I interviewed Neil Hannon in person twice in early 1996 for this piece. Once in the Mean Fiddler on Wexford St, where, if I remember correctly, which is debatable, he was about to support Gene. And again in Setanta HQ somewhere in London, the first time I ever got to go to London. On the day The Divine Comedy played a launch show for Casanova with support from Stephin Merritt, who was promoting The Magnetic Fields’ Get Lost (my only Hot Press double six) and The 6ths’ utterly brilliant Wasps’ Nests. I interviewed Stephin Merritt the same day, which was one of the two or three most difficult I’ve ever done (see note 3 here). I remember Merritt being off the record a tad disparaging about The Divine Comedy in a way I couldn’t comprehend and didn’t quote. The interviews with Neil were fun, though I was hero-nervous, at the first one in particular. He was open and in good form, and I was able to ask him questions that in retrospect I’m surprised I did, like why did Casanova at first seem “no more then a collection of masterfully arranged, expertly performed knob jokes”. Have to say, disappointed this piece did not make the HP cover, as Neil was when he questioned me about it at the time. The Divine Comedy became hugely popular about two months after we published this and we should have got in first; should have broken The Divine Comedy rather than Chris Evans doing so. He got all the magazine covers he wanted then. Of course I didn’t have a clue Casanova would be a success. I asked him “And what if everyone won over by the DC’s wondrous, wistful melancholia really is horrified? What if they just don’t get it, and you lose them all?” Neil might have been a Lothario, but no Nostradamus was I.
With The Divine Comedy’s new album Casanova, the dreamily romantic Neil Hannon has come over all carnal. “I felt I had to get an awful lot of real shit out of my system”, he tells Niall Crumlish. “Sometimes you’ve got to get a bit scummy”.
There are some things you need to know about the all new Neil Hannon, and they are not nice things, oh no.
They are things that may come as a shock, if you’ve spent your life since Liberation snuggled up nightly to his riotously romantic, sepia snapshots; things the more sighingly sentimental and bedroom-bound among you may never forgive him for; things that, after two trying months of sometimes seemingly hopeless struggle with the Divine Comedy’s new LP, the glorious, overwhelmingly carnal Casanova, I’ve only just managed to get to grips with myself. They are things that had to happen—not nice, but necessary—and things that you too will understand, and grow to love, in time. Trust me. Neil Hannon, you see, has discovered rock’n’roll—in the original sense of the word. And the testosterone-soaked brute is utterly shameless about it.
“I did always want to write an album about gettin’ it on”, he explains, stretching out on the sofa in Setanta Central. “But, you know, I hadn’t done a whole lot before the first two albums (laughs). After Promenade though, I had some experience for a change. Basically I’d always wanted to write songs about my own life—it’s just my own life was too bloody boring to do so. So, yeah, I made most of it up but this one is largely based on personal experience”.
People will be shocked. The image people have of Neil Hannon is…
“Sexless”, he interrupts.
“Oh, but I’m incredibly sexy!” he protests.
Well, you’d be an excellent addition to the unconventional pin-up brigade—you’d make a better Jarvis Cocker than a TAFKAP [2022 note: The Artist Formerly Known As Prince-NC].
Neil emits a groaning, faintly nauseous sound. “I’d need to be fairly wary of that. The new stuff is not un-Jarvis, in a way—but I feel I’m searching a different sexual field to him. Just as dirty, but much more innuendo. He’s quite forthright about what he says, but that’s not my style at all. I never mean anything I write. Still, I hope this doesn’t put people off. You know, everybody, I’m sure, had this image of me as this nice boy who wrote nice pretty tunes—and now I’ve gone and sullied myself in their eyes. It’s a real worry”.
Neil Hannon—singer, songwriter and Enniskillen’s most legendary Lothario—looks up and laughs. There is no fear in that face.
Naturally, it was the self-same appalling indulgence in vice and immorality that led to Casanova taking a good twenty-five months to follow on from the quite perfect Promenade—a length of time that the nothing-better-to-do Neil Hannon would never have countenanced. In fact, he was widely quoted in early 1994 as saying that “records shouldn’t take ages to make”. For me, and now I may be way off the beam here, two whole years—eight hundred days, or ten weeks per song on Casanova—seems a singularly long stretch of time to take.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah”, he smiles, sussed. “I did say that, didn’t I? Well, I mean, here’s the story of the last two years. Promenade comes out, we tour quite heavily with Tori Amos and by ourselves in France, so by about July we were all knackered…”
This must have been, ooh, three months after the record came out. Poor lamb.
