Neil Hannon will always best be known as The Divine Comedy, but over the last few years he has branched out into many other projects as well. From working on Charlotte Gainsbourg's album with Air to writing songs for film soundtracks and music for television, Neil Hannon has been one busy man. (Not to mention making one of my personal top five albums of the year.) We had the chance to sit down on the phone and chat with Neil for about twenty minutes not too long ago, and witnessed his charming personality first hand. Read the interview below to see what makes Neil tick in the studio and on the stage, what he thinks about the smoking ban, his ninth CD, Victory For The Comic Muse, and even plans for the future.
Tripwire: We didn't call at a bad time, did we? We know you were going to put the tea on.
Neil: No, I have finished putting the tea on, it will be ready in about 40 minutes.
Tripwire: OK good. Victory For The Comic Muse is one of my top five albums of 2006, hands down. Have you started thinking about what your top records of the last year are going to be?
Neil: Thank you very much. [laughs] Sometimes I laugh and it proves that it's extraordinarily difficult and I have to get help from friends. I'm just not diligent in my listening of what's out and about. Ya know, but I do buy the odd record. [laughs]. It could take all night just to squeeze five albums out of me.
Tripwire: OK, fair enough. As far as your albums go, I love the fact that many of your songs are written in the form of a story, something that seems to be a lost art these days. How do you come up with your subject material?
Neil: I'm not sure at all how I come up with it. It's really things that pop into my head or that I read in the newspaper or I hear from friends, or hear on the television. Ya know? The vast majority of it is pure fiction. I don't know...it's an accumulation of raw material I suppose. I have a very poor memory. Sometimes I wonder if that's a good thing in these circumstances because I forget all the important stuff and I just remember the rubbish that makes for good songs.
Tripwire: Did taking time off to write songs for other people play a role in how this album came together compared to past albums?
Neil: Yeah, I think it helped a lot actually. It wasn't the case of when I came to the album I found that I was clear of mind. It was just that I didn't know I was making an album at all to be honest. Until there it was. I just wrote a lot of stuff that I thought would be used for other purposes, and then there it was. When I decided to make the record finally about half of them weren't even songs. They were just bits of music and ideas. So I did take another eight weeks to finish all of them and arrange them. Then we just went in. I gave myself a ridiculous deadline; eight weeks to have an entire album ready to record. It's insane, but there you go. It was great fun and cheaper that way. [laughs]
Tripwire: [laughs] I heard Richard Hawley say that he wrote Cole's Corner quickly and recorded in one take after writing the songs because not only did it pay homage to the old American recording days of Sun Records, but it also captured a moment and the essence of the singer, not the song. Do you agree with this and if so is that why you recorded Victory For The Comic Muse live?
Neil: For me, I can't claim I was paying homage to those days, I just know that those records sound great, the Nina Simone records, the Johnny Cash ones. Records that were made before they understood they were making records, they were just actually recording live performances. They just sound better, you know? They really do. What I really liked about those records is that you can hear the room they were done in. You can hear that they are real people playing in a real space and so often on modern records it's just really flat and it's like a template of the music rather than the music itself. I don't know, I'm not really making a lot of sense right now. [laughs]
Tripwire: Well it is late over there, no?
Neil: It's half past seven, I really shouldn't be in this, um, state. [laughs]
Tripwire: [laughs] Your songs are so intricate and full of detail. Even after multiple listens, I still hear something new each time. Would you say that you are a perfectionist?
Neil: I think I am a perfectionist, but I battled against that on this record to be honest. Um, a term that some friends of mine have used is unbearably anal. [laughs] Uh...but I get really stuck into the nuts and bolts of arrangements and every last note has to be for a purpose. With this album I fought against that. Obviously I had fun arranging it, but its like John Williams composing for Star Wars when he knows that most of it will be obliterated by the sounds of spaceships crashing into asteroids, you know? I still think it's kinda important to put the detail in, but it doesn't really matter if you can hear every last bit of it. It's just to know it's there.
Tripwire: Cool. So how did that affect working with up to 20+ people at a time on some of the songs?
Neil: Yeah, I think the most we had was about 25, which is not very big in terms of orchestral recordings, but certainly a headache when violins and oboes are battling drums and electrical guitar.
Tripwire: So did anything crazy happen with that?
Neil: Well, I was rather hoping it would. I fully intend to continue in this line of recording but try and make it come up with more odd juxtapositions next time maybe. Yeah.
Tripwire: I know that plenty of your fans are hoping to see you on a full North American tour. Any chances that might happen in the new year?
