The former Microdisney and Fatima Mansions frontman, back with a new album, explains why he's not bothered that he never made the transition from indie darling to mainstream mega-stardom, and talks about his experience of being Irish in England
Cathal Coughlan is not one to sugar-coat his words. “I had been dead-set against doing another full album,” he says, “it can be a bit of a one-way street.”
He is talking about the hours of craft and the money spent on recording, and all for a labour of love to join several million other albums on the streaming platforms. Each play of said album brings the artist a minute fraction of a single cent. You have to be streamed a gargantuan amount to make a living from streaming alone.
It has been 11 years since the native of east Cork last put an album into the world. For a musician once considered prolific, that’s an eternity.
In 2010, when Rancho Tetrahedron came out — to a largely indifferent public, despite excellent reviews — Spotify was still in nappies. Several of the other streaming services had yet to be created. Now, in the smartphone age, the idea of buying a physical album can feel positively antiquated.
“I’m viewing the streaming platforms as a promotional vehicle,” he says, speaking by Zoom from his London home. “You hope that people will discover your music that way and will support you and actually go out and buy the album. Some people still do that.
“That’s one way of looking at streaming, but as someone pointed out to me, quite rightly, you wouldn’t ask a plumber to come around and fix your water works on the basis that it was going to be good exposure for them.”
His new album, Song of Co-Aklan, will certainly appeal to those for whom the name Cathal Coughlan is synonymous with compelling, uncompromising music.
As frontman of Microdisney and The Fatima Mansions, Coughlan has already left an indelible mark on Irish music, and his new album — largely completed before the pandemic struck — is a worthy addition to a rich back catalogue.
It features former bandmate Sean O’Hagan — another revered Leeside export — as well as members of adored indie bands Scritti Politti and the Auteurs.
Coughlan says it is informed both by the personal and the political, and there are songs that confront the all-pervasive way technology has taken over our lives. Hitler and Bitcoin both get name-checked on one of the album’s standouts, Owl in the Parlour.
The album title serves as both an introduction to an alter-ego Coughlan has created — Co-Aklan — and to the way his name is constantly mispronounced in the UK.
Both first and surname have been mangled in the 40-odd years he has lived there; back in 1987, when Microdisney were at their peak, Coughlan was having fun with the phenomenon: “She’s trying to pronounce my name,” he sang on Town to Town.
That song is among the best Irish singles ever and should have helped move Coughlan and Microdisney from beloved indie stardom and muso adoration to the mainstream. The veteran producer Mickie Most — celebrated for his pop alchemy in the 1960s — was moved at the time to describe it as “one of the best singles of the past 15 years”.
Coughlan and O’Hagan formed Microdisney in Cork in 1980. After some early success in their homeland, they moved to London in ’83 and were soon feted by such luminaries as the late BBC DJ and tastemaker John Peel.
Their 1985 album, The Clock Comes Down the Stairs, is generally regarded as a masterpiece and offered an unflinching snapshot of ‘Loadsamoney’ culture in Thatcher’s Britain.
“There are some echoes of that Britain with the post-Brexit UK of today,” he says. “You had a lot of the same sort of nationalism and a classism too.”
And yet, while 1980s England could be a tough place for the Irish emigrant, Coughlan says he never experienced discrimination.
“Maybe it was because of the circles I moved in. It was very much multi-cultural London, none of the Little Englandisms you’d get elsewhere. But I was lucky.”
While Microdisney were enjoying much love from the critics, their keenly observed songs — caustic and knowing — failed to spark a fire with the general public. And after a run of fine albums and a spot of record company trouble, the band fizzled out.
Coughlan was undeterred and his next band, The Fatima Mansions — named after the improvised social housing estate in Dublin — demonstrated what a unique songwriter he was.
For a while it looked as though a mass-market breakthrough would happen, especially when U2 picked them for support dates on the European leg of the ZooTV tour.
“It’s a completely different thing,” Coughlan says of the scale of those shows. “U2 had been playing stadiums for years up to that point.”
He was glad to have experienced concerts of that size, even if those who had come to see U2 weren’t always receptive, but says he doesn’t long for his bands to have been that big. It’s hard to imagine many of his songs translating to the likes of Croke Park.
Despite releasing the classic Viva Dead Ponies album in 1990, the Fatima Mansions ultimately fared no better than Microdisney. Today, there’s no trace of the Mansions’ music on any of the streaming sites.
“I’m hoping it will happen, but it’s up to the record company,” he says, “and none of the people we would have worked with then are still there. I suppose [putting the band’s albums online] is a long way down their list of priorities.”
Like most musicians, Coughlan says he greatly misses live performance. “We (he and his band, the Grand Necropolitan Quartet) got to play some of the songs on the new album in Kilkenny in 2019 and we hope we can get out there and play them whenever a sort of normality returns.”
There have been occasions during lockdown when Coughlan thinks back on the shows a reformed Microdisney played at Dublin’s National Concert Hall and London’s Barbican in 2018. Both were rapturously received, although he felt anxious in the weeks leading up to them.
“It felt really onerous, all that expectation. We were building up after all that time and knowing that some people were travelling a long way to see the shows. Every little problem that came up was magnified — it was, ‘Oh Jesus!’”
At one point, he was nervous that he was going to lose his voice — he had experienced vocal trouble in the mid-1990s — but it proved to be a false alarm.
By the time of those special Microdisney shows, he had already begun work on Song of Co-Aklan. It was always going to be a solo project, he says. Lately, he has rediscovered the joys of collaboration.
He spent much of last year working on an album with the producer Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee, the LA-based Dubliner famed for his work with U2, R.E.M. and Snow Patrol.
“To be simplistic about it, it’s synth-pop,” he quips. “Or, another way of looking at it is that it’s completely different to anything else I’ve done.”
Despite the transatlantic gap, the pair worked well remotely. They’re calling the project Telefis — in deference to their Irish childhood TV viewing habits. The album, Telefís a hAon, will test the pronunciation skills of fans outside this country.
Already, both Coughlan and Lee are working on another album. And, yes, Coughlan confirms it will be called Telefís a Dó.
“My sense of Irishness has never left me,” he says. And nor has his accent — there isn’t a hint of London in his Cork brogue.
“I’ve been over here for 40 years but I get back an awful lot — or at least I did before all this [Covid] happened. There was always that comfort that I could leave here and be back in four hours or so. And, once this is over, that comfort will be there again.”
Song of Co-Aklan is released on March 26