a short site about The Divine Comedy

Mr Hannon's Divine Intervention - Sharp Dressed Renaissance Man

Derry-born Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy is the epitome of renaissance cool. He has created his own musical world soaked in the elegance of some bygone era with its romance, charm, wit and classical decadence – a breath of originality in these copycat times. Hannon talks about his new album ‘Fin de Siècle’ (End of the Century) and his reluctant rise to stardom at the end of this century.

Hannon is in a relaxed and somewhat jovial mood which is only to be expected. Just 24 hours ago he played at the Reading Festival, following the performance with a midnight album launch show at a Virgin Record Store. The Divine Comedy have never been the darlings of the pop press but ‘Fin de Siècle’ is nonetheless being well received. “Yes, everything seems to be going swimmingly,” Hannon stated confidently. I mention stardom and all its trappings and how he was coping with it – “Which trappings would that be exactly?”, he giggles, “I never expected that there would be quite so much work involved in being a pop star, but mustn’t grumble.” Nice work if you can get it – he reveals that he does not exactly get mobbed in the streets. “In fact, I can walk around the streets of Clapham in perfect anonymity,” he declared. Well not for much longer, I add encouragingly. “Well that’s what I said two years ago,” he quips.

Many of us flirted with the idea of becoming pop / rock stars at some stage in our early teens. Mr. Hannon, however, did not really want to be a pop star without having any particular reason for it. “It was only when I started writing songs that I thought: hang on, maybe I could make some money with these. I kinda’ convinced myself over the years that I would be able to do it.” When The Divine Comedy first got a record deal back in 1990, Hannon was in his late teens and they were more akin to a long haired indie band than what we know as The Divine Comedy today. The rest of the band departed after a year, however, leaving Hannon to record three albums – the first two can be found in bargain bins, but the third Casanova went Gold. It was during this time that he developed his unique musical style and dress sense. Images of smoking jackets and cigarette holders sum up this ‘Casanova’ period.

Hannon’s musical style has no real precedent – it’s almost from another time but had found a niche in the army pants and trainer trip-hop 90’s. Hannon explains: ‘I can’t think of anybody that doing, or has done, the same thing as me – not that I’m saying I’m a complete original, it’s just that I don’t set out to do just do the opposite of everyone else, it just happened that way.’ Fin de Siècle is a lot more serious than previous Divine Comedy album, but it still retains Hannon’s ironic sense of humour – it’s just not as obvious. Hannon denies that the album is a comment on the 20th Century, insisting that it is more observational – “A little vignette’, he laughs. He is not unduly worried about the 21st Century and does not think that there’s going to be a major apocalypse.

Both his music and dress style portray him as a suave sophisticate with romantic overtones. Is this a conscious image? “The only conscious image I have at the moment is that I wear a suit and look a bit like a funeral director. I’ve purposely got rid of the smoking jacket and cigarette holder and things like that – the days of Casanova are gone!” he adds adamantly. No article on Mr Hannon is complete these days without reference to the playwright Noel Coward. The Divine Comedy recorded a song for ‘The Noel Coward Tribute Album’ recently, but Hannon insists that he was never terribly influenced by him. ‘Coward was a brilliant writer and performer and a lot more of a renaissance man that I’ll ever be; I can’t act or write plays,” he adds.

The music on Fin de Siècle is a combination of great song writing and wonderful music, some of which border on the Wagnerian at times. He finds writing the lyrics more difficult and usually composes the music first – Joby Talbot the piano player arranged further orchestrations in what Hannon describes as – two tiers of complication. Hannon puts the increasing popularity of his music down to the fact that he writes good tunes. “No one writes good tunes anymore,” he laughs. The album sleeve contains images from a Russian war memorial in Vienna. The ‘Fin de Siècle’ was an art movement prevalent at the end of the last century which included Art Nouveau artists such as Aubrey Beardsley and Gustave Klimt among others. Vienna was the focal point for the movement so Hannon went to Vienna. “I mean it’s not like I’m making any big statements; I just go to places because the vibe seems right. We went to Venice for Casanova because he was born there, for no other reason,” he explains.

Hannon, the son of a Church of Ireland Bishop, was born in Derry in 1970, the third of three sons. He tended to ‘keep his head down’ and shut out the Troubles while growing up in Northern Ireland. We talk about him being from Northern Ireland and if it bothers him when people ask him about it. “It depends on the mood I’m in – I’m not in the mood at the moment (laughs). I’m proud to be from Northern Ireland,” he adds defiantly. ‘Sunrise’, the last track on the album is the first reference to Northern Ireland in his music. It is basically a song of hope and I ask him is that how he feels about the situation there now. Long pause… “I don’t know anymore; it’s impossible to say. I mean the song is hopeful because what’s the point in writing a pessimistic song,” he declares.

On the first single ‘Generation Sex’ there an interesting song called ‘London Irish’. Hannon got the idea for the song while at London Irish’s final game of the season last year which they won, keeping them in the first division. Hannon is not an ardent rugby fan not is the song about rugby, he was just happy and decided to write a song – “They love the sun but pray for rain, the London Irish” – it goes. The alum is dedicated to the memory of Dermot Morgan and two other people who dies during the making of the album. “We just thought it was the right thing to do.” The Divine Comedy composed the theme tune to Father Ted, but Hannon did not know Morgan particularly well. Talking about bands today – Hannon thinks Radiohead are the best band in the world and likes ‘dancy stuff’ like Underworld and bands like Bently Rhythm Ace.

He comes across as being witty and charming, but with a certain down-to-earthiness which suggests that he still has a firm grip on reality. I ask him the ridiculous – where does he see himself in ten years time? “Probably playing in Blackpool in spangly suits, I don’t know. Do you know where you’ll be in ten years time?” he asks.

Me!... In the words of Homer Simpson: “DoH!”

Michéal Coughlan
Rí-Rá 09/1998