Fontaines D.C.: punk-poetry for hard times
With brilliant new album A Hero’s Death, the quickfire follow-up to 2019 breakthrough Dogrel, the Irish band refuse to rest on their laurels, lockdown or no lockdown.
Cock-a-doodle-doo, here’s the bright-and-breezy quarantine breakfast show with Lauren Laverne on BBC 6 Music. It’s early May 2020, the midway point between two bank holidays, and the sun is shining. Good times, etc.
But, of course, right now, positive news and big tunes are in short supply.
Luckily, amidst the Twittering and the wittering, this morning the DJ has a radio exclusive.
“Everyone’s a bit over-excited by the Fontaines D.C. track, which is good to see!” Laverne laughs, over-excited, as the dust settles after the first play of the Irish band’s new track A Hero’s Death. “Obviously the torpor that has set in during lockdown has become evident on Twitter. No judgement! It can be hard to shake off, but interesting that Fontaines have definitely done it. Just a slew of messages from people freaking out about the new Fontaines D.C. tune.”
Laverne reels off some pings from her show’s socials.
“‘Love the new Fontaines track,’ says Gina. ‘Thanks Lauren, been a tough few days, but who can stay miserable when they’re telling us “life ain’t always empty?”’
“Tonnes of messages coming in today, and I love this as well, from John in Brighton, who says: ‘I can’t wait to be spinning around and bouncing to that Fontaines D.C. track in a muddy field with too much cider in my belly!’
“Yes!” Laverne exclaims. “Whether you’ll be two metres from other people or not, I guess remains to be seen! But hold on to the dream.”
Modern guitar bands – that is, bands who are just guitars, rather than guitar bands who are The 1975 – aren’t meant to be exciting any more. Most of them aren’t. And for sure, the listeners to 6 Music could be blinkered and biased. After all, the station voted Dogrel, Fontaines D.C.’s debut, their Album of 2019.
But they weren’t alone. In December, thinking indie record shop chain Rough Trade also made the Dublin punk-poets their top dogs, ahead of Top Five runners-up Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising, Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors, Little Simz’s Grey Area and Black Midi’s Schlagenheim.
After crashing through with a first album that came out barely 13 months ago, Fontaines D.C. grabbed 2019 by the scruff of the neck. Their rabble-rousing, literate-punk rough’n’tumble, vocalised by chewy Dublin-accented Grian Chatten, ignited a passion that made the five-piece, from out of nowhere, one of the best live rock bands in the British Isles.
If you wanted to spin around and bounce in a field with too much cider in your belly – as FD.C. made thousands do at last year’s Glastonbury, and were set to do at next month’s Glasto 50 – this was the band for you.
Your new festival moshpit heroes had arrived.
Here comes the summer.
Hold on to the dream.
And now, already, they’re back. A Hero’s Death is the title track from a second album that was, somehow, recorded last September, in the midst of a near-non-stop year’s worth of international touring.
In fact, says Chatten, he was writing the song even as the paint was still drying on Dogrel.
Zooming in from lockdown at his folks’ in Skerries, a coastal town in north County Dublin, where he’s bunkered with his fiancée, the frontman and lyricist explains how he wrote the words to A Hero’s Death. The band had gathered in Dublin venue The Workman’s Club, owned by their manager and site of their earliest gigs, to listen through the venue’s soundsystem to the freshly-mastered version of the just-recorded Dogrel.
His lyrical inspiration, the 24-year-old says, fidgeting slightly on his mum and dad’s couch and looking out the living room window, “was my desire to move on as much as it was my desire to alleviate the fear that I wouldn’t be able to write anything as good as what I’d done on Dogrel.
“So I just sat in the back of the club, not wanting to be there, not wanting to hear it, writing out the lyrics for the song A Hero’s Death. And they were done by the time the album was finished playing.”
The words to a song that evokes The Strokes’ Last Nite as played by The Fall are a litany of clichéd platitudes. Life ain’t always empty. Don’t get stuck in the past. Tell your mother that you love her. Go out of your way for others. Sit beneath a light that suits you. Look forward to a brighter future.
And, then, once more, “life ain’t always empty”, again and again, so that the mantric repetition starts to sound less reassurance and more like a desperate need for validation. Life ain’t always empty, surely, right?
“I like its ambiguity,” acknowledges Chatten. “I like the fact that people have come up to me and told me it’s a really nice positive message. Is it? I don’t necessarily see it as being sincere.
“What excites me about the tune is never being able to trust entirely whether that’s sincere advice.”
