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The Divine Comedy

Chivalry’s Last Gasp

Oct 07, 2010 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Neil Hannon has been happily plowing his particular furrow of witty, theatrical pop for more than two decades as The Divine Comedy. After years of freely employing horns and strings to a pop framework that has avoided seeming dated thanks to the alternately current/timeless sense of his lyrics, Hannon is presently preparing songs for an upcoming U.K. musical (opening December 1st in Bristol) based on the children’s book, Swallows and Amazons. He’s uniquely qualified for the job.

After forming in 1989, The Divine Comedy issued some early releases and underwent lineup changes before the release of 1993’s Liberation, an album whose literary references saw the true formative stages of the band’s personality and future direction. Promenade, issued two years later, furthered this growth, but it was with 1996’s Casanova and the single “Something For the Weekend” that led to their initial commercial success. The next three years saw the placing of nine U.K. top 40 singles, with this period summed up by the 1999 compilation A Secret History: The Best of The Divine Comedy.

If the group’s commercial fortunes have varied since that period, there’s hardly been anything resembling an artistic decline. Along with a three-album stretch on Parlophone, Hannon, who is the sole constant among their lineup (and effectively is The Divine Comedy at this point), has also been sought out for various collaborations and soundtrack work as respect for TDC has grown over the years. He also made time for last year’s album by The Duckworth Lewis Method (a duo with Pugwash’s Thomas Walsh), which featured songs that extolled the pleasures of the sport cricket. The Divine Comedy’s latest release, Bang Goes the Knighthood, offers Hannon’s take on the current social milieu and his place in it.

Hays Davis: Where are you today?

Neil Hannon: I’m in a hotel room in Bristol where we’re working on my musical for the local theatre. It’s called Swallows and Amazons. It’s a reasonably famous children’s book in Britain, by Arthur Ransome. It was written in 1929, but it’s completely unknown everywhere else in the world.

Are there plans for it to be brought to London’s West End, or to America?

That would be wonderful, but first things first. [Laughs] It goes on in Bristol in December and goes on for a couple of months here. There are a couple of plans to take it on to Newcastle and somewhere else that I’ve forgotten, and then it’s kind of see-what-happens, really. It’s whether it’s successful and whether people want to bring it to London or other places. It’s out of my hands, really.

Will there be a soundtrack release?

I’m pretty sure the people who are developing it and producing it would think that that would be a good idea, but I’d be doing it in conjunction with them.

Was it your idea to stage this or were you approached?

Yeah, I was approached by the National Theatre in London to do it, in the form of Tom Morris. I don’t know his exact job description but he kept turning up at my after-shows and saying, ‘You should do a musical!’ and I said, ‘Yes, I should!’ We finally got it together. It’s wonderful that, five years later, it’s almost taking to the stage.

Moving to things closer to The Divine Comedy, did you go into the writing and recording of Bang Goes the Knighthood with any different approaches in mind, compared to what you did with [2006’s] Victory For the Common Muse?

I was writing it probably about three years ago, straight after the campaign for the last album, and I decided to write it very specifically just on piano so I didn’t get bogged down in all the arranging. I just naturally broached a lot of other things, just on piano. It’s probably the first album I’ve ever written that is primarily all piano and not arranged in situ before I got in the studio.

Considering some of the songs’ lyrics, tell me about how the current economic crisis had any influence on the writing of the album.

Well, I guess it had an influence in how there’s not much money about. I mean, there wasn’t much money about before the economic crisis but there’s even less now. I and my manager went to Parlophone after the last record and said, ‘Are you sure you want us on your label? Because you don’t seem terribly interested.’ And they very graciously let us go. [Laughs] I was fine with that because it didn’t really work out between us and Parlophone, although I appreciate everything they did for those three albums. So, that means that this album was completely self-financed, which was quite a tall order. It’s a partial reason why I’m touring just solely with my piano and myself rather than a full band, because we came to the point where we’re going, ‘We’ve got to get some money back.’ And playing live is a good way of earning money. I thought, then, I’ll cut down the costs. This is all terribly dry and economic, but I’m not going to lie. It kind of drove me towards that, but I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t always want to play like that anyway, because some of my great heroes are one-man-at-the-piano-type bobs like Randy Newman and Ben Folds, Tom Lehrer, Noel Coward. The list is endless, really. And it’s turned out really, really well. I’m enjoying it hugely.

It’s interesting that you made a reference to Tom Lehrer there. I was listening to him just the other day and I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to connect a dot there. Probably because it’s not always just you and a piano, though your sensibilities are certainly similar.

