a short site about The Divine Comedy

My Regeneration

New album, new look, new attitude: having turned the big three-oh, DIVINE COMEDY's Neil Hannon says he's much more sure of his place in the world. "Basically, the one thing I have to offer humanity is a good time with interesting words," he tells Olaf Tyaransen.

Fashion alert! Neil Hannon, Divine Comedy frontman and pop purveyor par excellence, no longer wears his trademark suits. Surprisingly enough, it, em, rather suits him.

Sprawled lazily across the bed of a Belfast hotel room on the eve of his band's second gig this year (and, come to think of it, only their fifth this century), the singer who was formally renowned as much for his sartorial elegance as for his urbane and sophisticated sound, is looking rather different nowadays from the Neil Hannon of old - much more Beck than Beckett. His hair is longer, the fey pop tart look is gone and the slick seersuckers have been replaced with casual cords and sweaters. He's even wearing sneakers! So is there any great meaning or statement behind this sudden suits-to-slacker image change or was it just that his dry-cleaning bills were becoming too much?

"There's no real meaning behind it," he avers, fiddling abstractly with the black Tibetan love beads on his wrist. "It's not really that we've changed our image, just that image has become less important to what we do. It's more the music than the image now - that's why we've got sculptures on the front of the new record and not my big ugly mug."

Ah yes, the music. That's changed also, albeit slightly less radically than his wardrobe. The Nigel 'Radiohead' Godrich produced Regeneration - Divine Comedy's sixth album proper and their first release on a major label (Parlophone) - does exactly what it says on the tin and heralds a completely new phase in the band's evolution. They've regenerated (as opposed to taking the more traditional rock ... roll route of degenerating). Musically it's more mellow and mature, with little of the saucy slapstick energy that has previously defined their sound. And lyrically - while sometimes very flip and funny - it's also occasionally as downbeat as the singer is dressing these days. In fact, at times he sounds almost mournful. Even so, he professes himself happy with it, despite fearing that it's an album that's going to shed the band a few fairweather fans.

"I'm really pleased with the new record," he enthuses. "The whole band is ecstatic about the record. It's just that we're all a tad nervous about whether people are gonna actually understand and be understanding. I think it'll be a slow process but I hope people will come around."

Last night the band played to a packed house in Derry, their first live performance this year and the first ever public airing of the new songs - Regeneration's first toe in the water. I was actually supposed to be at the gig but, at the last moment, the band requested that hotpress not join them until tonight's show in the Belfast Empire, allowing them to get their first-night jitters out of the way and iron out any creases in their set. Obviously, they are nervous about reactions. So how was the Derry debut?

"Em, it was... fascinating," he laughs. "I think it was all that I expected it would be - and more. We hadn't played in ages, not since last February, when we played a few gigs in Scotland just to keep our hand in while we were waiting to record. But this is the first time we've actually played the new album live and heard how it sounds on stage. Having said that, we couldn't actually hear how it sounded on stage because there was traumatic sound there. Apparently it sounded marvellous but I didn't know about it."

Do you often get nervous before gigs?

"Well, I was terrified before last night," he admits with a smile, "but it's all to do with the situation. You know, if you're like four months into an album gig-wise, you start to chill out a lot. Especially if people start to know the songs on the record and react a lot better to them. But I can't imagine any of these shows are going to be easy because people haven't even heard the singles, let alone the album. Do you like the album, by the way?"

I tell him that I didn't quite get the change of direction at first, but it gradually grew on me after a few repeated listens. Now my housemate's threatening to kick me out if she has to hear it one more time.

"Yeah, it does grow on you," he nods enthusiastically. "In some ways, that's the problem. It's not like the old ones where people could get a handle on them pretty much instantaneously. But this one... you know, we're gonna keep plugging away at this one this year because people need as many opportunities as possible to hear it, to understand where we're coming from."

