Cathal Coughlan: ‘Microdisney ran its course. Let’s just leave it’
The songwriter on the end of the group, his solo work and Cork’s ‘human architecture’
Microdisney: “The shows exceeded our expectations, which were high enough to begin with,” says Cathal Coughlan, second from left
Where there is an end, there might also be a cautious beginning. Cathal Coughlan, the Cork man perhaps best known for being the vocalist and lyricist of Microdisney, is wrapping up the group, setting alight to the package and scattering the ashes on to waters that will transport them to the afterlife.
“There are a number of things that persistently matter to me,” says Coughlan of his next creative step, “and one is the art song. Whether it’s German theatre, Sinatra, Tin Pan Alley, Northern Soul or discordant, pernickety song composition from the late 20th century, those are the things I care about. A lot of what I’m doing is in that range. The challenge is: how do you do something noir that doesn’t allude? I don’t want to allude if I can help it.”
Now in his late 50s, with robust features, Coughlan has much more a measure of himself than he once had. He is the exact opposite of Joni Mitchell’s pronouncement as a songwriter to comfort more than disturb. He speaks slowly, cautiously. He has the manner of someone who has come through conflict intact yet is very much in charge because of it, and he has a knack for closing circles with precision.
He did the same with his post-Microdisney groups, Fatima Mansions and Bubonique, but this time last year he had to re-open the box that his first band had been sealed in for over 30 years. The reason was Microdisney being the first recipient of the IMRO/NCH Trailblazer Award, which celebrates culturally important albums (in this case, 1985’s The Clock Comes Down the Stairs) by iconic Irish musicians, songwriters and composers.
“I felt very humbled,” he says of the award being bestowed. In acceptance, he includes the other band members, particularly fellow Cork colleague Sean O’Hagan. “Obviously, Sean and I are more rooted in Ireland, and so it possibly meant something different, but everyone was blown away by it.”
The dust has settled
It shows how Ireland has changed, says Coughlan, who recalls that in the mid-1980s, the band could never have afforded to self-finance a journey from London to Dublin. “It would be unwise not to accept that there was a generational aspect to it, but it meant a hell of a lot to be given such an award by a major cultural institution.”
Was there a sense that Microdisney had either been completely forgotten about or were little more than a fond memory for a certain demographic of music fan? “The dust had settled for us,” says Coughlan with an unsentimental air of finality. “Any emotional stuff that we had from the ’80s had long ago drifted off into the ether; we knew we could play the material, and I knew that I could relate to a lot of the emotional aspects of it.”
He adds that if someone had informed him he had to perform tracks from Bubonique’s 1993 debut album, 20 Golden Showers (a knowingly scattershot collaboration with comedian Sean Hughes) then his response may have been different. It wasn’t difficult to revisit Microdisney, he says, because of his relationship with the events that influenced the songs – unlike Bubonique material, which, with a smile, he nimbly defines as “mercurial”.
If the Microdisney shows last June (two at the National Concert Hall, one of which was invite-only, one at London’s Barbican) proved anything, it was that their songs have stood the often perilous test of time.
Regarding talk of further Microdisney shows, Coughlan says: “There was an ellipsis more than a discussion. Other than we had all enjoyed it and that the shows exceeded our expectations – which were high enough to begin with – we all had other stuff going on, so it got a bit quiet.”
Cue a promoter’s offer, however, to play gigs in Dublin and Cork. “We just decided to do it, yet not the same as last year. The two shows, however, is really the extent of it.” Why such a definitive end? “Because in the context of being a songwriting and recording outfit, Microdisney ran its course. Yes, people appreciated it, and it made a big difference to my life, but let’s just leave it, for the most part.” He says the band can be revived, and that fun would certainly be had, “but that’s about the size of it”.
While he has been contributing to a forthcoming musical undertaking of Sean O’Hagan’s (“It’s his project, so I’d better say no more”), Coughlan commences his next solo outing in a few weeks’ time. He confirms he has numerous pieces of work in varying stages of completion, but because of specific ambiguities making the music industry such a delicate place to work in, he isn’t quite sure what to do with them. Making recordings, he reasons, is the best way he knows of putting down a marker for what he does as a songwriter and performer.
“What you actually do with the results in order to register the fact that they actually happened,” he laughs (so softly it’s almost to himself), “is a little bit of a mystery to me. I need to talk to a bunch of people to see what they think. You hear such wildly conflicting things. The cassette is back, teenagers are getting into CDs because they’ve now become retro, so you’re wondering how far up itself has culture actually gone?”
Credit to Cork
Microdisney’s final gig will take place where it all started in the late 1970s for him and O’Hagan: Cork.
“There’s an ironic symmetry there, and I feel pretty good about it,” he reflects. “I don’t feel I’ve ever given Cork enough credit for being the place I come from. In many ways it has shaped how I look at the world, ways that enabled me to think outside of Ireland, even though, yes, Ireland – Cork included – was a lot more parochial in those days. Cork was still the place with the second-hand bookshops where you could always get William Burroughs and Philip K Dick books, and exceptionally good second-hand record shops that you could treat as a library.”
If Cork had been “desperately parochial”, ponders Coughlan, all those things that fostered cultural thought wouldn’t have happened. There is also, as he has learned to term it, “the human architecture” of the city.
“I know people who have been there for the first time often complain they can’t see any grand buildings, but that’s because they’re looking in the wrong places – it’s all in the elegance and bizarreness of the expressions and thoughts that are being expressed. The fact that Cork didn’t have an infrastructure for making non-mainstream music in 1983 is neither here nor there.”
So here we are: the end of one of Ireland’s finest rock-pop bands, the continuation of one of Ireland’s most rigorous songwriters, “human architecture” as a valid expression of culture, and – it would be rude not to mention it – The Young Offenders.
“Oh, yes, it’s very funny, with particular turns of phrase and landscapes portrayed.” Cathal Coughlan takes a breath. “Watching it with someone who is not from Cork is very entertaining.”
Microdisney plays Vicar Street, Dublin, Monday, February 18th, and Cyprus Avenue, Cork, Tuesday, February 19th (sold out)
COUGHLAN ON THE NIGHTMARE OF TOURING
“I toured the US for a couple of months with Fatima Mansions, and the only adjective I can think of is ‘cumulative’. Those kinds of tours change you. The things you start off thinking will never happen to you, will happen – you lose your patience at stupid stuff when you’d be much better off pulling your neck in immediately. It isn’t good on your physical health, and you should not read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy during one of them. I know because I’ve done that, and it describes a kind of tour you don’t want yours to turn into, which it did in my case in small ways. It takes massive success to make it any different.”