Fontaines DC man invites you into the world of Irish trad

Tom Coll. Photograph: Lille Eiger

Fontaines DC drummer Tom Coll is in a fancy-looking apartment in London with a visual background of a record player and a stack of vinyl albums, and an aural background of what sounds suspiciously like a platoon of synchronised jack drills.

“Sorry about the noise, but the people in the apartment above are doing some repairs,” says Coll. This is good news. The bad news would have been if the noise had been coming from his band’s rehearsal room. With Fontaines DC now based in London (except for bassist Conor Deegan, who is living in Paris) and as the relaxation of lockdown rules allows for optimism, however cautious, Coll is settling into his new sideline project role as a record label supremo. Or something like that. Before we get stuck into the debut album release on Coll’s Skinty Records, however, we bring you the latest news from Chateau Fontaines. 

“We were writing constantly from last November to March, and a lot of the tracks are pretty much there. Having that time where you’re not gigging and really focusing on writing five days a week for eight hours a day, away from the usual mad routine, is definitely good. It certainly wasn’t something we would have been able to do if it hadn’t been for the absence of gigs. I can’t tell you what direction we’re going in, but I can say that it’s a very positive experience.” 

There was an awful lot of trad music in the house when I was growing up, and during the first lockdown I was at home spending many hours listening to trad

In the interim period between completing songs for the third Fontaines DC album and the who-knows-when possibility of playing the occasional gig or two at some point this year, Coll is prepping the release of Goitse a Thaisce (A Compilation of Irish Music: Volume One) through Skinty Records. The label, he says, was once known as Trigger Party Records, which itself holds a special place in the development of his band. 

“I started thinking about a record label when I was at BIMM, as it was something I did for my thesis. Trigger Party Records was the starting point for Fontaines DC. It was founded by us and our manager, Trev [Dietz]. We each pooled about €200 into it and we put out our first three 7-inch vinyl singles – Liberty Belle, Hurricane Laughter and Checkless Reckless.” The renaming of the label arose from when Coll was at home in Mayo with his mother. “It got me thinking that I wanted to do something else because we couldn’t play any gigs. Technically, it’s an extension of Trigger Party, but my aim with it is to focus on reissues.” 

Fontaines DC. Photograph: Getty
Fontaines DC. Photograph: Getty

The label’s debut release is a traditional Irish music compilation, the title of which, says Coll, “roughly translates to ‘Come Here, My Darling’, which is the sentiment I feel when I hear these tunes.” That the first record from a label overseen by the drummer of one of the most critically praised rock bands of the past few years is a glorious dive into traditional music might come as surprise to some, but only if you aren’t aware of his background. Coll, from Crimlin, several miles north of Castlebar, Co Mayo, comes from a family of fluent Irish speakers with roots in Donegal. 

“There was an awful lot of trad music in the house when I was growing up, and during the first lockdown last year I was at home spending many hours listening to trad, from the likes of Ye Vagabonds to Planxty. Surrounded by the mountains, looking at pitch-black skies and listening to the music, I have to say it was very special. After a few months I returned to Dublin and got back to the record player only to realise I had a mere two trad albums – The Bothy Band’s amazing self-titled debut and the Planxty retrospective, Between the Jigs and the Reels. I had wanted to buy some more but it was quite hard to find them, so that was the initial spark of the idea to gather together a selection of old trad music.” 

Did he get the music he wanted for the album? “I did, which I was very surprised about. It took a lot of hunting, but I wanted a tune-heavy record because I feel that a lot of Irish compilations, or music in general from the past that is being pushed out these days, are ballad-oriented. I love ballads, of course, but I felt it was important to lean more towards melodies and tunes.”

Tom Coll
Tom Coll

Coll was also insistent about the tracklisting blending the new with the old. “I was advised by loads of people to choose either old or new, but I thought it was important to have both. It’s great to draw a line from Joe Heaney to Ye Vagabonds, for both to sit on the album and for the music not to sound like anything is amiss. Doing that ties a thread or connects the dots. The music is moving forward, for sure, but it’s also staying the same, which is quite beautiful.” 

If I can somehow introduce people to some of the greats and spread the tradition slightly via a very accessible record, then that’s the job done

Coll is unruffled about the business elements of such an enterprise (“This is very much a passion project, so you have to accept you’re not going to be making any money”) but says he learned a lot about how some record labels can operate. “From January to March of this year, I was licensing old trad tunes and getting in touch with many old labels. It was the maddest experience ever because some tracks didn’t have a label, some labels were defunct and some labels granted access to the tracks, but the artists didn’t know anything about them.” 

From the music (which includes Dervish, Andy Irvine & Paul Brady, Planxty, Ye Vagabonds, Emer Mayock, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh & Frankie Kennedy, Lisa O’Neill, Joe Heaney, the Bothy Band) to the album cover (Déanta in Éirinn, the “stamp” of the early 20th-century Gaelic Revival movement, and a forerunner of the “Guaranteed Irish” emblem) the album entity and identity is none more Irish. An intrinsic part of what Coll hopes for the album is that Fontaines DC admirers of any age who might be unaware of the music will listen to the tunes, appreciate their cultural heft and splendour, start searching and re-evaluate the band’s fiercely proud Irishness. 

“To be honest with you, I’m not an expert in trad music,” says the man who once banged bodhráns into submission, “but the idea behind the record would be to introduce people to the music, people that wouldn’t necessarily have had the traditional music background that I had. If I can somehow introduce them to some of the greats and to spread the tradition slightly via a very accessible record, then that’s the job done.”

Goitse a Thaisce (A Compilation of Irish Music: Volume One) will be released on Skinty Records as a limited edition of 1,000 vinyl albums on August 6th. The album can be pre-ordered from skintyrecords.com

FROM FIDDLER TO ROCK DRUMMER

“My first instrument was the fiddle, which I played from the age of 10 to about 14 or so, and at which I was so, so bad – absolutely sh**e, if I’m to be honest,” he says. “I loved the music, though, and I went to fiddle lessons with another much better player, Emer Mayock. My dad was involved in bagpipe music and so I would have been surrounded by pipe bands every weekend in the summer, playing the bagpipes and snare drums for years. There’s also a family connection on my dad’s side with the Donegal traditional singer and fiddle player Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh.

“I got my first drum kit from Santa when I was 12, and that was class, and then in my first rock band with my mates, we were playing songs by the likes of Eric Clapton and Thin Lizzy,” says Coll. The other lads in the band were amazing trad players, and I’m not sure how but we naturally evolved into a trad band, with me playing all manner of bodhráns and djembes. Traditional Irish music was always there with me. Rock music? Going from one to the other was never a real rebellion on my part; I just became less involved in trad when I started at BIMM and met the lads.”