Coming soon: Neil Hannon and the Divine Comedy

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Orchestral pop maestro on 20 years of making records, two nights at the London Palladium and why he should have been born French

Boundless: Can you introduce your new album, Foreverland for us?

Neil Hannon: I guess it was inspired by my personal history over the last six or seven years… and history documentaries on BBC4.

Has your idea of what makes a great record changed since you first started out in the 1990s?

I do have very different views than I did back then. Its only natural, I think… All of these records match up artistically because, unlike a lot of people, I don’t use many collaborators when I make records: they are just a large section of my brain placed onto whatever medium people are listening on. I have such vivid ideas of how things should sound it would be crazy to bring other people in because it would only dilute that.

Your sound – strings, brass, harpsichords, accordions – seems unchanged throughout, though…

The problem is, in my most formative years – late teens, early 20s, I got obsessed by mid-to late 60s orchestral pop and a lot of French stuff. And basically that’s the instrumentation. And I find it very hard to get away from it. I really consciously started this record by saying it was going to be a synth pop record. I love Human League, Soft Cell, OMD, Gary Numan, Japan, the list is endless. Because that’s another huge part of my musical upbringing. And I had all my old analogue synths and my drum machines and when I did it, I couldn’t help comparing what I’d done to the things I loved and finding them wanting. In the end I just played one on the piano and I thought, ‘Yep – that works’.

You do seem to belong to that French tradition, if that’s even possible for a non-French person…

And a non-French speaker, too… It’s largely because of Scott Walker and his reading of Jacques Brel's stuff (obviously I have to say he’s Belgian, but French-speaking). When I heard those songs, I thought ‘This is crazy: I love this stuff’ – it was so brutally honest in so many ways and so poetic at the same time. So I looked into Jacques Brel and loved it. And from there it was a short hop to Serge Gainsbourg and Edith Piaf. But then I love a bit of German cabaret as well and a lot of film soundtracks. And it all kind of merges into one…

Are there any other less well-known French artists you think we should know about?

I like Georges Brassens, even though he’s laughed at occasionally by French people I know for being a bit ‘songs you hear at weddings’. But I’ve seen translations of his lyrics and I find them lovely and slightly like [English comic songsters of the 50s/60s] Flanders and Swann, quite silly but quite thoughtful at the same time…

Surely when you first started bands with your teenage pals they all just wanted to play rock?

Oh – I was just as much into it as they were. When I started out I was the epitome of an 80s indie kid. Primarily I was a massive REM and Pixies fan and then more obscure shoegazers: Pale Saints, Chapterhouse, Ride… But I experienced Michael Nyman before I got into French or European stuff. Because I’d watched Peter Greenaway films and was completely blown away by how full-on and punky Nyman made a string quartet sound. And through my early 20s I drifted further and further away from the idea of a four-piece rock band. I still liked it. I just liked the other stuff even more. And then maybe in the mid '90s I tried to try and connect the two a bit more…

Articles about you always say ‘Neil Hannon is/was an unlikely pop star’...

Well they’re right!

But you had top ten hits…

I still find it moderately hilarious…

Was life different as a pop star?

I always thought I was a bit of an interloper. Like I was playing at being a pop star while every one else was doing it properly. I remember turning up to a joint interview with Jarvis Cocker with the French magazine Les InRocks. I went to the interview wearing an old green wax jacket that I'd got for a pound in Camden Market. I thought, 'Well, there’s no photos – why would I dress up?’ And I heard back through a mutual friend that Jarvis had said, ‘What was that all about? What was he wearing?’ And the line that really stuck in my head was, ‘You’ve got to live it’. And I thought, ‘Oh I ‘m getting it wrong?! I'm meant to be living this whole thing, rather than just wearing the clothes occasionally for photographs. It’s two sides of the same coin. I adore Jarvis and his work. I think he was right and wrong at the same time.

He famously said he was ‘never off duty’...

I wish I’d had his work ethic! 

Does your audience influence you in your writing – what has proved popular in the past, what might delight them in the future.

I’m influenced by it subconsciously. But I‘m constantly trying to ignore them. Which is nothing against my lovely audience. But the reason I think that people take to my music is because it’s so ‘me’ and it’s because it’s what I want to hear. So to make music they want to hear, ironically I have to try and ignore them completely!

But I am aware that certain songs have hit the nail on the head. I realise why a song has struck a chord because it’s maybe a bit more honest, or a little less knowing.

‘Other People’ is one of the highlights of the new album: a very sincere ballad that you almost toss away: it just stops halfway through. Why’s that?

Well, I was being honest! I recorded it on my phone in a hotel room in London, just sung into my phone and thought no more about it. But I listened back to it in the later stages of writing the album but I had no idea where to take it. So I used the original phone recording and arranged a string section to come in. You can hear the buses in the background! I liked that I had had this profound thought but I’d run out...

Do you still send Scott Walker all your records?

I did stop after a while. I think I sent him the first three. It seems odd to me now. But I can understand, I was so obsessed by him at the time… 

Is that so strange? To want to show your stuff to people you admire?

But it’s slightly ego-mad to send your own records. At least it wasn’t crazed portraits of him…

2002: Neil Hannon's Divine Comedy support David Bowie

Are there any songs of yours you think have been particularly unjustly neglected?

Well, there’s an awful lot to get through! 11 albums. The problem is that people did respond generally to ones that were really good – but sometimes we didn’t release them as singles. People think of ‘Our Mutual Friend’ as one of the best songs, and I agree, but we didn’t release it as a single. ‘Absent Friends’ we released as a single and it was roundly ignored… it suffered a little bit from wanting to be a certain sort of song, a [Jacques Brel song] ‘Mathilde’. 

But I really like ‘Diva Lady’ [From 2006's Victory for the Comic Muse]. I love Grace Jones and I love really cool 80s pop, produced by Trevor Horn. Bryan Ferry. So it has a bit of that about it and nobody else wanted that at all. And it can be because your fans love you for a certain thing you do and when you try and do something else they say, ‘Well we didn’t sign up for this.’ And they’re probably right. But I did it honestly. Because I liked it!

There’s always a departure from your trademark sounds on a Divine Comedy album. On this one, ‘How Can You Leave Me On My Own’ sounds like ELO…

Well you can find ELO touches creeping in all over the place. I’m aiming for the Walker Brothers then suddenly it’s ELO. ELO are my most profound influence, whether I like it or not because my elder brother loved them, so I heard those records as a 6 or 7 year old over and over again…

Would you ever do Eurovision to rescue the situation for Great Britian?

I’ve been asked similar questions in Ireland. We’re all sentimental for the old days but things change and I now wouldn’t want to be part of it. Eurovision sucks now. Who cares if it goes down the tubes?

You’re playing the Folies Bergère and two nights at the London Palladium on this tour. Are those great old, pre-rock theatres a natural home for you?

Well, they seem to suit me. I was a little disappointed when finally I had to admit I was not a stand-up rock show kind of act. But it’s nice. I just think about where I’d want to go and see a show. And I don’t want anywhere that doesn’t have comfy chairs and a G and T at the interval.

New photos of Neil Hannon by Raphael Neal. Archive photos with David Bowie by Getty Images.

Foreverland is released on 2 September.

The Divine Comedy's 15-date UK tour starts in Aberystwyth on 7 October. In addition, the band play The London Palladium on 21 & 22 February 2017 and the Albert Hall, Manchester on 25 February 2017. Full details: thedivinecomedy.com/live/ 

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