- 01 May 19
Fontaines D.C. are being hailed as the most exciting band to have emerged from these shores in aeons, but what makes this quintessentially Dublin punk phenomenon tick? In a compelling interview, they discuss their love of rock ‘n’ roll thrills, being inspired by their hometown and its people, what our Irish identity means, their idealistic approach to their art – and the challenges that will likely come with major success.
Dogrel, the debut album from Fontaines D.C., arrived earlier this month with the force of a boulder crashing into a paddling pool, engendering the kind of acclaim that might greet a Nazarene carpenter’s return: Hot Press, NME and Q all gave the album a resounding thumbs-up while Rolling Stone focussed on their triumphs at this year’s SXSW. The thing is, it’s all completely justified. The album is a ferocious, spitting, rocking and rolling kick in the arse that couldn’t be more Dublin if it were scripted by Brendan Behan, with Shane MacGowan and James Joyce chipping in over his shoulder.
It lives up to, and surpasses, the expectations built up through a series of ever more brilliant singles, including, in ‘Boys In The Better Land’, easily the best 45 release of 2018, anywhere.
Singer/shouter Grian Chatten, guitarist Conor Curley and bass-player Conor Deegan are sitting around a table on which a recorder sits. They seem relaxed: it is that moment of calm before the promotional storm envelops them. They have a great story to tell, beginning in the Dublin music college, BIMM, where the band first met up. Some people wonder is it really possible to teach people how to be rock ‘n’ rollers?
“Most of what the lecturers taught was really useful,” Conor Deegan says. “But the student body had ideas about the way a singer or a band should be, they were 18-year-old kids with stars in their eyes and dreams of success. They’ve been taught through the media that what you have to do to be in a band is to be this clean-cut, very sellable product. You can teach people to play instruments and put on clothes to look like a rock ‘n’ roll band, but in creating that structure, you give the best fuel for reacting against it, fuel for rock ‘n’ roll.”
In a sense this is where all good rock ‘n’ roll stories start. What you're after may only be in the process to taking shape, but you know what you don’t want.
“We didn’t really have a clear idea of what we wanted in 2015,” Conor adds, “but we had a vague sort of idealism. We had an idea of what a band should be – the Stones, The Strokes and The Libertines. They were no nonsense and authentic. They were not buying into any fads; they were just being themselves. Like the way The Strokes dressed – t-shirt, jeans, blazer and Converse – it might have caught on with others, but that’s through their success. It was the way they were united and together.”
That might sound like the old idea of a rock band as a gang, but no...
“Not necessarily a gang “ he explains. “That has negative connotations, but brothers. We had a mutual understanding of the way things should be.”
Was there a Damascene light that blinded them all at the first rehearsal? Did it make sense straight away?
“We joked about it from the first practice,” is how Deegan remembers it. “It was down in a basement in The Lotts area just off the quays: very cheap, very decrepit. The gear was all terrible. The only reason we went there is that we could smoke inside! We could barely hear ourselves, barely play our instruments, but our original guitarist Josh said, ‘We’re the best band in the world’ – as a joke. There was something about that which stuck with us as a mantra of what we wanted to achieve.
“It might sound egotistical,” he states, “but it worked really well in guiding you to being at least the best you could be.”
Like Fingers Running Upon The Wires
Now and then a band arrives on the scene that makes it all look bewilderingly easy. Fontaines D.C. have shot quickly to an extraordinary level of prominence. It is the kind of meteoric rise that might seem jet-fuelled. But that’s an illusion. Even arriving at the band’s sound was a result of hard, determined graft.
“We experimented weekly because we were discovering new music all the time,” Conor recalls. “One of the key things was getting into The Beach Boys – you can hear surf in ‘Liberty Belle’ and in ‘Chequeless Reckless’.”
Hot Press was there to witness the band level Dublin’s Button Factory just before Christmas. The walk-on music ranged from The Jesus & Mary Chain to the voice of Luke Kelly. Would that combination sum up their musical approach?
“Yeah, I’m good with that!” Conor Curley agrees.
“We’re still diving into different things,” Conor Deegan adds, “and learning about other bands we never knew, like Psychic TV and Suicide.” “That’s what makes up the DNA of our band,” Grian Chatten says, “those two ends of the spectrum: an intensely modern spirit and a traditional spirit. Looking into the past but trying to find something new at the same time.”
