The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon on bishops, cricket and fights
Under the guise of the Divine Comedy, Derry-born Dublin-based Neil Hannon has been successfully plying his trade as a recording artist and live performer both here and around the world for the best part of twenty years.
Over that time he’s demonstrated a knack for creating musical concoctions that combine hummable melodies with intelligent and often amusing lyrics and rich arrangements – songs such as National Express, Something for the Weekend and 2010’s At the Indie Disco.
He’s also the man behind the Father Ted theme music and Ted’s contribution to the world of Eurovision – My Lovely Horse.
The Divine Comedy has, over the years, swelled and contracted – sometimes it’s been just Neil at the piano or guitar, sometimes he’s performed with a band, sometimes he’s had the support on stage of a band and a full orchestra. Throughout, Neil has been the one constant.
He has never been averse to the occasional collaboration, including a fully-fledged side project with fellow Irishman Thomas Walsh of the band Pugwash under the guise of The Duckworth Lewis Method, who released a concept album based around the game of cricket. Really.
He will next be seen collaborating with his real-life partner Cathy Davey and a number of other guests at the Button Factory on Friday 1 April, for The Jack Daniels-sponsored JD Set 2011.
In previous years, The JD Set has been an unsigned band competition, but from this year onwards the format is changing to feature Irish singer-songwriters covering an album by an artist that they respect and admire, with Neil the first person to be asked to pick an album and perform it – Neil’s choice being the debut album by American band Vampire Weekend.
JOE sat down with Neil at the launch of the event at Dublin’s Button Factory to talk collaborations, bishops, cricket and troublesome gigs.
JOE: So what will it be Neil?
Neil Hannon: Pint of the black stuff [a quick pause, while he remembers who’s sponsoring his forthcoming gig] and a JD, of course.
JOE: You’ve enjoyed a long and varied career, and a good deal of success with The Divine Comedy, but you’ve never been averse to fiddling around doing collaborations alongside your main day job. Is the chance to fiddle about and do something different what attracted you to do the forthcoming gig here at the Button Factory?
Neil: 'Fiddling' is the right word. I like messing about and this was right up my street. I get a lot of offers, but as soon as I saw the email offering me the chance to do something at the Button Factory, my juices started to flow. I thought, ‘That’s a cool idea’, and they pay you to do it.
JOE: That idea being...
Neil: You get to pick your favourite musicians and play your favourite albums. I don’t see what could go wrong.
I have lots of ideas involving lots of people but I just have to get them to say yes. Then we have rehearsal time in March over three days and then the gig on 1 April. It’s a little worrying but I’m looking forward to it.
JOE: And you’ve picked the debut album of a fairly new American band to cover. Isn’t covering Vampire Weekend’s first album an odd choice? Isn’t it meant to be a band who’ve influenced you, yet you’ve gone for a band who’ve been around for a lot less time than you have.
Neil: Hopefully as a musician you keep getting influenced as you go along. You don’t suddenly stop being taught by other people, and so I’m quite happy to say that when I heard Vampire Weekend’s album it blew me away – even if I have been in this game a lot longer than they have.
I heard it and I thought ‘F*cking hell, I’ve got to try harder’. The fact is that a lot of my favourite bands, whose individual songs I love, made dodgy albums. So it was very hard to find one that I could live with the whole way through. I can play it over and over again and not get sick of it, which is a good thing to do when you have to sit down and spend time listening very carefully to it in order to be able to cover it on stage.
I was struck by the lyrics and could clearly see that a lot of thought had been put into them, something which is sadly unusual in modern music. Vampire Weekend tend to start off their songs by creating this Long Island tea party vibe, but then float off into allusions to history and geography and that struck a chord with me.
JOE: Listening to what you say, and looking at the stuff you’ve written over years, you seem to be a big fan of intelligent lyrics and clever wordplay...
Neil: As long as it doesn’t rely completely on wordplay it’s alright. There are a lot of bands that I almost like because I do like clever lyrics, but there has to be a point to the lyrics, too. There has to be something that a band is trying to tell you through their lyrics, otherwise it’s all pretty meaningless.
But I definitely think there is a place in pop for intelligent music and intelligent lyrics because I still have a career [laughs]!
JOE: For the ‘JD Set’ gig you’re doing at the Button Factory you’re going to be joined on stage by Cathy Davey. JOE hears that you two are an item.
Neil: She’s my girl and I’m her man. We’ve been together for two years now. We’ve been on stage quite a few times for random things, usually charitable. She was on my last album – that’s where we met – and I was on her album, to a lesser extent.
JOE: What’s it like working with someone you go home to at night?
