THE OLD MAN’S BACK AGAIN – Fatima Mansions’ Cathal Coughlan On Politics, The Pandemic And ‘Song Of Co-Aklan’ His First Album In 10 Years

Carving out a reputation as one of indie’s most challenging and erudite lyricists with Microdisney in the ’80s, Cathal Coughlan went and did it all again in the ’90s with post-punk five-piece Fatima Mansions.

When that band collapsed amid a contractual dispute which nearly sent him over the edge, he recovered to forge a solo career comprising five critically acclaimed albums.

Now a decade after his last release Rancho Tetrahedron, he’s back with a new album Song of Co-Aklan, preceded by a single of the same name.

Here Coughlan tells Matt Catchpole how his abhorrence of Brexit and Trumpism fuelled his writing on the new record and why he’s as excited by this release as any in his 40-year career.

Song of Co-Aklan sleeve art
Sleeve art for Song of Co-Aklan by Cristabel Christo

Like much of Coughlan’s previous work, the title track off the album is a complex web of acerbic wordplay and contemporary and historical allusions.

Sporting a big friendly chorus, delivered with his much admired croon, it’s the archetypal iron fist in a velvet glove.

It addresses the pandemic, but not directly, seemingly disparate elements pulled together in the persona of a character being bombarded both literally and metaphorically.

“It’s a ‘parallax view’ of scenes from the existing predicament, and how we may have got here – from the Cold War dirty-tricks playground that was the Irish Troubles (in part), to Pan Am flight 103, to Syria in the mid-2010’s,” Coughlan explains.

“I’m trying not to dispense slogans, or preach anything. I see myself as a parasite on world events, not an influencer.”

Describing the song as the “most collagey of anything I’ve done”, Coughlan says the lyrical approach came after a friend sent him some of his old verse, run through several waves of auto-translation and then back into English.

“Much of it was unusable, but it threw out out some odd connections that I might not have come by using my brain alone,” Coughlan muses.

The method was similar to the ‘cut up’ technique deployed by Beat writer William S. Burroughs. David Bowie also experimented with the form.

The approach involves cutting sentences from a linear narrative and pasting them together in a different order to create a new text.

Burroughs would also ‘fold in’ narratives – taking two sheets of text, folding them in half vertically and then reading across the folds to create a new line.

“On Diamond Dogs the cut ups work quite well at times,” Coughlan remarks, but he suspects neither Burroughs nor Bowie applied the technique quite as randomly as they claimed.

“Much as I admire him, I don’t think David Bowie strikes you as the kind of artist who willingly relinquishes control to that extent,” he chuckles.

Speaking of his own writing, Coughlan says he might set out with an idea of structure, but tries not to be too rigid in his approach.

“I never write with a firm plan in mind, though it does help to have some idea how the thing will turn out. Sometimes things do come very quickly, at least in the first iteration, though I might put them away for a while and return them later. With others it is like the proverbial blood out of a stone.

“It’s more often tortuous than not. I very easily fritter away the grace period where an idea of mine surprises me and brings me to a swift decision about how to finish it up.”

Songs for the latest album, though came “quite quickly” inspired in part by a tumultuous 2016 that saw the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump.

Brexit and it’s emplications for the Irish border, in particular, enraged Coughlan, and gave the work added momentum.

“It greatly upset me,” he says of Brexit. “The two main areas of unalloyed improvement in my lifetime are the now-generalised (if not global) acceptance of same-sex relationships, and the lack of everyday political violence on the island of Ireland. The fact that any UK government could give so little of a damn about the latter was depressing.

“While the attitude of the average British person to Irish people has become much more accepting than ever before, it seems the ruling class, and especially its new kleptocratic offshoot represented by Johnson, Farage and the rest, is just as contemptuous and ignorant as ever.”

Though he has been active with collaborations and live projects over the past decade, Coughlan concedes that Song of Co-Aklan has the feel of comeback.

Asked if, after 40 years in the business, new releases still hold the same excitement, he visibly brightens.

“This one does,” he says, “Some of them haven’t, but this one certainly does. I’ve done more promotion for this than I have for anything in years.”

