The Divine Comedy’s Promenade was released when I was 19.9 years old and was a constant companion through my early twenties. It was an early move away from earnest rock and folk-rock, an early realisation that music could be fun and light and daft still have some weight and still mean something. I interviewed Neil Hannon in 1996 at the time of the release of Casanova, and I could barely speak to him because I considered him a God walking among men. I met him again fifteen years later and we had a good chat, mortal to mortal. He was preparing a show at which he and some friends would play all of Vampire Weekend’s first album. He mentioned he had thought about playing Hounds of Love instead. Neil Hannon’s take on ‘And Dream of Sheep’ is one I still one day hope to hear.
Released just three years ago, Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut album quickly became a modern classic. On April 1st, Ezra Koenig’s precocious magnum opus is due for a distinct and idiosyncratic tribute when Neil Hannon and his specially assembled supergroup, the JD Set, play the album in its entirety in the Button Factory.
The show, featuring Cathy Davey, Jape and Romeo of the Magic Numbers alongside Hannon, is one of four upcoming shows across the UK and Ireland promoting a certain brand of bourbon; the clue is in the initials. State met Neil Hannon during the writing and rehearsal stage of the JD Set project to discuss the brilliance and obtuseness of Vampire Weekend, the worst ever Divine Comedy song and the likelihood of Hannon ever becoming a solemn serious artiste. (Don’t hold your breath.)
State: The JD Set show is a collaboration between yourself, Cathy Davey, Jape and Romeo Stodart. Is it you who is the big Vampire Weekend fan, or one of the others?
NH: I’m the curator, if you want to put it like that. And they have been talking to me since last October, trying to get me to settle on an album. Very hard when you’re given that freedom – you know, your favourite, any album. Everybody has about twenty favourite albums. And some of them are frankly unplayable (laughs).
Like, I thought about Hounds of Love, Kate Bush, which is one of the most awesome albums ever made, and the second half of it is just unplayable. So I plumped for Vampire Weekend, an album that I absolutely adore, and I can just knock it out. It’ll be just fun.
But it is one of your favourite albums?
Sincerely. Yeah. I mean, obviously people loved it in a fan-type way, and a bouncing-around type way, but the writing is brilliant, you know. There are very clever arrangements in there. The lyrics are fascinating in a sort of obtuse way. They put ideas in your head without necessarily telling you what it all means. ‘Coronation rickshaw grab’ – I’ll just sort of say that, and it’s like – what? (laughs) But I like the words! Also a real sense of brevity being the soul of wit, that they don’t outstay their welcome.
I love the sharpness, in general, of it.
It’s not flabby. It was obviously the son of the Strokes and that kind of sharp, snappy thing, but I just think it had an awful lot more soul – in the sense of people having soul rather than people singing soul music – than the Strokes.
That’s funny, because when it came out there was a lot of focus on the fact that they were singing about their relatively privileged lives on campus. It wasn’t what you normally associate with ‘soul’, i.e. suffering. They went to – where, Harvard?
I don’t know. I didn’t want to research terribly deeply. It sounds all sort of lovely and Ivy League and it’s very definitely Cape Cod-oriented. But I like things with a sense of place. And a sense that they were born out of a certain kind of life. You almost never get that these days! Where you can pinpoint a vibe, an area, or even what these guys did for a living, or not. You know? So I found that reassuring. And I think it revels it its own slight naïveté. They’re aware of it and they get away with it.
Have you a favourite track on the album?
I was trying to think about this earlier. And I couldn’t, and can’t, pinpoint one. This has a large bearing on why I chose this album over a lot of other ones, like, you know, Closer by Joy Division. There’s certain tracks on that I hate! Quite a lot of my very favourite albums I listen to and think, well is this dodgy, this track. The Vampire Weekend record is one of the few albums that I felt was really strong all the way through.
The whole way? Even ‘Blake’s Got a New Face’?
There are some lovely things on that track! I admit that the (yelps) ‘BLAKE!’ can be slightly irritating. But it is one of very few irritating moments.
I haven’t been able to get fully past that song, but I like the idea that on an album that’s otherwise obviously stupendous, you sometimes have a dubious track that needs the listener to put in a bit more work – or may not work at all.
