Neil Hannon is feeling “a bit morningy” when I call him. He reckons it’s a hangover from all the golf he’s been watching into the wee small hours of some nights previous.
He’s the man behind The Divine Comedy, the band that started to catch people’s attention in the 90s with an unusual attitude to their craft. It was a mix of music that verged on old-fashioned, ingenious storytelling, humour (Hannon is the writer of Father Ted’s Eurosong ‘My Lovely Horse’, after all), the occasional anthem, a sense of the literary, a penchant for the historical, orchestras, and a touch of brass thrown in. Hannon’s is the rich and perfectly proper voice behind the songs. Indeed, he is the writer behind the songs. He is the imagination and the engine behind the whole concept of The Divine Comedy.
With ten Divine Comedy albums under his belt, Hannon took a six year break before bringing out his most recent album Foreverland last autumn, under the Divine Comedy moniker. During that six year ‘break’ he has, amongst other things, collaborated on two “cricket-themed” albums under the name The Duckworth Lewis Method. He wrote the music for a musical version of Swallows And Amazons. And he wrote To Our Fathers In Distress, a piece that he dedicated to his father who lives with Alzheimer’s disease.
On Wednesday, the 3rd of May he is playing a sold out marquee show at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Foreverland will be a key feature of the show with its “vivid orchestrations, lusty horns, luxurious strings, vast choral harmonies, a rocking rhythm section and the unexpected intrusion of a braying donkey”, as described on his website.
“There will be a lovely six piece including myself,” he explains about what’s going to happen on the night. “There’ll be Tosh Flood [Duckworth Lewis Method] on guitar, Simon Little on bass. Tim Weller on drums, Andrew Skeet on piano and various other keyboards, and Ian Watson on accordion and various other keyboards. And me on the bits that aren’t already there.”
He’s laughing as he speaks. “Yeah, it’s a funny show. It’s been evolving since last October or September, I can’t remember exactly. We’ve done three and a half months of touring and that is a lot of shows. It has evolved into this monster, and it goes through various stages in an evening, covering quite a lot of ground.” He talks of a Napoleonic element to the night, and an indie disco at the end, with various other themes and sections connected to his music over the years. Foreverland won’t be the only album that will have tracks performed on the night, but with a back catalogue as large as Hannon’s this can have its own issues. “The problem being these days I have too many albums for a set list now. There are various songs that just fall off the list. I try to do the ones that people want to hear, and some that people maybe don’t expect, just to keep them on their toes.”
3rd May won’t be his first time under the electric stars of the CQAF marquee. “I very vividly remember me on the piano at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in a tent and I was absolutely terrified … I played solo, just me and a piano.” He gives an unconscious, vaguely nervous laugh at the memory, and then it becomes louder and happier as he remembers the result. “People seemed to enjoy themselves, but that was very definitely the first time I tried that.”
Not surprisingly there is a big difference for Hannon between performing solo or with the support of a band. “I have no fear of live performance. I never really had, but I’ve actually grown less [fear], I’m calmer about it as time has gone on. The only times you feel nervous are only really when something feels slightly out of your control, or there are some kind of elements that mean you do not know what is going to happen. With that first solo piano show I had no idea what was going to happen so I was terrified. But generally with a band you are well rehearsed. Everyone knows the songs inside out, so I just wander on and I know it is all going to be fine and I enjoy myself. I’m just basically a show off.”
He wasn’t always that show off though, there was a very different start to the man we see on stage who commands the show and owns the audience. “I was incredibly shy as a child,” he recalls. “I suppose that kind of egged me on in this role. Just being on stage and doing your thing gives you something to talk about to people, especially girls. That’s why most people do it.”
Hannon went on to become a prolific writer, too. “I have far too much work … I can’t help myself. I’m just automatically working on the next record,” he explains. “I know, I know, it’s silly because this one is hardly done. But I have always been quite prolific and I enjoy writing, and I enjoy a recording, so it is hard for me not to go straight onto the next thing.”
However, he knows deep down what is really going on by taking on all these jobs. “I think it is avoidance,” he laughs. “Mostly of things like chores, and things that need fixing around the house. And bills that need paying.” The laugh slows down a bit as he puts on a school teacher voice, “So it is important that I go and make another record so that I can make the money to do these things that I never get round to.”
Tickets for this show, unsurprisingly, have sold out. For information about further Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival shows visits CQAF.