As if to demonstrate his enthusiasm, he pauses our Zoom chat to give me a sneak preview of new single Owl In The Parlour, released on Friday.

“It describes the plight of the simple provincial raptor-captor, as he seeks unpaid labour on the Dark Web to maintain his home menagerie for him,” says Coughlan, giving a running commentary.

“He tells us about his wardrobe and accessories, and his Reddit correspondence in relation to cryptocurrencies of the Third Reich. And it stomps along like a stately glam funeral.”

Speaking of the album as a whole Coughlan says listeners can expect “short, snappy songs which aren’t concerned with displaying good taste to the exclusion of getting the job done.

“I think it’s fair to say that it snapshots styles from various phases of my musical life, and hopefully uses them to create its own identity. Lyrically, there’s everything from a meditation on how a simple spot of broad-daylight public urination in London can reflect something of the city’s descent into a kleptocrat’s holiday resort, to how, at a certain time of life, we can feel as if we’re already halfway out of the world of the living.”

Primarily a lyricist in Microdisney – “I was the guy with the microphone, spouting text” – Coughlan was determined not to be ‘straight’ writer.

“Probably the first breakthrough I can remember in the first version of Microdisney involved breaking that linear narrative or instruction to the listener,” he explains. “For a time, drugs helped. But like any other tool, they have their time, but it may not be a long time.”

Thoughtful and engaging, the quietly spoken Coughlan, doesn’t come across as the firebrand you might expect from his often caustic lyrics.

He’s also refreshingly honest about past mistakes including Fatima Mansions’ “delusional” decision to support U2 on the European leg of their Zoo TV tour.

In a prelude to a more disastrous run-in with their record company, The Mansions’ fourth album Valhalla Avenue was rejected for release in the US.

“We needed some means of promoting it on this side of the planet. Our big delusion was thinking we could perhaps convert 5% of the arena audience to buy our album and come see us in a small venue another time. But that isn’t how it works ,” Coughlan explains.

“There were nights, such as in Barcelona Olympic Stadium, where we thought we were getting across, but often we were booed before we’d even played a note.

“The audience when the houselights darkened were disappointed if anyone other than Bono was on the stage. An arena audience is just that, a very specific thing. They want what they know.”

After the Mansions came to a messy end in 1994, a continuing contractual wrangle with record company Radioactive Records meant Coughlan was effectively prevented from releasing any music for the rest of the ’90s.

Musicians around him, however reluctantly, began drifting away in search of other work and Coughlan was in dire financial straits.

In interviews from around that time he confesses to a crisis of confidence, adopting a “live fast, die young” approach, with bouts of binge drinking.

What brought him out of it, he says, was exploring other genres and styles.

“I had to find other reasons to stay enthusiastic about doing what I did, and chief among those was making connections with new collaborators like the French woodwind virtuoso Renaud Pion, for example, and his sometime maestro Hector Zazou and renewing old connections, like the Irish touring I did with Nine Wassies From Bainne.”

He says he never feared being forgotten. “I knew there was a core of people who probably would remember, if only I could get out of the contract jail.”

In 2000 he embarked on his solo career proper, with the release of the Black River Falls album, but you sense that, even now, he’s something of a reluctant solo artist.

He recognises there’s a certain autonomy about it, but then again: “I get tired of the sound of my own voice pretty quickly”.

“It’s easier to take musical chances when you know that no-one’s future is impacted in totality by them, apart from your own,” Coughlan says of his solo status.

“It can be a bit unsettling to think that forces beyond your control, such as other people’s diaries and need to pay the rent, can either remove that connection when you need it, or delay your work.

“On the whole, it’s more stable for a non-commercial artist to remain mobile and adaptable, as much as they can, and being a one-person operation (at core) is the best way to do that.”

For Song of Co-Aklan he’s once again joined by longstanding collaborators including former Microdisney members Sean O’Hagan and John Fell, Audrey Riley and Fatima Mansions’ drummer Nick Allum.

Coughlan (left) with Luke Haines (centre) and Andrew Mueller in North Sea Scrolls

He’s also reunited with Luke Haines (The Auteurs/Blackbox Recorder) with whom he worked on the song/speech show The North Sea Scrolls, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2011.

