a short site about The Divine Comedy

Divine Inspiration

Out of the limelight while producing their latest album, Susan Corrigan shines the spotlight on Divine Comedy’s lead singer, Neil Hannon.

On a grey sofa, in a grey office, deep within the bowels of his record company, frontman Neil Hannon curls himself into a tiny little ball, chin balanced on knees, urchin-style. The body language says it’s time for introspection but he’s as glib and self-deprecated as ever – which makes praising his group, The Divine Comedy, a difficult business. A bit like admiring you mate’s frock only to hear, “Pah! This old thing?”

My problem is that I love parties but I hate being a ‘celeb’. It means having your picture in a tabloid with Donna Air.

Lordy. Isn’t she the one who actually asked the Corrs how they met? “I heard that too! How cool; she’s really just a stock example,” demurs Neil. “And the worst thing is that when I go to these places I always look appalling!

Neil Hannon is not getting away with modesty – false or otherwise – today. There’s just too much to explain, whether it’s about his group’s new album Regeneration or the style shift causing him to abandon the besuited dandy image that transformed him into Indie pin-up material way back when Something For The Weekend was released. From that moment on, the group could do no wrong: an instrumental version of one of their songs was chosen by long-time fans Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews as the theme for their own divine comedy, Father Ted, followed by a string of lush, densely arranged orchestral hits that capitalised on – and capitulated to – an audience looking for highbrow action and pure showbiz.

By the time the rest of the pop world had discovered a crasser version of showbiz, Neil and co were off to pastures new. Swapping their tiny, Irish-run record company Setanta for the big-biz world of major label Parlophone (labelmates include Kylie, The Pet Shop Boys and Blur), it was clear to Neil that nothing less than a back-to-basics approach was going to keep him engaged. “One risks blanding out, but frankly that’s not what we’ve done,” he claims. Thus, Regeneration is a quietly confident blend of melodic lyricism with the guitars thrust to the front of the mix. “It’s a harder record in many ways than past ones; we’re trying to keep vital and maintain our creativity – which becomes impossible doing things in the same old style.

It was also a massive risk: usually, bands who go to major labels are pressed into recreating their biggest hit over and over again. The artist often becomes a cliché, a shadow of the figure who won all the plaudits. Neil was determined this wouldn’t happen to his group. “With Fin de Siècle, we’d hit a brick wall on that whole conceptual/orchestral trip. It got bigger than we did and I found that my brain was slowly consuming itself. Now that record sounds really bizarre and over-the-top to me and I can barely listen to it.

I mean, I still like it because it’s very much what I was like at the time, but my problem was that the style of what we were doing was beginning to outweigh the content. And that was beginning to play on people’s minds.

To remedy this, Neil went shopping for producers and was sold on Nigel Godrich, the genius Radiohead producer. The great man’s chocka diary gave the group space to breathe and time to evolve. “We had to wait a while year for Nigel - Making Plans For Nigel was one possible LP title but I preferred Waiting For Godrich,” Neil sniggers. “We’d auditioned three producers and he was the right one for the job – it’s something you know instinctively. You need someone who’s able to keep a firm hand in the studio when the arrangements get opened out to the whole band. Without him, it could have been a complete free for all. None of us knew what was going to come out the other end, so it was a nice surprise to have such a great album at the end. It was really like liberating because all of our previous albums I’d demo-ed out beforehand. This time I wanted to get everyone’s personalities on the record.

Neil is now adamant that the labour is shared between himself and the serried ranks of talented musicians in his group.

Neil’s sharing sofa space with the group’s drummer, Rob Farrer, who agrees. “Back then, various figures would appear in the control room, say “oh, that’s nice,” and it didn’t mean a great deal. Doing it this way has really given us a new lease of life. We played in Portsmouth the other day and were chilled by the rows of signed photos from just about every group that had played there over the last eight or ten years. And some of them had even started after we did, had their couple of hits and then…pfft! What are they doing now?” Indeed.

The truth is, we were always a ‘real’ band,” Neil insists. “The best part is that everyone has more of a vested interest now. Before, just being given directions, it was probably a struggle to give a shit. Artistically involved is the only way to be.

Also, the group were wiser than many counterparts who try to be a group first, only to have one member break from the pack. “Now there are so many ways to get music and most of it is rubbish! There’s only one way to counter that – by making good music. A lot of people who have entered the music business through bands over the last 10 years or so have just seen it as a way to get famous and rich. That’s really offensive to me somehow.

And when you were a teenager, Neil? Between peals of laughter: “I wanted to be a famous popstar, and very rich!

Neil has never been snotty – a subtlety that won hordes of admirers, including Robbie Williams. Yessir, even the god of British light entertainment came a-knowkin’ and Neil wasn’t the type to blow off the ex-teen idol’s invitation to tour. “He just claimed to adore us, which was cool, so we toured with him for a month. Even when the venues were half full, there were still 10,000 people to play to. It was important to do and it gave us a Top 10 hit.

Sitting in a plushish boardroom, Neil says he wants a return to the values that excited him in the first place. “I mean, please God – the return of indie would be a good thing!” he mewls. “Yeah, so what if it was cliquish and introverted – there’s nothing worse than the NME courting ‘celebs’. Basically, it’s all Oasis’s fault! They made lots of boring guitar bands think “hey, we can make loads of cash, be rock’n’roll stars and lots of It Girls will want to shag us!” So it turned into something no different from any other form of pop. There’s no avant-garde left – not that we’re pretending to be avant-garde, at least we’re giving originality a shot!

He also spurned all the dodgy offers most nascent pop idols get, silly showbiz parties aside. “All of the 10 times I’ve ever been sent a script for a film, it’s always for a dodgy sex comedy or some Britflick. When I’m given something outside the group that’s literally like nothing I’ve ever seen before, I might do it. Like Spike Jonze or Terry Gilliam – far out.

Luckily, the response to Regeneration has been pleading, although Neil admits trepidation leading up to its release. “We don’t really know how our audience had changed… which worries us! In the shows we’ve played so far, all the old hardcore of fans are there. Folding their arms, looking at you like “are you sure you want to be doing that?”” he laughs, clearly kidding. “Despite themselves, they still like the music. It’s still us, doing it for the same good reasons.

Susan Corrigan
Strapt ??/2001