a short site about The Divine Comedy

One From The Art

Fresh from the success of THE DIVINE COMEDY in the Hot Press Readers' Poll, NEIL HANNON drops his guard(s) for some candid talking on love, sex, aesthetics and the whole damn thing.

Watching David Bowie on television recently one couldn't help but think of Neil Hannon. Not that he is a musical "chameleon" - to use the phrase most often applied to Bowie - but he does seem to be a person more comfortable presenting to the world a series of ever-changing poses designed to conceal rather than reveal his "real self." As in vocally situating himself somewhere between Barry White and Prince on the magnificent 'Charge', or satirising - while still relishing - his role as the eponymous sexist hero in 'Becoming More Like Alfie.' Strangely enough, Neil confesses that he was thinking something similar while watching Bowie being interviewed.

We're sitting in a bar in Liverpool Street Station, a location to which Neil has kindly travelled in order to accommodate this interviewer, who must ride the rails all the way to Stansted Airport the moment the interview ends. As in his classic anthem, 'Middle Class Heroes', it is a "dark and wintery" day.

Neil has two pints of Guinness, I stick with Jack Daniels and Coke. Beside me he places a bag from 'Desigmuseum' which later turns out to contain a package of four multi-coloured inflatable "boiled egg holders" which he gives me as a present just before we part, claiming, rather cryptically, "they'll come in really handy, you'll see." Yes, he is that kind of guy. A real sweetheart. Or rather bitter-sweetheart. And one who's obviously struck a few chords with Hot Press, to judge by The Divine Comedy's success in the 1996 poll.

Joe Jackson So, number one album, number one songwriter, number two male singer, number two single for 'The Frog Princess' and number one musician.

Neil Hannon: That's ridiculous! 'Best Musician'? I can't play for toffee! But, well, what can I say? This is fantastic (laughs). In the old days I never knew quite what I'd say at moments like this and now that its come I still don't know what to say!

Well, aren't there some people you'd like to thank, your cat, whoever?

Oh yeah. (adopts tones of mock humility) I'd like to thank my mom and dad. And, of course, God for being omnipotent. But, really, I never really thought it would be Ireland that would be the first to go overboard.

Why not? Last time we talked, explaining why you hide behind "an exterior of melodrama and theatricality," you said "that's the only way to go for a reserved Irishman like me!" And added, "though I'm obviously more Anglo-Irish which gives the ironical, double edge to the work." As such, isn't it to be expected that the Irish would be the first to "go overboard" for you?

Oh yes. Well, I guess I was wrong in my rather hasty assertion that I didn't think the Irish would be first! And maybe those are some of the reasons. But winning all these sections in that poll is definitely evidence of a section of the Irish people going overboard, don't you think? I accept all you say but, even so, part of me somehow feels guilty about this sort of thing.

Is there a part of you that questions the validity of winning such polls, says, 'well, the choices can't have been many this particular year'?

Oh no, I believe in them, absolutely. At least when I'm at the top of such polls! As in this Hot Press Poll, whereas the Melody Maker Poll was rigged, obviously! But, seriously, we do seem to have done quite well, in that we've made it to the top of quite a few sections, which means we didn't just win one section because, as you say, the choices may have been limited. So this is fantastic. I love you all!

When you say "we" why is that, and who else are you referring to?

When I say 'I' it leaves me too vulnerable! So 'we' is The Divine Comedy, which I am very much a part of, but with which other people also are associated, to varying degrees. As in the other five members of the core band, at the moment: Joey Talbot, piano; Brian Mills, bass; Ivor Talbot, guitar; Nicky Barradis, drums, and Stuart Pinkiebets on Hammond organ. And they, I'm sure, will be really pleased with these poll results. But I, myself, am slightly bemused because it just feels - well, I don't really know how I feel. If there is an awards ceremony maybe I'll know how I feel by then!

As a guy who was, at one point, more of an "indie" figure on the periphery of pop, is there a fear that you now are being sucked into the mainstream, winning such polls, having hit singles and so on?

I don't think there is much danger of us being sucked into the mainstream! And I am content that as long as we never do anything to curry favour with the general public then even if we do move closer to the centre of some media maelstrom there will be no danger, as long as you retain everything you had in the first place. If, on the other hand, you have to cast off aspects of your art in order to get there that is, t then it becomes a problem. But a band like REM never had to get particularly bland to make it extremely big. And they took a long time to do it. And if we don't get to the centre I'm not particularly unhappy.

