- 07 Aug 20
“I’m in a really good place,” says Grian Chatten who hasn’t always found the transition from Dublin outsider to rock star to be an easy one. As part of an eight-page Fontaines D.C. special, the singer and bandmate Carlos O’Connell talk in detail about their artistic process; how they nearly hit the ‘self-destruct’ button in the US; the extraordinary influences that helped shape their new A Hero’s Death album; lessons learned in lockdown; their support for Black Lives Matter’; and how politicians have betrayed Ireland again.
"Apologies, man.” Grian Chatten, lead singer and lyricist with Fontaines D.C. is a whopping, er, seven minutes late Zoom-ing in for our tête-à-tête. His excuse, though, is a good one.
“There’s a melody I had to record,” he tells me, “or otherwise it would have been lost forever. They’re just pouring out of me at the moment, but so sorry for not being on time.”
He may be the archetypal manic street preacher on stage, but off it Chatten is one of the nicest, most sensitive souls you could hope to meet. In fact, so nice and sensitive that my last conversation with him in November as he took a post-gig stroll round Brighton left me worried that he was disappearing down a touring black hole.
“I’m missing my dog, Kizzy,” he said when I asked if I detected an air – well, a gale – of melancholy in his voice. “She’s a black and white cocker spaniel who’s had two separate operations on her eyes. The poor girl’s running around blind. I miss her and my brother and my Ma and Da and me mates and the estate I grew up in and the fields in front of it playing football and stuff.”
Asked how he and Kizzy are today, Grian beams and says, “She’s good, yeah. My Ma sends me pictures of her every couple of days. I got engaged, which is obviously huge and had one of those really euphoric moments in the studio.”
This came courtesy of ‘Televised Mind’, one of the numerous standouts from the Fontaines D.C.’s slightly difficult second album, A Hero’s Death.
“I remember listening back to it and having the sense that I’m a fan of my own band again,” he recalls. “I felt the same about ‘Love Is The Main Thing’, the title-track and ‘Sunny’, which is my obsession on this album.”
Slower and more narcotic-sounding than anything Fontaines D.C. have attempted before, ‘Sunny’ is immediate confirmation that A Hero’s Death is no Dogrel Pt. 2. The money track for me, though, is ‘Oh Such A Spring’, a wine-soaked folk lament, which is guaranteed to make you cry if you listen to it alone after midnight.
“Yeah, that’s another of my favourites,” Grian resumes. “We conceived the melody for that about two years ago – it was kind of a faint notion – but we’d yet to develop the skills needed to give it a worthy body. I’m a big believer in songs existing in a sort of platonic conception. If it’s not the right time but you decide to fire ahead regardless, you can damage the potential of a song. But the time will come, which is what happened with ‘Oh Such A Spring’.”
Riding shotgun on the sofa with Grian today is his guitar-playing bandmate Carlos O’Connell.
“We’d toured Dogrel for two years so were absolutely ready to move on to the next chapter,” he notes.
Having abandoned attempts to record it in Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Sound studios – “It sounded too polished, it sounded like a big cocaine album at times,” Grian proferred recently – Fontaines D.C. entrusted production duties again to Dogrel man Dan Carey, who with Black Midi, Kylie, Lily Allen and Theophilus London all on his CV can’t be accused of being narrow-minded.
“Dan makes it feel like you’re in there making a record just because you fucking love doing that,” Carlos continues. “There’s no unnecessary pressure – he just wants you to enjoy the whole thing. He really cares about how everyone in the room feels. He’s a very caring person.”
“Yeah,” Grian nods, “Dan will notice if somebody seems a little down or disheartened or maybe even unconfident. He’ll take time to go for a walk with you and try and understand what the matter is. People have come back from those walks totally cured of whatever was going on for ages. That’s being a producer to a different degree. He’s producing the morale as well as the music.”
It mightn’t be immediately apparent but a lot of A Hero’s Death was written under the influence of ‘Your Summer Dream’, a relatively unheralded track from The Beach Boys’ 1963 Surfer Girl album.
