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Whats Neil Hannon On This Christmas
Outstanding In a Field - The Divine Comedy mainman casts a steely eye over the millennium's last hurrah. INTERVIEW: STUART CLARKE
Stuart Clark, 08 Dec 1999
HE'S MANAGED to keep it from the tabloids, but for the past two months the Hannon residence in Muswell Hill has been resounding to the pitter patter of tiny feet. Four of them.
"The stork has bought us a beautiful black labrador puppy called Leah," reveals the doting father. "It was a bit, well, pooey at first but the carpets have recovered and we're now one big happy family. Actually, it's great having somebody or, in this case, something which depends on you totally. I know this isn't very rock 'n' roll, but we've been going to puppy training classes every Thursday night. And doing very well, I hasten to add. She still jumps up too much, but otherwise we have an extremely obedient dog."
Is this a dry-run for full homo sapiens parenthood?
"It certainly wasn't dry for the first couple of weeks!" he chuckles. "No, we ain't planning nothing, mate. I'm sure that one day Leah will have a human brother or sister, but for the time being we're consolidating our position as newly-weds."
It's often the case that celebrity babies require meticulous planning - one of the ABBA couples famously spending the whole of May 1973 bonking because January 1974 was the only free month in their diary for two years.
"I'm sure we could convert the tour bus into a mobile crèche. No, while the idea of doing what have you for four weeks has a certain appeal, I'm not going to let something as inconsequential as the music industry dictate to me how I live my life. Anyway, I imagine it's highly unlikely that The Divine Comedy's annual earnings will ever rival that of Volvo's. We're more of a Reliant Robin sort of a band."
1999 has been a disgustingly good year for Neil Hannon, with 'The Pop Singer's Fear Of The Pollen Count' giving him his biggest single success yet, the A Secret History 'Best Of ' going effortlessly gold, and his marriage to the fair Orla.
"The day itself was wonderful, but the five months leading up to it were hell," he confides. "I've never been as mind-numbingly busy as I was this year, but you're right, there was a sense of moving up a division. We've stopped being Notts County, and are now Queen's Park Rangers."
Not only that, but along the way he's made a crucial discovery that, courtesy of Hot Press, he's now going to impart to his fellow musicians.
"Yeah, if you want to write lots of songs, really quickly, go on honeymoon. We took ourselves off to this marvellous place on the Pacific Mexican coast, and they just splurged out. The idea was to completely forget about music for a few weeks, but I ended up going to the market and trying to buy myself a guitar. The only sort they had, though, were crap tourist ones, so what I came home with was mostly lyrics.
"All of which means that I'm now sitting on about 20 songs which will make up the backbone of the new album. The plan this time round is to bring the band in at a much earlier stage. I'm still ultimately in control, but like in the North, I've devolved some of my powers. I throw them raw lumps of music, and they come up with the arrangements."
While puppies, QPR and ABBA's past sexual history all make for fascinating reading, the real reason we're in the Shelbourne today is so that Neil can cast a steely eye over the millennium's last hurrah. You wouldn't think it to look at him, but he could take Jeremy Paxman in a fight, easy.
On Northern Ireland's new Minister for Education
"Being from the Proddy side, it kind of sticks in your throat that a person who's openly condoned violence, is now responsible for the future of our children. Personally, the very idea of Sinn Féin gives me a chill down the spine because they haven't exactly been fighting the good fight. Ditto some of the Loyalists who are as bad, if not worse, on occasions. If putting Martin McGuinness in charge of kids' education is what it takes to stop the murders, fair enough, it's a price worth paying. Just don't expect me to like him or his kind."
. . . Being Devolved
"I haven't had much practical experience of it yet living in Muswell Hill, but watching things with keen interest on TV, you can't help feeling that there's no turning back. As soon as the IRA declared their ceasefire, there was a total change of atmosphere. Everybody was going, "Mmm, this peace lark's a bit of alright." Having made-do, they were suddenly handed a quality of life that they're holding on to, thank you very much!
"Another thing - never underestimate the effect that ninety grand a year and a ministerial car has on politicians. Forget all this bollocks about serving the community, people go into politics because they want power. You think that after being chauffeured around Bairbre de Bruin's going to start taking the bus again? No way.
"History will give Mo Mowlam the credit she deserves, but it needed a new face at the end to push things through. And really piss Ian Paisley off. Whatever about Mo being too touchy feely, I bet he runs a mile when Peter Mandelson comes into the room."
. . . Television
"The main reason I've been glued to the telly this year is to follow the rise and rise of the glorious Reds. And no, I don't mean Barnsley! My first time actually going to Old Trafford was for the Champions' League quarter-final against Inter Milan. The feeling as you go through the tunnel, and hear all that noise, is amazing.
"I'd have tried going to the final, except that it coincided with us recording the Tom Jones duet in South London. I said, 'Right, you carry on with the mixing and I'll see you at full-time!' The feeling when that second goal went in . . .no disrespect to the wife, but it was better than sex.
"The thing which brought the magnitude of working with Tom Jones home to me was him having problems getting his head round the melody, and saying, 'The only time this has happened to me before is when Burt tried to teach me 'What's New Pussycat?'' Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be in loco Burt Bacharach."
. . . Eddie Irvine
"I met him last Thursday at the Ferrari Constructors' Championship party which, after much grovelling, we managed to blag our way into. After establishing that, no, he'd never heard of the Divine Comedy, we had a little chat about the time he went fishing in Enniskillen and didn't catch anything. I was dying to say, 'Ah, you were using the wrong fly, mate,' but it's probably the subject I'm least expert in. Nonetheless, it was a magical moment."
