a short site about The Divine Comedy

Ooh La La ! - A Divine Night In Paris with Neil Hannon

La Comedie Française

Over some excellent vin rouge, Neil Hannon reflects on cars and girls and communism, as be basks in the glow of another rewarding Parisienne night for The Divine Comedy.

"I may drive a Polo", be tells Stuart Clark, "but this is the Rolls Royce of lifestyles." Portraits: Shane McCarthy.

There's something about going abroad that brings out the SAS commando in even the most mild-mannered of journalists. Copy has to be filed and woe betide Johnny Foreigner if they get in the way.

The mission is simple enough: RyanAir in behind enemy lines and, armed with my Hot Press expense account, infiltrate the Divine Comedy which is taking place in Paris' sleaziest red light district, the Pigalle.

The first line that has to be breached is the army of leafleteers who permanently patrol the 8th Arrondissement. Tonight's inducements include half-price admission to Le Club Sexy Oriental and a free consultation with Monsieur Charles, Le Plus Grand Medium D'Afrique, who promise to "make women run after you like a dog pursuing his master."

Concerned that eyebrows might be raised back home if my girlfriend started sniffing my groin in public, I politely decline the offer and prepare to confront an even more frightening foe - the French indie kids.

As woeful as the indigenous music scene is, this lot are top of the European Champions' League when it comes to reciting the lyrics from the new Belle & Sebastian album. This trainspotterish adoration, combined with the fact that most of their countrymen prefer Johnny Halliday and Celine Dion, means that our Parisian cousins are treated to the sort of bills that would amount to festivals over here.

Take the 1,000-capacity venue that Neil Hannon & Co are playing in, for instance. Next week at the Cigale you can see Nada Surf, Unbelievable Truth and Eliot Smith on the Tuesday; Air, Lo-Fidelity Allstarts and Sean Lennon on Wednesday; and - pièce de résistance - The Barry Adamson Experience, Manic Street Preachers, Grandaddy and Regular Fries on Thursday. Add to that the Chemical Brothers, The Beta Band, Arab Strap, Scott 4 and Underworld who are all gigging nearby, and you're talking about a serious embarrassment of riches.

"They've enough of a hardcore following to play big shows but, in terms of albums, band like Mansun and the Manics would only sell about 15,000," proffers the man from Virgin France who's looking after The Divine Comedy's Gallic interest.

"That's why we're so pleased that Fin De Siècle has gone straight in to our chart this week at number 23," he continues, "and is being bought by older people as well as indie kids. The challenge this time round is crossing over to the mainstream. Neil's doing a full nationwide tour in October and, by the end of that, we'd expect him to be on the top 15, maybe higher."

This prognosis is born out by the swarm of ticket-less fans who've been queuing at the Cigale box-office since mid-day for returns. The fact that there aren't any means the touts are asking - and getting - 300FF for each of their wares.

A decaying cabaret theatre that once rivalled Le Moulin Rouge, the Ciggy - as it's know locally - has played host to more rock legends than its patrons have had continental breakfasts.

Pelvis throw down the gauntlet to U2's lawyers
Pelvis throw down the gauntlet to U2's lawyers
Aware of the famous footsteps they've following in, Pelvis singer Johnny Rohan is temped to don a brown suit, but settles instead for an outsize white number which looks like it's been stolen from Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense video. First French gig or not, the Dubliners go down a storm and celebrate by re-decorating their dressing-room with a potentially actionable cartoon of U2. Their artistic endeavours are forgotten until the next morning when the venue and, by extension, The Divine Comedy's road manager throw a wobbly and the band are nearly sacked from the tour. Questions are also asked - and, frankly, evaded - about the "Hot Press exclusive" which is Magic Marker-ed above The Edge's hat.

While this reprehensible act of vandalism is being committed, Neil Hannon is on stage demonstrating why, pound for pound, he's the best performer Ireland's got at the moment. Along with the Charlatans and Placebo t-shirts - Brian Molko is god round here - there's more than a smattering of thirtysomething Lacoste which suggests that Monsieur Virgin France's year-end bonus is in the bag.

