Cathal Coughlan: 'I haven’t lived in Ireland for forty years, but I have that identity'

The Cork musician enjoyed his brief reunion with Microdisney, but has created a new persona for Song of Co-Aklan, his first solo album in ten years
Cathal Coughlan: 'I haven’t lived in Ireland for forty years, but I have that identity'

Cathal Coughlan.

Having bid farewell to a large part of his musical past in February of 2019 with the formal, final shows of Microdisney, singer Cathal Coughlan wouldn’t have been blamed for finding himself at a juncture of sorts.  While none of us could have quite anticipated what would be in store in the months and years that followed, the current moment seems ideal for Coughlan to cast a cold eye on affairs of the world. 

New album Song of Co-Aklan does just that, seeing Coughlan emerge from a decade of traumatic and informing experiences with a wider frame of reference.

“I had to slow things down a bit. The big nothing that happened over [previous solo album from 2010] Rancho Tetrahedron, which I slaved over, made me think that maybe I was out of step with the times," he says via Zoom from his home in London. 

That non-reaction may have been a letdown for Coughlan, but he was thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive welcome when he briefly returned with Microdisney. Two years later, his old bandmate Sean O'Hagan is even among the collaborators on the new album.

And despite the temporary diversion of the band he made his name in, Coughlan had kept writing, and had gathered plenty material for his solo record.

“The first thing I was interested in was the heart of melancholy at Tin Pan Alley, which really gripped me for a few years. Frankie Valli’s Motown stuff, The Four Tops. I got into the Brecht songbook again, which was a recurring thing in my consciousness, since I was a teenager.  

“I could see some of the things that happened in traditional music, like Lankum, Ye Vagabonds, Landless and Lisa O’Neill. Sometimes the things you’re interested in aren’t things you can do well. Right to the very end, it was there, but some things got pushed aside to fit the twelve-song thing that I was doing.” 

To the end of assembling that body of work, Coughlan has assumed the persona of ‘Co-Aklan’, a singular protagonist whose sober, side-eyeing observations of the current moment are informed by history, shifting geopolitics, and a wide frame of literary and cultural reference.

Getting into that persona has allowed Coughlan to detach himself from matters somewhat, and examine his own perspective on the present.

“It’s a lot to do with the firmament that emerged from the collapse of an economic and social model. I’m not interested in post-truth, or any of that anachronistic stuff, but it didn’t come out of a vacuum. And with the rise of proto-tyrannies, we’re seeing how empty the Greco-Roman-style rebranding of things was.  

“The idea with Co-Aklan was a form of self-abnegation and abandonment of self from that. Not in an ironic way - unless you’re a billionaire, we are where we are, in the absent-minded crosshairs of the algorithm. It’s not invested in us, it doesn’t want anything from us, but the dataset matters.” 

Now in his late 50s, the former post-punk hero says he's still proud of his Cork roots.

“I haven’t lived in Ireland for forty years, but I have that identity, and I’m proud of it. But I’ve only been self-named in recent times because I couldn’t think of anything else, so I thought, what if I was a bit more courageous about this situation?” 

Song of Co-aklan is due out on March 12, and current circumstances have inevitably affected it.

While restrictions have necessitated a significant amount of remote work with a wide range of collaborators, the record is the end result of months of a relatively new way of getting things done. The live scene may be dead for now, but it hasn't all been bad news.

“Through all the things the pandemic has wrought, we can’t go out and play gigs, but there’s been an exponential growth in outlets talking about music. I’ve been doing that quite a bit, but in the making of the record, I think that people are a lot more tolerant of musicians seizing means of production,” says Coughlan.

“We did an awful lot of work remotely. There’s one man on the record that we’ve never even met. It was much easier to make a ‘confected’ album, a pop-type production, from our bedrooms. That’s just the way we have to do things, but it’s been a shot in the arm. If it was physically-bound, and travel-bound, I don’t know if this thing would have been made.

“On the promotion end, there’s a core about five people doing stuff every single day, and in 2010, that never would have happened. I’m not a fan of the gig economy and what it’s done, but we’re in it.” 

Cathal Coughlan and the cover of Song of Co-Aklan.
Cathal Coughlan and the cover of Song of Co-Aklan.

The album releases on vinyl and in various digital formats via Dimple Discs, a relatively new label based in London with deep connections to Irish music history. But in the decade since Rancho Tetrahedron, the very model of music has changed utterly.

Song of Co-Aklan, then, happens at the current stage of this ongoing tumult, and Coughlan has taken note of changing habits, not least on the internet.

“The big trend I see is that we’ve moved from a creative web, to a consumer web. The way it turned out, not everybody was able to have a server under their beds running Linux, to tend to their need to interact with their creative partners, or their audience. Into the breach stepped the inevitable titans of northern California.

“There’s something particularly insidious about people [in that world], that have breezed through life. What have you actually seen of the world, matey? You can make an app scale up so it can serve five million people, and you can get people’s copyrights off them without paying. But what is it that you actually know about?” 

While the new album is very much preoccupied with the current moment, and trying to get a grip on the popular mood and feeling, Coughlan already has another big project in the pipeline.

“What’s next is the Teilifís a hAon album I’ve made with [legendary Irish producer]Jacknife Lee, which will start coming out towards the summer. It’s influenced by the imagery of Ireland in the early 1960s, which we know is absurd. It’s quite different to Song of Co-Aklan.” In the meantime, he says he'd love to do some live shows with the new album.

“As to how we do that, I haven’t the vaguest idea. When we did Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2019, I thought we had some vague idea of the future, but I don’t pretend to have that anymore.” 

  • Song of Co-Aklan releases in digital and physical formats on March 12 via Dimple Discs

A Question of Taste 

Reading: “It is a little bit research-y. I’ve been reading a book called Limonov by a French non-fiction writer called Emmanuel Carrere. He’s turned up as a character in the new Adam Curtis series, and I’m quite interested on the basis of the geopolitical situation we’re in, especially how Russia was allowed to disintegrate and go feral in the Nineties, and he’s a creature of that time, a libertarian that became a fascist.” 

Watching: “I would say that the new Adam Curtis series [Can’t Get You Out of My Head:An Emotional History of the Modern World, on BBC] is up to his standard. It meanders early on, but that’s because he’s doing the things that he likes to do, playing with images and contrast. It makes you think in ways you’re not made to think by other media, and I wholeheartedly applaud making a fine art out of reportage.”

Listening: “There’s an ad-hoc group called Loma, somewhere in the northeastern US that have a bit of that youthful eclecticism I’m seeing now. There’s a British band I like called Jockstrap, who are really pretty strange. And closer to my own age group, James Yorkston has put out a great album recently, The Wide, Wide River.”

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