The Divine Comedy
We saw you perform at the Bowie Prom the other week. How did you become involved?
I was actually drafted in last minute, ostensibly because of ‘Station To Station’. I think a few of the other people had tried it out, and went, “I can’t do this.” (Laughs) It’s really hard to know what’s going on in the song, and to hear what exactly he’s doing, so you have to do your own approximation. And a couple of days in, they went, “Can you do ‘This Is Not America’ as well?” I’m quite long in the tooth as far as music goes; I’ve been around the block a few times so I know what to expect. I knew what the rehearsal would be like – lots of stressed-looking classicals – so I don’t get uptight about it anymore. And I enjoyed singing those songs. It was amazing.
Watching on TV, the atmosphere seemed quite emotional. Did you feel that?
I’m gonna say no. (Laughs) Backstage there was a lot of fear, because everybody wants to pay tribute to a man who is effectively a genius. That word is vastly over-used these days, but he’s one of the few people you can really attach it to. So there is that fear that the music won’t do it justice. I thought there were definite things that worked and a few things that didn’t, really. But I don’t think you can set out to do a show with the express intention of doing very new, more or less classical, interpretations, without some things really not working. That’s the risk you run. But, I mean, Paul Buchanan singing ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ was absolutely stupendous.
So, there have been six years between Bang Goes The Knighthood and Foreverland, which is the longest period between Divine Comedy albums yet...
I’ve got so obsessed with Scott Walker that now I’m even trying to ape the lengths of time between albums. (Laughs) Not really. He took 12 years on one occasion.
And then came back with an album featuring the sound of someone punching meat.
I’m more or less a vegetarian so I could punch a courgette... (Laughs) But yeah, I was busy; that’s my excuse. I did various other extraneous projects. There was the second Duckworth Lewis Method album about cricket, there was a piece for the Royal Festival Hall, there was a piece for the Royal Opera House, and there was a strange thing that I did with a German playwright so, you know, lots to be going on with. I really only started this record three years ago. But then again, that’s longer than I usually take.
I feel like, at this stage, I can really take my time and get it as right as I possibly can. But even this one, I listen to it now and I think, “Oh, you’ve messed that up.” No matter how long you take, and no matter how much thought you put into it, you can’t see past certain things until a little time has elapsed, and suddenly it all makes much more sense. When you work alone you have to be very, very self-critical, but sometimes I think I’m too self-critical.
Have all those diverse side projects influenced your creative process for writing material for The Divine Comedy?
Yes and no. After writing ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – the musical that I actually wrote before the previous album – when I came to start writing songs again, I was still in musical mode and there were a lot of chords that would keep coming in, and I was like, “No, no, no! That’s West End!” It was very hard to get back into pop, weirdly. You’re constantly self-editing; that’s basically what songwriting is – what to put in and what to leave out. So, yes, but then I’m influenced by everything I hear as well as everything I do, so I can’t really pinpoint anything in particular.
The nice thing about The Duckworth Lewis Method was that it was a nice pressure valve for all the slightly more cheesy or more generic elements of pop and rock that I like. Things that I would never feel that I could put on my own records. Like, the first track on the last one, ‘Sticky Wickets’, is pure power-chord, Rolling Stones-esque rock. Which I adore, but I just know it wouldn’t fit on one of my own records.
But then you set those parameters. Do you ever feel constrained by that?
I’ve made a rod for my own back, haven’t I? No, not constrained, it’s really just aesthetic and structural limitations. If you put this in, it will be a complete spanner in the works and throw everything else out of whack. I mean, there is room for noisy guitars but they have to be used in a very specific way.
You say you’re inspired by what you hear around you. What music have you been enjoying recently?
Well, not a lot. (Laughs) I hate to say these things because it makes me sound like a grumpy old man, but then I think I was pretty grumpy back in the 90s as well, so I haven’t changed that much. I like Benjamin Clementine. I like Django Django; they have an incredible ear for melody and counter-melody, those chaps. It’s almost Byrds-y. I love Arcade Fire. But with my music, I operate in my own little world. I don’t think about other contemporary acts in terms of what they’re doing. I don’t care what they’re doing; it means nothing to me as far as my music is concerned. As far as entertaining myself is concerned, then yes.
I listen to a lot of classical music, and I’ve got this great bunch of tango music from the 1940s. I keep coming back to Maurice Ravel and Gabriel Fauré. For some reason, most of the composers I like were active between the years of 1910 and 1930. Vaughan Williams and Kurt Weill too. There’s something about that period. I think it’s where modernity is really starting to kick in but it hasn’t gone the whole hog, so it’s just made beautifully dissonant but still quite human.
