Photograph by Dave Guttridge
An interview with Cathal Coughlan by Siobhán Kane
Cathal Coughlan was perhaps most well-known for his work in Microdisney, and later, The Fatima Mansions. But over the decades, he has collaborated with artists as eclectic as Luke Haines and Sean Hughes. As well-regarded for his eloquent and clever lyrics and beautiful baritone as for his singular nature, last year saw him release his sixth solo record, Songs of Co-Aklan, and this year, a collaborative record, a hAon, as Telefís, with Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee – both records have met with great acclaim. Originally from Glounthaune, a little to the east of Cork city, he has made London his home since 1984, when he moved over with his Microdisney bandmate Sean O’Hagan.
We met on a balmy May afternoon in the Irish Centre in Camden Town, one of his essential London spaces. When I was talking with him, it felt like he was thinking a lot about the past – he wanted to meet in Camden for that reason. It felt like a reckoning with his own past, and with Ireland, and there was so much that was positive that came out of it. Cathal passed away just under two weeks after our conversation took place.
After the interview, he walked me to the end of the road. I said how much it meant to have spent the afternoon with him, and I gave him a hug. He squeezed my arm and said, ‘Say hello to home for me, safe travels.’
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
Siobhán Kane: It seems somewhat fitting to find you sitting in the window of the Irish Centre, waving me in – what in particular made you want to meet here?
Cathal Coughlan: Well, one of the few times I was here before was when a bunch of us came to see The Pogues in the Kennedy Room upstairs, and I don’t know if they were even called The Pogues then, or Pogue Mahone at that point, but I was fucking outraged.
Oh yeah. At the beginning of 1984, I had a bit of an attitude, and it might still be a problem, although I hope I have developed some humility. But I just did not get the Irish diaspora, its diversity, and its linkages to the rest of the community here. It took me years to fathom, because at that point, in terms of our Irish-born varieties, you just had all kinds of people – urban, rural, radical, conservative, atheist, religious, and, in my case, someone bringing all these antipathies over from home, and I do feel bad about that now.
Do you think you brought that into relationships at that time? That it skewed them in some way?
Absolutely. And I think my thoughts on seeing The Pogues were … well, they’re just like the Wolfe Tones with drums. If I wanted to see Paddy on the Railway done like that I’d go to Kilburn. But they weren’t playing A Pair of Brown Eyes then, or Dark Streets of London, and how wrong I was! And it’s so important to emphasize that. I regret that attitude.
The lyricism of Shane MacGowan is quite flooring.
Oh, it’s so hard to hit that spot, and he did – on something like A Pair of Brown Eyes especially, but there were many brilliant songs, and he was, as someone put it recently, mining a field of gold.
Do you think that your own sense of Irishness back then was a little parochial?
There was a lot going on there. I had this reaction initially, it was an affront – ‘Who do you think you are?’ – that kind of thing. So there was a bit of that. I felt none of them were really from over there … well, Shane was, and many of them were first-generation Irish, but it was that kind of bad attitude, and I was wrong. And I want to say I was wrong. The thing is, I think there is a bit of pain there, especially with the older generation who often came over so young. And just speaking for myself, someone who hadn’t made a go of it back home. It tends to colour things really, that’s all.
Do you think, after living in London for many years, your attitude has shifted? It’s interesting to think that you moved over at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain – there were real pressure points for many Irish people at that time.
It has shifted, but it is hard to derive any generalisations, or trends from it. It’s an individual thing, how a person relates to that Irish background, and that’s the thing I didn’t get for years. You grow up in a British town, both parents are Irish, yet you’re not finding it funny when I make jokes about Irish language signage, because, well … why would you? You know what I mean? That’s a really trivial one, but you have to be sensitive with people, and there were people whose folks wanted them to be British, to pronounce their names as the neighbours did, and I don’t frown on those people now. I ended up understanding things much more.
Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners said that there was an anxiety about not drawing attention to yourself or your Irishness in that climate, but then he wrote 1985’s My National Pride.
That’s exactly it. Kevin nailed his colours to the mast – he wasn’t taking any chances! [Laughs] He’s such a lovely man.
