Thursday, 15 April 2004

The Divine Comedy - Friends of the Earth

With startling return to form new album Absent Friends putting THE DIVINE COMEDY once more into the baroque pop spotlight, singer NEIL HANNON talks to STARSANDHEROES about sloth, astute ears and karaoke.

Hello Neil. Where ever have you been?
I’ve been all over the shop! I spent quite a while in America, but then again, that was quite a while back. The baby was born at the end of 2001 [Neil’s daughter, Willow, was born on 19th December, coincidentally also his wife Orla’s birthday], and I would’ve liked to have taken a break at that point, but unfortunately Ben Folds rang up and said, ‘I’ve got a three-month tour, can you support me?’, so I was away by the end of February – I think it’s the longest tour I’ve ever been on!

Do you enjoy touring?
Well, it’s weird. Touring is obviously something you have to do, and because of that, I make sure I enjoy it, but I think if I didn’t have to do it, I’d find it very hard to go out of my way to get one. Then again, I suppose I do like the thrill of going off on travels, but after a couple of weeks you kind of go, ‘I wanna go home!’. You just have to try to get yourself out of the hotel bed in the morning and see something, otherwise it’s completely pointless and you might as well be playing the same town every night.

What can we expect from the Divine Comedy live experience in 2004?
It’s not a massive orchestra – it’s more of an ensemble. I was gonna go for the orchestra, at least 25 or 30 people, but whereas in the old days I’d be happy to have thrown all my money away, these days it’s not quite so practical. I’m really glad we did the orchestral tour when we did [in support of 1997’s ‘A Short Album About Love’] because at that stage I had no other priorities. I had no idea how much the thing was costing, and I didn’t really mind. It was just, ‘we can, so let’s!’.

Do you still play tracks from your whole career?
I’m trying to have a couple from each album, cos there are seven bleedin’ albums to choose from – setlists get harder, every album you make. People are going to find great significance in what you choose, which is why I like the trio as well: I’ve got a trio of piano, cello and myself, and we’ll be doing lots and lots of gigs after the initial April ones. In that way there’s less pressure on the setlist, cos you can do pretty much anything. The 16-piece gigs are quite a headache, you can’t just use arrangements from when we had the orchestra last, because we’ve got half the number of instruments.

Absent Friends is something of a return to ornate orchestration after the indie-rock stylings of 2001’s Regeneration album – was this deliberate?
It’s less a case of going back, it’s more…after I dissolved the band, I took a long while to figure out why I dissolved the band. I worked out that it was because I felt completely cramped and constrained within the whole thing, and also it just wasn’t as fun as it was in the beginning. I’ve worked with Joby Talbot throughout, however - we have a telepathic thing going on that makes it really stupid to work with anybody else.

When you left Setanta and signed to Parlophone for ‘Regeneration’, did you feel under any pressure to create a more orthodox, commercial record?
If I was under pressure it was purely self-inflicted. The record company have always been great – I haven’t noticed a vast amount of difference really, because Keith [Cullen, Setanta boss] used to let me do whatever I want, and ‘the new Keith’ lets me do whatever I want. I knew what I was after with ‘Regeneration’, it was a general movement from ‘just me’ to ‘the whole band’. It was an important thing to do, but instead of starting something, it seemed to be an end in itself, to be honest. I love the record, but I didn’t have much fun making it – I missed the ‘obsessive hermit, in his attic for three months trying to make a record’ environment.

What were you aiming for with Absent Friends?
What I tried to do was take all the things I thought I’d done best over the years and distill them into one focused album that sounded really lovely. All the previous records have an air of getting on and getting through, all about progress and experimentation. It was intense, and some of it’s quite hard to listen to, musically and lyrically – it was all quite, ‘young man in a hurry’. But now I’m virtually sloth-like, you can hardly see me move! I made this record last summer, and I still play it out of enjoyment, which is something I’ve never done before. I just wanted to stop experimenting so much…it seems like, ‘what the hell have I been doing all these years?’, but in a way I was always doing something for the sake of what was going to happen next.

As a child, did you ever have an imaginary friend?
I just didn’t have any friends! No, but I was always interested in what sort of personality you must have – you obviously have to have an over-active imagination, which I did; but you’d also have to be vaguely schitzophrenic. I nicked the idea [for album track ‘My Imaginary Friend’] from a Peter Sellers film, which one day I’ll look on the internet and find out what it’s called. [‘Only Two Can Play’, the 1962 film version of Kingley Amis’s novel ‘That Uncertain Feeling’] At the very end of the film, he goes off in a mobile library, to avoid the temptations of city life.

The opening line of the album’s Yann Tiersen collaboration "Sticks & Stones" is "You and I go together like the molar and the drill" – how’s married life treating you?
[laughs] I thought you were going to ask me about dentistry! Married life is fantastic. That song is obviously about people rubbing each other up the wrong way, but it’s not just me. Obviously, every now and again, you say the wrong thing, or she says the wrong thing, and people get hurt, but it all blows over. It’s that feeling at the time that I was trying to portray.

Is it fair to say that Regeneration was a record you thought people wanted you to make, but Absent Friends is simply the record you wanted to make?
Yeah, and the bizarre thing is, I can only make a record people want to hear by making the record I want to hear. It’s a paradox, and it took me seven albums to realise it – right from ‘Liberation’ on, the more I tried to please people, the less I did.

