Saturday, 17 December 2022
Tuesday, 6 December 2022
Ace singer-songwriter Seán (Doctor) Millar has just released his sixth solo album, Ruining Everything, having endured not only pandemic lockdown, like the rest of us, but overcoming some personal health issues as well. Here he chats about the making of the record, his influences, and what else he has been up to.
So Seán, congratulations. Nine years in the making?
Well, it wasn’t really nine years. It was it was two-and-a-half years, I suppose. I mean, I started demoing songs, and I’ve got a pile of songs ready to go. I would say I’ve got at least thirty songs that I’m happy with putting on a record. I mean, I’ve written hundreds over the last nine years, but I suppose I’ve just been doing loads of other stuff, the theatre stuff, and it’s the logistics of getting it together to do an album. It’s so difficult to balance the financials, and the time frame. Also, what happens is that it takes me so long to gather the wherewithal to record, in terms of my own time, energy, commitment, and money for studio time, that by the time we go to do it I’ve moved on myself personally. But with this one what was really good was I just I reached a point where I wanted to make something really raw and sort of acoustic and roots-based, and that’s relatively cheaper to do. And because of COVID I wasn’t doing anything else, so it meant this became my focus, and I got it done and got it out. I’m working on another one already.
It was Les Keye, at Arad Studios?
…as producer, yes, and he was much more ‘the producer’ on this. Like, normally when I make records, I’m co-producer. I generally work very closely on arrangements, you know, because that’s one of my skills, I guess. In fact, I’m much better at arranging music than I am at playing it. For this Les did a lot of donkey work, and he brought in Donal Lunny, and Bill Whelan the banjo player. There was a lot of his methods, no click tracks were used on the record, and huge amounts of them are single takes. So that was an attempt by Les to try and capture a sort of authentic Dr. Millar experience, and that kind of mixture of absurd post-punk and roots music that I am.
Some people are calling it your rootsiest, folkiest album. How intentional was that, or did you arrange songs to fit the concept?
It’s very much intentional. I see this as me making a statement about who I am, or certainly who Dr. Millar is, anyway.
He’s this rootsy, folksy guy?
Well, I suppose it’s because I came from that post-punk environment, there were certain ways of doing things that I always rejected. I always thought of myself as folk musician, but I never signalled that in an obvious way. I’ve always tried to sing in voices that would be natural to me, that wouldn't be too out of step with my spoken voice. But everything’s a choice, and you mediate yourself through those choices, the way you speak and the way you sing. Because I’ve never gone for an Irishy, tragic-folky way of singing, I think maybe I’ve never been really seen as that, even though that’s what I see myself as being.
But you’re interested in all kinds of different genres of music.
Personally, I really am. I mean, The Velvet Underground are my favourite band. They’re not just my favourite band, it actually feels wrong to say that, because there are other bands I enjoy listening to as much or more than The Velvet Underground. But I think The Velvet Underground were the most important band in my life. And the reason for that is because I had to change in order to like The Velvet Underground, and that act of changing my thinking about what was good was so radicalising for me as a musician, and as an artist, that it has affected every single thing I’ve done ever since.
Ageing is a theme on the album?
It’s very much the theme: ageing and dying. I’m always doing the same thing, I suppose. I’m always either talking about myself or telling stories, one or the other. ‘Communion Money’, for example, is just a song about family. It’s very simple, it’s just a dream that I had where I was floating in a boat out to sea with my siblings, and I felt really, really happy and safe and secure, and loved.
A lot of the songs are very narrative driven. Stories, as you say, like ‘Danny McCoy’.
Yeah, I met a guy that I was in school with, I wouldn't have seen him for twenty-five years. Cool guy, very musical. Accidental meeting, I walked into a bar and he was having a chat with someone else I knew from school, and he told me about his life and I was going ‘Wow’ all the time, what a life you’ve had, his life was so strange and eventful, dramatic and full of adventure and incident and interest and love. Afterwards I was thinking – apart from how much I liked this person – how you kind of know people and don’t know them at all. If you’d asked me about that guy, I’d have told you that he lived in Bray, and it turns out he’s had this incredible epic life. So, it’s about assumptions, and the assumptions people make about me as well.
Could you could imagine any of these songs being done in radically different versions?
