Cathal Coughlan: The Fatima Mansions/Microdisney Singer Is Back with a New Album

It was March 26, and a real red letter day for Cathal Coughlan last week. It was record-release day for the former anchor of overseas cult outfits Microdisney and Fatima Mansions, and his latest chiming, lyrically-arcane solo manifesto, Song of Co-Aklan, had just hit the metaphorical streets, whose conceptual cuts—like the sinister “Crow Mother,” an orchestral “Passed-Out Dog,” a slowly shambling “The Lobster’s Dream,” and a straightforward noirish rocker called “The Knockout Artist,” given continuity by the singer’s dark marbled murmur—altogether feel like the soundtrack to some lost Fellini film. Many old friends chipped in on the project, like his Microdisney co-founder (and High Llamas mainman) Sean O’Hagan, plus Scritti Politti’s Rhodri Marsden and Luke Haines from The Auteurs. And Microdisney itself was just given historical validation in 2019, when it won Ireland’s National Concert Hall Trailblazer Award for its definitive 1985 album classic, The Clock Comes Down the Stairs. Having wavered after his ambitious 2010 solo effort Rancho Tetrahedron was rewarded by critical crickets, Coughlan, at 60, was proud to note that he’d regained most of his youthful confidence that day.

“Now the thing is out after I’ve been constantly promoting it, and I’ve been working on new stuff for all the various things I’m involved in, so it really does feel good,” says the Irish-born Londoner, who also moonlights in the Necropolitan Quartet and an upcoming duo with producer Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee. “And it’s a world away from 2010, and I feel very fortunate, mainly in all the people that I know and the people who look out for me. And that’s been my big learning curve for the last two or three or years.” For many post-band years, he was too shy to ask for studio, But after several well-received Microdsiney reunion concerts two years ago, he felt emboldened enough to contact old chums for Song. And they all jumped at the chance. “And no situation is flawless, so in retrospect it could have been an even more diverse record,” he sighs. “But there’s always next time, and there’s already a lot of new material. So it’s going to happen.”

Paste: There’s “Co-Aklan”—was there a solo “Aklan” that I somehow missed?

Cathal Coughlan: No, no, no—it has no semantic content at all. I just started thinking—when I started using my own name on the records, which is a while ago now—that it was a little bit sappy and predictable to just use my birth name. Because obviously, it’s quite colloquial, which causes me no embarrassment at all. But at the same time, I thought it was time to spice things up with a bit of a re-brand.

Paste: And then the cover painting sort of resembles Janus, the two-faced god.

Coughlan: Yeah. And that appeals to me on a number of fronts. And it looks a bit like a pagan idol, as well. So it has the look of a Martin Denny sleeve, I suppose, or one of those things where indigenous cultures are being pillaged for fairly numbskull exotic half-value. To call it Joseph Campbell-ish would be a bit too highbrow, although he did strive to understand these cultures. But Martin Denny, not so much. He was more about trying to smuggle in the scantily-clad ladies. So I thought I’d go for a totally inauthentic appeal.

Paste: You character is a persona, an avatar on the album—what does he represent? The Everyman trying to navigate his way through post-digital society?

Coughlan: In a manner of speaking, but I think more presciently it’s about the way that identities get erased when the world is churning as much as it’s been doing. Like, somebody’s national identity can be eroded overnight when they can’t stay in a country any longer because there’s a war, and that’s a huge thing, more than most of us realize in our everyday lives. And then there’s the way that technology and Capitalists are simultaneously trying to make us more homogenous, and all the racists will say that’s because all of the excellent old cultures are being replaced, and I don’t subscribe to that for one minute. But at the same time, there’s a homogeneity that one has to seek in order to become Instagram worthy or something of that nature. Which obviously, for a person of my years, is completely absurd. But nevertheless, what is it, exactly, that technology is doing to us? Everything has to be transformed into ones and zeros.

Paste: You kind of said it best with a recent quote—“We’re in the absent-minded hairs of the algorithm.” They’re selling our attention spans.

Coughlan: Yeah. And what they call the data exhaust, which isn’t even necessarily the stuff that you would care about yourself, but it can add up to a triangulation to all the aspects of your identity that the algorithm is concerned with. The algorithm has no interest in me or you as actual individuals or anything, but if it’s part of a data set, then it’s of interest. And when something, say, recommends “a movie we think you’d like,” in that first-person plural thing, it’s as if they want us to believe that it’s a bunch of benign gray-hairs sitting in the equivalent of a Sears-Roebuck thinking about our well being.

