Richard Purden

Neil Hannon’s pursuit of the well-crafted pop tune has been a going concern for 30 years. The Northern Irish singer formed The Divine Comedy in 1989 as a vehicle for his absorbing melodies, unorthodox arrangements and rich lyrical scope drenched in humour and pathos.

Casanova, released during the height of the Britpop era in the mid-90s, provided a mainstream breakthrough with hits Something For The Weekend, The Frog Princess and Becoming More Like Alfie. So began a period of indie infamy for Hannon often appearing on album and magazine covers with the essential star accessories of cigarettes and sunglasses. A string of popular singles continued with National Express which entered the UK top ten.

“It hasn't been plain sailing ever since 2000 when the heat of pop stardom dissipated, not that I was a particularly famous pop star,” says Hannon. “I enjoyed a degree of notoriety in the 90s which was fun and very useful from a career point of view but it was hard to keep it all going after that. Myself and my manager Natalie [De Pace] have been working our masterplan ever since by doing things for us and never chasing pop acclaim. The concentration is on making good work. There have been sticky times but I’ve never contemplated giving it up; I’d have nothing else to do.”

During the 90s, Hannon reminded the world what a bandleader could be, summoning the post-Walker Brothers and pre avant-garde spirit of Scott Walker. “He was suddenly in my thoughts for a while there”, he admits of the singer’s passing in March. “It was sad, it really was, it didn’t affect me as emotionally as one might think but that is not because he didn’t change my life because he kind of did. It was because I don’t think Scott would be the type of person to want people to mourn effusively over him. He was extremely realistic about life and mortality.”

A nose for the zeitgeist while delivering an idiosyncratic take on current matters shows no sign of waning. Office Politics released earlier this year followed 2016’s acclaimed top ten album Foreverland.

There’s a clear sense of mission on opening track Queuejumper which offers a taste of the album’s often dark subject matter while retaining Hannon’s affection for classic pop. Its protagonist is a familiar sort in the dog eat dog world. We are told enough to know that “he’s an idiot, a nasty, grabbing piece of work.”

The tribal drums also summon Adam Ant. “I like Adam Ant very much and always have…and the Ants”, says Hannon. “He’s had far too much influence on my work, especially the dressing up bit. The first time I heard Antmusic on Top of the Pops with two drummers, I’ve had a penchant for that sound ever since.”

While he admits the sound is “nostalgic” I suggest the recent single is like nothing else on the radio. “Nothing I do sounds like what’s on the radio at the moment”, he adds, laughing. “It’s a strange song, in the middle, it goes symphonic like John Adams then it’s back to the normal crazy pop. The marimba part reminds me of things like The Tide Is High By Blondie and The Creatures [formed in 1981 by Siouxsie and the Banshees members Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie]. It was a thing in the early 1980s and seemed to crop up a lot.”

Elsewhere Absolutely Obsolete summons late 70s Ian Dury and the Blockheads and features a distinctive guest spot from Squeeze’s Chris Difford. “My only problem with that music is that it’s the worst-named genre; pub rock, they call it pub rock! It’s such a terrible description. When I say pub rock people go ‘Yuck’ but what I’m talking about is Ian Dury and the Blockheads, The Attractions and Squeeze to an extent, these are all acts and a period of music that I’m obsessed with but I’ve not worn that obsession on my sleeve up until this album. I’ve decided to just let it off the leash. To get Chris Difford is brilliant he’s been on my record player since I was a child watching Top of the Pops.”

Office Politics celebrates the exploratory nature of pop in the early 1980s before it arguably lost its soul. For many Abba made their most complete record in 1981 with The Visitors and then split. “I really like that album” says Hannon, “it’s the Abba album I know best, I’m more of a single person than whole records. It would have been nice to see what happened next but we’ll never know, they just made too much money. The artists that make too much money, it just damages their output. It’s a great relief that I never made too much money.”

Amid this celebration of all that Hannon loves about the genre what does he make of pop music today? “There is less of a cultural crossover now than before. I just find the pop stars are less interesting, they are built in a pop star factory somewhere in California and imposed upon us, even when they are being controversial in inverted comas. They are all controversial in the same way and it’s boring." He laughs. ‘Oh, she took all her clothes off and got on a wrecking ball’. It’s nothing that Madonna didn’t do back in the 80s. To be honest, I have very little against current musicians, I just think the music is rather homogenous and uninteresting.”

The resurgence of vinyl records motivated Hannon to record a double album, allowing for a wider palette of ideas.” It’s only on vinyl that a double album is really a double album, otherwise, it’s just a really long CD. It’s the same with streaming. I would’ve been frustrated if I ended my career with no double album. I can flip in some bonkers tracks as well as the well-crafted three-minute pop song.”

As the son of a former Church of Ireland minister then bishop, a hymn-like quality remains in recent single Norman and Norma which is perhaps the most typical track in the collection. Less so are deep cuts which draw inspiration from the classic BBC series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin that question British business values and political culture. At 48 Hannon is now two years older than the fictional character played by Leonard Rossiter. “There’s plenty in there that’s pilfered from Reggie Perrin and the absurdity of the whole business of business. The complete disdain of, ‘Why do we do this shit?’ is pretty much the point of the whole record.”

It’s your most political record, that’s something you’re not usually well known for? “Yeah and even then it’s not overt politics, it’s the stories and things that go on. It’s funny because I’ve never avoided politics, I’m a politically minded individual. I’ve always had a problem with people who say, ‘politics is just boring and what’s the point?’ because politics is how human existence works, you know how civilisation functions and to say it’s boring is to pretty much to say humans are boring. That might be true but it’s also extremely important and people have a duty to know what’s going on and how to change it.”

Now living in rural County Kildare, in the Republic, Hannon says he gets back to Northern Ireland “when I can, it’s very difficult during this part of the promo madness for a couple of months. When I do go up it’s back to just outside Enniskillen.

"I try to keep up with what’s going on. There have been fantastic strides in it not being such a violent place which is nice but then it’s two steps forward and one step back with what happened to Lyra McKee, which was awful. I really hope things like that concentrate people’s minds with restoring Stormont and also not allowing a hard border.”

Hannon wrote the theme tune to the 90s sitcom Father Ted and is penning the score for the musical Pope Ted. It sounds like it's been a turbulent experience with creative differences cited between creators Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews.

'Ah, it's been grand”, says Hannon, tongue firmly in cheek. “Making musicals is not plain sailing. It’s a very hard thing to do and it’s a big project which takes years. I think it’s a little bigger than Graham first imagined.”

“I’ve done one before so I know how long it takes. We’re getting there, it has a workshop vibe now with actors and songs being integrated with scenes but don't hold your breath; we’ve still got a long way to go.”

The Divine Comedy will play The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, on October 10