“Three, four”, he frowns. “Well, it felt like a long time at the time. Anyway. It was the first sort of extensive touring I’d done, and I was intending to write, you know, heaps of music on it. As it happens, I didn’t write a bloody thing. Promenade was easy to get out quickly, because I had it written when I was recording Liberation, but after that, I had nothing left. And then, with touring, heaps of French women—I couldn’t be arsed, you know? I was enjoying myself too much.”
But the tour ended in mid-’94. It is now practically 2000 AD. We were starting to worry, Neil.
“Yes, but then the autumn came, and I was chucked out of my flat by… by my brother (laughs). I moved to Brixton, had a hellish winter there with no real motivation to do anything”. “Oh!” he grins, wringing his hands, high camp, as the theme from The Mission sweeps in in the background, “this music is making it all sound a bit melodramatic, isn’t it? Oh, I couldn’t write anything!”
The missing-in-action muse did finally return, though—and she was, as good old Gary would have it, back for good. In April 1995, The Divine Comedy were ready to ROCK. Hallelujah.
“I got a lot of stuff written in the spring”, explains Neil, “but the thing was—and this held matters up even further—I’d been a little, eh, ambitious in the arrangements, and nobody quite understood just how ambitious it was and how much work it would need until we did it. Just the size of the arrangements, the musicians, the complexity of each song. God, it’s hilarious. We have a full orchestra on the last track, ‘The Dogs And The Horses’. That was a forty piece orchestra in Abbey Road, so it was cool”.
“Exactly. Studio 2. Poptastic! I was there, doing my Scott Walker bit in the little booth with the headphones on. I’ve never had soo much fun in all my life. I really felt like, this is it, I’ve reached the big time.”
While Keith Cullen was…
“… having heart failure. The worst thing Setanta have ever done in their career is to tell me, ‘Right, do what you want. Take as long as you need.’ I said, “Cool” and I took seven months to make the record. Eighty grand. I mean the last couple cost twenty grand between them. They were just a bit flush after Edwyn’s success [2022 note – Edwyn Collins’ ‘A Girl Like You’ and Gorgeous George-NC], you know, had a bit of cash flowing around, so they thought, well, let’s let Neil make a big record. Which was very kind of them, but I’m not sure they knew what they were letting themselves in for”.
So, I hear you ask: What, after all, have Setanta let us in for?
Well it’s not, despite the impression I may have given you earlier, anything by Aleister Crowley. What it is, though, is a massive, sprawling, madly eclectic (in mood and music), deeply strange and infectiously vivacious fifty minutes of music, the likes of which no-one else bar Neil Hannon can come up with. The Divine Comedy’s Casanova is the work of a young man with an unparalled musical imagination and a wicked wit, who’s spent the last two long years living, screwing, laughing, and seeing things that both he and we (“we” being those who’ve been struck dumb by the Hannon canon thus far) may sometimes wish he hadn’t seen. It’s by turns pantaloon-peeingly excited, deathly weary and heartbreakingly disillusioned; sweet, sad, green-eyed, and (mostly) rip-roaringly, delightfully misanthropic. It’s a major fucking departure from Promenade. It’s altogether headwrecking, and close to a comic masterpiece—and yes, it’s well worth the wait. As if you had to ask.
Still, though, you have to give it time. In the two months since Casanova first slipped innocent as pie through my letterbox, its songs of sexual politics have inspired in me, in turns, all of the following feelings: revulsion, depression, intrigue, apathy, grim fascination and eventually inevitable adoration. Promenade to me is the Twelve Commandments—by contrast, Casanova at first seemed no more then a collection of masterfully arranged, expertly performed knob jokes. Of course the criticism that Casanova plays it for laughs is one that Neil expects.
“Yeah!” he replies, puzzled that it was ever even open to question. “Oh yeah. I mean, I understand that completely. But that’s exactly what I was trying to say (laughs)“. Lyrically, the whole point of more-or-less the first side of the album is to point out the ridiculous laughable nature of male machismo. Laddishness. And there are a lot of really crap jokes in there. Like the first half of ‘Charge’ (the fifth song in, something of a shocker, and as low, if you like, as Casanova goes.)