Britain, at that time … there was a lot of pushback. It was very confrontational. I had, and have, an ambivalent relationship to it. If you’re halfway patriotic you will have some reservations. The great majority of British people are not deferential idiots, but some of the institutions are, and the awareness of that stays with you.
We would be doing miners benefits and things like that. I was very paranoid, I don’t know whether we were really being watched, but I knew people who definitely were. And that gave everything a certain edge. Some of my friends were from a slightly different part of the country, shall we say, and weren’t involved in anything, but they didn’t need to be, they were still under suspicion.
Because we were on Rough Trade at the time, which was only a hop, skip and a jump from Crass Records in those days, we all felt somewhat jumpy … The wrong postmark on a letter could make you feel someone had been at it, and to this day I have no idea. Certainly, moving in artsy circles, I did not get exposed to the worst that the place had to offer, and geographically, some parts of Britain were worse for that stuff, more confrontational. But apart from the ferry port, which was a standard mode of travel, there is not a lot I could point my finger at … It was a feeling, more than anything, and my name of course drew attention, which was hilarious and made me dig in more.
But you know, even Thatcher was not as bad as these people now – there was a managerial spine to it, at least. It wasn’t the all-encompassing smash-and-grab that this thing is. It’s brazen. And the priority that has been given to certain images of the past, and the lack of appreciation for what migration has brought to this country.
You landed in London in 1984. Was it intimidating? And did you ever consider a move to Dublin?
Dublin for us … Well, we met great people there, but the whole business of being big in music in Dublin was such a stunt-based thing that we didn’t see how we could fit into that at all, or at least not sufficiently to make an album and keep producing.
So coming here to London seemed like the only sensible thing to do really. We were getting radio plays, and to be fair it turned out even better than we hoped. We didn’t realise until a year into it the power the Peel Sessions had, because you would go and get a gig at the Students’ Union in Loughborough or Warwick or someplace, and people wouldn’t be losing their minds over you, but they had some idea of who you were. And most of the time you would get some kind of payment. It also got us into a space where we met the other people who were doing the circuit. By then we met John Fell, Tom Fenner, and Nick Montgomery, so we were a unit, and we were actually able to play. I don’t think Sean and I had ever played as a two-piece in the UK until a month before we reformed in 2018 [laughs].
It was also fairly easy and cheap to set up in London at that time. It was really in the ’90s when the bad ball started rolling and things became more difficult here for people.
You mentioned the importance of John Peel for you, but more generally, had radio been a mainstay of your musical education?
Absolutely. And I still listen to the radio, although it’s much changed in this country. But you hear someone like Marc Riley on BBC Radio 6 Music and he’s very optimistic and energetic, perhaps something of a successor to Peel. I think I like the sheer enthusiasm of him … I have a very different personality and all that, but still.
In east Cork, when the weather was right, you could pick up Radio Caroline, and Peel, and I would feel like I was the only person tuning in. So really what precipitated the move to London was, ‘Our record’s on John Peel, let’s get over there,’ and when you look back on what he was doing, it was so important. He didn’t have to give us a session the week after we moved over, but he did, and we got paid.
Yes, it’s funny to look back on that now. We ended up doing many sessions with him, which meant something. When Sean and I first moved over, we stayed with friends in Willesden and then got a flat fairly quickly in Kensal Rise. Kensal Rise at that time was a weird backwater between Kilburn and Harlesden, it could be very hairy. Public transport was awful, but there was a very good dub store on the bridge, which isn’t there anymore – they gentrified it all within an inch of its life. We were renting a ground floor of a family home from these West Indian parents and their British-born kids. And everything was pretty pristine when we moved in, so it is with certain regret I look back on how it looked a couple of years later. We didn’t completely wreck the place, but there was a lot more dust gathering in corners, shall we say.
How does it feel to be back in Camden? It seems to be an area that holds a lot of resonance for you, and for your musical history.
It has changed a lot around here. Down the end of the street was a scrapyard and there was a pub right beside it … None of it exists anymore. In that pub we would go drinking with The Go-Betweens. Those spaces had a real mix of people, people that were pushed to the outskirts. It felt a bit like that then. There were also areas like Leytonstone, as well, where some people took it upon themselves to book acts into local churches, and that kind of thing. But it’s not as random anymore, and something is lost there.
