Arts

Divine comedian Neil Hannon discusses Office Politics, Adam Ant and Reggie Perrin

Not known for being political, The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon protests that he actually is – that, in fact, everyone is. He talks 80s drumbeats, BBC Newsline and Office Politics with Richard Purden

Neil Hannon – The complete disdain of ‘Why do we do this sh**?’ is pretty much the point of the whole record. Picture by Ben Meadows
Richard Purden

NEIL Hannon's pursuit of the well-crafted pop tune has now been a going concern for 30 years. The Derry-born and Enniskillen raised singer formed The Divine Comedy in 1989 as a vehicle for his strong melodies, unorthodox arrangements and rich lyrical scope drenched in humour and pathos.

Casanova, released during the height of the Britpop era in the mid-90s, provided a mainstream breakthrough with hits Something For The Weekend and Becoming More Like Alfie. So began a period of indie infamy for Hannon, often appearing on album and magazine covers with the essential star accessories of cigarettes and sunglasses.

A string of popular singles continued with National Express which entered the UK top 10.

“It hasn't been plain sailing ever since 2000 when the heat of pop stardom dissipated, not that I was a particularly famous pop star,” says Hannon. “I enjoyed a degree of notoriety in the 90s which was fun and very useful from a career point of view but it was hard to keep it all going after that.

"Myself and my manager Natalie [De Pace] have been working our masterplan ever since by doing things for us and never chasing pop acclaim. The concentration is on making good work and showing it off to its best. There have been sticky times but I've never contemplated giving it up; I have nothing else to do.”

A nose for the zeitgeist while delivering an idiosyncratic take on current matters shows no sign of waning. Office Politics follows 2016's acclaimed top 10 album Foreverland. There's a clear sense of mission on opening track Queuejumper which offers a taste of the album's often dark subject matter while retaining Hannon's affection for classic pop. Its protagonist is a familiar sort in the dog-eat-dog world; we are told enough to know that “he's an idiot, a nasty, grabbing piece of work”.

The tribal drums also summon Adam Ant in a colourful array of feathers and make-up.

“I like Adam Ant very much and always have… and the Ants,” says Hannon. “He's had far too much influence on my work, especially the dressing-up bit. The first time I heard Antmusic on Top of the Pops with two drummers – I've had a penchant for that sound ever since.”

While he admits the sound is “nostalgic”, I suggest the recent single is like nothing else on the radio.

“Nothing I do sounds like what's on the radio at the moment,” he adds, laughing. “It's a strange song; in the middle, it goes symphonic like John Adams then it's back to the normal crazy pop. The marimba part reminds me of things like The Tide Is High By Blondie and The Creatures [formed in 1981 by Siouxsie and the Banshees members Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie]. It was a thing in the early 1980s and seemed to crop up a lot.”

The resurgence of vinyl records motivated Hannon to record a double album, allowing for a wider palette of ideas.

"It's only on vinyl that a double album is really a double album, otherwise it's just a really long CD – it's the same with streaming. I would've been frustrated if I ended my career with no double album. I can flip in some bonkers tracks as well as the well-crafted three-minute pop song.”

As the son of a former Church of Ireland minister, then bishop, a hymn-like quality remains in lead single Norman and Norma which is perhaps the most typical track in the collection. Less so are deep cuts which draw inspiration from the classic BBC series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin that question our business values and political culture. At 48 Hannon is now two years older than the fictional character played by Leonard Rossiter.

“There's plenty in there that's pilfered from Reggie Perrin and the absurdity of the whole business of business. The complete disdain of ‘Why do we do this sh**?' is pretty much the point of the whole record.”

I put it to him that it's his most political record, something he's not usually well known for.

“Yeah and even then it's not overt politics, it's the stories and things that go on. It's funny because I've never avoided politics – I'm a politically minded individual. I've always had a problem with people who say ‘politics is just boring and what's the point?' because politics is how human existence works, you know, how civilisation functions, and to say it's boring is to pretty much to say humans are boring.

"That might be true as well but it's also extremely important and people have a duty to know what's going on and how to change it.”

Now living in rural Co Kildare, Hannon visits the north less when on the promotional cycle.

“I get back when I can. It's very difficult during this part of the promo madness for a couple of months. When I do go up it's back to just outside Enniskillen and we keep ourselves to ourselves.

"I try to keep up with what's going on with BBC Newsline. There have been fantastic strides in it not being such a violent place which is nice but then it's two steps forward and one step back with what happened to Lyra McKee which was awful.

"I really hope things like that concentrate people's minds with restoring Stormont and also not allowing a hard border.”

Before the interview ends I suggest the forthcoming Pope Ted – The Father Ted Musical sounds like a turbulent experience.

“Ah, it's grand”, says Hannon, tongue firmly in cheek. “Making musicals is not plain sailing, it's a very hard thing to do and it's a big project which takes years. I think it's a little bigger than Graham [Linehan, writer and co-creator of Father Ted] first imagined.”

Hannon, who wrote the theme tune and a clutch of other comic tunes for the 90s sitcom, is also writing music for the forthcoming production.

“I've done one before so I know how long it takes. We're getting there, it has a workshop vibe now with actors and songs being integrated with scenes – but don't hold your breath; we've still got a long way to go.”

Hannon will hopefully not have to cross a hard border when he returns home to perform at the Ulster Hall in October.

:: The Divine Comedy, Ulster Hall, October 7; tickets from the box office, 028 9033 4455, or ulsterhall.co.uk. Office Politics is out now.

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