Stopping in Berlin on his tour with The Divine Comedy’s new album Office Politics, Irish musician Neil Hannon explains his oddball way of dealing with the world going to shit.
For the past three decades Neil Hannon has established himself as a keen commentator on oddities of the modern condition. From the brilliant, to the banal, and down-right baffling, there is little that escapes his scrutiny, and still less that escapes unscathed. As the founder of The Divine Comedy he is a national treasure to a number of nations, with two gold records to his name. His razor-sharp wit is a trademark of the craft that dreamt up the music for both Father Ted and The IT Crowd. His newest album Office Politics, sees Hannon upbeat, uncompromising, and at his jovial best.
This is your twelfth album, but your first double album. Has your approach to making a record changed?
I have a lot ideas, but then I always had a lot of ideas. I just didn’t want to edit them as much this time. In the past I felt more pressure to be succinct and to the point, but on this record I thought I wanted to let my more experimental, oddball side shine through. If you’ve got a really strict twelve song album it’s kind of hard to do that. So, I said I’m going to make a double album and you can have as many tracks as you want and that meant things like “Phillip and Steve’s Removal Company” [a musical parody on Phillip Glass and Steve Reich] could be on there when normally it might not have made the cut.
What’s fuelling this oddball feeling right now?
Being an oddball is part of it! I think I’ve proven that I can write three and a half minute orchestral pop-songs but there’s a lot more I like to do. Things at home, or things that say something about me, and today. I’m just trying to widen out the envelope a little bit.
You paint some sharp portraits in your music. Who are the characters on this album?
I don’t want to give the idea that I start out with a list of characters and try to tell a story, it’s really much more random than that. With the song “Opportunity Knox”, I started out with the chorus (singing) “opportunities, opportunities” just because it came into my head one day. I thought, “who is saying this?” A really greedy, slippery, business guy. It all comes along gradually. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be great if he killed an old character of mine, Billy Bird, from 2004, just to take his job. So, that’s the way my mind works. It’s perfectly logical.
How has your approach to songwriting changed?
I think I’m less willing to take shortcuts now than I was in the 1990s. When you start writing songs, which I did when I was thirteen – you begin by writing any old shit, just so you can have something to sing. Gradually it becomes a bit more meaningful, but you will always have times when you think “well that rhymes with that so I’ll just stick it in”. As I’ve got older I’ve become less willing to just write something for the sake of it. I’m going to come up with something that actually means something.
Part of it seems to be a more overt political charge to your music.
Really, it’s been forced on me by the state of the world. The fact that when I look back at it, everything in the 1990s was kind of okay. It was quite a placid time politically and everything is kind of totally fucked now. I can’t help but write about it in an obtuse, tangential way. I suppose it started with a song I wrote in 2009 called “The Complete Banker” about the financial meltdown. In a way the world we live in now is a product of the world back then and a product of idiotic right wingers.
I wonder about the sound of the album in that respect. Those lovely 1980s synths, is there an element of happy music for dire times?
I think that might be it, you know. Back in the early part of this decade, I had a bit of time on my hands and I thought “I need my synthesisers right now because they bring me great joy.” I’ve never used them on albums before even though I have always been mad about synths. The first music that really excited me as a child was Human League and OMD, it wasn’t electric guitar until I became an indie kid in the late 1980s. So this is probably my most nostalgic album in a way.
The Divine Comedy | Admiralspalast, Mitte. Oct 23, 18:50.