What does punk mean to you Cathal?
'For me, punk was buying the first Clash album and 'Pet Sounds' on the
And there you have it. The polarised progenitors, the implausible prospectus,
the impractical purpose- and the problem with Microdisney. Not my problem,
you understand. Hell no, after 1983's 'Dolly' snagged my heart on its
honeyed hook, it was a short stagger to the tuneful if monochrome 'Everybody
A subsequent mini LP unequivocally titled 'We Hate You South African Bastards'
laid claim to documenting the band's (Irish) West Coast beginnings and
saw us through until this year's sublime 'Loftholdingswood'- a Sprout
of burnished brilliance in the contemporary teeming wasteland. And now
'The Clock Comes Down The Stairs', rightly judged by reviewer Jim Shelley
as a serious contender for album of the year.
So where's the problem? W-e-l-l, not everyone appreciates what Cathal
Coughlan and his songwriting partner Sean O'Hagan (the same!) (joke!!)
are trying to do. Which is: bring together the largely forgotten and sadly
forlorn legacy of the Beach Boys, America, Van Dyke Parks, Steely Dan
et al to bear on Coughlan's funny but unflinching view of this
country's current malaise.
A tall order, and one that constant tinkering, playing toilet gigs, and
making under-financed recordings, has still to get firing on all cylinders.
But still a task that might have been made a little easier if a strain
of critically invalided hacks hadn't swapped objectivity (read sensitivity)
for armour-piercing adjectives and contemptuously denounced these poor
pluckers as self grat-gorging hippies, a hopeless irrelevance amidst the
brandishings and blandishments of our more 'right on' knights of the turntable.
Besides, just what can you find to say about a band who've a good word
for Andrew Gold (haven't we all!)? Try this: 'Microdisney are a third
rate R.E.M., who are a third rate Doors, who were a third rate band to
begin with.' (live review, A.N. Other music paper). Including the last
qualitative judgement, that's a whopping three brain-death declarations.
'We've no idea who wrote that but it was a gig we did in Birmingham, and
if we ever go up there and find the guy who wrote it we're going to kick
his fucking teeth in.' For a moment Sean O'Hagan's eyes flare brighter
than his flame-coloured hair. Clearly, the opposition's press treatment
is worthy of far fruitier emotions than despair. But I put it to the two
of them that they have committed the ultimate sex crime in the libidinous
eyes of rock'n'roll by finding, if not a currency (yet), then an unfathomable
emotional depth in Easy Listening.
The Bryonic Coughlan, baseball-glove hands cupped and lain on his over-stuffed
jeans, demurs then concedes.
'We consciously chose to deal in an area that is totally at the whim of
personal taste, and when you work in the way we do you must be ready to
accept that people can dismiss you out of hand for simply confusing them.
'And that's what's happened, but given our personalities we are completely
unable to change.'
Sean: 'We're very, very conscious of what we do. Every step we've taken
we've taken consciously, and some of them have been daft moves that other
bands would not have survived. What I'm trying to say is, we could- if
we didn't watch out- end up sounding very ordinary. And that's... well
not the challenge but the excitement for us. Taking it as near
as possible to that area without blowing it completely.
Which would be fine if 'that area' (close enough at times to muzak to
set a cred-hopper's nerves a-jangling) didn't prove, on occasions, to
be downright inefficient. It's easy for me to play devil's advocate. Although
still reeling from a glorious 'secret' gig upstairs at Chalk Farm's Enterprise
pub, I also recall less happy live outings, when Cathal's barely-contained
anger (drink-fuelled sure, but not induced) trampled the silken tethers
lovingly spun by the others (Sean's spidery, countryish guitar lines;
Tom Fenner's hearty, metronomic beat and Jonathan Fell's proprietous bass)
to rampage directionless and destructive.
Once, despairing if the music's ability to keep up with his stream-of-Carlsberg
delivery, Coughlan took to smashing the metal microphone into his forehead,
not stopping until blood blinded him. Surely if the tunes can't keep pace,
they're outta place?
Cathal: 'It's getting easier from my point of view. The gig you're referring
to, when I caved my scull in with the microphone, was at a time when most
of the songs we were doing still came from the first album, which was
extremely inefficient at conveying the sort of nastiness a situation as
unpleasant as that evening (a London University gig sponsored by Nat West)
'But as far as the incident with the microphone is concerned, I'd have
done that anyway, whatever the backing. It's just that a trash/hardcore
backing, which I suppose is the alternative, would only suit one in a
million occasions, like that one. Besides, what we did back in Ireland,
three or four years ago, was just like that, a continuous screaming sound
from start to finish. And that was very unsatisfactory because it didn't
involve people in what you were trying to do at all, they were just forced
to stand there and watch this thing trundle past. The audiences we played
to then weren't especially distant but they were, as a collective body,
Cathal Coughlan was born 25 years ago in a small village six miles outside
Cork, a walk he occasionally endures today to avoid the 'exorbitant taxi
fares'. When he was eight he remembers the gentry 'invading' his village,
bringing the new suburban values that found him later embarking on an
ill-starred medical training. It was at a fellow student's party that
he met Sean O'Hagan, a year older and recently moved to Cork from Dunstable.