Before we get into where the Divine Comedy are coming from with Regeneration, let's first take a quick look back at where they've been before. Their rise to prominence hasn't been particularly fast, though it has been remarkably steady. Originally from Derry (where his father is the local Bishop), Hannon and his band - an early incarnation of the Divine Comedy - moved to the bright lights of London in the late Eighties and signed to Keith Cullen's Setanta Records. Their first release Fanfare For The Comic Muse received good critical notices but sold diddly squat, prompting the rest of the band to leave to go to college. Being slightly less sensible, Hannon retained the name, stepped into the solo spotlight and, in 1993, released Liberation, which he now considers his debut album proper. Critics swooned. Slightly.

His second album Promenade was released in 1994 and this time the critics simpered (it was named as one of Q magazines albums of the year, amongst other prestigious accolades). A support slot to Tori Amos followed, during which Hannon picked up some new band members - young composer Joby Talbot and old school friends Bryan Mills and Ivor Talbot (Stuart 'Pinkie' Bates, Miggy Barradas and Rob Farrer joined over the next three years, completing today's line-up).

Casanova was released in 1996, garnering the band their first ever chart hit in the form of single 'Something For The Weekend', and reaching gold status in the UK and Ireland by the summer of '97. The theme to Father Ted brought them further into the public eye (and ear) and that summer A Short Album About Love - a live album recorded over two days in the Shepherds Bush Empire with a 30-piece orchestra - followed and charted at Number 13. 1998's Fin de Siecle gave the band their first top ten album hit, with infectious singles like 'Generation Sex' and 'National Express' fast becoming student dancefloor anthems.

After that it was plain sailing out of the Indie Ocean. Collaborations with everyone from Robbie Williams, Michael Nyman, Tom Jones and Ute Lemper soon brought the band to the attention of Parlophone and the Divine Comedy celebrated ten years of existence in 1999 by signing to a major and bidding a fond farewell to Setanta with A Secret History - a 'Best Of' that went straight in at Number 3. All in all, theirs has been a slow but spectacularly steady rise. Looking back over it all, Hannon now reveals that there was a grand masterplan behind it, albeit a rather hazy one.

"It's funny but it worked," he laughs. "I did exactly what I always said I would do, which is bizarre to me, that it actually worked. Even in 1990, I remember saying that we were gonna stay on an indie label until we're big enough that when we go to a major label, we won't be back at the bottom of the ladder again. It worked! I can't believe it!"

Are you still on speaking terms with Keith Cullen now that you've departed the Setanta fold?

"We bump into each other every now and again," he smiles. "Keith's a bit of a law onto himself. Obviously they're still in control of the back catalogue so there's the occasional meeting."

Signing to a major wasn't the only major event in Hannon's recent past. A couple of other important life things have happened along the way as well. In 1999, Hannon ditched his 'Casanova' status and finally tied the knot with his lovely wife Órla - a PR executive ("she's not a nurse - somehow that rumour started!"). And on November 7th of last year, he hit the big Three-Oh. A scary moment?

"I must say I had the best birthday party of my life," he recalls. "It was fantastic. We hired a room - with a bar (laughs) - in a club in London and invited loads of people. I never understood how many friends I had, it was very nice. And they all came! We got a place for seventy people, because that's how many we invited - even though we thought we'd get around thirty or forty - and in fact we ended up having more like eighty! And I'm not just blowing my trumpet, I was as amazed as everybody else. But it was great. I'd never really experienced that sort of high before. I mean, obviously it was alcohol-induced to an extent but sometimes you can get very drunk and very sad - and this was totally the opposite."

Is there a sense that life starts to become clearer when you marry and hit thirty? You know, that you begin to realise where you fit into the scheme of things?

"Yeah, I get that impression. It's kind of a similar thing to being older and wiser. Basically I think that the being married part is neither here nor there, although it's an important symbol. But, you know, we were married in our heads long before we actually did it officially."

Is Órla joining you on tour?

