Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee first saw Cathal Coughlan performing as Microdisney in The Grand in 1980. 41 years later the two have made an album under the moniker of Telefís. Turn on and tune in.
Heralding the halfway point of A hÁon, the debut record from Telefís, is an interlude entitled, The Imperial Angelus. For approximately a minute, the commanding gong synonymous to Catholic Ireland rings. Beneath its bellow are recordings taken from television archives, “Have you cleaned those shoes well now?” asks a conscientious male voice. First broadcast on Irish radio and television in 1950, the Angelus continues to be heard today. To the listener, it serves a stark reminder of the hold the religious institution retains on the country and certain media outlets. Exploring and examining our relationship to history, as Irish citizens, is one of the linear narratives presented throughout the endlessly captivating introduction from Telefís.
The Imperial Angelus is just one of thirteen brilliantly varied compositions and sound collages to be enjoyed on A hÁon, the culmination of a fruitful collaboration between two highly revered figures in Irish music, Cathal Coughlan (formerly of Microdisney and Fatima Mansions) and producer, Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee. The latter began his musical career as a guitarist with punk band Compulsion in the early 1990s before entering the world of production, notably working with R.E.M., U.2., and Taylor Swift amongst others. Meanwhile, Coughlan is beloved within the underground music scene, from his contributions in both of his groundbreaking outfits to his striking solo material. It’s remarkable, then, that it has taken so long for these distinguished figures to properly cross paths. However, their history goes back to when Lee was a teen and Coughlan was Microdisney.
“It was in Dublin, a great deal of time ago,” smiles Coughlan, remembering their first encounter. Lee elaborates, “I think it was around 1982, when I was 13 or 14. I had seen Microdisney supporting Siouxsie & The Banshees in The Grand in 1980, that was my first gig. Shortly afterwards, I started playing music and my first gig as a musician was supporting Microdisney! I played with them in Cork, also, and then I don’t think we met again.” Their eventual reintroduction, decades later, came through mutual friend, musician Luke Haines. From there, the prospect of making music together became a way for the two to hold onto their connection and develop a friendship. “I guess the impetus [to start Telefís] was as a way of socialising, really,” recalls Coughlan before turning to Lee, “It was you who suggested we do music, Garret.”
Amused, Lee continues, “I think I didn’t know what else to say! One of the only ways I can communicate with somebody is through music. I was also just really excited about reconnecting with Cathal because previously I would have been more of a fan than a friend. I think I just blurted out in an email, ‘Do you want to make some music?’ Without knowing what that music would be or sound like. Fortunately, Cathal was up for it. We had no plans but very quickly amassed some songs.” Using their shared affinity for post punk, the pair forged a foundation for their project; the name Telefís being a play on CBGB regulars, Television. Musically, however,
Kraftwerks’s 1975 record Radio-Activity was a big influence on a lot of their compositions.
The nature of this collaboration is reflective of how many artists worked throughout extensive periods of lockdown and isolation incurred from Covid-19. Neither are situated in the same place, or even timezone, with Coughlan living in London and Lee in Los Angeles. When we speak on Zoom (me adding Dublin to the mix), the disparity of location quickly disappears due to the warm and welcoming nature emanating from them. Casually chatting amongst themselves about their approach to making A hÁon, their chemistry is extremely endearing, one you expect from old friends and immediately feel part of.
“We started going back and forth like old pen pals,” Lee recalls. “I would send something and then Cathal would come back to me with something else. We shared things that weren’t music related; various reference points.” Coughlan picks up from Lee’s pause, “Yeah, like sometimes it would be still images of Irish scenes. That was quite a stimulating thing.” One such reference point closes out the record, a patchwork of snippets from Quicksilver, a quiz show broadcast on RTÉ from 1965 until 1981, hosted by Bunny Carr. Even if you’ve never heard of it, there’s a strong chance it’s catchphrase (“Stop the lights!) has entered your lexicon. Such touchstones became significant signposts for the pair when unravelling their inherent Irishness coupled with picking apart a “corrosive nostalgia,” as explained in the press release for A hÁon.
“It’s an interesting thing to be removed from the place you were brought up,” posits Lee. “My kids were wondering why I’m so unusual. What makes me not like the other parents. And I recognised that people I know from Ireland have quite a unique take on the world. It’s kind of mischievous. I think that’s part of something that was of the time I grew up in. So, Cathal and I started talking about things like that and then we got onto Quicksilver. There’s a homemade quality to some of those Irish TV shows from that time because the market was small. They had to do things cheaply and quickly. And it was insular, too. I think we both used music at the same time from other places as an escape hatch. Through those conversations, we unpicked who we were in some way.”
As with the inclusion of The Angelus within the tracklist, across his lyricism Coughlan invites us to reevaluate certain aspects from our shared past as a nation and give certain figures a rebirth for future generations. “Something I was conscious of when I was writing the lyrics was not to be lampooning or castigating people so much as to just pointing out their existence in quite a neutral way,” Coughlan says. “For example, ‘The Symphonies of Danny La Rue’, that’s a concept I would have taken in years gone by and just completely rampaged through it. But what I was trying to do this time was to say ‘There was absolutely nothing ridiculous about him. He was a live entertainer and he cross-dressed for entertainment. The actual protagonist in the song is someone who thinks that’s hilarious but is kind of morally redundant himself and doesn’t really have anything to say with it. So, I think that inkling of big picture terms is some of the spirit of the thing.”
In delivering those stories, Lee and Coughlan weave wonderful archival material throughout the songs, a mechanism the latter has done masterfully across his career. This textural development does well to captivate the listener, drawing them further into the world of the song. Describing his penchant for stitching found recordings within arrangements, Coughlan notes, “I think it can give you instant access to some kind of abstraction that you might have to really work hard at with like lyrics or melody to achieve. On the Telefís record, that was Garret creating a kind of subliminal side to the tracks but it’s something I find highly relatable. With Falun Gong Dancer, there are long pauses and then, in the distance, it sounds like there’s footsteps but it might just be a sustain pedal rattling. Your ear is drawn to it, though, and you’re wondering, ‘What is that?’ It gives the song a sort of abstract dimension. Which is really important, I think.”
Telefís (Jacknife Lee & Cathal Coughlan) release their debut album A hÁon on January 21.