Neil Hannon on 30 Years of The Divine Comedy and the New Box Set
Not One For Looking Back
Dec 23, 2020
After 30 years in the game, The Divine Comedy’s louche mastermind Neil Hannon has marked the occasion with a sumptuous re-mastered 12 CD box set: Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time – Thirty Years of The Divine Comedy. For a man who claims he’’s not one for looking back, Hannon seems to have embraced the occasion, writing numerous liner notes for all the albums as well as sourcing demos and early versions of many classic songs. Under the Radar caught up with him, and from his home in County Kildare, Ireland, he chatted about the box set, his career to date, his flirtation with mainstream pop superstardom…oh and that sitcom theme tune.
Andy Von Pip (Under the Radar): Hello Neil, congratulations on your longevity, you’’ve surely achieved national treasure status now?
Neil Hannon: (Laughing) Yes, congratulations on not being DEAD!! Thank you very much. In terms of national treasure status, there seems to be some debate over which nation—but I’ll take any! I’ll take Luxembourg’s national treasure status if they’ll have me.
You’ve released a box set celebrating 30 years of The Divine Comedy. How do you go about putting such a thing together? Was it something you’d been planning a while, did a label suggest it? What’s the process?
Well, the label is me and Natalie, my manager. (Laughs). Divine Comedy Records is a bit of a cottage industry, really. We were meant to do the 20th anniversary but it somehow got away from us. But in the last four years or so we’ve been jollying ourselves along to do something to mark the 30th anniversary and not wimp out! We ummed and arred a bit about the box set as we were originally just going to re-master and re-release all the records. But after a meeting with manufacturing types who know about these things, the box set won the argument. I love box sets personally and I enjoyed trying to put together one that suited us. Everybody seems to really like it, so we did a good job I think. There was an awful lot of time spent finding the additional bonus tracks and writing the copious liner notes so I was certainly kept very busy for a good few months! And it drove me slightly mad, I’m not really one for looking back and resting on my laurels. That sounds immodest but actually, it’s because it’s so difficult to remember everything.
And once you got into the flow of it did you find you actually enjoyed the process of looking back?
Well, I really had to knuckle down initially as it felt like schoolwork, but once I got into a routine I had to actually curtail myself, which I didn’t expect! I thought it might be like trying to get blood from a stone. The challenge was trying to find an interesting angle, like you journalist types do, so rather than me simply saying “I released this album and then I released that album,” I’d look for something rather more entertaining.
So what was it like looking back at the young Neil Hannon?
Oh God, looking back at the photos was bad enough! I do enjoy being 50. I’ve only been it a few days but I am enjoying it! I kind of love my former self and also despise the little idiot at the same time. I like to think I’ve gotten slightly more sane as I’ve grown up. Back then I had an enormous opinion of my talent, and I suppose (laughing) in many ways I wasn’’t too far off the mark! But I just couldn’t water down things to suit anybody else, perhaps that’s why I’’m still here after 30 years, the fact it was so idiosyncratic. I may well have alienated 70% of the population, but the other 30% kind of really dug it. (Laughs). I’ve carved myself a nice little rut, which I’ve been happily traipsing down ever since.
I suppose the lucky thing for me was, a lot of artists lose momentum because they want to have lots of hits or they want to break America, and I think during the 2000s I managed to talk myself out of all that, it wasn’t really necessary. Instead, I focused on the thing that I did rather than the accoutrements. I ignored the symptoms such as fame and fortune, I concentrated on the disease itself—making music.
Did you have any qualms about releasing such unvarnished demos as part of the bonus content?
Qualms galore! I certainly couldn’’t have done this 20 years ago and set free these demos for public consumption. But people have heard so much from me over the years that hopefully by now, they know my quality control is good and that it’s the actual albums that I’m putting up for display. All the gubbins on the bonus discs is really just for a bit of fun, to show people how I maybe get to the finished product. But in and of themselves they are mainly rubbish, (Laughs) I’m sure people understand that. They are often hilarious! It’s funny, when we were announcing the box set with the extras back in April, fans were like, hang on you haven’t included this and this and this…which is true as I think I’ve only put about 15% of what I actually have out there.
You’ve been described as witty, acerbic, an underrated genius, and you had a real brush with pop stardom in your early days, hitting the Top 10 and performing on (the weekly UK chart TV show) Top of the Pops.
I have to say “underrated genius” has to be a bit of a contradiction in terms. (Laughs). It was an interesting thing that happened to me in my 20s. I had planned it since I was 15. Any kind of pop stardom rarely happens by accident, you really do have to want it. It seems weird to some of my fans that a person like me would care about fame, but I had grown up on Top of the Pops and I kind of accumulated this terrible need within. (Laughs) So when I found, later on, I could write songs, I thought, well, maybe I can be like my heroes on Top of the Pops. It was a question of finding the right record and moment. There was obviously a lot of luck looking back. I don’t know if I’ve written about this before but I’’m really interested in the fact that Britpop actually happened. A lot of these style movements seem almost destined to occur. The generation before, punk and post-punk were kind of a reaction against easy listening and light entertainment and all that had gone before. But in the ’90s it suddenly felt like people of my age were kind of revaluating much of what had been discarded, you know, that orchestral pop from the ’60s imbued with a kind of very British slightly kitsch ’60s cool. I think it was always going to come back at some point.
Did you feel a bit of an outsider because Britpop did seem to get slightly hijacked by a certain laddish culture as it evolved?
