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An Improbable History: Microdisney Interviewed
David McKenna , February 20th, 2014 08:59

David McKenna talks to Cathal Coughlan and Sean O'Hagan about the Rough Trade years

If, in 1992, you had came across 'Santa Barbara' by The High Llamas and 'Valhalla Avenue' by The Fatima Mansions without any knowledge of the backstory (very much as I did), it would have seemed rather improbable that the two songwriters responsible – Cathal Coughlan and Sean O'Hagan – had once formed a single musical unit; at best you might come up with something approximating the In The World EP track '464', which saw one of the group's most achingly nostalgic songs punctured violently by passages of guitar squall and howls of impotent rage.

But then much about Microdisney was, and remains, improbable. They never quite fitted, and seemed to suffer as much for what they were deemed not to be as for what they were. They weren't alone in the post punk landscape in pitting dreamily melodic songs against literate words, but their baleful, hangdog quality apparently didn't appear as worthy as the skippy flippancy of Orange Juice; hailing from Cork they weren't perhaps exotic enough compared to their drinking pals the Go-Betweens; despite the lattice-like delicacy of Sean O'Hagan's playing and Coughlan's unique persona and turns of phrase, too genuinely unstylish or unstylised to fit The Smiths model. And, the worst crime of all, they weren't the Jesus and Mary Chain.

“I remember when we were doing press these eager young men would sit down and they would basically want to talk about the state of the country,” Sean recalls.

Cathal: “And also 'Why doesn't it sound like the Mary Chain?'. It had to be fully on-message in its every aspect. We weren't really interested in that."

What they were remains equally tricky to get a grip on. The idea that Microdisney was purely an entryist project, with songs as deliberately unthreatening Trojan horses, doesn't really stack up against the pair's accounts of their early days, their writing process or their influences. (In any case, titling your Hatful Of Hollow-ish second release We Hate You South African Bastards is anything but a Trojan tactic.) This is a vision of the group perhaps coloured by the later Virgin albums such as 39 Minutes where the sarcasm can sometimes seem to have become an end in itself ("Keep youself bland, so the folks understand", Cathal sang on the syrupy 'United Colours', backed by British nu-soul boys Londonbeat).

There is a fair amount of sarcasm on Everbody Is Fantastic, Love Your Enemies (as We Hate You... has been retitled for subsquent reissues) and The Clock Comes Down the Stairs, the three Rough Trade albums given the full reissue treatment by Cherry Red recently, but it's sarcasm as entirely human defence mechanism, and it's in there amid the longing, anger, suffering, yearning, surreal humour, social critique and a whole lot more besides. Resentment (or ressentiment) is an emotion particularly well conveyed by the earliest recorded Microdisney songs, rage and frustration at people, the world, the times, the past, former lovers, turned inwards to the point where it can become personally crippling – but finding great expression via the inner monologue, or one-sided dialogue, of the song format. Some of these slights could be imagined but others, as Cathal and Sean illustrate in the interview below, were very real.

Frequently it's the group's romantic sensibility that elevates any gaucheness or obscurity. Theirs can be a recalcitrant beauty, thanks to the pair's desire to avoid obvious structures and chord changes, and due also to some unflattering production decisions. There's a reason fans often favour Peel sessions, also collected on these new editions, over the album recordings – the album version of 'Before Famine', for example, is hobbled by a clunky Linn snare sound (a common problem on Everybody Is Fantastic, referred to by Cathal in this interview in terms of the "decisions around drum machines which I’m largely responsible for") while the reverb-y hand-claps on the Peel version allow it more breathing space.