Through all that period, for most of Microdisney and for the first few years of Mansions, we rehearsed at this place on a street parallel to here, it’s all gone now, St. Paul’s Crescent.
We first started rehearsing under the arches on Camden Lock. It was a bit of a dump then, and apart from Sundays, there weren’t any markets. But the rehearsal facilities had various degrees of desirability. Back then, things being what they were, you took a break for a drink, and we used to go to the Lock Tavern across the road, and that was around the latter stages of The Clash, after they fired Mick [Jones]. Usually you’d see the three guys they’d brought in, and sometimes you’d see Simonon, but you’d never see Strummer. It was kind of the Bootleg Clash [laughs] and it was the least vibey place, really. It did feel a bit strange, and I don’t want to diss those guys – a couple of them went on to do good stuff afterwards.
London has changed, like around Kings Cross, St Pancras, Deptford … they are cities now. I do still hear of weird little underground venues, some in Kilburn of all places. I don’t want to slag Camden off because there are great things of value that have happened, and coming back here today has made me feel something. I did a lot of stuff here. This area has been so important to me, and Wapping, but that was a bit later on.
In the late ’90s, there were these big chunks of the East End that were like forgotten hinterlands – the planners hadn’t got round to all the steel and glass yet, although it was getting underway. I was reading a lot of Iain Sinclair and Marc Atkins at the time, and I identified with it, because it was a radical way of looking at what was happening and wasn’t agitprop. Maybe places like the East End had a certain kind of authenticity. London was a hell of a lot more atmospheric than it is now.
Being in Camden today brings me back though – we mixed the Microdisney record at Camden Sounds nearby, and [pointing out the window] we actually rehearsed in those sheds over there, even when we saw the dungeon beneath [laughs] …
Well it seemed like that to us. It was all a bit ramshackle. It was within the railway arches, which was very dodgy – you had to move your transformer for the mixing desk, because it was coming through a bit of a hole in the wall, so not at all dangerous. [Laughs]
It also reminds me of Lenny Kaye and working with him on Crooked Mile. What a brilliant individual. The things he imparted to me about singing didn’t sink in straight away, but over the years I have had many occasions to feel grateful to him … Wow, what I learned from him. I’m reading his new book at the moment, Lightning Striking, it’s great – you just want to hear all about those obscure records, rhythm and blues, tributaries of the now, he knows so much.
Piano was your first instrument, but when did you know you that you could sing?
It just tumbled out, really. Music was not immediately around me, but my mother’s two siblings were great singers, Sadly my auntie passed away last year and hadn’t sung for years, but my uncle is a really good lyric tenor and is still singing at eighty-two – my cousin sends me videos of him singing things like Hail Glorious Saint Patrick. So that’s not nothing, but music wasn’t really in my upbringing, although we had piano lessons … But then I got lazy when I heard Slade … Noddy Holder stopped my Shostakovich! Slade are such an underrated band, especially some of their wacky B-sides. So I blame Slade really, and Roy Wood. I wasn’t so much into Bowie then. That was later on for me.
How did it feel when you supported him in the Dominion in 1988?
Oh God, that wasn’t so great … No, that was actually terrible. I was out of control, I was a complete dick.
You’re very hard on yourself.
I have good reason to be, seriously. There were moments on stage I wish I could take back, but that’s probably my number one. It was driven by anxiety, it was a mixture of things. We had been dropped by Virgin, our record label, which was never the right fit anyway. But they seemed like a good idea at the time as they had money, and we had accumulated debts. We had to clean up our books, which took a long time and a lot of money, so we were motivated – we needed to pay the rent. But the kind of deal it was … Well, you had to sell records at some point, and they were changing as a label – it wasn’t the label of Tubular Bells and Henry Cow anymore. It was what would eventually become The Spice Girls. They didn’t care, it was all about the market. That was where the logic was, and still is.
So it was obvious for a long time that it wasn’t going to work, and I was stewing in it, I had taken some antihistamines that day, and drink – it was horrible and I feel rotten about it to this day.
Do you think that you can truly make peace with the past? Is it possible for any of us?
As long as you can sincerely say to yourself that you learned from it – then I think you do have to move on, otherwise your whole life will be dictated by it, and it becomes a millstone.