Yeah, I could. I suppose what it is, is I’m so bored with contemporary music production. If you work at it, especially my other job in theatre, I get to explore different styles. But there’s so much ‘nothing’ in contemporary music production, and I listen to a lot of production. They’re being seduced by the software, essentially. I mean, I love electronic music, absolutely love it, but there’s an art to everything, there’s an art to folk and there’s an art to electronica and there’s an art to heavy metal, there’s an art to all these different genres. And right now what I feel is, if I’m making an album, I want to actually make an album that has something real in it, that has something that is a moment of my time, that is a genuine ‘something’, that’s a drop of my blood. I want to basically pour a cup of my fucking blood into this recording, so people get something when they buy it, they actually get ‘some thing’, not just me arseing around with keyboards and stuff like that. I had to try and do all those guitar tracks, and it took time to get some of them right. It was actually hard, you know, trying to get vocals that sound like they mean something, not just me singing. I mean, I sing all day, but a vocal that has some sort of integrity, some sort of expression. That’s what I was trying to do with this. So every time I play, everything sounds a little bit different. Because I don’t try and play the album live, ever. I just try and play the songs live with the musicians who are there, for the audience that’s there.
Following the death of revered Irish singer-songwriter Cathal Coughlan on May 18th this year comes the release of the second album by Telefís, his groundbreaking collaboration with world-renowned producer Garret “Jacknife” Lee. The pair had completed “a Dó” earlier in 2022, with an album release planned for September. With the approval of Cathal’s family the album will now be available on October 7th. Des Traynor spent an hour-and-a-half on Zoom to Garret in L.A. recently, where the Dubliner now lives and works. From a wide-ranging, generous chat, here are the Telefísed highlights.
You would have known Cathal when you were living in England in the 90s?
No, I met Cathal once. I didn't remember it. In The Underworld in Camden in probably 1992. He remembers it. When we were talking before doing the album, I said I haven’t seen you since Ireland. And he said, ‘No, we met.’ We were all taking a lot of drink at the time. So I didn't remember Cathal. Once he said it, I vaguely remembered seeing him. I think he had just played a gig. I went up to him, and we talked for a while.
But you knew him in Dublin in the ’80s.
Yeah, we played gigs together.
You reconnected through Luke Haines?
I was mixing a record for Luke. And he was with Cathal one day. And he said, ‘I’m with a friend of yours.’ So I said, ‘Introduce me.’ And Cathal said, ‘I hear you did a record with Luke, and he likes it, which is a first, ’cos he doesn’t like anything.’ And then I said, ‘Well, should we make a record?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’
Cathal said somewhere that it was beneficial that you were in different places, because you were out of each other’s way. But was it strange being on opposite sides of the world, bouncing audio files back and forth?
No, I've worked this way for quite a while, since COVID, with different artists. You know, if an artist is on tour, they can’t come here. And then a lot of times people are doing extra tracks, or need a single edit done or are just recording a single. So I've been working this way anyway. And obviously working with U2, I can’t go over there every other weekend just to record a vocal, so I decided that a good way to be working was just to get my own space. And it means that I can work on a number of things in the one day. If I have an artist here it can get a bit ‘intense’. So for Telefís it was it was easier for both of us because I think Cathal had been working by himself for a long time. And I know from my own history, when you’re doing everything, it’s a lot of pressure and you don’t know when to let things go. So, Cathal doing music, and then the vocal production, the engineering that he had been doing, just took him a long time. So by me sending tracks, I think it was more fun for him. And also, you were coming at it from a different perspective. A lot of Cathal’s work is based on the drama in it. Aside from the lyric, it’s chord based, so we’re motoring along the verse, then we’ll have this chord and then it will force him to write from another perspective, or lyrically, there has been an event, or something. So without those things, he was forced to come at things in a different way. And I think he liked the challenge of it. So I’d send him a track that was mostly finished. And then he would send an idea back, and then I’d be working on that, and I’d send it back to him with his vocals manipulated in some way. Up to that point, a lot of the vocal manipulation had seemed gratuitous or gimmicky to him, when it had been done on other records, but this didn’t feel that way. So I think it excited him. So it was easier for him. And it was easier for me to work on music when somebody’s not here.
Like, I was doing a record with Open Mike Eagle, who’s a very respected rapper in LA. He asked me to work on his record. And I tried stuff out on his vocals, that if he was here, he wouldn’t have licenced it, because it can be time consuming. It can seem like a waste of time to try this dumb experiment. Also, he may not have liked it. But in context, it kind of works. And also, the way Cathal wrote his words, it took time. So had we been together, it would have been more musical – but this way, he was just given a set and asked to fill it, and it wouldn’t be a set that he would have designed himself. So there was a kind of thrill to it for him. I didn’t really get involved with words. He says I did – I mean, I would say things, or I’d sing something and then send it back, and I’d have crappy words – that I would have been happy with – but obviously, he’d say ‘I can’t sing that’, and he was right.