The concept of “Foreverland” is what happens after happily ever after, right?
Yes. The funny thing was that I’ve written lots of love songs before but almost entirely when I had no idea what the word meant. They were works of fiction. I wouldn’t say they’re any less valid for that, but I thought once I finally was completely bowled over, I should really write about that, because it would be interesting to compare and contrast the real ones and the fake ones.
So this is the first time you feel you’ve been truly in love?
I would say yes, in a complete sense. Apologies to my ex-wife. (Laughs) Who is a wonderful person.
‘Other People’ is really interesting. It’s a heartfelt, touching song and then you pull the rug from under the listener by cutting it short with, “Blah, blah, blah.”
Yeah, I recorded it on my phone, and what you hear is the first time I ever sang it. I’d written it 10 minutes previously in a hotel room, and I had to record it so I didn’t forget the tune. You can still hear the buses on Kilburn High Road going past. (Laughs) When I listened back to it, I thought it was good but I couldn’t think where it could possibly go from there. It’s quite a nice-sounding vocal so I just stuck some strings underneath, and I really liked it throwing itself away at the end. It’s a funny little thing, I like it a lot. My manager was livid that I left the, “Blah, blah,” bit in.
Humour has always been pretty integral to your work. That feels like quite a brave thing to do because, in music, people often equate flippancy or archness with being slightly disposable or inauthentic. We’d imagine that’s the key thing that people have criticised in your work, right?
Does that bother you?
No, because humour is essential. And I find that the one thing I miss most from modern pop music is humour. When I was growing up there were people like Adam & the Ants. They all looked like this was the most important thing on the planet and yet they were dressed as weird buccaneers. What I mean is that there’s a balance to be struck, and if you go too far into pure emotion and honesty it’s just boring. And it doesn’t have the correct degree of reality either. People talk about reflecting grim reality; well, I don’t find that most of reality is grim. In fact, most of my days are populated with humour. I think in most people’s lives – especially us Irish and Brits – we tend to joke about everything because it’s just a defence mechanism. So I think it has to be reflected in our culture.
One of our favourite Divine Comedy songs is best known in its instrumental form as the ‘Father Ted’ soundtrack. The fact you gave it to the show as an instrumental, suggests you don’t have a particularly careerist attitude?
Well I’m glad it doesn’t seem like I don’t. (Laughs) I don’t much anymore but in my 20s – in the 90s – I was incredibly careerist. I was incredibly ambitious, but ambitious for my work to be heard. It wasn’t that I wanted to change what I did to be a pop star, I just thought what I was doing was just better than anybody else. I was a bit of an idiot but it was great fun, and I wouldn’t apologise too much for it because I think you need to have that brashness to be a decent pop star.
But I had to re-evaluate all of that in the 2000s because it just wasn’t seemly. As I got older, it looked kind-of grubby to be desperate for chart success. Especially with the way the music industry changed; it no longer really became possible, even. And then Top of the Pops went and I thought, “What’s the point?!” Without Top of the Pops there really is no more point in having a chart hit, because that was the zenith of my achievement, being on that show.
You’ve been at this for 27 years now. When you look back at that time, what are you proudest of?
The first thing that leaps into my mind is selling out the Royal Albert Hall. When I did that I thought, “F**k, I could actually just have no more career now and I’d be able to tell my grandchildren that I sold out the Albert Hall.” I still have a slight bee in my bonnet about never having had a number one. But I would never swap having a continuing career for any of that gubbins. It’s vastly more important to just still be here making albums, because making albums is the most fun thing in the world.
Have your motivations for making music changed in those years?
They’ve slightly altered because when you have dependents suddenly, you think you should probably make a few bob. And also when you have a house with a slightly dodgy roof, and four dogs, five chickens, three pigs, two donkeys, 16 horses too... I have to hasten to add ‘My Lovely Horse Rescue’ [the sanctuary Neil founded] do pay for some of that.
I suppose there was a split motivation when I started in my late teens, between massive self-aggrandisement and absolute art for art’s sake. Artistically I was free as a bird, but I was always thinking I’d end up in massive stadiums. These days it’s a bit more back to art for art’s sake, but then I’m so much more aware of my audience now than I was back then. I had no audience then, so you were just working as to what you enjoyed. And now, no matter how much you try to just do what you think is right for you, you will always have in the back of your mind this amorphous mass who you know will be listening to this.
Finally, what can we expect from your forthcoming tour?
We’ve got some cool stuff planned. It’ll rock in a polite, middle class way. (Laughs)