Yeah, I’ve been into his stuff for a great many years. I mean, I’ve always been a fan of the comic song, and I’ve done a few in my time, some more funny than others. And I’ve always like that kind of smart-arsed, incredibly tightly compactly-written kind of lyric. I love that.

Did you do a lot of practicing for that extremely long note that you hold at the end of “Can You Stand Upon One Leg?” Do you have a real gift for that, or did you do a little extra studio work there?

It’s such a useful gift, isn’t it? [Laughs] I didn’t do a lot of practicing. I’ve just sort of developed it over the years, and it’s completely pointless, but, as I say in the song, ‘It’s my party piece,’ so to speak. I just thought I’d put it on a record. My manager hates that song. He said, ‘And it was all going so well, and then you do this kind of sine wave for 30 seconds.’ I laughed too much listening to it so I had to put it on the album.

Well, if you ever have a moment where someone approaches you in an alley and holds a gun to your back and says, ‘If I don’t get a full 30-second note out of you it’s going to be the end,’ you know you’ve got it made. You’re okay.

As long as they don’t say 35 seconds I’m okay.

There’s been some real evolution to your music over the years. If someone demanded that the real Divine Comedy please stand up, do you think there’s any period that people sees as quintessential Divine Comedy, or would it simply be whatever you’re working on at the time?

I’m sure you’ve asked this question to people before and they’ll always say, ‘I’m not answering that!’ It’s a minefield for the artist to point at bits of their career that were more successful than others because, basically, every time I did something I thought I was doing the right thing, so you can’t do any more than that. And looking back, yes, some of it was more successful than other bits, but it depends on what you judge as success. And yes, I think all the periods of my 20 years have been useful and interesting.

I don’t know. Some people worship Promenade; they’re usually my sort of uber fans. Certainly, that is a very precise part of my mentality and my soul, but it’s not all of it, by any means, so you can’t look at that bit. You would get a very skewed picture of my songwriting, really. This album goes a long way toward unifying the various things I’m interested by, and do well, I think.

I think so, too. And I thought it was kind of funny to hear you make a reference to doing the right thing. As an artist, is there such a thing as doing the wrong thing?

Yes. [Laughs]

Not commercially, necessarily, but artistically, we’ll say.

Well, doing the wrong thing comes from trying to please other people. And whatever I’ve done I’ve always tried to please myself and done what I thought I ought to do, and if you do that, as an artist, I think you can’t do any more. But I wasn’t doing that as some kind of incredibly obscure, up-my-own-rectum kind of thing. It was proved that when I did exactly what I wanted people enjoyed it, so to try and replicate that to increase that enjoyment would be counter-productive, because it’s only by following my own desires and whims that they get the unadulterated Neil.

You now have the rights to your earlier albums?

Yeah, for everything up to Fin de Siecle.

When do you plan to begin the reissues of those?

To be honest, we’d planned on doing them about three years ago, but various factors made it impossible, not least a lack of finances. But we are absolutely determined to do it for next year. It’s a good time to do it.

For the amount of material you’ve recorded, you could always release it in doses…

That’s true, but maybe for The Beatles you can reissue one album at a time, but I think for someone like myself you get one chance to make a big noise about reissues, so we should do it all at the same time and do the best-of and the box set and the extra bits as well, all at the same time, and people will be plenty interested.

Do you have any U.S. tour dates planned?

Sadly, no. Not right now. It’s been non-stop all year already and it’s all planned out before me in Europe until the end of the year. So, if we make it to America, it’s going to be next year. It’s just really, really hard as a low-key, independent, self-financed artist to make that investment, sadly, so…sorry about that! We’ll do our best.

What do you think are the odds there will be another Duckworth Lewis Method album?

That is going to be an eternal question. Duckworth and I, Thomas Walsh and myself, have had many discussions on this, and we still can’t make up our minds. Because The Duckworth Lewis Method was such a very particular thing, and the album is very much an end in itself, it’s very hard to see what we’d do. I don’t know if the world needs another cricket concept album. [Laughs] It didn’t really need it in the first place. But maybe we could think of a different pointless cul-de-sac to ride down. We’ll see.

And, to wrap up, what was it like writing songs [in 2006] for Doctor Who, having been a fan of the show?

I didn’t actually write songs for Doctor Who. [Doctor Who composer Murray Gold] came to me to see if I would add my voice to his compositions, and I was flattered. But, no, I didn’t write any. It was funny because I don’t think it was a creative high point of mine but I owed it to my eight-year-old self to not pass up the opportunity of being on Doctor Who, because I was so obsessed by it as a kid.



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