“Luke’s no-nonsense energetic approach to making recordings is something which very much inspires me, and particularly did when we worked on The North Sea Scrolls. I was delighted when he offered to lend help to this record,” Coughlan says.

Modest about his own limitations as a player and composer, he finds it helps to have a familiar coterie of musicians and friends to bounce ideas off.

“I greatly enjoy other people’s input when I’m making a record, as long as – and this is a biggish proviso to many people –  they’re open to the fact that any record I make might or might not resemble its predecessor. On this record, I have contributions from collaborators from throughout my music life.

“If you connect with people musically, you want to keep the connection going, if you can – especially for me, as an instrumentalist who’s a bit limited in what he can do. It’s great to know what instrumentalist you’re writing for.”

One collaboration of which he’s rather less proud, even it they were fun to work on, are the parodic albums he made as Bubonique, featuring contributions from the late Sean Hughes of Never Mind The Buzzcocks fame.

“Sean was probably the best-known member of what was a revolving (as in vertigo and nausea) cast of people on a project which was convened by myself and Paul Jarvis, late of the noise rock titans SLAB! Also with a lot of help from Rob Allum of Turin Brakes. It was neither big nor clever, and I can’t say I revisit it, ever.”

That said, Coughlan does reveal a grudging regard for Bubonique’s “lounge version” of The Birthday Party‘s Release The Bats.

“I don’t think it’s a lyric that even the author would still stand by.” Coughlan says with a smile. “And I don’t think the dark lord {NIck Cave}, or even The Birthday Party ever played it live.”

In the same way as he seeks out familar musicians for inspiration, when the songwriting well runs dry, Coughlan says he finds himself returning time and again to the same set of influences.

Not least of these is Scott Walker, the singer with whom he’s perhaps most often compared.

“Scott was indeed a big influence on me, and a what I’d also term a big hero of the culture. He’s left us a pretty astonishing catalogue, which no-one will ever emulate – from teenage Roy Orbison soundalike in LA, to Bisch Bosch and Soused in London, with nuggets at every stage.

“The album of his which I tend to return to is Climate Of Hunter. The later records are equally brilliant, but the mode of their construction is part of a process unattainable to all but Scott and his collaborators.”

Coughlan also expresses genuine affection for The Pop GroupMagazine and the melodies of Sandy Denny.

“Other things I tend to revisit often are Jim O’Rourke’s song records, from Bad Timing onwards to the present day. There’s Lal Waterson, Martin Carthy, Planxty and its offshoots, Gavin Bryars, Bill EvansSymbiosis, Mark Lanegan and Todd Rundgren – for the sophisticated audacity of Todd’s chord changes – unreachable.”

The prevalence of Irish artists is telling, for though he’s long been in exile, Coughlan contnues to be held in high esteem in his native country.

In 2006 he was described by The Irish Times as the ‘genius of Irish rock’ and in 2019 along with his Microdisney bandmates, became the first recipient of Ireland’s National Concert Hall Trailblazer Award, prompting a brief revival of  his old band.

The Cork-born musician is proud of his roots and grateful for the support he’s received.

“Ireland has a particularly tolerant attitude to auto-didacts in the creative arts field, which somewhat belies the place’s still-evident conservatism in some quarters.

“Play my stuff to John Banville {Irish novelist and critic of ‘wokeism’}, and it might not go over very well. But my early ventures with Microdisney didn’t get us arrested, where in the UK they might well have.”

He feels his origins “massively” shaped the songwriter he’s become.

“The other things I take from it would be the type of rural social environment I grew up in, which was very specific to that place and time and by no means all bad – though it had its drawbacks.

“Also the attitude to storytelling, and the fact that being from a small country means you don’t very easily write off other cultures, whether they come your way in the form of Turkish music or small-press poetry from America – you’re impressionable for life, I think, which is both good and bad.”

