Cathal Coughlan - Interview

26/05/2000, par Gildas | Interviews |
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Cathal CoughlanBack after four long years with a beautiful new album, "Black River Falls", Cathal Coughlan, irascible ex-leader of Microdisney and of Fatima Mansions, delivers a few well chosen spurts of gall, as in his best days. Our Cathal is as fit as ever : a frank and direct interview...

It has been very difficult to keep track of your activities recently. Loads of rumours have been spread. You were thought to be shaving sheep in Australia or to be acting in a play in New York. Some even said that you were a spoof that had never existed. So now that you are back tell us what you have been doing since "Grand Necropolitan" ?
I did travel quite a lot, and divided my time between the UK, the US and Ireland - nothing glamorous, though, mostly I have been really broke. My interests, particularly in creating music for films and theatre, are a lot broader then they were. Plus there's that Internet thing... I think I would agree that I was a spoof that never existed, and which certainly doesn't exist now.

It only took your a few months (one ?) to move on from Microdisney to Fatima Mansions. It took you over four years to move on from "Grand Necropolitan" to "Black River Falls". Is it all down to Radioactive records holding you back or do you take more time writing songs ?
After Microdisney, I was prepared to just start playing gigs and hope that something would come out of that. The music business in the UK was even then moving away from the point where that made sense - it would be silly to do that now. I did shows in Ireland in '97 and in America in '98, which were good fun, but were obviously not going to take me anywhere.The main waste of time was due to not being able to make records, because essentially, unless an artist is a good deal more popular than I've ever been, people will not come to see shows if they don't think the artist has done anything lately, and records are still the definition of that for most people. So it was all down to Radioactive, who wanted to make sure that I was totally finished, and unable to embarrass them at another big label.

When Microdisney split up everybody described Sean O'Hagan as the good guy and you as the baddy.  How much of it is actually true ? Do you sometime look back on the end of the group and wish it were different ?
I have no idea what good and bad is in this situation, and I have no intention of getting into some sad postmortem about it. Microdisney as a collaboration between me and Sean had been over for around two years before the official "split". People who wanted to hear the band minus the baddy had ample opportunity to do so on the first couple of records which Sean made after Microdisney. I believe such people gave me quite a wide berth after that, and fuck them, I got a new and bigger audience through the Fatima Mansions, though I realise that many people regarded that band as an embarassment. Fuck them also.
I do regret the manner in which the Microdisney split came about. A lot of anguish, public embarrassment and money-wasting could have been spared if I, particularly (though not alone), had been a bit more adult about it. I regret my own behaviour. But never the actual split, no fucking way.

In Italy you caused a riot, on that same U2 tour you managed to outstage the main band. You've been touring like crazy after each Fatima Mansions album... Is it a physical need to get in touch with your public or is it just your job and you are a good "entertainer" ?
The only triggers for the concept of touring, as opposed to the concept of playing to an audience, are to do with business, so touring is an imposition, for me. I don't enjoy it at all, and never have. There are good nights, obviously, and these are encouraging, but they live on only in the memory of a few people, and don't really help much with the main struggle, which is to produce music I believe in, and get it released. When you never get played on the radio, the pressure to tour is hard to resist, as it's the cheapest way for the record company to seem like they're doing something positive. Still costs money, though - all the money crises I've had in my music career have come out of touring. In an ideal world, I'd just do the odd series of shows in decent small venues. But nobody seems to want that.

Will you tour intensively to promote "Black River Falls" ? Any dates in France ?
There is not any demand for me to tour intensively this time, nor the cash to cover it. As for France, I gather that "Les Inrockuptibles" gave me a good review, but I have heard nothing else. I'd certainly like to come over, as I have had a more than average number of good shows there in the past.

