- 20 Dec 19
Even in a year of other extraordinarily good records, Dogrel stands out as a thrilling rock ‘n’ roll statement. Home, family, kindred spirits, Michael D., Jimmy Fallon, Derry Girls and his beloved dog, Kizzy, are all on the menu as lead singer GRIAN CHATTEN talks to Hot Press about Fontaines D.C.’s triumphant 2019.
Wow, that was fun! Can we go round again? From a Beatles worshipping teenager magicking up an urban pop classic and a Dublin debutante nailing the intricacies of modern relationships to an American legend writing love letters to Jimmy Webb and an old Australian friend offering up a by turns heartbreaking and heartwarming treatise on death and the people it leaves behind, 2019 was one hell of a musical rollercoaster ride.
As thrilling as those respective Billie Eilish, Sorcha Richardson, Bruce Springsteen and Nick Cave records were, there was only one place where the Hot Press Critics’ Album of the Year Award was going to end up – and that was on Fontaines D.C.’s mantelpiece, which is currently being extended to accommodate all the other gongs that have been coming their way on an almost daily basis.
“It’s always nice to win an award, but it’s particularly lovely to have Hot Press acknowledging Dogrel because it’s a magazine we feel a real cultural connection to,” enthuses Fontaines D.C. singer Grian Chatten as he strolls around Brighton where the band last night packed out the Concorde 2.
“I haven’t had a chance to shower since the show, which isn’t great ‘cause it was a sweaty one,” he rues before returning to the award-winning matter in hand.
“Hearing what else is in the top five – especially that Nick Cave release, Ghosteen – really compounds it. Being in Brighton where he lives, I’ve been thinking a lot about Nick Cave and his family and all they’ve been through. The connection to Ireland thing is really important when you’re feeling homesick.”
Asked what he misses most when he’s 4,500 miles away in Vancouver, Grian shoots back: “My dog, Kizzy. She’s a black and white cocker spaniel who’s had two separate operations on her eyes, both of which had to be taken out. 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.”
Has he been keeping a running score of the number of shows Fontaines D.C. have played this year?
“No, for fear,” Grian laughs. “It’s a lot easier to count the number of days we’ve had off, which since the start of the 2019 has been about thirty. It’s worth it, though, when you get the sort of reaction we got last night in Brighton. When I walked into the room and saw how small it was – 700 people or something like that – it was like a sigh of relief because we love being right on top of the crowd.”
Grian and the lads also got a hero’s welcome recently when they walked on stage in Glasgow, bottles of Buckfast in hand.
“Our guitarist, Curly, who’s from Monaghan grew up drinking Buckfast,” he enthuses. “It got mentioned before in an interview, so wherever we go locals come bearing gifts of Bucky, which is very much appreciated. We even had a local Irish politician give us a bottle – I won’t mention his name – and say he was going off to get wrecked. Those are the sort of people you should be voting for!”
For a lot of 17 and 18-year-olds, Fontaines D.C. have provided their The Who in the Marquee/Bowie on Top Of The Pops/the Pistols in the 100 Club/U2 in the Dandelion moment. Does it blow Grian away just how comprehensively people are buying into the band?
“Yeah, to be honest I’ve really struggled with it,” he admits. “At the beginning I had a special sort of hunger for that. Bit by bit, though, it chips away at your self-esteem because your image of yourself is coming from other people. As soon as I felt that was happening to my head, I had to step back a bit. Don’t get me wrong: I’m greatly appreciative of the support we’ve got. That so many young people are getting into us is really, really touching. I genuinely think we’re doing a good thing by getting them into poetry and all that kind of stuff. Advocating and propagating self-expression is really rewarding. In terms of the overall response, though, I at this point have to bury my head in the sand a bit.”
As the late, extremely great Joe Strummer was wont to say – be as dismissive of the good press as you are of the bad.
“Both are really damaging, you know? My worst fear is that any of our music is written through the opinions and expectations of other people. I want to keep the sanctity of what we have.
“A massively important thing in that respect was learning how to say ‘no’,” he continues. “I’m really glad I’m talking to you today because I feel Hot Press is genuinely a fan of our music and gets us, but you can interview yourself into nobody. My fear of that happening to me is probably more dangerous than doing too much work. I get so wrapped up in the paranoia that I’m going to lose myself.”
On one hand you’ve got kids having their first full blooded rock ‘n’ roll experiences at Fontaines D.C. shows, and on the other you’ve seasoned musos like Matt Berninger from The National telling Hot Press in July that he couldn’t wait to see them and Idles playing together in L.A.
