Telefís: Cathal Coughlan and Jackknife Lee look back to move forward in new album

With his first solo album in years having come in for critical acclaim, Leeside post-punk legend Cathal Coughlan moved straight to the next challenge - Telefís, a collaborative project with producer Jackknife Lee, that looks at society of the last 60 or so years through its cultural signifiers. Mike McGrath-Bryan investigates.
Telefís: Cathal Coughlan and Jackknife Lee look back to move forward in new album

Telefís debut album a hAon is a collaboration between Cathal Coughlan and Jackknife Lee.

An advance listen to ‘a hAon’, the self-titled debut album by Telefís, the duo of Microdisney/The Fatima Mansions man Cathal Coughlan and award-winning producer Jackknife Lee, reveals multitudes, as the old trope goes.

Subdued piano chords sit alongside mid-paced electronic movers, and wry observations of social and political phenomena are made with reference to a wide variety of cultural signifiers from what many would now call a bygone age, from early homegrown kids’ telly and trailblazing drag queen Danny LaRue, to recall of deeply-ingrained conservative paranoia that permeated generations of Irish life, and the inescapable ubiquity of the state and regional media that hallmarked it for so many.

Speaking via Zoom from his London home, Coughlan gets into how the collaboration and its underlying concepts came about.

“The initial contact was personal, because we hadn't seen each other in a long, long, long time. We were put in contact by (musician) Luke Haines, because Garrett was doing some work, reconstructing the Luke Haines/Peter Buck album. We were in contact, and we were just chatting on FaceTime, or something, and he suggested we do some work.

He said he'd work up some stuff, and I was pretty blown away by what arrived

“I'm a bit overwhelmed, because he's sitting in his home studio in Topanga Canyon, which has a pretty astonishing array of equipment, and I'm thinking, 'okay, well, this could be interesting'. He said he'd work up some stuff, and I was pretty blown away by what arrived.

“And I thought, 'this is interesting', because I was just finishing (last solo album) 'Song of Co-Aklan, so the two things were kind of dovetailing. But this was very different, so y'know, so it was definitely going to provide a cure for the post-album blues, which can so easily set in. First of all, we did (single) 'We Need', and everything about it just kind-of fell into place, after batting it back and forth, once or twice.

“What I was trying to do lyrically was to, just... because the lockdown had finally just taken shape and, already they were saying "don't you f**kers think that anything is going to fundamentally shift in the culture, and the economy, because of this", which of course they've been doing ever since, ever more vociferously. So, that provided easy meat. From then on, really, we were chatting more and more about our common Irish cultural background.”

The imagery on offer is stark - aforementioned cultural iconography aside, the physical record’s jacket carries potent reminders of the past, waves of history colliding as a picture of two mummers in full regalia sits alongside the classic St. Brigid’s cross, taken from its original context and presented in the monochrome of the still-recognisable RTÉ continuity cards of yore.

Telefís, the duo of Microdisney/The Fatima Mansions man Cathal Coughlan and award-winning producer Jackknife Lee.
Telefís, the duo of Microdisney/The Fatima Mansions man Cathal Coughlan and award-winning producer Jackknife Lee.

While the album is, of course, more of a commentary on the society under which these two images provide a contrast, it’s still interesting to dig a little deeper on that front - especially as RTÉ, on its 60th anniversary, finds itself contending to maintain its influence in changing times.

“I mean, it's easy to lampoon, because it can appear almost Soviet-style in its austerity, and weirdness, and its lack of internal harmony, right down to the co-opting of the St Brigid's cross, having this quite strange history of being nominally Christian, but really dating back to the Goddess previously. More, and more... like the Lambert puppets, that used to be on television when I was when I was a leanaí, these images just became our inspiration, but the intention never is to say that these people were pr*cks or they were malicious.

“It just so happens that because of the evil actions of an influential minority of those who ran the country in those days, like terrible things happened, but you don't want to tar everybody with that kind of brush. So that's the prevailing mood, you know, that gave rise to the album.

“The more international-minded things have an allegorical quality. I've been, for a while, somewhat obsessed with the stampede of the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II (laughs), so in true pop-production line fashion, we decided to do a track on that, because there are so many allegorical qualities, shall we say, that that possesses for the kinds of things that have been going on in the last... not just the pandemic, but way before it.”

An interesting historical note is struck with ‘The Symphonies of Danny La Rue’, not least because of Coughlan’s own Leeside upbringing. In seeking to explain that these songs sought to take the pop-culture of his and Lee’s youth and humanise it rather than make fun, he’s visibly delighted to hear of the drag legend’s great-grand-niece, Candy Warhol, following in the great entertainer’s footsteps.