As the singles were released, people picked up on the Dublin aesthetic that runs through the band’s work. It is evident too in their choice of cover art, their approach to which recalls the glory days of bands like The Smiths and Suede in its use of a running theme. Deegan takes up the story.
“When it came to the single covers,” he explains, “it started with ‘Liberty Belle’. The idea of having Bang Bang on it comes from stories my Da used to tell me about characters from Dublin like him and Forty Coats. If you go down to The Liberties now, you can still see pictures of him in the chemist’s window. It went with the immediacy of ‘Liberty’ and its ramshackle, street sound. From there we just continued with the Dublin characters, which also helped form the idea of what we wanted to do lyrically.”
Grian has previously spoken to Hot Press about how he feels Dublin is like a sixth member of the band. Might it be the case that they are eulogising a Dublin that’s already in the past: the “city in its final dress”?
“We’re healthily trying to draw parallels between an older Dublin and the modern one,” Grian says. “We’re trying to rekindle a sense of culture, a culture that’s dying away, due to gentrification and materialism and an influx of corporations. The reason that people reject their country’s past, and their traditions, is the same reason they reject the music that their parents were into: because they feel it belongs to a different generation, as if in caring about it they’d lose a sense of self – as if they’re giving themselves to someone else.
“Our culture is now under a new threat, from the insidiousness of technology and materialism,” he adds, and he has a point. “It’s important to start feeling you belong to ‘Irishness’ and not be alienated by it.” The word “real” seems central: it is repeated throughout the album. Is this an expression of that stance against the new cultural threats? “There’s a horrible hysteria that goes through the mind of someone who has to work in the service industry,” he argues. “They’re aware of the scorpions in their own head while they’re trying to sell something to someone with a smile. It’s really disturbing. We’ve all had jobs where we had to do that and it’s something I can’t quite get my head around. It’s the genuine search for authenticity in our daily lives which has, somewhere between subconsciously and consciously, filtered onto the record.”
To Forge In The Smithy Of The Soul
Making it real. The dynamics of a band come into play here too. Who is in charge? Who writes the songs? Where do the rhythms come from? Is there a melody, or is that down to the singer? How does all of that work with Fontaines D.C.?
“It varies,” Conor Curley says. “Every song on the album is different. We already had the singles and, when it came to the summer and we were given the time to finish the album, we all left our jobs and did five days a week in rehearsal. The most exciting songwriting we’ve probably done is when we start with an idea in the room and just let it flow. ‘The Lotts’ was a rolling idea that went out of control over a few hours. We made a phone recording when we finished and were like ‘where did that come from?’ In comparison to the other songs, it didn’t have any specific influence. It wasn’t a case of: ‘I really like this Stones song, let’s choose this beat’. It seemed to just come out of thin air.”
Grian has something to say.
“It’s nice to finish a song without really understanding it,” he states, tantalisingly. “Songs like ‘The Lotts’ or ‘Chequeless Reckless’ to me sounded really unfinished when we first wrote them – and we wanted to keep them like that. There’s a mystery in there. Your brain is constantly searching for the form, which means that we as the writers can always go back to it, listen to it, enjoy it, and find new things in it for ourselves.”
There isn’t always an answer to the question, ‘What’s this song about?’ But there is more, it seems, to this particular aesthetic experiment. “Perhaps not lyrically,” he riffs. “But in terms of the structure and the arrangement, whereas it might never really take off, it sounds like it’s going to, I mean it’s not obvious which direction it’s going in, either musically or lyrically – but there’s something there that you can dip your head into. It’s not just a song for two-and-a-half minutes, but a place you can visit from time to time.”
Young musicians are necessarily learning on the job. It comes down to how well you learn – and how many risks you’re prepared to take. One of the hallmarks of Fontaines D.C.’s music is that they know no fear.
Conor Deegan steps in.
“Everything really came together with ‘Hurricane Laughter’,” he pin-points, “in terms of what we wanted to do as a band with the music, and with Grian and his approach to singing and lyrics.”
Grian’s approach to singing is one of the most distinctive aspects of the band’s sound. Intriguingly, it turns out that the decision to sing in a thick Dublin brogue, rather than in the kind of mid-Atlantic accent that some bands favour, happened on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. And there is an almost mystical aspect to it.