The name, too, and its choice as the title of the band’s second album, also betrays the reflective thoughtfulness of Chatten, who admits he’s having a decent lockdown (“It’s not too bad so far, you know? I’ve got my instruments and I’ve got my books. It could be worse”), even as he’s missing his bandmates and gigging.
“I got the title from a Brendan Behan play called The Hostage, in which an English soldier is captured [by Irish Republican revolutionaries] and held in a brothel. And everyone there ends up sympathising with the soldier. The play humanises him, rightly so. And then a woman walks in and says: ‘You’re all looking for a hero’s death.’
“I thought that was hilarious, just to turn everything on its head and reveal the farcical nature of a principal like patriotism in that context, where everyone is basically friends.
“So I thought it’d be a funny name for a second album, for all the people who are expecting a particular thing, or anyone who liked our first album and might not like our second album. That’s a hero’s death.”
So it’s a pre-emptive shot across the bows of anyone expecting Dogrel part two?
“Yeah. And it’s just a bit of fun.”
That fun is also there in the single’s video. The idea of bassist Conor “Deego” Deegan III and Hugh Mulhern, who shot most of their previous videos, it stars Irish actor Aidan Gillan (Game of Thrones’ Little Finger) as an oleaginous chatshow host.
Like the song, the clip “balances a thin line between sincere and insincere. A TV show host is a brilliant way to exemplify insincerity.”
Chatten, Deegan, Conor Curley (guitar), Carlos O’Connell (guitar) and Tom Coll (drums) met while studying at the Dublin outpost of the British and Irish Modern Music Institute.
Their first release was a collection of poetry, called Vroom, which O’Connell has described as being “strongly influenced by the Beat Poets, including Kerouac, Ginsberg and more”. So was their second, titled Winding. O’Connell again: “[It was] influenced by some of the Irish greats: Kavanagh, Joyce… We became obsessed with Yeats.” In early interviews, Chatten told the Irish press that Dublin was the sixth member of their band.
Their inspirations, character and context firmly in place, only then came the music: a brace of brilliant, thrilling, rackety singles, starting with May 2017 debut Liberty Belle, then onwards through the turbo-charged, bass-heavy Hurricane Laughter, the aptly titled Big (“Dublin in the rain is mine /A pregnant city with a catholic mind”), and up to the clattering, post-punk, James Joyce-referencing rush of Boys In The Better Land.
Then last spring came Dogrel, followed by a relentless touring itinerary that took them all the way up to 25th February this year, when Fontaines D.C. careened to a halt with a triumphant show at London’s Brixton Academy.
“Yeah, it doesn’t feel like it came out a long time ago,” reflects Chatten, who’s both laconic and wordy. “We’ve just been doing the same thing since it came out: touring. But at the same time, when it came out, we weren’t necessarily different people but we were at very different stages in our lives. I’m engaged now, Curly’s engaged now. I think I’m an adult now.
“When that record came out,” he continues, “me and Curly were sharing a bed in a shithole apartment with 12 other people in Dublin. It was hard times. That makes it feel a world away, but not necessarily a long time.”
Ask the singer to pick a standout moment from the past year – a particularly great gig, say, or even a particularly horrific gig – he makes a thoughtful choice.
“Em,” he begins. “I remember the moment that me and Carlos…” He stops, as if unsure whether to go personal. “Myself and Carlos had an underlying problem with each other as friends for a long time. It must have been about two in the morning and we were driving in the van through Europe. That tour was really, really hard. And in the privacy of the back of the van we just talked and became really good friends again, you know? That was a highlight for me.
“I think of that moment as the moment the second album started happening. It was the renewal of our friendships in a very, very real way. I hesitate to actually bring it up in an interview but…”
He shrugs. He has to explain the songs, and how the fierce intra-band kinship and connection help build them.
“For us, the songwriting falls apart if the friendship does. It’s a very, very intense friendship. Because all of our music is really written to impress and embrace each other. It’s an invitation to share this part of yourself with each other. If that friendship is threatened, there’s just no real will to do it.
“What else?” he ponders, looking out the window. “We’ve met a lot of cool people. Johnny Marr was really, really sound to us. That was nice. Our first driver in America got sick down the side of our van, from a hangover. He’s gone now.”
Not dead, he clarifies, just his services dispensed with.
For A Hero’s Death, Fontaines D.C. collaborated again with Dan Carey (Kate Tempest, Squid, Black Midi), producer of Dogrel, recording in his home studio in Streatham, south London, keeping it simple, keeping it nice.
“We were just delighted to be back in an area we remember well from the first album. Having dinner with his family. It was lovely.”
Beyond that Chatten, typically, has an interesting explanation for the rehire.