As a Righteous Brother once sang, "time can do so much" and, over 30 years later, much that was problematic about Microdisney no longer seems so urgent. For better or worse some arguments have been lost, others won, and in many cases any idealogical framework that might support those debates has been carried away by the flood of progress. Nobody believes pop can enter the mainstream by the back door and pervert it (Manic Street Preachers were perhaps the last real believers in that and look what they became), so any principled debate about the merits of conforming to deform have become a moot point. Also, nobody is going to work themselves into a state over alternative/underground artists being influenced by soft-rock, soft-pop, MOR, AOR. This is an argument Microdisney won by default. Even 'poor' production, like the swimmy, hissy sound of some of the Love Your Enemies instrumentals, written for unreleased anti-drugs film, can be a desired effect now.

Depending on your proclivities, some of the sonic period details can be a distraction ("it sounds so 80s") or part of the charm ("it sounds so 80s!") but it's also possible to appreciate these songs more broadly as a product of their era and of particular times and places (Cork and London in the early 80s), as well as for the more timelessly estimable quality of the songwriting partnership.

It's all there already on debut single 'Hello Rascals'/'Helicopter Of The Holy Ghost'. 'Hello Rascals' has that very post punk quality of sounding like it's arrived ex-nihilo, exposed as as tree boughs in winter, a few lines traced in the semi-darkness. Not quite complete, not really telling a story but somehow summing up a life and a state of mind: "watch the dawn in sick amazement". 'Helicopter...' features one of Sean's most exquisite riffs and Cathal's "anti-Graham Greene" (as he describes it) narrative. Cathal's sonorous vocals are as affecting here for their lack of polish as for their later stridency and maturity. It seems appropriate that these chilly-sounding recordings were made in a freezing cold room. In Cathal's sleeve notes to Love Your Enemies (a compilation of the earliest Peel-seducing singles and those mostly rather cheerful anti-drugs tracks, excepting the doomy 'Pretoria Quickstep'. "There were a lot of bits where the drugs went bad!" Cathal chuckles) he describes it as a gym.

Sean: It was a religious order. In fact that kept going, the religious order thing, because we actually mixed in Maynooth, which is the main priests' college outside Dublin, a seminary. And they were facilitated with an 8-track, which I think was quite rare at the time.

Cathal: It was for communications – the message!

SOH: A number of the recordings happened in a studio which was part of a skating arena, the Eamonn Andrews studio, which was this big old building right in the centre of Dublin. He was this ITV celebrity for years and years, along with Terry Wogan he was one of Ireland's big exports. So there was this studio, they had shows there...

CC: I think it was Eamonn's way of putting something back. He was the forerunner of U2 in that way.

SOH: So we found all these odd little studios to record in.

CC: I mean Ireland didn't have a way of encouraging this kind of thing.

The earliest incarnation of Microdisney was as a five-piece, funk-punk outfit, of which there are some recorded traces online, songs like 'Leper' and 'Cack Hand', and they had also briefly experimented with a dual-vocalist format featuring future Stump frontman Mick Lynch.

CC: When we started doing that there were a lot of bands, and that lasted about 18 months from 1980 to 1982 and then the economy nose-dived and there were no bands any more. The people we were playing with drifted off or at least it got quite difficult to keep everybody interested.

SOH: There was a lot of activity and it seemed to accelerate. What happened was that there was a band called Nun Attax and they were effectively the only band outside Dublin, and they rehearsed in this strange GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) hall about ten miles outside the city in the depths of the countryside – there's a pattern emerging of strange ways of doing things – and I think people used to pile into a bus and go and watch them rehearse, so I think that's what we did...

CC: It was extremely ad hoc, a lot of bedroom events. People wanted something to happen, and they kind of got on with it. And there was a lot of derision for people who tried to do it the way Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Sex Pistols did it, the proper rock & roll, renegade way. This was really fucking renegade, it was just... demented.

Was that about people in Ireland reacting to the way English people were doing things?

CC: Not just the English, the way Dublin people were doing it!

SOH: I think the distance played an amazing part. I mean Cork, just like any provincial town outside London, what was happening musically was just this endless R&B. So the only place this sort of activity could happen was in people's kitchens or in little halls miles away. So I think within about six months there were three or four bands making their own peculiar little sound, enough for a particular woman called Elvira Butler, who ran a dancehall. She used to put most of the bands in town on but she had a particular interest in the new little bands that were forming. She did give us a bit of a free hand.

