The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon on the 15th Anniversary of “Regeneration”
Reviving the Muse
Dec 30, 2016
Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern (for Under the Radar) Web Exclusive
It's nine at night, and Neil Hannon is happily ensconced in his studio, gin and tonic in hand. He apologizes for his current mindset, which he describes as somewhere between post-dinner mental fuzz and naptime. But there's appropriateness to his musings, which stretch from the effects of aging on the creative process to the role social media can play in our lives. (Spoiler: it's not great.)
It's the same candor that provides the base for his musical work under the name The Divine Comedy. Since 1989 he's used the guise to explore witty, wordy pop—usually backed by the kind of instrumentation and string sections that place him firmly in the classic crooner bucket. Even if that's about the only element of his oeuvre that skews traditional. For Hannon, the fun has always laid in teasing out his topics as far as possible, whether that be dreaming of life in Sweden, saying goodbye to pop culture icons gone before their time (a song he could no doubt update after 2016), or even writing an entire song around a punchline that requires him to hold a note for over a minute. The Divine Comedy's latest album is 2016's Foreverland.
Back in 2001, Hannon released Regeneration. It was a shift in tone and venue for the Northern Irish musician as he moved from indie label Setanta to major label Parlophone, and introduced Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich into the mix—who beefed out the Divine Comedy Sound with ambient washes, and additional guitar layers. As with the previous six Divine Comedy albums, it was also another album filled with Big Ideas, as he used the 11 tracks to call out hypocrisy in the church ("Eye of the Needle"), dare to offer up a "Beatles' bass line and a big old Beach Boys Sound ("The Perfect Love Song"), and an elegy to a sundry list of household items that have slipped through his fingers ("Lost Properties").
For his effort Under the Radar put him on the cover of the magazine's second issue, 2001. The photos were black and white; shot by Under the Radar co-founder Wendy Lynch Redfern at a barbershop on Fairfax Blvd in Los Angeles. In honor of our shared anniversary with Regeneration (Under the Radar's first issue came out in December, 2001), we caught up with Hannon to discuss the recording, the power of boredom, and what the next 15 years might have in store.
Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): What was your headspace going into Regeneration?
Neil Hannon: It was interesting. In the '90s I had been a certain kind of thing. It had been successful in its own small way. This was our first album for Parlophone. We were on a small record company before that for the five previous albums. For reasons that I'm now a little unsure of, we thought it was a good idea to move to a larger label. It enabled us to obtain the services of Nigel Godrich to produce this. To spend far too long in the studio. It was an interesting time because it did seem like the end of something and the beginning of something else.
How did having more time in the studio affect the process?
I wanted to integrate my band more with the album process and the arrangements. Suddenly I decided that democracy was the way to go. Which is interesting because I had never done that before and had never done it since. [Laughs] Which probably signals what I thought of the end product. It wasn't the end product that offended me; it was how I felt about it.
I'll tell you what it was. I work in a very obsessive, control-freak way about my records.
Every last bit of minutiae is decided upon before I go into the studio, generally. This one was the only one where I thought I would try something different. I had a much more hands-off approach. As a result it's an interesting record. A lot of people really like it. And that's fantastic. But I personally don't have a strong association to it. I feel slightly disassociated from it in emotional terms. But it's not in a bad way. It's just different from the others.
What went into the decision to use Nigel Godrich as a producer?
I just loved the Radiohead records. Beck. The Travis records I thought sounded beautiful. He was on fire at the time. A part of it is ambition. Let's get the hottest producer of the moment and see if it works for us. Of course it didn't. Because it's The Divine Comedy and I could never possibly be that successful! [Laughs] But it was good to try. He was excellent and a lovely guy.
I can't argue the decision to work with him, because like you said he's amazing. But it surprises me, the idea that success could be on your mind in that way.
It wasn't so much commercial as much as wanting to play with the big boys and be part of the moment. I'd always felt slightly like the odd cousin who comes to stay to mainstream pop. I liked it, but I didn't like it at the same time because I never got invited to the parties. [Laughs] And yet it's always good to be an outsider, really. After Regeneration, I kind of went back to being an outsider and feeling better about it.
It is a duality. When you're young you really want to do your own thing. You really believe in it very strongly. But at the same time you really want people to say, "You're wonderful" and shower you with praise and gifts. In the '90s it kind of worked out for me. It was just good luck, really, that I happened to be making the right sound at the right time. I listen back to those records now and they sound pretty nuts. I think I make more cohesive records now than I did back then. Then again, everybody always says that.
Was the thought of cohesion on the table while recording?
I really cared about albums sticking together. Working to a greater whole. I feel like I had some pretty out there ideas and perhaps I wasn't able to fulfill them. I didn't have the brains back then. Now perhaps I have the brains and more technical expertise. And yet because I'm 46 I don't have those incredible ideas. You just don't when you get to this stage. But then you get to do other things.
I think you just summed up the life as a whole right there.
Thank you very much, I try. It's always interested me, this whole what happens to artists as they get older. Because my god! There are so few people who you really rate when they're young who don't go a bit shit and boring when they get old. I used to wonder why that was. If they're good to begin with, why would they suddenly be bad? The older I get the more it's easily explained. Basically life happens, and especially if you're successful to a degree, that will have a negative impact on your ability to make really useful music. It effects your motivation for a start, because you don't need to. Luckily I've avoided that pitfall by not being that successful. [Laughs]
When someone gets into this mindset, is it a matter of not chasing these ideas because you have something to lose? Or not chasing ideas because they seem crazy?
