"I rarely mean to make an album, to be honest. They just sort of happen..." - hmv.com talks to The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon
First emerging as something of an outlier to his surroundings in the mid-1990s, Neil Hannon - the man behind The Divine Comedy - has outlasted many of his peers from the Britpop era. His idiosyncratic and wry songwriting style has earned the band an enduring fanbase and seen Hannon release a dozen albums under the Divine Comedy banner over the last 30 years, as well as working on several side projects (including a cricket-themed concept album under the name The Duckworth Lewis Method) and writing music for for film and television - perhaps most memorably, in that field, he is responsible for the theme tune to comedy series Father Ted.
In 2020 Hannon released a career-spanning box set containg all of The Divine Comedy's albums from the last three decades, but this week marks the arrival of a new Best Of collection - The Divine Comedy's first 'Greatest Hits' album since 1999.
Charmed Life: The Best of The Divine Comedy lands in stores on Friday (February 4) and ahead of its release we spoke to Neil Hannon about delving back through all of his old songs, his recent work creating music for the upcoming Wonka film starring Timothée Chalamet, and a run of shows he's planning later this year performing 10 albums in five days...
A couple of years ago you released the box set for Divine Comedy’s 30th anniversary, and this is your first greatest hits since 1999 - what prompted all of this?
“To be honest, we meant to do something for the 20th anniversary, but we forgot. It came and went, and we were too busy making cricket albums and musicals for kids. So when we got to two or three years ago, when we were making Office Politics, Natalie, my manager, and myself – who between us are basically the record label as well - we decided that the time was right. No more messing about, we’re going to do a massive reappraisal of everything that we’ve done over 30 years.
“Apart from anything else, I just kind of fancied it. I thought it’d be a bit of a break from just doing another album. Weirdly it coincided with the COVID emergency, so actually I think it’s been better to be doing something like this, what with all the lockdowns and everything, than it would’ve been with a real album.”
Your last greatest hits came quite early on in your career- it must have been much more of a challenge this time now that you have such a large back catalogue. Did you set any criteria for doing that?
“Yeah, there were so many criteria, it was pretty hard this time. I suppose there were three main kinds of constituents. There were the singles, obviously, but if I’d put on every single it would have been far too long and it still would have left out far too many songs that I thought we ought to have on. And you tend to release similar-sounding songs as singles, because they’re the ones you think might work for radio. When in fact, to give a better and more rounded impression of what I do, it’s important not to just put all the singles on.
“There’s a lot of songs that sort of need to be there, for one reason or another, like ‘Tonight We Fly’, which we’ve used as the last song in every set since 1994. So that had to be on. ‘Songs of Love’ had to be on because it was also the Father Ted theme tune and everybody likes it, but it wasn’t a single. And there’s ‘Our Mutual Friend’, which is sort of a fan favourite and one of the most-streamed songs of ours, but that was never a single either, mainly because it’s about seventeen minutes long.
"So there were lots of of things like that, and then there are a couple of things that are on there because I think they’re some of the best things I’ve ever done and I want people to hear them again, to give them another listen. ‘Charmed Life’ especially, and I really thought that was a good sentiment for a ‘Best Of’, really.”
Are there any songs you rediscovered in doing all of that? There must be a few that drop out of your setlist and never really make it back…
“Yeah, there were. And there were also plenty where I thought: ‘Jesus, what were you thinking?’ I think the vast majority of the songs that I’ve written over the years have been played live at one stage or another, but there’s probably at least a good five percent that have never been played live at all. So that’s going to be interesting when we do all of the albums live at the Barbican in September.
“There was nothing that I didn’t remember, because every song that I write occupies the whole of my brain for a good three weeks, or probably more when you factor in the recording. So not that many surprises in that sense, but I suppose what did take me by surprise was if a song sounded particularly good. Or particularly bad.”
You’ve overseen the remastering of all the albums too – was there anything you looked back at and thought: I wish I’d done that differently?
“Remastering is a bit of a hocus-pocus art form to me. I know that they do something really important, but I just can’t quite figure out what it is. To be honest, I’m not Mr. Sonics or Mr. Hi-Fi Audio Man, I care a lot more about the notes and the instruments used. I should care more about those kind of things, I suppose, but you’ve got to have your priorities. And, you know, some of my favourite records of other people’s sound absolutely abominable.”
Has the way you write and record changed much over the last 30 years?
“It’s gone through long cycles. Epochs, if you will. There was the crummy four-track era, where I tried to do things that you can’t possibly do on a four-track, but I would build these things layer by layer until the tape hiss was unimaginable. So I’d have these arrangements that I think maybe only I could really hear in amidst the mountains of hiss, and then I’d try and turn them into real records.
“Then I got a bit more technological, I moved onto Logic in the late 90s, having never touched a computer until I was about 30. I don’t think they’d even bought any computers at my school by the time I’d left, and suddenly everybody else in the world seemed to know how to use computers, apart from me. I’d never been in an office job or anything and I’d never had any use for them. So that was a bit of a shell-shock scenario, but I got used to it. And that kind of changes your writing, when you can see everything in front of you and move individual notes and things, crazy things that you couldn’t even imagine before.”