CC: Yes she did, and they did this gig that had all the local bands playing and they recorded that and it got reviewed in the local music press, Hot Press in Dublin, and that meant we could get gigs in Dublin.

Sean, you'd moved over to Cork.

SOH: Yes, I'd moved over with my parents, so for me the whole thing was very odd because I'd moved from Luton, a working English town, everyone worked in the car factory and I was effectively part of it. So we left and came to Cork, it was very different, remoteness in a mental and a physical way.

And Cathal, your family had been based in Cork for generations?

CC: Forever, really. My mother was a school teacher, my father was a civil servant. So we were kind of lower middle class. Great emphasis on education, not a lot else around because people just didn't have much but there was certainly enough to get educated at the level my parents were at. But by the time I met Sean, the wheels had kind of come off my academic activities and I was quite a confused individual really! I was a medical student. And a really bad, a really fucking useless one. I managed two years. To be honest, I still have the scars. It was just the wrong, wrong thing to do, and nobody forced me to do it except myself.

So you met at a party and, Cathal, you were being obnoxious. Did that happen a lot?

CC: Yeah. I had made myself something of an outcast and played up to it, an archetypal sort of drunk pain in the arse, really.

SOH: And it didn't put me off. I think we had a conversation about... I was on a bit of meander, because I didn't go to college or anything like that, I'd been round Europe working in car factories, milk factories, kitchens and things like that. And on the way, I was listening to post-punk, angst-pop, Scritti Politti and things like that, and I think we just started talking about that at the party. And I think you were the first person I'd met who'd actually heard of any of those groups.

CC: I think someone was playing the guitar and I asked them if they knew anything by The Fall.

SOH: Which is what Cathal would do. Because probably it would be a very accomplished, folk guitar player...

CC: ...playing something by Jackson Browne. It was mostly a wind-up, born of desperation. And I think that was when we struck up conversation.

SOH: I could always play, and the one thing when I was young that I always had was like a little musical narrative in my mind, that was the thing that stopped you being unhappy or going insane. Or looking around you and thinking, “Actually, I should study, and get out of this.” So I think when I got back to Cork after the travels I bought a few instruments and I was looking to enact this for the first time. Meeting Cathal was the moment. And I was very confident. As soon as Cathal said that we should meet and talk about some ideas, I was completely ready.

Cathal, had you tried musical ideas prior to that as well?

CC: No, I mean I was mostly trying to be a writer, because I didn't really know anyone who could play. I played piano and things. But the trouble in Cork was that there was this gulf between people who could play one thing really well, and people who could play three strings rhythmically, and I was definitely more in that thing but I didn't know anyone well enough to do anything with. But I did know some people who were trying to get things together, and after a few misshapen things with two singers in, we got that five-piece together which lasted about a year.

SOH: Actually getting to the spot where we had the five-piece was quite important because there were lots of strange collaborations, and it was all about discovering what you wanted to do. I think Mark E Smith was very important, wasn't he?

CC: Well, he was, there was something about The Fall at that period, and most periods of The Fall that have been any good, that the idea basically just pushes through no matter what, and it's not particularly adulterated by anything other than the production values, and even those are deployed in the interests of the idea. And it hadn't been that long since prog, since Van Der Graaf Generator and King Crimson, ugly prog by the end. It was still the 70s, really.

SOH: So it was almost like there was an undefined goal, but in the early stages of the band it was more about learning to deal with people.

CC: Yeah, we didn't know that at the time but that's what mostly came of it. We had people who liked what we did, especially in Dublin, and that was the foundation of everything we managed to do really. Because we met Gareth Ryan [from the Kabuki label, which released the first Microdisney records] and all the relationships that really sustained us through the next seven or eight years were forged during that time. But we thought the world was going to fall at our feet really. Because there was the idea that you could make something the like of which had never been heard before.

