- 23 May 22
Following news of Cathal Coughlan's passing, aged 61, we're revisiting a classic interview with the iconic Irish singer-songwriter.
Originally published in Hot Press in 1994:
"I was living fast, planning to die young and I was probably gonna take a few people with me," says Fatima Mansions firebrand Cathal Coughlan of his descent into a personal and creative nightmare. Now back stronger, healthier and with an acclaimed new album, Lost In The Former West, under his belt, he retraces the highs, lows and kicks in the teeth of the last few years with Liam Fay.
“You get older, you get scared but you get no wiser,” bellows Cathal Coughlan on ‘The Loyaliser’. It’s one of his most heartfelt lines, the sum of what he has learned during his thirty-three years on the planet. Not all that long ago, however, there was the distinct possibility that Coughlan wasn’t even going to get any older.
“I was living fast, planning to die young and I was probably gonna take a few people with me,” he admits. “I didn’t think beyond the next step and I bitterly regret that because that was how I really fucked up my life and other people’s. The fact that I didn’t give myself or anybody else any reason for hope meant that there was just limitless scope for destruction. I was never gonna last anyway, nothing was ever gonna last.”
Rewind to late 1991. Prone to black depressive and often suicidal moods since he was a teenager, Coughlan had found at least some measure of security through the twin moorings of his long-time girlfriend and his band, Fatima Mansions. When the relationship disintegrated at the beginning of ’92, the musical anchor too began to slip. The album that emerged from his shattered love match, Valhalla Avenue, was badly received commercially and wasn’t even granted an American release. His confidence was suddenly demolished. He felt incompetent, humiliated and emotionally bereft.
For a while, he tried to mitigate and manage the pain through what had become familiar methods. He ran, lifted weights and drank, heavily. It proved to be a lethal combination. The fitter and tougher he became the more capable he was of withstanding punishment, therefore the tighter he stretched the rack.
“It was like being a rat on a treadmill really,” he avers. “I was abusing every substance I could find, whatever was available, mainly alcohol. They nearly had a hospitalisation on their hands a few times during the ZOO TV tour. It was all self-inflicted but I just didn’t care. It got quite bad at times.”
The support slot on the European leg of U2’s world tour made matters even worse. It was great exposure, and the fees he says were “more than generous”, but the Mansions’ abrasive stage style incurred some very hostile reactions from audiences only interested in the headliners. Booing and missiles became nightly hazards. “It didn’t have to be as exhausting as it was,” Coughlan recalls. “It was just another excuse to torment myself.”
And then, yet another huge kick in the teeth. What Cathal Coughlan describes as “deceitful business dealing” that can’t be expanded upon here because of pending legal considerations left Fatima Mansions with massive debts which were only exacerbated by their unsuccessful attempts to seek redress through the courts.
“The whole flow of the band was stopped dead by that,” says Coughlan. “The fact that I was living in Newcastle wasn’t good either. I didn’t fit all that well into the place and having to commute to London just to talk to somebody was like having to climb a mountain. 400 miles. All these things didn’t help. I just felt I was totally incompetent. My confidence as a writer and as a person was gone. There were large stretches of time when I was in a black mood. And I wasn’t really cushioning myself with substance abuse the way I had been before so there was no escape.
“I spent a lot of the last couple of years just wondering who the hell I was. Musically, personally, the whole lot. I don’t know that I’ve come to any conclusions yet. Every aspect of my life changed several times. There was no time to get comfortable. There were a limited number of things that I could cling onto. The band and songs really were the only reference points I had that meant anything so I wasn’t too inclined to stray away from that.”
You get older, you get scared but you get no wiser? “Yeah,” he replies. “You can get more sensible, I suppose. Sensible enough to remain alive anyway.”
The Cathal Coughlan who strolls into The Clarence Hotel in Dublin and greets me jauntily as “Father Liam” is certainly a more assured, positive and upbeat individual than the one in the foregoing summary. Getting the new album, Lost In The Former West, completed was a real shot in the arm for everyone concerned and the mood in the Fatima Mansions camp is now, he insists, guardedly optimistic.