Paste: How do you shield yourself from that?

Coughlan: I’ve been as susceptible as anyone—not in a fascinated way, but just in a way of trying to survive because so much of our economic well-being these days is predicated on engaging with this stuff—you can’t even pay your utility bills unless you’ve got some kind of grip on this thing, and it obviously discriminates heavily now against anyone who, through poverty or disability, are unable to engage with it. So in the future I may turn into a Luddite who never opens these things, but for now—at least for the purpose of promoting this music—I have been engaging quite a lot. But it’s on kind of a probationary basis right now.

Paste: It sounds like you slaved over 2010’s Rancho Tetrahedron, and when you didn’t get the overwhelming response you were hoping for you started to feel out of step.

Coughlan: Yeah. Very much so. And it was mainly to do with the mode of releasing music and what it entailed—I found that the ideas that I had that had served me reasonably well up to that point had just completely run out of steam, even though I was working with some people who had kept ore abreast of these things than me. And yet the whole thing just added up to a bit of a nothing, really. And it was really just banal stuff—like the stock just wasn’t leaving the warehouse. Then the label decided to retire itself, for the second time, which was understandable under the circumstances, but not good news at all for me, because their way of looking at this and their function had changed. So it was a little bit of a setback. So really all I had to show for it at the end was a bunch of remaindered CDs and a sense of anticlimax, you know? And I may have been guilty of believing the hype—that physical releasing is over and people just want the new digital track to grab and go, and I thought, “Well, if that’s the case, why don’t I just do live shows where the audience commits to staying for a while, even if I’m only one of a number of artists on the stage? It felt like more of a spotlit position to be in, even if it was only for 15 minutes instead of a whole set. I’d rather that than to feel like you’ve wasted all the preparation for the moment.

Paste: Your mention of the term “remainder” made me think—there aren’t really any cutout bins any more, where you always found the most unexpectedly cool music.

Coughlan: Yeah. And I was just reminiscing about this yesterday with Sean O’Hagan from Microdisney—there was an album by Gylan Kain, who had been a temporary member of The Last Poets. And he made this solo record—which is very intense, some kind of strange theology to do with Jesus and a black revolutionary, with guest appearances from Nile Rodgers and supposedly Sly Stone, who may have been passing through on the way to a party or something, I dunno. But it was made in the late ’60s, as Sly was becoming a bit eclipsed and before Nile became famous, and it’s very intense poetry. And it somehow made its way—about 20 copies of it, shrink-wrapped—into a bargain bin in Cork City at a time when the Republic of Ireland was the cultural backwater of Europe. And that is no longer the case, but those kind of what-the-fuck moments really shaped a lot of us as music fans—“Can this thing be any good if it costs very little money?”

Paste: The cutout bins are where I found Just a Story From America by Elliott Murphy, this great post-Dylan folk-rocker who moved to Paris years ago, where he’s still thriving.

Coughlan: I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Paris myself, actually, working in the public music theater—renting a house in Paris and touring the country. And that’s one of the things I’ve continued doing, actually after Rancho Tetrahedron—reestablishing links with people I’d met there in the early part of this century. And the artists and theater stuff was always ongoing, so it was easy to say, “I’m just gonna focus on that.’ It was all about learning lots of material, and learning to deliver, on point. It involved kind of ambling onstage with a band and warming up in front of an audience, and the discipline of having to come on halfway through a show and be good was really valuable to me, but completely different from what I was doing in Fatima Mansions and Microdisney. It was mainly musical, but not always in English, so it involved quite a lot of work and actually keeping my voice in good condition, which was not something I was famous for in my twenties, thirties and forties.

Paste: Did the recent Microdsiney reunion put wind in your sails for this new album?

Coughlan: It definitely put a lot more wind in my sails. I had started writing what became this record, and a number of things were in progress. But putting that stuff aside, doing the Microdisney thing and coming back to it was also very valuable, and it just reacquainted me with some things I hadn’t been thinking about in a long while. And the sense of community around all those shows was great—I felt like I’d come in out of the cold, and that really kind of buoyed me up.

Paste: It’s nice to know you matter after a long career. Did fans come up and share stories with you at the shows?

