We’re lucky to have a great deal of musical talent regularly playing live in our city. We’re even luckier that when the top dogs set up their big tours, we usually get a look in. On 15 October, The Divine Comedy are stopping by to treat us to a show for the first time in six years.
Neil Hannon, front man and mastermind of the band, is unapologetically self-indulgent when it comes to making music. He’s admitted on several occasions that he writes for himself, not for public demand, a refreshing change. Over the last quarter of a century, Neil has written and produced 11 albums, as well as contributed to soundtracks, written theme tunes and even dipped a toe into opera.
We were given the privilege of catching up with Neil from the comfort of “another hotel room,” as he so fondly sighed. If his wit and prevailing sense of humour weren’t evident enough from the comical and merry lyrics scattered through most of his work, you sure get a taste of it when spending a bit of time in conversation.
After 25 years of making music, has the sound of The Divine Comedy changed significantly?
I don’t think I’ve done anything different, really, from the start. I’ve always attacked it in the same way – just kind of messing about with music, recording in my note book, coming up with the occasional line that I like, attaching one to another and then building things that way. I like to think the only thing that has changed is I’ve got better at it.
I’m well aware that a lot of writers, as much as they might sort of improve technically, sometimes go backwards in terms of their interest or what they’ve got to say. I’m constantly aware of that and try to make sure that I don’t do the same. I mean, I’m vastly more interested in what I’m writing about now than the songs that I wrote 15 or even 20 years ago. Anyone who does any kind of job is going to be more interested now than they were 20 years ago.
Do you think you’ve been influenced by the ever-changing line up of the band?
Well no, not really, because I never took any notice of them anyway! They’re all lovely people and I’ve worked with some incredible characters over the years, but they were always aware of the deal – it was my band, my songs and I say what goes. There have been a lot of great people who have really helped out along the years, like for example Joby Talbot – I used to get him to do the orchestration back in the day – and Andrew Skeet, [who] over the last 12 years has been incredibly useful to me. I use musicians from the same sort of pool of players and then the line-up tends to ebb and flow depending on what I need. I’m a terrible dictator, actually.
What’s your personal highlight from your new album, Foreverland?
The front cover. I love it. It’s a poster for an old Italian ballet from the 1910s that was on a calendar I have. I stared at it while I was making the album for three years, so it insinuated itself onto the record itself. Musically… ah you know, I like it all. I wouldn’t listen to it if I didn’t like it.
Do you have a go-to way of working now when it comes to recording an album or do you like to keep trying new things?
I’m always kind of always concentrating on a new aspect of it. Whenever I come to make a new record I go, “Now, remember this time, concentrate on recording the vocals well”, or something else like that, but I’ll pretty much end up doing it the way I always have.
There’s a lot more mobility now for things you recorded at home ending up on the actual record. We have some good equipment at home, nice mics, so it doesn’t make a lot of difference. I do end up going into the studio. At the end of the day, it doesn’t feel like a finished product unless I’ve been in the studio.
Does it feel good to have another big European tour coming up after a few years off?
Yeah, it doesn’t make my head swim at all. It’s a very, very long tour. I only seem to do these mammoth tours once every five or six years, maybe more actually. But you’ve got to be happy when so many people come and see you. I do miss home more now than in the early days. When you are in your 20s you can’t wait to get out there and see the world, but nowadays I do have more to miss at home.
Are you excited to be back in Sheffield?
Sure, I’ve always loved playing in Sheffield. Jarvis heritage. The Steel City. Actually, it’s a very beautiful place, especially viewed from up on the hills. My uncle and auntie live up in Ranmoor. It’s good to get chance to see them.
Is your tour solely for the Foreverland album or will you be dipping into the back catalogue?
There will be a large chunk of the new album, but by no means will it be taking over. I like to do a smattering of everything. I mean, there are 11 albums. What are you going to do? You’re always going to piss some people off by what you choose to play and what you’ve missed out.
How do you even go about choosing the set list for live shows when you have such an extensive list?
I’ve already spent days and days pondering it. It gets harder every bloody album and I’m really trying to just come to a decision that will work. I think at this rate I’m going to cut up the names of the songs, put them in a hat and see what comes up, see what people make of that.
Do you have plans for after the big tour?
Holiday. I think by then I will just want to lie in bed for a week.
The Divine Comedy play at The Foundry at Sheffield Students’ Union on 15 October. Tickets are available at leadmill.co.uk.