“I mean, I think that is a definite case in point of not treating someone as just an inherently ridiculous, wooden, figure of fun - he was Daniel Carroll from Cork. I went to school with a cousin of his. He was a light entertainer, y'know, he was a bloke who cross-dressed for entertainment. There were a lot of gay and straight men doing that in the British Army, for entertainment, during the Second World War, which is so he started what he was doing.

“So, you know, I thought the title was interesting, but I definitely wasn't going to use it to say, 'Danny La Rue was a Philistine, he could never write a symphony, hahaha'. It's about taking a view of a very flawed character, as I have done, in my life, you know, and unpacking it, and trying to be a bit wiser about who I've been, and who others have been.”

As was the case with his previous solo album, ‘Song of Co-Aklan’ - another concept piece musing on modernity, albeit firmly rooted in the present - ‘a hAon’ was produced remotely, with Coughlan and LA-based Lee swapping files and ideas.

We’ve spoken with artists in these pages before about the incremental, iterative process of this kind of songwriting, in contrast to the spark, bombast and occasional nothingness of lobbing ideas around a practice space. In this instance, Coughlan found satisfaction and space in correspondence to explore ideas in his own time, as he keenly outlines in one case.

“We were mainly communicating through the tracks themselves, actually, but also by email and chat. Garrett's a great man for attaching images to the ends of his emails, and they became quite an inspiration. The song 'Picadors' for example, really came from a photo that he sent, which was from a collection of photos of the inner city in Dublin that were taken by I think, an American photographer in the early 1970s.

“And it was an elderly man and a young kid outside a Green Shield Stamps shop. I vaguely remember there being a place on the Western Road in Cork, you'd go there to redeem your stamps for your gift. It looked a bit more elegant, though than the one in Cork, that was just a prefab, between the road and the river.

It's about re-evaluating the dismissive attitude

“It just made me think about my dad's generation really, and how you might only have a very limited number of items of clothing, they should be as well tailored, and as durable as possible, those kinds of principles. It's about re-evaluating the dismissive attitude that I certainly had as a young person, and Jackknife and I have talked about this, so I can't really speak for him, but I think we both did that re-evaluation.

“I mean, I don't think he was ever as scabrous about things as I was, but the song just examines the way life does things to you that bring that realization. It's not just that people weren't so bad, they knew things that you don't know. That sounds really, really obvious, but it can take a lifetime to understand the extent of it.”

Slightly less collaborative, by Coughlan’s own admission, was the recording and post-production process, which ultimately put shape and coherence on the sheer range of ideas at play throughout the record.

Coughlan discusses his role in the process, and his further thoughts on how it’s all differed over the course of The Current Circumstances.

“It was pretty comfortable, really, I mean, because Garrett does a lot of the heavy lifting anyway, I mean, in terms of mixing, especially. So it's just a matter of exchanging files and I mean, I have a reasonable kit, I just don't have a lot of hardware, or the room for it.

Telefís features Cathal Coughlan and Jackknife Lee.
Telefís features Cathal Coughlan and Jackknife Lee.

“So it was like a continuation of 'Song of Co-Aklan' for me, simply for that reason, you know, there wasn't any need for me to go anywhere else. I can just record the voice... and y'know, maybe noodle around a little bit to figure out melodies but that's all that's needed from me, really, so it's terrific.”

As much as it was a thrill for Coughlan and Lee to have Wobble fix up one of their tunes, Coughlan speaks to an attachment to Irish culture that the Public Image Ltd. man found in the album’s songs.

“We met him through Brian at (label) Dimple Discs, who has known him for a long, long time. Both Gareth and I are huge fans, y'know, I mean, like from the first notes of PiL's song 'Theme', you know, on the first album, it was obvious there was something really actually 'punk' that wasn't about sounding like The Faces or anything like that, it was about really tearing the place up.

“He's kept it going ever since, I've followed his career with Invaders of the Heart and collaborations with Holger and Jaki from (kosmiche pioneers) Can, the many, many things he's done. I was also a big fan of his memoir, which is about to come out in a revised version soon. So we had a good chat with him, and he said he'd be happy to do something. His Irish heritage is quite important to him. I think working with Irish artists has inspired him a lot over the years.

It seemed like taking Falun Gong Dancer in a completely different direction from the album was a good, cheeky way to do something new

“So the question was 'what song?', and it seemed like taking Falun Gong Dancer in a completely different direction from the album was a good, cheeky way to do something because I mean, the album was finished at this point, and the arrangement of it on the album is pretty integral to it, the sort of daring, hopefully daring approach to be adopted.

“Now we’ve done work with him that will be on the next album.”

Telefís’ debut album, ‘a hAon’, releases on February 11 via Dimple Discs. The album is available for digital and physical pre-order from https://telefis.bandcamp.com/, including CD and 12” vinyl. Local vinyl pre-orders are also available from MusicZone in Togher.

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