Interview: The Divine Comedy
Published on July 24th, 2010 | Jonny Abrams
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Neil Hannon’s Divine Comedy moniker, as it’s come to be, could scarcely be more apt. For over two decades now, he has been releasing music which consistently dazzles in scope and encodes itself into the listener’s DNA. The Divine? Why, that would be the frequently astoundingly beautiful nature of the music. The Comedy? That would be the elegant wordplay, ingenious rhyming schemes and playful delivery of the lyrics, all of which are rooted in the tradition of comedy in one way or another. The Divine Comedy? A literary reference. And if you find that books have the power to make you laugh, cry, dream, luxuriate, romanticise, fear, despair, philosophise and whatever other emotion or mindset you could care to mention…well, then you should try working your way through The Divine Comedy’s heroic back catalogue.
After a decade of seemingly slinking back into the indie sphere – in terms of profile, if not style of music – Hannon is back with vibrant new album Bang Goes The Knighthood and is once again in demand. (‘Indie’ to ‘in demand’ – see what we did there? Look, just forget it.) Hot off the heels of his superb one-man-switching-between-a-piano-and-a-guitar-while-pausing-occasionally-to-sip-white-wine performance at London’s Somerset House last weekend, Rocksucker caught up with Hannon for the second time – the first coming in tandem with Duckworth Lewis Method collaborator Thomas Walsh at the Oval last year – to discuss the new album, a possible divine intervention at last week’s show, concept albums, grammar and how to play the Conversation Game…
One year on, has there still been a lot of demand for and interest in Duckworth Lewis Method?
Yeah, it’s been consistent. Unfortunately, most of the ideas are charitable. (Laughs) And, although I’m a very charitable man, I’ve got so little time at the moment that to do anything would have to pay its way. We did a great show, if we say so ourselves, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall at Richard Thompson’s Meltdown about a month ago. Straight after that, we booked ourselves into the Olympia over here in Dublin for next week, so we’re doing a gig there. Although I’m having a great time playing by myself for my shows, it’s nice to get onstage and make lots of noise and not to sort of be the centre of attention. I just get to have fun. That’s what DLM does for me.
I was at your solo show at Somerset House last week, and I did indeed notice the sheet music flapping about during the ‘god’ section of ‘Don’t Look Down’…
(Laughs) That was a bit unnerving. Although it had been windy that day. It was just fantastic timing. It freaked me out. I especially liked the moment I said, “So he sends his favourite angel choir,” and [the sheet music] was like flap flap flap! That was great. But I’m not god-fearing in any sort of way. It’s just a good party trick.
How much wine do you get through during an average headline performance?
Really very little. It’s just constant sipping. What I’ve drunk onstage has changed so often through the years. I drank a lot of Guinness as well. And sometimes in the past I’ve drunk no alcohol! But I find with the one night show, I was drinking red wine for quite a few of them and I realised that it was making the inside of my mouth get rather sticky. So, at Somerset House, I swapped it at the last minute for white wine and it really went down a treat.
Can you list every instrument you’ve ever played on a Divine Comedy record?
Pretty easily actually because , to be honest, I don’t play that much. If I say ‘guitar and keyboards’ then that pretty much covers it.
What about bass?
I’ve played the bass but that’s a guitar! I’ve also played lots of percussion instruments but that’s just hitting things repeatedly, so it’s not terribly clever.
Never the drums?
I can’t play the drums for sh*t. I’m ‘kin awful at the drums. I can’t do all those things at once. Also, I’ve had a succession of brilliant drummers and nobody’s going to want to play drums badly in front of them.
Who plays drums on the new album?
Tim Weller, my usual drummer. Great chap, loaded with knowledge. His day job is drumming for Billy Elliott.
Now for some questions about Bang Goes The Knighthood. In ‘Down In The Street Below’, what are you referring to when you say, “…but you just don’t know whether you’re doing it for the right reasons?”
Funnily enough, that’s one of the harder ones to get to the bottom of. It’s mostly because, unlike most of my songs, there’s actually some quite personal stuff in it. Most of the first verse and chorus refers to a relationship that is no more. I guess “always a pleasure and never a chore but you just don’t know whether you’re doing it for the right reasons” – well, it’s like, this is lovely, but am I doing it because I have to or because I’m just having a good time? That kind of thing. Then the last verse is about doleful parties in really posh clubs in London, you know, where I feel I’d rather be at home watching the telly with a cup of tea.
When was the last time you went to an indie disco? And how was the experience?
I’ve no idea. To be honest, the only indie discos I’ve ever been to were the ones in gigs after you’ve finished and you’re sort of having a good time and dancing, so it’s just as likely to have been in Montpellier as anywhere here. I never used to go as a teenager because there weren’t any in Fermanagh when I was growing up. The best you could do was to try and persuade the guy at the local sh*t nightclub to play ‘Blue Monday’ or something. So, in many ways, it’s a work of imagination, but it’s based on received wisdom from books, TV, friends…all sorts.
As a resident of Camden myself, I can confirm that you’re on the mark.
Excellent. It’s nice to know that I haven’t f***ed up!
‘The Lost Art of Conversation’ seems to be dropping clues as to how to play some sort of game. How do you play this Conversation Game?
Basically, each of the references in the choruses is linked to the next one, and so on and so forth. Then you get to the end of it and it’s “back to the start”, so the last one refers to the first one. I’ve said that the first person to – I can’t really say guess them all right because there will obviously be connections I haven’t thought of – but definitely the best connected list will receive some very fine gifts at Christmas! Definitely my bowler hat. I’ve also got the original – ah, what do you call it? – basically, it’s a big piece of card that was stuck on the wall of the studio on which I crossed off the songs as I recorded them. We’ll probably run this competition on our website so we can keep track of all the entries.