Did you know Cathal was seriously ill during the making of the first album, and how did you deal with it subsequently?
Cathal’s dying was always a part of these songs. Not literally, but his reflections and explorations of where he came from examined from this perspective. After his death we could have waited to release the album, and I accepted that we might have to, but now I just want to celebrate Cathal. I want people to know that he was active and working up to the last few days of his life. We were working on more Telefís - writing and planning. I know that might have been something to just take his mind off his illness, but that was the way he dealt with the situation and I want to honour that. There are many layers to Cathal Coughlan. The mischief, the tenderness, and the profound melancholy. Such a sweet man. It’s all here, and it’s some of his best work. Writing these songs during his illness, knowing what lay ahead of him, shows his commitment to words and ideas. It’s his life.
‘Unassuming’ is an adjective that, at first nod, one might be tempted to reach for when trying to describe Katie Kim and her music, as they both tend to partake of tentativeness, reticence and nuance. But just as the musician’s shyness can shield a quietly stubborn commitment to her craft, so too her dreamy work contains relentlessly emotional swells with the power to leave the listener fundamentally changed, as is evident on her new release, Hour of the Ox. As if to exemplify this notion, she tells me that the title comes from a traditional Japanese cursing ritual, Ushi-no-Toki-Mairi, or ‘ox-hour shrine-visit’, so-called because it is conducted during the hours of the Ox (between 1 and 3am – a good time for listening to ethereal music). The practitioner – typically a scorned woman – hammers nails through a straw effigy of the victim impaling it to a sacred tree. The ritual must be repeated for seven consecutive nights, after which the curse supposedly causes the target’s death – but being witnessed in the act nullifies the spell. So don’t go taking anything for granted here.
So, how are you?
I'm good. I'm gonna say straight off the bat that this is probably the first in-person interview I’ve had in a good few years. So excuse my social anxiety and word soup – if that happens.
No problem. I think a lot of people feel like that after the pandemic.
I had to go to this event in Universal a few days ago. I was just meeting someone for the first time, and it was one of the most difficult conversations to keep going. Because it’s like, how do I converse with people? Again.
How did you get started in music? In Waterford, when you were in school, were you in bands?
I just listened to a lot of music, and my Mum bought me a guitar when I was 14, for my birthday. She taught me a few chords. So I just started. I mean, I’d always written words or poetry or prose or something like that, not poetry really, more prose in little notebooks when I was younger, but never was ever really able to turn it into music until I got my guitar. So then I started writing songs. As soon as I got the guitar, and was able to play like C, D G or something like that.
Was it always by yourself?
Yeah, like a friend of mine I think maybe played guitar with me to begin with, and then with another friend we actually sang together. I would play guitar and she would sing harmonies with me. But mostly alone.
So when you left school, were you just determined to do music?
I escaped school at 16. Moved out of home.
That was brave.
It was brave. Fair play to my mother for letting me do it, but she just insisted that I do my Junior Cert and then she let me move out and get a job and try to start playing.
So that was it. Your focus was all on music?
Yes, it was, it’s what I was aiming towards doing: playing music for a living.
And doing it solo?
I didn't know if it would turn into a band or solo. I mean, when I around 18, I met Terry Cullen of Ten Speed Racer, and he asked me to be in a band with him. So, then we were a band for a long time, and began touring and recording And so that took over. But I was still recording my own music in between.
You moved to New York after the last record, Salt. Why?
I always wanted to move there. I loved it. I’d been there many times, and I had my friends there. There was a really great music scene happening when I was over there.
You intended staying for longer, but were forced back here by the pandemic?
I was living with two girls, and we were kind of in denial for about two months about the virus. We didn’t have any television in the house or anything like that. So we decided to take out an old telly and plug it in, and we were watching CNN for a few hours. And then everybody decided to scatter and go back to their homes.
You thought you might have been trapped there?
I wouldn't have been able to get any social security over there. So I thought I’d just come back for a while, but it lasted a lot longer than we thought it would.
So did all this affect the composition of the songs on Hour of the Ox?
No, because we had a lot of the album done by the time I was in New York. Coming home, we just added some extra flourishes to it.
