“I’m very bloody minded and quite contrary, that’s what makes you interesting to the general public…” - hmv.com talks to The Divine Comedy
It’s been six years since The Divine Comedy’s 2010 LP Bang Goes The Knighthood, but they return this week with a new album Foreverland.
To celebrate its release we spoke to mainman Neil Hannon about what he’s been up to for the last six years, life on his own label and why this is an album inspired by history books and BBC Four...
It’s been six years since your last album, what have you been up to?
“Three years of the six were taken up with this record. The first three were taken up with promoting the last album, then I did the second Duckworth/Lewis record and then I had a few strange commissions, so I’ve been doing various other things. Once I finished touring Sticky Wickets (his second album with side project The Duckworth/Lewis Method) I found myself completely at a loss, I love that moment.”
Did you have a goal for the album? Anything you particularly wanted to write about?
“The big ideas tend to emerge as you’re writing, I never have them beforehand. I write about what interests me and my life, that always gets involved. The vibe came together slowly.”
Given the time between albums, did you have a lot of songs ready to go?
“In the past I’ve tended to write 12 or 13 songs, record them all and then drop one, but this time it was quite different, I wrote and wrote and wrote, I ended up with 25 songs or so. It took me a while to figure out what I was doing and I even thought about a double album, but I just couldn’t make it hang together, there were too many disparate ideas. This album is all on one plot, whether that plot is obvious to people I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, it’s just one way to get from the end of the album to the beginning.”
You’re quite self-contained and you write on your own, how hard is it to finally let other people in and commit to recording?
“That’s always a big moment. I have to take a deep breath and give myself a deadline, so I book studio time to make sure I’m ready. I have a pretty good studio set-up at home, but I need to be given something to work to, otherwise I’ll just potter about at home for the rest of my life.”
What kind of lyricist are you? Where do your words come from?
“I go through life making notes, sometimes that’ll be fully formed lyrics, sometimes it’s just a title or a couplet. Occasionally I’ll write a piece of music and the words pop into my head, but other times it’s going through my notebook and hoping words attach themselves to something. Somehow things gravitate towards other things.”
Can you sum up this album lyrically?
“It’s a very schizophrenic album, sometimes it’s autobiographical and about the six or seven years I’ve had with Cathy (Davey, Hannon’s partner) and at other times it’s weirdly not personal at all. There are songs about Napoleon and diplomatic treaties, foreign legions, I’m the sum of my parts, I watch a lot of BBC Four and I read a lot of history books, it all splurges its way out in my lyrics.”
“For me, just saying 'Ooh, I’ve had a bit of my bad day and I’m rather annoyed with my girlfriend’ isn’t enough, I don’t want to hear that. If I write about that sort of thing, it’s in a disguised way, when I get something overtly autobiographical my middle class reserve kicks in and I think 'I don’t think I needed to know that', things need to be slightly hidden.”
Was the album always going to be called Foreverland?
“It was the title for quite a while, then I got cold feet and then I changed my mind again. I wrote the song and it summed up a lot of things, it’s about searching for a certain kind of life, finding a comfortable place, whether that’s a person or a state of mind or a physical place. There are a lot of ‘Lands’, Tomorrowland, Neverland, so I worried about being derivative, but I decided just to go for it, it works.”
This is your second album on your own DC Records label, how is self releasing going?
“I do it myself in the sense that my manager does it all and I sign off on things. I would say it was liberating, but I always did what I wanted anyway, even when I was on a major record label. Sometimes they would try and tell me what to do, but I never believed that they really meant it, so I just ignored them. I’m very bloody minded and quite contrary, it makes me who I am, that’s what makes you interesting to the general public.”
Have you sorted your live set at this point? You’ve got a lot of songs to choose from...
“It’s the bane of my life. 11 albums and people who come to see me seem to all want to hear different songs, I don’t know what I’ll be doing, we’ll be playing a good amount of the new album because that’s what we’re promoting and I like it. We’ll do a lot of the last album too, I only played that solo and it’d be nice to do it with a band. But of course we’ll be playing the usual suspects, ‘National Express’, ‘Tonight We Fly’, ‘Lady Of A Certain Age’, I’m nothing if not a crowd pleaser.”
You could aim for Bruce Springsteen style sets...
“I can only play for as long as my puny body will allow me to. If I play for an hour and 45 minutes I get so tired I need to go to bed straight away. I’ve got no idea how Bruce does it, he works out doesn’t he? That must be it…”