First meeting in Dublin during the 1980s, Microdisney’s Cathal Coughlan and uber-producer Jacknife Lee have recently reconnected. Working via a musical trans-Atlantic hook-up their new album as Telefís is a real cracker

Cathal Coughlan, erstwhile frontman of Microdisneyand The Fatima Mansions, has just bought his first stethoscope. Its existence crops up while we’re waiting for Garret “Jacknife” Lee to join us onscreen from California and I happen to mention ‘Song Of Co-Aklan’, the title track of Coughlan’s 2021 solo album that paints a pandemic-era picture of Zoom calls taking place as floors collapse and buildings crumble.

“It’s funny you should mention that,” Coughlan says from his Dublin home. “Because the whole terrace here has been vibrating strangely since Thursday night and it’s starting to drive me fucking mental. I think someone’s got some kind of weird device running, maybe an industrial blow heater, I don’t know. So I’ve just got a stethoscope to try and figure out what the fuck it is.”

As unlikely rockstar accessories go, a stethoscope seems somewhat apt given the precise, scientific-edged sonics that Coughlan and Lee offer on ‘a hAon’, their debut album as Telefís. Built around Lee’s impeccably pure electronic grooves, it’s initially sparse but on closer inspection reveals layers of hidden, nuanced detail. 

And suddenly here’s the producer himself, materialising on screen from a studio filled with records, equipment and dozens of fairylights. It’s clear that there’s no need for industrial blow heaters where he is. 

“I’ve been out digging the garden and laying paving, and it’s too hot – it’s about 80 degrees here,” he protests. “I don’t understand how it’s so hot. It doesn’t make sense to me. I’m usually so pale. I don’t go out at all. I have a vitamin D deficiency from lack of sunlight. Normally I just stay in a darkened room all the time.”

Topanga Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains, west of Los Angeles, has been Lee’s home for 12 years now. 

“The cops don’t come up here,” he laughs, describing the once rather notorious and still distinctly bohemian area. “This is where the Manson family started, but people like Woody Guthrie and then Bob Dylan came here as well. And a lot of people moved up here to dodge the draft.”

Lee’s life seems to have been a succession of transitions, handbrake turns almost, with a side order of classic self-sabotage to deal with the fear of other people’s rejection. 

After moving to London from Dublin, he ultimately found the UK capital far too obsessed with everyone else’s creativity – a state of affairs that was constantly exhausting.

“I found London very overwhelming,” he admits. “I had a studio in Brick Lane and another in Shoreditch. I’d hear Andy Weatherall through the wall and I’d think, ‘Fucking hell, that’s so good and I’m so shit’. It was like running behind an accelerating bus and trying to jump on the back of it. All my energy was going into it and it was kind of painful.”

Moving out to rural Kent with his wife, he got into what he calls a “Robert Wyatt frame of mind”, less bothered by others and concentrating on making music. He was calmer, but no nearer to genuine success. His best mate was a man in his 70s he knew through growing vegetables. Eventually the realisation hit that “nothing in my life will change from this point unless I change it”. With family out in Los Angeles, it felt like a good place and time to go. 

Discovering he didn’t really like the city, especially as he couldn’t drive, Topanga Canyon beckoned and Lee threw himself into production work. Since then, he’s quietly negotiated himself into a position as a music industry giant, working with stadium-filling rockers including REM and U2 and chalking up co-writing credits with the likes of Taylor Swift. 

“I like our bubble here,” he says of life in the canyon. “I’ve grown to love it. Even knowing the sun is there, behind the closed curtains, is a comfort. There’s a romance embedded in the idea of Los Angeles – it’s the furthest west you can go in continental America and it still has a sense of the frontier. 

“People come here to escape or to challenge themselves. The whole area is built on immigration and there is an energy that gets brought to a place when that happens. It’s exciting. Obviously that’s under threat to a certain extent now, but people are still coming here to find something or to find themselves. You pick up hitchhikers and they’re all full of hope – or pain, or something – and they think this place is going to solve it. They can’t go anywhere else. The beach is right there.”

What he finds particularly invigorating is the newness – or rather the freedom from the shackles of over-reverence paid to the past.

“I do feel that things are new. The difference between being here and being in Ireland or London is that over there I felt I was competing with everything that had happened before. Here, I don’t care – I get into my own world. It took me coming here to really become comfortable with myself.”

Lee’s initial step into production came about as an attempt to avoid what he considers the downsides of the industry – the endless treadmill of promotion, touring and making videos.

“I could happily just sit in a room making music,” he says. “But writing for and producing huge multi-million selling acts has its own creative restrictions too. People are so aware of their own brand that good ideas get rejected because they’re too much of a stretch for them. I mean, I don’t have to stand onstage and humiliate myself like they do. It’s very difficult for them.

“So I just kept on pitching more extreme ideas, and after a while I – well, I wouldn’t say I got sick of it, because I obviously still produce records for people, but I just needed to decompress from satisfying other people’s ideas of what the market wants them to do. 

“Through that, I started listening to more music and I began to think I wasn’t making the kind of records I was listening to. I was wondering, ‘Why don’t I want to buy those records?’. And it was because they didn’t make me giddy, they didn’t thrill me. 

