Interview: Neil Hannon

Over the years, we’ve learnt that a meeting with Neil Hannon is invariably a charming and insightful experience. He’s like a favorite uncle, effortlessly witty and modestly disparaging of his own ever-growing legacy to the Irish music scene, having watched dozens of others rise and fall around him over the past fifteen years. Neil will talk about anything, from the position of comedy in music (“it probably doesn’t have the greatest life span, but I’m not funny spur of the moment, so I have to do it in music. Most of my friends are funnier than me”) to his cherished romance with Cathy Davey and the seemingly irrepressible fall of music as a viable business. You could genuinely ask Hannon about the weather and he’d humor you, firing back with plenty of quick-witted sarcasm whenever the occasion dictates.

On this occasion, we’re here to talk about Neil’s latest undertaking, the JD Set. Hannon’s experience with whiskey is a long-standing one: the entire existence of side-project The Duckworth Lewis Method is attributed to a heavy whiskey-fuelled night at a wedding reception which somehow turned to the most unlikely of shared passions (“there was plenty of Guinness, lager and the occasional Jagermesiter involved, too, though”). Hannon’s not typically a commercial man, though. Ever honest, Hannon explains

“it’s about finding a balance. Realistically, being entirely a-commercial just makes life too difficult financially. I just look for events that have their heart in the right place. I don’t mind a bit of corporate sponsorship, as long as they have the cart before the horse”.

The JD Sets latest project will see Hannon, Davey and Dublin electro star Jape combine to perform a contemporary album they all love, Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut. It’s an unusual project, but with all three gigging heavily around Dublin and the rest of Ireland, it’s also a nice bit of variety next to the more run-of-the-mill gigs. “It’s an album I really love”, Hannon explains

“and while it’s obviously nice to be paid for these things, the important thing is that JD have their priorities right. It’s very different to doing a commercial. Basically, the only reason I’m doing this is because I think it’s a good idea. It doesn’t really matter to me who puts the money into it, it just sounds like fun. There are plenty of things I’d definitely think twice about, but sometimes in music you have to take your chances.”

As much as it probably pains him to admit it, times do seem to be hard for Hannon:

“the recession hasn’t made things any easier, but the music industry was in a bit of a hole before that. The money’s been in touring for the best part of a decade now. If I had to give advice to a musical newcomer on getting into the business, it would be ‘don’t’”.

It sounds harsh, but Hannon’s only half talking tongue in cheek.

“Everybody’s in the same boat. Even touring money’s dried up a little bit. Last year’s tour was great from that angle because it was only me”.

Having spent last couple of years relentlessly working on an expansive selection of projects – everything from The Divine Comedy’s latest ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’ and the music to a modern adaption of the show Swallows and Amazons, to that Choice Music Prize nominated Duckworth Lewis Method album – this year is a year to take things easy for Hannon. On the positive side,

“playing music is pretty much what I do when I’m bored, so they’ll be plenty of shows. Just not so much time in the studio. I’ll be playing some festivals, I’ve had a few enquiries. I did such a lot of work last year that I really needed to calm it down this year.”

Our attempt to push Neil on just where he might be reveals only that he’s yet to hear from Glastonbury, which is clearly a personal favorite. The future, though, is not exactly looming:

“I’ve got a few things on the horizon, but they’re too far off. If I tell you about them, they might not happen, and then I’ll look like a tit.”

That probably means expect plenty. Hannon as an open book has always been almost dangerously creative, capable of the kind of wonderfully offbeat aside we’ve become used to in the form of Duckworth Lewis Method, The National Anthem and this weekend’s Vampire Weekend show. In doing the least, it’s arguable that the space for Hannon’s imagination naturally brings out his very best:

“I like to write music without actually knowing what it’s for. It gets you started. There’s a wide range of stuff sat around at home. Even crazy trance. I’ve done quite a lot of bad dance music over the years that no one’s ever heard, because it sounds rubbish. But there might be an interesting chord or tune to take from it. ‘Our mutual friend’ started as a dance tune. They’re just for me to have a laugh. If they were any good, even in terms of dance music – which is obviously fatally flawed and an underclass of music – I would put them out. But they’re not.”

Music, for Neil, clearly has to have meaning. Everything comes from the heart, even if the heart dictates that the meaning be mainly comical. Bang Goes The knighthood, despite outwards appearances, is not intended as an overtly political album.

“It’s not about the political situation as such. It’s about how one person’s actions can impinge on everyone else. Which is political in a sense, but then so is everything else. That’s pretty much what all songs are about – human interaction – whether they’re political or not”.

Of course, we couldn’t grab hold of Neil without asking about The Ashes (one of the world’s biggest cricket tournaments, for the uninitiated, in which Neil passionately follows England against their traditional foe Australia). He describes England’s win down under as

“miraculous. But also not, because they deserved it. Everyone was too interested in the cricket for it to really affect Duckworth Lewis Method, though. You can fantasize all you want, but it takes quite a bit of cash to get to Australia and play at half time. I was on tour in a country where I couldn’t see it on TV most of the time, so I read the entire Daily Telegraph live blog from the start the next morning. I got terrified of scrolling up in case there was a big green wicket”.

In typical Hannon form, then, our interview jolts happily from topic to topic, much like his musical output. With a few months worth of rehearsals behind this weekend’s single performance, expect the show to introduce Vampire Weekend in that relentless charismatic way we’ve become so used to. And that’s before we throw electro-starlet Jape and Neil’s other half into the mix…

As published on Goldenplec.com, March 2011.

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