The Divine Comedy don't play duff gigs these days but, even by their own exalted standards, tonight's a cracker. Highlight number one comes when Hilary Summers, the Amazonian opera singer who guests on Fin De Siècle, enters from the wings and nearly rips the roof off the gaff with her Gale Force 10 soprano. A close friend of Michael Nyman's, Summers confides later that it's the most fun she's had since a particular boozy session with the London Symphony Orchestra who, black-ties or not, know how to party. The second to-die-for moment is supplied by the truly Wagnarian take on Kraftwerk's 'Radioactivity'. The teenage members of the audience listen in rapt attention to what they think is a new song, while the old duffer contingent smile knowingly and air-piano along to the plinkity plink bits. A Tom Jones-ian arse wiggle from Hannon at the end and it's game, set and Paris match.

"We rocked," is the official verdict from Neil as he downs his first glass of après-show Burgundy. "The thing about Paris is, like in Dublin, our previous gigs have been so warmly received that everyone's expecting Jimi Hendrix in the Electric Ladyland or Cheap Trick at the Budokhan. You're really scared that it's not going to be as good as the last time until - like tonight - the crowd went mental after the first song and you know it's going to be a breeze.

"We had a bit of a problem on the Casanova tour because having bought far more copies of Promenade and Liberation than anyone else, the French were most reluctant to share us with Les Rostbifs. It got to the point where I was almost apologising for having hits in the UK. There was also a certain sniffiness about us ceasing to be just piano, cello and violin, but now I think they've learnt to live with the band aspect."

As for tonight's special guest, Hannon reckons that, "Hilary has the most amazing voice I've ever heard. She sang a lot of the stuffs on The Cook, The Thief, The Wife And The Lover, and is really far too acclaimed to be wasting her time on lowlifes such as ourselves. I'd love her to be able to stay for the whole tour but, as always with Setanta, there's bugger all budget. It's got so silly that when we go out in UK, we may not be able to take our drum-riser with us because the slightly bigger lorry needed to carry it is too expensive."

The suspicion is that he might not be quite so brassic when The Divine Comedy complete their several squillion pound transfer to a major.

"I don't know who your sources are but it's actually only one squillion," he deadpans. "I thought we'd be rolling in it too but my manager, Natalie, has been hammering home the point that signing to a major doesn't mean I can bring the London Philharmonic on tour with me. I'm sure it'll sort out our drum-riser problem but it's going to be a while longer before I get my gold Am-Ex card."

Having met him half-a-dozen times in as many years, I can vouch for the fact that Neil Hannon is a true Irish original. While 'fessing up straight away to being a Bishop's son, the 26-year-old has somehow managed to sidestep the other pertinent questions about his childhood. Up until now, that is.

"The truth is I've always considered my childhood to be rather dull," he proffers. "While most of my friends in London have been through some sort of major trauma, mine was a very safe and predictable upbringing, steeped in middle-class values. I used to fell guilty about it, but now I realise I was better off not having a father who drunk two bottles of whisky a day or a mother who went on the game to feed us."

What was Neil Hannon, the schoolboy, like?

"A bit of twat, really. The best way to fit in at my school was to be good at soccer, but I was always the guy at the side of the pitch who got the ball in the face. As for extracurricular activities behind the bike-sheds, I had fucking nightmares about everything involving girls. I noticed that they were there, and rather liked the look of them, but there's no way I'd have gone. 'Here love, give us a snog', which was my classmates' preferred chat-up line. If by some complete fluke I'd managed to get first base, I wouldn't have known what to do next.

"I'm not sure if I fully realised it at the time," the confessional continues, "but I actually hated 99% of the people I went to school with. I never felt superior, just alienated because we had nothing in common apart from our religion. Which, despite my dad being a Church of Ireland minister, wasn't that a big deal. I've never worn a bowler hat, been to a 12th of July or felt an overwhelming urge to join the UVF, because that wasn't what my family did."

If he was crap at footie and didn't pull girls' pigtails, what did he do to get his teenage kicks?

"Oh no, this is going to make me sound like even more of a nerd. I used to design imaginary cars for what I christened Foyle Motor Industries or FMI. It bore too much of a resemblance to MFI, so I had to ditch it, but that was my vice aged 10 to 13. My first outright act of rebellion was becoming a communist. No great swing now, but you have to remember that in the early '80s Enniskillen was both very conservative and very Unionist. As relatively easy-going as my school was - the one in Derry was ten times as dictatorial - they didn't take too kindly to me wearing my Marx badge and shouting, 'There is no God!' My father wasn't overly-impressed either."