'I was the most obnoxious person there,' says Cathal, but this didn't
stop the pair talking at length about music and resolving to write some
songs of their own.
Sean:' We met up next day in his kitchen, me with a guitar and him with
his keyboard. I'd made a conscious decision to forget everything I'd learnt
from listening to folk music, Steely Dan, stuff like that. So we came
up with this tuneless, rhythmic thrash over which Cathal would rant his
reams and reams of... whatever it was.'
Cathal: 'It started off as sort of cabaret punk with another guy singing
along with me, if you can call it singing. That lasted a couple of gigs,
then Sean and I started to get really rational and stopped working with
people who were treating it like a hobby.'
Sean: 'We rented this tiny, damp flat in the centre of Cork and we'd meet
there every day with a guitar and keyboard and just write thousands and
thousands of tunes. We'd do that eight hours a day, five days a week,
a really weird, intense way of working that showed up in the songs.'
A single 'Helicopter Of The Holy Ghost' was released on a friend's Kabuki
label, followed by 'Pink Skinned Man', which earned the John Peel seal
of approval. Encouraged, they relocated to London and began recording
an album for the newly-formed Blanco Y Negro label. They finished making
'Everybody Is Fantastic' in September 1983 only to find themselves transferred
to the newly streamlined Rough Trade.
It's where they've stayed, swapping old tapes for new instruments (hence
'South African Bastards') and earning the distinction of being the only
current RT band never to have supported the Smiths ('they hate us!' spits
Cathal with a grin).
Does it suit them?
Sean: 'We don't know. We've no idea how we'd fare on another label, but
we do know that the present lack of money is frustrating our plans.'
Cathal: 'From now on each of our LPs is going to deal with a sentence.
This one ('The Clock') was basically about the awareness with death thing.
It's like, the only fundamental truth m-a-n, is that we're going to die
and that's mirrored in everything we do, everything's a race against time.
Hence the clock coming down the stairs.'
Though hampered by a recording schedule that dictated the guitars and
keyboards be laid down before the bass and drums, resulting in a frustrating
lack of 'feel', the new LP tackles head on some of the stylistic and methodological
pratfalls that branded 'Fantastic' bland, a loaded criticism when used
to prove that the musically meek must equate with the lyrically limpid.
Sean: 'I think we've kicked that idea on 'Clock', as far as the reviewers
are concerned. Most have said we touch on easy listening but we're not
really. They've examined more closely what it is we're actually doing
and recognised that there is something going on beyond the initial music
But can a musical diet as rich as 'Genius' or the peerless 'Are You happy
Now?' still leave room for the savoury delights of Coughlan's ruddy-faced
poetry plotting the lives of a dozen beergut bohemians? For Microdisney
the argument, the distinction, does not exist; it's the dull barking of
preconceived ideas dating - we decide - from Year Zero- 1977.
More ruthless than Pol Pot, more effective than Agent Orange, the steel
shutters fell on the past, allowing only a few chinks of light to penetrate
from B.C (Before Credibility)- Dylan's mean spiritedness for instance,
and Reed's mean streets.
'We don't write stuff just to annoy people,' says Sean, 'everything we
play we like. But it will be very stylised and 'mature'
because of who we are, what we like. There's nothing to 'gain' from a
particular approach, it's just an approach, so why the hell can't you
have a certain lyrical content against a certain style of music?'
Because it leads to misunderstanding and you're the ones who get misunderstood.
'Sure, I had this arsehole coming up to me in a pub and slag me off for
calling our album 'We Hate You South African Bastards', because he didn't
think our music was 'political'! And that's exactly the same attitude
as deciding what is stylistically acceptable and despising everything
'It's sort of conservatism that doesn't serve any purpose. There's no
rule saying a certain emotion or opinion can only be set to a certain
style of music. The whole point about this thing, the reason why we're-
and I hope a few others- are in it, is because we want to make our own
sound anyway we like. It's like what Brian Wilson was trying to do on
a song like 'smile'.
Microdisney take encouragement from people like Kate Bush - 'she's made
some extremely profound records' - Paddy Sprout and Don Henley's 'Boys
Of Summer'. On the great 'Just Like Honey/'Never Understand' debate they
come down - surprisingly - on the side of squall. They wear a sign, 'generalisations
not welcome here'.
If you still doubt their import, then accept that, like the Sprouts, they're
not good because of what they do but in spite of it. They
resist Bleddyn's (the photographer) temptation to brand them subversives.
Cathal: 'That's quite an academic thing, don't you think? To set out to
do such a thing is not very much in itself. The idea is to make very good
records with an awful lot in them, something with a bit of substance.
And this just happens to be the way in which we've attempted to do it.'