It’s in marked contrast to his enduring contmpt for the British Tory government, which has been criticised for its lack of support for performers and musicians during the pandemic.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all, though I detest it. Even in Theresa May’s cabinet (when the cabinet members could still be appointed on the basis of criteria other than where they sat ideologically in May/June 2016), the relevant department of state was run by someone whose idea of a ‘cultural artefact’, by her own admission, was the puzzle magazine.

“The cultural life of this country and the tax revenues it generates owe nothing to the Tory party, and never did. Now that this party is in majoritarian revenge mode, we see what we get.”

After 40 years in the business, Coughlan fears that the combined affect of the pandemic and technological advances could spell disaster for studios and live venues.

He’s also suspicious of streaming and the way revenue is funneled away from content creators.

“It’s great to have instant access to music which we’d have had to spend countless fruitless afternoons in basements scouring bins to find, and it’s great to have a £200 piece of software which allows one to record all manner of sound wherever one is, and to be able to paste others’ contributions into it. It’s not a straight quid pro quo, though, and I don’t know where it’s going.

“The best hope lies with the younger artists. like Jockstrap or Kid Krule, to name but two, who’ve only ever known things to work this way, and are exploiting the music-creation end of it to make music which is unlike anything heard before.”

Asked if he fears cancel culture might suppress future iconclasts from taking on authority in the same way he has done, Coughlan’s answer is equivocal.

“Some things do deserve to get cancelled,” he says. “I don’t want to hear that Skrewdriver {notorious Neo-Nazi ounk band} made a couple good albums, for example.

“And people have said that to me, in a kind of ‘deal with it’ way in the past.That’s an extreme case, but I don’t think people should use social media to hurt people.

“The important thing for me is to not purchase an entire ‘bill of goods’ from a tribe with which one identifies on an emotional level, but to consider each issue for oneself, and where one has no reliable knowledge of an issue, to stay out of it.”

A keen student of history, Coughlan clearly keeps his finger on the pulse of world events and, despite his aversion to Brexit, he’s quick to condemn the EU for its part in an unseemly row with the UK over COVID-19 vaccination supplies.

“It’s sad, scary and indicative of the immature thinking which has completely taken over the functions of government across the world, since the end of the Cold War. It’s not coincidental that the press now expects us all to hang on the vaccine administration sayings of Tony Blair!

“There’s simultaneously an insistence that we must all face back into unlimited global travel, and no insistence that the low-income world needs, as a matter of urgency, to be drawn under the shield of the vaccines. It’s all too typical, I’m afraid.”

Having watched  the assault on Capitol Hill in the dying days of the Trump adinistration, does Biden’s election offer him more hope for the future?

“I can’t say that it does. While the absence of malice at the top of US politics is good news for those of us who live in its orbit, I’m afraid it’s impossible to ignore the 75 million votes cast for the orange idiot and his KKK outlook on the US’ civic life.

“America will never be West European social democrat in its outlook, and I fear that its centre of gravity in ideology has permanently shifted to something more akin to various failed states of the past.”

While working on the album appears to have given him real purpose during lockdown, he’s clearly champing at the bit to get out into the world again.

He speaks longingly of wanting to return to Ireland and of touring the album in whatever capacity.

“I have no idea whether the songs will sound anything like the record by then, due to the undefined number of people I might be able to bring to play them with me, but it’s certainly the main thing I need to do next.”

Though content with his position on the fringes of the music business – “I’ve never been so naïve as to think that someone who’s as odd as me would somehow parlay that into global cultural appeal” –  you get the impression he’s delighted to be back on active service.

Besides the new solo record, he’s bringing out an album with REM producer Jacknife Lee  and seems genuinely humbled that friends and admirers are rallying to his cause.

“I have a feeling it may be getting easier,” he says of his songwriting – and for those of us who’ve missed him over the last 10 years, that can only be a good thing.

  • Singles Owl In The Parlour and Song of Co-Aklan are available digitally across online platforms, oncluding Apple Music and Spotify.
  • The full album, set for release on Dimple Discs on March 26, can be pre-ordered here.
  • For more about Cathal Coughlan visit his pages on Facebook, Twitter, or check out his website.

 

 

 

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About the author

Full time journalist, music lover (obvs) and truly terrible guitarist. You can find Matt on twitter @matcatch

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