While Hannon designed his cars, I was twiddling my knob under the bedclothes and always remember Radio Moscow's fixation with tractor production being up 50% in the Tashkent region.

"If you can't be proud of your tractor production, what can you be proud of?" he philosophises. "No, there was a grey, almost Joy Division-like chic to communism in those days which sited my mood perfectly. It didn't strike me till later that as the only revolutionary left-wing party in Northern Ireland, I should have been a member of Sinn Fein. Thankfully - bearing in mind the effect that would've had on my well-being - I defected to the Labour party and became passionate about Greenham Common and the Miner's Strike. I thought he was a complete wanker back then, but when you hear old speeches of Arthur Scargill's, you realise that everything he predicted has come true. Now that all the pits have closed, he ought to set himself up as a rival to Mystic Meg."

Spiritually, he may have been down with the sisters at Greenham, but Hannon was still less then fluent in the language of leurve.

"I remember thinking that my eldest brother, Desmond, was so bunny just back from Spain.

"Where, to quote the Daily Mirror, I suffered 'Neil's Knife Ordeal'. We were walking down the street in Alicante when some geezer pulled a knife on us and said, 'Give me your money!' Which we did without any argument. I'd always thought of mugging as a much more physical thing - y'know, being grabbed - but they never got any nearer than ten feet away."

Like Michael Jackson, Hannon is a lover not a fighter, but there was one infamous occasion when he was nearly arrested for brawling in public.

"That actually happened down the road from here in 1994," he reminisces none fondly. "It was the night before what proved to be our breakthrough Paris gig and we were on the piss with the Boo cool when he found himself a girlfriend. I'd ask him for advice and he'd say: 'Try talking to them.' Sage-like, I know, but still way too forward for me."

Needless to say, Hannon had no idea that he'd one day become a lounge lizard lothario, with more than a few women of my acquaint desperate to have his babies. The bad news for them is that having sowed several hectares of wild oats. Neil is now happily girlfriended and living with the fair Órla in a cosy Clapham love-nest.

"Yes, it's just me, her and our little Polo," he beams. "I know it's not very rock star-ish but if I drove up in a Beamer everybody else in the band would go, 'I want a pay rise!' My one concession to flash is that I got them to fit their top of the range sunroof which I'm constantly swishing backwards and forwards.

"This is going to sound very pipe-and-slippers but what I really want is a dog. All of them are brilliant but I think we'll start with a labrador because they're big and friendly and..."

Good with kids?

"Stop that! I enjoy my home life fully but, at present, children are not on the agenda."

Romantic holidays are, though, with Órla and her little snookum-Radleys, their crew and a few journos. Having gotten us thrown out of the bar we were in for trying to pick fights, our ex-tour manager succeeded in stirring up a Brits vs. Paddies vibe. I, rather stupidly, assigned myself to United Nations peace-keeping duties and was rewarded with a punch in the face that broke my nose and left it permanently bent. I didn't mind because I've always wanted to look like Stephen Fry!"

A quick check reveals that, yup, the Neil Hannon hooter is a bit crooked but not so much that it spoils his matinee idol good looks.

Seeing as we've got him cornered in his dressing-room - which incidentally is doing a very passable impression of an off-license - I think we should ask Neil a few awkward questions. His starter for ten: why is the second track on Fin De Siècle, 'Thrillseeker', a ringer for Faith No More?

"I ought to say something witty like, 'Fuck off, it doesn't', but I'm a hopeless liar," he laughs. "Having written the song as a sort of extended Pepsi Max advert, I needed to evoke images of people bungee-jumping off the Empire State Building, and Faith No More are as extreme as it gets without being unlistenable. I also think Mike Patton's got a brilliant voice which is why I pretended to be him."

The end product was so exhilarating that RTE used it last week to promote their coverage of the All-Ireland Football final between Kildare and Galway. Not quite as sexy as the Pepsi Max boys but a sporting association, nonetheless.

While we're talking grand theft audio, there are a couple of bars on 'Commuter Love' that I'd swear are swiped from the Lovejoy theme.

"Now, that does warrant a, 'Fuck off, they're not!'"

One song that's 100% genuine Hannon is 'Sunrise', the album's almost impossibly dramatic finale which straddles both sides of the sectarian divide in its celebration of the Good Friday Peace Agreement.

