Keep Music Evil?: Cathal Coughlan Interviewed

From 1980 through to the mid-90s, Cathal Coughlan was the driving force behind Microdisney and Fatima Mansions, two brilliant, if overlooked, bands. Now he's presenting an alternative version of British history with Luke Haines and Andrew Mueller as North Sea Scrolls. Colm McAuliffe met up with him to cast an eye over his career

At some point in the late 1970s, Cathal Coughlan embarked on a medical career at university, in the vain hope of emulating his then-icon, R.D. Laing. Over thirty years later, Coughlan has come full circle, releasing an album with Luke Haines and Andrew Mueller under the North Sea Scrolls moniker, which takes aim at the Scottish psychiatrist, whose methods Coughlan now denounce as "deeply, deeply flawed". While Haines is hailed as the bête noire of the Britpop era, Coughlan’s own career in the interim, fronting Microdisney and latterly, the Fatima Mansions, seems consigned to history, the man perhaps best remembered for an act of self-violation involving a Virgin Mary shampoo holder while on stage in Italy – arguably the only sane response when one finds oneself in the absurd situation of supporting U2 on one of their stadium jaunts.

Yet Microdisney and the Mansions amassed a body of work which is still staggering in terms of its sheer bloody-minded delivery. The former released four studio albums of rapidly increasing lyrical ferocity amid the backdrop of Sean O’Hagan’s exquisitely crafted melodies, while the latter, a standalone vehicle for Coughlan’s barbed muse, favoured a frenzied assault on the senses, which could take the form of industrial metal just as easily as self-styled "porno trip-hop". The link was always Coughlan’s honey-throated croon which snapped into howling indignation at a moment’s notice. The personal and the political battled for prominence – whiskey-soaked laments such as ‘Begging Bowl’ from Microdisney’s The Clock Comes Down The Stairs were followed by savage critiques of the hellish realities of not just Thatcher’s regime but political upheavals across Europe, perhaps reaching an apotheosis with ‘Blues For Ceausescu’, a six-minute Mansions aural denouement of British, Irish and Romanian political complacencies, both comic and brutal in equal measure.

"They say adapt, but some time back I think I snapped" sang Coughlan on the Fatima Mansions’ ‘Brunceling’s Song’. But did this bloody-mindedness ultimately serve to sever his ties with the music industry? Since the Mansions ceased to perform in the mid-nineties, Coughlan has existed on the extreme periphery of popular music consumption, partly, as I learned, because he simply had no other choice after a combination of poor business decisions and questionable personal approaches seem to have put paid to his visibility on the public stage.

I caught up with Coughlan on a chilly evening on London’s Southbank to look back at his career in its entirety. Charming and urbane in person, he certainly remains rather guarded about certain issues yet is also remarkably erudite – transcribing was made easy due to his impeccable rhetoric, still delivered in a rich Cork city accent. And despite having left his native Ireland some thirty years ago, Coughlan clearly has never been able to leave the place alone – his position as a cipher for tumultuous Anglo-Irish relations now tempered by a certain regret over past myopic tendencies and an acknowledgement that things could be an awful lot worse.

Yourself and Sean O’Hagan played together as Microdisney recently – was this the precursor to a revival?

Cathal Coughlan: Well I think we’re all too burned out in terms of what bands do in that regard to follow any predictable pathway but it was good fun to do a little thing. I would never say never to doing something again but it’s fairly hectic at the moment. Myself and Sean have always kept in touch.

In terms of your career, it seems that most everything is deleted bar a modicum of Microdisney’s output. This must be galling…

CC: Well, Microdisney’s stuff doesn’t belong to ‘Crock of Shit Inc.’! We’re at liberty to do what we please. All the Rough Trade stuff is actually about to be re-released, obviously the last two albums do belong to ‘Crock of Shit Inc.’ [1987’s Crooked Mile and 1988’s 39 Minutes were released on Virgin] but there’s not much we can do about it. The reissues are coming out on Cherry Red, which is ironic in many ways, because we came to London to sign to them originally.

Microdisney’s debut album, Everybody Is Fantastic, does sound very much of its time. Can you actually listen to this album? I certainly can’t.

CC: [laughs] No! I have a lot of regrets about the way we went about that, particularly in how we recorded it. We could have overcome the writing idiosyncrasies and maybe the delivery but there were some decisions around drum machines which I’m largely responsible for. But the lyric-writing became a bit more interesting after this.

What prompted the shift in lyric focus?

CC: I was giving it more time and life was becoming more inspiring – not necessarily pleasant. But inspiring, yes. It was a very interesting time and it’s difficult to relate to that these days. Economically, things are nearly as fucked now as they were then and the segmentation of society is taken care of, it’s isolating a lot of the confrontations. Whereas in 1983, 1984, you had to be deaf, dumb and blind in order to be unaware of that stuff. I suppose the backstory is that I really didn’t know just how confrontational it was in Britain in the seventies because they were lucky things weren’t worse than Thatcher. There could have been a military takeover quite easily.

