Album Of The Year: Telefís

With ‘a hAon’ and ‘a Dó’ sharing the top spot in our Albums Of The Year, Telefís have achieved a truly remarkable feat. Vocalist Cathal Coughlan sadly passed away earlier this year, so uber-producer Garret “Jacknife” Lee steps forward to accept the award

Congratulations, Garret! Time for your acceptance speech…

“Cathal was the spokesperson of Telefís but it’s up to me now and I am absolutely speechless…seriously shocked. I don’t believe it. This is a first for me. Album Of The Year?!

“It was a life highlight for me to reconnect and work with Cathal. I never really stopped being the teenage boy in awe of him. Even though we knew each other years ago, he wasn’t aware of the high regard I held him in. To hear these are albums of the year in Electronic Sound would’ve bowled Cathal over. So while I’m happy the albums have been honoured in this way, I’m sad that he doesn’t get the same surge of excitement and shock that I’m feeling. I can’t remember being this surprised by anything. Album Of The Year is always something other records get, not ours. Thank you!”

How did the albums take shape?

“The concept of ‘a Dó’ followed on from ‘a hAon’ in an obvious way to us. ‘a hAon’ looks from a late 1960s/early 1970s position of a monochromatic, depressed Ireland, as filtered through the music that was emerging from New York, England and Germany.

“The first day we spoke on the phone, we talked about Throbbing Gristle, Suicide, and Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’. Then the conversation moved to the Catholic church’s influence on [Irish national broadcaster] RTÉ in that period, along with the occult and pagan practices of rural Ireland that had survived. The whole Telefís concept arrived in that single conversation. For ‘a Dó’, we moved forward in time to the mid-to -late 70s and introduced colour into the artwork, in a similar way to Kraftwerk’s ‘The Man-Machine’ following ‘Radioactivity’, and black and white to colour TV.”

The two albums feel like you and Cathal really connected. His lyrical dexterity and angular storytelling were something else. What was he like to work with?

“Cathal was very, very funny. Mischievous, in a boyish way. That, combined with his high intelligence, made working with him a thrill. I’d jot down music, books and films that he’d be enthusing about. We’d start a call with purpose and quickly lose track of time, never getting to the reason we were on the call in the first place.

“I stayed out of his way when it came to lyrics, and he didn’t get that involved with the music, which I think was novel and a bit of a relief for him. The records were happening so quickly that we never discussed anything we’d finished – we were too excited to get to the next song.

“Cathal was far more gentle, sensitive and loving than the ferocious man I last met during his Fatima Mansions years – he was very careful to not offend or upset anyone. He was full of ideas and that was lovely to witness. Our friendship developed easily and quickly, and it was a total joy to become close with him.”

Both ‘a hAon’ and ‘a Dó’ are a satirical exploration of the Irish pop culture you and Cathal grew up with. Why has that left such an indelible mark on you?

“It’s our childhood. Ireland was fucking bizarre in the 70s and 80s – a corrupt and weird country controlled by a church that had no interest in spirituality. It was the beginning of a modern culture. One day, TV arrived and we got to see the outside world – glam, punk rock and post- punk gave us another way to escape, and we took it. We both left the place as young men and a part of us is stuck in that period. We just wanted to remember the oddness of it – what Thomas Leer’s ‘Private Plane’ did to our minds when we were living there. The power it gave us.”

‘a Dó’ in particular feels very textural, with impeccable layers of detail and a real edge to its groove. Were there specific sonic influences that inspired it?

“‘a Dó’ has a wider palette than ‘a hAon’. I got a few Soviet synths just when we started the record. The sounds of Throbbing Gristle, The Normal, Thomas Leer and Suicide would be our North Star but we went off in a lot of other directions… Yellow Magic Orchestra, Haroumi Hosono, Conny Plank. Everything was up for grabs… disco, Afrobeat, electro, dub, punk, hip hop and krautrock, all clashing together.”

Was there a moment when you were making these albums where you thought, “We’ve really got something here”?

“I was quite nervous sending Cathal backing tracks because I didn’t want him to be disappointed by any of them. We worked pretty quickly sending our parts back and forth, but had to spread the writing out over a few months. Cathal’s medical treatments were difficult on him and we’d shut down for a while each time. I don’t know how he did it, really.

“It was only after we finished ‘On A Country Road’, the last song on ‘a Dó’, did I think, ‘This is a good album’. Once we finished it, we started on another record, ‘a Trí’, which we didn’t get to finish. I love these records and don’t feel like I made them. They seemed to appear without much thought or work. I was blessed to have worked with Cathal.”

You’ve described Telefís as some of the most enjoyable and rewarding music that you’ve been involved with. Why is that?

“Some records can be painful to make – dramatic, even traumatic. Telefís was easy. It was egoless and felt effortless, even though we both struggled at times. I love it when a record, a sound or a lyric makes me giddy. Most, if not all, Telefís songs make me giddy.

“My favourite track, ‘Feed The Light’ [from ‘a Dó’], is romantic yet embedded with deep melancholy. Cathal’s voice, combined with my two daughters in the chorus, just floors me. When he sings, ‘These green shoots of June nonetheless bloom / All that you’ve been is dots on a screen’, it reminds me why I’ve always loved him.”

How did you amass enough material for two albums in a year?

“You can do a lot when you’re trying to impress somebody. I was always trying to impress Cathal. I’m not sure he was used to working at such a pace – it was like running or tumbling down a hill. To be honest, we also knew we didn’t have much time. It was a distraction from Cathal’s illness and all the terrible things that go along with that, a way of being intimate with each other, entertaining each other. Making these records was so much fun for us.”

What’s on the horizon for 2023?

“I’ve been working with [American musician] Lonnie Holley, and we have an album coming out in early 2023. He’s become an important person in my life and has changed the way I think about creativity. [Malian singer] Rokia Koné and I will be touring at some point later in the year. And I’ve just begun working with Les Amazones D’Afrique – it’s quite a thrill to be involved with them.

“We’ve also got the beginnings of what would’ve been Telefís’ ‘a Trí’ and I’d like to see if we have anything worth hearing. So, 2023 is going to be busy. I haven’t been this excited about making music since… well, ever.”

If there was a prize for winning our Album Of The Year, and you could pick anything, what would you choose?

“I won an award a few years ago for production, and they gave a microphone as the trophy. Initially, I thought it was just a fake mic but it wasn’t. I unscrewed it from its little plinth and was very surprised to see a place to plug a cable in – it worked, and sounded great! This being Electronic Sound, I’m fantasising that the prize would be a newly refurbished Ursa Major Space Station. It’s a weird and unique effects rack from the 80s that would give me immense pleasure, and up my game considerably.”

‘a Dó’ and ‘a hAon’ are both out on Dimple Discs

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