“Man, I remember being in Mexico when we were playing there,” Grian reminisces fondly. “I was walking down the street and I had a bottle of wine and I was just on my own out for the evening. I was listening to ‘Your Summer Dream’ and thinking, ‘If I had to have a Groundhog Day, this would be it!’ Walking down this one never ending street, listening to this song on ‘repeat’ for the rest of my life.”
What I never appreciated until recently was just how much of a “Fuck, these Yanks are stealing our sonic thunder!” response The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s was to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
“It’s nice that Brian Wilson was such a huge Beatles nerd as well,” Grian nods. “They were definitely in direct competition for a few years. I actually prefer The Beach Boys to The Beatles. I love John Lennon but I prefer Brian to Paul McCartney for sure. He’s got more of kind of a voice.”
Grian and Carlos’ latest shared obsession is Peter Perrett, the former Only Ones mainman, who lost a large chunk of his career to heroin and crack cocaine addiction.
“He’s released a couple of solo albums over the last two years – How The West Was Won and Humanworld – that were part-produced by his son, who was in Babyshambles,” the former resumes. “Peter’s 68-years-old but sounds like he’s twenty.”
“Yeah, he sings with that conviction a teenager would have,” Carlos agrees. “There’s a song on the last record called ‘Heavenly Day’, which is about the start of a romance. Y’know, walking through the park and being too scared to hold the girl’s hand, and feeling really in love and everything’s perfect. I found it beautiful that a man in his sixties, who’s been through so much shit, is still able to see that innocence and romance without being cynical.”
Being on the same recording/ press/ tour treadmill as The Only Ones once were, can they see how Peter Perrett got into difficulties?
“Yeah, seeing some of the photos from America, or anywhere from about six months ago, we just look older than we are,” Grian winces. “We look awful, man. The real reason we were late for this interview was because we were getting the lighting right (laughs)! Ah, but the drinking was ridiculous. The drinking was too much. There’s another class of hangover when you’re not even filled with that anxious energy – you’re just absolutely lethargic and can’t move.
“Plus, we landed and realised that everything in the US has cornstarch in it. So we went on this really ridiculous diet of just eating canned food from petrol stations like beans and chickpeas. We thought, ‘This is the only stuff that’s not going to make us fat’ – but it was actually horrendously bad for us. A lot of people say that Covid-19 has made them aware or their mortality for the first time, but we already had a healthy sense of ours from that month in the States!”
Memo to self: never buy a dietary lifestyle book authored by a member of Fontaines D.C. As well as developing the skills to finish off songs like ‘Oh Such A Spring’ Chatten also feels that they’ve found ways of dealing with the craziness.
“There was a sense of needing to nurture ourselves because we’d had such an amorphous environment on tour,” he explains. “We had no sense of place. You wake up and you’re told you’re in Germany and you feel like saying, ‘Prove it!’ There’s just no connection or sense of locale. When you’re on ‘transmit’ every night, every day doing interviews and shows you tend to neglect the heart’s self. What happened then was that we turned our energies and our focuses inwards and developed a place where we could take refuge from the constantly changing environment we were surrounded by.”
A Hero’s Death recorded, Carlos decamped to Paris where he ended up collaborating on a cover of Lee Hazelwood’s ‘For A Day Like Today’ with celebrated French actor Joséphine de la Baume and her band Film Noir.
“It just kind of happened,” he tells me. “I had big changes in my personal life and felt a bit lost, so I decided to go to Paris on my own for a bit and then Grian came over as well with his fiancée.
“Before they arrived, I had the joy of solitude and sitting in the one place for twelve hours watching the world go by – but after that I got bored. I called our manager, Trev, and said, ‘Do you know anyone here you can put me in touch with because I hate this?’ So he put me in touch with this photographer who’d taken pictures of us in Paris and she took me to a Film Noir show. I met Joséphine and the guys and had a great time. They had a studio so we talked about doing something. All I was listening to the whole week was basically our own record and Lee Hazelwood’s Cowboy In Sweden, so I asked if they wanted to do a song from that. There were no plans to release it but it’s out there now and people seem to like it.”