"The music's been knocking around for four or five years, but until Adams and Trimble got their shit together I couldn't think of any lyrics that were good enough to go with it," he explains. "You wouldn't believe the amount of time I spent agonising over every word. The first line - 'I was born in Londonderry/I was born in Derry City' - sets the tone for the rest of the song which is basically saying, 'Everybody, stop being so fucking pretty.' Far from being rendered obsolete, I think the message is even stronger following Omagh. No matter how many bombs go off, you can't give up hope."

Amen to that. As the demolition work starts on another bottle of Burgundy - on down, eleven to go - Hannon recalls how he was personally made privy to Robbie Williams and Nicole All Saints' engagement being back on.

"I was in a pub in Soho when the two of them rolled up, looking very lovey dovey, and went into the club across the road. I went over to day 'hi' and, well, basically be nosey and got all the gory details. I'd love to tell you what they are but I'm afraid the Daily Mirror have the exclusive serialisation rights."

Not content with knowing the ins and outs of his love life, Neil has also gone and sung backing vocals on Williams' new album, I've Been Expecting You.

"You'd have thought the bastard would've offered me a duet but, no, I'm just doing a few la-las here and there. I got a 'phone call saying 'do you want to come down?' and with him being a great cultural icon of the 2th Century, I thought it would be churlish to refuse."

Is the admiration society mutual?

"I admire his balls, though I hasten to add I haven't seen them. I'm still waiting for my copy of I've Been Expecting You, but Life Through A Lend had some good tunes on it. 'Angels' did that big ballad thing particularly well and 'Old Before I Die" is one of the best song Noel Gallagher never wrote. Certainly, if I had a 10-year-old- daughter, I'd much rather she were into Robbie then Boyzone I abhor. Ronan's a nice guy, and all that, but why he wants to be the new George Michael is beyond me. Y'know, he's 21 going on 40."

Talking - as we were a moment ago - of matters tabloid, is Neil expecting to get any flak over the "Chasing Mercedes Benz's" line in Fin De Siècle's flagship single, 'Generation Sex'?

"If someone misses the point comprehensively enough to be offended, so be it," he hisses. "I never met Princess Di so I've no reason to dislike her. I have, however, met a quite few tabloid journalists who've been most unpleasant."

He wasn't tempted to join Chris de Burgh at the Althorp tribute gig, then?

"If one thing was going to drive the final nail into Chris De Burgh's coffin, that was it. You can forgive him the eyebrows, and even the 'Lady In Red', but that was really tacky."

Having secured a world exclusive by peeking at Robbie Williams' todger in the Slane toilets, I decide to give Hannon the furtive once-over and can't believe my luck when I cop the Homer Simpson motif on his socks. Not what you'd expect from somebody who's the subject of a two-page spread in the current issue of French Cosmopilitan.

"I'm biased, I know, but I think they've even better then Robbie Williams' penis. Or so I've been told. The Simpsons rule almost as much as South Park. Which I've only seen a few times but am already deeply in love with. You know the song that Jewish kid sings in the 'Hanky The Christmas Poo' episode. Well, if I can get the others to agree, we're going to cover it."

Judging by the daggers that Neil's songwriting partner, Joby Talbot, is shooting from the corner of the room, I'd say the chances of that are somewhere between none and Southampton winning the Premiership.

Hannon may have to be back on the tour bus by four for an overnight trip to Brussels, but that doesn't mean we can't beat a retreat to some maison de repute malad.

Despite my suggestion that we should check out Le Club Sexy Oriental - I'd paid Monsieur Charles a visit, after all - we end up in the less than salubrious confines of Le Noctambule which hasn't been decorated since Louis XVV was on the throne.

Plain tatty rather than Jacques Tati, the live entertainment is provided by a seventysomething Elvis lookalike who's intent on giving Brel's corpse a right old rodgering.

As 'Quand On N'A Que L'Amour' comes to the most dramatic of conclusions, all 6ft 5" of Hilary Summers jumps up on stage and commandeers the microphone from Quiffman. The band's Gilbert & Sullivan is a bit rusty, so Hils settles for an operatic take on 'Summertime' which sends the Pernod-swilling regulars into paroxysms of delight. "I may drive a Polo," muses Hannon over yet another glass of wine, "but this really is the Rolls Royce of lifestyles." I'll drink to that!

Stuart Clark
Hot Press 14/10/1998