a short site about The Divine Comedy

The Fire Starter

Neil Hannon sacked his entire band to rekindle his passion fro music. Now the Divine Comedy man is getting warmed up, finds Matthew Magee

"It did end up with me and Ă“rla and Donna Air and a couple of All Saints and that actor from Shakespeare In Love -- Joseph Fiennes -- in some hotel room just spouting crap at each other," says Neil Hannon, the floppy-haired fop behind nobby-pop crooners The Divine Comedy. A less likely candidate for Heat magazine treatment is hard to imagine, but it turns out that Hannon loves the glittering ephemera of fame. "It's quite good fun." Shame on him.

If this glittery, shallow aspect to Hannon's persona comes as a surprise, there are more. At a creative and personal crossroads, Hannon is making all sorts of revelations and decisions, not all of them predictable.

Last autumn, frustrated at the creative cul-de-sac he had backed into, Hannon fired his entire band. He nearly ditched the Divine Comedy name too, but kept it because Neil, he says, "is not a good rock star name". He also became father to brand new baby girl Willow, and is right now in America playing nightly to audiences that have never heard of him.

What is surprising and a little disappointing about Hannon in the flesh is the gulf between his smart, supercilious, bookish persona and his actual personality. Hannon is the man whose song titles are as arch as Death Of A Supernaturalist, When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe or Neptune's Daughter, and whose records have artsy titles like Liberation, Promenade and Fin de Siecle. But he is not, in fact, a savage intellect doling out ironic, icy wit all around him.

In fact he seems no smarter than your average pop star (he needs to be told the difference between aesthetic and ascetic: "Which one is the loincloth wilderness one? Right, I'm not the loincloth one.") It is a disappointment.

In fact, there is some affinity between Hannon in the flesh and his undergraduate fans, from the Fast Show-isms (What has he been up to? "I have mostly been being the co-carer of the baby"), to the stereotyping asides (Is he rich? "Christ no. We'll be in poverty in a couple of years, especially the way my wife shops"; cue conspiratorial laugh), to the surprisingly bland nature and expression of his ambitions ("with Fin de Siecle I was trying to write, like, the album of the millennium", though to his credit he was making the point that it was all a little over indulgent). Add the lank, long hair, the put-upon air and the commonly used verge-of-sarcasm tone and what you have is a far cry from pop's heir to Noel Coward. Knowing, sophisticated elan is, in fact, notable by its absence. So why did he fire his entire band last year?

"The band had kind of grown up doing records since about 1995-96, and in the middle of last year I began to get that feeling that only happens every five years or so, you get that gently sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach and you try to suppress it for all you're worth until you can't any more," he says. "I think I just felt that suddenly this was not exactly what was making me happy and that I needed to get back to the situation where I was in total domineering control."

Hannon even feels he's compromised too much in work already made, even though Divine Comedy records are works of some, usually successful, indulgence.

"I had ideas of going further down a more aesthetic route which I just didn't do. Now I want to get a bit more; there are ambitions musically that I have to achieve. Don't get me wrong, I love pop music, it's the one thing that always goes throughout my music.

"I've been addicted to it since I was six. For all my disparate influences, I always want to make music that's essentially about four minutes long and has a very simple idea behind it and creates a simple, immediate emotional response. I just want to create it in ways that are, well, I want to do it with all the wrong instruments."

He has already started recording his next album, set for a new year release ("you don't want to get into that Christmas market"), and says that it is quieter than the slightly bombastic Regeneration.

"There's no drum kit, there's no bass guitar, there's no electric guitar, but that doesn't rule anything out, because what I react most badly against is the rules beyond belief in pop music these days as to what you're allowed to do. I get annoyed by the idea that as soon as you don't use those rules suddenly you're 'unplugged' and 'acoustic', and that's not what it's all about."

He has, in the end, decided to keep the Divine Comedy name ("I thought it just fits very aptly what comes out of my head. So I'm probably stuck with it for life," he says, genuinely glum) and will now try to stay on the celebrity circuit.

"They're all stupid. You do have to realise that it is all utterly meaningless," he says, unconvincingly, later letting slip that, "I still look forward to continued pop stardom; I hope that that doesn't go away because I kind of enjoy going to parties."

The Divine Comedy play The Liquid Room on August 8 and Glasgow Barrowland on October 1

Matthew Magee
Sunday Herald 04/08/2002