Was the indignation you felt at the time exacerbated by your position as an Irish immigrant?

CC: The way you were dealt with then is a lot different to the way it is today. There were a lot of contexts in which you could open your mouth and you were essentially the then-equivalent of a Jihadi. I have to be reasonably even-handed about this, but this was coming at the tail end of roughly forty years of Irish guys, my age, coming over here and planting bombs. It didn’t begin in 1969, 1972 or 1974, there was a back history there. And neither am I blind to the reasons for this, but the context was just so completely different – so we have everything to thank Graham Norton for! Graham fixed everything for us. Who better equipped to be a peacemaker than Graham Norton!

Absolutely! Microdisney hit their stride with 1985’s The Clock Comes Down The Stairs, did you have an inkling that you were recording something of merit at the time?

CC: To an extent. We felt we were doing something of substance with the album. We didn’t have the same misgivings. We felt supported, we were able to go out and play around Britain. We were really lucky to meet [producer] Jamie Lane who organised us – there’s no way we could ever repay him. He was the saviour. Working with him gave us a lot of confidence and, on balance, I’m sorry we didn’t do the following record with him. He came back to produce our last album which was very much a survival album. Nobody felt we were gonna knock the world on its ass with the record, although it wasn’t without a certain amount of mirth – the backing vocalists we used were Londonbeat, one of whom turned to me during recording in outrage asking "did you write these lyrics?" But with hindsight, I would have done things differently. I felt under attack and again, with my traditional tunnel vision I couldn’t see that I was gonna be alive in five years time. People were unbelievably snotty about us leaving Rough Trade for Virgin – not people at Rough Trade, I hasten to add – but people thought we were living in pampered oblivion, smoking opium in Maida Vale instead of living three people to a two bedroom flat. I don’t think about it too much because I don’t want to get bitter. But we were scraping along, it was precarious. We had to do some sort of deal, the debts were just too much, to the Inland Revenue, the VAT man, and you don’t get to fucking walk away from that. But, lyrically, the mood was to push it as far in the other direction as possible.

How did the end for Microdisney come about?

CC: We were dropped by Virgin before we broke up. It ended in a way that I have abiding regrets about because I was, frankly, out of control. It didn’t come out of the blue, there was one final gig and it was fucking terrible. It was all my doing. And it really, really didn’t have to be that way. I feel fortunate that myself and Sean have a good relationship now. Something probably could’ve been salvaged but sometimes you feel like you’ve pushed the envelope too far, you just gotta carry on in the same direction. But it was a bad time.

You took the name ‘Fatima Mansions’ from a notoriously rundown Dublin housing estate.

CC: Yeah, I’ve got mixed feelings about that. I just thought if you stuck ‘the’ in front of anything, you’d have the name of a group. So it couldn’t be ‘St. Teresa’s Gardens’ but I always thought the Fatima Mansions was a pretty funny name. The first time I heard of Our Lady of Fatima was through disabled people going to Fatima to be cured. In the village I grew up, elderly women would go there to cure their condition – it was like a cheaper Lourdes. Later on, Microdisney used to stay near the actual housing estate itself when playing Dublin and the smell of rotten meat there was horrible – the butcher shops around Fatima Mansions used to sell really overdue meat, offcuts of meat, and nearby you had Cork Street which had the worst lead content in the entire world outside of Rio. But when the Fatima Mansions band formed, I was living in Turnpike Lane – an interface area between gentrification and crack – and it coalesced in my head. I still was in Ireland in my mind, and part of me always will be, except obviously it’s thirty years removed from any reality. Years later, you’d be getting cabs in Dublin and the driver really would be from Fatima Mansions and people living there were just trying to scrape by on the fringes of horrible stuff that was none of their fault; I felt like I had poked a bit of fun but nobody took issue. In America, they try to sell you on the back of [an underprivileged background] and that felt wrong, wrong, wrong because, at the end of the day, my background is what it is – it was not underprivileged. It was what it was for the Ireland of the day; none of us had BlackBerries, but by the standards of the time, it was not so bad.

Considering the financial issues Microdisney faced, was it difficult getting the Mansions together?

CC: Getting money and studio time were the difficulties – we were just scraping things together. In fact, it was worse than the Microdisney days in a lot of ways – I did completely run out of money at one point which put a sell-by date on the Mansions and fucked us in the end, completely. We ended up having to sign with [MCA offshoot] Radioactive Records which wasn’t a disaster at the start but was a case of mistaken identity. They signed us on the back of Viva Dead Ponies and our live show. If we could have made the live thing pan out a bit better – i.e. pay for itself a little more – things would have been different.

Valhalla Avenue, despite being your most commercially successful album, remains a frighteningly dark and intense piece of work.

CC: It was a really bad fucking time. It was recorded over a really long period in gaps between tours but the final stages and the final few songs I wrote for it were the grimmest of the whole lot. Everything had just collapsed. But not the band.

On a personal level?

