Interview with Cathal Coughlan – Part 1

Interview with Cathal Coughlan – Part 1
– by Killian Laher

We spoke to Cathal Coughlan on the eve of the release of his latest solo album Songs of Co-Aklan. The album was released on March 26th. You can read our review here.

How is everything, are you still in lockdown mode in London?

Yep, pretty much so.  I’m dreading the unlocking cos that’s when you really can’t go out!  The people who don’t distance or wear masks are mugs, they don’t give a monkeys.  London is a funny mix.  Some parts of town are like any normal day any time.  Then you cross some kind of psycho-graphic border and all of a sudden it’s like a ghost town in the sunshine!  Extraordinary!

What was 2020 like for you?

Crazy. Fairly crazy.  I was lucky that we had done quite a lot of the recording.  Most of the stuff where I absolutely had to leave the house was done.  The rest of it was just about doable remotely.

There’s a common fallacy that everyone in music is able to just do it in their kitchen, but that’s not true of everybody.  It’s no indicator of musicianship or general inspiration.  It’s just the way the dominos fall.  Last year was like musical chairs… I’m blurring my metaphors but it was as if any readiness training you’ve ever done all of a sudden became relevant in ways you never thought it would.

Did it take you long to pull the album together?

Work started in earnest in September 2019.  I’d done a couple of live shows in Kilkenny at the Arts festival with the Grand Necropolitan quartet.  They’d gone pretty well but it was clear that for a variety of reasons it wasn’t going to be possible to do any more gigs for a while.  So I set to recording fairly seriously then.  The economies of scale became obvious.  By the time you got a drummer set up to record 2 tracks in the studio, you might as well do four… if they’re as good as Nick Allum who plays with me.  That was thinking.  You probably read me saying that I didn’t think I was going to do any more full length albums cos things seem to have shifted away from that.  But I’ve gone and done an album now, in fact, I’ve done two!

With Nick Allum and Aindrias O’Gruama (on one song) involved, are you considering a Fatima Mansions reunion?

It’s something I’d love to do some time, but the amount of work involved is mind-altering to contemplate.  I would never say never.  If it was just a couple of weeks I’d do it in a flash but everything seems complicated.  A lot of people are in different countries.  

You regrouped with Microdisney a couple of years ago…

Only in so far as that process was made so easy for us by the National Concert Hall.  You don’t get that kind of treatment twice in a lifetime!  It’s certainly foolish to go round expecting it and projecting accordingly.  It was a lovely experience.

What prompted it?

The passing of time… anniversaries… wanting to hang out with people while we still can.  Sean O’Hagan and I were doing quite a lot of work together anyway prior to this coming up, and we continue doing so.  It makes such a difference when you’re in regular contact with someone cos with the best will in the world… it’s vitally important you’re speaking the same language about stuff, especially when you’re talking about what songs you’re going to play and what the arrangements are going to be.  That was a really smooth process for us because we had the shorthand for 2017/18.  We weren’t trying to recover the shorthand of 1988 or 86 or 81.  And that makes an enormous difference.  We were lucky to get additional people to help us out with playing the arrangements in a way that we’d never played them live back in the day.  That just made the whole thing so much more pleasurable.  

The ironic thing is I’m not someone who would be terribly at ease if all I ever did was past repertoire, however that was framed.  I don’t flatter myself that there could be continuity of interest from the public if that were to become my trademark.  But to just be able to step into something in the way I stepped into theatre and multi-artist things that I’ve done was quite good.

Is it done now?

We very much took the view that it would be finite and there would be certain things we would definitely do if they came up.  We weren’t going to hang about waiting for… Tokyo, Los Angeles or something like that.

Did this lead into working on the new album?

I was kind of blessed with the sequence of things.  First of all there was that (the Microdisney reunion), and that wound up in February 2019.  A couple of months after that I did this project of Gustav Mahler songs arranged for jazz quartet and cello quartet organised by a cellist called Una Ni Chanainn.  We know each other since the early 80s.  She does these special projects and she got the budget to put this thing together.  So I found myself singing in German at the Sugar Club, which I don’t speak, but nevertheless, I’m good friends with someone who does who coached the rough edges off me.  That was in April, that was great.  August was the Kilkenny Arts Festival and September I did the Bertolt Brecht: Change The World thing at the National Concert Hall, which was a long, long interest of mine.

It was a series of things that set me up so my voice was in pretty good nick.  I’d really been thinking about the way that I sing, and the way you need to knock up arrangements fast if you want to get things done.  All of these ‘shorthandy’ things.  If you have to spin them up from nothing, it’s a lot harder than if you’ve been… ‘rolling’.

You mentioned you worked with Nick Allum, who else was involved on the new album?

James Woodrow and Audrey Riley who I’ve been playing with for years as the Grand Necropolitan Quartet… quintet… whichever circumstances allow!  That’s guitar and cello.  I knew it was going to be an electric bass record but there was no one person in the frame for that.  I was lucky to connect with several people for that.  So there’s Jon Fell from Microdisney, he’s terrific, Sean O’Hagan plays bass on one song, Luke Haines plays bass, synths, effects and guitars on a couple of them, Rhodri Marsden from Scritti Politti who played in the Microdisney reunion, he played bass on quite a bit of it.  The bass change accounts for a lot of variation.  Eileen Gogan sings on one song and Cory Gray from the Delines plays Wurlitzer piano on one song.  The drum recording and a good bit of the engineering was done by Frank Bing who I haven’t worked with before.  He’s played with a lot of people I like, Daniel O’Sullivan and others, terrific guy.  It’s a bit of a cast of thousands by my standards.

The Interview Continues in Part 2

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