival on August 28.

The Guardian 07/08/1999