It wasn’t long before Carlos was swapping Parisian baroque pop adventures – you’ll find ‘For A Day Like Today’, natch, on YouTube – for two months of lockdown in rural Mayo with Fontaines D.C. bassist Conor Deegan.
“For the first while, myself and Deego were in this old cottage, which was amazing,” he says. “We stuck to our own bedrooms and wrote and recorded a lot of music and then would meet at the end of the day. The only place we had to listen to whatever we’d been working on was the car so that became a ritual. I really learned to appreciate the pace of the countryside. It’s strange – the days there are longer but the weeks shorter. I got a lot more done than I would have in Dublin even with everything closed down. I’m definitely into the idea of spending more time out there at some point.”
Grian, meanwhile, took a more cardiovascular approach to things.
“I’ve started running, man,” he confides. “My best one was like eight-and-a-half kilometres. That’s not much. But it is for someone who didn’t get in the way of enjoying himself on tour for two years. I’d come back and, being a hypochondriac, think I had lung cancer because I was so violently out breath but, yeah, I’m running when I can.”
With their respective songwriting and athletic duties to attend to, neither Carlos nor Grian got to sample the carnal delights of the TV adaptation of Normal People.
“What’s really interesting is that Sally Rooney is from Castlebar, as are Tom (Coll, Fontaines D.C. drummer) and Deego,” Carlos points out. “This tiny little Mayo town is getting all this international success.”
Adds Grian: “I haven’t watched it yet, but I’ve heard really good things.”
The idea that all we do in Ireland is get drunk and have sex could do wonders for tourism.
“Yeah,” he agrees, “there’ll be lots of randy Americans flying over!”
While they didn’t get to soundtrack any of those Normal People sex scenes – you’d really have to be going at it hammer and tongs to keep pace with the likes of ‘Hurricane Laughter’ – Fontaines D.C.’s music has ended up in some pretty strange places.
“Yeah, advertisements and stuff like that on Instagram,” Grian says. “I love treating my music very seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously. I like to see my attempts at poetry being applied to handmade electric toothbrushes. That’s the oddest one so far.”
Fontaines D.C. Trivia Corner: the vintage Datsun, which features on one of their t-shirts belongs to Kneecap manager Daniel Lambert, who in his other role as Bohemian FC CEO is responsible for their ‘Refugees Welcome Here’ away strip.
“Yeah, Dan’s a good mate of mine,” Grian says. “I was up in his gaff with Radie from Lankum a couple of weeks ago and he was showing me them. It’s great; Bohemians do so much for the community, like bringing people from Direct Provision to games.”
Grian and Carlos were both at June 6’s Black Lives Matter march, which gathered outside the US Embassy in Dublin.
“It was unusual with the social distancing and quite difficult to hear, but no less important to be around,” Grian says. “It was actually beautiful to see so many people turning up for something that’s been neglected in our own country for so long.
“Re-evaluating what it means to be Irish is a healthy thing. It should be done quite often because as time passes, traditions often have outdated principles attached to them. We need to make the conversation about what it means to be Irish very clear and very loud, so that there’s no misinterpretation and nobody feels unwelcome by it. Being Irish isn’t about the colour of your skin or where your grandparents came from or anything like that; it’s a cultural thing.”
Carlos was sickened but sadly not surprised by George Floyd’s murder.
“The US is definitely divided as a country,” he proffers. “That problem’s been there for years and years. It didn’t just start with somebody videoing it – everybody knew about it. The whole Coronavirus pandemic and people already being on the edge was the trigger for them saying: ‘We’re not going to take it anymore’.”
While tensions in America are likely to heighten in the run-up to November’s Presidential elections, Irish revolutionary zeal, Grian reckons, has been dampened by Micheál Martin’s appointment as Taoiseach.
“It just shows that they don’t care,” he fumes. “They don’t even pretend to read the room anymore. Regardless of whether you’re a Sinn Féin supporter, democracy works when people get what they voted for – and they haven’t. It’s just two fucking privileged traditionalists weaseling their way back into positions that were taken away from them.
“Personally, I thought Sinn Féin fought an incredibly good campaign. They talked about a lot of things. Could they have delivered on them? Unfortunately now we’ll never know.”
