'Disney Times?' by Helen FitzGerald, Melody Maker Dec 1985.
A NEON-lit greasy cafe in downtown Kilburn. As the locals avidly pore over newly-bought copies of the Connaught Tribune and Leinster Leader, absently flicking roll-up ash into their egg and chips, a more recent Irish exile sits before me, a solid thick-set figure, a singer and writer, and a man of deep compassion.
lyrics rub salt into the kind of wounds that leave scars on a psyche for
a lifetime, his sarcasm penetrates the boundaries of acceptable behaviour
and pare responses down to basic instinct. Rural and city values are exposed,
compared and equally reviled. The claustrophobias of family, religion,
politics, business, friendships, situations and self are rigorously shaken
like an old terrier may worry the life out of a rat.
Only the black leather jacket distinguishes him from the nicotine and grit soiled Paddies, the whiskey and porter brigade who'll spend their days indebted to the turf accountants, their nights in alehouses lamenting the day they ever left the Auld Sod. Cathal is less of a hypocrite. He knows exactly what it is he's renounced in leaving home (a small village six miles out of Cork, a parochial wilderness for a man of ambition) and he knows the penalties too.
Microdisney prescribe a medication that closes old wounds and opens new ones. They can never settle because to be stationary is to accept, and blind acceptance is something Cathal would never consider. He's replete now though, this big boned awkwardness of a man, and ready to help interpret his own compulsions.
"I suppose there is an intrinsic Irishness to what we do", he muses, speaking softly in the misty accent of his homeland, a world away from the contorted, introverted aggressions of Cathal on stage. "Musically the Irishness is not so relevant, lyrically I suppose it is. I'm writing from experience but these things we experience are fairly universal, injustices and oppressions of one kind or another. People from all sorts of backgrounds have the same things in store for them really. Yes, I have the mark of my background on me but it doesn't occupy my conscious mind".
Now that Microdisney have at long last received some (but not nearly enough) of the applause they deserve (the new album "The Clock Comes Down The Stairs" is a masterpiece, deftly blending their light-footed careering melodies and side-on chord structures with Cathal's stream of consciousness observations and pithy, poignant philosophies) their impoverished days of cap-in-hand misery are coming to a close.
Cathal and Seen have run the gauntlet of derision from an industry that wouldn't know a genius if he had a halo, the wimpy Prefab Sprout and Everything But The Girl comparisons, the rejection from record companies too cloistered in the fads and fashions of the day to invest in two surly, brutish and arrogant Irish lads. It wouldn't be worth their trouble. But along the way some have believed and are not forgotten.
"We don't forget turns, good or bad," Cathal mutters darkly into a coffee cup. "There are people, and they know who they are, who'll get it back the same and more some day."
TWO MISFITS (A DIM AND DISTANT PAST)
CORK. A place where statues of the Blessed Virgin move to mass hallucination, the Angelus chimes, rosary beads ore clutched in moral defence, parochial gossip thrives and the locals march to the beat of an age-old agrarian cycle. A place where characters are allowed, eccentrics tolerated but where misfits find no comfort.
Cathal studied medicine "until I discovered drugs which made a severe impact on my dedication". Literature and music became escapist friends. Cathal found solace in Kerouac and Patti Smith "My father hated the music I played. When I dropped out of college he knew I'd never get a proper job. We have little left to talk about."
grew in Luton, son of first generation immigrants in an Irish Catholic
neighbourhood, left school at 15 and after series of factory jobs and
a stint bumming round Europe took himself to Cork when his parents moved
back there. They met at a party, talked about music and the next day met
in a kitchen where, as Sean recalls , "I made thrashing noises with
a guitar and Cathal ranted his poetry over the top.
Cathal "There were about four months in the autumn of '83 when neither of us picked up an instrument once - we just devoted ourselves to an extremely recreational though impoverished way of life."
But more Peel sessions fanned an interest in this unusual duo's songs and they had to get themselves out and playing live -either that or throw in the towel. Through '84 they worked intensively rehearsing, playing live and writing and, as Sean recalls dourly, "even though we spent '84 trailing round toilet venues and going cap-in-hand to record labels we did a lot of Peel sessions and began to perfect the live thing."
