The Divine Comedy: ‘It’s like everything I thought was happening when I was growing up has gone into reverse’

Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. Picture: Ben Meadows
Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. Picture: Ben Meadows
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The Divine Comedy’s latest album is a concept record, of sorts. Neil Hannon spoke about it to DUNCAN SEAMAN.

In an age of dwindling record sales, it’s a bold musician who embarks on a double album these days. Yet that’s exactly what Neil Hannon has done with the latest album from his musical alias The Divine Comedy.

Office Politics is even a concept record, of sorts, about the various character types to be found in white collar jobs.

“I don’t think was terribly bold,” the 48-year-old says, “just foolhardy.

“I’ve got myself into this very pleasant position really where I just do what I want, and it seems the more that I do what I want the more people like it. So I literally gave a couple of moments’ thought to how people would take to it in the five years that it took to make.

“That sounds kind of mean,” he chuckles, “but from the very moment that I started in the early 90s it seems that people took to the music because it was kind of different from other people’s and so to think about what other people might be after would be the wrong move.”

I was sweeping up all of this music and listening to it as a whole and thinking ‘what is this all about?’ It was coalescing into this vibe of workplace scenarios and the various dark influences upon that these days.

Neil Hannon

Ask the Northern Irishman if he spent long hours musing on the goings-on in modern offices and the effect of technology on the people that use it and he likens his approach to Mark E Smith, the late singer with The Fall. “I remember him once talking in an interview about Curious Oranj, the ballet that he collaborated on in the 80s, and he said, ‘I don’t do research’,” he says.

“Basically it ruins things because then it’s kind of dry, reading stuff out of books. I’ve lived quite a while now, I’ve lived in the same world as everybody else, and even though I’ve never worked in an office – in fact I’ve never worked at anything else but this – I’m reasonably well travelled and I’ve talked to a lot of people, watched a lot of TV and read a lot of newspapers, so I know what goes on in there.

“But then the other thing you have to remember is I wasn’t necessarily trying to do an album about working in offices, in fact that was rather a last-minute thought calling it Office Politics. I was sweeping up all of this music and listening to it as a whole and thinking ‘what is this all about?’ It was coalescing into this vibe of workplace scenarios and the various dark influences upon that these days. I never like to try and overtly put people off buying the album so I thought it would be a nice way into the whole thing to give it a slight Reggie Perrin feel, frame it in a mundane, everyday kind of place, ‘ooh office politics – that sounds like fun’. The when you get to listen to it it’s a lot weirder than that.”

On a deeper level, he sees ordinary working people being “p***ed on from a great height” by modern capitalism. “You can blame it on an abstract theory of economics or you could just blame it on people being s***, the two go hand-in-hand, really,” he says. “But a lot of this album seems to come from a feeling that I’ve been getting more and more for the last 15 years or so where it’s like everything I thought was happening when I was growing up has gone into reverse, and it seems like everything that was purported to be making the world a better place is actually doing the reverse.

“I believed in progress when I was small. In the 70s and 80s everything was always getting slightly better all the time, and the 90s was like this ‘things aren’t too bad, are they?’ moment and then it just all started to go wrong. Not that there weren’t plenty of wrong things before, it’s more the direction of travel that I’m talking about.”

The bemused character Hannon describes in the song I’m a Stranger Here is, he admits, loosely based on himself. “When I started writing that I wasn’t thinking of anything, I was just thinking ‘I’m a stranger here, that’s nice’, you know when you get those little lines that give you a frisson of excitement. As I wrote it in the beginning it was about somebody who was from another place, in a place they didn’t know, and that could be talking about immigration or anything, and then gradually as it went on I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this has got kind of a subtext, which is I’m the one who feels alienated from society, like a stranger in my own country’. I don’t really understand internet banking,” he laughs, “and is that money, those kind of figures on a computer screen? And what was so wrong with letters? Yes, they took a few days but you really put more thought into them. That kind of stuff.”

It’s 30 years since Hannon began making music as The Divine Comedy. He says: “I looked upon me writing music as a long-term project; I didn’t know that it would always be The Divine Comedy. But then The Divine Comedy has just turned out to be me making music, so it’s all the same thing at the end of the day. I just never wanted to do it under my own boring name.

“When I do the extra-curricular stuff – the musicals and the odd commission for people – I think that’s good, that sounds professional, but when it’s just good old-fashioned weird pop then I think it’s The Divine Comedy because that’s my alias for doing whatever the hell I want.”

Office Politics is out now. The Divine Comedy plays at Leeds Beckett University on October 15. thedivinecomedy.com