Who would you place at the top of all the categories you won in the Hot Press Poll?

Best album? Oh God, I really can't think of one right now. But something I really played a lot last year was an avant-garde jazz album, with John Coltrane and some trumpeter or another, a '60s album. Single? 'Born Slippy' by Underworld. I've been playing that incessantly. Best Male Singer and Best Musician, can I get back to you on that? And as for songwriter, I like that geezer from Babybird. I think he writes a good tune, but a better lyric.

Some might say that you, on the other hand, write better tunes than lyrics.

(pause) Well, I generally am more happy to congratulate myself about a tune than I am about the lyrics. This is not to say the lyrics aren't important. They are. In fact, lyrics and music are inseparable, to me. There's no point in writing lyrics without music. That's why I wouldn't like my words to be read as poetry because without the music they appear meaningless, lose all the twists and turns. The music, to me, forms a great part of the meaning in a song.

As in the layers of irony you add to songs on Casanova such as "The Frog Princess' where you include a piss-take on the French national anthem?

Exactly. And a lot of people seemed to miss that aspect of the album. Especially when they reduce a song to a few lines from a lyric and say 'this is what the song means.' That's very dangerous! Particularly with my songs, where it usually takes listening to the whole album to even begin to understand where the song is coming from. Indeed, looking at a couple of lines from the lyric is futile, really, though you do see that happening time and time again.

Nevertheless, although you have previously argued that songs on Casanova shouldn't be judged outside the context of that song cycle, something like 'The Frog Princess' still was voted the second best single of the year in this poll.

Well I'm happy they voted for 'The Frog Princess' and not 'Something For the Weekend' because I think 'The Frog Princess' is a better statement, in total, better formed. Though out of the album context it can appear peculiarly misogynistic and violent, as Stella Martin, from Norwich, wrote to tell me. She said 'I don't know what you had to go through to write such vengeful, anti-woman propaganda. You are urging young men towards rape . . .' and stuff like that. And I just thought, 'steady on' (laughs self consciously).

Well, heroes of the middle class must face up to their responsibilities - to paraphrase another of your songs. So, can you accept that you may have been at least partly responsible for firing such fears in that woman's mind? Or, indeed by writing a line like "everybody knows that 'no' means 'yes'" in 'Becoming More Like Alfie' even if it was ironic?

Yes I can. But that's definitely not what I set out to do with a song like 'Becoming More Like Alfie' which does satirises the kind of male who sees women that way. And I really have been thinking of how I can counter this argument. In terms of 'The Frog Princess', for example, the fact is that if I was gay I could write as evil a song about a fellow man and call him a "frog prince." I don't think it matters, either way, whether the subject of the song is a frog prince or frog princess. Likewise, if I were a woman I could write equally vengeful things about men, or women.

Writing vengeful lyrics about men has become almost the norm in rock, as in Alanis and co.

Totally so. So this is a taste of their own medicine!

But seriously, isn't there a double standard involved in all this, in that women are allowed to be vengeful against men in their songs and "justify" this tendency by saying it is a reaction "against two thousand years of oppression." Whereas if a man even glances in a similar direction he's said to be sexist and upholding oppressive, patriarchal power systems.

That is true. But, then again, there is an element of truth to the claim that women now are reacting against a history of oppression. That can't be denied. And that oppression is still there. So I understand where those songs, and that argument, is coming from. But, given this context I really do think that Casanova is a deeply feminist album. In fact, I have some feminist friends and they just laugh at 'The Frog Princess' which is what you are meant to do. It's me being very childish, really pissed off at this woman, stomping my foot and saying, "you left me, how could you do that?" That's what the song's really about.

Even so, in a similarly, stunningly neurotic song like 'Through A Long and Sleepless Night' when you sing a line like "I'd rather die than be deprived/of wonderbras and thunderthighs" couldn't you be said to be sexualising women, reducing them to simply a matter of tits and what's between their legs?