"No. Going on tour is bad enough. It's a really scummy occupation, very disorientating. And for someone to be there without having an actual role to play, I couldn't imagine anything worse. Obviously she'll come along to the glamour locations though. I mean, wouldn't you?"

Has being married changed your approach to songwriting much?

"Em... I suppose it has a bit," he muses. "You know, being married does kind of remove the 'well, this song will get me laid' aspect of it. Though it might work for her! But that's no bad thing at the end of the day because it takes a lot of the ego out of it. And I think my ego was dragging it down a bit. It was becoming a little bit 'hey, look at me, look what I can do!'."

Certainly, in the early days, Hannon had a bit of a rep for being arrogant and egotistical. Maybe it's the wife's influence or maybe just that he's a little more grown-up, but today he seems a lot more humble and contrite. He feels that he's becoming a nicer person, with less to prove.

"It's funny because I think a large part of my psyche - and my creativity - in the early days was based in jealousy, and the feeling that other people were having it much better somewhere else. And as you get older you realise that that's rubbish and most people, no matter where they are, are having just as shit a time as you are. There's no miraculous lost bohemian partyzone in the world where poets sit around exchanging ideas. It just doesn't exist. So I can relax!"

Having said all that, he doesn't particularly regret his youthful egotism.

"I don't regret a thing," he laughs. "It was kind of necessary. In fact, I think in years to come our '90s output will be regarded as a towering edifice of folly - wonderful but mad. But I fully intend for our Noughties output to be of equal significance. In the early days I was so full of myself that I said that pop was just one of the many things that I was going to end up doing - writing symphonies, blah, blah, blah (waves hand). But basically that was all crap."

Do you think you've lost confidence or gained wisdom?

"I don't think that I've lost confidence, I've just realised that I never had it in the first place as far as anything apart from the act of writing songs was concerned. Now I feel that basically the one thing I have to offer humanity is a good tune with some interesting words (laughs). If that's all I can do then that's not a problem. I used to really believe that I was going to change musical history but you get a much better overview with time and you realise that musical history changes infinitesimally over the years and everything is basically a rip-off of everything else, and it just gradually moves in a very slow way. And for all we know... (pauses) I'm pretty sure that rock 'n' roll is a dead art now, but we don't know that yet. In a hundred years time people will look back and go, 'what were all those people doing still playing guitars?'"

Is the Divine Comedy a band or are they your band?

"Every record we do we become more of a band and with this one, it just is. And that's the majority of the reason why it sounds the way it does. Because I came in to rehearsals with just songs written on an acoustic guitar, and I'd never really done that before. It was mostly forced on me by the fact that we were moving house and I didn't have a four-track and keyboards to work with."

You wrote a lot of the new songs when you were on honeymoon, didn't you?

"I wrote a lot of lyrics because I didn't have a guitar. But, yeah, I was really pleased with the ones I did. Sitting there overlooking the Pacific Ocean in our Mexican retreat on the cliff-top. Ooohh, very nice, very nice indeed (laughs)."

Regeneration was recorded over two months last summer in Nigel Godrich's London studio. The album had been scheduled to be recorded earlier in the year but the band opted to wait for Godrich to finish performing his Radiohead knob-twiddling duties rather than work with a different producer. Apparently he was worth the wait.

"He was just great," Hannon enthuses. "It was a dream come true for a start because I - we! - so admired his work. Just the quality of sound that he always got on his records was so wonderfully warm and out of the ordinary for today's scene. Because especially in 'indie' music - if there is such a thing anymore - there's a lot of very dodgy sound going on. It's all so kind of digital and techy, there's no humanity in it. But what I was pleasantly surprised by was his actual arrangement skills in a way, just by his man management."

Still he was an unusual choice of producer for a band not normally associated with loud and freaky guitars, was he not?