Neil pulls me up. “Now hang on, that’s not a crap joke! No no no, that’s just sick! The plot of the song is sex as in aggressive military tactics, and I mean it could be the actual act of sex or it could be just trying to get off with someone. You know, the actual flirtation. It’s up to the person themselves to decide. But in the first half of the song, there’s all these sort of plans are made, it’s like what you do in the pub when you’re talking to your mates. I mean, if there are all blokes there, and it comes around to sex, it’s not particularly serious, but it could be taken as such if you were not… a man (laughs). Now, what was I saying? ‘Charge’, yes. Anyway, the first half is the aggression, and I don’t know whether it worked or not. The middle part is suing for peace, like the Sudetenland issue before the Second World War. Appeasement. Like, sort of (smarmy), ‘I really love you’, you know.”.
This is the Barry White bit, I assume.
“Yeah: “I have in my hand a piece of paper that says/ Let’s make love, not this phoney war.” That bit. Well, I find it funny, anyway. But still. I mean, maybe it’s for a laugh, but none of these laughs would be there if they weren’t fulfilling a purpose. And sometimes humour is just the only way possible to express the silliness of the song, and the situation. Oh yes, it’s disgraceful, but that’s exactly what I was trying to put across. The disgraceful nature of our urges. I’m not trying to say, ‘these are disgraceful’, I’m just trying to say that this is occasionally how one can feel. Whether it’s PC or not.”
People are going to be shocked by the likes of ‘Charge’ because of the perception that Neil is entirely asexual—but that always seemed pretty inaccurate to me. Promenade has its alluring moments—the opener, ‘Bath’, for example: “Aphrodite/ So pale pink and white/ She is naked as sin/ Wearing nothing but a grin/ And a pin in her hair”. Yummy.
Neil is looking crooked at me now, eyebrows arched.
You don’t agree, I venture.
“No, I agree! Phwoarr, yeah!” he mocks, viciously.
No, but really. Take the end of ‘Geronimo’: “She pulls off her jumper and it in the corner/ He picks it up and hangs it on the chair/ She puts on a record/ And sings into her coffee/ He puts a blanket round her, sits her down and dries her beautiful hair”. I mean, what a scene…
“Well I’m glad that someone’s picked up on that”, says Neil, gratified. “‘Geronimo’, yeah. What happens next? Well you see, that’s just it. It’s like the old dramatic thing of where, if you’re going to kill somebody off, you don’t have to do it on stage. It can be more effective if it happens off stage, you know? The same as cutting in films. They’re just getting into bed, and then it’s the next morning. It pisses people off, but it’s usually more effective, and it also means you don’t get banned. You don’t have to have it constantly in your face. And besides, I was just getting pissed off with the constant barrage of sex on every medium”.
He continues, on a roll: “It’s got so prevalent these days, that you need to have sex to sell anything. You know, I’m not down on the idea of sex in itself, I quite enjoy it, but it’s just I think it devalues it and demystifies it so much when you have The Good Sex Guide on the telly and everything, sort of going ‘How to get the perfect orgasm!’ That’s not very exciting is it? It’s not very mysterious and exotic. I much prefer to go fumbling in the dark. And with Casanova, I tried to reintroduce some of the good old British naughtiness back into it. A little bit embarrassed about the subject, but still loving every minute of it. I have masses of colonial reserve stacked up in my psyche, that I was partly trying to remove a little of, you know? But also, I like it, in a way. being reserved doesn’t mean you’re a prude, it just means that there are some things that you think are more exciting if you keep them under wraps.”.
As long as you don’t take that to extremes, I interject.
“Oh no”, refutes Neil. “Extremes are much more exciting.”
OK—I’ll give you the job, then, of telling that to the generations of sexually and emotionally stunted Irish who spent their formative years in single-sex schools, scared to death of all genitalia that are not their own. Scared of their own, even.
“Well, I completely abhor the idea of just sweeping it all under the carpet, suggesting that there’s no such thing, that you have to leave it till marriage, and all that. Which is basically what my father tells me!”
Neil’s father is, in his defence, the bishop of Clogher.
