Originally published in The Irish Times, May 21st 2010
HE TRUNDLES down a windy Leeson Street like a man in a hurry, this slight figure in a corduroy blazer, one hand clutching a leather briefcase, the other clamping a Panama hat to his head. Tonight, Neil Hannon will play an intimate showcase of material from his new album Bang Goes the Knighthood – his 10th under the Divine Comedy banner – at Dublin’s Sugar Club. Right now, however, he’s light- heartedly grumbling about “getting old”, recovering from a gig in Belfast the night before, and nursing a Guinness in the quietest corner of a nearby pub.
It’s been four years since the last Divine Comedy album (the Choice Music Prize- winning Victory for the Comic Muse ), but it’s not like Hannon has been resting on his laurels. For one, there’s been the small matter of The Duckworth Lewis Method, the side project that unexpectedly took up most of his 2009. Writing a cricket-themed album with his friend Thomas Walsh of Pugwash was a different experience to his usual solitary endeavours, but it’s also one that earned the pair an Ivor Novello Award nomination for their efforts.
“Writing with Thomas was a blast, because we just had fun. We’d maybe listen to a demo of mine, and he’d come up with certain ideas about how that could work, or he’d just come in with some chords and a whistly tune that he’d thought of on the bus on the way over. And most of the time, by the end of the day, we’d have a song, or the guts of it. With Thomas, he’s like ‘words, words, stuff, ideas!’, and I’m like ‘Oh my God, wait, wait!’,” he laughs, miming a frantic scribble in a notebook.
“In that role, I was more of an editor in some situations. As he would say, I can’t ever be satisfied with a line – that it couldn’t be a bit tighter, or a bit more to-the-point. With my own writing, that’s actually the struggle – keeping the spontaneity of the original idea – because I have a habit of never being satisfied. A perfectionist? Slightly. It’s good in one way and a downfall in another.”
Those who are wondering whether Duckworth Lewis’s jaunty pop ethos might have had an impact on Bang Goes the Knighthood may be surprised to know that much of the album was recorded in Dublin’s Exchequer Studios before any notions of test match-themed tunes were first bandied about. Album closer I Like has even been waiting in the wings since 2005.
“I’d done the bulk of the sessions last January, and then we’d made the cricket record in February – we just did a really quick turnaround on it, because it seemed too good an opportunity to miss to get it out in time for the summer, once we’d realised that it’d be finished in time,” he says. “So I just put my album on the back burner, because even though my fans tend to get a little bit . . . you know, ‘Ahem, cough cough, tap tap tap, where is it, what are you doing? Are you just lying around the house?!’, they know I’m going to trot out another album eventually, so there’s no hurry. And I think it benefited from me coming back to it five months later, and re-listening to the tunes, and having another bash, really.”
Duckworth Lewis Method aside, Hannon’s been a busy man since releasing Victory in 2006. He’s guested on everything from Belle and Sebastian singer Stuart Murdoch’s own side project – the musical film God Help the Girl – to Air’s Pocket Symphony, as well as scoring an upcoming musical adaptation of children’s classicSwallows and Amazons , which is due to finally premiere at Bristol’s Old Vic theatre this November after a lengthy and somewhat frustrating delay.
“The musical is lovely – it’s just a matter of whether anyone wants a proper, original musical any more. It was developed by the National Theatre in London, but in the end, Nick Hytner, the big boss . . . well, it wasn’t about asylum seekers and refugees, so frankly, it’s no good. It’s just about a bunch of kids on boats,” he deadpans. “I’m being a little harsh, but, you know, it’s a family musical, and I hope for good things for it in the future. It could move anywhere. And I put a lot of work into it, so I hope it has a life.”
One of the songs that originally began life as part of that project, the dreamy, Cathy Davey-supplemented Island Life , eventually made it onto Bang Goes the Knighthood . While many of the album’s songs are notably personal – opening track Down in the Streets Below features “scenes from his recent past”, he claims – there are several frivolous numbers that could only have come from Hannon’s pen. Can You Stand Upon One Leg is straight out of Mary Poppins’s carpet bag, while lead single At the Indie Disco is a cheeky guitar-pop number that contains the line “We drink and talk about stupid stuff / Then hit the floor for Tainted Love”.
