Neil Hannon is indulging. He has an extra sugar cube in his cup of coffee, he is about to dress up as Napoleon, and he has just released an album which, he claims, is “pure Hannon brain”.
“I let myself indulge my predilections a bit more on this album,” he says. “On previous albums, I might have said: really, there are far too many historical references here. But this time I was like: fuck it. I like history.”
Hannon is the founder, front man and single consistent member of British band The Divine Comedy. Or rather: Hannon is The Divine Comedy. In nearly 30 years, he has released 11 albums under that name, the latest of which is the centrepiece for his current Foreverland tour.
It is a musical career which saw Hannon rise at the same time as the Britpop movement, and though some place The Divine Comedy within that category, most of his albums from the 1990’s are at best only on the fringes of the genre.
“The nineties stuff chimed well with what was going on at the time,” he says, but also admits that he has “no idea” how to define his musical style. “It’s a hotch-potch of all my influences, including things that aren’t even music. There’s a lot of film soundtrack stuff, some cabaret, some classical, it’s not just pop music. It all comes out in a weird, some would say garbled fashion.”
Garbled or otherwise, The Divine Comedy has certainly outlasted a lot of its fellow bands from the 1990s. Hannon has been remarkably prolific and remarkably consistent over the last three decades. Never a stadium superstar, he has assembled a loyal following of fans who continue to fill large venues.
Venues such as Huxleys Neue Welt in Neukölln, where Hannon is preparing to play on this particular Monday afternoon in February. The demand for this one Berlin date was so high that the organisers had to upgrade the venue from Heimathafen to the more spacious Huxleys.
“I’m just glad people still come to listen to my music,” he says. “I really don’t do it to make money, I do it because I can’t stop. I’m desperately afraid of becoming one of those older artists who should have stopped making albums ten years ago.”
Hannon’s music may have changed over the years, but it has not gone stale. The latest album is a far cry from the dark operatic 1996 album “Casanova” or the melancholic nostalgia of “Absent Friends” in 2004, but it is still bursting with life. When Hannon performs at Huxleys, he holds his audience captive throughout a long show. The self-indulgence is particularly entertaining. The new album opens with a song called Napoleon Complex, which Hannon says is “about small people trying to take over the world, which I find amusing, and which is an excuse to dress up as Napoleon.”
This he does with aplomb, performing the entire first half of the set in Cuban heels, a bicorne and everything else in between. In an album full of historical references, though, Napoleon is not the only autocrat who gets a mention. The single “Catherine the Great” is an ode to both Hannon’s other half and the Empress of Russia.
There is, perhaps, a certain irony to singing jolly songs about despots when many of your audience are living in fear that autocracy is once again on the rise in the form of Donald Trump and others. Hannon, though, seems somewhat weary of having to answer that question.
“Trump doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath,” he concludes. “I mean, sure, Napoleon and Catherine the Great murdered lots of people, but they were much sexier.”
The songs, though, are not entirely apolitical. Politics has always been woven into Hannon’s songs, even if The Divine Comedy are not an explicitly political band. Generation Sex, written in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, was a scathing assessment of the hypocrisies of British society, and in 2010, Hannon wrote The Complete Banker, a comic reaction to the economic crash two years earlier.
“Pop music, like any art form, is supposed to reflect the world we live in, and we all try to do that,” he says. “It’s important not to just say ‘I don’t like racism’, I prefer to have little stories and character portraits.
“I think what is happening in general in the West might find its way into the music. I hope it does, because a lot of contemporary music seems to be a bit wet and unwilling to challenge what’s going on in the real world.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is a dearth of good lyricists which Hannon bemoans more than anything. It is, after all, the wit and intelligence of the man’s lyrics which has been the enduring hallmark of The Divine Comedy’s music.
“The problem with a lot of pop music is that the lyrics seem to be completely an afterthought - they’re just some noises to come out of your mouth and be put through autotune. I’ve never understood why people don’t take a little more care over the lyrics. Why bother otherwise?”