“I hope he’s not too shocked with the album,” Neil muses. “He’s heard it, and there were just a few raised eyebrows every now and again.”
Anyway there’s still guilt by the hectare here, especially on the brilliant ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’.
“Oh yeah, yeah definitely”, he confirms, “there’s oodles of guilt in that. But ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’ was just sort of an initial apology for the rest of the album, really (laughs). Sort of, this is what’s been going on, just listen to this and prepare to be horrified”.
And what if everyone won over by the DC’s wondrous, wistful melancholia really is horrified? What if they just don’t get it, and you lose them all?
“Oh, I won’t lose them”, Neil replies, assuredly. “Well, they’ll come back if I do. Basically all I can do is write the records that I feel like writing at the time, because once you start to believe your own hype and write the records that people say that you’re best at, even though they haven’t heard anything else, you’re buggered. Those records are moments in time which will probably never return in that way. You know if I wrote these, then I can write like that again, I can write things as sweet and melancholic and gorgeously romantic again, but I just felt that I had to get an awful lot of, just, real shit out of my system, you know? There was an awful lot of muddle in my head, which wasn’t really squaring with the initial romantic idealist sentiment, so there’s no point in just covering it up, saying ‘This doesn’t exist’. I mean Promenade, yes, it’s a much more purer, more controlled and generally more life-affirming sort of record than this one, obviously, and it’s great. But, in a way, this is the antidote to it. Like, I’m sure people won’t always be in the mood for that record. Sometimes, you’ve gotta get a bit scummy”.
Neil Hannon is, at this point, a happy and lucky man, and a thoroughly satisfied artiste—he’s also a man who knows just why he’s so fucking special (my description).
“It’s very nice to know that you can do whatever the hell you like”, he smiles. “And you can, that’s what people forget. They seem to think you’re chained to one dogma. I mean, I’ve come very near to silliness on some of these records. But I’ve come back from the brink. And it’s nice to walk the line, and be teetering on the edge, ‘cos that’s the only way you can get anything to really grip, I think. It’s not very easy to write in a specific form, just being dead cool, and actually make anything that’s going to make people think, or move people. As long as you trust that you have enough nous to know when you’re overstepping the mark. I don’t really want to hear anybody else’s opinion before I make a record, it’s up to me. ‘Cause the record’s just ME. So if I’m shit, they’ll be shit. Thankfully, I’m not shit.”
As if to prove the point, Neil reveals that the recording of the next record (which is going to be “just fabulous”, apparently) will build on the boldest musical move on Casanova—it’s set to be all done live with full orchestra, a la the magnificent ‘The Dogs And The Horses’. He is unsure, as yet, though, if the entire album will also build on the lyrical theme of of said apocalyptic final curtain—death.
“Well, I mean, it doesn’t occupy my every waking hour. I often think about getting old, though, and going ‘Why didn’t you do that, and that and that?’ (laughs). Not regretting all that I had done, but just regretting not having done certain things. It’s rather depressing to think about it.”
It just struck me as funny that the last song should be the death song. All those raucous sex shanties topped off by “For one day you are here and the next, you are gone”, and a bunch of huge Last Post trumpets.
“Well that was probably all to do with this terrible French girlfriend that I had, who believed absolutely that sex and death were very much related. She was such a terrible amateur philosopher.”
It must have rubbed off though—and I’m not prepared to accept that it’s a joke.
“No, the last one?” he replies horrified. “Oh God no, that’s no joke. You see, that’s just it, they could all be jokes, and they could all be hyper-, hyper-serious. It just depends on how you want to take it. That could have been said about most of the songs on all the albums, really. And I’m going to get really crap here, but, I’ve come to realise that The Divine Comedy was a particularly good name, and it really suits the style, because everything’s a joke, and yet everything’s serious, and that’s the way I look upon virtually everything. I mean, you can’t explain to me why we exist, or why the world is why it is the way it is, so it’s pretty funny. On the other hand, it’s deadly serious, because it’s so fucked up. And the aim of the game is to try and express that, in the same time, with the same words and the same music. Yeah”.
That’s quite a lofty aim. It’s a tough one. It’s what Plato and all those lads couldn’t quite manage.
“That’s true”, concedes Neil Hannon, “but Plato had no tunes”.