SOH: There was absolute confidence in the idea.

CC: Which even then was perhaps a bit misplaced but the good thing then was that you couldn't get the records. There was this one James Brown album, the Peru Ubu album 30 Seconds Over Tokyo...

SOH: And Chic of course...

CC: And A Certain Ratio, and we'd just make something out of that. And The Fall.

SOH: And there was a belief that there was a way of amalgamating these ideas into a unique voice. And Cathal you probably didn't realise it at the time but, lyrically... that was the thing that made a difference. Because any of those sounds could have come out of Northampton or anywhere...

CC: And it was better not to know it.

SOH: There was a guy called Bill Graham who was a writer, and he was a really unusual character. He probably wasn’t that old but to us he was old and he was this worn character. But he was probably only about 28!

CC: I think he would have been some way into his 30s but he was a contemporary of Paul McGuinness. It was actually Bill who introduced Paul to U2, because they were room-mates at Trinity or something like that.

SOH: And he saw something in the band and the performance. And what he saw was something very provincial. Even though Dublin was probably very provincial then, he saw this provincial thing happening and he really made a point of it, and drew the attention of the country to what we were doing. And we were playing with everyone straight away.

CC: We supported Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Cure, and Depeche Mode - that was later as a two-piece.

SOH: I think it's very important to stress that we used to go to some very strange places. 30-odd years ago, the west of Ireland was closer to Eastern Europe then than it would have been to the UK. And we would go to these little farming towns and play these songs, and I don't know how it happened but we'd set up these little shows, and it would be literally just locals drinking, and we'd set up the drum machine and play these songs in these bizarre little places. And again we didn't think about it. These things happened because we couldn't see a reason for them not to happen. We used to read the English papers and the art magazines, and we used to get annoyed about the beginnings of Psychic TV, and they would talk about their ideas, and I would just think that these ideas were pathetic, you know, they should come here! It seemed as though their ideas were born out of observation, they were artists... and they would say, "Wouldn't it be great if..." and I would say "No"; what was happening where we were was happening as a matter of course.

CC: Societal breakdown and untrammelled eccentricity. The imagery they played with, leaving aside the more provocative Nazi, Charlie Manson aspects of it, burned offerings and so on...

SOH: One show we played, I can't remember if it was as a five-piece or a two-piece, but we were in a little bar, of course, and there was a group of travellers around a pool table and they were beating the shit out of each other with pool cues, belting each other round the head. I was in conversation with this very drunk lady who was probably in her 60s and she told me to speak quietly because I'd wake the cat. I said 'What cat?' To which she opened her leopard-skin handbag, and inside it was the cat! I think it was in Tipperary - it was a wild bar. Those moments, they stay with me. And that was the realisation of something people in London were only hoping for. And it was actually happening there. A kind of disassociation – normal life was going on but there was this other stuff too.

CC: Yeah, I mean looking back it was a place in torment, really. I blame a lot of things on the civil war. It was never really settled, and Ireland is a country where people just don't accept the idea of pulling together and weighing in behind civil authority too much. Even now, although it's expressed in more mainstream terms.

What about religious authority?

CC: Well that was really just a stand-in for the colonials. It was the new colonial authority, that's all it was. We weren't trusted to look after ourselves, so a babysitter had to be sent in in good time for 1921 and it was the fucking Romans, basically.

Resentment seems to be the emotion the comes across most frequently in those early songs, was that a driving force?

CC: There was a lot of sullenness, especially when the economy started going completely down the tubes, people seemed to be going through the motions, going through a consumer society that was blatantly on a burning foundation. So a lot of those lyrics anyway were jibing at that. There was a song we had that we never recorded called 'Weeds' that was... “Here we are, fully grown, gone as far as we will...” and the idea was basically that we were just detritus, really. A whole generation. But it wasn't in any sort of Pete Townsend way, it was a genuine sense of being lost in the world. It was sort of passive-aggressive.