No. And though this may seem like a cop-out, in answer to that accusation, I'm going to say it anyway. If what that song says is reducing the female to a sexual object it is because this is what sometimes happens in the male psyche. And I was as much interested in exploring that subject as I am in exploring any other aspect of relationships. I'd not using such images like a rap artist would use them to say, "hey, I'm bloody great and I've got all these chicks waiting for me." It's more about me than the women, more about why I have that need. For women, and to objectify women. And sometimes objectifying women becomes the erotic part. In other words, you can't have these erotic feelings unless you make it into something without any feelings, which is incredibly dangerous, obviously. It's like racism, when you take a huge bunch of people and turn them into objects simply to service you own needs, and perceptions. But I am well aware of that tendency.

Last time we talked you claimed that 'Becoming More Like Alfie' was also "a dig at the laddishness in Britpop at the moment" claiming, for example, that "a lot of what comes out of the Gallagher twins' mouths is absolutely obscene, glorifying their own stupidity." Such as Liam saying things like, "every woman I meet is gagging for it."

Yeah but now I realise they always use that line to highlight such things about Oasis. But if you listen to their songs, they often go quite deeply into the female psyche and this is something I am really curious about.

Surely the point is that it is Liam who makes those comments about women "gagging for it" whereas Noel writes the songs?

That is true. And I remember that Noel said that Liam gets all these 16-year-olds with big, huge breasts, gagging - going after him. Whereas there are always these fucked-up 25-year-olds who want him, as an artist.

So what kind of women do you attract, if there is a type?

Deranged French females. Though that was a while ago. I've had a few deranged English women since then. But then I am suitably deranged myself.

So do you agree that you create love songs for similarly "deranged" or neurotic people, to a degree? As in 'Timewatching', from Liberation and which you've re-recorded for the new album. In that song, when you cull a phrase from 'When I Fall In Love' you can't use it straight, have to change the lyric from 'it will be forever' to 'it might be forever.' You also twist the melody, apparently, making the very concept of love itself demented, dangerous.

Yes. But they're not so much love songs for neurotics, as love songs for people who can't quite work out what love is, or how to love. Who want to be in love but don't really know how to go about it. And, if they did experience it they don't understand what it was, at all!

Such as yourself?

Probably, yes.

But you obviously know how to fuck. In fact, the last time we talked you said you were looking forward to the tour "with bated breath" to further explore the capacity to "pull" that came with becoming a pop star. You also said you fancied "having a bash at discovering what, exactly, the effect on one's ego is, when you know these people are only in bed with you for that reason." So, is that what you did?

(laughs) Oh God! How can I go around saying such things when I should know, by now, that they will be held against me in the future? Yes, that is what happened. And I certainly was open to exploring those experiences during the tour, and before that. But, now, I'm more open to exploring them in terms of getting something right and maybe having a relationship rather than just writing a song about it, which is what I have done too often in my life. And that is destructive, to always be looking at your personal life in the sense that you might end up writing a song about whatever experience you are going through. I never really liked that tendency in myself. And, in a way, Casanova and the new album is about me dipping my toe into such areas, then my whole leg, then dragging myself out again! As in, revealing my quite personal emotional life along these lines. But there is only so much of myself I can put in there, before it gets too hot!

Hot for who?

Me! As much as I feel I owe something to my fellow man, in that I have this talent to write songs, I believe I can turn on my fellow man-woman without having to write too in-depth about myself.

One could also say that your fear of writing too "in-depth" about yourself has led you to produce merely a succession of musical poses, shifting shadows that slide in and around various personae, as in Bowie's career. And as was obvious from all those television shows around his 50th birthday.

I watched those shows and was thinking "I don't want to end up doing that all my life." And I don't. But all the characters I use on my albums are me, basically.

But in some songs all we see is the toe, as you said!

Yes, but in others it's full-frontal nudity!

But what is your fear of self-revelation, in a total sense?

The fear that no-one will ever want to talk to me again. Particularly if I write a song about them.

But is it also a fear of writing a song about your "real" self, because this, too, might turn people off?

As I say, I have gone pretty deep, so it's not that fear, totally. Though that does, of course, enter into it. It's more that once you've written a song from that angle it's like that's all you're going to get, or give to listeners and this can become terribly boring. And I think it would tell me as much about myself to write an album about teapots and other culinary items as it would to write about love and sex and stuff like that.

But you also have admitted that you had a morally restricted upbringing because you are the son of the Bishop of Clogher. Does this make you draw back from disclosing things more directly because you don't want to embarrass your father, whatever?

Well, if I haven't embarrassed him by now, I don't know how I will!

Joe Jackson
Hot Press 27/01/1997