Fontaines DC: ‘There’s a renewed sense of pride in being Irish’
These five best friends make something familiar sound new and exhilarating
Fontaines DC: “We were all encouraging each other to be who we believed ourselves to be all the time”
“A sellout is someone who becomes a hypocrite in the name of money. An idiot is someone who lets their education do all of their thinking. A phoney is who someone who demands respect for the principles they affect. A dilettante is someone who can’t tell the difference between fashion and style. Charisma is exquisite manipulation. And money is the sandpit of the soul.” Fontaines DC’s Chequeless Reckless announces itself with an outlook bordering on a manifesto.
Grian Chatten, Conor Deegan III, Conor Curley, Tom Coll are without the guitarist Carlos O’Connell when the Dublin winter evening gloom descends and they take their seats in The Glimmerman pub in Stoneybatter. Their time in the city is now reduced to windows between touring. This particular window comes between gigs in mainland Europe they’ve just returned from and an upcoming journey to Reykjavik for the Iceland Airwaves festival. Then there are more UK dates drawing November to a close, a support slot in Dublin, then back to Paris, then a dozen more UK dates, then Greece, and then a mini-Irish tour. The road is unfolding before them, and they’re not going to run out of it any time soon.
It’s the perfect time of year to listen to Fontaines DC. Their tunes are porter-and-drizzle-stained. You can almost hear the early-morning keg deliveries clanging in the guitar string strums, and Chatten’s vocal shrugs lie somewhere between smoothness and grit.
“You better hear it and fear it, ah that’s the spirit,” he sings, as casual as a can lobbed towards the canal. All in all, the band emits an aural version of the slick, viscous membrane of Dublin cobblestone grime, when dawn in town reveals overnight rain. But this isn’t downbeat rock. Songs such as Liberty Belle and Boys in the Better Land urge their notes towards euphoria. The results aren’t exactly novel, but they are exhilarating. It is difficult to make something familiar sound new – they rhyme “sister” with “blister”, for God’s sake, and somehow it works, 23 years after She’s Electric – but Fontaines DC are making Irish rock that’s strangely seductive.
After their first practice together, having previously been in bands that rehearsed frequently but seldom played, things clicked. They turned to each other and concluded they were on to something. When they wrote Hurricane Laughter, it felt like a step towards something very decent. “I was couch-surfing just to get out of the house because I was living with my parents at the time,” Chatten says, “I was always in town, I didn’t have a bed, I didn’t have a bedtime or distinction between being out and being at home. I was floating around town a lot. Everything began to feel like one long day.” This feeling of listlessness looking for permanency underscores the drive of the track. Chatten may seem louche and sleepy-eyed, but he sure knows how to conjure a state.
The band’s dynamic is rooted in “going around bars drinking and writing poetry and romanticising it to bits,” Deegan says. Bonding over poetry and encouraging each other to write was foundational. “It was based off a desire to express ourselves within this group of people,” Chatten says, “We were all encouraging each other to be who we believed ourselves to be all the time. We’d even call each other out on saying simple things that didn’t sound like what that person felt. Through each other, we found ourselves a lot quicker than we would in a normal friendship, I think.” Patching a tour together in Spain in the summer of 2017 led to more shows, and over the subsequent year and a half, they’ve clocked up about 200 gigs.
With Dublin permeating the music, the changing of the city as its edges are smoothed away by demolition and development consumes Chatten. “That’s very present in my subconscious when I’m writing. I could be writing about love – there’s a song on the album called Dublin City Sky, which sounds like a love song or a break-up song, but it’s really about the dying romance of the city as opposed to a personal romance ... I think the reason that we love the Liberties, and write so much about the Liberties, is because that seems to be where a lot of that action is happening. A lot of the gentrification has already completely consumed Dublin city, and in the Liberties there still seems to be a bit of a fight. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the hardcore Liberties heads once gentrification takes hold.”
Zoom out, and Fontaines DC are also part of a new school of musicians embracing their Irish identity within a generation bursting with activist and artistic creativity that can be broadly categorised as New Éire, across hip-hop, bands, apparel, street art and other creative expressions that influence and are influenced by the social revolution that has unfolded and has been driven by young people in Ireland.
“There’s a renewed sense of pride in being Irish and in Irish culture, palpably,” Deegan says.
“I come from Monaghan,” Curley says, “and I had an upbringing that was almost propagandist in nationalism. Shouting ‘up the ’Ra’, and not really knowing what it meant.” When he moved to Dublin he saw Irishness “for more than that. From talking to these guys about literature, I saw Irishness as being easily romantic about the things you see.”
Chatten believes the growth in patriotism among his peers is linked to a disappearance of an earthiness and urban authenticity. “We’re being nostalgic about something that hasn’t quite yet passed away, yet there is a danger and a fear of that happening soon. It’s good, in a sense, because it will rekindle people’s love of Irish culture. It’s a matter of whether or not that will happen strongly enough to make a difference.”
Irish culture, he says, “has to belong to you. It can’t belong to the previous generation.” He shifts to an American analogy. “It’s like trying to get your kids into Bob Dylan or something. It’s impossible. If you tell your kids to listen to Bob Dylan, they’re going to say, ‘No, that’s your music.’ They have to get to a point where suddenly they’re walking down Dame Street and they’re listening to something and Bob Dylan comes on and all of a sudden Bob Dylan is singing for you. That’s where you take ownership of that and that’s when you start to love it.”
Deegan nods in agreement, “My grandad would have loads of Dubliners records and my dad would have them. I never liked them at all. I thought it was diddly-aye music. At some stage I turned around to Tom, and Tom is a lad who was into trad, and I was like, ‘This is amazing.’ I don’t know what happened, whether we got into The Pogues, and got into The Dubliners through them, but we all just got mad into them. It’s beautiful.”
“You have to allow these things be for you,” Chatten says, “You have to let them in.”
I have to try
Through the band, Chatten has learned that there’s a place for him in a creative world. “The reason I know that is I’m encouraged every day by the lads I’m playing with. I genuinely believe now that there is something that I can do in this world that validates my existence. I could have gone along and got stuck in any of those jobs I never lasted in. I would have always wondered – or maybe I wouldn’t have wondered, maybe I would have just thought there was no way I had a place in music.”
Deegan is thrilled for his 14-year-old self, growing up in Mayo, where not much seemed to happen.
Curley has in some ways upended his internal expectations. “I was really surprised that I wouldn’t give in. I said it to my parents before I left home: I’m going to try and do this and if I fail, fuck it, I’ll work in the factory in Monaghan for the rest of my life, but I have to try it. The fact that I wouldn’t give in, not even give an inch towards giving up, I was surprised. I genuinely thought I was really lazy and shit like that.”
Coll is fulfilled making music with his best friends. “I’ve found a creative space that I didn’t know was there, making music with people you’re best mates with, that opened it up.”
“That’s lovely, man,” Deegan says, encouragingly.
Right now, Chatten is excited “for the music that we’re going to make, and the words that I might write, and the aspects to myself that I might be able to express. I’m excited to see the places that we’re going to see. When we were driving from France into Switzerland, we were driving through the Alps, and I just remember looking at a mountain and being like, ‘Our music brought us that mountain.’ ”
Curley nods. “It was like, ‘We have no reason to be here, no reason to have this view, except for music.’”
Fontaines DC play Mike the Pies in Listowel on December 14th, the Róisín Dubh in Galway on December 15th, and the Button Factory in Dublin on December 21st. fontainesband.com