It seems that your subsequent collaborations are a testament to that, a way of removing that ‘millstone’, to some extent.
Yes, I feel lucky. It isn’t like I stopped being a dick when Microdisney split up! [Laughs] I also started Mansions being rather blinkered as well, and oddly directionless and unreliable in all spheres of my life, which you will pay for, and I did. Expecting everyone to be as heads-down-determined as I was and being unreasonable about it, that kind of thing.
Does your Telefís project with Jacknife Lee, and your record, a hAon, feel like a reclaiming of something? It feels like you cannot leave 1960s Ireland alone.
I think so. There are landscapes in the part of east Cork I grew up in, and Cork city, that come into my head unbidden, and form that kind of inspiration. On the Telefís album there is a song Ballytransnational – it’s kind of like an impressionistic building I was born into, it’s about home in a way. I haven’t been able to get back home for so long, but am looking to fix that.
Ballytransnational sounds like a Grand National winner.
[Laughs] I hadn’t thought of that, it does. It’s been such a gift working on that record – Garret is such a livewire, he is always creating and making things. We bonded over so much, and wanted to explore a lot of that – our pagan history, the heavy hand of the church … We are big on that.
And T.K. Whitaker …
Yes – Ireland’s first technocrat. He really believed in an Ireland that was fair and equitable. Did you know that Thomas Kinsella was his permanent secretary? There is a documentary about Kinsella in the latter part of his life, where he is dead lucid, reminiscing about T.K. Whitaker, and saying that he treated him a bit like a pet – the poet as permanent secretary. But apparently Kinsella was very good at his job.
Do you think you’re nostalgic for a different Ireland?
Yes, maybe. A better time? The ’80s got a bit strange. Wasn’t Whitaker voted ‘Irishman of the 20th century’? He represented modernity, but also things that seem timeless, like fairness – I like that attitude.
I think you strike a really interesting balance exploring those tensions with your Telefís record.
I’m glad to hear that, because we kind of stay on the gentle side in ways … When you think about the scandal of the Mother and Baby Homes, for example, it’s very delicate. There is an intentionality which stimulates memory, and both of us are trying to make sense of our respective memories. Garret is a bit younger than me – I am not saying that with any sense of superiority [laughs] but there are varying intensities over the course of the record. We also have a second album coming out. We knew it was going to be a bigger project – a hAon, a dó, a trí … We haven’t got to three yet, but we are looking at ideas. I hope people don’t think it’s a massive skit, as a lot of it was very emotional for me and Garret.
There is a lot of re-evaluation going on. I don’t want to spoil it, but there was a nascent feeling from Ireland that we dismissed as youths as a bit naff. The older you get, the stranger it gets. We thought we knew better, but we didn’t. Making peace with things like the showbands – there is a lot of artistry there. Last year I had occasion to listen to Four Country Roads by Big Tom and the Travellers, and it’s acutely a fucking kick-ass record. I don’t know where it was recorded, but it doesn’t have that rinky-dink thing that some showband stuff does. And think about someone like the great Dónal Lunny with Emmet Spiceland – he used to have to do the ballrooms, when Mary from Dungloe was their hit.
How did reforming Microdisney in 2018 and the subsequent concerts in Dublin and London feel?
It meant a lot to Sean and I because it was a chance to close the circle. Some people might say it was a geek thing but the fact is there was this body of work that none of us had been touching so much. It was a challenge and pleasure, because a lot of the work I had been doing at the National Concert Hall and other places was other people’s work that I’d stepped into, from Brecht to Yeats. So it was great to just have a completely non-fraught time, it was such plain sailing, and it felt special, to acknowledge the good that was there.
The National Concert Hall in Dublin seemed like the perfect setting for a closing of that circle.
Yeah, I mean, back in the day we used to have to tailor things a bit more, but because of the generosity of the Concert Hall we were able to rehearse and expand with John Bennett, Eileen Gogan and Rhodri Marsden on keyboards, which meant we could see what really was on the record. It was really a cakewalk.
What surprised you about that experience?