To what extent has working with Nigel Godrich changed the way you operate?
Well, on ‘Regeneration’ he was producing, and that was a huge difference: never before had somebody else been saying what we’d do next. I’d made my decision to commute my authority to him – the problem was, that instead of feeling liberated by it, I felt a little abstracted from the whole process, and I ended up playing a lot of Playstation. I didn’t mind at the time, I was just enjoying not being as stressed out about it as usual: when you’re in complete control, you get all the stress as well. But I felt like, stress is part of the fun!

Did you learn a lot from him?
Hugely, yeah – I found myself doing a lot of things in the way that Nigel did them, rather than my old-fashioned kind of way. He was very kind to mix this album, because he doesn’t do a lot of just mixing; he’s usually involved in projects from beginning to end. It was amazing to watch him work, actually – he mixed ‘Absent Friends’ in double quick time, worryingly so! [laughs] He’d put a tape up, I’d go off and make a cup of coffee and come back and he’d be like, ‘Done!’. And it would sound fantastic – he has fantastically good ears, they may be little but they’re very astute.

Is your Scott Walker obsession still in full flow, and do you still send the first completed copy of every album to him for approval?
Crikey, I’ve forgotten to do that! Maybe that’s a sign that I’m spreading my wings at last. It’s a moving experience, like leaving the nest. Yes, in many ways this album was the most Scott Walker-influenced. I decided not to fight against it anymore. I mean, I’m not trying to sing like Scott Walker; the problem is that I’m not actively trying not to – ever since my first album, I have kind of mimicked him, subconsciously, because I love him so much. And every time I found myself doing it, I’d go, ‘oh damn, use your own bloody voice’, but this time I’ve found I tend to sound more like me when I’m singing like Scott!

Were you jealous when you found out that Pulp had persuaded Walker to produce their We Love Life album?
It was a funny situation, because I thought, ‘that’s a stupid idea, they obviously never want to complete another album’! Scott Walker is legendary in his ability to take ten years over making a record. But then I heard the result, and it was good, but I couldn’t honestly see what he did; I think it was more of a motivational thing for the band, which is cool. I wouldn’t be able to function with somebody I admired so much in the room. I think to a degree, you have to make your own mistakes, and you don’t want to do that with your hero 10 feet away.

Do you look back at "National Express" with affection or disdain?
I used to look back with a furrowed brow, thinking, ‘what on earth was I thinking?’, but I’ve completely mellowed on the whole thing. A little time gives you a lot of perspective, and you realise you weren’t doing anything because you thought it was necessary, but because you enjoyed it at the time. You can’t regret anything you do with an open heart, so I actually look back on it with a wry smile. I’m quite happy to play ‘National Express’ these days – everybody likes a singalong. I’m a big karaoke fan, and I feel like I’ve got a little niche in history!

Around that time, you were painted as something of an intelligent alternative to Oasis et al…
[laughs] I think Liam and Noel are actually very intelligent, in a very different way! It was the third album [1996’s ‘Casanova’] before I had any singles, and it coincided happily with the Britpop thing. When I listen back to the records, ‘Casanova’ especially, it really bizarrely fits in, in a way I didn’t realise at the time. I’m happy that I’m not sure anybody could possibly shoe-horn me into a category right now – it would be a challenge, certainly.

If you met Chris Evans today, would you shake his hand or slap his face?
I’d ask him if he’s actually going to ever work again. No, he did me a huge favour [back in 1996, Evans effectively gave The Divine Comedy an instant national audience by championing “Something For The Weekend” on his Radio 1 show]. I mean, it was all part of a general cultural shift, everything coming together at the right time – he was very important but not wholly responsible for our success.

Are you bothered by how this album might be received by press and public?
I’m very bothered, I have to admit. When you make something that you’re so proud of, you don’t want people to turn round and tell you it’s shit – you’ll just cry. I think this album is probably the best representation of what I do, to date. Other ones have been interesting in different ways – and very important as well – and there have been moments of greatness, I think. But with this one I really felt like the whole thing, from start to finish, really works and is listenable.

Do you feel like you’ve finally cracked it and made the record you’ve always wanted to make?
Yes, I’ve been threatening to make it for a long time, but I’ve finally got round to it! It was a matter of just not chickening out, not thinking ‘I’ll get it right on the next record’ – you get it right this time. So I’m extremely pleased, and everybody I’ve spoken to so far seems to love it, and the radio is playing the last single [‘Come Home Billy Bird’ with guest vocalist Lauren Laverne] which is quite extraordinary. I’m thrilled to bits and all I can do is hope for the best as far as the public are concerned.

It almost sounds like you don’t want to make another record…
Oh god, no! I have to make more records, I’d go crazy if I didn’t. I can’t do anything else anyway – literally, I can’t think of a single other job I could do without being sacked within the first week.. ‘I’m off to work in a textiles factory’…I’d probably just mangle my fingers.

The Divine Comedy’s Absent Friends album is out now through Parlophone. The 14-date European trio tour starts on 6th June in Glasgow – see for full details.
Charlie Ivens

Originally published in Bullit Magazine June 2004 issue