Coughlan: Yeah—the feeling for me was, there was a sense of achievement and having made an impression in people’s minds in that way. But there was a sense of responsibility in those shows, as well. I think people enjoyed ’em, so that paid off. But—speaking strictly for myself—it’s easy to get carried away and think that you matter more than you do. And I’ve tried to fight off any tendencies in that area, because in my experience, that is the road to disillusionment. But it was good to feel that my sense of missed opportunities about the past, and my own inability to deliver at the moment when it was called for, that that didn’t completely sabotage my own—and the other Microdisney members’—best efforts. And despite the warts which were manifest—and many of them came from me—despite all of that, people had a quite touching affection for what we had done.

Paste: Someone recently put I nicely, I thought—If you’re in the game to win it, you never will.

Coughlan: Yeah. This is true, definitely. And of course, at the other end of that, you can focus so much on the micro-detail because you’re trying not to have any grand plan. So you can even break your heart with the minor stuff, you know? And I haven’t done it that much in music, but in other parts of my life I have wasted my buoyancy, my resilience on fastening on to tiny details. And for a few years there, I seemed to be getting worse and worse, to the point I started to feel a bit OCD. But some element of vision is called for, because otherwise you’re just trying to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, and there you stay. And my wife has frequently had occasion to tell me to just wake the fuck up and stop sweating the modalities of each little interaction or transaction.

Paste: How do you feel with this record—caught up with the times? Ahead of them? Or just kind of floating along with the tide?

Coughlan: I think I’m floating along with the tide a good deal more confidently than I have been for a while. Because there have been times—especially when I was younger—where you would feel pressure to fit with, or to utterly reject, whatever the latest thing seemed to be. And the upside of this kind of glut of information that we’re in is that there’s just too much happening for one thing to dominate as the next big thing. And I’ll give you one example—I had a strong appreciation for music that’s come out of rap, especially people that were in the Odd Future collective. They went off into their separate groups and started making these really ingenious and quite often strange records. And I really strongly respect them and enjoy them, but I feel absolutely no need to incorporate their methods or their aesthetics into what I do. Because wouldn’t that just be a bit…strange, really? Some gray-faced Irish guy deciding that I know absolutely what these 20-something people do. I’m not saying it’s absolutely impossible to learn from it, but i’m not trying to appeal to that audience. And that’s where it’s most egregious—when you start imagining you see dollar signs in front of your eyes. That’s bullshit. So hopefully what I’m doing now isis playing to my strengths, as I perceive them. And there are subliminal influences from all over the place, some more conscious ones, and some that I can trace to the deep focus I had on a number of things in 2019. I first of all was working on a project in Ireland to rearrange some tunes by Gustav Mahler for cello quartet and jazz quartet, so there was an octet onstage. So I had to delve in quite deeply to the Mahler song canon, the lieder, which I had little or no prior knowledge of. And the other thing was a Bertolt Brecht show that I was involved in over there, later that year. And just the whole way that Lotte Lenya defined an almost non-idiomatic way of singing music theater that owed nothing to operetta or any of those things that music theater had been about. So reimmersing myself in that, and then the people who were in the show in Dublin, like Blixa Bargeld, Ute Lemper, Gavin Friday—really terrific performers. So that dominated my consciousness for a while, because one thing I did contribute to that show was a bunch of research on the Brecht poetry canon, which was part of the show. So with kind of deep focus, inevitably a lot of that seeped into my head.

Paste: And you actually have an entire new album coming with Garret “Jacknife” Lee?

Coughlan: We’ve known each other for a really long time. Jacknife—under his early guise of Casablanca Moon—was a support act for the final show that me and Sean O’Hagan did as Microdisney did in Dublin before immigrating to make our first album. And he was just this gifted teenager with a guitar, and he worked in much bigger outfits later, but this was him as a very young person. So we were in intermittent contact over the years, and then through mutual friends we were put back in contact at the beginning of last year, when the natural thing to do seemed to be to start making music. So it has been totally remote, but that’s had quite a lot of strength for me, because it’s very much a pattern of Jacknife coming up with the beat—or actually the whole track—and me doing the vocals and we keep pushing that back and forth until we’ve got something we’re happy with. So it’s a mixture of electronics and turntables and live playing. And sometimes strings, eve, and sometimes electronics, quite stark and punky. It’s definitely not a high-gloss kind of record—it’s more like a full frequency kick in the gut! I’m very pleased with it—it’s coming out later in the summer.