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The Divine Comedy
 by Mike Agate / pictures by Paul Heartfield

The Divine Comedy by Paul HeartfieldFin de Siècle. It's one of those phrases, along with 'alma mater' and 'joie de vivre' that only trips comfortably off the tongue of a certain kind of person. The kind of person who has champagne and strawberries served to them in bed, before rising around two to spend a relaxed afternoon lounging in a smoking jacket, inhaling Gauloise Blondes through a cigarette holder and reading the diaries of Anaïs Nin with a sardonic smile. It's also the title of the new album by the Divine Comedy, a band whose oh-so-bohemian seeming frontman has worked hard to maintain the image of the witty sophisticate, to the extent that he's starting to fear becoming a caricature of himself. The image is, as he will say later, 'completely contrived' - a fact which he drives home by announcing that he's "off to Sainburys once he's finished here" - and yet he's keen to keep the look alive, at least for the duration of this album (our photographer, Paul, has been told that he can only take head shots because Neil's not wearing his suit today).

It's late in the afternoon; it's been a long day for everyone and now, as Christopher Morris might say, it's raining its arse off. I'm not to take too long. So ten seconds through the door, I've already apologised and promised to keep it short. I'm number thirteen; the one face-to-face interview, slotted in at the very end of a day of phoners during which, so far, twelve journalists from twelve different magazines have asked twelve sets of nigh on identical questions, to which Neil Hannon - for it is he - has had to come up with twelve sets of answers, carefully trying to vary the replies he gives in an attempt to keep the writers happy and himself interested. And he's terribly tired. I wish that I could promise to be more original than the others, but I fear that it may not be so.

Everybody always says to me, whenever I complain about anything, 'Well you asked to be in a band', you know, 'you asked to be famous' I don't get the logic of that personally.

Do you not go along with the whole press routine then?
No, I don't mind it - I think I have the absolute right to moan about it though. It's like, everybody moans about their job.

Let's talk about the album then. What did you have in mind when you started work on it?
I think I had more in mind when I was writing it than when I was thinking about writing it. I thought it would be more Kurt Weil, Jacques Brel, but in the end it turned out more Faith No More!

So there was a plan from the start.
There's this Brel album right - I don't even know if it's a proper album or whether it was put together after the event, but it's got this sort of... I was obsessed with this album for a very long time even though I couldn't understand a word of it, you know, and I was thinking there's ten perfect tracks on this and I'd love to just make an album with, like, ten perfect tracks. I'm not sure I'd go so far as perfection.

Fin de Siècle, arguably, is a little more current affairs than any of its predecessors - it comments on the death of Diana, the futility of the troubles in Ireland, and the confusion of sexual politics - and yet it is a little less 'pop' than, say, Everybody Knows (Except You) or Becoming More Like Alfie. I'm not completely sure I get it from listening to the album, but the press material gets a lot of mileage out of the idea that you're moving in a new, darker direction, and admittedly some of the songs are a little less immediate than your more recent offerings. Do you feel that there's an overarching, darker mood to the record? If so, what does it say about what you've done before?
Well I mean, a lot of the old stuff was pretty dark as well, in it's own way, but everyone looks straight past that to the smoking jacket and the cigarette holder and all that bollocks. But I brought that upon myself. I suddenly realised that people would get off on that image, so we went for it totally, got the roses out and the champagne and everything.

The image is pretty contrived, then. Oh it's totally contrived. I mean, I would never dress like that, for goodness sake!

I have to say I'm a bit disappointed - I think it adds something.
I mean, I don't mind it, it's fun to do, but it's had its day, you know. If I kept doing that I'd become a big cartoon.

But having written songs like The Booklovers (from 1994's 'Promenade'), do you think you'll have a problem moving away from the whole, kinda bohemian thing?
Er, I don't know. I mean the previous albums to Casanova, I always wore a black suit and black tie, much like what I'm wearing at the moment - we'll, not at the moment but for the album - so really I went back to that for this album because I couldn't think of anything else to do. The reason I wore that in the first place was because I looked awful in jeans and a T-shirt and I wanted something that was so, sort of, anonymous that it would be less about me and more about the music. In the end it didn't really turn out that way and people just thought 'he's a natty dresser, isn't he'. It's funny, I was always a dishevelled wreck.

You've had more than just a thing or two to say about the retro thing at the moment ('a bunch of retro crap'), but you still draw strong influences from past artists, and I'm sitting here opposite someone in a faded pink panther shirt...
It's not that I have a problem looking to the past for ideas, it's the problem of bands taking one era wholesale and just reproducing it lock stock and barrel. Um, the only way music progresses, or any artform progresses, is by sort of cross pollination and mixing things up and finding something new out of that, and then that gets mixed up with something else and so on and so forth. Rock and Roll wouldn't exist if country and rhythm and blues hadn't got it together, so I'm just trying to take it all forward a little bit.

With the title of the album you're obviously looking ahead. Do you really feel that we're on the verge of something momentous?
No, it's the absolute antithesis of what I'm writing about. It's more about other people's angst really, and it's more about the end of the century being a good excuse to have a look around and observe. I mean, the only song that's really about the end of the millennium is 'Here Comes the Flood' and that's more about Hollywood's idea of the apocalypse. It interests me... I don't know if these big, huge ridiculous films are meant to scare us or whether they're trying to reflect our fear, or whether they're just scared themselves. The one thing I do know is that if there's one place on earth that's got anything to be scared about, it's L.A., because it's got nothing going for it whatsoever.

That song seems to draw strongly on the sound of Broadway musicals...
I mean, I hate most musicals. Certainly everything since '65, '70, has been just total balls, really. But that doesn't mean I can't use it. I'm not sort of touting for business with my albums, the albums are an art in themselves, and therefore I'm just using these ideas to illuminate what I'm trying to say. I'm not trying to say 'look how clever I am'.

If I'm honest, I'm not fully sure what the Divine Comedy is trying to say. The philosophy behind the music seems to be built on contradiction: it is fiercely non-retro, yet it revels in its musical lineage; the pomp, the style of the band lending an air of bohemian importance, yet that image is window dressing. Neil Hannon may not be trying to say 'look how clever I am', though, from the music, you are free to infer that. And these inherent contradictions suggest that the new album is precisely what it claims, not to represent, but to describe or to observe: a confusion, a wit, a humour and an expectant desire for change that is symptomatically fin de siècle.

CWAS #4 - Winter 1998/9 - The Lost Issue