That was with John Murphy.
I like his work a lot, the stuff he’s done with Lankum especially – The Velvet Underground meets Planxty.
He's fantastic. I'm just so happy because we’ve known each other for so long, like we were friends in Waterford, from when we were teenage kids. I'm just really, really happy for him that he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves because he’s worked really hard over the years.
You were bouncing files back and forth to each other.
That’s kind of the way we work. I would always write the stuff at home. And I always record the vocals at home as well, like I would never record in the studio with Spud, I would always record them at home, bring them in. But I would send him stuff every now and again, and at some stage in the year, we would decide that we should actually start putting the album together.
I thought maybe Hour of the Ox is, musically, a bit more accessible than previous albums? Are you conscious of a difference?
I have no idea because the only people that have heard it have been people that are close to me. And I know they’re only going to say nice things mostly. So I have no idea how accessible it is, yet.
So that wasn’t a conscious decision?
No, I just thought that it would be nice to try and do something new every time instead of trying to go back to the old tropes all the time. I thought that it would be fun this time to get a live drummer in and play around with synthesisers because I've been listening to a lot of soundtracks over the last few years, and people like Clint Mansell, and a lot of stuff that Invada were putting out, a lot of Geoff Barrow’s soundtracks and things like that. So I was really starting to get into that kind of lush synthesiser kind of sound. I wanted to play around with that.
So there is a process of continuing evolution going on?
Well, I haven't really played around with those kind of orchestrations together before, we’d had strings, but I thought synthesisers with strings would be a really nice thing to try and meld together.
Can you tell the difference between synthesised strings and live strings?
Well, now I can because we had live strings this time.
You strike me as quite determined and single-minded. You’re not going to be side-tracked into doing other things. You’re quite focused.
Do you mean into doing mainstream music?
Not necessarily, just that you’re determinedly sticking at it, doing your own thing.
Look, there’s definitely been times when I’ve just thought, you know, “Fuck this, it’s not going anywhere”, whatever. But that’s not the whole point about doing it. It’s actually quite a big part of what I feel is my identity. And when I have stopped playing or writing or recording for any amount of time, like two years sometimes I’ve gone without doing any of that, it becomes ‘a dark time’ – not a very nice place. Just for me personally – I’m not talking about anybody else’s life – just getting up in the morning and having your breakfast and going to do your job and having to do something else and coming home and going to sleep and repeat the process, it doesn’t really suit my personality very well, I kind of need something else creative happening. So look, even if I make stuff, and I see five plays on it after a year, I’ll still be happy that I made it.
Katie Kim - Hour Of The Ox Album Launch is at The Button Factory, Saturday 10 September 2022
Seán (aka Doctor) Millar’s sixth solo album finds him in rootsy mode and mood, as perhaps befits a suite of songs concerned with ageing, and the attendant weaving and unravelling of individual and collective destinies. This theme is nowhere more apparent than on album opener ‘Look What She Threw Away’ (featuring Donal Lunny) which visits a woman who is Miss Haversham-like ‘cobwebbed with regret’ for her lost youth, and also on near title track ‘You’re Ruining Everything’, which amid mournful, almost-flamenco-like guitar stylings recalls the singer’s own shame at past indiscretions. ‘Amateur Night’, with its clever, typically amateurish dropped beat in the chorus (imitative form!), focuses on an older guy hanging around with a younger crowd, ‘like an ex-professional on amateur night.’
Several story-songs feature: ‘Dublin Girl’, ‘Danny McCoy’, ‘Unhappy Woman’; but all is not autumnal gloom, as the pathos of happy memory ‘Communion Money’ and upbeat closing instrumental ‘Flow Sacred Magical’ attest. Liam O Maonlaí and Bill ‘Banjo’ Whelan also contribute, and the whole is deftly enhanced by Les Keye’s live-in-the-studio production.
As an artist who is on record as stating that his two all-time favourite bands are The Velvet Underground and Planxty, and also someone who was told by Irish industry gatekeepers in the 1990s that people like him should move to Berlin, Doctor Millar has by now acquired for my generation of homegrown music fans the status which Christy Moore holds for the one which precedes us - with a spicy soupçon of Lou Reed and John Cale thrown in. Essential.
Friday, 25 November 2022
As a further tribute to the late great Wilko Johnson, here's a review of the Dr. Feelgood boxset All Through The City, which I wrote in 2012, for the now-defunct website, State.ie.
