Fontaines DC: ‘We’ve no licence to speak for Ireland’

Grian Chatten of Fontaines DC during the Festival Internacional de Benicassim in 2019 in Benicassim, Spain. (Photograph: Xavi Torrent/Redferns)
The Dublin band talk about life under lockdown, making their not-so-difficult second album, Aidan Gillen doing a video for a pint, and their hopes for the future

When Elvis Costello released Trust in 1981, he delivered the famous observation: “You have 20 years to write your first album and 18 months to write your second.”

Costello said this with the benefit of being on album number five. Fontaines DC are still a fledgling band, especially compared to an artist with Costello’s longevity, but they’re already turning music industry convention on its head by releasing their second album just a little over a year after their cracking debut, Dogrel.

Coincidentally, singer Grian Chatten fondly recalls catching Costello at Iveagh Gardens, where Fontaines DC were originally scheduled to headline tonight. “I’m very sad not to be playing Iveagh Gardens,” Chatten mourns over Zoom. “I loved that Elvis Costello gig. He played for ages and really leaned into his early stuff. He even opened with Pump It Up.”

Chatten wrote the album’s lead single and title track at a band meeting and playback of Dogrel in the Workman’s Club before they signed off on the final mastered version.

“We were all frantically taking notes, but Grian was pacing up and down the room and not appearing to be paying any attention at all to the music,” Conor Deegan recalls. “I was about to give out to him afterwards, but he said he’d just written a new song and showed me the lyrics for A Hero’s Death.”

The singer says he felt compelled to seize the moment. “I wanted to alleviate the fear within myself that I wouldn’t make a record that would make me as proud or excited as much as Dogrel,” he explains. “I didn’t want to let the door close with album one. I have a constant impetus to write and explore.”

Fontaines DC: ‘We used to play bank holiday weekenders and head to the Garage bar afterwards with all our friends, listen to tunes and drink. It was our own summer of love’
Fontaines DC: ‘We used to play bank holiday weekenders and head to the Garage bar afterwards with all our friends, listen to tunes and drink. It was our own summer of love’

Fontaines DC have been keeping themselves busy since a pandemic turned our world upside down. On the day they announced their second album, they unveiled a video for A Hero’s Death shot in Dublin’s Liberty Hall featuring Irish actors Aidan Gillen and Bryan Quinn. “Aidan said he’d do it for a pint, so we still owe him a pint of Guinness,” Deegan says.

Since then, they’ve done a remote performance for the current lockdown series of Later...with Jools Holland and released another video for the album’s second single, I Don’t Belong, which Deegan directed remotely from Mayo, while Chatten submerged himself in the chilly waters of Skerries harbour. They also did a cover of The Jesus and Mary Chain classic, Darklands, for Radio X, and have been tentatively tipping away on various solo projects.

This flurry of lockdown prolificacy puts all the books, podcasts and Netflix boxsets the rest of us have gorged on recently into the ha’penny place.

Frustratingly, Fontaines DC won’t be celebrating the release of A Hero’s Death with any customary in-store launch party, gig or festival appearance. 

”We were looking at taking a few months off in 2021,” Deegan says. “All of a sudden we’re in this situation where it doesn’t realistically look like we’ll get back to gigging until March. We’ve been forced into a completely different head space. On a practical level, we have to be really careful with the books so we can survive until next year.”

Lead singer of Fontaines DC, Grian Chatten
Lead singer of Fontaines DC, Grian Chatten

Fontaines DC took short intermittent breaks in the last two years. “During those little breaks I worried that I still looked wrecked even though I was sleeping well and not drinking,” Chatten laughs. “Now, I realise that I really needed three months to get back to normal. I’m also engaged, so I’ve been staying with my fiancee and enjoying domesticity.”

A Hero’s Death is a very different album to Dogrel. “We had images in our heads of Robert Smith lying on a beach in California and referencing movies like Mulholland Drive,” Deegan says. “There is a really surreal element to the Beach Boys music. It’s like a capsule that’s ignorant to the world around it. It’s almost psychopathic. We were always intrigued by the darker side of that music. There is a real sense of doom in a song like California Dreaming by the Mamas and Papas.”

Unconsciously, writing and recording A Hero’s Death became part of collective exercise in slowing down.

'Some people feel that we were speaking on behalf of Dublin when we wrote Dogrel. The album is influenced by Dublin, but I don’t feel like I’ve any licence to speak for Ireland'

“We were surrounded by an immense sense of pace all the time,” Deegan explains. “There was always a constant rush to get from the bed to the front door of the hotel for 9am, and drive off immediately after every gig to another hotel equidistant to the next venue. All the bands we played with were loud and fast. I’m still into that kind of music but we were neglecting the introverted aspects of ourselves. We listen to lots of slow, relaxing and escapist music, such as the Beach Boys or Lee Hazelwood. They create these well-woven worlds into which you can escape.”  

Dogrel made a global impact. Fontaines DC were able to sell out two nights in Brixton Academy in London and the Bowery Ballroom in New York. However, they’re not sure if their image as scuzzy indie kids raucously celebrating their Irish identity is entirely accurate.