The cohesiveness of The Clock Comes Down The Stairs took me by surprise, because of the piecemeal way we recorded it initially. And all the mad stuff that had to happen because the budget was pretty small – we had been silly with the previous record. We had been a bit rudderless to be honest, so this was our chance to prove ourselves. I still kind of hear some of the arrangement decisions on the record in that light, but when we played it that way, it just seemed apt, you know?
Did it also feel like an acknowledgement of your special bond with Sean?
We have become closer over a long period that deepened sometime in the ’90s. To me the guy is a master. And he’s just some guy I met at a party. I was still trying to be a medical student at that point. I am sure he would have done stuff anyway, it wasn’t down to me. Certainly, at that moment, I had a feeling … we sparked something to happen. He had some decent gear, he was up for it, I knew some people who could help. The logistics around getting in on that level worked. But when you look at the list of things he’s done, the High Llamas catalogue alone, the collaborations, Stereolab … I’m somewhat more the troubadour, and he’s more the auteur. The two things together worked pretty well. The trouble was, speaking for myself, I got a bit more installed in the London way of doing things than was healthy, thinking too much about business, and I regret that.
Do you ever regret not finishing medicine? Wasn’t one of the main reasons you embarked on that because of the work of psychiatrist R.D. Laing?
I don’t regret it. But Laing, yes, it was such a childish reason, to take on something so massive on that basis – I was a fucking airhead, really. I was a bit of a chicken, because I wanted to be an artist, but also wanting a kind of safety net. It was kind of an evasion, really. It was in the ’90s when I started to strip all that stuff away. I always needed a safety net though, it’s always been the thing. Maybe that’s partly why I got into horrible record deals.
Edna O’Brien had a connection with Laing as well. There was a BBC Four documentary about her that was really good. You want to strike her a medal after you watch it, what she had to get through … my God.
You seem like a very determined person, despite your ambivalence about some things.
I would say stubborn … It makes you ask all sorts of questions about yourself. I look back on some of the deals I had. My economic situation was so bad … You think – do I actually want to do this? Radioactive Records thwarted us for five years, and when I eventually got out of it, I thought okay, I am not going to be dependent on any of that in the future, so I figured out something else I could do to pay the rent, and I kind of split myself in two really.
What was the other half?
It was technology – I kind of enjoyed it, but I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder for a while. But you realise you have to keep going, you do what you have to do, and you get the work out to some people, somehow. In a way, rightly or wrongly, I think I have chalked up a lot of problems in my life by trying to make a whole living out of music.
What music do you go back to, and have recently discovered?
In terms of home, I think Paul Brady is a national treasure, and it’s been great to see artists like Lankum and Lisa O’Neill come up. It’s been lovely to see that, from this distance at least – it feels like a kick in the arse.
I always go back to Scott Walker, and Ennio Morricone. But I am going through a funny stage at this point, I hear music very differently to how I did four months ago, I listen to things I know I like, but I can’t listen to them as they upset me. For example, that Cate Le Bon album, Pompeii, I can’t listen to it.
There is something so spectral and ghostly about her voice – her inflections – it just stirs something in me that I would rather not stir. But then I am discovering things I missed before, like Yo La Tengo. For some reason I missed them first time around. If you go listening to them expecting the wrong thing, it sounds horrible, and I’m just inclined to walk off, but I think initially I expected Sonic Youth or something and that’s not who they are at all!
Neil Young still sounds good to me. I love that Floating Points and Pharaoh Sanders record, wow. Bill Evans I can listen to, and Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, and I always go back to Can’s Future Days. When I am making music, I listen to other music all the time – I know that practically it’s probably better to close the hatches, but it’s not my way.
What brings you a sense of peace?
Being by water – it was only when I moved into Whitechapel in 1996 that I became a bit of a river hog. It goes back to the Cork thing. I think it returns me to that. Perhaps the source of the river doesn’t matter, just the idea of it – I just need to be by a body of water. Being by it I can hear its imprint on the sky, and see maybe a bit of black and blue. I have also always had this sense of peripeteia – it’s always been with me, travelled with me, that sense of possibility. So there’s that too.
Siobhán Kane is an academic and arts journalist and she lectures at UCD. She has run the collective Young Hearts Run Free, which puts on arts events in unusual spaces in support of the Simon Community since 2008.
First published in Winter Papers Volume 8, October 2022