The Prince of Wails

By Sarah Bailey

Deluxe, October 1998

The lad revolution created some strange icons, but none of them was more eccentric than Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. Before he became famous, this weakling son of the Bishop of Clogher was a delicate pre-Raphaelite imp who made strange little baroque concept albums which few people bought. Then, before you could say ‘Chris Evans,’ Neil became the darling of Radio One and TFI Friday, with his single ‘Something for the Weekend’ championed by the annoying ginger one as a beacon of sophisticate laddery. It was a strange choice – a song about a young cad who is conned, gagged, bound and robbed by his pretty young lady-friend – but for a brief time Neil Hannon became the kitsch Super Lothario persona of his 1996 album Casanova, anyway. He larruped around in honeymoon suites, pretended to be matte with the Gallaghers and squeezed girls’ breasts at parties.

"people thought I was The Lad," observes Neil, sucking the life out of a cigarette. "Whereas I was only using that image to undercut it." Then he laughs, long and wryly, because he knows just how rubbish that sounds.

Today marks Neil’s first ever interview on the subject of his new album, Fin De Siècle (his sixth) – an epic brew of misanthropic sarkiness and millennial doom, miles away from the rakish sauce of Casanova. Neil has dressed down for our meeting at velvety Soho members’ club, The Union. He’s wearing jeans, :Which is obviously illegal if you are Neil Hannon from The Divine Comedy." He’s wearing trainers as well, a pair of black Camper ankle boots that look like corrective shoes. Neil hasn’t quite mastered homeboy street style yet, but we get the picture. He’s trying to be modern.

"I am constantly amazed that people believe that I get up in the morning, put on a silk dressing gown and take my corgis for a walk on Regent’s Park, " he sighs quietly. "The new album is saying, ‘I do live in your time. I am your contemporary,’" he sniffs and reaches for a handkerchief. Hayfever, not tears. Well, not yet.

Neil Hannon was born in 1970 in Londonberry, into a household bereft of rock ‘n’ roll. A shy, skinny, studious boy with a facility for music and Binatone computer games, Neil was an EM Forester-reading wuss, hopelessly in love with the idea of romance but with meagre real-life experience of boy-on-girl action. Art school and a future "making sick little tourist objets d’art in a Fermanagh craft shop" seemed to beckon. Until, at the age of 19, Neil’s band, The Divine Comedy (a moveable feat of friends and collaborators which today consists of one permanent member: Neil), bagged a deal at small Irish record company Setanta. The Divine Comedy went on to produce one unassuming indie guitar album (Fanfare For The Common Muse) and two complex classically beautiful pop albums (Liberation and Promenade), inspired by courtly romantic literature and the exquisite melancholy of unrequited love. So they didn’t sell, but that nothing to inhibit Neil’s grand musical vision. Promenade (released in 1994) was a high-concept narrative affair taking the form of an extended fantasy date, in which Neil meets up with an old school acquaintance and they spend a whole day together in chaste courtship. "Pure Pre-Raphaelite fancy," recalls Neil wistfully. "You don’t know whether they are in love; they don’t have to be. It’s just beautiful man. Hehehe – all terribly aesthetically pleasing."

It all changed with the fourth Divine Comedy album Casanova, a satirical dissection of modern sex and masculinity. Skinny little Neil became Michael Caine playing Lord Byron in a 70’s Euro porn pic. It was 1996, the height of Lad, and everybody missed the point of songs like ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’. They became anthems for bloke wannabees who aspired to a bit of retro-bachelor pad suave – notably Evans himself. Meanwhile, the success of Father Ted, for which Neil wrote the theme tune, endowed more celebrity points and soon he was getting laid with merry abandon. His next record indicated some misgivings about this injury-time spurt of sexual success. A Short Album About Love was seven bid, bold, heart-melting love songs, recorded live with a 30-piece orchestra at The Shepherd’s Bush Empire, in the grand old style of Dionne Warwick or The Walker Brothers. After the cynical sauciness of Casanova, A Short Album… throbbed with sensuosity, as if Neil had switched his head off for once and let his heart take over. These day he thinks it’s debased rather than elevated by the fact that he found it so easy to write (I’m always scared of writing things in five minute flat") and he’s not even sure it was an album about love. "It’s more about what I imagined love ought to be. Because I'd never properly experienced it."

If A Short Album… was a serendipitous thing of lightness and beauty then Fin De Siècle is heavy and overcooked. Rude lyrics and gorgeous balladeering in the style of Scott Walker have been replaced by hymns to voyeurism, some very funny anti-social dirges and loony epic numbers seemingly conceived for a 1970s Old Testament rock opera. After teasing out the nuances of his emotional life, Neil ahs turned his attention outward to write about the mad, sad lives of other people and what he perceives to be a general collective ore-millennial headfuck, He says the inspiration for the album came from listening to Radiohead. "I heard OK Computer and I thought ‘Shit. That’s great. There’s no way I can write anything that relevant," he explains staring in mock-hopelessness at the table. And so naturally he tried.

