The Divine Comedy is Neil Hannon, timeless dude, snappy dresser, clever wordsmith, humourist and gifted musician. He’s been making music for 30 years - you may know him from his theme tune to the IT Crowd, perennial favourite My Lovely Horse, or even spotted him singing at the recent Bowie Prom. Or how ‘bout that great song, National Express? So many bangers. Anyway. The Divine Comedy have got a brand new album out this month and it’s chuffing brilliant. They’re also playing at Open, so I grabbed the opportunity to speak to Neil himself about The Jungle Book, donkeys and buses.
You were born in Northern Ireland back in the 70’s, and your dad was a Bishop. Were hymns your first experience of music, and did you grow up in a musical household?
I did grow up with church music but it wasn’t rammed down my throat – we just went to church on Sundays. I was in the choir eventually, and it was a good way of working out harmonies, and how the different parts weave in and out of each other. But really my first experience of music was listening to The Jungle Book. I think The Bare Necessities has had a large influence on my work!
Can you remember back to when you wrote your very first songs?
Kind of, it’s all a bit blurry now but I started trying to write things when I was 12 or 13. It only took about five or six years for them to be listenable! It’s hard, writing songs, and I think people these days warble a bit and pretend they’ve written a song. You’ve got to put a bit more work in than that, and I think I’ve done my time. Thirty years, man and boy!
Your new album Foreverland has just come out – why that title?
God, I have no idea why! That’s funny isn’t it! I have no memory of that occasion. Usually I can pinpoint where things come from but not that one. Perhaps it happened in a dream and assigned itself to the album when I wasn’t looking! There are a lot of titles out that end in ‘land’…Wonderland, Adventureland, things like that…so I was a bit dubious but when we’d finished the artwork no other title felt appropriate. It does kind of sum up the idea of the album.
You wrote, arranged and produced this album yourself. Do you have some choice people that you trust to run the songs past whilst you’re working on them other than the band?
Oh I never play them to those guys! Ha Ha! They can just bloody play them! I trust my own ears more than anyone else’s, I have to say that. It’s not ego, it’s just it’s my record and I know what I like, so if it’s not fulfilling the criteria of making me happy then it’s not right. I occasionally play them to my girlfriend who’s also a singer, but she’s just ridiculously harsh! It’s slightly dispiriting. And I also play them to my manager Natalie, who’s more a voice of the people and of radio, saying “you can’t say that in a song’!. But I ignore most people.
It’s been six years since the last The Divine Comedy album – how long have you been working on these songs?
I’d say I started about three years ago and I consciously told myself not to put it out before I was entirely happy with it. That would seem like an obvious thing to do but in the past I’ve tended to get bored and just sort of said that’ll do, let’s put it out. Also there have been economic pressures to put out an album; these days there are economic pressures to not put out an album! Don’t just throw your money away! It’s got to count! But I still want to make records because I still feel like I want to, and I’ll just do long tours to pay for it!
There’s a bit of a historical slant to the album, with songs about the foreign legion, Catherine the Great and Napoleon. Is history something you’re particularly interested in?
A little bit. I don’t know quite how that happened! I suppose things occur to me and I think that’s cool, and I put it in. There’s no reason for it, it’s just a way of talking about stuff whilst not talking about it at the same time. I’m not trying to hide anything I just thing people would get terribly bored if I just said it straight out. I get a little frustrated with overly sincere lyrics.
The final track on the album, The One Who Loves You in an excellent track – it feels like it’s straight from your heart and is less lyrically complex than some of your other songs. You write some truly beautiful love songs but they are generally done in a very self deprecating and coy manner. Do you find you use humour to hide your true feelings in your songs?
Partly, like a lot of Irish people do, but also I don’t use humour deliberately, it just happens in the songs because it’s a way in which we communicate really. Also, I find a lot of stuff funny that maybe other people don’t. I find people funny, how they act, and I find myself funny. That sounds terrible, like I laugh at my own jokes, but no, I’m amused by how stupid I can be. I don’t necessarily use it to try to hide anything..in fact quite often I use it to explain things.
Other People is an intriguing number, very different to the other songs. How come you decided on the unusual form of this particular song?
It’s a weird one because I wrote the words in a hotel room in London, came up with a tune and needed to just put it down before I forgot it so I sang it into my phone. When I listened to it again six months later I thought it sounded pretty cool, the vocals sounded good, and I couldn’t think of ay other words! So I thought wouldn’t it be funny if I put that alongside a 30 piece string ensemble. And it worked!
I’m sure I can hear a donkey on How Can You Leave Me On My Own?
Yeah, that’s Wayne. We have a couple of donkeys in our vast menagerie of animals, and Wayne had already wheedled his way in to that song – I could hear him braying when I played the song back when I was recording it at home. I though to myself well that kind of works thematically with this moany song! So I went and shook some food in his general direction and recorded the results.
You’ve done some sterling work for TV shows and films including My Lovely Horse from Father Ted, So Long And Thanks For All The Fish for the Hitch Hikers film and also the theme to The It Crowd. Which TV theme do you wish you had written yourself?
Oh god…umm. There are some fantastic themes from the golden age, but I’d love to have written a Reggie Perrin, or Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, or another sitcom from the 70’s. I kind of miss those themes these days – I feel like modern TV, and comedies especially miss having a hook. They tend to be just a 10 second splurge of noise and it’s just completely unmemorable. They did these things for a reason in the old days, and it wasn’t a bad idea!
I have to ask about the song National Express – it is of course a favourite of mine. Did National Express ever approach you to ask if they could use it, because if they didn’t that was a mistake.
Well they did on a regular basis over four or five years. Whenever a new National Express CEO came on board they’d say “we should get get that fella who wrote the song!”. Ha ha ! We’d entertain their proposals for a while and then would always baulk. We don’t need the money that much and it changes the way people hear the song if you attach it to the product. So we never did. I’ll keep it as a little nest egg.
I think you are loved and admired for the fact you don’t take yourself too seriously, but also you take the band very seriously, to the extent that it has survived major line up changes, when at times only you were in the band! What keeps you going through the tough times?
Although some of the band formations were more ‘band-like’ than others, at the end of the day it’s always been my band, I’ve written all the songs and said what everybody should do. Sometimes they didn’t listen. But I have gone through many formations..when I broke up the ’96-2002 band I thought there’s no point in really having a band as such so I’ve formed groups out of musicians that I know and trust in London. We all get together every year or so and it’s fun but they all have loads of other jobs..in fact sometimes it’s very hard to get them.
Which of your new songs are you most looking forward to playing live?
I’ve had a crack at most of them already and they’re hard. How Can You Leave Me On My Own..I just can’t get the lyrics in the right order no matter how hard I try! For some reason those listy-type ones sometimes get all mashed up in your brain, but I’m sure I’ll have mastered them by the time I get to you!
You recently sang at the Bowie Prom at the Royal Albert Hall. What was that like?
That was great, I really enjoyed it. Basically it took me by surprise – they rang me up the Monday before the gig and I think other people had had time to realise that Station To Station was virtually impossible to sing. “Get that Neil Hannon, he’ll have a go!”
The Divine Comedy play at Open on 22nd October. Tickets available from ueatickets.ticketabc.com