- 19 Jun 19
In one of the year’s more unexpected musical developments, The Divine Comedy have gone rather Kraftwerk-y. Eighties synth classics, ABBA, the North, Palestine, Man U and the Pope Ted musical are all up for discussion as he meets Stuart Clark.
I’m not normally a man given to pettiness but I’ve been waiting three weeks, four days, twelve hours and, let me see, forty-three minutes to say, “ner-ner-ner-ner-ner” to Neil Hannon.
“This is a football thing, isn’t?” he says with a weary look of resignation. “You’re an Everton supporter, so Man U getting thrashed 4-0 at Goodison Park, yeah? Another blemish on a spectacularly dismal season. When you watch Watford and think, ‘Ooooh, I wish we played football like that!’ you know that there aren’t going to be any open top bus parades around the red-half of Manchester. It’s been morbidly fascinating seeing how awful Paul Pogba has been in some of the games. I’m hoping that Real Madrid will come along and give us hundreds of millions for him, but why would they bother – he’s so unreliable. I’m delirious to see Ole in charge, but the players sort of need to be doing their jobs.”
Evertonian bragging rights well and truly exercised, let us turn our attentions to Office Politics, the new Divine Comedy - whisper it - concept album, which forensically examines white collar 9 to 5dom.
“It’s not about an actual office, because much to my parents’ consternation, I never worked in one or did anything regarded by them as ‘normal’,” he states. “I’m feeling guilty now because I haven’t been up to visit them for a couple of months. The nearest I got to a normal job was when I went for an interview in the local Fivemiletown creamery, which is actually in Tyrone but gravitating towards Enniskillen. They make very nice cheese apparently, but I don’t like cheese, so it wasn’t for me. What’s that Morrissey line? ‘I’ve never had a job because I never wanted one.’ After a year had passed since me leaving school, they were like, ‘Any plans?’ It was like the film, The Graduate, albeit minus having sex with Ann Bancroft.
“Anyway, Office Politics is a melange of Ricky Gervais and Reggie Perrin with a bit of The Apartment thrown in. That’s the 1950’s Jack Lemon film with typing pools, desks going on as far as the eye can see and, ‘Will he get the keys to the executive washroom or not?’ It’s a romantic construct that you can weave all sorts of tensions – political, sexual, you name it – into.”
Tracks like ‘Psychological Evaluation’ and ‘Infernal Machines’ mix The Divine Comedy’s trademark Wildean pop whimsy with Kraftwerk-ian electronics. It’s all very, well, ‘Trans Europe National Express’ “Is that going to be your headline?”
Do we have his blessing to use it?
“I’ll be disappointed if you don’t! [See print edition for actual usage! -Ed] Around 2013, I got all my old synths out again and came up with, I dunno, 25, 30 ideas which fell into two camps; the Divine Comedy sounding ones and the weird shit. It’s taken me till now to work out how to combine the two.”
‘Infernal Machines’ more than lives up to its title by sounding like a companion piece to Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’.
“It wasn’t quite that gargantuan until Guy Massey mixed it and it came back sounding ‘wooooaaaaarrrrghhhh,” Neil laughs. “To be honest, I was about to send the email going, ‘Could you tone it down a bit? ‘ and then went, ‘Nope, it’s fabulous’ and deleted it. It has to sound like it’s all over for the human race so, fuck it, everything including the kitchen-sink. What I’m looking forward to now is the Marilyn Manson cover version.”
For all of its Krautrock out there-ness, ‘Infernal Machines’ is a bubblegum pop throwaway compared to ‘The Synthesiser Service Centre Super Summer Sale’. Just how weird does the Hannon record collection get?
“I’ve some John Cage piano stuff that’s an extremely aquired taste,” he enthuses. “What I love about Spotify – and I used to be its biggest critic until I got my first royalty cheque – is that if you can think of it, you can hear it. They asked me for an artist’s playlist, so I thought, ‘Alright, I’ll bloody do it!’ and wasted weeks obsessively trawling for stuff. I’m not a multi-tasker. It’s like if somebody asks me to paint a bathroom I’ll be there for days just getting the lines absolutely ‘so’ and, ‘Oh my god, there’s a tiny little spot of blue paint on the tile’. So, I’ve put together the 30-odd – some very odd – song Synth Time Immemorial playlist with stuff like Heaven 17, OMD, Art Of Noise, Human League, and Ultravox on it. The first record I bought in 1981 was ‘Vienna’. I don’t want to say anything bad about Nik Kershaw because I was obsessed with him as a 13-year-old, but the charts started getting shit at around the time he arrived on the scene. I also found these remarkable albums from the ‘40s and ‘50s; some of it’s absolutely unlistenable, but some of it is truly brilliant. You think, ‘I did not know they could do that back then.’”