“Yeah, it’s odd. I almost write these things on automatic,” he laughs. “After I’d written that song, I thought ‘But you never went to indie discos!’. It was a bit of a tribute to my teenage years, when I was a massive indie kid. Pixies were my major idols, and My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Slowdive . . . all those shoegaze-y bands. I think what I liked about them was the sort of doomed, melancholic romance. I mean, it’s a matter of what you’re exposed to. I’d never even heard Scott Walker back then. Imagine living life without hearing Scott Walker? I suppose I’ve always been one to listen to stuff, take it all in, use the information and then kind of leave it behind and move on to the next thing.”
He’s also always been the type of songwriter who can write anecdotally as well as personally, and this new collection is no different. The Complete Banker is a tongue-in-cheek take on the financial crisis, while Neapolitan Girl was inspired by British travel writer Norman Lewis’s second World War diaries.
“I don’t know whether it’s just that I have a very limited concentration span. Well, no, that can’t be it, because I like cricket,” he chuckles. “But a mild frustration of mine with a lot of other artists is that they do seem to stick to one theme. It’s relationships. And more relationships. And relationships in trouble. And happy relationships. Whereas I think there’s more to life than that. I mean, obviously the most important parts of a human being’s life are probably played out in terms of relationships and other people. But that doesn’t account for about 80 per cent of the rest of the time, where soft furnishings are as important. A lot of people will wait all week just to go to Ikea to buy a sofa, and that’s the only thing preying on their minds. So why isn’t that a good enough idea for a song? That’s pretty much where I got the idea for Sweden from, from Fin de Siècle – a trip to Ikea. Basically, I find humour as intellectually stimulating as anything else, and I just get very bored if it’s all po-faced and serious.”
It goes without saying that his idiosyncratic humour is also one of the hallmarks of any Hannon composition, but it has also meant that The Divine Comedy have never really been counted as part of any particular scene, even during his London years in the 1990s. With Irish music making more of a mark on the world stage in recent times – particularly with acts such as Villagers – does he feel any sort of affinity with these new, younger acts? Some would claim that Conor O’Brien is to some extent assuming Hannon’s mantle of wordy pop eccentric.
“Yeah, sometimes I’ve felt lonely, and I’ve never been invited to the right parties,” he jokes, shaking his head in mock distress. “I dunno. I mean, I know all the people in this town now. And it’s taken a while, frankly. I never wanted to ingratiate myself with people for commercial reasons, or anything like that. I just wanted to be friendly. And y’know, everybody knows me, and they probably think I’m weird, but that’s to be expected. But I know Conor O’Brien, and I think he’s probably the most interesting artist to come out of Ireland in the last 10 years. It’s one thing to have a good sound, but to actually write really clever songs with lyrics like that – where does that imagery come from? To be honest, I think he’s leagues ahead of me in certain areas. He writes lyrics as if he’s some kind of crazy prophet.”
Yet 10 albums in, a highly successful back catalogue, a career that continues to tick along promisingly, and his best album in years held firmly in his grasp, and the 39-year-old Hannon is surely now able to feel somewhat content in his more senior role?
“Well, I’ve always felt old. I’ve been an old man trapped in a young man’s body, and the older my physical state is the more happy I become, I think,” he laughs. “The dilapidation suits me.
“Basically my struggle over the last 10 years has been to reposition myself in the minds of the public as to what I’m there for. I’m not there for the big indie hits. You have to work out what you’re there for, and why people should want to listen to your music. I think perhaps a few albums ago I was trying to cling on to the exciting, but largely superficial joys of the 1990s, which was a great period of my life, but long gone.
“Basically, I just want to write absolutely, intrinsically, Hannon-type stuff, and not even remotely contemplate what anybody else is doing. Because nobody needs that from me. If they want to buy my records, it’s just to hear what I have to say, rather than me trying to get in the charts. So I’ve got to grips with this notion now, and that’s what I’m going to do.”