“Wow, I only thought he was there for Idles,” Grian marvels. “I’m kind of glad I didn’t think he was into us because I reacted a lot cooler than I probably would have done otherwise. Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols was there as well, so all round it was an incredible night."
Grian tells me an Idles-related story that would melt even the most permafrosted of hearts.
“When we went out on tour with them, I hadn’t adapted to the lifestyle and responsibilities of being in a band, like talking to the press. I was just terrified of changing as a person. I needed to get my feet on the ground and Joe Talbot from Idles was the one who helped fasten me to myself again. He took me out to a shop one day when I was feeling low and bought me a shirt and convinced me I looked good in it. I still haven’t bought him a shirt back."
It’s the kind of story that has me dabbing my eyes with a Kleenex. There are genuinely good people in rock ‘n’ roll.
“It was a really sweet thing to do,” Grian says as he makes a mental note to pop into Burton’s and get Mr. Talbot something nice for Christmas.
One of the most fitting celebrity fans Fontaines D.C. have – in terms of what he addresses and what they stand for – is Shane Meadows.
“Aesthetically, I think, our worlds overlap. Our album, Dogrel, and movies of his like Dead Man’s Shoes have a similar starkness and bleakness and sense of doom and entrapment. We were chatting to him last year at one of our shows and whereas there are famous people you don’t give a shit about – they don’t take up any intellectual space in the room – you’re struck by how much of a genuine artist Shane is. It’s amazing to be around somebody with that level of sensitivity. Another guy who’s like that is Guy Garvey of Elbow, who we played with in Kilmainham. It had been pissing rain all day, but we arranged for it to stop when we came on. Expensive trick but it worked. He was Skype-ing his family when we went backstage to say ‘thanks’ for the shout-out he’d given us from the stage, and he immediately focused all his attention on us, which I really appreciated. He’s one of the best live singers I’ve ever heard, and his lyrics are fucking amazing too.”
Even though he was kind enough to invite them onto his show in May – the incendiary versions of ‘Boys In The Better Land’ and ‘Liberty Belle’ that resulted are, naturally, on YouTube – the experience of being on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon is not something that this member of Fontaines D.C. looks back on with relish.
Indeed, knowing that not far shy of seven million people would be watching, Grian’s nerves weren’t so much jangling as screaming at him.
“I’m not a mad, cool collected lad,” he acknowledges. “I have a strange reaction to nerves whereby at the last minute I get angry at the situation. It’s a sort of self-righteous indigence. I overthink things, but I have a way of dealing with it. What I did before going on Fallon was lock myself in a separate dressing room and wrote prose about the day and the façade of the rehearsals beforehand. Jimmy Fallon came in and it was like looking up America’s dress. It was a horrible sight! I wanted to focus on that because it was a genuine human experience that affected me.”
Also affecting Grian is his hometown rapidly becoming a giant boutique hotel with less and less places for artistic-minded souls to commune.
It’s a subject eloquently addressed by ‘Dublin City Sky’, one of the numerous Dogrel standouts, which is by turns wistful, angry and defiant.
“Yeah, ‘To watch my lover wrap her arms around the flag of power…’” he says quoting from the song. “I haven’t really seen Dublin in about a year, so I feel less at liberty to speak on behalf of Dubliners until I go back and live there again. When people can’t afford to live in the neighbourhoods they grew up, though, there’s something badly wrong.”
They’ve no interest in being a sloganeering band, but by wearing an ‘Abortion Is Normal’ badge at Forbidden Fruit (Carlos) and having a jacket emblazoned with ‘#NI Is Next’ (Conor), Fontaines D.C. are making it clear where they stand on pro-choice matters.
“There’s a lot of power in silent resolution and leading by example,” Grian proffers. “It’s like Deego from the band was a vegetarian when we met him. Two of us have since also become vegetarian, because of the power of watching him quietly go about his business not eating meat. It’s so much more affecting than someone shouting opinions, which you’re going to rebel against anyway. I don’t think anyone needs another Irish band shoving politics down people’s throat.”
Rather than sitting there with a calculator working out who gets what royalties, all of the Fontaines D.C.’s songs are credited to the five of them regardless of who might have done the heavy lifting on a particular tune.