SOH: But there's also this strange thing of the way you learn to play with arrangements and chords, you can learn to create a yearning from it. And that confused a lot of people. It probably played with their immediate emotions, so the immediate impact of the song would be mixed.

CC: I mean, the sonic side of it was alienating to all the people in the UK. A lot of the way things were in London at that particular time was particularly different.

So you went from a five-piece to a two-piece, but you had a violinist and a backing vocalist…

CC: That was only for one record ('Pink Skinned Man'), the violinist was with us for a few months.

SOH: But that was another thing – going from this mad punk-funk thing to the two-piece, it was very quick decisions, we never dithered over decisions.

CC: No, it was just like – the bass player stopped turning up, let’s start writing different material.

SOH: That ended literally overnight. And we did things like rent houses, we rented places overnight. It was possible in those days. Just rent a house, move in, put the gear in there.

CC: This went on for about six months, we rented one particular house on an estate on the edge of town, and the only use it ever got put to was when one or other of us used to sleep there if he was too pissed to go to his actual home. Otherwise it was just a rehearsal room. And then there was a flat after that until we let this punk band called Napalm Sunday stay there and they trashed the place.

SOH: But that was very important because by that point we’d dispensed with just about everybody in the band and we had this two-piece. We’d moved onto this very strange way of writing music, which was based around a string machine and a guitar, which even now I can’t fathom. And we had this very strict regime of writing, where Cathal would manage to get out of college and I’d finish work, and we’d meet at the flat in the evenings. I think I gave up work eventually and said ‘This is what I’m going to do’. But it was very strict, we wrote religiously pretty much every day and that’s how the first records (particularly Everybody Is Fantastic) got written.

CC: Well, it got written in two stages as I recall it, there was writing we did in Cork… we put a couple of singles out on Kabuki, the first one did ok in an indie way and the second one did really well, it got on Peel. He played 'Helicopter Of The Holy Ghost' a little bit but ‘Pink Skinned Man’ was the one he really played. And we thought it was Christmas. We came to London, and proceeded to rewrite all of our songs in the space of about three weeks.

The move eventually paid off, with Rough Trade agreeing put out Everybody Is Fantastic, the group's perfectly imperfect debut. Some of Cathal's lines are equal to or better than anything from Morrissey at the time ("you hold hands and he tells you that you love him" or "when I'm lonely I do tricks for the barmaid", the latter borrowed for a poem by Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden.) The dramatic 'A Few Kisses' observes "And our fathers and our uncles/ran through town like fevered cattle/took the women in the doorways/No-one questioned ageless law" - the crumbling, cruel certainties are not mourned but they have left confusion and isolation in their wake. 'Dreaming Drains' measures the chasm between fantasy and the reality of social mobility. 'Dolly', the best-known song, is exceptionally sad and intricately pretty.

SOH: We were very excited to be recording, because we had this period when we arrived in England – we literally just came, hadn't thought twice about it, just bought the tickets and off we go. It was like a kind of medieval departure or a nursery rhyme, you know sticks with fabric tied at the end! And then there was this period when the full reality of actually – when people say nice things to you on the telephone it doesn't mean they're actually going to do them, which is what we believed, that it was all going to just happen like that!

We had this daily routine, we'd just go down to the telephone box with a fistful of 10ps and badger people every single day from various record companies. Eventually we booked a little rehearsal studio in Walworth Road which was completely alien to us. We went to this strange place every day called the Elephant and Castle which was completely peculiar! The album was really rehearsed for two weeks and then we went into the studio. I really enjoyed those few weeks when we made that record, because it was almost like the promise had been fulfilled. And (producer) Steve Parker was great because he was this very trusting guy. I mean, he did make me record all of my guitar on a Walkman...

CC: One of Steve Parker's great selling points to us was that he'd been the tape-op on The Walker Brothers' Night Flights.

How far are you reconciled to the sound of Everybody...?