“What makes Dan such a good producer to work with is his empathy. His ability to understand the abstract reason for the existence of the tunes you’re writing, and to try to bring that to life. As opposed to just having loads of really good gear.”
Plus, Carey had a good approach – a visual one. This is the first thing he said to the band when they met to make Dogrel: “I imagine the music all around you, like this cacophonous wall of sound – and I want to make a tunnel in the middle of it, and send your voice through it, separately.”
Chatten thought that was cool. “I don’t know how he did it, but he completely nailed that.”
Then, for album two, Carey said this to the singer: “I want to have you on the top of a mountain, while all the music is happening at the bottom of the mountain, and you’re just broadcasting from that mountain.”
That “sense of vision” in a literal sense, “is exciting. To have somebody care enough to say stuff like that from the first meeting is inspiring.”
Equally, with album two, Chatten was determined to keep one thought foregrounded: don’t believe the hype. That is, your own hype.
Or, as he says: “Don’t let anybody’s expectations or opinion influence anything we ever do. Because kind words kill your ability to create. Much more so than harsh words. Any positive or negative opinions that affect you are detrimental to you expressing who you are.”
A good thing the album was done in September then, before the end of year polls and plaudits. They would have completely fucked up Fontaines D.C.’s second album.
“It would have!” he laughs. “It draws your ability to reveal yourself honestly away from you.”
To clarify and confirm, then, “the fact that our second record is coming out so soon after the first one isn’t a contrived effort to keep momentum going. It’s just, happily, that we have things we want to express quickly.”
Those “things” came at Chatten relentlessly while on the road. “As a rule”, he says casually, he keeps writing all the time. “In every place we played, when we were fucking Krakow or St Petersburg or wherever, I’d always go to a bar before we played a gig and ask for a piece of paper and pen, write some stuff, stuff them in my pockets, then at the end just have lots of bits of crumpled up bar receipts with writing on them.”
One track dragged from those miles and moments, highs and lows, is You Said. It’s a hypnotic, psych-rock track that bleeds weariness with Chatten’s “operating faster” refrain, when he sounds like he can do anything but.
“It’s taken on a new meaning now,” he reflects of our global slowdown, “but I wrote that when we were in the throes of a very demanding tour schedule. There was a point last summer where our itinerary would have one hour of sleep scheduled for the night. So we were just fucking zombies.”
O’Connell and Curly wrote the riff in a hotel in Belgium, the band started putting it together in soundchecks and linechecks, with the first full jam happening “somewhere” in Canada.
“And the lyrics just fell out then. It’s just ’cause I was so fucking exhausted. And I felt so stifled spiritually, so I just wanted to reach out to people and feel human again.”
Chatten exhales. “I don’t want to think about it too much.”
He also cites Sunny, an atmospheric electric blues track on A Hero’s Death, and the lyric: “Happy’s living in a closed eye, that’s where I like to be.” Chatten wrote that in Chicago, when he, Curly and O’Connell were in a bar “for a few hours” before the gig. “It was all Irish bars round there, ’cause there’s such a massive Irish population there, and we just went for a game of pool and a few drinks. I think I wrote that on a napkin.
“I like to write before gigs, because I like to write with an element of fear in my mouth.”
As to what inspired the line: “I’m not good at answering these questions because it comes from a very abstract place and I don’t really know a lot of the time. I’m quite content to keep it that way, because I’d be afraid that if I was to pin down the source of my inspiration for my lyrics all the time, I’d be catching it,” he says, as if likening inspiration to a butterfly, pinned to a board. “The worst thing I could do was go to a therapist and have everything laid out in front of me.”
Similarly, it was only after the completion of Dogrel that it became apparent to him that he’d written an album about that sixth character in the band.
“I just thought I was writing about life as I knew it. I didn’t think of it as a Dublin album; I didn’t think the sense of place was a massive part of it. But I must have said the word ‘Dublin’ on the fuckin’ album at least 10 times. I was just blindly expressing myself, as I was with this second record. Being aware of your own intention when you’re writing is incongruous [sic] to creativity.
“If you know what you’re gonna write about, you’re in a prison before you start. The whole point is to get out of that feeling.”
Across A Hero’s Death, those feelings take on different forms. Love Is The Main Thing is dirge-like, but the repetitive drone-rock atmospheres suck you in. It’s not, the band’s lyricist insists, a shout-out to his new fiancée, “not necessarily.
“I can tell you the images I have: feeling lonely, or wanting to be alone when you’re in a crowd, struggling to accept love or care in whatever form that comes, as something that could be good and worth pursuing. Rather than something that’s scary and controlling.