Fin De Siècle takes a pop at tabloid culture, Dolly the Sheep, American Evangelists, Hollywood retards, the millennium Bug and, for some reason, fat women on National Express coaches. He seems surprised when I suggest that it all comes across a bit bitter and twisted. "Mmm. Mmm. Well, certainly twisted hehehe. Actually, I think I’m telling the truth for probably the first time in my musical career." Whether this is an entirely good – or commercial - think remains to be seen. Fin De Siècle doesn’t fit with the angst-filled Dirty Realism which will leave Neil open to all kinds of misinterpretation.

"I’m just hoping against hope that people won’t think, ‘Oh where’s all the rumpy pumpy gone.’ The fact is, I think this is just as sexy as Casanova, the music… the feel of it. You don’t need to be talking about porking to have sexy music."

Apart from a quiet, starey-eyed conviction that Fin De Siècle is the best think he’s ever written, Neil finds it difficult to say much else about the album. Unlike previous creations it’s not about fantasy, so there is no larger-than-life persona for him to hide behind. It’s about reality, or at ;east Neil’s own rather weird take on reality. The targets of his bile are strangely random. Sweden, for instance, a country we have traditionally associated with purity, blond wood furniture and stringent hygiene laws. Latterly, Neil’s become aware that Sweden’s obsession with purity may be more sinister (he launches into a story about cleansing handicapped people from society, but abandons it as poorly-thought out and potentially libelous). And ‘Eric The Gardener’ about, well, a gardener who finds a stash of Roman treasure. Neil struggles to explain, saying that Eric and Julius Caesar are "just two blokes at the end of the day", but ends up railing about the millennium: "Four numbers going from 1999 to 2000, it means absolutely nothing to the earth that you walk on…" There follows a long and uncomfortable silence.

"Is there any way that you can understand what I’m talking about?"

In this particular case, there isn’t.

Unusually for an artist, Neil seems happier making small talk about life, than pontificating about The Work. He is in love for the first time in his life, living with his girlfriend since last September and "enjoying it thoroughly, thank you. Hehehe." Home life involves a steady diet of Sainsbury’s instant meals and watching satellite TV (hers), which now he comes to think about it might have more than a little to do with the mood of Fin De Siècle. He’s just bought his first car: a little Polo because he can’t park. From the sound of things he can barely drive, having all but written the car off after a week of ownership.

I observe that Neil seems to have charmed the trousers off every other journalist he’s ever spoken to.

"Yeah. It was a lot easier when all my songs were about sex. I can’t do it with you. I don’t know if I’ve got less charming… I’ve always found it easier to be reasonably polite to people in this situation because they want to know all about me, which is my idea of Heaven. Deep down I’m Mr. Ego. You’ve got to be aware of your ego. Learn to know it and suppress it when necessary."

The next time I meet Neil, he is photographed on Oxford Street. He has been struggling to find an outfit to personify Fin De Siècle, "but there is no image that you can really put onto this, apart from a but grim," he smiles apologetically. He’s plumped for a custom-made, pin-striped Timothy Everett whistle which makes him look like a work experience lad from a funeral parlour. Despite the sombre attire, he seems friendlier and more relaxed than before, flashing me big smiles, and making a soppy coochicoo face, when a red setter prance by (his life’s ambition is "to own a dog"). Neil announces he would like to go "somewhere posh" for lunch and we settle on L’Odeon on Regent’s Street.

Once we’re seated and white wine has been ordered, Neil (who’s definitely started to warm up) explains that he called the album Fin De Siècle because it was "nice and pretentious", also because he wanted to make an album that was "phenomenally interesting and intense to listen to" and the only way he could to that was to make it be about now. Still, he can’t help wondering, he says scanning the menu and choosing an enormous plate of calves liver, "…if this is a reactionary album. Whether I’m just my dad saying, ‘Oh everything is terribly vulgar. The world is obviously in decline.’ I don’t really think that the world is in decline and I don’t really think the album suggests it. I’m just pointing out the bits I don’t really like about it. It’s preaching to myself as well as everybody else."

There’s something charmingly fuddy-duddy about Neil Hannon: the useless driving, the fact that he’s never owned a pair of Doc Martens, nor bought a tabloid newspaper. ‘Generation Sex’, the first track on Fin De Siècle attacks the tabloid paparazzi and the mainstream pornographers of the Lad Press, and there’s a particularly gross line about genetic engineering: "Generation Sex injects the sperm of worms into the eggs of field mice, so you can look real nice for the boys." I tell Neil the line is disgusting.

"It’s very disgusting. That’s why we’ve got lots of backing vocals on at that point, so people don’t throw up."

He takes a sip of wine.

"people just allow these genetic atrocities to happen. As long as the results look OK, nobody asks questions. What right have we got to do that sort of thing? I don’t even know if worms got sperm… Do worms have sperm?"