"It wasn't about putting freaky noises on it at all - though there are some very good freaky noises on it! - it was more about him being the arbiter of good taste in it all. Whenever we said things like, 'wouldn't it be great to have a horn section in there,' he'd be going, 'no, it'd be terrible!'(laughs). He was great for scraping off that thick layer of cheese that we'd always added, and just getting to the essence of the songs. It was like anti-producing really. On several occasions he told us, 'the problem with you guys is you play too well and you're too musician-like. In many ways it's quite handy but sometimes it gets in the way of actual spontaneity.' So it was more a question of him coaxing us to play badly sometimes, just chilling out."

Was there much alcohol consumed during the recording?

"All of that sort of thing," he grins, mischievously. "It was more a sort of bon-viveur atmosphere. We recorded it in a studio in St. John's Wood, just north of Regent's Park, and it was lovely. All through the summer, we just had nice and long sunny days. It was a nice open studio with big windows and we'd always just go out for top nosh. A happy time!"

Although the recording was a happy experience, it must be said that the album itself isn't a particularly happy affair - certainly not by previous Divine Comedy Carry On standards. There are a couple of upbeat, uptempo moments ('Bad Ambassador' and first single 'Love What You Do' are two that spring immediately to mind), but his lyrical wit has wilted slightly, and there's an undeniable air of detached melancholy on a few of the songs, a sense - and acceptance - of life passing by. A new seriousness, a new way of looking at things.

'Timestretched' bemoans the fact that "There's not enough lines on the stave/To capture the music I crave." 'Mastermind' notes that "We all need reassurance/as we play life's game of endurance." Elsewhere 'Eye Of The Needle' mournfully observes that "The cars in the churchyard/Are shiny and German/Completely at odds with/The theme of the sermon." When I mention that that's a rather strange sentiment coming from the son of a preacherman, Hannon denies he was bashing his Bishop (snigger).

"It's more about me," he explains. "It comes from sitting in church when I was younger. I used to be in the choir and during communion, they passed us on either side on the way up to the communion rail so there would be a constant stream while we sort of sang an anthem or two. Sometimes we counted them all for our dad - to see how many people came in that day.

"Basically, when I was thinking about it and writing the song, it just occurred to me that it was a bit like they were trying to squeeze themselves through the eye of a needle, you know, because - not so much in Fermanagh but certainly over here, you do see a lot of very nice automobiles outside churches, because it's a thing you do sociably. And I just wondered how many of them actually gave a toss about the whole thing."

Do you still go to church?

"No," he shakes his head. "But I'm not at all averse to religion, really I'm not. I definitely understand the concept of the soul, but the concept of God doesn't really work for me. I just think the whole universe is far too random for someone to be up there going, (hand on chin), 'hmmm, what's my next move?'"

Another track, 'Dumb It Down' sees Hannon taking a pop at the crassness of most contemporary culture ("Intelligence is dangerous/A virus of the brain you pass around").

"'Dumb It Down' is based on coming home from the studio and there not being anything on telly," he explains. "Because I've got sixty channels on it and generally there's not much happening. The one thing I'm scared about is people getting the wrong end of the stick with that song and thinking that I'm being a total snob. It's not about that at all. In fact, I was watching this programme - I watch a lot of TV! - which was a debate by 'intellectuals' about dumbing down and whether it actually was existing and I came heavily down on the side of those who were firmly based in popular culture and not the total twats who were coming from the supposed arts side of it all. There was one guy saying to the producer of Big Brother, 'you have betrayed your class!' It's just insane, all of this hysteria, which I never want to be a party to."

Still, there's a lot of shite out there masquerading as "Art" - especially in pop music.

"Well you're right, there is," he concurs. "And that does worry me, that it's really hard to find good quality contemporary art. And I firmly believe that pop is art. It can't fail to be because you're sitting down creating something - it's just whether it's good or bad. And it's getting bad. But a lot of these people were saying that pop music couldn't be art because it was motivated by money. Money's really not the only factor at play though."

Are you wealthy post-Parlophone?

"Em... I'm medium well off," he laughs. "Certainly, I'm not in any great danger of imminent penury, but I'm nowhere near what... em, your average pop star is on."