CC: For the sound, speaking for myself, not that much. For the songs, yes there is some sort of naïve thing, there is the yearning about them and things that just stick in my head.

SOH: Some great moments. We'd taken this strange music with space from Ireland, but then we discovered that you can actually fill the space up reasonably intelligently. 'Dreaming Drains', which we wrote very close to recording – we'd been listening to a lot of country music, and we thought, "How can we put this on the record?" And we kind of did, that was definitely the idea, even though we weren't stupid enough to try to record a country song.

So how did Rough Trade happen?

CC: Well Geoff Travis was a partner in the label we recorded it for, which just about paid the bills for the studio we recorded it in eventually, and then they didn't want to put it out, and he had made a statement along the way that if that label didn't do it then Rough Trade would, so we held him to it. Or rather Sean did, because I'd forgotten that he said it! Which was kind of lucky. But we had a lot of friends in the warehouse at Rough Trade.

SOH: It's wonderful thinking back to it, because there was a group of people who were really supportive of what we were doing, and it was the first time we met people who said, "There's something significant happening here", because up until then we'd had zero response in Ireland. When we stopped doing the mad stuff and started to the melodic stuff, we basically alienated a lot of people.

CC: It was really hard to keep going after we did the initial recording. It was just this long winter. We did a little more recording, with John Porter, but then there was more of nothing. And Rough Trade was ballooning in size because of The Smiths.

SOH: It was a time when Rough Trade was probably going to be a very important label, Geoff Travis's world was expanding so we didn't have a lot to do with him, but looking back we expected things and, in fairness to a lot of people, we managed to get them. I think it was Geoff's idea to put out ...South African Bastards as well. And that was music that was recorded in a cottage in the west of Ireland. So the order of things was quite strange – Everybody Is Fantastic was this quite well-recorded record, the next release was this incredibly oddly recorded one, and I think that probably led to a sense of disjointedness, it certainly confused us... and the other thing that happened at that time was that we were touring Europe for the first time. We'd play one-off gigs in Holland and Belgium, and then we'd be sent to Poland.

CC: Being sent to Poland was one of the milestones of our career, it was really weird! It was strange mixture of places, sort of arty, oak-panelled little halls full of bohemian-looking people and the next day we'd be playing some L-shaped room full of woman and children and army conscripts, with two PA systems and a sound engineer who looked like David Thomas out of Pere Ubu. Of course we had the rhythm section by then.

Who you'd met in London?

SOH: Yes, John Fell and Tom Fenner. Tom was somebody who befriended us very early, he sought us out, didn't he?

CC: Yes, because of the Peel sessions, which were a constant, and that alone gave us an audience that sustained us financially. Not in any great style...

SOH: That was very important to us, that sense of stability, so then we were up and ready to go. But we were doing these really odd gigs. And then we'd find ourselves on tour with Everything But The Girl, and that was a real mismatch.

CC: It was one of the many things that people found hard to process. I mean, Ben [Watt] and Tracey [Thorn] were very nice people, but we were just out of control.

In terms of lifestyle?

CC: Lifestyle, drinking all night, shit like that. Absolutely no eye on the ball whatsoever. I mean, in terms of getting on stage and doing it – that would be the extent of any game-plan really.

SOH: But outside of being on stage and the rehearsal room it was a slightly psychotic existence. A squat existence to a certain extent. And that affected us all individually in our own ways but we didn't know it at the time.

CC: I was keeping this dump of a flat going so we could rehearse there. That was in Kensal Rise but Sean was in this squat in Rotherhithe, which at that time was like the Dawn Of The Dead basically.

SOH: So London for us then was slightly apocalyptic because there was always some kind of chemicals hangover.

Did you feel like you'd come into an even stranger situation, compared to those experiences you'd had in Ireland.

SOH: They were gentle experiences, and we were in control of them. London was a very different place to what we have now, it was literally grey. I spent a lot of time by the river.

