Arts

Neil Hannon set to become a Comedy legend at NI Music Prize

Neil Hannon and The Divine Comedy have released some brilliant records over the years and a new album is on its way. Ahead of receiving a ‘legend' award in Belfast tomorrow, Hannon talks to Brian Campbell about Nina Persson, solo shows, Ash and how he could never be ‘properly cool'

The Divine Comedy will release a new album next year

TOMORROW night Neil Hannon returns to Belfast’s Mandela Hall, the very venue where the supposed 'last ever’ Divine Comedy gig took place in 2001.

The band has had a few line-up changes since 2001 but The Divine Comedy haven’t gone away, you know. Of course, Derry-born Fermanagh-raised and Kildare-based Hannon was always the main man in the band and he has produced a staggering back catalogue, including the singles Something For The Weekend, Songs of Love, Tonight We Fly, Generation Sex, Perfect Lovesong, Gin Soaked Boy and Everybody Knows (Except You).

Hannon laughs at the mention of the last ever Divine Comedy gig 14 years ago.

“That’s right, we split up in the Mandela – `the last Divine Comedy show’; maybe this one will be. I remember that gig being extremely hot and sweaty and getting it in the neck from my tour manager Warren for throwing his prized vintage Telecaster in the air and letting it drop to the ground at the end of the show. He was not best pleased.”

Hannon was pleased to be told that he was invited to the NI Music Prize show at the Mandela tomorrow to receive the 'Oh Yeah Legend Award’, an honour previously given to Therapy?, Gary Moore, Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones, Henry McCullough and Terri Hooley.

When Hannon spoke to Scene earlier this week, he was about to head to London to mix the new Divine Comedy album – due out next year.

“It’s only by being so obsessed with albums that I am becoming a legend,” he laughs. “Every time I say that, I laugh. It’s extremely kind of everyone to bestow this award upon me.

“I was in bed when my manager phoned and told me. I said, `Yes, I am [a legend] and it’s about time they realised it’,” he laughs again.

He says he’s a fan of last year’s `legends’ Therapy? “They’re a great band. For a small place, we seem to come up with an awful lot of very cool bands. Although I am probably the least cool. My plan was to get cool for being really not cool. Because I can’t be properly cool.”

He says he’s had a look at the 12 contenders for the NI Music Prize award tomorrow and is happy to see Therapy?, Duke Special and Tim Wheeler in contention.

“All the old gits are there,” he laughs. “I love the fact that Tim’s old now. He was always perpetually young, because Ash started out so early. I remember we played their song Oh Yeah together at the Hot Press Awards in 1997 and I murdered it. It was great fun.”

My first time seeing The Divine Comedy live was in Galway in 1996 at a one-day festival featuring The Bluetones, Neneh Cherry, The Cardigans and headliners Radiohead.

“I remember that I was horrendously ill that day. I had to have a crazy injection from the 'rock doc’ to get me through. I don’t remember anything about the show,” says Hannon.

I tell him that when I interviewed Cardigans singer turned solo performer Nina Persson last year, she spoke about “Neil, the Divine Comedy dude” and said that, “I don't know at all if it was mutual, but I was kind of into him”.

At this, Hannon bursts out laughing.

“I wish she’d told me that at the time! I had a thing for Nina, but there you go. It’s too late now, Nina, you’ve missed your chance,” he laughs. “In the 90s she was this completely unobtainable Scandinavian goddess. But I’m sure she’s better off wherever she is now.”

Persson is indeed settled down and living in New York and Hannon is living with his partner Cathy Davey, the brilliant Dublin singer-songwriter. He says she definitely has her fourth album “in the pipeline”. “Maybe we could make a dual assault on the charts next year. If they still have charts.”

Davey appears on the upcoming Divine Comedy record, which Hannon insists is his 10th and not his 11th.

“It depends on which ones you count. I don’t count Fanfare for the Comic Muse (1990), because that’s like an extended EP but I do count A Short Album About Love – because it’s called 'album’. So this will be my 10th. I think.”

He says he and his two-piece band will play a “medium-length” set at the Mandela and won’t try out any brand new songs.

“It’s important to keep your powder dry now in the hope that somebody might think about purchasing an album instead of listening to it all beforehand. I think the internet has had a profoundly negative impact on music. I may sound like a grumpy old man, but I don’t care.

“I thought when I got to this age that I’d be able to put my feet up and let the albums do the talking, but it becomes more important every year to get out there [and tour].”

As it’s the weekend, surely he’ll do his big 1996 hit Something For The Weekend?

“Every weekend I play that to myself, regardless,” he laughs. “It’s quite weird, because virtually all the singles that I’ve ever released are the ones that are the hardest to play. When I try to do National Express by myself, it’s a nightmare. I have no natural rhythm.”

After playing a solo show at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast in 2010, Hannon went on to spend the next couple of years gigging by himself.

“That gig was the first solo one I did, so I apologise for how shoddy I was; I was basically learning as I went along. All the solo shows were incredible on stage but terrifying beforehand, because you have nobody to fall back on. Luckily people seem to like it when I cock up.

“But I got tired of those gigs after a couple of years because they were too intense and it wasn’t as much fun on the road; it was just me. There was nobody to hang out with.”

He says he’ll probably give a quick speech at the NI Music Prize ceremony tomorrow. And he’s looking forward to becoming – officially – a legend.

“It’s funny how legends still have to do their laundry and pack the dishwasher and pay the bills. I thought when you became a legend that all that was done for you. Maybe after Saturday they’ll give me a butler,” he laughs.

:: Neil Hannon will perform at the NI Music Prize at the Mandela Hall in Belfast tomorrow, when he will be presented with the Oh Yeah Legend Award. Doors 8pm. Tickets £12 (www.nimusicprize.com).

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