‘The Synthesiser Service Centre Super Summer Sale’ is trumped – but thankfully not Donald Trumped – in the outlandish title department by ‘Philip And Steve Furniture’s Removal Company’. How, prey tell, did that come about?
“I was walking down the canal towards Portobello, looking at the swans,” he explains. “I’d read in the paper that morning that Philip Glass and Steve Wright had moved furniture together in the ‘60s to make money and suddenly thought it’d make a great sitcom, and recorded the voice memo to myself, which is at the start of it. A song seemed a lot less hassle than writing a comedy series, so there you have it.”
One of Office Politics’ recurring themes is the dehumanising of the work place with us mere mortals being replaced by ever more sophisticated AI machines. Asked what he makes of the robot rights debate, Neil shakes his head and says, “If we’ve gotten to the point where we’re thinking about robot rights, we might as well just give up. Let’s think about humans needs. Progress is multiplied in factors of ten every year as everything gets faster and faster and faster – but to what end? I don’t understand where we’re trying to get with all of this.’”
The ‘Divine Comedy sounding songs’ Neil referred to earlier include ‘When The Working Day Is Done’, which marries classic Hannon-isms – So you keep yourself amused/ Reading the Financial Times/ Of the fellow next to you’ – to a tune redolent of ABBA’s ‘The Day Before You Came’.
“High praise indeed!” Neil beams. “I did a podcast with Colin Murray in London on Tuesday. It was a four disparate people around a table comparing record collections kind of vibe, and I was extolling ABBA’s virtues and Colin was going, ‘They’re a plague on the face of music.’ The next round was, shuffle your device, random track. One comes up on my ‘phone, which they all start grooving to. Colin says, ‘Oh, yeah, what’s this?’ and I go… ‘ABBA.’ I totally nailed it!”
Its gestation has been shrouded in secrecy, but seeing as we’ve got its musical director cornered, what’s the latest on Pope Ted: The Musical? “Well, we’re in workshop at the moment,” he reveals. “There’s endless revision. You think you’re finished… and then you’re not. Script-wise, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, and mostly the songs are there. There are still a couple of scenes where I’ve tried five different songs and it never seems to work. Really irritating things, musicals, but you’ve gotta do them!
“It’s such a terrifically high bar. We’re walking many lines and it’s a bit of a tightrope. You have to have enough of the original vibe and characters for it to make sense to Father Ted fans, but you also have to take it far enough away that it functions in its own right and isn’t just an appendage to the original, which would be pointless. The actors are different, so that immediately sets it apart. It’s capturing the essence of the original – and then breaking into song again.”
The post-Father Ted success – The IT Crowd, Black Books, Count Arthur Strong, Toast Of London etc. etc. - of its co-creators Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan is such that they don’t need to do it for the money.
“Exactly, it took a long time to convince Arthur, but then they came up with a really good plot idea and the musical made sense.”
Neil’s growing disillusionment with technology means that The Divine Comedy’s social media accounts are run on his behalf by other people.
“Graham Linehan would always give it the hard sell to me. I’d say something remotely witty and he’d say, ‘See, that, put it on Twitter and you’ll have hundreds of thousands of people following you.’ And it was like, ‘I don’t want hundreds of thousands of people following me. I’m just saying it to you!’ The more we give of ourselves online, the less we’re able to function in the real world.”
I presume Neil’s aware of the flak Graham’s been getting on Twitter over his trans comments?
Has it put him off?
“No, it eggs him on.”
The need to talk to Neil about the state of Northern Ireland stopped in 1998 shortly after the Good Friday Agreement, but has started again because of the killing of Lyra McKee.
“Yeah, it’s so grim,” he sighs. “You really hoped that era was long gone. There’s definitely an element of bored, frustrated kids from this generation looking at the old days and thinking they have a sort of, I don’t know, sheen of excitement about them. They don’t, of course, but I can understand the thought process.”
I’ve never been to the Creggan Estate, but I’m lead to believe by people living in Derry that the poverty and hopelessness in parts of it are off the scale.
“Yes, exactly. The social aspect, I think, is vastly more important than the tribal one. If, instead of bombing the fuck out of Gaza, Israel had built factories and huge cinemas and other infrastructure for them, the Palestinian question might have been solved by now.”
You’ll have to go a long way to find a grin broader than the one on Neil’s face recently when he followed the likes of Johnny Marr and Mani in unveiling his Made of Athy plaque.
“I qualified under the grandparent rule,” he laughs. “The Hannons owned huge mills there in the 19th century and employed two-thirds of the town. There was a total kind of Protestant ascendency, which I’m slightly ashamed of. But, you know, you can’t deny your family tree. Through a mixture of gambling and brow beating, it all came apart in the 1920s and most of us gravitated north to where we lot were, inverted commas, ‘safe’. I’m very grateful to you all for letting me back in!”
• Office Politics is out now on Divine Comedy Records