Neil: Slim. Oh dear. [pause] To be quite honest it's just not economically viable. What can I say, I feel terrible, like a heel. You see, what I always wanted to do was bring the whole proper band. We've been playing all year, it's an eight piece really, it sounds phenomenal really, but to bring that over would spend all the money I've actually managed to make. [laughs] Oh dear, come to Europe. [laughs]
Neil: But anyway we more or less knocked the nail on the head for Europe anyway. Our three singles are up. Hmmm....
Tripwire: So I guess that means no one off for New York City or anything like that?
Neil: Well, I have a feeling there will be a one off, but I can't really illuminate you on that.
Its like John Williams composing for Star Wars, when he knows that most of it will be obliterated by the sounds of spaceships crashing into asteroids.
Tripwire: Since I grew up in Texas I never had a chance to see you live before. How much does the live experience differ from the recorded one with you?
Neil: Well, I hate to say, but it is obviously fantastic, and you don't know what you are missing. It differs in that you get a better handle on my personality live because I talk a lot of crap between the songs, about anything that comes into my head really, or people in the audience. Sometimes I have been talking and suddenly the next song starts because Andrew, my Musical Director, has decided that I have talked enough, and he just starts the next song. [laughs] Live, it's just good fun. I look at my live performances almost as important as anything in my recorded act because I really enjoy it and I think I am quite good at it after fifteen years of practice.
Tripwire: Do you ever pull out any covers or favorites?
Neil: Often, we usually do a couple of covers over the tour. On this last one we did "Raspberry Beret," and it really worked well with our lineup. It is always a breath of fresh air amongst the Hannon doom. We did "Touch Me" by The Doors in the Round House in London because that was the scene of their only UK performance. It was great with strings and brass and everything.
Tripwire: That's really cool. Do you have a favorite song you do out of your repertoire?
Neil: At the moment "The Plough" from the new album has gone down a storm because finally we are done with the European tour. Yeah, the only problem that came was I was smoking a cigarette every night during that song and it became a prop. It became the dagger at the end of the song and various other kinds of meanings. Then suddenly I found myself in Ireland and I couldn't bloody smoke on stage! Its been banned!
Tripwire: So they are doing that there too then? Because it's like that in various cities across the USA as well.
Neil: Oh yeah, the smoking ban has been in Ireland for a couple of years now and it's coming into Britain very shortly and various other places across Europe.
Tripwire: Oh man, I wonder how people in London are going to take it. [laughs]
Neil: Well, I mean, it's weird because if the Irish can stop smoking in bars then anybody can. They thought all the pubs would shut, but it didn't happen. I mean, I'm a smoker, I quite like smoking, but I'm quite happy with not smoking in pubs. But, for important performances on stage where it is needed it can get really annoying.
There is nothing quite like the sheer pant-wetting terror of live performances
Tripwire: Do you prefer stage over studio or is it vise versa?
Neil: Well, they all have different buzzes really. Writing is the sheer thrill - one moment there is nothing there, no sound with a blank sheet of paper, and then the next minute you have something real that people like. There's nothing like it really. Recording is terrifying but hugely satisfying if you get it right. There is nothing quite like the sheer pant-wetting terror of live performances though. If it goes right you are king of the world.
Tripwire: So it still bothers you sometimes even after fifteen years?
Neil: It doesn't bother me, I like the nerves and I thrive on them.
Tripwire: You have seemed to sort of hold true over the last fifteen years to the whole chamber pop genre, whereas other bands that have dabbled in it, such as Belle & Sebastian, have sort of strayed away from it. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Neil: Oh, I don't know. I never listened to the genre; I just made music I wanted to make and hoped that it goes down OK. I know Stuart from Belle & Sebastian quite well actually but only in the last several years. It's been fun to compare notes - how we kind of both looked at each other from afar going "hmmm." [laughs] It's like "I'm quite jealous of you." [laughs] So, I think Belle & Sebastian have gotten quite better and better but they don't really need me to be telling them that.
Tripwire: What do you think about some of the newer bands that are embracing it like Canada's Arcade Fire?
Neil: Arcade Fire is the best band I have heard in the last five years. They are the best new thing I have heard in centuries. It is great when a band comes along and you really weren't expecting them, or anything sounding like them and I love that record to bits. I play it over and over.
Tripwire: Very cool. One final question for you so that you can go and enjoy your tea. What is next for you?
Neil: Um, its like my life is spreading out into an ocean of nothingness. It's wonderful. I don't really know is the truth. I might finally write a musical. I am going to leave off another record for a while just cos, I don't know, I don't want people to get bored of me. [laughs] It's nice to stick around at home and play with my kid, watch the television, walk the dog and stuff like that.
Tripwire: Awesome. Thanks so much for speaking with me today, and I hope that the rest of your week is great.
Neil: Thank you very much and hopefully I can come to New York to play for you soon.