All Through The City (with Wilko 1974-1977)
As the currently showing BBC 4 documentary series Punk Britannia persuasively hypothesises, the revolution of 1977 was the bastard offspring of the miscegenatious union of r’n’b and glam, when the pub rock and art college scenes met. From the former came most of the music, from the latter most of the look and attitude. Always somewhat Britcentric, the Beep elides the fact that as early as 1973 crazy Yanks like the New York Dolls were wearing women’s clothes while covering Sonny Boy Williamson and Bo Diddley songs. But then again, both Joe Strummer and Ian Dury attended art colleges and played in pub rock bands prior to New Wave apotheosis.
Around the same time the Dolls were first trying on their high-heeled platform boots, Canvey Island’s Dr. Feelgood were tearing up the London pub scene with incendiary live shows which many seasoned gig goers were saying they hadn’t seen the likes of since the early days of The Who or The Stones. While scruffy off-the-peg suits were favoured as stage wear over silk or satin dresses, the same musical spirit animated them as that of their transatlantic tranny contemporaries. A brief band interview for Finnish television, at the end of the collection of live performances included in this marvelous new 3 CD + 1 DVD boxset of the band’s first four albums, plus unreleased demos, alternative versions, out-takes and live tracks, features the taciturn rhythm section of drummer John ‘The Big Figure’ Martin and bassist John B. Sparks (both of whom looked like burly bouncers you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley), the grimly polite singer Lee Brilleaux, and cocky young guitarist Wilko Johnson, who helpfully explains the r’n’b ‘revival’ thus: ‘It’s the best music. People have had six years of synthesisers and songs about hobbits. That’s for girls. People want to have a good time.’ As someone with a degree in Medieval English from Newcastle University, which he shrewdly kept quiet about, as well as considerable musical knowledge and ability, perhaps he was better placed to diagnose the deleterious influence of Tolkien on popular music than many would have given him credit for at the time.
They had their precursors, and their peers (Eggs Over Easy, Ducks Deluxe, Brinsley Schwarz, The Kursaal Flyers, Strummer’s 101ers, Dury’s Kilburn and the High Roads – even early Boomtown Rats), but they were the best. This was largely, in my opinion, down to Wilko’s wildly idiosyncratic guitar playing, whose self-confessed primary influence was Mick Green of The Pirates. Yet, although he was operating in a genre which thrives on notions of ‘passion’ and ‘feeling’, Wilko played like a machine, producing a weird r’n’b/motorik hybrid. Like forebears Otis Rush and Albert King, and the closer-to-home Jeff Beck, he eschewed the plectrum, his right hand a freestyle of fingers’n’thumb, conjuring choppy insistent rhythms and angular staccato lead lines, sometimes seemingly simultaneously. There’s less that separates the Feelgoods from Neu than you might think. The Man Machine, indeed. One shouldn’t, of course, overlook the solidness of the rhythm section itself in this process. Razor-sharp time-keeping was still the preserve of human beings in those days. Add to that the pent-up anger and frustration of Brilleaux, a front man who looked like he might hit you as soon as sing to you, which made him the scariest stage presence yet encountered in British live music, and who remained so until a sneering Johnny Rotten swaggered into the spotlight to unbeknowingly inherit his mantle, and the package was complete.
What’s in the box? CD 1 has Down By The Jetty and Malpractice, both from 1975, the former the excellent re-master of the original mono mix released as a deluxe reissue in 2006 (thankfully still in mono), the latter, like the two albums on the succeeding CD, a new 2012 digital remaster. CD 2 contains the peak and the valley, 1976’s Stupidity and 1977’s Sneakin’ Suspicion. Produced, like the first two, by Vic Maile, who’d engineered The Who’s Live At Leeds, Stupidity is their masterpiece, one of the great live rock albums, made by a band who were always most at home in the live context. The rot set in with Sneakin’ Suspicion. Although signed to United Artists in Britain, they wound up on CBS in America, who felt their substantial promotional investment justified foisting their own choice of producer, studio veteran Bert De Coteaux, on the project. This resulted in an altogether too slick sheen to the sound, unsympathetic to a raw band like the Feelgoods.