CC: Yeah. I was living on people’s floors and not in the most fabulous state of mind. Completing the last couple of sessions for that was drastic and even the day of the mastering was hideous: I was alternating between the box room in some studio and this counselling place on Harley Street. On St. Patrick’s Day! Not nice.

Had your lifestyle taken a turn for the worse?

CC: I was still drinking, although it was more like the occasional binge which is the worst possible way to approach it. If you’re doing something, you have to do it properly. But sometime after that, I decided I wouldn’t drink for a month, which has turned into 18, 19 years.

The Mansions last album, Lost In The Former West, was another survival album, produced by Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison. How did you get on with him?

CC: The album was done in the blink of an eye with Jerry because he only had a small amount of time. I remember him with… friendly amusement. I’m reading David Byrne’s book at the moment and it’s funny, a lot of the things these guys were into were the same things I was into, but somehow with Jerry it was refracted through something else. Jerry was the musical organiser, he played guitar on one song and also played a synth solo, which I distorted the shit out of even though it wasn’t what he wanted. But I had got myself very organised, there was a lot of happiness in my life [Coughlan got married about this time] and I was very methodical, working for hours every day. But because of the business crap, Jerry bore the brunt of stuff he had nothing to do with, which put some strain in there. He did do a great job with the raw material I was able to offer. We toured the album across America, with Weezer and Live a couple of times but they were both going stratospheric and we weren’t. I had hoped I could keep the Mansions going but it wasn’t to be.

At this point, your then-record label Radioactive Records essentially barred you from releasing any music again for almost the remainder of the 1990s. Is this the ultimate corporate response to non-conformism?

CC: Well, I’m not the only person it’s happened to but it kyboshed my life in other ways – the time you lose never comes back. You never again are the same age you were then. Some things don’t happen because of that. I do feel as if I was treated cynically and there are some people I never wish to encounter who were involved in that but, essentially, the bald details are that they will never be able to do anything with the catalogue. I was prevented from getting on with stuff and certain irrevocable changes happen in a vacuum like that. I kept on writing songs for three to five years with no outlet.

How did you release yourself from their grasp?

CC: The Musicians’ Union helped me out, Kitchenware Records helped me out. I also adapted a vandalistic approach to certain aspects of the situation, I submitted highly unsuitable material to the label to fulfil my remaining commitments. And eventually papers were signed that let me go. So Cooking Vinyl were willing to do a record with me [Black River Falls] and again, I feel I didn’t use the opportunity very well. I could’ve done the same record without getting myself into so much trouble! I had a lot of great people on the record, [XTC’s] Dave Gregory and it’s where I met [cellist and string arranger] Audrey Riley. But I was out of touch with things, the music business was in flux, I had no idea what was cheap and what was expensive. A lot of people resented me and thought I couldn’t sing. My life was also in flux but not in a traumatic way. So I decided I wasn’t going to do things that way again and I did the next record myself and that turned out good as well, but it wasn’t life changing; it didn’t make things any easier for me to make music. So now I can only make things every three or four years.

The North Sea Scrolls must be a relief to be part of considering your previous trials…

CC: It’s just three or four people, we turn up and do it. There’s a mutual respect and a shared sense of humour. Nobody’s trying to do more than just maintain a flow of songwriting.

Photograph courtesy of Al Overdrive

Will anything else come of the North Sea Scrolls after the album and concerts?

CC: I hope so, I really do, because it’s been good fun. The one thing about it is – heaven help us if we ever have to do it in front of a non-English speaking audience – which is one idea of Hell that I have – and the other thing idea of Hell is playing it to an English-speaking audience outside the UK and Ireland. Because it cannot translate – even doing it in Ireland is stretching it in some aspects. So, that’s a challenge. How can that be made to work? And we could possibly adapt some different musical approaches.

Have you any further solo ventures on the horizon?

CC: Not for definite, there’s a couple of things floating around. I might do a song cycle – I’ve got some ideas that go back to Ireland in the late 1980s, when things were beginning to open up a bit economically but the culture still had to be tongue-in-cheek, the irony could not be completely lost in the way that it was in the 1990s and early 2000s. Everything for me will always go back to 1978 to about 1992 in Ireland. To me, that’s my secret garden. Let’s face it, it doesn’t exist in any way, shape or form and there was a ditch five hundred feet between that and anything that happened afterwards in the same place. And for me, that’s where it’s at!

Despite this, it must have been incredibly galling to be essentially ostracised from releasing your own music over the last fifteen years or so. How did you survive in the interim?

CC: I started having to sustain my living by doing other work. Sometimes it’s theatre in France, sometimes it’s just routine stuff that isn’t music. It just makes things hard. But not as hard as things would be if I couldn’t do music at all. And not as hard as life is for fuckloads of other people. I didn’t fucking blow out my liver, I didn’t completely blow out my life, there are still some people who like to hear what I do, so it’s a fortunate position in more ways than I can count. I could be sequestered in the countryside somewhere with the royalties from a Christmas Number One that could sustain me through life – yet I might still be unable to write songs. So I just get on with things. And I’m lucky to be still able to do it.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today