One factor is that when you're in your 20s, you have ideas untested by life experience. And you can totally throw your whole weight behind them and your time and energy because you have nothing else in your life. I know my first records were so, every last bar was thought about. There was no fluff because I had all the time in the world, living in my little bedsit in Brixton with a four-track, eating jacket potatoes. Occasionally going out and seeing some friends. But I was never a very sociable person. I lived in my own world, and that was music. You get older. You meet people. Your life becomes a more tangled web of responsibilities. And also if you get successful you have to do more business stuff, meetings and phone calls and emails. It all serves to lessen the amount of time and headspace you have for the music. Which is why it took so long to make my current record. I really wanted to just get away from it all and spend those long periods staring into space, thinking about things. Boredom is very helpful for the creation of music.
How do you properly harness boredom?
You have to let yourself become bored. You have to ignore modern technology. That is a real problem with the intense amount of communication we do now. You never get a chance to be bored. It's constant bombardment. You have to put all that away, which is not a problem for me. I don't Facebook. I don't Tweet. I quite like lying on the bed and staring into space. [Laughs] It's underrated.
It seems like there's a running theme throughout Regeneration of asking people to pay attention to their behavior and thoughts. Was this something you were aware of while writing?
I understand where you're getting that from, but this is one of the few records that didn't have an overarching theme or a lyrical thrust. My first wife and I were moving into a house. I had never had a house before. We were having it redesigned inside. I remember writing most of these songs on an acoustic guitar at the bottom of the garden just to get away from all the work noise and everything. A lot of it was very much written on an acoustic guitar. And although I have written plenty of songs on an acoustic guitar, I tend to write a bit on guitar, bit on piano or various keyboards. Use the arranging of sounds and instruments as part of the writing process. So to just knock out and take it to the band was completely alien to me.
I feel like a lot of the songs were quite angsty. I am prone to angst. I'm prone to being a bit preachy if I'm not careful. I was less careful on this record. "Dumb it Down" I entirely agree with the sentiment. The brainlessness seems to be lauded these days. And yet I feel embarrassed for having written the song in the way because it's so on the nose. It's not very subtle. I tend to go for the silver linings, really. I'm not a pessimistic songwriter. I generally try to approach things from a different angle and let other people decide what to take from it themselves rather than just telling them what it's all about. It was quite different in that regard.
Do you consider yourself to be a political musician?
I think it is a very difficult thing to quantify how political you are in terms of output. I think the more thought you put into lyrics, the more naturally political you are. It's less about writing about society and politics. Or what should or shouldn't happen, and more about the amount of energy you put into lyrics at all. If you write a really well observed song about real types of people even if it's fictional, then it's going to be political. Because that's what real life is like. I would rarely venture into polemic territory. I wrote one song called "Guantanamo" and I was so shocked by it that I had to make it a B-side. I wanted to write something about it.
On the lighter side, we have "Perfect Love Song" which name-checks The Beatles and Beach Boys. What is your idea of the perfect love song now?
I'm not sure if it's something I really aspire to. I did a lot of love song writing. When I wrote that song, I thought it was a neat idea to even suggest that I'm going to try and write the perfect love song. It's in the lyrics. I had written quite a lot them. I had written A Short Album About Love. But a lot of those songs weren't particularly love song-esque. They were long. And odd. I feel like I've written better songs about love in my latter years. Mostly because I have more knowledge of the subject.
How has your concept of love changed?
It changes when you feel like you discover it. You hear a lot about it. You want to experience it. You feel like you did, and then you're not so sure. Then you finally meet someone and go, "Oh, that's what they're talking about." I didn't think that would lead to writing songs on this project. And sure enough, the new album Foreverland, which is a lot about me and her, but they're not all love songs. It's more about the act of having a relationship, how much it means to you and how complicated it can be. It's more interesting for me to talk about what happens after you've fallen in love. It is more interesting now. Back then it was harder.
You mention Foreverland is a lot about you and your relationship. How much throughout the years have you talked about yourself in song?
I think what I've done a lot of over the years is write about other stories. Fictions. And yet they're more or less drawn from my experience. They're just messed about with. It's just like a novelist. They draw from their own life experience—they just chop it up and assign different characteristics to different characters. There is a lot of me and my life in the songs, even when it doesn't appear that there is. And yet there are some songs that are complete fiction and I wouldn't claim to know any of the people involved. I don't know if it's ever helpful to be illuminated though! I was in the car for an hour earlier and I decided to listen to XTC. I hadn't listened to them for a long time. Suddenly I heard lots of things in the songs, songs that I had known for 35 years. I was hearing things that I had never noticed before. I think it was listening with more experience. It changes how you hear things, life passing.
Since we've talked about 15 years ago—do you have nay aspirations for the next 15 years?
I want to be rich! Rich! Rich! [Laughs] I have no idea. It's quite unnerving when you get to the end of an album and suddenly your diary stretches out clean and white in front of you. I really have no idea what to do next. I'm not sure I want to throw myself into another album. I'll probably just end up doing what I've been doing for the last 10 years or so. I like to do things which seem beyond my capabilities, just to test how far I can go. So I'd like to do a bit more of the same, really. I'm a very lucky guy. As long as Donald Trump doesn't end the world I'll be as happy as pig in shit. [Laughs]
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