Dublin band Fontaines DC: The New York Times is raving about them
The band want to show an Ireland ‘that neither accepts cliches nor rejects the past’
Fontaines DC: Carlos O’Connell, Conor Curley, Conor Deegan, Grian Chatten and Tom Coll. Photograph: Paulo Nunes dos Santos/New York Times
In one week last month, Fontaines DC went from the Glastonbury Festival to Copenhagen to Barcelona to St Petersburg to Moscow. At the airport on the way back to Ireland from that last stop, the band’s frontman, Grian Chatten, wandered off to buy some headphones while the rest of the band got on the plane.
Chatten didn’t make it back in time, and had to kill the better part of the next 24 hours while he waited for the next flight. He passed the time, he says, by “drinking bad Guinness until it tasted like good Guinness”. In the air, he kept going with plenty of free wine. Eventually, Chatten made it back to Dublin and to his parents’ house, where he lives between touring.
Later that day, sitting with his bandmates at a pub near the studio where they rehearse, Chatten has a rolled cigarette in his hand and a Flann O’Brien novel in his coat pocket. He says he was still drunk when his father came to collect him at Dublin Airport. But his dad wasn’t upset at the boozy state of his son, Chatten says. “He joined in when we got home!”
The vagaries of rock-band road life may not pair naturally with filial domesticity, but that’s just where Fontaines DC are at right now. A tour for the band’s debut album, Dogrel, released in April, has taken Fontaines DC all over Europe and the United States. The summer has been a blur of major festival dates, plus a punchy performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and a nomination for the Mercury Prize music award.
Fontaines DC are an anarchic guitar-rock band in a bleep-bloop present. And, unexpectedly, they have become one of the biggest Irish breakout acts in years. The emphasis is on Irish. The band references Ireland’s literary tradition – from James Joyce and William Butler Yeats to Patrick Kavanagh – as inspiration. They don’t seem afraid of how unhip that might sound in 2019.
The formula on Dogrel is simultaneously timeworn and specific: over guitars and drums, Chatten delivers oblique, compact poems about Dublin. “You know I love that violence that you get around here, that kind of ready-steady violence,” Chatten singsong shouts on the track Liberty Belle: It could be a hand sweep toward Ireland’s bloody history, or a nod towards a rough night out in the city.
The band’s five members, all in their early 20s, met as songwriting students at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute – more snappily known as Bimm – in Dublin, and initially bonded over their love of those lions of Irish words. The band grew, naturally, out of their friendship and shared interests.
For a few years starting from 2016, they ambled about playing local gigs and shuffling through sartorial phases. In one, no matter the weather, they wore Echo and the Bunnymen-inspired long coats; in another it was all women’s crop tops.
They spent as much time rehearsing as they did writing verse, the band’s bassist, Conor Deegan, says. They’d go to pubs and pass a notebook around the table; they self-published chapbooks and slipped them into bookstores. They put on readings with other writers, including a soap salesman-poet they met in Sweny’s, the pharmacy that features in Joyce’s Ulysses. “We pounded each other down to our bare emotions,” Chatten says. “And that’s why we’re friends for life. And enemies for life.”
That kind of open intensity and proud sensitivity might explain why a traditional white-dude rock band has hit a nerve, when the world seems to need anything but more white-dude rock.
“I certainly don’t think that there’s any element of machismo” to Fontaines DC, Chatten says. “We’d just sit and read books and drink pints and think fancifully,” Deegan adds.
Mesmerising early singles like Chequeless Reckless and Hurricane Laughter caught the attention of the US indie label Partisan Records, which signed Fontaines DC in November 2018. Then Dogrel was released, and the band’s lives were upended. They were living on rice and Tabasco not that long ago, Deegan says; nowadays, he adds, the label works them to the bone with festival dates.
The band’s last chance for a vacation, a few precious days in Mexico City, was stolen by the offer to play The Tonight Show in New York. Their next chance for a break, Conor Curley, one of the band’s guitarists, mumbles, could be taken away “by a gig on the moon or something”.
But the hard work is worth it, Chatten says: Fontaines DC want to give the world a view of Ireland that neither accepts antiquated cliches nor rejects the past.
Even so, the band’s love of Joyce and Yeats is unusual; young punk-adjacent bands aren’t supposed to love dusty books you get assigned at high school. A fellow Dubliner, Sally Rooney – perhaps the most famous young novelist in the world right now – has taken shots at her literary forebears. “I hate Yeats!’ she told one newspaper in 2017. “How has he become this sort of emblem of literary Irishness when he was this horrible man?”
But Chatten says Ireland is “sitting on a gold mine of history”. “For us to pretend it doesn’t exist is for us to become a whitewashed, faceless country, which means we are essentially robots with particular accents.”
His deep interest in Ireland’s history and culture goes back to coming from somewhere else, the singer says. He was born in Barrow-in-Furness, in northwest England, although he was raised in Ireland from the age of nine weeks. “I was insecure about my Irishness,” Chatten says. “I wanted to achieve an understanding and a verification.”
Another band Chatten likes who fixate on Irish things is Girl Band, a Dublin trio whose song Umbongo revolves around a local street snack. “For Girl Band to scream the words ‘chicken-fillet roll’ over and over again, it’s so poignant,” he says. “Not all romance has to belong to the past. And if we can accept that as a society, I think we might be happier.” Or at least more romantic.
Eventually, the band have to leave the pub. They are meeting their record label, their drummer, Tom Coll, says: there is “anxiety-inducing” 2020 business planning to attend to. Before they get up, Chatten takes a last gulp of his Guinness, then reaches through a forest of empty pint glasses for a takeaway menu from a Moscow cafe that was lying on the table. He’d scribbled down some scraps of verse on it during the tour. “I don’t know if you want that,” he says, handing it over.
On the back are scrawled fragments about a “salvaged life to live again” and “heaven through the fog”, “Irish mind” and “Irish eye”. It is a romantic thing to do, to hand over a note covered with half-baked poetry – and perfectly on brand for a band so unafraid of seeming naive.
“Later, Sam,” Chatten says to the bartender as he strolls out. “Yeah,” the bartender answers. “See you on the TV shows.” – New York Times