“So that led me to want to buy records with my name on them again.I started writing with people, gathering all the ideas I liked that they had rejected, even if they said they’d enjoyed working on the session. I thought, ‘Fuck it, I like this stuff’. Then, meeting people like Cathal again I’d ask them, ‘Do you want to make a record or just get together and make some noise?’.”

The story of Jacknife Lee and Cathal Coughlan stretches way back to the 1980s. In fact, when Microdisney played one of their final shows in Ireland before heading off to London in 1983, Lee, still in his early teens, was one of the support acts – just him and “a bunch of cassettes”, he remembers.

“Then we lost touch. We both did our own thing for a while. I was a huge fan of Microdisney and The Fatima Mansions especially. And then at the beginning of the pandemic, I’d worked on a record by Luke Haines and Peter Buck and Luke reintroduced us over email. Cathal says we’d been in touch before, but I don’t really remember. We obviously haven’t been able to meet up because of Covid, but we both had a lot of time on our hands, time to reflect, time to go on the internet…”

“There were other ramifications as well,” Coughlan adds. “I’m not one of these people who thinks lockdown was all wonderful, but things did slow down to a point where we could think straight.”

At first, music-making wasn’t even on the agenda. It was more about getting to know one another again, more about friendship and common musical ground than putting together an album. 

Lee is now gesturing around his studio.

 “As you can see, there are hundreds of records here, but some people, when they’re making music, don’t want to listen to any other music. Which is so weird. It’s like not eating while you’re working – it doesn’t make sense. But my relationship with Cathal started out like that and we just began sending things back and forth to each other.”

For Coughlan, early electronic records by Thomas Leer, The Normal, Throbbing Gristle and, of course, the towering Can all felt like “a good year zero”. Suicide were also a key act for both of them – embodying something that Lee feels has been forgotten about music.

“Their music doesn’t care if you like it,” he insists. “People talk about the death of rock ’n’ roll, and it died because it wanted to be liked. Whereas a lot of these records just exist whether you like them or not. That’s something I see in Cathal’s music – I’ve never detected that he wanted to be liked – or in a record like The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’. That was a brave record. It would still be brave if it came out tomorrow.”

Microdisney and The Fatima Mansions always did have a passion for studio tech and polished production, an attitude that saw them going very much against the grain of their indie contemporaries. According to Coughlan, this partly stemmed from arriving in London only to find everyone wanted to sound like a lo-fi Velvet Underground.

“As much as I love and grew up with those records, I never really saw the appeal of sounding that way,” he says. “So it was an invitation to vitriol really, to going the opposite way. I have done lo-fi stuff, especially after the Mansions ended. I know what you’re saying, but Telefís is distinct from all of that stuff. It’s certainly the first time anyone has heard me with a hi-tech set of modulations on my voice, which I’m well into.”

As well as the sleek majesty of Lee’s electronic parts, the other factor that makes their new album ‘a hAon’ such a remarkable listen is the space these productions give Coughlan’s vivid lyrics to really take hold of your imagination. Take ‘The Symphonies Of Danny La Rue’, which transports you to a scuzzy cinema that’s screening Kenneth Anger films with ELO as a replacement soundtrack .

“I was thinking back to that time when people would be thrown together at squat parties – illegal or semi-legal events,” Coughlan explains. “Back then I was as bad as anyone at really shooting my mouth off about what I was going to do with my life when I finished being off my trolley on whatever it was I’d ingested. 

“And then I started looking at the life of Danny La Rue. He was from Cork, the same as me. You’d actually see him in the street there if he was back, as he sometimes was. His act came about through the rather thriving world of military men dressing up as women on stage during the latter years of the Second World War. He was a mainstream performer and yet there was something subversive about what he did. 

“Danny was definitely way more sinned against than sinning. He was robbed of his fortune and there was quite a lot of tragedy towards the end of his life. His partner, who took care of business, died quite a while before he did. So it’s an interesting story, and I’m using it as a backdrop for that unkind, motormouth thing. It’s all just slumming really, and when you get
past a certain age you think, ‘Fuck that, that’s not what we were put on Earth to do.”

Slumming also features in ‘Sex Bunting’ – arguably the album’s climax – which tells the story of hipster filmmakers descending on the “greasy” end of town to make a car commercial. Again, it’s based on reality – a video shoot in the East End of London.

“I had the pleasure – no, that’s not the word – I had the experience of working with a film crew for a few days on the Silvertown flyover by the Tate & Lyle factory,” Coughlan recalls. “We spent an awful lot of record company money on a video. It could just as easily have been a car advert, and there was a great deal of slumming it going on among the filmmakers. That stayed with me for many years afterwards.”

There’s something about the meeting of Jacknife Lee’s carefully constructed musical arrangements with Cathal Coughlan’s sonorous vocals that makes for one of the most potent listens my ears have heard for some time. Coughlan points to Lee’s restraint and guidance as providing the extra dimension that knocks this record out of the park. 

“I do have a tendency to overdo it,” he admits. “We have to edit me fairly heavily for several reasons. I tend to put too many twists in the melody, and in my own stuff there are too many chords. This is well away from that and welcome for it. Garret has taught me economy for the first time in a long time.”

‘a hAon’ is released by Dimple Discs 

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