What about these days?
“Well, the even crazier era began when I met my partner Cathy, who had already had a long and profitable recording career here in Ireland, and we kind of threw all our equipment together. But she had ProTools and all this industry-standard recording equipment, all these wonderful-sounding microphones and things. Suddenly I was able to make half the record at home, and that changes things really radically. Only now, 12 years later, I’m beginning to wonder whether that’s such a good thing. Because I really kind of yearn now for the way of doing it in the 90s, with an engineer and a tape machine, and all of the difficulties that come with that. Because they seem to make it better, somehow.”
There’s at least one new song - ‘The Best Mistakes’ – on the new album, are there any other new ones?
“It’s the only one on the actual Best Of tracklist, but with the CD version there’s also a super extra bonus album, which has all sorts of things. With The Best Mistakes, it was basically a chorus refrain that I’d had sitting around for years, and it wasn’t even the same lyrics as you hear today. But for the anniversary I went looking for tunes that might fit the bill, and if I hadn’t found one I’d probably just have written a new one. But that chorus just seemed to really work with the sentiment, so I finished the songs and it just seemed to sort of work alongside everything so I’m pretty happy with it. I’m not generally a fan of new tracks on Best Of albums, to be honest, but it just seems the done thing. So If I had to do it, I’m glad I did it like this.”
What else did you add to the bonus disc?
“It’s a bit of a crazy mix. I wrote so many songs in the early part of the 2010s and I’ve been putting them on albums ever since, on Foreverland and on Office Politics. That was a double album and I still had songs left over afterwards. So with this I took the opportunity to clear the decks. Everything that I had left is now gone, and as a result the super extra bonus album is pretty mental, to be honest. It veers wildly from one genre to the next. There’s a sort of Tom Tom Club, early 80s electro thing, a string quartet, and a paean to Spain that was written as a sort of fake Eurovision entry a couple of years ago.”
We understand you’re writing songs for the new Wonka film too, how did you get involved with that?
“All of the songs are already written for that, in fact they’ve almost finished filming it now, I think. So that means they can’t get rid of me. This was my master plan, that eventually one of my uber-fans would grow older and become powerful in the film industry. And Paul King, who made the Paddington films, is apparently a big fan of mine. I didn’t know this, until he called me up and said: ‘Would you like to try writing some songs for this new Wonka film I’m making?’ And of course I jumped at the chance, because I’d always wanted to get into the musical game. I did do a small one, for Swallows and Amazons, about 15 years ago, but I always tend to think that the filmed versions of musicals are better than the theatrical ones. So I’ve jumped the theatrical hurdle and gone straight to film.”
We can really imagine you doing something like that, in a classic ‘Saturday matinee’ kind of style…
“I’ve worked very hard not to say the wrong thing, because they’ll probably just kill me if I do, so I’m not going to give the game away as far as the style of music is concerned. All I’ll say is that it’s pretty classic. It’s not in any way contemporary. I just can’t do contemporary, anyway. I always think that my music sounds like it could have come from any period in the last 150 years. So I just did what I did, and they seemed to like it.”
What about the next Divine Comedy album? When might we expect that to arrive?
“The wonderful thing is that I have absolutely no idea. I rarely mean to make an album, to be honest. They just sort of happen. I end up with a lot of songs that start to feel like they’re coming together into a certain type of feel or something like that. So then I’ll start thinking about an album and eventually one appears. I mean, I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing albums, really. It’ll become increasingly unseemly as I get older, of course, but I don’t care. As long as people buy enough of them to enable me to make more, then I think I probably will.”
You mentioned a string of shows at the Barbican in London later this year?
“Yes, so it’s two albums a night for five nights, so ten albums. But we decide dnot to do Office Politics. I think it’s still too recent, and you do kind of need things to filter down into people’s consciousness a little bit more. And anyway, 10 seemed like a nice round number. We were supposed to do them two years ago, then it got postponed for a year, and then when we got a little bit nearer to it we realised that we were going to have to put them back another year.
But it’s like if you have a test at school, and for some reason it can’t be done, so you think: ‘Great, I’ve got all this extra time to do the revision that I needed to in the first place’. And then you still don’t do it. So let’s put it this way; there’s a lot of revision to be done. But I’m sure by then we’ll be practiced to the hilt."
For the rest of the UK dates you’re doing though, will that be more of a career-spanning set?
“Yeah, I mean the Spring tour is basically a Greatest Hits, no more lockdown, let’s-have-a-party kind of vibe. It would be hard to come back with some artistic new record that nobody knows, and it really seems like good timing to just go out, play the hits and have a really good time.”
Charmed Life: The Best of The Divine Comedy is available in hmv stores now - you can also find it here in our online store.