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Cathal Coughlan

Co-Aklan - what's in a name? (10 questions...)

By • Mar 17th, 2021 • Category: Feature

Ten years is a long time in music, so the re-emergence of former Microdisney and Fatima Mansions vocalist and founder Cathal Coughlan may be something of a second coming.

However, with an album, ‘Song of Co-Aklan’, due out on March 26th (via Dimple Discs, the label set up by Undertone Damian O’Neill), it seems that, at least from the evidence of its first three singles, Coughlan is back and truly on top form. Long-time fan Betty Mayonnaise wanted to know more…

So the Co-Aklan album – sell it to us, plug it, what’s good about it and why should we listen?

It’s a tight collection of memorable songs, covering a range of styles, some of them visited earlier in my ‘career’, others not. Some possibly poignant (up to the listener), some quite brutal. The cover will wake you up, too.

Why “Co-Aklan”?  What’s in the name?  And in normal times, would there be a promotional tour?  And after Covid, any plans?

A lot of the songs on the album are concerned with identities, and what happens when they’re threatened, overtaken and invalidated by events – or were entirely bogus in the first place. I, as someone who has lived away from the culture he was born into for most of his life, was happy enough to be essentially stateless and living in avoidance of the term ‘we’ in everyday conversation, until things started getting nasty circa 2015. Soon after that, this auto-generated term “Co-Aklan” landed in my lap, and looking at that, looking at my actual heritage, and looking at where the world is going, I thought I’d climb aboard the faceless re-brand train.

In normal times, yes, I’d want to play these songs live, in whatever configuration the circumstances allowed. Currently, they allow nothing. I hope things will change while these ideas are still fairly recent, but despite the vaccines, the future looks as weird and confrontational as the recent past, even if hopefully not as deadly.

Going further back, to the 80s, you were in the band Microdisney.  What or who is “Loftsholdingswood” (Microdisney song title)?  Always imagined it as some fictional part of North London but have never come across the name anywhere…

That came about when a bunch of us were tripping on some quite serious acid, wandering around the Cricklewood Broadway area in London in the middle of the night – boring but hairy. Someone may have suggested heading deeper into suburbia, because the ‘cool’ bars were shut. I think it was around then that I jotted down “Look into Loftholdingswood”. Very amusingly (and with my blessing), it later became the name of a fictional stately home in work by the author DJ Taylor.

Unfortunately BM only saw your next incarnation, in the 90s, Fatima Mansions once (King Tut’s in Glasgow if memory serves) and (this is not a criticism) the gig had a fairly testosterone-heavy atmosphere and was 90% male in attendance.  Do you think you may have alienated female fans in this stage of your career, and was that a conscious move?

First off, there was nothing conscious, premediated or even welcome about the phenomenon you mention, and it wasn’t always quite that radical an imbalance, but it was fairly consistent at some level.

I think the style of the thing did alienate many potential female audience members – any melodic content was pretty well buried by our live presentation ‘style’, and then there was the rather unsightly demeanour of the vocalist. We did choose a kind of ‘endurance test’ approach to the playing live, more in hope than in expectation. Experience shows that this has less appeal to women.

Things have changed a lot in the intervening decades, and not alone does that apply to the solo shows, but it was very much apparent at the Microdisney reunion shows a couple of years back.

Fatima Mansions had a no 7 single, the double A-side charity single along with Manic Street Preachers.  How did you feel about that?

Amused, to a point. It was hard not to feel bad for the Manics, who I consider to be a good band, and in fact if I remember rightly, this was their long-awaited entry into the top 10, despite the considerable success they’d had to that point. The most amusing thing was the way Top Of The Pops either wouldn’t read our name out at all, or (and I think this might have been on a Mike Read night, if anyone remembers him), they read & captioned it as ‘Fatima M’. Not a bad track, really, if a bit long.

Have you ever ventured into the realm of the written word, ie tried writing prose?

I’ve tried ever since I was a kid. Nothing has hit the spot just yet. I’m not against the idea, but it needs to be right, and the music-memoir thing has been done far better by others than I could do, for example the person you’re about to mention…

Luke Haines features on the new album – how did you come into each others’ orbit and what is he like to work with?

We were introduced by Andrew Mueller, who had known each of us individually for a long time. I was already a big admirer of Luke’s work, which of course I remain. He’s a lot of fun to work with, always utterly determined to get things right, but quite relaxed while he does it. That’s a special blend. When he came up with his first songs for the North Sea Scrolls, which included I Am Falconetti, it was quite a nervous but inspiring moment – could I come up with anything as intense, strange and funny as that?

I think you have gone on record as saying the “Bubonique” experience is best forgotten in the mists of time – would you prefer it that way, and what do you remember of it?

I remember a lot of giggling and cranking up of noise. I also remember Paul Jarvis, who was and remains a good friend, standing over me until I perfected every aspect of the chord structure to Summer The First Time. It began as a downtime project, which grew and grew until it had its own calendar, which with hindsight was a bit much. I regret not doing something just a tad more serious musically with Paul, because he’s a very bright guy, and with Rob Allum on hand, our vocal and instrumental palette could have broad without being that ludicrous. The pranks were fun.

What advice would you have given to your younger self about the music business and whether it might lead to happiness?

Cripes, which incarnation of the music business are we talking about, and is it the business or the making of the music? I think the paramount thing is to never, ever let the business take over, no matter how skint you are, or how many crappy decisions you’re having to live with. The work comes first, always, and it must not be halted for anything but love and death. Happiness? Not sure – most of my close relationships, including my marriage, have come about as the result of situations in some way related to the music. Without those, there would be no happiness at all. I don’t really consider possible other lives, at this stage.

Can you tell us anything about the (other) forthcoming album with Jacknife Lee?

We’re a synth-pop duo called Telefís (“tele-feesh”), drawing inspiration from lo-fi post-punk electronics, the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II and the discreet monochrome paganism alluded to in the production design of early-1960’s Irish TV (hence the name). We struggle with the Irish language and indeed the entire legacy, from Danny La Rue to the tenured sophisticates. We are oblivious to the island’s destiny as a tech-hub hostel. Catchy tunes, and nothing sounds like Co-Aklan. One song concerns Shen Yun.

Album ‘Songs of Co-Aklan’ is available to pre-order now, on digital or CD / Vinyl (UK/Ireland) / USA).

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