A lot of bands were lumped in who I wouldn’t have thought of as Britpop, like Oasis, but at the time I was just happy to be making music that chimed with the times. A lot of what was going on was kind of an anathema to my personality. I desperately wanted to be a kind of “Great Gatsby incredible man of parties,” but it just wasn’’t me. As a child, I was ridiculously shy, and the pop thing was a great way of me asserting myself. If I hadn’t have been doing that, I don’t know what the hell I would have talked to anybody about! Nobody told me where all the parties were anyway! I only ended up with a very drunk Graham Coxon (Blur) in The Good Mixer pub in Camden once in the entirety of the ’90s. And I thought “Oh my god he’s very drunk I’m going to have to leave.” I love Graham, he’s an absolute genius.
And you did the whole celeb thing, appearing on TV via music quiz shows in the ’90s such as Never Mind the Buzzcocks on the BBC.
Yes, I went on that twice. The first time I quite enjoyed it and got a few laughs. The second time, the writers gave me a joke beforehand. And when the time came I thought I’d delivered it rather well but it was an absolute tumbleweed moment in the studio, complete silence. And I didn’t say another word on the show after that. Afterwards, I swore I’d never appear on anything like that ever again! (Laughs).
But you did appear on (the British game show) Mastermind with your specialist subject being the legendary TV show Frasier. So perhaps you could answer this question— if Daphne Moon is from Manchester, UK, why does she have a brother whose accent resembles Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins?
(Laughs) That’s Hollywood for you. I think that was the only British accent that actor could do, although I think in the show they did try to formulate an excuse for that. They also had an episode with Richard E. Grant and (the very Scottish) Robbie Coltrane playing her other brothers. But at least Millicent Martin, who played her mother, had an authentic Mancunian accent. Funnily enough, I’ve recently just done Mastermind again for TV, “A Champion of Champions” edition show no less.
You did have some big shows lined up this year to celebrate your 30 years with five nights at the Barbican in London followed by five at Cité De La Musique in Paris.
Yes, unsurprisingly the shows have been put back to 2021. In the interim, The Barbican suggested we stream a gig and they let in a small smattering of an audience who were all socially distanced. It all worked well and as it was a very dark theatre, we couldn’t see the audience anyway. However, we did get a clean sweep of the press that night because nobody had a show to go to, so silver linings!
We were also going to do a tour in the spring next year but we didn’t even get past the planning phase. The thing is it’’s all too uncertain—if you are out on the road and one gig gets cancelled you still have to pay everybody on the tour but there’s no income coming in, which can really leave you in a hole.
As a young lad starting out did you think 30 years later you’d still be doing what you do?
I kind of did you know? After the white heat of pop stardom had dissipated I knew all I had left was the music. And I’ve always known that. The thing I enjoyed most about the whole thing is writing, followed by performing. I think if I didn’t keep writing and couldn’t find a way of that being my job I think I’d have been very miserable. It helps clear away the nonsense and distractions when you know it’s all about the content. You stop worrying about writing a hit, because (laughing) you know it’s not going to be a hit, instead you just make good music. I think I’ve probably enjoyed making records during the last 20 years much more than I did during the first 10.
And what about your highlights over the past 30 years?
Probably as simple as playing three nights at the London Palladium. So many of my heroes never got any bigger than that so that’s enough for me. When Mamma Cass did her final show it was at the London Palladium…and I sold out three nights (laughing) and she’s a much bigger legend than I am, go figure! I like that kind of thing because it’s real and it’s palpable. I mean, things like chart positions, having had top 5 records and going on TV shows like Top of the Pops are great but it all seems a little bit ephemeral, whereas being in front of lovely audience in a very nice theatre feels very real.
In retrospect would you have done anything differently—any regrets?
Oh, lots of things I would have done differently—funnily enough, not many regrets. I mean, every decision we made, it was made for a good reason, we obviously didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. Of course, there are lots of stupid things I’ve said to people, which I deeply regret. I have always had a problem with massive faux pas throughout my life. I think it’s probably down to shyness and not knowing what to say—so I’’d constantly say the wrong thing! I remember I met Leo Sayer (1970’s pop singer) at a party and he came over to me and said “I really like your stuff” and I replied, “Oooh, my dad really loved your stuff,” and he looked a little sad and kind of pained and I immediately thought, “Why the fuck did I say that, you little idiot, can’t you just try and see things from other people’’s perspectives?!” And the first thing I ever said to Simon Le Bon was “what age are you?”—it sounds terrible and it is! But there was a reason in my head at the time. I guess I’d thought that, because I don’t care about my age, I assumed nobody else cared about theirs—ooh god what an idiot! As I’ve got older I’ve tried to be more human and think about what I say!
Throughout this interview, I’ve felt a little like Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers in the episode where he keeps saying “don’t mention the war,” although in this case, it’s “don’t mention Father Ted” (the Irish/British cult comedy show for which Neil supplied the theme song plus some additional comedy tunes.)
(Laughs) Yes, I did the music for Father Ted— the end!
When you’re on stage with a 15-piece orchestra, and people request those songs, how do you feel?
(Laughs) It feels like heckling. I mean, you could be playing somewhere like Milan or Lucerne and then somebody at the back suddenly shouts “play ‘My Lovely Horse’” and you’re like, “where do you people even come from, how did you get here?” (Laughs) But it’s a small price to pay I guess.
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