Where did you find Dawn Kelly ? Her voice on "Dark Parlour" really complements yours and the hard/soft guitar bits. I think this song is my favourite on the LP (with "The Ghost Of Limehouse Cut" and the other ten).
Dawn sang in a group which a friend of mine in Ireland put together so we could all tour Ireland in '97. She is a very talented singer and songwriter, and I really believe she will be heard of in the outside world, though she must first make her way through the small and corrupt environment that is the Irish music industry. "Dark Parlour" was one of the first songs I wrote for the record, and the lyric revolves around me trying to work out what has made me such a fucking failure (a truncated peasant heritage, no roots at all in the world where I eventually grew up). The shadow of Sandy Denny, one of my favourite songwriters, hangs over it, but I think it's pretty good anyway.

On the B-sides of the EP's from "Lost In The Former West" there was some attempt in a more "electronic" nearly "techno" music. On this album, "The Bacon Singer" is based on a Jungle rhythm. Is it the kind of music that you listen to at the moment ?
I would hate for anyone to think that "The Bacon Singer" is my entry into some kind of queue of old fuckers who are trying to prove they're "with it". I just wanted to do something up-tempo and slightly jazzy to suit a warzone travelogue lyric, and I had for three years or so noted that d&b was headed in that sort of way. But the rhythm idea I used is one which has been around for at least thirty years. My interest in electronic music is a long one (since Kraftwerk in '76), but pretty patchy - these days, I might enjoy hearing Mouse On Mars or DJ Krust, but I never ever go to clubs and simply do not get very involved in technology for making music - I don't have time, that's why all that shit is for people younger than me. They'll all be tunnel-vision snobs when they're my age. Come to think of it, that's what most of them are already...

Is that "techno" side of your music something you would like to develop in the future ?
No, I very much doubt it. The remix thing is inherently insincere, unless you do that kind of music yourself - rock bands trying to sell to clubbers -it rarely works, everyone knows it's horseshit. I did it for B-sides, but it was just business, I'd never do that on an album (those singles are just landfill somewhere now).

When "Grand Necropolitan" came out, loads of people were comparing you to Scott Walker, with this new LP the press is still mentioning Scott Walker but also Nick Cave. Are you flattered or annoyed by those comparisons ?
Annoyed - because it makes me sound like some kind of tribute act or impersonator. I think I've earned better than that, but no doubt the lazy people who make those associations in the two seconds which they allot to non-mainstream music would disagree. The Nick Cave one makes me especially sad, because he and I are of roughly the same generation, and while I like many of Nick's records and respect him as an artist, I've never been "immersed" in his work. Maybe we share an interest in certain third parties' work (Dylan, Gainsbourg, etc), but so what? It makes me feel like a failure when people compare me to him. We can both sing low notes (in my case, that's only sometimes)- big fucking deal...

Who would you like to be compared or associated to ?
I'd never be so arrogant as to say "nobody", but I find it hard to think of any answer to this. I'm pretty isolated in what I do, and I tend to work with musicians/other collaborators who are not fashionable, so I never really think about myself in relation to people whose published works I like. "Popular" music as now constituted is tacky and ephemeral rubbish (though it will all live forever, simultaneously, because music copyrights will be so cheap to exploit). Most of the artists I revere (Astor Piazzolla, Claus Ogerman, the novelist/poet Iain Sinclair) hail from more elevated times and climes, so if I were to play this association game I think I should first find a new artform to work in. 

Finally, everyone is talking about the effect of the Internet on the music. Yourself you have your own server and you are answering these questions via e-mail. Did the Internet change anything for you ?
Not really - I can get information about shows etc to interested people, even though I'm not of interest to music magazines in the UK, but I have no idea whether this will be a decisive advantage, though it's an avenue which was not there before. I can communicate with some of my collaborators, such as Joe Gore in San Francisco, though many more just use their catastrophic Apple Macs for music and know nothing about the Web etc, and must be cajoled by phone, or, even worse, by that pile of crap known as "fax". The "digital revolution" is just more capitalist desperation. I really feel we'd all be a lot better off without it. But given that it's there and the corporations are using it to screw us some more, it's best to be involved.

interview by Gildas

review of "Black River Falls" (in French)
read more about Microdisney and Fatima Mansions (in French)


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