Name: Cathal Coughlan
Occupation: Songwriter, vocalist
Current release: Cathal Coughlan's Song of Co-Aklan is out now on Dimple Discs.
Recommendations: I recommend the excellent and moving personal essay collection Constellations, by Sinéad Gleeson, and the boisterous, devil-may-care song Sweet and Dandy by Toots & The Maytals.
If you enjoyed this interview with Cathal Coughlan, visit his personal website for all the information about him you could ever desire.
For further reading, check out our in-depth Sean O'Hagan interview with his former partner in Microdisney.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Godawful bedroom cassette ‘experiments’ apart, I started taking part in the writing of music in the early part of 1980. At that time, I was very much under the influence of the year-zero dictum which proceeded onwards from punk, so the palette was quite narrow – a continuum roughly from The Fall via the Mekons to Wire, with just the few guilty pleasures outside of it.
I’d already had quite a broad musical self-education courtesy of my hometown’s disproportionately eclectic second-hand shops and bargain bins, and some mail-order of strange cut-out cassettes from the US – literally anything from The Seeds and the Stooges to Miles Davis and Carla Bley. The radio was a limited teacher there in those days, but we craned aerials to catch John Peel and the late-period Radio Caroline after dark when the weather was right. There was an Irish-language show on the national station which played Henry Cow sometimes.
If I’m brutally honest, I think I probably saw popular music as an easy route to cultural mobility, wherein a person with my then-fitful attention span and limited tolerance for the ‘wider picture’ of learning could live a creative life. That was the goal, not riches and fame. That latter aspect was fortunate. But the overall intention, utterly, utterly misguided. But it got me started.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Well, we who sought a way into music through the new rickety side entrance at that time all aspired to total originality – let’s all play fretless guitars! Smash the verse/chorus tyranny! Obviously, you need a freakishly good idea if that’s going to work when your skills are limited (as proven by Suicide, Mekons, Virgin Prunes and a few others).
The early version of Microdisney had those intentions, but I think in spite of ourselves we were basing our idea of “originality” on others’ approaches – Pere Ubu, the Pop Group, A Certain Ratio, in those days.
The adverse circumstances for keeping a live band together in a country with a crashing economy in the early 1980’s meant that the original band shrank to a 2-piece and that’s when Sean O’Hagan and myself really began to learn the nuts and bolts.
Coming to the UK and gigging quite a bit here and on the Continent sharpened things up further. Perceived rejection does help, as long as it isn’t the entire universal response.
I’ll spare the reader a complete blow-by-blow. I’d summarise thus: my progress has been fitful, as numerous acts of self-sabotage led to periods of prioritising economic survival over any progress at all. I think I write a better song now than I did in 1989, and can arrange it pretty well, given time (I think), but many people who’d care to peruse the whole thing would probably say my/our peak was before that. This I can live with, but I respectfully disagree.
I take better care of my voice, and have managed to extend my note-range and hopefully its emotional scope.
But someone, somewhere who literally started last week may always do it better. ‘Pop’ music may not be so popular anymore, but that one fact hasn’t altered one bit. That’s why it’s worth remaining interested.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I’m sure I’d be a much different creature if I had managed to settle in one place and establish myself as part of a community. I often regret this. But the ongoing lack of geographic allegiance and sense of being established is a huge part of my work.
I think that’s been a big assistance during the tribalism of the last 5 years. I feel free to heap derision on things which are not so easily derided if one sits, stewed in unavoidable complicity, on the opposing bench of the same edifice.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My persistent weakness has been to regard existing physical circumstances as being the immutable governor of the creative output – that can be the work space, the overall way of living, or the technology. My challenge is putting that stuff aside and focusing on the work which I _can_ make, and not let resentments from all this micro-detail seep into what I do. Explosions are good, but creeping inertia not so much. It hasn’t changed much over the years, I’m afraid, but the work has adapted.
For example, I have a cast-iron rule that no song is acceptable unless it can stand to be performed, to some decent level, with one or two instruments and (usually) a voice.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My first instrument was the much-mistreated upright piano in my parents’ house, which first served as a tool for practicing between lessons, and later, when I began having the delusions I referred to above, for roughly working out Neil Young songs and trying to develop original ideas.
But then, for around 5 years, I was mainly just the singer in a band, and what writing of music I did involved plugging keyboards which didn’t sound great as solo instruments into amps and other devices which threatened to blow up if they reached the point of being audible at all.
Some time further on, 4-track cassette recording became more affordable, and at least those recorders provided a kind of preamp which allowed keyboards to be made audible on some kind of home stereo. Then, along came samplers and cheap sound modules, and then the Atari 1040ST, so a tacky, shrill orchestra could be animated in the home.
In fairness, though, that’s when I began being able to think about arrangements, and there are certain elements in that (such as working with nylon-string guitar, cello and double bass, which might not have seemed attainable if I hadn’t spent time on my own with Akai S900 sounds which roughly approximated the sound.
I suppose the main motivator throughout was the ability to work on ideas slowly, without the need to have others present throughout the whole process, because as far back as the 1990’s, I was no longer existing in the kinds of situations where there was the freedom to hang about in rehearsal rooms for days, hoping things would fall together.
And so it continued into the time-sink & mindfuck of the present day, where the only thing seeming more over-contended than the podcast industry if that of music software. Now, more than ever, music can be designed such that the whole process can happen on headphones in a small space, with no need to take it elsewhere. If that’s what one wants to do. I can’t work very effectively like that, for too much of the time. But the results are a lot better than they were.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Only in reverse. The utilisation of electric guitars in the 1990’s – from the flatlining Mesa Boogie distortion heard in so much music that came after Nirvana’s success, to the many hideous spectacles & pageants of Britpop – made me want to have as little truck with loud guitars as possible. With time, I’ve revised my view. A great proportion of the noise elements on my Song Of Co-Aklan album originally come from distorted electric guitars.
I’m trying to become a bit more au fait with modular synthesis, as I think that might open up some new horizons for me, if I can relinquish some control over pitch, harmony and some other things. There’s something innately punky and disgraceful about a nice fat, non-melodious synth sound.