CC: And there were undercurrents of violence, a lot more than you'd come across now. Different kind of violence.

SOH: And the beginnings of the things that are now known and established like Creation Records, and those little sub-labels, they all took place in very odd places in a slightly fraught, apocalyptic moment. There was always an edge of anxiety, but maybe that was because of how we were.

CC: Well the IRA campaigns were still going on, there was the miner's strike, the secret state in general.

So it wasn't just personal anxiety.

CC: There was a lot of personal anxiety, definitely... but also kind of being here under false pretences. Sometimes if you got stopped on the way home by the cops, they'd tell you things like, "As far as I'm concerned, you're in this country illegally." Stop and search was something you kind of got accustomed to. And walking large distances at night.

SOH: You'd literally walk from Stoke Newington to Kensal Rise or back over the river. But then there were other things happening, it was the beginning of warehouse culture, which eventually became rave culture. But this was 1984, it was starting up at Kings Cross then. And we were always there, we'd find these places. Again, night-time was very important to us, we were up all night, looking for activities. So we were probably tired, worn-out, anxious young people. And we went to Poland in that state.

Which was another layer of removal from whatever security you might have had...

CC: It was more like going back to playing in Ireland, except it felt more dangerous because it was officially under martial law, although in various situations we were in people were definitely taking the piss out of the police. And the business aspect of it was completely illegal and unofficial. And we went straight from there to Italy to being on some fucking TV show in Rome, which didn't yet have the stripping housewives but it was really on that level. It was very glitzy, what the hell we were doing there I don't know. We were playing the Communist party circuit, because you either did the Mafia circuit or the Communist party circuit, and the Communist party circuit was run by this guy who was a retired child-genius, child grandmaster of chess, who just sat in the van with us all day reading Corriere Dello Sport, ignoring any piss-taking that was going on around him. The whole thing was just some massive scam.

SOH: I had a very bad time. It's all a bit of a blur for me... but we survived that, and we came back and made The Clock Comes Down The Stairs, but before we did that we went into a strange studio called Wave Studios in Hoxton Square.

CC: It became the Blue Note, I think it's the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen now.

SOH: And we did three songs for Rough Trade, we were going to do a 12”. 'Harmony Time' and 'Money For Trams'. And that was the beginning of The Clock Comes Down The Stairs, although we didn't know it at the time. I think what probably happened, thinking about it after 30 years, that the anxiety leading up to the European trip, experiencing it... I don't think we really enjoyed it, we all had utter crises... and suddenly when we got back to London it felt safe, didn't it? A moment of stability.

The later Virgin records have their advocates but The Clock Comes Down The Stairs is generally considered to be the band's finest hour. The structures were more linear though the songs could still turn on a dime, the production more muscular, there were pop songs liked 'Birthday Girl' that, in spite of the lyrical bleakness, threatened to be popular. Cathal was shifting with greater ease from surrealistic, LSD-inspired vignettes ('Horse Overboard') to critiques of mainstream UK life (“the English toy town's looking well/the William Blake fans sipping halves of ale”) and honing his acute observations of romantic breakdown. 'Begging Bowl' and particularly the rightly admired 'Are You Happy?' are vivid depictions of the way a dead relationship can still colour your every waking moment. 'Goodbye It's 1987' envisions an impending apocalypse, accompanied by some wonderfully tricksy arpeggios and soloing from Sean.

CC: All our money was gone. We were trying to build it back up again. We'd written this material that we thought would be more capable of having the shit beat out of it in a live context. And even though the record we made is still quite crafted, the dynamics were a bit easier to keep in your head.

So you were feeling comfortable back in London?

SOH: Well I was, Cathal probably wasn't. We had a lot of things to deal with, we had to deal with Nick.

CC: Yeah, our keyboard player really wasn't well and we had to let him go.

SOH: You had the flat still, just about.

CC: We were pretty skint and we didn't really know how to move forward. But we met Jamie Lane and it all fell into place.

