Neil Hannon on bringing The Divine Comedy back to Belfast
Neil Hannon returns to Belfast next week for a Divine Comedy at Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. He told David Roy about dressing up for his current historical reference laden LP Foreverland, penning unconventional love songs and why fans here could soon be seeing a lot more of him
GIVEN that The Divine Comedy's biggest hit is their jaunty ode to coach travel, National Express, it seems entirely appropriate that bandleader Neil Hannon should now be in contention to become the official 'face' of an actual piece of public transport.
Derry-born, Co Kildare-based Hannon has made the shortlist of Translink's 'Foyle Legends' competition, a public vote to choose a pair of Co Derry-affiliated success stories to have their likenesses applied to the sides of a city centre bus service.
The Divine Comedy singer is in competition with the likes of Republic of Ireland football manager Martin O'Neill, The Undertones, Eurovision star Dana and music veteran Phil Coulter.
The two winners will be revealed at a ceremony during Bus & Train Week (June 5 to 11, mark your diaries now), by which point Hannon will be away on the next tour for his current album, Foreverland, which kicks off at the CQAF Marquee in Belfast on May 3.
Not that The Divine Comedy leader is too concerned.
"This is the first I've heard of it and I find it hilarious," he tells me of the competition. "I almost hope I win just to see a picture of me on a bus."
Hannon is keen on our suggestion that Translink should use an image of him dressed up as Napoleon – as seen in the video for last year's superb Foreverland single How Can You Leave Me On My Own – if he emerges in the top two of Translink's poll.
"Yes, I think that should be a stipulation, really!" he enthuses.
Mr Bonaparte is also referenced in the LP's string-laced opening track, Napoleon Complex. The song is actually about 'short man syndrome' rather than the famously petite French military dictator himself, but that didn't stop Hannon jumping at the opportunity to don 18th-century French military garb and a bicorne topper to perform it during last year's tour.
Indeed, although his main 'look' has long been based on sharp 1960s-inspired suiting, recently Hannon seems to have mutated into the military history-fixated Mr Ben of progressive indie pop.
"I love dressing up – it's basically what I started this job for," enthuses the Co Fermanagh-raised star. "I have formative memories of Adam Ant on Top of The Pops."
Hannon donned a variety of period garb for Foreverland's official promo pics and in the video for Catherine The Great, an improbably jaunty number about Russia's most infamous female despot.
She also happens to share a name with Hannon's missus, Dublin musican Cathy Davey, who duets on the album's jazzy, historical reference-free number Funny Peculiar.
"I took her by surprise," chuckles Hannon of how his partner of eight years came to make a vocal contribution to the record. "I just went 'oh God, this is definitely a duet and I've got no-one to sing it with – hey, you're a girl, why don't you do it?' So she sang it and then I worked on her for about a year to try and get it on to the record!"
Which brings us to The Pact's refreshingly realist commentary on the dynamics of long-term relationships. It's possibly the most unromantic love song in the history of popular music – or at least since Meatloaf's I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That).
"Thank-you very much," laughs Hannon, "that was what I was after."
He adds: "Sometimes relationships can be like international diplomacy, and there's nothing wrong with that. I personally find a successful relationship quite a heroic achievement, so I don't mind framing it in that sort of a way."
Readers decrepit enough to have got that Mr Ben reference a few paragraphs ago will surely also enjoy The Divine Comedy leader's 1970s TV-inspired incorporation of France's most famous military organisation into his gently amusing break-up ballad I Joined The Foreign Legion (To Forget).
"For some reason, it was de rigueur to have a Foreign Legion sketch on every TV comedy show, like The Two Ronnies," explains Hannon.
"It would always be based on the idea of 'I joined the Foreign Legion to forget, but I've forgotten what it was I was trying to forget' – which is is not, in essence, funny at all – but it's a nice thing to hang a lyric on.
"I like the use of brackets in the song title too, because it reminds me a lot of the records I bought back in the 80s. They loved the brackets back then!"
On the subject of records, the last time Neil Hannon played in Belfast was a special solo acoustic instore appearance at HMV in September last year.
"I love instores – I don't know whether people notice," he told me, with more than a hint of sarcasm.
"Last year's instore at HMV in Belfast was pretty much the only one I said yes to, because I hate them so much. Playing in the foyer of a shop just doesn't appeal, I'm afraid.
"But at least people come to them these days. I remember in the 90s there was one instore we did in Brest in Brittany where nobody came. I was just sat on this little plinth in the middle of a shop being told to play with like one smiling record company person there and this old granny walking past looking at me like I was some sort of performing monkey.
"I remember thinking 'oh my God, I should have become a carpenter!"
Happily, Hannon's imminent return to Belfast will be as a full band unit at a non-music retail orientated venue, where fans will finally get to hear their Foreverland favourites performed alongside other popular selections from The Divine Comedy's 11 album-deep back catalogue.
It's been a good while since his last 'proper' Divine Comedy performance in the north, a string quartet-enhanced run through 1994's classic Promenade LP at The Ulster Hall for the special Alzheimer's Society Music Benefit gig he co-organised with Ash's Tim Wheeler in 2011.
"I'm sorry it's taken a while," says Hannon of the CQAF show, tickets for which are already sold out.
"But you're going to be sick of me by the end of the year."
Oh, really? Why so?
"I couldn't possibly say," he offers enigmatically, mentioning something about 'not having certain things 100 per cent confirmed' yet.
However, Hannon does reveal that the six year gap between Foreverland and the last Divine Comedy LP, 2010's Bang Goes The Knighthood, has resulted in a backlog of new material.
"Foreverland was going to be a double album for about two years, because I had so many f***ing songs!," he explains with a groan.
"But that does mean I will have another new album out very soon."
Insert your own joke about Divine Comedy albums and buses here.
The Divine Comedy with Lisa O’Neill, Wednesday May 3, CQAF Marquee, sold out.