“One of the themes I think I was exploring on the album,” he expands, “is that loyalty can be a shackle. So that’s just one of the turns that the album takes for me: when the protagonist, whoever it is, is trying to give love a go.”
Then there’s Televised Mind, a swirling, pounding, gothic-hued track (think: Siouxsie and the Banshees with Shane MacGowan wrestling control of the mic) that’s pegged as the album’s first “proper” single.
“It’s not my favourite track on the album anymore, but it is a banger,” he states-matter-of-factly. But given lockdown, “I’m worried now that no one will be able to dance to it, which was the intention. I don’t know how much people are going to be able to get out of it if they’re listening to it under the covers of their bed.”
Again with the repetition: on Televised Mind, Chatten declaims “Whatcha call it?” over and over. It’s a phrase that’s very local to him. It’s what people say in County Dublin when they’re distracted or not really listening.
“People use it as a buffer when their mind is empty. So that’s how it fits in with Televised Mind.
“I feel empowered by where I’m from and when I use colloquialisms like that, and use them boldly, or shout them. Like in [Dogrel track] Too Real, when I say: ‘Goes around and around and around ya boya.’ I grew up having men shout ‘go on ya boya!’ at me when I was playing [Gaelic] football or hurling. I just feel like I have the strength of my town, my area, just channelling through me when I do that. So that’s why I do that, really.”
There’s another standout, at the heart of the 11-track album. Oh Such A Spring is a Celtic soul lament worthy of Van Morrison, with Chatten toning down the raucous vocal energy for his most heartfelt vocal. Key line: “Watching all the folks go off to war just to die.” When I ask what inspired that, he squirms on his family’s couch.
“When you grow up and you have somebody in your life that you really, really care about who had the potential to do a lot, creatively, had a gift, but was never given the opportunity to use it – that’s something that’s going to be unshakably part of your conscience.
“I’ve just had people like that in my life – I won’t say who but family members and stuff – who just had so much to give and say when they pick up a guitar, or write something, or talk about literature or film. But they waste their lives away fucking giving their time to something that just puts bread on the table.
“It’s quite an obvious thing, but I just feel good expressing it because it’s something that weighs heavily on my mind, genuinely.”
Also weighing heavily for a man who sees it as “my job to keep writing”: the lack of gigs, and the absence of his mates.
Yes, it’s been good to “step off the treadmill and take stock”. But now, the gang of five that are Fontaines D.C. are eager to get together and “arrange some sort of gaff and be in each other’s faces for a couple of months, and write. We’re all writing like fucking mad in our separate locations. I’ve got 14 [new] tunes that I’d love to release but I don’t know where they fit in.”
And, when they do eventually go back to gigging – hold on to the dream – “I’ll probably appreciate it a bit more. Take better care of myself. And be more appreciative of the crew. Get up earlier and give people a hand. I’m dying to get my hands dirty in whatever way. Because at the end of our touring schedule there, I was just bolloxed and sleeping in until we got on stage. I’d throw back a few cans before we went on to keep me going.
“But I reckon now I’d relish the opportunity to get up at nine o’clock and get on with it.”
A Hero’s Death might not be the album that FD.C. fans were expecting. Despite the careering momentum of their last 18 months, the band’s quickfire follow-up has managed to take that energy and forward motion and turn it inwards and turn it interesting. It is absolutely all the more rewarding for it, from the sleeve art inwards, which features an image of a statue of Cúchulainn, a mythic Irish hero, erected in Dublin in memory of the Easter Rising. And it’s also all the more brilliant.
“I think this album sounds a lot more… confident,” concludes Grian Chatten, carefully, “in the fact that it has a bit more pace at times. It’s a lot dreamier than our first album, and a lot more introspective.”
Indeed. The final track is the quietly defiant No. To what is he saying no?
“That tune is saying no to giving yourself into depression and hiding and running away from responsibility and who you are,” he replies. “It’s saying no to defeat. There’s a lot of that on the album. Sunny is a letter unsent from an estranged father to a child he’s never met, explaining why he’s gone down the route he has, and hasn’t lived up to his responsibilities and has been living in a dream world.
“The whole album is about whether or not to engage, or to run away and lose yourself and lose your mind. And No is the final statement of me deciding I’m going to face into it.”
A timely message for now, for sure. But on an even more timely level, personally I’m trying to say no to drinking every day. So on that boring, quotidian, lockdown level, to what is Fontaines D.C.’s frontman saying no?
“Well, I’m finding it hard to sleep. I’m up till about 5am every night. So around that time I find it hard to say no to a bowl of fucking cereal.”
A Hero’s Death (Partisan) is released on 31st July. Pre order here