Interview: The Divine Comedy

Following the release of Foreverland, orchestral pop prodigy Neil Hannon – better known as The Divine Comedy – speaks about history, harpsichord, and the concept of forever.

Foreverland is your eleventh studio album.

When you say that it makes me feel like ‘why did I bother? There’s another ten to listen to!’ But yes, number eleven. Why not?

How long have you been playing music for? 

I first took an interest in the piano in our front room when I think I was about seven. But I wasn’t any good, ever, really. I did piano lessons until I was about thirteen, but was pretty ineffectual at them and incredibly lazy when it came to practicing. I really just tried to play “Mr. Blue Sky” and various other songs. All the while I was getting more and more obsessed by pop music. Watching Top Of The Pops as a kid, listening to Radio 1… My elder brothers were very into music, so I tried to keep up with them all the time. I got my first guitar when I was about fourteen I think. I never had any guitar lessons, which is pretty obvious from my guitar technique.

It’s been six years since your last record. How’s the past half decade treated you?

Well, I started this album three years ago. For the first few years after the last album there was a lot of touring, and I had a few other projects going on. I did two small chamber operas. I did a piece for the Royal Festival Hall’s organ. I did another cricket album with my friend Thomas for The Duckworth Lewis Method. Then I thought ‘I suppose I should make another record, really.’ I said to myself that I would not rush, and that I would only put it out when I was completely convinced that it was finished.

What was the recording process like, having worked on the record for so long? 

It varies from track to track. In the first place, I play it all when I’m writing, then the bits that I’m a bit shoddy on, like drums and bass, I generally get replayed by my band mates. Obviously I do arrange all the orchestrations, but then I get my colleague Andrew Skeet, who plays keyboards with me, to make it into dots. He also adds to the arrangements, makes them more dynamic for when they get played by proper musicians. It’s much more blurred now, the lines between writing the song and making the album. There’s a lot on the record that I played on what you might call the demo.

What would you say is the essence of a Divine Comedy song? 

Harpsichord!

I really don’t know… the only sort of defining feature is that it’s me doing it. I suppose there are certain things that I do which happen again and again. Pretty tight structured lyric writing, quite a lot of orchestral instruments… generally they’re kind of held together in a rather mod-ish, beat group sort of way. But then again, sometimes I feel like my intense love of late-’70s/early’80s synthpop has a lot to do with the structures of my songs and the tunes, even though there’s no synthesizers used. Sometimes I can imagine them being played by OMD.

There’s a lot of cultural and historical references on the album. What inspired you when you were writing? 

It has all these crazy allusions to odd stuff that I have read and seen on documentaries. Some of it is quite hard to fathom, and other things are quite obvious. I’ve always drifted a bit between the two, the arty and the populist, because I think both are very useful. It’s basically about my life over the last six or seven years, really. It’s about meeting my other half, and being another half.

Why did you choose the title Foreverland

Funny one that, really. I wasn’t convinced that should be the title. I mean, it’s the name of one of the songs on the record. Basically, events conspired to make it impossible for it not to be the album title. Just by the mere fact that all the songs seem to be about finding that place of contentment – relationship contentment, I suppose. I could only put that picture on the front cover. The picture is a ballet poster from the 1910s, I think. I’d stared at it for a long time while I was making the album, so it said to me that it wanted to be on the front cover. Nothing else really worked. And that was the only title that really worked with the cover. I was forced into it. I was painted into a corner. Sometimes you just have to go with this stuff.

Character and narrative are two things that occur strongly through a lot of your songs. How important are they to you as a songwriter? 

I’ve always thought it important to be able to write in the words of a different person, whether they be real or imagined. It’s part of being an artist. You’re putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s what art is for: to understand other people and to give them an idea of what you’re thinking. Communication, shall we say. Stories and characters are quite a good means of doing that. Some people don’t like writing stories – they think it’s too much like bad country music, but I’ve not got a problem with it. Some bad country music is good. It’s also quite romantic, to write about these characters that may or may not exist. It’s just a work of imagination. You’re trying to talk about some feeling and you’re trying to invoke some emotion through talking about what happens to another person.

But it really depends on what you’re trying to achieve. There’s not a lot of real sort of plot in the songs on this album. There is a song called “A Desperate Man” which is about a fugitive escaping across the fields disguised as a nun, but the story is just to illustrate the idea of desperation. You’re trying to get back to something, and you’re really, really anxious to get there. It can be useful in that regard. But then there’s another song called “How Can You Leave Me On My Own?” which is just about how middle aged men turn into troglodytes when they’re left on their own for too long. There’s no plot. It’s just like ‘I drink too much beer… I eat too much pizza.’

You celebrated the release with a Rough Trade instore and acoustic songwriting demo. If you were to give a piece of advice to musicians just starting out, what would that be? 

Have a second job. I don’t understand how anybody can make enough money starting out in the music business right now. I was extremely lucky to begin in an era when we still recorded onto 2” tape, and we made records and cassettes and CDs and things, and people bought them, and gave you money. I’m alright now, I can sort of get by with my fans and make a bit of cash. But I’m worried about the new generation. I feel like it’s impacting on the quality of the music as well – but anyway, mustn’t grumble.

As far as writing is concerned, do what you want, not what you think other people want to hear. The only reason I became moderately successful is by being extremely bloody minded and doing exactly what I want and letting people come to me. If you try too hard to be what is popular then it won’t work, or even if you do manage to become successful that way it doesn’t last.

The record is out in the world. What’s next for The Divine Comedy? 

The tour is what’s next, and it goes on forever! It’s October to March with a bit of a break for Christmas. That’s enough to be going on with. I’ll re-evaluate the situation in the spring.

Foreverland is out now. Find out about The Divine Comedy’s upcoming tour.

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