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ELO

Syd Barrett

Vivian Stanshall

My Bloody Valentine

Velvet Underground

The Smiths

Doris Day

Ravel

The Divine Neil Hannon

22 Questions

The Divine Comedy have hit the charts three times this year with a trio of catchy pop songs which belie the breadth and diversity of their repertoire. Musical styles converge from lavish orchestral extravaganzas through big Hollywood-style musical numbers to the ever so nifty pop melodies which have been Divine Comedy's route to chart success. Neil Hannon is frequently compared to Jarvis Cocker, and there is no denying that he shares a certain British quirky wit with the Tall Dark One, but he's not like Jarvis, he doesn't draw from the seamy side of working-class life. Oh no, not he. His is a magpie's nest of ersatz references plundered from art, cinema, literature, and music.

He has never had a proper job. After mediocre performance at school he was accepted to do an Art Foundation course at Liverpool Polytechnic. He decided to take a year out to try his hand at music and never returned to the real world. In 1989 he formed The Divine Comedy. In 1991 he was signed by Keith Cullen's Setanta label, and in 1992 his fellow members couldn't sustain the poverty and disappointment of their unsuccessful life and deserted him. Cullen's patronage gave him the security to keep plugging on.

Unperturbed by this abandonment, Neil seized this opportunity and reinvented The Divine Comedy. Gone was the REM-style indie-guitar-infested music. He took some songs he already had, and with a collection of musicians, followed his instinct and set about developing his own musical style.

"This was a very healthy thing for me to do. To release myself from everything that had been going on around me." The (new) Divine Comedy has now released three albums, Liberation, Promenade and Casanova. "The title of the first album said it all."

Anybody who listens to music can't help but feel influences in Neil Hannon's songs.

Anybody who listens to music can't help but feel influences in Neil Hannon's songs. To say that his music is not derivative is to tell a blatant lie, but his own style still shines through.

He credits his older brothers with introducing him to music. "When I was not yet in my teens they were listening to lots of strange pop music: Ultravox, ELO..." Were ELO a big influence on him? "Unfortunately yes", but quickly qualifies with "I think you can be influenced by things that you don't really like". Everybody knows that Scott Walker is a "Genius". I tried a few more names:

Syd Barret? "Plonker. It was his own silly fault." Vivian Stanshall. "Now, he was a man of extreme intellect and extreme irony and wit". Peter Gabriel? "Went astray a bit, but he was in the ballpark with his earlier stuff". John Barry? "Just Godlike". Burt Bacharach? "He knew how to write a good tune all right, but sometimes I find him a little bit on the loopy side. (Now isn't that just the pot calling the kettle black?) Michael Nyman? "Oh Yeah. Michael found a trick that worked, and I don't think that he's ever gonna find that sort of power again". The Smiths? "I worked out that they were in fact geniuses but after the event. I just appreciated the wit. The musical and lyrical wit. I don't think that wit carries on into Morrisey's work". Velvet Underground? "Fantastic". Jacques Brel? "Probably the greatest socio-realistic kitchen sink songwriter of this century." Any more? "Kevin Sheilds of My Bloody Valentine. A genius; Kraftwerk; Doris Day; Dusty Springfield; Ravel".

"I liked it in the 50s when mothers and daughters were all whistling the same tune on the radio."

Divine Comedy have been criticised for going for the Easy Listening/Lounge market with their single releases. Neil strongly opposes the idea that he is targeting a particular market with his music "I liked it in the 50s when mothers and daughters were all whistling the same tune on the radio." So this is the Doris Day influence coming through. Is he, after all, seeking some kind of all embracing middle-class family experience?

"I just wholeheartedly oppose the prevalent commercialist philosophy of the past 10-15 years which has meant that musical genres have been split into little pigeon holes and that as a musician you have to pick your 10 percent."

Now that you have achieved some measure of success, are you are compromising quality for commercialism? "Who said that? where are they? I'll give them a punch on the nose. That is complete shit. The fact is that there has never been one single, solitary moment in my creative life where I have written a song in order to be successful, there is only one reason I have for writing songs and that is to write the best song that I possibly can, regardless of any outside motivations. Now, when it comes to selling that song I would do anything that I feel is within the bounds of reality to sell it. That is part of my job. I have to make money for me, the record company, and my band."

"I do dream about owning my own home. I dream about having a home of my own with a couple of dogs and my lovely girlfriend."

"The truth about Divine Comedy is in the Albums". Hannon firmly attests that best thing about getting a single in the charts is simply to raise awareness of the album from which the single originates. But how does it make you feel? "Relieved." Just relieved, not delighted or excited? "A bit of that. It would be dangerous to justify my life with chart positions, especially when it nips in and nips straight out again."

"It was such a tremendous push to get 'The Frog Princess' into the charts in the first place. We simply didn't have the wherewithal to prolong that." Hannon is now exhausted, and on the day we spoke was suffering from a bad dose of 'flu. He has only had one or two days off over the past three months, and is looking forward to a month off over Christmas to recuperate, and to think about writing some new material. What keeps him going? "I do dream about owning my own home. I dream about having a home of my own with a couple of dogs and my lovely girlfriend."

"I don't think I could write songs for other people. I'd be sitting there thinking 'this is far too good for them, I'll do it myself."

Neil may soon have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his heroes, Michael Nyman and John Barry; he has been offered some film scores to write. His gift for picking up mood, musical style and genre should serve him well. What about writing hit pop songs for other people? "I don't think I could write songs for other people. I'd be sitting there thinking 'this is far too good for them, I'll do it myself'. If I wrote a song that I couldn't do I would gladly give it to somebody else. I like to write a good pop song just to prove to myself that I can."

How about representing Ireland in the Eurovision song contest? "As long as I could do it with My Lovely Horse. That would be the ultimate irony."