I’ve certainly had some of those (laughs). I remember when fans of mine, and I use fans in its loosest possible sense, because they ran a competition: “What’s your least favourite Divine Comedy track”! (laughs). About five years ago.
Have a guess.
Was it ‘Europe by Train’?
Nope. (Pregnant pause). What’s wrong with that? (laughs). No, it was ‘Here Comes the Flood’ off Fin de Siècle. So I think the defining feature is it’s always the one where I push the idea to its extreme. And maybe it sort of goes over the top or… up my own anus.
You have to go to extremes sometimes though, right?
I think so. And you’re pushing everything, but sometimes you just go a little overboard. So it’s important to be allowed to do that.
In terms of your work, I think of ‘Wreck of the Beautiful’ (from Absent Friends) as the classic example of the song that needs to given a few goes. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, I think so. Yeah; I remember listening to that recently and sort of thinking – did I make this piece of music? (laughs) It’s not whether it’s good, or bad, it’s just… slightly odd. But I was writing about a slightly discomfiting thing, a friend who’s kind of a shell of their former self. You know? And I think it worked in that sense.
I want to ask something related to that, a question about style, or tone – a direction I thought you might have taken a few years ago but you don’t appear to have. Going back to Absent Friends, I was really into that album and particularly side two…
I like the way you talk about sides; I do too. I think of my albums in sides and I never can get out of that – go on!
I do think of them in sides though now that I think of it I’m not sure where side two of Absent Friends starts –
(Definitively)‘Our Mutual Friend’ is the start of side two.
Good. That’s what I thought. Because from ‘Our Mutual Friend’ on, the tone of Absent Friends has always struck me as different to your other albums before or since because it’s unapologetically serious; you know what I mean?
There isn’t any attempt to leaven it, particularly. Of course, ‘Our Mutual Friend’ is in some ways funny but it’s also tragic –
Yeah. Funny tragic. It’s my own genre!
Well that’s sort of my question. I remember seeing you play the Gaiety just after that album came out and going away from the gig on the one hand thinking ‘That was great’ but, on the other, feeling like an opportunity was being missed: What might it be like if Neil Hannon moved on and played it straight and serious with just no taking the piss…
… Never gonna happen (laughs).
Right. Good. Well that’s clear.
I know what you mean. I piss myself off with not being able to take anything seriously. But… I just don’t think it’s me. I like serious stuff and I am very serious about what I do, but that includes the funny bit. I’ve always thought that entirely serious works of art seem to somehow be unrealistic because I don’t believe that anybody is entirely serious in life and therefore if you’re trying to give a fully rounded picture of life, which I am always trying to do, even if that sounds absurd, then to not have any humour in it, I mean – just doesn’t happen. Most conversations I have are basically flippant.
Yeah. But then every piece of art can’t represent every aspect of life and there are some great albums like Big Star’s Third or Bowie’s Low that are not a barrel of laughs, really brilliant and kind of balls-out in the sense that they’re saying ‘You know what, this isn’t a lot of fun, but here it is anyway’.
Yeah. I think I’d need to be a different person. And I actually write best when I’m happy. A lot of people feed off their own personal despair but I’m generally quite happy and I think my best albums have been made when I have been at my happiest. But that is open to debate twenty years into the future when I am prepared to say when I was happy (laughs).
It’s funny that you say that. In my very younger days all my favourite bands were American Music Club, Smog and so on, partly because they were great but more specifically because to me their songs were deflated and sad – and I held firmly the idea that to be worthy of your time a songwriter must deal in depression and hopelessness, which now strikes me as bizarre. The idea that a writer could even do anything productive while genuinely depressed just doesn’t make any sense.
I know – you’re completely… you can’t do anything. I agree. I really do. And I love American Music Club. I was obsessed by them when I was about 18. Yeah. But it’s funny, it’s the same thing with a lot of so-called depressing bands, I never got a huge sense of doom off them. I just really enjoyed the imagery and the observation. “With my blue and grey shirt on / Yeah, that’s my favourite one”. You know, I’d never heard anyone say that before and I thought “Why didn’t I think of that?” It’s so throwaway and yet it says an awful lot. Everybody’s got their favourite shirt! And it just really puts you there. And that’s what I always look for.