a short site about The Divine Comedy

Divine Comedy Interview

Neil Hannon admits to having spent the last three years not only writing and recording new songs but also “changing nappies”. However, the fact that he’s now happily a dad hasn’t taken anything away from his sharp wit, his tongue-in-cheek humor or the expanse of his songwriting style. He latest release, Absent Friends, was written during an influx of upheaval in Hannon’s life: the disbanding of his former Divine Comedy lineup, extensive US touring, the birth of his child, and moving from London to Dublin. This chain of events certainly proved to be divine inspiration for the album’s themes of coming, going and not being sure of where one wants to be.

How many musicians are you bringing on the road with you when you tour this spring and summer?
There’s 15 in the band this time. It seems that the number of people in the band directly corresponds to the number of dates. If you’re doing fifteen dates, you’ve got 5 people in the band, and when you’ve got 15 people in the band, you do 5 dates. (laughs) It’s a financial equation.

It seems that you’re playing some pretty big places this time around, like the London Palladium… are these bigger venues than usual?
Actually, they’re not that much bigger then what we’re used to do. They’re just kind of nicer, plusher… and a bit out of the way of the sort of gothy, rock and roll things that we used to do.

So these must be sit-down venues as well?
Absolutely. In the London Palladium, our night is sandwiched between that of Chitty Chitty Bang Band… we’re in good company.

It’s been a while since your last release. Had you taken some time off or were you just taking your time to make the album exactly the way you wanted it to be?
To my knowledge, I haven’t had a lot of time off. It’s all been pretty much work, work, work, part from the fatherhood bit, which took out quite a lot of time. No, I haven’t been idling (laughs). The last three years have just been changing nappies, writing songs and recording them.

I was wondering if the album title and title track ‘Absent Friends’ is meant to say something about your inspirations, or indebtedness to those who came before you in literature, film, etc.?
Actually, it’s not as clever as that, sad to say. With the song ‘Absent Friends’, it’s for the listener as well as for me… it’s about remembering people. They are worth remembering for the fact that they’re rather unremembered. Well, Stave McQueen obviously is, but… I had to cut about 30 or 40 verses of that song – it was so much fun to write the little five-line verses with a different character in each. The trick was actually editing it down to five.

I’m glad you chose Oscar Wilde as one of the character. He’s certainly worth remembering.
I put Oscar in there primarily because my fans had been dismayed with his being omitted from ‘The Book Lovers’, on my second album, Promenade. It knocks the socks off actually being mentioned in ‘Book Lovers’ – his verse is best. (laughs).
And since you’re from Ireland, it makes sense that you mention him.
Actually, I went to the same school as him.
Oh, right. I think I’ve read that recently. That’s pretty cool.
Yeah, him and Samuel Beckett, and a lot of other people who weren’t actually very famous at all (laughs).
Well, when you have Wilde and Beckett, those are two of the best, so who needs more?
Yeah, not bad… not much for a musical tradition though.

Where were the photos for the album artwork taken – it looks like an old, fabulous Irish house?
Yeah, the house shots were all in a early Georgian period house in the North side, about 1730-esque. It was a pleasant stage, sort of mid-refurbishment. It was kind of moth-eaten, down at the heels, so it seemed to fit the mood.
Yes. Gorgeous. Had you thought about that whole look and mood when you were writing the songs or did at all come together at the end?
Actually, it’s always a bit last minute. I really sort of concentrate so hard on the music, and from there springs everything else, hopefully. I wish I had thought about it before. We had meetings… people trying to work you where we should do it… Sweden or Barcelona or wherever… In the end, I thought, “Hell with this. Let’s do it up the road.” I think this is album is quite a ‘me and where I am’ kind of album, so it would be weird to go to a foreign field to do it.

When you wrote the melodies for the new songs, do you work them out on both guitar and piano?
It is a bit of both, really. Usually, I come up with some sort of idea on one or the other, and then when I run out of inspiration on one instrument, I play it on the other. That usually sort of takes it somewhere else. Arranging it obviously takes it even further in a bizarre direction.
It seems like it would be so difficult to come up with some of those arrangements and orchestrations, but I guess you’re used to doing that by now.
Yes, it’s been a long time in the learning. I couldn’t possibly have made this recording five years ago. But I can take it a certain amount myself, and then I get my friend Joby Talbot to finish the orchestration, because he knows how to write notes (laughs).

Your song, ‘The Wreck’ conjures a Doors kind of feeling. That sort of epic grandeur, I guess… and your vocals are a bit reminiscent of Jim Morrison.
Oh really? Yeah, he liked his theatrical stuff, didn’t he? My wife is the biggest Doors fan on the planet. She’s rather obsessed.
Oh really? So perhaps he did creep in there without you realizing it after all (laughs).

Was ‘Happy Goth’ based on someone you know?
I don’t know quite where I got the title from, maybe I saw a goth smiling, I don’t know (laughs). But it seemed like a paradox, really. I developed it into a dialogue between the parent and the teenager. It doesn’t desperately need to be a goth. That is just the sort of jokey surface… it’s more about teenagers locking themselves away, and parents getting worried. It’s a self-help song for parents. You know, they just need to chill out a bit. It’s important, really. It’s a voyage of self-discovery and it’s actually very satisfying – that dwelling on miserableness (laughs).
Right. I guess we all went through that (laughs). And we all come through okay.
All the sensible people did. Yeah, it’s not even a question of it being a phase, it’s just something you’ve got to do.

I really like your video for the single ‘Come Home Billy Bird’…
Oh. Where did you see it?
On your website.
Yes, I think that’s the only place people can see it (laughs).
Do they plat your videos on MTV2 in the UK?
No, we’re not indie enough for MTV2 and we’re not pop enough for all the other channels. We sort of fall between the two, video-wise. Yet we’re being massively played on the radio, so it’s a bit odd. The video scenario is a bit awkward, and TV is a hole for us. I just like making good videos. We’re trying at least. …It’s always tricky to know where it’s going to be played. The sorts of videos I have ambitions to make wouldn’t get played on anything.
Why? They would be too edgy?
Not edgy. They would probably be just a bit boring for the casual viewer. I like less editing, longer images.
That would be nice for a change. The things we’re used to seeing these days are so quick you can’t tell what you just saw.
Exactly. It seems to be a way of avoiding meaning. If you cut it quick enough, then people will just get a general feeling of excitement. I want people to actually glean something of some import.
That’s also why your video really stood out. And not just for those stripy socks (laugh).
I have to stress that they were from the wardrobe lady.
Well, they did go with the whole theme.
Absolutely. Because for businessmen, the one way of showing your individuality is through your ties and socks.
Exactly. And I liked the retro airline touches in the video as well.
They’re very clever people who made it, a French duo… Have you seen the Spielberg move Catch Me If You Can? They did the opening titles – those sorts of 50’s, cartoony things. They are pretty top notch.
When you’re touring and whatnot, do you like to travel or do you find the airport part a bore or stressful?
I think the bulk of my airline travail in on promo trips. I do an endless triangle – Dublin to London to Paris to Dublin. I don’t mind it. I just get into a routine. That’s where I feel some fellowship with the business traveler.

I image that since your CD is coming out here in the U.S. this spring, you’ll be playing some shows here as well.
We’re definitely going to do shows in the U.S. soon. I think we’re released in June, so we’re going to have to get over there and do some crazy things… see local press for details. Oh, that’s you (laughs).

Cleo Merode
Sentimentalist 08/2004