Meet: Cathal Coughlan, ahead of his new solo album ‘Songs Of Co-Aklan’

Picture credit: Gregory Dunn/Stoneybutter

Cathal Coughlan’s music permeates my record collection. I remember my first discovery – his early band Microdisney’s ‘Singers Hampstead Home’, (on glorious 12”) on one of those teenage record shop days where you literally couldn’t leave the building without spending every last penny of whatever part time job/pocket money paid for such things (in my case, selling Lottery tickets for Leicester City), and I snaffled it from the cheap records bin at the oft mentioned (in my articles) and much missed Left Legged Pineapple in Loughborough. Upon hearing it (apart from thinking it was criminal such a record should have been in the cheap records bin) I came to believe that it was one of the greatest pop records ever made, with it’s brilliant indie pop meets beach boys sound and the prodding wit and insight of the lyrics.

By the time I’d moved on to leaving home to study, Cathal had also moved on – forming The Fatima Mansions, discovered by the likes of me through Peel and Melody Maker, and so early releases like Blues For Ceausescu and Only Losers Take The Bus were soon joined on the shelves by albums Against Nature, Viva Dead Ponies and others, and after their demise some of Cathal’s solo records were added to the throng.

So excitement is building for the forthcoming new album ‘Songs Of Co-Aklan’, out on 26th March via Dimple Discs, and the singles – The brilliant title track, with it’s glowing indie pop and wilfully melodic nature, contrasted with follow up Owl In The Parlour, an altogether darker affair but equally brilliant, only served to fuel the flames here at Backseat Mafia towers.

We were lucky enough to to speak to Cathal ahead of the release and find out a little built more.

Hi Cathal – hope you’re well in these strange times? Where abouts are you?

I’m currently in a small town in Staffordshire. Managed to hole up here before the latest lockdown began. We’ve been lucky to escape infection, but the aggro in London was getting a bit much. 

You’re gearing up to the release of Song of Co-Aklan – you’re sixth solo record. How would you place it amongst your albums – the outsider record, the diverse record? Something else?

This is quite a diverse album. Probably the most accessible one I’ve made for a good few years.

The tracks seem to jump around a bit in terms of style – is that how you wanted it, or just how things turned out. Was it difficult to put the tracks in some sort of order for the record? Same with the singles – Song of Co-Aklan being a rather joyous thing, with Owl in the Parlour a denser, darker affair – did you plan it that way?

I wanted Song Of Co-Aklan to be difficult to classify, because I think I (and all the other unofficial musicians) have earned the right to pretty much do what I want – especially after the last few records I made, which were fairly streamlined in terms of sound and style. Also, I wanted every track to stand out as much as possible – like a Best Of, with no old songs.

Sequencing it was quite difficult, and because I had a fixed idea of how I wanted it to start and finish, the only effective way of doing it was to start intense, get more intense and then shift downwards towards the end. The singles were more of a means of reaching people. There wasn’t a grand plan there. 

It’s your first solo record in a decade – was this just the right time? Or did lockdown play a part in it? We’ve spoken to a lot of creative people who just had that extra time to devote to something?

The only thing lockdown did was to complicate the record’s completion, because work started in autumn 2019, before the full joys descended. I wouldn’t have traded everything that’s been lost and wrecked, but the slight silver lining was that the situation forced me to find ways of overdubbing (remotely) and completing the mixes (myself) which wouldn’t have been my usual methods, but which worked out pretty well, I think.

The timing overall was just down to the fact that I spent the 2010’s thinking I wouldn’t stick my neck out into the apparent void unless I had work which couldn’t be heard by any other means, such as by finding a live context which would do it justice. By 2019, I had such work, and various events in my personal life meant that recording was the only way through.

Lyrically, it seems to take some cues from the present circumstances and some from the past? What were the overriding themes you were writing when making the record?

Matters of identity were upmost in my mind when writing the lyrics – personally and in wider society. Personally, I’m at an age where a person does have to question who it is they’ve become as the years have seemed to pass by in an accelerated way, and have done so with minimal trace. I’m thinking of social standing, nationality and what these things mean for a sense of belonging – what makes us use the word ‘we’, in everyday life – if anything?

In societies around the world, populations appear to be deadlocked and convulsed by matters of identity – in many cases, this is because the economic incentives which might persuade them to view the future with confidence dried up some decades ago, and now they’re looking for groups unlike themselves to punish.

So we’ve got the song ‘Song Of Co-Aklan’, which is a fever dream of migration and tyrannies old and new (taking the piss out of some things I’ve done in the past, along the way). ‘Owl In The Parlour’ toasts the absurdity of imagining that a few consumer goods can act as a buffer against the sadness and irrelevance which await us all. ‘Unrealtime’ is me looking across the River Shannon trying to remember who I am, why I’m there, and WTF is going to become of me.  ‘Falling Out North Street’ is the way it feels to clear out detritus after a life has ended, and realise that you neither understand the life nor its ending, though you try to respect and show gratitude anyway. Agitprop it ain’t, I do sincerely hope.

There’s quite a few guests on the record, some of which you’ve brought in from some of your former bands – was it important for you to work with people you knew? What was it you knew they would bring to the record? Was there any new collaborators on the record, and how was it working with them?

Following the pleasure of the Microdisney shows in 2018/19, I knew I wanted to have a convivial experience making this record, because really, the pressure-cooker processes of my 20’s and 30’s have no appeal to me at this stage (the solo part of the mixing process felt like it, but couldn’t be helped). I knew there would need to be a lot of bass guitar, for the first time on my records in a long time, which meant engaging people who play bass guitar in various good ways, whom I’m fortunate to know.

The ‘newest’ people on there are Eileen Gogan, a tremendous singer and songwriter from Dublin who sang on the Microdisney shows, and Rhodri Marsden (of Scritti Politti, Lost Crowns, and vastly more) on bass and bassoon. Both were a lot of fun to work with, even when working remotely. 

Do you have any plans around the record, difficult to say at this time I know, but to take it out around the country or anything? Ideally…..

I definitely want to do this by some means, but it currently looks as though every venue which emerges solvent from this pandemic will be caned for several years. I think we may all have to realise that gigs will happen in strange places from now on, like they used to do more often in the past. Certain political ‘developments’ at present make one wonder whether this will be ‘permitted’, though.

So, Singer’s Hampstead Home proved to be just a beginning to a continuing story, one we’re very happy to follow here at Backseat Mafia. Go out and buy the record next week and discover one of the great independent songwriters of the last 30 years. And, just in case there was any doubt, I STILL think Singer’s Hampstead Home is one of the greatest pop records ever made.

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