There have been other changes too. His sojourn in Newcastle didn’t turn out to be a complete disaster. It was there that he met the woman who last year became his wife, and for that he will be “eternally grateful.” He’s off the booze and the chemicals, experimenting with “a year of sobriety,” and he has become a vegan. He’s even taken to meditation.
“I do the Awareness of Breathing,” he explains. “I don’t go in for any of that religious stuff at all (laughs). I have to go to the Buddhist centre to do it but they’re fine. As long as you’re just there for the Awareness of Breathing, they don’t give you anything else. You have to sit a certain way, there’s a certain amount of procedural stuff, but there’s no religious stuff at all.
“I was being more aggressive on stage than ever before,” he elaborates “and I was hurting myself, physically, to a point where I was having trouble doing anything else. The set we’ve been doing is in-your-face the whole way through. The meditation helps a bit. I feel like I’ve had a rest afterwards which I don’t always do if I’ve had a sleep.”
Recently, Coughlan has moved back to London, a city to which he once said he would never return. He and his wife live in Dulwich, a curious little enclave sandwiched between the Olde Tory Towne of Dulwich Village (where Thatcher was supposed to domicile after she retired) and the badlands of Peckham. When Cathal goes running, he slows down while passing through the heart of Dulwich Village to give the locals a good look at his favourite Fatima Mansions t-shirt, the one depicting Michael Portillo and Peter Lilley in flagrante delicto.
“I’m back in London under protest,” he affirms. “I hardly ever go out. I stay out of the West End and all that crap. It drives me insane. I’ve had to go to gigs there and it was dismal. I don’t see anymore why I have to be contented with people just acting in this ridiculous, bad mannered way. Particularly if they recognise you, there are people who will not get out of your way. These lifer indie kids. Their age doesn’t seem to change much. They must go somewhere to learn how to stay young and obnoxious.”
Of course, some of these “lifer indie kids” are the very ones who are most likely to object to the idea of one of their heroes “settling down.”
“The fact is I always tried to live a settled life but the problem was that it just broke down big time,” asserts Coughlan. “I don’t see anything good about that. The subject matter that I’m interested in lyrically remains exactly the same as ever. It’s still very confrontational and I’m not making any changes about that. If people have got a problem with my lifestyle, they only have to look at their favourite cause célèbre from the confrontational set and I’ll tell them ten things about them that’ll show them what they really are.”
Anyway, in real life, Cathal Coughlan has always borne little or no resemblance to his raging, ranting and rancorous on-stage alter ego.
“You gotta cut it into two halves,” he says. “There’s the behaviour and there’s the feelings behind it. The feelings that are behind the behaviour on stage are present in the rest of my life over fifty per cent of the time. But when I’m off stage, these feelings tend to make me moody, inarticulate, never violent or threatening or aggressive or any of that kind of thing. They make me the kind of person who has trouble dealing with the kind of problems that I’m always thinking about. I can never see my way through them because I’ve got all this pent-up stuff.”
He concedes that marriage has wrought some changes, however, and all for the better.
“I try to separate the two things much more than I used to because if I try to find a reason in my personal life for everything I’m doing in the writing then I’m gonna seem like I’m a fraud sometimes,” he reflects. “Everyone is a fraud. You have to use your imagination. The differences that my marriage has made to my life are really confined to the way I see the future. I don’t really have to have this. I don’t have to have the front-page of the NME and a 60-day tour of the United States waiting for me in order to feel good about myself.
“It has also made me feel that there is a future beyond music because everyone’s got to find that eventually. I now feel that that future is there and, for years, I didn’t feel that.”
The budget for Lost In The Former West came exclusively from Fatima Mansions’ U.S. label, Radioactive Records. The Yanks have long been unsure about how to handle or react to the band. It was they who rejected Valhalla Avenue but it is also only they who can break the Mansions in the really global way that the band truly deserves.
The album was definitely made with at least one eye on the American market, hence the drafting in of former Talking Head, Jerry Harrison, as producer. “He’s an amusing kind of a man,” says Coughlan, “but it was always very evident that he comes from a slightly different background to the one that I did and I never lost sight of that fact. He understood a lot but there were some music references that were completely lost on him, and some of them were about American music as well.”