While concerned that they’ll suffer like Labour did last time round from being in coalition, Carlos is glad the Greens are on the front benches.
“It’s great that their principles and morals are being talked about – they’re kind of like the headline of the government formation,” he says switching into Prime Time mode. “Again, in such a convoluted system it does beg the question, ‘How effective can people like that be?’”
Like many in Irish rock ‘n’ roll, Grian will be raising a glass on August 31 in honour of George Ivan Morrison turning 75.
“I’m a big fan,” he enthuses. “Van Morrison has that trait which I absolutely love in artists. As soon as he feels people are starting to understand him, he runs away and does something different. Bob Dylan is constantly doing that, Neil Young too. That’s one of the reasons I love Van – he’s always unattainable. He’s like the green light across the water in The Great Gatsby.”
You’ll have to travel a long way to find a finer analogy than that. Asked if he has a favourite Morrison song, he immediately shoots back: “‘The Great Deception’ from Hard Nose The Highway. The lyrics are genius.”
When I say he paints the characters in his songs as vividly as the young Van did, Grian responds with genuine modesty: “Cheers man, I appreciate that.”
Carlos, it turns out, is more of a Vibe For Philo man.
“Thin Lizzy were one of my favourite bands when I started playing music,” he explains. “They haven’t got boring or lost their charm. My Mom and my sister got me two different Lizzy compilations as a kid for Christmas, so I had hours of different era stuff to delve into rather than a specific album. If I had to pick one now it’d be Jailbreak because of the dual guitar thing. It’s so powerful.”
My last gig before lockdown was the Rock Against Homelessness bash in the Olympia, which Fontaines D.C. curated and resulted in the Focus Ireland coffers swelling to the tune of €70,000.
“That was good fun,” Grian enthuses. “There was a sense of ceremony about it too, which at the time I put down to us having all these emerging Irish artists on the bill. Looking back on it retrospectively, though, there was a weird sense of, ‘We might not be seeing each other for a long time after this’. That ceremonious feeling was actually a finality.”
There were serious concerns in the corporate sponsor box next to me over the Tiocfaidh ár lá-rity of Kneecap’s set.
“I love Kneecap,” Grian grins. “I think they’re fucking hilarious and really interesting. There was a genuine air of worry in the room, which I’ve never really felt at a gig before. But that’s punk rock, y’know. They’re actually lovely under the balaclavas!”
He hasn’t heard it yet, but Grian loves the idea of the Imelda May poetry EP, Slip Of The Tongue, including a piece called ‘You Don’t Get To Be Irish And Racist’ and her dad reading Spike Milligan poems to her as a kid.
“You know those football stickers that used to cost 60¢ cent a pack?” he reminisces. “My Dad gave me this book of poems and said, ‘For every one you learn I’ll get you a pack’. It had people like Ted Hughes and Robert Louis Stevenson and Yeats. I learned just enough poems to finish the sticker album!”
Matty Healy told Hot Press last month that he considers it unlikely because of Covid that The 1975 will get to tour their Notes On A Conditional Form album. Does it freak Fontaines D.C. out that they mightn’t get to see a moshpit for another couple of years?
“When you think about it too much, it gets a bit depressing,” Carlos admits. “It’s something we love doing but it’s our livelihood as well. I don’t know what would happen if we didn’t have that for another year or longer. It’d get very difficult. We’ve announced UK and European tours for next year – it’s impossible to book anything at the moment in the States – so I’m just in the mindset that 2021 will be fine.”
“We’d love to get back to playing to 200-250,” Grian, who’d pick Mike The Pies over Madison Square Garden any night, takes over. “We’re flat out writing again because we’ve re-established a good connection as friends. I reckon that will kind of carry our spirits for a while.”
Unlike last November in Brighton, I get the distinct impression that Grian Chatten’s glass is half-full at the moment.
“I’m in a really good place,” he concludes. “We’ll have released two albums I’m really proud of before my 25th birthday. I’m engaged to be married and we’re incandescent creatively. The spirit is strong too so, yeah, I’m optimistic.”
• A Hero’s Death is out now via Partisan Records.