The question hangs in the air, unanswered, as Neil tucks into his calves’ livers.

For my money, the most beautiful track on Fin De Siècle is ‘Commuter Love’, although I do have a bit of a problem with the lyrics. It is, essentially, a hymn to fantasising about women on the Underground. "On the tomes I have been on public transport, one can’t help but look at people and imagine, er, what it might like to be in bed with them," Neil explains sweetly.

While he is a perfectly gentlemanly lunch date, Neil’s attitude to women is a little odd. My personal theory is that he grew up in circumstances just repressive enough to guarantee that he will forever regard sex as dirty and women as fetished objects of desire. He was the youngest of three boys and his mother seemed more interested in horses than demystifying the exotic otherness of womankind.

"I remember," he says, "my only dream from the 70’s. It was to be allowed to stay up and watch Starsky and Hutch. I remember I used to catch bits of the opening titles before I was dragged off to bed. That dancing woman in the leopard-skin bikini seared into my imagination. That bottom going round and round and round…"

Certainly, Neil has the highest regard for physical beauty. I do not get to meet his girl-friend, but those who know her tell me to imagine a Pre-Raphaelite beauty crossed with The Little Mermaid. On the flipside: there is a song on the album, ‘National Express’, in which a fat lady hostess is too broad to fit up the aisle of the coach. Neil thinks this is very funny, and points out that there is a play on aisle. You know, too lardy for the marriage aisle. But I find it all a bit sad.

In the past Neil has made no bones about fame gaining him access to beautiful women who would normally be out of his league. I ask him if it’s possible to have satisfying sex with a fan. He’s not sure what I’m driving at, so I explain that famous musicians often say it isn’t- there’s too much awe going on.

"I never felt like they were awe-struck by puny me. I mean, as long as you’re on the ‘this means fuck-all’ level, I’d say, yeah. But if you want it to mean anything…"

So, what has he learned since he stopped going through groupies and settled down in Clapham? "That you don’t have to shag the entire population of the world to be an experienced human being. Although I did my best for a couple of years."

Fluffy puddings arrive, along with Neil’s glass of vintage 1977 port.

"You would think that costs £15," he eyes it curiously, before going on to explain that if Fin De Siècle were the soundtrack to a film, it would be for a Lindsay Anderson one, "A late 60’s, weird, half-surreal strange journey, like O Lucky Man… I always like that movie."

It’s the tracks on the second half of he album – "’Life on Earth’, ‘The Certainty of Chance’, ‘Here Comes The Flood’ – that best capture this mood. One minute we seem to be in a Kurt Weill opera, the next we’ve been washed up in Godspell, with the Apocalypse, chaos theory and Millennium Bug all stirred into the mix. Yet, despite a child-hood of church attendance, Neil does not subscribe to the Christian faith, nor any other divine plan.

"A lot of the album is saying, ‘Oh come on, don’t be so stupid.’ Everyone is worried about these apocalyptic visions, but isn’t there enough wrong with the world to be going on with?" He looks soulfully at a spoonful of lemon and raspberry torte. "I don’t know, it’s just a laugh. Just an excuse to have big bangs and crashing noises." This last bit, of course, is disingenuous.

In Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, one of the characters, Des, is debating the wisdom of Shakespeare’s tenet: ‘To thine own self be true.’ All very nice, the argument goes, if thine own self is a thing of beauty and integrity. But what if you are fundamentally a faithless schmuck? Is the advice still worth following?

Without casting any aspersions on his character, I can’t help feeling Neil Hannon would empathise. On Fin De Siècle he has looked into his sound and trued to produce an album that reflects his true feelings about the world as it is now. But instead of the primal howl of contemporary angst (which you feel he so admires in Radiohead); what we get is a clever clogs who can call on many musical styles and cruelly mimic the characters and ideas he wants to debase. By trying to get tough, contemporary and true, he doesn’t really sound like himself at all.

"My problem is I know too much musically," sighs Neil.

Oh, this Neil Hannon is a contrary one alright: a shy, self-confessed egotist who’s written the most content-driven music of his career, but can’t find the words to talk about it. He is love, but has apparently forsaken his luscious boudoir music to sing of gardeners and worm sperm. He is complex and talented in a way few artists of his generation could even hope to aspire to, and yet you suspect he’d like to be another musician altogether. He is, of course, the son of someone famous which in ways the rest of us don’t understand. So just what is it that he wants?

"Sometimes I sit myself down and try to remember what it was I really, really wanted," he says, "because when I was 18 or 19, I had these amazing flights of fancy that were so real to me. I always have this wonderful pastoral idyll deep in my subconscious. It’s the usual stuff: lots of people in white clothes, in a field of wild flowers on a hillside, with a beautiful view and the sea in the distance. And lots of dogs everywhere. If it did happen I’d probably have hay fever," he says, laughing a little. "But there’s probably no truer emotion than the ambitions you have at that age."

I get the feeling that Neil Hannon has just remembered something.

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