“It was probably when I went to New York about five or six years ago that I really, really fell in love with Dublin,” Grian reflects with a grin. “I started listening more to Dublin – and so, when I got back to it, my ears were more attuned. I was much more sensitive to the nuances of its streets and its people. Maybe I’d taken this seed of Dublin away with me and it bloomed in the shade – and when I came back, it filled me. It is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid, though: it always jarred with me why people didn’t sing in their own accents. It seemed bizarre, almost a betrayal to the self. If you’re putting your self into your lyrics, and then sing them in a different accent, you’re giving your lyrics and yourself to someone else. If you’re writing your soul on to a page and you’re using a different accent to deliver it then, who is there? Who is that? If you write a speech and you put your heart and soul into it and then pass it to someone else, it means nothing.”
When I Die, Dublin Will Be Written On My Heart
The conversation is taking us to the heart of the Fontaines D.C. ethic. All great art aspires to being universal; but as someone said of John McGahern’s work, the local is the universal without walls.
Grian has been known to observe that James Joyce’s Dubliners is a good blueprint for an album, and it seems appropriate: Dogrel - a Joycean word if ever there was one - offers an episodic documenting of Dublin life as it is now. There is good and bad afoot – but it is all filtered through an essentially romantic point of view.
It may surprise some people that not all of the band are Jackeens. Might it be that coming from outside the city gives one a better appreciation for it? I’m looking at Conor Curley.
“Yes, I moved to Dublin five or six years ago with the sole purpose of trying to make music,” this Conor says. “Dublin was my liberation from living in Monaghan, liberation from having to play GAA or whatever. When I grew up I had to be places all the time, but when I moved to Dublin I had the freedom to just walk around, to have this sense of being submerged and lost, and accepted in something. That feeds into the way I romanticise Dublin. I think it’s gas when we meet people in places like the Garage Bar, and they always think that we’re this Dublin band. Just because I’m not from here doesn’t mean that Dublin is less mine.”
The city allows you to reinvent yourself?
“Yeah, it’s the same all over the world,” he says. A universal experience you might say. “People talk about the classic New Yorker even though it doesn’t exist. It’s the same principal.”
People might not be aware either that the D.C. suffix had to be added to the band’s name, after another similarly-monikered combo got in touch. There is something about it that, with hindsight, feels fortuitous. It adds even more of the city’s character to the thing. And while sub-editors might hate it, it also adds a distinctive touch.
“I think that’s why we said D.C. and not Dublin City,” says Grian. “It also reminded us of Sultans Of Ping F.C. That’s what we wanted from the name from the beginning, to be a Fontaine in The Fontaines. It does give it a bit of the gang feel – and the D.C. enhanced that.”
Does the album represent the culmination of this love letter to the city? “It certainly feels like that,” Grian reckons. “There’s a good full stop at the end of the album, and it feels like one overall piece. That was the only way we could release it, if we felt like it was signed off and a complete package.”
The next chapter might be different then. How will the fact that they are spending a lot of time away from Ireland affect it?
“I don’t really know,” is Grian’s honest response. “The healthiest thing to do, and the thing that would be most beneficial to the writing process, is to not let those questions percolate in. If Dublin is still a loud voice in our hearts in six months time when we’re travelling, then it will be there on the next album. But, on the other hand, if we feel like a band that has to write about Dublin, then I think we’ll make a really bad record.”
Deegan puts a line under the topic.
“This album is about Dublin because that’s the environment we were in, we experienced the world through it. If we’re gone from it for a year and we’re writing a story about it, then we’re just making shit up.”
Mind you, Joyce mythologised Dublin without being in it.
“Maybe he had a better memory than we do!” Grian offers and everyone laughs.
Success For Us Is The Death Of The Intellect And Of The Imagination
Dogrel was recorded in September of 2018. They went about the process almost stealthily.
“Not a lot of people knew we were putting it together,” Conor Curley recalls. “When the word started going around, the work and the writing had already finished. People being excited about it kind of came after the recording was all done.”
The band decided to re-record the singles, not because they felt the originals were missing anything, but as a way of showing where they were at. They were evolving. Becoming more confident in themselves. Getting better.
“The mantra we had for recording the album was that we wanted it to sound as live as possible,” Curley recalls. “We spent the first four days of the two weeks we had booked recording the songs live in batches of three. We’d finish a song, the tape would still be rolling, and we’d start into the next one. It gave it a sense of immediacy – and so if we had left out the other songs we had already recorded, it wouldn’t have sounded like a whole body of work. All the greatest albums have that.”
