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The Divine Comedy | Absent Friends | interview | Neil Hannon | alternative | Lollipop

The Divine Comedy

Absent Friends (Nettwerk)
An interview with leader Neil Hannon
By Tim Den

For those of us who remember The Divine Comedyas the vehicle through which Neil Hannon lived his debauchery, hedonism, and promiscuity, Absent Friends is going to come as a shock. Casanova it certainly is not, as its creator is certainly no longer the same restless harvester of lust. Rather, what we have here is a husband, a father, a somber reflector of life's ups and downs. The only thing that's remained the same is Hannon's ability to craft unbelievable stories out of British brass arrangements, French balladry, and theater-worthy dramaticism. Imagine Scott Walker produced by George Martin reworking Joplin tunes. Yes, it's that grandiose, that beyond-mortal-beauty of songwriting stature. The nuances are incalculatable: From bass drums echoing lyrics ("Our Mutual Friend") to narratives that smoothly switch characters without interruption ("Come Home Billy Bird"). Hannon is in top shape as he amorously, benevolently, cynically, defensively, tragically, humbly, and above all, brilliantly spills swooning melodic prose.

To woo listeners and transport them into fantastical stories is a long lost art. The Divine Comedy not only does just that, but provides it a skin-tingling soundtrack.

It has been over three years since your last album, Regeneration. What've you been up to in the downtime, with the exception of undertaking that solo tour with Ben Folds?
It's been a mixture of work and parenting. Trying to find windows of opportunity to work between the diaper changing. But it worked out okay. In a way, it stopped all the mucking around. Less strange techno tunes, more "album tracks."

I assume you've become a parent?
Yes, a couple of years ago. I've been married for five years. Haven't even thought about getting divorced yet. (laughs)

I'm a little surprised, since the impression you left most people with Casanova was that you're a globe-trotting, womanizing, sophisticated chap of the elite class...
That was definitely the image I wanted to give off. (laughs) It's funny, cuz that was just the fruit of a couple of years of actually getting laid. It wasn't something I'd been good at previously. Therefore, I was reveling in it. (laughs) I met my wife a year later, and that was that.

That album is quite personal in many ways. A lot of it has less to do with "yippie! I got a shag!" than "I am now troubled by my promiscuity." How do I justify this alongside "I thought I was one of the sentimental chaps..."

Where are you - mentally, emotionally, private life-wise - for this album?
Probably too comfortable, really. All in all, it's a "pretty content Neil." It's a slightly melancholy album, but then again, most of mine are. It's a part of the joy. (laughs) I find comfort in melancholy.

It's definitely influenced by "the author had a child." But it's mostly about coming and going, people being there and not being there.

You'd lost your entire band before making this album, correct?
Not so much "lost" as "sacked," unfortunately. I like the word "dissolved." It sounds uncontroversial. At the end of 2001, after we toured for Regeneration, the band kinda ceased to be. I thought about ditching the name at the same time, but there was a precedent of The Divine Comedy just being me, so it wasn't a big deal if I kept the name. I made the first three real albums by myself anyway.

The first two EPs were with two other members, right?
Yeah. They're kind of useless. They (the other members) quickly jumped ship. I didn't sack them!

Ben Folds' invitation to tour solo must've come at a convenient time!
It was, strangely enough, about a week after the band finished. It seemed to make sense. It was quite early on (in the time frame) with my baby, but I'm glad I did such a long spade of touring back then when she was none the wiser. It's going to be a lot harder this time!

Were you and Ben friends/fans of each other's?
We'd met at one of their shows (back when Ben was with the ‘Five) in London several years before. We always had a mutual admiration for each other. I learned a lot from him in terms of idle conversation about the business, and also just watching him perform. He's quite amazing.

Who would you consider your contemporaries?
I feel very lonely, all in all. (laughs) There are a lot of people out there who seem to mean well, but it's the lack of ambition and willful avoidance of "an audience" that annoys me. Cuz I'm always trying to find an audience, you know? (chuckles) It's a balancing act between making slightly out-of-the-ordinary music and appealing to people. (pause) I like Rufus Wainwright!

Funny that you mention Rufus... You were a topic when I interviewed him a few months ago. Seems you guys like each other!
(laughs) We're sort of after the same thing. Slightly different methods, but definitely a love of pre-1960 music. The ambition of the songs, the details and lyricism. I think he writes damn good tunes.

Are you discouraged by the fact that your music - and Rufus' - can't seem to convince the average blockhead to spend an extra minute looking deeper into the artform?
I don't know, it's a combination of things. The listener, I think, will always be slightly lazy. But the media - record companies, radio, TV - have conspired over the last 20 years to split us up. "Divide and conquer" into comfortable pigeonholes. They've all gotten far too clever with their focus groups and demographics. As a result, there's very little in the way of middle lines/blurred edges. It's all very black and white. "Are you R&B? Are you country twang?" You have to be one thing. And I refuse to be one thing! (laughs) It's so boring!

If anything, I'm a '60s orchestral balladeer. And I'm not sure there's a pigeonhole for that.

What has been inspiring you these last few years?
(long pause) Frasier! (laughs)

The TV show?
Yeah! (shyly laughs) It's inventive! I want to be Niles Crane! (laughs) I wish I could come up with something more obscure and interesting... I was very good at that in the old days, before I had a kid; now I just don't have any time. I can't sit up all night watching strange French films. I don't even get a chance to listen to a lot of music anymore. Then again, I was never a big listener. If I heard something I absolutely adored, I'd play it five times and not listen to it again for years. (pause) And I hate the radio.

What would you like to achieve with your career - financially, popularity-wise, legacy-wise, craftsmanship - if "mainstream appeal" wasn't a factor?
Financially, I'd like a castle. Or at least a house that looks like a castle. Something big. And lordly. Once I have that, there's nothing left to do! But that might take a while...

I think about soundtracks and musicals, but I always put off. Nobody has come to me with an idea that's so good that I simply have to do it. Cuz that's the only way I can do it: I can't write stories. I'm okay at lyrics, cuz three minutes is not a lot of words. But then again, I like making albums and being a part-time pop star while I'm young enough. (laughs) And I love playing live.

Maybe you could do a stage show about one man's pursuit of a lordly castle.
(laughs) I'm worried that any move into stage or drama will just instantly expel me from pop. I like having one foot in "left field" kinds of music, and the other in pop. In the UK, it's fun, cuz people still think of me as the guy who wrote "Something For the Weekend." It's become karaoke music now. And I'd never want to give up that vulgar populist aspect. It amuses me. It makes me feel wanted, (laughs) as if I'm not operating in a complete vacuum.
(8730 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 304 Beverly Hills, CA 90211)  

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