Interview: Divine Comedy

Hannon’s: Divine Comedy, an interview with Bryan Mills

Consider the greatest Italian poet of the 12th/13th century.Ok, finding it difficult? I’ll tell you - Dante. The author of the original ‘Divine Comedy’, a poem for the ‘common reader’. Later, much later in fact, Irish vocal poet Neil Hannon brought us his Divine Comedy, modern day poetry for the common ‘reader’?

That question aside, the group are set to bring us the latest volume in what has to be said is a far less intense, difficult and studious journey than that of the original work. In fact some might say enjoyable. They would be fans. Regeneration is the album to which I refer and in common with Dante’s writing draws upon love, wit, tenderness and the learning of its modern day author, not forgetting that this will be considered the point at which the 21st Century’s Divine Comedy went global.

A week before the album's release, I spoke with Bryan Mills, the groups full time bassist of five years and a member who joined the ‘fold’ after he saw an opening he felt Neil would benefit from. He was at the time a guitarist of the six string variety, among whose experience had been living and working as a bar-man in Edinburgh.

Among my aims were to find out exactly how he and the rest of the group felt about Neil’s high profile outside of the band and would they have it any other way?

"What Neil has to do is a fairly tough job and you sort of start losing a little bit of your privacy when you have profile like his. In that respect it’s not anything that’s bothered me that much, we are all very much a band when we’re making the music, doing the gigs and stuff. If the papers want to slap Neil's picture all over the place that’s fine, I don’t particularly want everybody to know who I am."

You don’t resent the fact that a lot of people may consider that it is Neil who is ‘The Divine Comedy’?

"Well no, it is sort of pretty understandable really. He made the first two records almost entirely by himself, Liberation and Promenade, and most of ‘Casanova’ he made by himself as well when he didn’t have a band, so of course everybody was going to continue associating Neil as the main man. Over the years though it’s become more of a proper band, that’s sort of the case now and whether or not the rest of us actually enjoy that, remains to be seen." (Chuckles at this comment).

Do you find keeping your anonymity something that is easy to do? And would you have it any other way?

"It is easy to do at the moment, I think it is going to be something that becomes increasingly difficult, presuming this record does extremely well and the videos start to get around. So being recognised is essentially part of the job. Because you are doing something that is in the public eye, I guess if it happens, I’ll have to deal with it. I am not in this band to be recognised in the first place, that’s not what we’re about at all, but if it happens as a consequence of us becoming more successful then I’ll live with it."

How do you feel about the ‘reams’ of groups who go into music to achieve just this and to hell with musical integrity?

"Yeah, it’s like that 'pop stars' thing. They all want to be pop stars and they don’t give a **** about what they’re singing, or what people dress them up in, or what shows they go on, they just want to be famous and they want to be in Dominic Mullins page in the Sun and that’s a sign of success. I think that’s all right for people who want to do that sort of thing, but in a way I don’t see those people in those bands as much different to children’s TV presenters, they’re entertainers for kids."

And although you’re all supposed to be in the same business, you’re poles apart?

"Yeah, absolutely. We’re supposed to be about making good albums and those bands don’t really give a ****, as long as they’re recognised and famous and they get in the top ten."

The group had been with independent record label Setanta until 1999, a situation that had meant money had ‘been too tight to mention’. But following their signing to Parlophone and joining the ‘major’ league, this had changed somewhat. I asked Bryan how they had been treated by the labels in terms of what was expected of them?

"No, they’re actually really cool with us. They’re a really good label, they always seem to sign bands that they really like and bands that they respect already, so they don’t feel they need to change you that much. They didn’t even put us under pressure as regards having some good singles on the album. They basically said, go and make whatever record you want and if there happens to be a few singles on it, then great, but if there isn’t, if it’s just a great album then that’s fine too. There’s sort of less pressure on us than there was with the last label, which was always so desperate to get the success. Because they were a small label and it was always on a shoe string, they were trying to get as much out of it as possible and they were trying to get hit singles, because it was important to sell the album. But now we’ve made this album that we think is going to sell itself anyway and yeah, as it turns out there are some great singles on it, but we didn’t set out to make them and Parlophone didn’t put us under any pressure at all. In a way we’ve always been trying to compete with the big boys essentially, even though we’re the poor relation. We've always had bags of talent, but never quite been there. Never quite crossed over and sort of made it, but we’re hoping to now. "

Coming from musical backgrounds that are as diverse as any you might hope to meet - classical, modern funk/fusion and others in the band that are old heavy metal fans, including Bryan himself. (It is here we are able to find the discipline born out of years spent listening to the likes of Sabbath, Zeppelin, Iron Maiden and Guns 'n' Roses). So it was from this point I asked what it was we could expect from the new album?

"Neil would come into the studio with a song and his new acoustic guitar and then we all just start messing around with it. Thinking of different ways to play it. We’d learn a few chords and try to find out how it should be. On this album we’ve chopped stuff around, left bits out, we’ve added bits and al ot of them are pretty unrecognisable from Neil’s original song, although essentially the words, chords and melody are still there, but a lot of the music on this new record is based on grooves more and bass lines and stuff, instead of just Neil’s song with a wee bit of backing underneath and a wee bit of strings on the top. It’s much more organic."

With certain members in the group hoping for the support slot of a reformed Roxy Music sometime in the future. (Not Neil though, his take on this is that this privilege should be left for the likes of Toploader!) And with the devout belief from within the group that this album will be number 1. Or at the very least on the short list for one of the best records of the year, I asked what does the future hold for the Divine Comedy?

"We definitely hope to sell a lot more records than we ever have done and we haven’t even been to the states yet, which is something we are looking forward to."

Is this something that leaves you a little awe struck?

"Well yeah, to try and break the States is an almost impossible task and it could be huge amounts of work. But alternatively, we could try and fail and then not bother, like a lot of British bands. But I sort of have a bit of a feeling that by some sort of fluke we’re the band that can do well in the States."

So it is on this positive note that I left The Divine Comedy preparing for their UK tour in a weeks time (first date; March 12th in Sheffield, with Wolverhampton and Cambridge following a few dates later on the 17th and 20th). And Bryan coming to terms with the fact that he’ll be the achieving his penultimate year from 30 on the 6th of March, but hey, life’s a bitch and then you die and really it’s not so bad.

Nick James.

Bryan Mills, photographed by David Robinson, London 2000. Regeneration album shoot
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