In the first chorus, does Francis Bacon link to Frank Lampard because they’re both Franks? Or because ‘Lampard’ sounds a bit like ‘lard’?
No. (Laughs) I’m not going to tell you the connection! That would be defeating the object. I’ve already given the first one [David Jason to Francis Bacon] for free so that people know what’s happening: the connection, in my mind at least, is that David Jason was Del Boy Trotter. A trotter is a pig’s foot. Bacon!
And there was me thinking it was just because ‘Jason’ and ‘Bacon’ sort of sound the same…
Some are complicated, some are dumb. Which pretty much sums up my work. (Laughs)
On a similar note, did you ever divulge the meaning behind ‘Gin Soaked Boy’?
I think I did. You know what, the first person who got it was my mum, which I thought was brilliant as she clearly knows the workings of my mind! The answer is ‘spirit’. Gin, spirit, you know…and you can go through all the other ones, pretty much. That’s certainly what I was thinking. Usually people go, “Uh?”
That was my reaction. Anyway, I’ve been giving Bang Goes The Knighthood multiple plays of late and is a trifle concerned about the lone, sustained high note at the end of ‘Can You Stand Upon One Leg?’ Can you assure us listeners that there’s no potential long term damage to the hearing caused by repeated exposure to it?
(Chuckles) Joby [Talbot, composer and Divine Comedy collaborator] told me a story about a composer who decided it would be a jolly wheeze to, as an experiment, set up an audio system round his house just playing a sine wave of one specific note for a fortnight, I think. Sure enough, at the end of the fortnight, he could no longer hear that note. It had completely burnt away the ability in his eardrums to hear that frequency! But I don’t think thirty seconds of that note is going to do anybody any damage. It’s all my own work. There was no technology used in the production of that note. (Pauses) You’re making it sound like all my songs are just party tricks and riddles!
Onto something quite anal to pick at…er…that came out wrong…
It really did!
‘Pedantic’ – that would have done. Anyway, are you aware of the grammatical error in ‘A Lady Of A Certain Age’ [the sublime fourth track off 2006’s Victory For The Comic Muse]?
Oh god. Tell me do.
The line: “You had to marry someone very, very rich / So that you might be kept in the style to which / You had all of your life been accustomed to” – I submit that it should be either “in the style to which you had all of your life been accustomed” or “in the style which you had all your life been accustomed to” – but not both, as was done in the song.
(Goes over the lines in his head) You’re right. I’ve never noticed that before. Basically, there’s no way of doing that correctly without spoiling the rhyme scheme. So that is how it must stay. Although I could do “been accustomed…ooh!”
Would you describe [1994 masterpiece, themed on a day in the life of two lovers] Promenade
as a concept album, or does the very idea appal you?
It doesn’t appal me because I suppose Duckworth Lewis Method was a concept album. I think it’s just the phrase ‘concept album’ that’s unhelpful because it has such bad connotations with ridiculous seventies records. (Pauses) It’s a story album – that’s what it is. But, then again, the story mostly survives in my own mind, and it was mostly there to help me write the record. I even sort of put together a brief tale in my mind to put Bang Goes the Knighthoodin order. I’m not going to tell anybody what that idea was because it’s really kind of arbitrary and it doesn’t help anybody listen to it. Whereas, with Promenade, I think it helps tie the whole thing together.
When it gets to ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ – sample lyric: “She enters an enchanted world / Where seaweed girls with silver tails / Play games upon the backs of whales” – has one of them partaken of some kind of hallucinogenic substance?
No! I mean, there’s a lot of flaws in the story. I was only 23 when I wrote it. Basically, for some reason – probably to do with the female character having terrible issues about their young life together – she goes for a late swim. “As the glow from the house recedes / And their voices blend with the breeze…” – so she’s walking down the hillside from the house…and she gets dragged into the water by sea spirits and mermaids, which are probably in her own mind. Water is a strong theme of the album. I’d probably need a long time to puzzle it all out myself because I can’t remember a lot of what I was actually thinking when I wrote it. But it all made sense at the time! (Laughs) But, you know, because she’s sort of half drowned herself, that’s why they have to go and have a strong whisky afterwards. Then one thing leads to another and they all get completely leathered.
Ah, ‘A Drinking Song’ – a tremendously fun song to play.
There’s a ridiculous amount of chords in that, so well done!
I found some chords on the internet somewhere.
Well, in that case, they’re probably wrong. I’ve never seen one of my songs actually scored out right on the internet.
Which begs the question of whether you have any plans to release a chord book or some such…
There was one for the ‘Best Of’ back in 1999. Joby and I sat down on several occasions with the guy who was doing it and said, you know: this is what happens, now do it right. And he still managed to get them quite wrong. So, for the next one I do, I’ll do it my bloody self! Even though I’m not technically very good in that department.
What about a box set? I came across a lovely version of ‘The Booklovers’ a while ago which was just the string section, with none of the voiceovers, and you singing the chorus without the second harmony on the top. It’s beautiful.
Is that not on Rarities, the extra bit of Secret History?
I obviously never got the limited edition version.
It’s the version that’s in a sort of Penguin book style. But, yeah, that was my preferred version [of ‘The Booklovers’] because, six months after doing all the silly gags, I decided that that was really embarrassing and that I much preferred the music that was going on underneath. (Laughs)