SOH: Yes, Tom Fenner our bassist introduced us to Jamie Lane and that was nice because the one thing that we needed at that time was people who were slightly older than us who trusted in out collective abilities. Because there were always people who kind of liked what we did but no-one really understood it, nobody got it. Because our contemporaries at the time were people like the Mary Chain...

CC: We did suffer somewhat from the comparison...

The Jesus and Mary Chain were ultimately very retro.

CC: All music is an artifice of some kind. Even someone sitting in their kitchen, singing unaccompanied in Gweedore in 1958, there is an element of artifice there. It's just that some things show their workings more than others do, and sometimes that can be unnerving, sometimes that can be moving, sometimes it can be a unique experience. And the thing is, we'd already been through the thing early on of the three-note bass line and some drones across it, so we wanted more colour. And that was mostly a good thing.

SOH: Cathal played piano as a child and then stopped, but when he started playing the string machine and the organ and a bit of piano there was a little knowledge but not a lot of knowledge, so there was a lot of discovery and between us neither of us had any understanding of theory or the order of writing. But because we'd been listening to a lot of records there was an ambition harmonically. Every chord change was a slight challenge, I remember really well that we'd for a natural chord change and immediately second-guess it, sort of, "What happens if...?"

CC: There was a lot of pondering...

But on Clock you found a way of making that coherent.

SOH: That had come with time.

CC: We'd been through a lot of incarnations.

SOH: And we'd managed to play some of those songs live.The songs were rounded, because we were confident with Jamie, who was just his very relaxed guy, and we allowed stuff to be objectified.

CC: Well we hadn't really been produced before, that was the difference. He would ask us things like, "I think this is what you're trying to do here? Is that right?" and we'd say, "Yes", and he'd ask us, "So why are you trying to do all that as well?" A bit of natural weeding out, clarifying.

SOH: He was able to do things like reinforce what was happening harmonically without completely blowing it. It had a sense of depth.

Did you think "We're going to have a hit here?"

CC: Not really, we thought we were going to make headway, and by and large what we expected was what we got. The thing we couldn't get away from is that the way things worked in the UK certainly then, well everywhere really, was that you had commercial music over here and everything else over here and the twain didn't really meet unless it was with the assistance of an Antony Price suit and a production by Arif Mardin [a reference to Scritti Politti].

Did you feel you were making commercial music?

CC: We felt it was more accessible than most of the stuff around us. I don't think we felt it was going to get in the charts.

The next phase of the band's career saw them sign to Virgin for two more, even more polished, albums as the group tried to go electro, and Virgin wanted the band to be more like, well, The Band. Which seems a very odd thing to want from a group in the 80s. What's been gained and lost since then? Because at the time you were obviously chafing against something?

CC: I think the main thing that's been lost, and I'm not sure it's a great loss, is that demographic motor that was still propelling things along until acid house and maybe Britpop, which was a brick wall. That's gone. The momentum – I mean I don't want to make out the 60s were fantastic because it's always been a shit time to be making music – but whatever it was that happened with 'Heartbreak Hotel' and 'Strawberry Fields' or whatever, that's just not there any more. People are more inclined to be relaxed because they don't think that any of this is as important as people thought then.

How do you feel about that period of the group now?

SOH: We did things because we were clearly unfulfilled people in our worlds. I was in a working world, and even though I got on and operated in that world, played football and did my job, I was actually another person, and Cathal was as well when he was studying. And Microdisney allowed us to be the people we wanted to be and step out of our two strange little worlds and actually occupy the world we invented.

We were both living with our parents when we started doing this, with the dynamic of people in that kind of sheltered environment. And the thing was that when we went to London... everything was dealt with with a kind of uneasy humour. We were probably pretty un-confident, and quietly worried about what we were doing, in a pretty vulnerable situation. And they're the circumstances, it's the anxiety of people who really don't know what they're doing. But the actual collaboration was a sense of belonging and comfort.

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