There had been friction between Johnson and Brilleaux anyway. Wilko liked speed, and was partial to acid; the other three were serious drinkers (not that these recreational pursuits are necessarily mutually exclusive, but it proved so in this case). Jealously about ‘residuals’ may have also caused disputes, with Wilko doing the lion’s share of the songwriting. Whatever way you slice it, Johnson played on the album but never toured it, walking out of the sessions and subsequently forming the Solid Senders. As his replacement, the others drafted in John ‘Gypie’ Mayo, a perfectly adequate if rather more conventional r’n’b guitarist, who on later albums only served to illustrate how special Wilko had made Dr. Feelgood. Interestingly, some of the odds’n’sods on CD 3 are demos for Sneakin’ Suspicion, and tracks that were left off it, which show what a good album it could have been if the band had been left to its own devices. The DVD pulls together a variety of TV appearances (dig those cruel V-neck jumpers on The Geordie Scene’s audience) and live sets from shows at the Southend Kursaal (some of which wound up on Stupidity) and the Kuusrock festival in Finland. The package also includes a recent interview with Johnson, some natty comic strips and pics, plus a revelatory essay about their formative years, ‘The Breeding of Dr. Feelgood’, by poet Hugo Williams. (Another renowned poet, Tony Harrison, was apparently a huge mentor to Wilko at Newcastle, and later a close friend.)
I saw them once, at the National Stadium in 1976 (don’t worry, I hadn’t even done my Inter Cert, as it was then known, at that stage) unfortunately just after Wilko had left. I saw the Solid Senders some years later, and have seen Wilco several times since. He played Whelan’s not so long ago. Good shows all, but together they must have been somethin’ else.
The New York Dolls may have beaten their British counterparts to the punch by several years as progenitors of punk, but in this boxset you have a valuable document of one of the antecedents of British New Wave, the other strand of which was being provided by T Rex et al. The Feelgoods and Roxy Music? It’s a strange fusion, but that’s one of the great things about popular music: once you get beyond the fashion, it’s all there for you to choose your own particular pick’n’mix.
Sunday, 29 May 2022
Of a sudden, I recall that I did a phone interview with the great Cathal Coughlan in 2013, for the now defunct website State.ie, about his North Sea Scrolls project with Luke Haines and Andrew Mueller. Here be the text.
Cathal Coughlan / North Sea Scrolls
What do you get when put Cathal Coughlan, of Microdisney, Fatima Mansions and solo fame, Luke Haines, formerly of Auteurs renown, and music journalist and travel writer Andrew Mueller together in one room? Why, three men in colonial hats and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum jungle suits, singing songs about an alternative history of Britain and Ireland. These gents are bringing their demented North Sea Scrolls show, which started life at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011 and was subsequently released as an album last year, to the National Concert Hall on November 2nd. Cathal Coughlan recently marked my cards as to what to expect, and we chewed over some other old stuff as well.
Just to fill the unsuspecting among you in, the North Sea Scrolls are ancient documents, long thought forever lost, which were presented to Coughlan and Haines by the actor Tony Allen, who found them in a bin outside Waitrose. They contain a proxy account of the recent past in these isles, demonstrating that pretty much everything you know and have ever learned about them is at best inaccurate, but more likely just downright wrong.
Who’d have thought, for example, that far from suffering 800 years of oppression under the English yoke, in reality the Irish invaded and conquered Britain in 1948, later dividing it into just two counties, Northshire and Southshire? Or that Oswald Mosley led two successive British governments in the 1960s, with Joe Meek as his Minister of Culture, while Enoch Powell was Poet Laureate? (Apropos, I’m surprised they didn’t shoehorn Eric Clapton’s once professed admiration for Powell, elucidated drunkenly from a Birmingham stage in 1974, in there somewhere) Or that the failed kidnapper of Princess Anne, Ian Ball, made a Robert Johnson-at-the-crossroads-like pact with the Devil – a gent who appears in a cloud of sulphurous cigar smoke, with a rattle of gold chains, wearing a shell suit – who ‘fixed it’ for the Broadmoor Psychiatric Prison resident to swap places with his guitar-wielding namesake in the ‘bewilderingly successful’ indie rock band, Gomez. (Considering this twist, it’s odd the boys didn’t conjure some similar case of mistaken identity between above-mention thespian Tony Allen, and the identically named great Afrobeat drummer.)
Another song, Coughlan's 'Mr Cynthia', puts the record straight on how Joe Meek put a radicalized John Lennon under house arrest in the mid-’60s, to curb the Mop Top’s influencing the country’s impressionable young folk toward dissent. In his absence from the public eye, Lennon’s then wife Cynthia immerged from the shadows into a proto-Thatcherite champion of ‘blank common sense.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jim Corr figures along the way too, persuading the retired IRA to dig up much of South Armagh because he believes that Shergar, the Twin Towers and many other things are buried there.