. . . Bono
"My reasons for wanting to meet him were part ironic, and part complete and utter devotion to U2 as a kid. I'm sure it's not the same for people who live in Dublin and see him walking round all the time, but I completely went to pieces.
"I was just the right age to think that The Joshua Tree was the best thing ever, and recognise Rattle ... Hum for the self-important twaddle it was. You go through a period of hating them, and then they come back with two of the greatest albums of any era."
. . . Scott Walker
"I'm a lucky bastard in that I've now met all of my heroes. Eddie Irvine, Michael Nyman, Bono and the man who made me more jelly-legged than I've ever been before, Scott Walker. He was on this album we were helping to make with Ute Lemper, but because he kept odd hours, we kept missing him.
"Anyway, I'd given up hope when our producer, John Jacobs, rang and said, 'Get your arse down here, he's coming in.' To cut a long story short, we were introduced and he turned out to be every bit as wonderful as I'd hoped he'd be. He's 56, in very good nick, and blessed with something that goes beyond charisma."
. . . Robbie Williams
"I love him dearly, but I wish he'd stop moaning all the time. Take it from me, there are worse things than being a pop star. I suspect that going to America, and not getting much attention, will make him realise how good he's got it here.
"The only malady I suffer from is the occasional Art vs. Pop moodswing. I worry that the people who like our 'gimme all your money' singles will buy our albums, and hate the dark, leftfield stuff which makes up the other 50% of what we do. If I could just knit the two together better, I'd feel a lot less guilty."
. . . The effect of marriage on one's art
"I'm going to have knock the "I wanna make love to you woman down by the fireside" stuff on the head! Joking apart, I couldn't make a Casanova Part 2 because I don't have, and don't want, that experience anymore.
"It was a wonderful 'Oh my God, I can shag!' moment captured perfectly, but I've moved on. Which isn't to say that the next album's going to be about puppies and pitiful attempts at D-I-Y. The well I draw my inspiration from is a bit deeper than that."
. . . Albums of the Year
"Midnite Vultures by Beck wins, partly because it only came out two weeks ago and is still fresh in the mind. The one complaint that people seem to have about him is a lack of emotion, but who gives a fuck when the music's awesome? Each song's got so many different layers to it.
"Sucker as I am for a good tune, I rather like the Travis album. There's nothing wrong with being straightforward if the execution's as good as theirs is.
"Best Debut was Macy Gray, and Best Doing What They've Always Done, Only Better, Supergrass. I saw them recently at The Forum in London, and they rocked.
"Most Disappointing, by the way, was Gomez. Everybody raves about them, but their current record is incredibly dull."
. . . MP3
"What's that? Oh, those internet file things which are going to completely revolutionise the music industry. I realise that as an artist I should be more aware of technology, but I've only just come to terms with MiniDisc. What I do know is that the term 'user-friendly' is a lie. We tried to download bits of NetAid, and it took us bloody ages to find the right player.
"Do I think that NetAid only raising a couple of million dollars was down to 'compassion fatigue'? No, I think it was 'watching big gigs at Wembley Stadium fatigue'. People will respond to a new and imaginative idea, which despite its hi-tech pretensions, NetAid wasn't.
"They've gone and met all sorts of world leaders, so maybe it'll yield more politically."
. . . Drunk Drummers Falling Off Their Stools
"Ah, the infamous car-park gig in Belfast! The only person in a band who can't get away with having a bad day is the drummer, 'cos they're the ones holding everything together. What happened to our fella is that he missed the plane over and sought solace, as you do, in the airport bar.
"He also got full value for money from the in-flight drinks trolley, hence the avant garde nature of his playing. It was a bit of a dark day, although we did manage a rather splendid version of 'Sunrise' at the end. With the whole of East Belfast laid out behind us, we needed to do that particular song justice."
. . . Playing the Millennium Concert in Merrion Square
"We weren't going to do our own ludicrously-priced New Year's Eve gig in case no-one turned up, but with this being free, and us getting paid loads of money, everybody's a winner. With the night that's in it, we're going to ditch the slow stuff and play 'National Express' six times in a row.
"I'm just wondering what the story's going to be viz a viz on-stage heating. I've got my designer Paul Smith lagging-jacket, but I'm worried that if it gets too sub-zero my brain will stop functioning.
"The only way I'm going to worry about millennium bugs is if, when they're celebrating 13 hours before us, Australia suddenly disappears off the map. That would cause me to mildly panic."
. . . Barbra Streisand charging a grand a seat for her New Year's Eve concert in L.A.
"I wouldn't pay $1,000 to see God, never mind Barbra Streisand. I mean, what if Babs has a cough that night? A lot of very greedy people are going to have their fingers burned on New Year's Eve because punters ain't going to pay seventy-five quid to see a band who on any other night of the year would be charging a tenner in.
"The best one so far is M People cancelling their Manchester show due to "audience demographics." In classic Spinal Tap fashion, they're blaming the dismal ticket sales on the fact that their fans are young married couples with kids, and can't get babysitters. Bollocks, they were just charging too much."
* The Divine Comedy join David Gray, Picture House and the Afro-Celt Sound System for the New Year's Eve Millennium Concert in Merrion Square. Tickets are free but must be obtained in advance from Ticketmaster outlets nationwide.