In 2020, the five Irishmen who comprise the most electric rock’n’roll band of the decade defied burnout clichés and hunkered down with their post-punk gurus to hatch their game-changing second album. MOJO’s Keith Cameron bared witness. Ahead of Fontaines D.C.’s appearance at Glastonbury this weekend you can read the interview in full...
Grian Chatten was just a child when he realised music would change his life. One night, his mother woke him up and dragged him down to the kitchen. Putting The Cure’s 2001 Greatest Hits into the CD player, she danced the sleepy boy around. Grian’s father was aghast. “What the fuck are you doing? Get back to bed!” But his mum insisted he keep dancing. “One more tune, one more tune…”
“I thought the whole aesthetic of The Cure was amazing,” Chatten says. “That album cover – it made so much sense to me as a kid that the stars would be hung by strings. I don’t know if it actually is Robert Smith on the cover, his hands are covering his face. It was mysterious but also a nice expression of shyness. That whole collection of tunes sounded like someone who is shy – like a world they built up inside.”
Music had already been the making of Chatten. His parents met at an Irish pub in Germany, where each was playing in separate covers bands – “The Pogues, things like that. The two bands began jamming together at a party.” Soon after his mum had danced him around the kitchen, Grian’s dad taught him how to play Love Me Tender on the guitar. “As soon as I could put my finger to a string and know what sound it was going to make, I knew I would be able to express myself.” Chatten began writing songs almost immediately. “The first tune I wrote, the chorus was just: ‘I’m running and I’m running and I’m running and I’m running and I’m running and I’m running…’. Quite funny to imagine a kid, using music to escape, and for that to be the lyric. I would have been nine years old.”
Fifteen years later, Chatten, now singer in Fontaines D.C., is joining his bandmates – drummer Tom Coll, guitarists Conor Curley and Carlos O’Connell, bassist Conor Deegan – at the 2020 NME Awards in Brixton Academy, where they’re nominated in the ‘Best New Act In The World’ category. It’s not really their scene. The self-congratulatory atmosphere feels similar to student days at Dublin’s British and Irish Modern Music Institute, where the Fontaines first met: five outsiders, estranged from the careerists and over-sharers on the modern arts industry production line.
The event does have one saving grace: sat nearby, waiting to be awarded ‘Best Festival Headliner’, are The Cure. Seeing that Robert Smith appears as uncomfortable as they do makes Fontaines D.C. feel better. “His speech was so lovely, so human,” Chatten recalls. “His music is all about that refuge within himself. You could listen to it if you were bed-bound, and feel completely free and liberated.”
So you went over and said hello?
Chatten looks appalled. “Oh no. Jesus. No way.”
Arriving at Fontaines D.C.’s south London Airbnb, MOJO is directed to the upstairs bathroom. Tickled by their temporary abode’s pimped-out spec, the band are conducting photographs and interview in the jacuzzi. There are other, more typical signs of a young rock group away from home: the musty smell of hand-rolled cigarettes; a half-empty crate of beer; five sets of bleary eyes. Next to some guitar cases sits a framed drawing of five figures climbing a ladder bearing the legend: “Fontaines D.C. 29,955 tickets sold in the UK to date!”, and an Irish proverb: “Tús maith death na hoibre” – “a good start is half the battle.”
Each rung of the ladder charts their progress through London’s live music circuit, complete with dates and attendance figures: from The Shacklewell Arms (23/5/18; 96) through The Lexington (5/12/18; 200), The Garage (17/4/19; 600), Kentish Town Forum (27/11/19; 2,300), up to the Brixton Academy (25/2/20; 4,921). Brixton is fresh in the memory, as it was just two days ago, the latest high on an ascent remarkable for its rapidity.
“We haven’t, up until recently, had much time to stop and look around,” says Chatten. “It’s finally started to hit me in the last month or two. And then Brixton compounded that, obviously. But I was surprised by the feeling of intimacy I got from Brixton. People are standing or sitting on other people’s shoulders, really screaming the lyrics. It was more the look in the people’s eyes than the amount of people at the show that affected me. I didn’t realise it went so deep into them.”
“Music in Dublin was fucking dour. It wasn’t bands playing songs that people could move to.”