Cathal: "Playing live at that stage we tended to overemphasise our indulgences, which we paid dearly for afterwards because reviews and interviews would latch on to the, er, alcohol aspect, and being constantly told we were fey, inconsequential rubbish really stung at that point."
The next big move was the release of "We Hate You South African Bastards" which, though it found a healthy rating in the indie charts, was not really a progressive step, being a compilation of older material.
Sean grimly explains. "We put it out basically to make money - we went to Rough Trade and said if we gave them the compilation would they give us enough money to buy some instruments? They agreed and that was that. As for the title, we both felt strongly about the whole apartheid issue and that's that"
the cogs were grinding very slowly. "Loftholdingswood" was recorded
in the most dire conditions, again to a strictly limited budget, the band
toured Europe on a shoestring to return "depressed, pissed off and
Sean: "We are definitely going to go further into MOR, Musically I'm taken by artists like Don Henley and Kate Bush, I want to formulate a process where you can write a likeable melody within a challenging structure ... I'm talking about the way chords and melodies fit together, I want to write a song that will fit perfectly into FM programming in Mid-West America.
A six-month break "spent starving (again), staying in, getting bullshit answers from people when we asked them for money and getting on each other's nerves" led to a rising anger with the limitations of the "alternative" music scene. a consolidation of their musical direction and the recording of "The Clock Comes Down The Stairs" a fine collection of songs that at last perfectly demonstrates their idiosyncratic ambition to fuse their eccentric " easy listening" charm with a lyricism that bites deep.
This is not pop. neither is it branded with its independent connections. Whether Microdisney can elevate themselves beyond the simplistic moralities of definition or the blinkered considerations of commerce is debatable, because they must rely on patronage from somewhere. Just where songs like "Humane" with its stream of consciousness asides and swaggering resentment, or the biting inevitability of "Birthday Girl" (have we all just come to seek damnation?) fit within the schemes of financial investment is uncertain, but have no doubts that Microdisney given the reins, would achieve all they promise and more, Two runaways with a spit and a promise they are not.
Sean: "The alternative scene is daft, and believe me, we've seen it from every angle, it's mainly music for students who'll follow marginal or so-called 'left--field' bands for two or three years then move on to something else, then you've got the commercial scene which is getting more and more disposable. We want to write songs influenced by the better things that happened in the late Sixties/early Seventies, we want to have the edge, to process fine songs with a lyrical content that actually means something."
vision of the future is Microdisney being big in America, big everywhere
in fact. He wants to be regarded as an established influence, not
just an established band. Middle Of The Road (a normally derogatory term)
is the closest he can come to explaination.
Cathal approached the mountain with a sIightly more practical attitude: "As yet, making singles isn't our greatest strength but we must work on it because it's the only thing that's going to prevent us from being ghettoised. We can still find room for expansion within these confines but we're reaching the limits of that now. When you've got a reputation as recent as ours for being a John Peel band, releasing LPs of demos. that sort of thing, it gives us a strong motivation to break away. All the music I like is made is by people who have no particular axe to grind for their own cultural individuality - pop music is fairly homogenous thing."
Cathal's heroes are well documented - Patti Smith, Jacques Brel, Alex Chilton, Scott Walker, "people who aren't afraid to lay their guts on the line. I like people like The Band, really great musical craftsmen who I still listen to all the time but to me it isn't quite the same thing ... it's like two different objectives. Good musicianship in itself could never be and end for us, never ..."
Sean: "Sometimes I don't understand what Cathal's writing about, it takes me a while to get used to a lyric before I can form on opinion on it. The way he writes is quite unique. the images and lines he uses, the bizarre little situations he conjures up. Then I'll read a lyric again and realise that I've seen that situation. I've seen the depressiveness, the heaviness and awkwardness of some of these situations and the way people make life difficult for themselves. When I went to Ireland for the first time I was struck by the way they live against each other. I don't think the Irish live together at all."
now Cathal has moved on from the past into the future. "The moralistic
bullshit that's in a lot of our songs has gone out the window," he
says, heaving a heavy sigh of relief.
Cathal:'' I was going to put a quote from a Spirit album into 'Clock' - 'Farther along for what it's worth, you live your life, for what it's worth and if then you go farther along'... " And he laughs at the potency of his own sarcasm.