Culture Northern Ireland: Interview With Neil Hannon
A 2009 interview from Culture Northern Ireland.
The Divine Comedy frontman on film, the Feile and the Duckworth Lewis Method
The Divine Comedy are named after Dante’s poem, but the band famously wrote the theme tune to television comedy Father Ted. What has been making you laugh recently?
Fawlty Towers, recently, as well as Curb Your Enthusiasm. My perennial favourite is Frasier, which I know inside out and back to front, all twelve seasons. Once I realised it was good I devoured it. It’s very British in a way, it’s influenced by the best British sitcoms of the 1970s and 80s. They’re almost sex farces, Sheridan-like. I’m a big Woody Allen fan, as well. I wish he’d make more movies. Actually, these days, I wish he’d make funnier movies. Bullets Over Broadway was probably his last real classic.
Belfast’s Feile programme includes drive-in films like Trainspotting and The Omen, shown on a 50x40ft screen. You’ve written the score for Wide Open Spaces, starring Ewen Bremner and Ardal O’Hanlon. How does writing music for film differ from writing for an album, or performance?
It differs most in that you don’t have the final say. I wrote a bunch of music for places in the film that the director had pointed at. I think I had an easier ride than most people writing music for the movies in that they didn’t honestly need all that much music in it. Wide Open Spaces, as the name suggests, is kind of bleak and empty. Music was only necessary for certain scenes. I enjoyed it, I had the music finished in five days.
Your most recent release is The Duckworth Lewis Method, an album inspired by cricket. How does the album differ from the Divine Comedy?
50% of it has been written by Thomas Walsh of Pugwash, and he’s different from me in many, many ways. He’s a brilliant writer. It was great fun to sit down and do something that had no pressure at all. Nobody knew we were doing it, nobody cared.
We would get together every couple of weeks and just do it. Because there was nobody waiting for it there was nothing to hold us back. We flew through it and there it is. It’s a pop record, it has some big big tunes on it. The longer you go on in this business, the more you’re trying to reach some artistic goal and the less time you have for the sillier fun stuff. On this record I got to do a lot of the silly stuff I’d been storing up for several years.
Have you read Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland? Its lyricism has won high praise and it too draws inspiration from cricket.
I haven’t, actually, although somebody else mentioned it to me. I did an interview for Q magazine and the guy obviously had his whole thing written before we spoke. He said, ‘So, why is cricket the new rock ‘n’ roll?’ And I said, ‘It’s not.’
The reason I love cricket is because it’s the opposite of rock ‘n’ roll - it’s not trying to be cool, it’s just what it is, kind of weird and arbitrary and beautiful. I got the magazine a month later and it said ‘Neil Hannon says Cricket is the New Rock ‘n’ Roll!’ That summed up, for me, what journalists are capable of. It made me laugh, I didn’t want to sue him or anything. He knew what he wanted.
The album is released on compact disc, as well as through online retailers. As an established successful musician, how has the internet affected how sell your work?
It has, slightly, augmented the market. Now there are so many ways of getting music. I’m not a great lover of digital downloads because I’m from the bygone age of going into a shop and purchasing something. They give you something, in your hand. Something physical. There’s just something nice about doing that. Taking it home, taking the cover off and looking at the lovely glossy cover. I have no problem with downloading but it doesn’t do it for me. Whatever works for people - I still get the money [laughs].
It’s a time of experimentation. Ash have built their own studio in New York and plan to release only singles, promoted by online marketing campaigns. An act like Marmaduke Duke have won a lot of fans from their online presence, building their theatrical live appearances upon the online buzz. How will the next Divine Comedy album be released?
My manager and I have had long discussions about this, and we always go down what seem to be cul-de-sacs, really. I’m a fully-grown adult with time considerations that don’t allow you to tour and record endlessly. And there’s only one of me, which can be a bit awkward. We’re investigating various ideas. I’ve listened to the recordings since and I’ve decided they’re not finished, really. I’ve got a bit of work to do. But hopefully the record will be out after Christmas.
Do you think there is enough support for musicians in Northern Ireland? Is there an indigenous music industry to speak of, as opposed to a number of funded bodies who support selected musicians, when they can?
Well, I suspect you know more about it than I do - being a resident of south Dublin I don’t often hear what’s going on. But the Oh Yeah centre sounds cool, and there always seems to be some kind of new initiative going on. But you’ll never have any replication, say, of the ‘London Music Scene’ in Northern Ireland. It’s just not physically possible. You can certainly help people get to a position where they can have their music heard, in a good form.
Speaking from my personal experience, if you want it enough you’ll always find away of getting it done. There’s always been a debate about giving people too many options, sort of laid on a plate, and making it too easy. How do I say this without digging an enormous hole for myself? It’s important to give people places to do gigs, and it’s important to give them places to record, but you can’t spoon-feed people or they’ll never get off their arses and seek their own fortunes. There are lots of great places to play, but you’ll never become a great high-profile musical act if you stay in Northern Ireland. It’s important to give people the opportunity to go further afield.
The Duckworth Lewis Method is out now.
Cuture Northern Ireland - Kiran Acharya