One prospective lyrical theme not addressed on Regeneration is the Northern Troubles (which he has tackled previously on Fin De Siècle). Is Neil Hannon watching developments in the peace process with any great interest?

"I was but then it all seemed to kind of dissipate. I'm not sure that anybody knows what's happening now. But I'm always interested obviously, and I'm always hopeful."

Did you ever know anybody who's been killed by terrorists?

"Never a first degree of separation kind of person, but two degrees definitely - loads. People's brothers and fathers and that kind of thing. But there's just as much psychological damage done by the troubles, as there is physical. I think every person who's ever lived there has been affected by them."

Are you happier living in London?

"It's not a question about being happier in London. It removes a level of anxiety. I'm not sure whether that's good or bad. I don't feel particularly at home in London but then I never felt particularly at home in Northern Ireland. I've probably always felt a bit misplaced generally (laughs). Northern Irish people are just stunning - stunningly charismatic and fascinating. And I'm very proud to be one, because there's definitely something slightly twisted in the mindset. But I'm pretty sure I'll end up living in Ireland again, though I doubt it'll be the north."

Are you part of any kind of scene in London? Do you go to many celeb parties?

"I know some celebs, yes, and very nice celebs they are too," he grins. "I think celebrity is a bad word because anybody can be a celebrity these days. Fame is recognition, you want people to go, 'yes, you're very good - well done!' But I have very little interest in mass banks of photographers taking pictures of you, em, opening envelopes. Although I do go to the odd party like that because they can be fun. It's definitely nice to meet people of like mind. I think anybody in any walk of life likes to hang out with people in the same field because then they've got something to talk about."

Do you enjoy talking to the press?

"'Enjoy' is the wrong word," he muses. "I'm not anti it. Sometimes it's interesting because you start to realise what you actually think when you start to talk about it. Other times there's nothing you'd rather do than just stand up and walk. Especially when you get very stupid people in the world of local radio.

"But I think the biggest kick for me is just writing the songs in the first place. And when it actually appears is quite nice as well. Performance is different though. I have no idea how to perform this album - every night's gonna be different for quite a while and there's gonna be lots of awkward moments. I was awkward all through last night because there's very little of it where I'm not playing guitar. And it's acoustic which is a very different thing from playing electric. It's a little worrying."

For all his worrying, however, Neil Hannon claims to be a very happy man these days. Happily married, happy with his work, happy with his lot in life. Thoroughly regenerated?

"Yeah, I am. I'm much more at ease with my place in the world than I was a while back. I feel I can get on much better with my work these days. Two or three years ago it felt like we were grappling around for our place in things - you know, we should be up there, we're gonna make the world see sense, or whatever. But I think we're kind of got to the stage where we've realised that you've gotta let people come to you, though it might take a while. But we're prepared."

A few hours later, I hook up with Hannon again backstage in the Empire, where the Divine Comedy have just finished playing a Regeneration-heavy set to a packed and expectant house. While the audience obviously cheered loudest and longest for the songs they already knew (of which there weren't many - they didn't play any oldies until six numbers in when 'Generation Sex' tore the roof off), crowd response to the new songs was hugely positive and the relief on his face is palpable. They liked the songs - whew! In fact, all of the band look pleased. They know that this is a risky record for them, but, if reaction to tonight's show was an indicator of anything, it looks like they'll be keeping most of their fan base - and hopefully even adding some more.

"You look pleased with yourself," I joke, as Hannon pops a champagne cork off the ceiling and onto Mike Edgar's head.

"I am, yeah," he laughs. "Somebody just told me I looked like a skateboarder. And that obviously means I must be looking reasonably young - hee, hee. That's good!"

Suits you, sir. Or not, as the case may be.

Divine Comedy play Dublin Castle on Sat May 5th as part of the Heineken Green Energy Festival. Regeneration is out now on Parlophone.

Thanks to Bad Bobs, Temple Bar for the photo shoot location.
Olaf Tyaransen
Hot Press 15/03/2001