Neil: You have strayed into uncharted territory that we shall retreat from. It’s not something that I like to talk about.
JOE: Fair enough. You’re a Dublin dweller these days - how long have you been based here in the capital?
Neil: I’ve lived in Dublin since 2001. I feel very at home in Dublin. The city seems to suit me. If it didn’t I’d have left a long time ago.
JOE: Living in Dublin must curtail your ability to follow your strange obsession with cricket...
Neil: There’s nothing odd about liking cricket! I’ve been down the MCC, the Merrion Cricket Club [in fancy Dublin 4], but I don’t get to see as much cricket as I’d like to.
I have managed, finally, to get Sky in, enabling me to watch more. Annoyingly, I got everything fixed up and ready to go just at the point that the Ashes series finished in Australia.
I go to England quite a lot, and my lawyer has a season ticket at Lord’s Cricket Ground, so I get to see a bit of cricket over there a couple of times per year.
JOE: Can we expect more cricket-based music from your cricket-obsessed Duckworth Lewis project in the future?
Neil: It’s a bad time to write about cricket because England are doing too well at the moment. I’m sort of an England fan really. Eoghan Morgan’s almost bound to be in the side these days.
JOE: It’s unusual to hear an Irishman declare he’s a fan of an English national sporting side. You do consider yourself Irish, don’t you?
Neil: I’m Irish. Definitely. I was born and raised in Northern Ireland which obviously makes me politically British, but that’s another debate. But I’ve always had an Irish passport and my family are of old-fashioned Pale stock. I don’t know how you’d describe them, but basically my family straddles the border and has always done so.
JOE: You mention your family: what effect did it have growing up the son of a Church of Ireland bishop? You must have spent a lot of time listening to your father in cavernous churches.
Neil: I think I’m more influenced by the fact that he was my father and that a different person to me than by what he did.
I’ve heard a lot of sermons from a lot of ministers over the years and my dad’s were always the best. He taught me lots about public speaking. I think it’s pretty obvious that I was listening when I was in the choir and listening to church music because a lot of the harmonies I put into my music owe a lot to the tenor and alto parts that I was studying back then.
JOE: I got in a fight over you some years ago. My only fight since being a kid, in fact.
Neil: Oh really? Prey tell.
JOE: It was at the launch of the music channel VHI in London back at the tail end of the last century.
Neil: Was that in a warehouse in East London? I remember that – I hated that gig. People talked all the way through it. People just wanted to eat the free food and drink the free drink and they’d got us playing in the background – a total mismatch.
JOE: All the talking is what caused the fight – some self-important guy with a foghorn of a voice stood with his back to the stage next to me shouting to a girl he was trying to impress who was next to him. I told him to shut up and he didn’t take it well. I suggested he move away from the front of the stage, which he did... following me into the jacks a few minutes later. To be honest it wasn’t so much a fight as a bit of jostling and squaring up to each other.
Neil: That’s a hard physical fight for me. Thank you for fighting my corner. If I remember right that was the only night we ever attempted to play the song ‘Gin Soaked Boy’ live. It put me off forever. It was an impossible gig to do.
JOE: Getting back to the present, what does 2011 hold for Neil Hannon?
Neil: Well, I’ve the gig on 1 April, then after that I’m going to be going out playing solo again because it went down so well last time. I think I can do it again without people telling me to go away. I’ll be doing some writing between gigs, and that’s how the rest of my year will probably pan out.
JOE: How does it feel playing solo when in the past you’ve had a stage full of musicians to back you?
Neil: It has its pros and cons. The main pro is that I can do whatever the hell I like, and I can chat to the audience. It’s a very friendly gig. I love it in that regard. The down side is that all the pressure is on your shoulders and if you screw it up there’s nowhere to hide.
And I do screw it up. Regularly. But I’ve sort of made that part of the show. The audiences are generally on my side – apart from a gig at the Olympia where Thomas [from The Duckworth Lewis Method] heckled me throughout.
JOE: And finally, how do Irish audiences measure up to audiences elsewhere?
Neil: They look completely different. They have eyebrows on their cheeks and their horses are parked outside.
Seriously, every audience you play in front of across Europe – which is basically my domain – is very different. The Irish make a bit more noise. A lot of European audiences are deathly quiet during songs, which can be as unnerving as it is good. But then you get to Istanbul and they talk all the way through.
I’ve actually spent most of my time playing to people whose first language isn’t English, which has made me think that there must be something in the music I make.
Tickets for Neil Hannon and friends’ exclusive JD Set performance of Vampire Weekend’s debut album at the Button Factory are free and are available via registration at www.thejdset.ie .