“We’re the kind of band with an agreement that we would service the songs and not ourselves, y’know? We’re just writing tunes and trying to make them as special as we can. If a full album came out of one person’s head and everybody else respected the tunes, we’d go with them, no problem. The democracy of our split is down to the fact we’re putting our friendship ahead of our careers. We want to have longevity and always get along. We don’t want anyone to show up in a nicer car one day or anything like that. We’re just really good mates.”
Along with the likes of Derry Girls, Young Offenders and author Kevin Barry, Fontaines D.C. are proof that Irish culture no longer has to be dumbed down or sanitised for overseas consumption.
“We’re going through a genuine period of cultural enlightenment in the eyes of the rest of the world,” Grian agrees. “We don’t have to sell ourselves as a bunch of Paddys anymore. We have an established and respected identity. Someone in Irish culture who’s doing that extremely well is Girl Band I just want to throw them in the mix because they’re completely modern and transcend any sort of paddywhackery.
“I also love Derry Girls. There’s more depth to the comedy of Irish people than that sort of slapstick falling down a hole and landing on a rainbow and seeing loads of leprechauns. It’s not preying on Irish culture just to squeeze laughs out of it. I think Mrs. Brown’s Boys is the exact opposite because everything’s ‘Mammy this’ and ‘Mammy that’ and cups of tea.”
Was there a point of critical mass when Grian thought, “This is really starting to take off for us!”?
“It’s been sort of incremental – like, do you notice yourself getting taller?” he observes. “I probably felt like something was going on when people started asking me that question! What was amazing was Glastonbury, because there was a crowd of ten-to-twelve thousand there, and as far as I could see most of them were singing our songs.”
Grian is still in awe of the fact that tunes Fontaines D.C. wrote in Baile Átha Cliath are being bellowed back to them everywhere from Amsterdam to Zagreb.
“It’s pretty surreal,” he admits. “You’re having your own experiences of the place you miss sung back at you by people who’ve largely never been there. Having the colloquialisms with which I often write repeated in different accents can be quite strange. Lines like, ‘I was down the bottom half of some old bar in Chinatown’ refer to such a specific place for me. Other people don’t know the specifics of it but, at the same time, know exactly what I’m talking about. That’s why they’re there and feeling it.”
Looking at the social media chatter, some of the most extreme (in a good way!) reactions to Fontaines D.C. have been in the States, which Grian has mostly been experiencing for the first time.
“I’d been to New York once with my Ma and Da when I was younger, but most of it is new to me. There’s obviously a massive Irish culture in places like Boston and Chicago, which means they have the same grittiness and understanding of what it means to be an underdog as they do in Dublin and Glasgow. They seem to be fairly removed from that on the West Coast where they fetishize health. We came across one shop there called ‘Health Is Sexy’. I’m definitely more of an East Coast man myself! I’m not sure I have any great insights into America because, bless them, the people who come to our gigs do everything they can to meet the opinions they expect me to have. The fact that Trump is in power is an absolutely bizarre fucking reflection on what must be going on in the psyche across the States.”
Talking to Hot Press for our 1,000th Issue, President Michael D. Higgins revealed that Fontaines D.C. are on his ‘to listen to’ list. With their shared love of Joyce, I could imagine the lads fitting right in at his and Sabina’s next Blooms Day party in the Áras.
“Did you say that he was going to check out Fontaines D.C?” Grian splutters incredulously. “No way, that’s mad! To have a published poet as our President is a beautiful reflection of Irish society in general. And if he needs a band to play at his next Blooms Day party, we’d be totally up for it.”
It’s no sleep ‘til Mike The Pies this month as the lads embark on a final round of 2019 touring that following two homecoming Vicar St. shows – my sympathy in advance to the bouncers on moshpit duties – ends up in the aforementioned Listowel pub venue, which is smaller than some of the dressing-rooms Fontaines D.C. have been in recently.
“I don’t want it to get too big and too impersonal,” Grian insists. “There’s less danger of us forgetting who we are, doing gigs like that. Plus, Aiden from Mike The Pies is just a lovely, lovely man. Qualities like that take precedence over money or size. That’s the whole reason we’re doing it. If we were ever to stop playing Mike The Pies I’d want to stop the band. It’s everything I love about music.”
These, I can assure you, are heartfelt sentiments.
“I can’t wait for the Dublin gigs,” he continues. “I’m also real nervous about them, which is nice. We’ve had a fair bit of adulation on this UK and European run. To be welcomed into the hands of Vicar St. will be just beautiful.”
As I imagine, will be seeing themselves splashed all over the front of the Hot Press Annual…
“It’s going to be deadly,” Grian concludes. “Happy Christmas everybody!”