The extraordinary rise of Fontaines D.C. has been driven by the April 2019 release of Dogrel. Primal rock’n’roll tub-thumpery and wild-side manoeuvres wrapped in an Irish poet’s overcoat – Lou Reed’s Street Hassle set in Dublin – the album functioned both as classic all-killer no-filler debut and a greatest hits. Six of its 11 songs had already been released, and four of these – Liberty Belle, Hurricane Laughter, Boys In The Better Land and Chequeless Reckless – were hi-definition re-recordings of their first three DIY 7-inches, the songs faster after two years of relentless gigging, and then torqued to the max by producer Dan Carey. Besides the application and the artistry, Fontaines also had an abundance of attitude, as evident from live performances that stoked tension and release, with Chatten either motionless or pacing edgily amid the racket like a young Matt Dillon: existential savage incarnate. Trevor Dietz, who ran Dublin music hangout Garage Bar, asked to manage them after being impressed at the singer playing an entire gig without once removing his hands from his pockets.
“When did we first realise we were a good group?” Conor Curley ponders. “The first rehearsal.”
Carlos O’Connell laughs, but his fellow guitarist isn’t joking. “Carlos said we were the best band in the world when we first started out. Instead of thinking classically Irish and being like, ‘Oh no, we’re shit’, we were going to be good. Music in Dublin at the time was fucking dour. It wasn’t bands playing songs that people could move to. That’s what we wanted to do.”
“The idea of rock’n’roll and what it meant to us, to be totally clichéd, was very much about rebellion and self-expression,” says Deegan. “I was 20, the oldest, everyone else was 18. We were getting such a thrill out of the idea of not being humble, not falling for that Irish faux humility – of talking about being great. It made us seem like dickheads for so long, ’cos we were really bad. But honestly, the best thing about that, and why I really value that spirit, is because it drove us to be really good. We became a lot less self-conscious and wrote an awful lot more honestly.”
“Dublin” is the first word on Dogrel and its last song is Dublin City Sky – a rain-soaked dawn elegy that wraps the feckless optimism of The Pogues around the barbed wire melancholy of The Jesus And Mary Chain and squeezes out black Liffey water tears. None of Fontaines D.C. are actually from Dublin, which perhaps explains their enthusiastic embrace of the city’s folklore. O’Connell was born in Madrid, the son of an Irish mother and Spanish father, and moved to Dublin at 18. Coll and Deegan both grew up in County Mayo – Deegan is sporting Mayo’s ’90s-vintage Gaelic football shirt – while strapping, square-jawed Curley is from a border village in Monaghan, where he showed sporting potential until a leg injury at 15 ended his hopes of representing the county at football or hurling. “But,” he shrugs, “I was doing so much team sports that after a while I hated it. I really hated having a manager, I really hated having to be places…”
O’Connell points out that Curley now has three managers.
“I know, I know! It seemed like a rebellion – y’know, rock star, do whatever I want!” He laughs. “I guess I’m still trapped in my own dreams.”
Chatten, meanwhile, was born in Cumbria – English mum, Irish dad – moved to Ireland as a baby, and after a nomadic childhood settled in the north County Dublin village of Skerries at 12. “My parents had me far too early,” he muses. “They didn’t have enough money, didn’t really have jobs. I was living in a lot of bungalows. Which actually I loved. Made me feel a bit taller.” Drawn to the city’s music college, words, not music, initially bonded the five. “Our introversion weirdly brought us together,” says Chatten. “We all began to share, tentatively, our thoughts and our writing, and eventually our poetry that we all worked on in private.”
“It became apparent we were the quiet ones,” Deegan nods. “We were the ones walking round with books in our pockets.”
Inspired by the Beats and Ireland’s literary titans – Brendan Behan, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats – their romantic vision of Dublin was coloured by an awareness of the generational and class divisions opened up by the contemporary city’s gentrification. The collective anger found eloquent expression on such songs as the drug-hopeless Lotts, or Chequeless Reckless, its hypnotic skiffle beat conveying a succession of vengeful auguries: “Money is the sandpit of the soul”; “The empty glass is ringing all across the nation”; “The suits are running and it won’t be long…”
Asked to characterise his authorial stance in these songs, Chatten says: “I’m a spectator but I play a participant, a lot. I was sensitive to the social issues in Dublin at the time.” One reason the album resonated so widely is the authenticity of its lyrical canvas. At the time Fontaines signed their deal with US-based indie Partisan in 2018, their singer was living in a damp former office space, sharing a bed with Curley and a communal toilet with 10 others. Each morning he woke at 4.30am and walked 45 minutes to one of Dublin’s five-star hotels, to prepare the breakfast buffet.
“It was like Maggie’s Farm,” he says. “Everyone I was serving was rich, my manager was rich, and I’m the fucking person who brings out the eggs and the sausages. I was losing my mind, because of how I was being treated and how I was being remunerated.”
“You were like a zombie,” agrees Deegan. “We did make a good time of it though. When we didn’t have money to drink at Garage Bar, we’d go down Love Lane and drink cans from Tesco. We got really into The Dubliners then, just walking the streets was really romantic. I’m sorry if it doesn’t feel like that to you.”