The eagle-eyed among you will doubtless have spotted that, unlike how their illustrious predecessors the Dead Sea Scrolls act as an adjunct to official Christianity, the flaw with the North Sea Scrolls is that most of the events recounted therein would still be within living memory. Consequently, feeling that there is little point in quizzing Cathal as to the veracity of these claims, I inquire instead as to how he views the revelations of the scrolls in relation to the rest of his fine body of work. C’mon, isn’t it all just a humorous diversion, a Flann O’Brienesque jeu d’esprit?
“It’s not just a bit of fun,” Cathal responds. “I like to think it’s visionary, but not very serious. It’s also not always necessarily me speaking with my own voice. I’m so distant from Ireland now, that my view of Ireland can be inaccurate anyway. But in the past I might have come over as too po-faced sometimes, so it’s nice to do something more tongue-in-cheek.”
Which does cast into question if there’s any sense on the part of the writers, on the one hand, directing their considerable ire at soft targets like Gomez or Chris Evans (who gets burned at the stake), or in the audience, on the other hand, getting hot under the collar about a universe where Gomez and Chris Evans come off worse than Mosley and Powell. We all have our pet hates – don’t get me started on The Killers – but there again, would I bother writing a song slagging them off? Are the fairly innocuous actually more reprehensible than the outright awful? And what happens when the former are lampooned more than the latter?
Of course, Cathal is not entirely responsible for this state of affairs, as he and Luke Haines divide the songwriting credits, and vocals, between them. So, how did he meet Luke Haines? How did he work with him? Do they have an affinity?
“Well, Luke has most of the punch lines. I’m a kind of foil to him. He supplied most of the English stuff, and I took care of the Irish angle. The songs were written over a nine month period, and it was nice to meet up every so often and just hatch songs. I’d bring what I had, he’d bring what he had. I’ve known him for seven or eight years. I’m certainly a fan of Luke’s, you’d have to ask Luke if he’s a fan of mine.”
They are both lyricists – why do they need Andrew Mueller’s input?
“He provides the narration, and some historical context. He brings a certain kind of Australian irreverence. He’s also an editor of sorts.”
In his younger days across the water, Cathal was known for his antipathy towards the raggle taggle brigade back home. In the nascent days of Fatima Mansions in the early ’90s, he was heard to ask and answer from a London stage, “Am I the only person here with an Irish passport who doesn’t think Van Morrison is a god-like genius? Transatlantic fraud.” This was in the wake of the huge success of the Morrison/Chieftains collaboration, Irish Heartbeat. Might his Van ‘Grumpy’ Morrison comments be seen as kicking against perceived regression after the advances of the punk wars had dissipated? Or against perceived misrepresentation of Ireland on the international stage?
“I hated that album, I hated it more than normal because I even paid for it with my own money. But I have to say I think Astral Weeks is a great album, particularly when you think how young he was when he did it. Looking back now, I think people find all kinds of reasons for why they don’t like something - the politics, the ideology, whatever - but there’s usually a more fundamental reason: they just don’t like listening to it.
“It’s funny, when I started listening to English folk music, and discovered it was much more acerbic than Irish folk music, which is much more lush. But I’ve always loved Christy Moore, one of my favourite singers.”
Would he ever come back to Ireland, or is he firmly ensconced in London now?
“I’m over four or five times a year. But materially, there’s no way someone of my resources could just walk back into it now. I was skint then back them, I’m not that much better off now.”
But London’s expensive.
“But I have a support system here. I know where to go, where things are cheaper.”
Any regrets about how he handled his earlier career? Would it have helped if he’d been less confrontational?
“A lot of the problems to do with Microdisney stemmed from insecurity, anxiety. By the time we got to the final album it didn’t seem to matter what we did, because the audience was well and truly alienated anyway.”
And his solo career?
“What I learned from making Black River Falls was ‘don’t waste time on little things’. I brought in people to get help with the strings on that, and it dictated the rest of the album.”
Has he anything in the pipeline now?
“If I do something, it’s going to be very different from what I’ve been doing recently, or even in the middle term. It won’t have a strong rhythm section, and will feature more string arrangements.”
Will he be recording?
“I’ve come to think that making a record is of questionable use, either as a means to playing in public, or for documentation. It doesn’t get you more gigs, at least not if you’ve being doing it as long as me. But we’ll see.”