Coughlan has mixed feelings about the American touring onslaught which Fatima Mansions begin later this year. It will be a hard slog, undoubtedly, but they’ve played the dive circuit over there before. This time round, it’ll be a theatre tour, as support act to a band called Live who mean nothing here but are huge in the U.S. Cathal has been spending a great deal of time in the States during the last few years and has grown to like the place. He also believes that, musically, the atmosphere is more open to diversity on the other side of the Atlantic than it is in Europe.
“There are bands who have no profile in the UK but who are massive in the States whereas Suede are laughed at over there, not that that causes me too many sleepless nights,” he explains. “But I still feel quite alien, particularly with business people. The whole philosophy of the way they do business is completely different. Everyone has to seem enthusiastic all the time. It’s not enough to be personable with someone and let them know in whatever way that this isn’t necessarily what you’d like to be doing. Nobody ever does that in America so you never know where the fuck you stand. It’s just bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
“It’s a scary kind of a time really. The problem with the whole American music business is one of its great strengths as well. They don’t turn their backs on someone just because they’re unfashionable or because they’re no longer flavour of the month. An American record company will keep an act on to make the same album fifteen times in the hope that it sells on the fifteenth. Whereas if the English music press and record companies see a band doing that, even for two albums, there’s an instant backlash and the chain is pulled.”
The initial reviews of the new album in the British inkies suggest that perhaps Fatima Mansions have now reached the wrong end of the moronic but predictable build-’em-up-knock-’em-down seesaw.
“I thought it was going to be worse actually,” shrugs Cathal. “I was really squaring myself up for a reputation destroyer which they can happily do. There was a live review in Melody Maker a couple of weeks ago that was just vitriolic in the extreme. I don’t lose any sleep about it, particularly when you see what they’re championing at present.”
What’s the best bit of news that Coughlan has heard coming out of Ireland lately?
“The likely success of the divorce referendum and what it represents,” he replies. “I’ve yet to hear anything from the North that I’d say is good news. I’ll tell you one thing that would be great news, if Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring would stop trying to score short term political advantage for themselves down here over the North. It’s depressing that they would still do that after all this time.”
Did he watch any of Ireland’s World Cup matches?
“Inevitably,” he grins. “I watched the Italy match and was pretty amused by it. But I’ve grown to hate football. Living in Newcastle which is such a football town, the dichotomy between people’s class allegiances and what they subscribe to through football really fucking pisses me off no end. You’ve got intelligent people who know what they’re doing paying hundreds of pounds for season tickets to St. James Park.
“People who hate the Tory party and everything it stands for and their season ticket money is going to this fucking millionaire arsehole called John Hall who gives money to the Tory party and has had a knighthood from the Tory party. They’re feeding in to that obscenity and football seems to me to be like that right down the line. There have been times in the last couple of years when I have been pathological in my hatred of football.
“Then there’s this charming fashion of people wearing their team’s away strip as normal everyday gear. I note with nausea that it is a trend that has now spread to this country.”
One assertion on which Cathal Coughlan proclaims himself to be “absolutely unshakeable” is that he is not going to tolerate any degree of uncertainty beyond the end of this year.
“I’ve had enough uncertainty to last a lifetime” he maintains. “Even if I can’t call the shots financially, I’m going to call the shots about what I’m prepared to do with my time. If one door closes, I’m going to rip open another. I’m quite confident that as long as my relationships with the people I’m working with stay good, we’ll find some way of keeping this thing going.”
Later, at a mini press launch for Lost In The Former West in Mr. Pussy’s Café De Luxe, Coughlan is in ebullient frame of mind. Around 11pm, he slips out to call his wife from a Cardphone near Trinity College. Ten minutes later, he’s back again, even more charged up than before, talking about “the smell of fear” and about how he’s just watched a drunken youth batter in the door of the adjoining phone booth with his head. “I know how he feels,” he remarks.
“I was reading about an Irish journalist called Peter Lennon who met Beckett in Paris and who got to know him quite well,” Cathal Coughlan had said earlier. “The main thing he noticed about Beckett was that he was a frontiersman. To me, that’s something I’ll just never have but I’d like to have it. Maybe, I’ll just have to go rural California and live there and shoot snakes to stay alive before I’ll develop it. Yeah, maybe that’s what I will do in the future.”
Cathal Coughlan passed away on May 18, aged 61, following a long illness. See here for more.