“No, it definitely does… I was just miserable at the end. But it gave us a real distaste for artifice, and pretending.” Chatten’s rueful eyes brighten suddenly. “Acting happy takes its toll on you.”
Tuesday, February 25, 2020. Brixton Academy. An hour before stage time, in one of the many nearby pubs crammed with punters stoking up before Fontaines D.C.’s biggest show yet, BBC 6Music DJ Steve Lamacq is being buttonholed by an emotional man named John, who declares Dogrel “the first record to make me feel so alive since I heard Arctic Monkeys’ From The Ritz To The Rubble”. A Fontaines advocate since the early singles and pub gigs, Lamacq is beginning to assume guru status in John’s possibly impaired vision. “Thank you for giving us this band,” he finally says, solemnly.
“It’s a strange thing when you see a band and you just know there’s something about them,” Lamacq considers. “The pictures Fontaines created on that first record were so compelling – raw, written from the bottom looking up. They drew in a lot of people who feel a similar way, a bit ostracised, who don’t quite fit in. This new record won’t be what those people expect. It’s a dramatic move.”
As lights go down at Brixton Academy, the PA fills the hall with School Days Over, from The Dubliners’ 1970 album Revolution. Both stirring and sad, Ewan MacColl’s song is a summons for boys to leave their age of innocence and begin new lives as working men down the mines. From within the darkness, Tom Coll’s martial drums urge his bandmates into A Hero’s Death, title track of the eagerly awaited second Fontaines D.C. album.
Though still three months away from release and unfamiliar to almost everyone present, the song’s repetitive drive and barfly philosophising evoke a recognisable landscape. Indeed, Chatten wrote the lyric while listening to the first playback of the just-completed Dogrel: “It came from a nagging fear that I might not be able to do it again.” The set’s five other new songs, however, swerve easy catharsis. Both the plangent minimalism of I Don’t Belong and Lucid Dream’s curdled psychedelic hysteria evoke the dark side of the band Chatten’s mother danced her son across the kitchen to. Love Is The Main Thing is a malevolent Bad Seeds dirge; Televised Mind pure year zero data-panik. MOJO wonders what John is making of it.
By their own admission, Fontaines D.C. got a little torn and frayed last summer, locked into the vortex of promoting their debut LP. “We were playing catch-up with the record – Dogrel just became more successful than us,” says O’Connell. “There’s a lot of stress, trying to live up to that, something that just came out of nowhere.”
Retreating into art, they began writing in hotel rooms, at soundchecks, on the move, enjoying the fresh compositional options offered by a newly acquired Fender Bass VI, an instrument favoured by Robert Smith, tuned an octave lower than a regular guitar. As Chatten puts it: “The new record was conceived in the back of a van out of desperation to regain a sense of control over our lives.” Isolated from the hoopla surrounding Dogrel’s success, its Mercury award nomination and whatnot, the band found fresh inspiration in the gothic Americana of Lee Hazlewood and Galaxie 500’s slowly simmering sadness. A Hero’s Death, the album, is no return to the Dublin back alleys of their debut.
“We spent five weeks total in Ireland during 2019,” Deegan explains. “Constantly gigging, constantly talking to fans, doing interviews, was draining us. Writing those songs was like a refuge, so the album has a way more introverted feel. It’s more claustrophobic as well. So we weren’t in Dublin, and you can’t write songs about Dublin when you’re not there.”
After an hour in an empty jacuzzi, Fontaines D.C. need to stretch their legs. Chatten flops onto the sofa and starts picking a tune on an acoustic guitar, his brooding on-stage intensity exchanged for something far gentler, yet no less committed or compelling. The journey to A Hero’s Death hasn’t been all smooth – a Nick Launay recording session in LA was dumped and the band began from scratch with Dan Carey – but now the singer welcomes whatever the future brings.
“Even if this new record is mauled critically, or turns all our fans away, it’s already given me so much.”
“I really hate being in the public eye, generally,” he says. “But I like having a moment of genuine connection. The pay-off is we get to write. I love writing with the lads. They’re all really talented, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.”
Chatten is unsure what response awaits A Hero’s Death. The album is too personal, he reckons, to imagine what critics might write about it – “It would be like someone reviewing a conversation you had with your mam.” And anyway, good reviews aren’t what Fontaines D.C. are in it for.
“We do it without any regard for expectations of other people,” says Chatten. “Even if this new record is mauled critically, or turns all our fans away, it’s already given me so much I couldn’t possibly regret it.”
This article originally appeared in MOJO 321.