Back to more immediate concerns, North Sea Scrolls has been recorded, but has divided opinion, with reviews ranging from ‘deeply engrossing and rings resoundingly with cultural and historical truth’ to ‘a discombulating listen, but also a daft, enjoyable one’ to ‘an in-joke gone horribly wrong.’ With a public interview before the show itself, you can get to explore how seriously or otherwise we should take these phantasmagorical tales, and make up your own mind this Saturday.
Thursday, 20 January 2022
I composed the letter below in response to Ken Early's disparaging article about Manchester City (The Irish Times, 20/01/2022), and sent it to Letters to the Editor. Needless to say, it wasn't published, so I present it here.
As a lifelong Manchester City supporter, I feel it is incumbent on me to react to the clear biases on show in Ken Early's article, 'Manchester City’s dominance a reminder the rich always get their way' (Monday, January 17th, 2022).
His assertion that ‘Guardiola’s style lacks excitement that club’s fans – and players – seek’ is utterly risible, and certainly does not apply to Manchester City fans, much less discerning neutrals. It is equalled only by this ludicrous observation: ‘Look at the joy Manchester United have given the world these last several years. Lurching from crisis to crisis, they continue to be more watchable than City’s vastly superior team.’ The truth is that Manchester United have for some time been a laughing stock. While there may be considerable schadenfreude to be derived by fans of other clubs in watching United’s steady decline into a comedic soap opera, they are surely not heading to Old Trafford to witness object lessons in how The Beautiful Game should be played. That takes place in East Manchester.
It really is unconscionable that so-called football writers will not keep abreast of the tactical evolution of the game. Early contends that ‘Most of us don’t watch football for technical quality or tactical intrigue’ – an appalling admission from a supposed pundit. His naïve nostalgia for ‘the long-range screamer – arguably the most thrilling sight in football’ is, as he well knows from the statistical analyses he refers to, misplaced. In any case, for an example of the occasional judicious deployment of same, I would direct him to Vincent Kompany’s stunner v Leicester (May 6, 2019), which kept Liverpool in second place and helped secure City’s defence of the title that season. Indeed, one need go no further back than last Saturday’s 1 – 0 defeat of Chelsea, and point to Kevin De Bruyne’s match-winning strike from outside the penalty area, for evidence that the ball is not always ‘walked into the net’. (Cf. also: Rodri v Everton 19/11/2022; and Cancelo v Newcastle 20/12/2022.) Early also attempts to bolster his bizarre argument that City's playing style is boring by comparing a City match which he considers to have been 'dull and featureless' with another City match which he considers to have been exciting. Boring and exciting at the same time? He cannot have it both ways. As for Early’s disingenuous implication that City players are wanting to leave the club because they are supposedly so bored of the system, the reasons are more likely to hinge on personal issues (e.g. homesickness) or the brinkmanship involved in contractual negotiations, rather than discontent with playing style (and winning trophies).
Of course, Early inevitably arrives at the usual source of carping for opposition fans: the money. The fact is that Manchester United’s transfer spend has exceeded that of City’s over the past five years – and look at the shambles they are. Money does not guarantee success, unless it is invested wisely, and the players it attracts are developed to their full potential. As for the accusations of ‘sportswashing’ and human rights abuses in UAE, I confess I fail to see how this is more reprehensible than the naked greed of the profit motive which drives the owners of other high-profile clubs, and which acts only as an advertisement for the ideology of neo-liberalism (to the detriment of those clubs). Great art has always depended on patronage. The Medici and Borgia families, including the Popes they produced, were not famed for having ‘clean hands’, but without them there would have been no Italian Renaissance.
Put simply: the Irish media are dictated to by those who engage with it, and in this country the majority of soccer fans who follow the English Premiership are supporters of either Manchester United or Liverpool. Through their bitter fandom of Manchester City’s nearest ‘rivals’, expressed via prejudiced, envious pot-shots, Early and his ilk provide clickbait catnip for these hordes, at the expense of the offence caused to longstanding City fans. To criticise City’s current dominance in the Premiership, formerly held by the clubs they espouse, is to display scant knowledge of how La Liga or the Bundesliga operate. Early’s Parthian shot is: ‘there is one thing City are good at making you feel, and that is the helplessness that comes from knowing that you live in a world where the richest will always get their way.’ The richest do not always get their way; but City’s deserved contemporary dominance makes me and other City fans feel great.