The Divine Comedy,
interview by Alexander Laurence
The Divine Comedy, photographed by David Robinson, London
2000. Regeneration album shoot
The witty and smart songwriter, Neil Hannon was born in
Londonderry, Northern Ireland in November of 1970. Though
best know as frontman for the Divine Comedy, he also released
several critically acclaimed albums during the 1990s as
a solo artist. He is the one consistent member of The Divine
Comedy whose contributors are constantly changing, though
some members like Joby Talbot have been a mainstay since
During the late 1990s, Neil Hannon found himself collaborating
with other artists and finding success in the form of a
few hits songs. The Divine Comedy's album Casanova
had a few top 20 singles in 1996 including "Something
For The Weekend" and "Becoming More Like Alfie."
A few years later, their well-received fifth album Fin
De Siecle provided the band with the single "National
Express" that went all the way to number 8 on the charts.
Additionally, Hannon has worked with many great artists
in the music business including Tom Jones, Ute Lemper, Michael
Nyman, and Yann Tiersen to name a few.
Celebrating ten years as a band, Divine Comedy released
A Secret History: The Best of The Divine Comedy in
1999. With this album, the band ended their longtime relationship
with the Sentanta label and signed with Parlophone releasing
the appropriately titled Regeneration in 2001. Nigel
Godrich (Kid A) produced the distinctly different-sounding
record which was given mixed reviews and was darker in tone
than what many had come to expect from the band.
I met Neil Hannon in LA on his recent solo tour of the
United States. He was scheduled to play many small clubs
including Joe's Pub and Cafe Largo. This tour would be followed
immediately by a month-long tour with Ben Folds in March
of 2002. We walked around the neighborhood talking. The
smell of pollen was in the air.
What is your impression of the United States?
Neil: I have been here
before. I am doing this tour with Ben Folds. It's going
to go on forever. I'll be speaking like an American by the
time I leave. Usually I am here for five shows in New York
City, San Francisco, and LA, and then I don't come back
for three years. It's good to do a solid chunk of touring.
Maybe I will get over my fear of this country.
AL: Some bands won't
even bother to come over. You have the balls to come over
to play and look the American public in the eye and say
"Quit talking. Shut the fuck up!"
(laughs) Yeah. I can do that because I can only play tiny
shows here where you can get annoyed by people talking.
We've always had problems getting records released over
here. It was great to get this one out on Nettwerk Records.
We created a little buzz about three years ago, but we were
never able to follow it up over here. (we walk by a store)
Maybe we should go shopping?
AL: Is that what you
do when you are here? Go shopping?
Neil: No. That's what
my wife would do. We came over here about a year and a half
ago for a little holiday.
AL: So what happened
to your trademark suits? I remembered that I was shocked
two years ago when I saw you in London with trainers and
gym clothes on. You were rehearsing and waiting for Radiohead
to finish Kid A, so you could start on Regeneration
with Nigel Godrich. What has happened since that time?
Neil: We waited a long
time for them to finish Kid A. When they finally
did, we started the record with Nigel. He did have a forceful
hand, but he would never make us sound like Radiohead. Or
make us do what they do. He does other bands. He working
on the new Beck album.
AL: You wrote most
of the songs on acoustic guitar for this album. What was
the recording process like and how was it different than
Neil: What was mainly
different was that I wasn't acting as the leader. I didn't
lay down the law like I used to do. The idea was that people
should try different things. All of the band did contribute.
It was nice because it was the first time that I felt that
I was just the singer.
AL: You have abandoned
some of the wacky elements found on the past recordings
such as "National Express" and "Generation
Sex?" Are you worried you left some fans behind in
Neil: I hope that we
didn't leave anybody behind. I don't think it should be
an exclusive thing. You just have to make the record you
want to make, and hope that people will give you the time
of day. In Britain, the new album didn't seem to match up
to people's expectations. They wanted the same old orchestral
kitsch. You just have to try new stuff and keep evolving.
I thought that this would be a good next step. I didn't
sit down and think "Okay, I am not going to make any
jokes." It's just what came out. I was in a more contemplative
AL: Yeah, there is a
darker tone to some tracks like "Regeneration"
and "Eye of The Needle."
Neil: Maybe in the
past, some of the songs that were dark, were melodramatically
dark. There were still a lot of dark things. Maybe I just
hid them better. The song "Here Comes The Flood"
is apocalyptic and dark. But yet, you wouldn't think about
it because it set to a Broadway big band scenario. It's
almost like a James Bond theme. I suppose that there is
less hiding it on this album. That's what Nigel wanted to
achieve. He wanted to strip away the more cheesy and kitsch
elements and get to the bottom of the meaning. I love how
AL: This time out you
didn't quote any lines from film, like you did before with
Neil: This time I didn't
watch as many movies. (Laughter) It's amazing that we have
brilliantly walked around a few blocks and we have yet to
find a cafe. A cup of coffee would be great.
AL: I think that we
are coming up to a Starbucks. Do you feel that you are walking
around in circles in life?
Neil: It's others who
are leading me astray.
AL: I've never been
in this part of town before. What do you think of this neighborhood?
Neil: It's cool. I can
smell the cut grass. You don't see this sort of stuff. One
street is totally commercial and the next one is residential.
You don't get that in London.
AL: Do you read a lot
Neil: No. I actually
have bad concentration. What happens to me is that I read
a line from a book. Then I go "Great idea for a song."
Then I go off and I forget to read the book. I have difficulty
with that. But occasionally I do find a book that I cannot
put down. I have recently read the books of Philip Pullman.
His Dark Materials Trilogy. They are great. Everybody
should read them.
AL: What is the song
"Eye of The Needle" about?
Neil: In the Bible
it says that it is easier for a camel to get through an
eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of
heaven. But everyone rolls up to the church in their fancy
cars. I was just reminiscing about going to church as a
teenager. I wanted desperately to believe in all of it.
I never managed to. I am certainly very spiritual but I
am certainly not religious.
AL: Are you hedonistic?
Neil: I am not very
hedonistic either. I don't make good use of my lack of religion.
I have a perfect stability. Lack of religion does not preclude
morality. I am weighed down by stacks of morals.
AL: Well, there is
secular humanism. Man is the measure of all things.
Neil: I am not much
of a humanist. We are a lot to blame for the state of the
planet. I am a "Me-ist."
AL: Really? Good for
you. What drives you creatively?
Neil: The thing that
drives my music is the complete love of making music and
writing music. Everything else in my life pales when set
against the raw excitement of writing a new songs and going
"Yes, that's cool." Basically the drive behind
my career is a necessity in order that I can make another
record and so people will give me money if they sell.
AL: Will The Divine
Comedy every be a proper band?
Neil: I don't see the
point of changing it now. What is in a name? I think that
The Divine Comedy sums it up best what I do. It's as good
a name as any. I never thought Neil Hannon was a good rock
AL: How do you feel
about this tour in March with Ben Folds?
Neil: It's the biggest
tour that I have ever done. It goes on forever. My wife
just had a baby so I need to get back as soon as I can.
It's the guilt trip tour. I don't feel good about it at
all. But I can't say no.
AL: What should they
Neil: They should expect
me standing on the stage with a guitar trying to figure
out what to play next. The problem when I play by myself
is that there is far too much freedom to mess around and
do the wrong thing. There's nobody to tell you to shut up.
I'll do songs from all the albums.
-- Alexander Laurence