Grian Chatten: ‘I didn’t want to let the door close with album one. I have a constant impetus to write and explore.’ Photograph: Ferdy Damman/ANP/AFP via Getty
Grian Chatten: ‘I didn’t want to let the door close with album one. I have a constant impetus to write and explore.’ Photograph: Ferdy Damman/ANP/AFP via Getty

“I think some people feel that we were speaking on behalf of Dublin when we wrote Dogrel,” Chatten reflects. “The album is influenced by Dublin, but I don’t feel like I’ve any licence whatsoever to speak for Ireland. I haven’t really been in Ireland much for nearly two years, so this album is a lot less overtly Irish. I didn’t want to sing about streets that I hadn’t walked down in ages.”

On their early single, Boys in the Better Land, Chatten delivered the fabulous line, “Driver’s got names to fill two double barrels, he spits out ‘Brits out’ only smokes Carrolls.” Unsurprisingly, some people got the wrong end of the stick.

“I think people misconstrued what we were trying to say,” he says. “I was writing a character into a song, but people spread this myth that we hate English people, which is totally off the mark. My Ma is English and I was born there, so I quite simply wouldn’t do that. We also get a lot of people who totally mishear the lyrics. A whole row of people in Italy shouted out 'spits out pizza' for some mad reason. Maybe that’s the line I should’ve gone for.”

Chatten was born in England and grew up in Skerries. Guitarist Carlos O’Connell originally hails from Madrid. “My dad’s family are from Leenane, Co Galway,” Chatten reveals. “My mother is from Barrow-in-Furness in the north of England, which is an old ship-building town. It is the place most impacted by coronavirus than anywhere else in the UK. It’s been completely forgotten by Boris and company.”

At five in the morning we were sharing wine and discussing what we wanted to do with our bands. It seemed so certain to us that it was going to happen

Fittingly, A Hero’s Death is arguably less of an “Irish” sounding album than Dogrel. “I’ve always found our music to be fairly international,” Chatten says. “There are elements of Joy Division and The Strokes and that kinda craic on our first album. This album is a lot more introspective and confessional lyrically.”

The cover features an image of Oliver Sheppard’s statue of Cúchulainn in the GPO. “Cúchulainn tied himself to a tree because he wanted to die standing up,” Chatten explains. “It relates to a line in The Hostage, where somebody comes in and says ‘You’re all looking for a hero’s death in here.’ I wanted to explore the idea of principles and how they become inane when the matter is stripped away. Cúchulainn ties himself to a tree as one final statement of existential choice. I thought it was a funny album title to address people’s expectations.”

Fontaines DC can’t wait to return to the stage. Unsurprisingly, they love playing home fixtures. “Personally, my favourite shows were in the Workman’s back in the very early days,” Deegan reminisces. “It was a very special period in our lives. We used to play the bank holiday weekenders and head to the Garage bar afterwards with all our friends, listen to tunes and drink. It was our own summer of love. We released a couple of singles and had a lot of hope and belief in ourselves, but we didn’t even have a guitar tuner between us.”

Unknown to most people at the time, the Fontaines and another group of friends and contemporaries were poised to create quite a stir.

“The Murder Capital were just starting out and playing gigs and we all hung out together,” Deegan fondly remembers. “I’ve a very strong memory of James and I sitting in one of our mutual friends' houses after buying wine from the Indian restaurant in Temple Bar that stays open really late. At five in the morning we were sharing wine and discussing what we wanted to do with our bands. It seemed so certain to us that it was going to happen. I look back at that now and think we were just dreamers. I always treasure that memory because it shows just how much we believed in ourselves.”

Their self-belief has crystallised into a strong work ethic. ”I just want to respond to the call to release,” Chatten says. “I never want my writing to be dictated by any sort of market or expectation. If you are responding to the beck and call of your supposed market it will suppress you. As long as the glass is full and overflowing I’ll still be writing.”

Fontaines DC at the 2019 Mercury Prize award ceremony in the Hammersmith Apollo in London. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty
Fontaines DC at the 2019 Mercury Prize award ceremony in London. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty

Dogrel was voted album of the year by both BBC 6 Music and Rough Trade shops, but their music has resonated far beyond Ireland and the UK.

“I never, ever thought I’d even go to Mexico with the band,” Chatten says. “When we got there I couldn’t believe how people would recognise us in the streets. It was incredibly humbling. I find it very emotional when people from a completely different culture get into our music. None of those industry accolades mean a lot to me personally, even though I appreciate that they’re very good for our career. Irish press has always meant more to me. Because I’m half English I think I’ve always been a little bit insecure growing up in Ireland. I didn’t feel as Irish as everyone else, even though I wasn’t treated any differently or anything. When we get a positive review from home, I feel like I’m being accepted by the country that inspires me.” 

Yet the Fontaines refuse to rest on any laurels. “I’d love for us to release music for years,” Chatten says. “If we are proud of every album we make, we stay friends, and our love of what we do isn’t killed by some weird PR narrative that we find ourselves in, then, I’ll be delighted.”

A Hero’s Death is out on July 31st. Fontaines DC play Iveagh Gardens, Dublin on July 3rd, 2021