The others are nodding their heads.
“That’s the way the songs felt they should have been then,” Deegan elaborates. “They change through playing them live – we’ve been playing ‘Liberty Belle’ for nearly two years, and recording the album to tape, we had the opportunity to show where the songs are now. We wanted to show a different angle, a different feeling, bring it to a different place.”
Dogrel debuting at number four in Ireland and at number nine in the UK could be interpreted as breaking into the mainstream, whatever that might mean in 2019. How do they view that curious thought? Chatten opines that it would be “a real shame”. Deegan’s viewpoint is slightly different.
“The only problem with breaking into the mainstream is the robbing of your own identity that occurs when it becomes the norm,” he says with analytical precision. “Look at what happened to Mac DeMarco, with all the people who came after him, trying to copy his personality and style. He was being himself, but now he’s becoming more and more of a walking cliché.
“They’ve kind of robbed his identity,” he adds of the copycats. “He’s still being genuine, but perhaps he feels less special now. I wouldn’t want that to happen to us – because what do you do, when people question you for being you? If it becomes more of a scene than you just being yourselves, you could lose yourself in mud.”
What would happen then if the album were to become a huge hit? Chatten takes the reins, to expand on his initial answer.
“If Fontaines D.C. as an entity was to be No.1 in the Billboard charts, it would die,” he states idealistically. “I’d still be proud of the fact we created something that was something, but it would be like putting a candle in the wind. It would end.”
It is a dramatic thought. Are there bands that you could look to and say: that’s the kind of success we would be comfortable with? Conor Curley is the first to respond.
“I’ve met people from all over the world who love Girl Band,” he ruminates. “It’s incredible to meet someone in a bar in Amsterdam, and when they hear you’re Irish, they immediately go, ‘So you know Girl Band?’ That’s what I’d think about, if I thought about success – but to be honest I really don’t. The fact that we’ve completed it, and it exists, that’s a success. And the fact that we’ll have another few months to write the next one, that we’ll be allowed to do it again – that’s success.”
Chatten pares it all back to the essentials.
“Our centre of validation is within us five people, and our manager, and probably the opinions of a few external people, like my Mam,” he reflects. “Can you imagine having your sense of self-esteem being reliant on 20,000 other people? I can’t imagine living like that. So we basically cut the chord from that idea very early on. We trained ourselves to have a sense of self-worth within our group. Commercial success, up to a point, would be a welcome by-product of what we love to do. But it’s not the kind of profit we’re after.”
Shut Your Eyes And See
A few days later, Tower Records on Dublin’s Dawson Street. The band are on the ramshackle in-store stage. It is the the beginning of a campaign that’ll last until Christmas when they play Vicar Street – and likely way beyond that too, the way things are shaping up. People are being turned away at the door, including one of the band’s parents if the chat is to be believed. The place is rammed.
Twice in the first three songs they blow the fuse box, overloading the grid. Squashed together on the tiny stage, they are electric.
Here, as on the album, the singles stand out, but maybe that’s just because, as of yet, we are that little bit more familiar with the songs. Carlos O’Connell savages his guitar with a bottle for ‘Too Real’, and Tom Coll’s drums are positively elemental, whether he’s pounding the intro to ‘Big’ or playing a perfect Mo Tucker behind Chatten’s MacGowan-like ode to the smoke, ‘Dublin City Sky’.
Deegan’s bass lines are heavy as the weather and Curley just looks impossibly cool, nonchalantly changing his guitar after a string break as the three-chord-trick-made-new-again ‘Boys In The Better Land’ howls up around him.
And in the centre of it all is Grian Chatten, thrashing around like Ian Curtis violently trying to escape from a phone box. It’s the sound of Luke Kelly fronting The Strokes; the sound of Brendan Behan, eyes portered up, singing The Velvet Underground; the sound of the Liberties Libertines; the sound of the Francis Street Rolling Stones. It’s two fingers flicked at those who think that putting on the right clothes is enough. It’s the sound of the city. The Boys In The Better Band.
The term Dogrel – a conscious misspelling of ‘doggerel’, meaning crude or nonsense verse – might seem to sell them short. for this is razor sharp street poetry, instantly immortalising the dear disappearing dyin’ dirty Dublin around them.
Yeah, their childhood was small, but they're gonna be big.
Fontaines D.C’s Dogrel is out now. Their only Irish festival appearance is on August 2 at All Together Now in Waterford