- 21 Apr 22
As Fontaines D.C. get ready to release their most sonically thrilling record yet, Grian Chatten and Tom Coll talk about the unique sense of Irishness it explores, and why lockdown wasn’t all bad. Plus, they venture forth on everything from toxic masculinity, Denise Chaila and Nick Drake to Sinn Féin, Shane MacGowan and Taylor Swift.
Imagine really early Kraftwerk jamming with Enya, the Monks of Glenstal Abbey, Velvet Underground and folk legends Fairport Convention, and you’ll have some idea of what to expect when you hit ‘play’ or put the needle down on Fontaines D.C.’s soon-to-be-unleashed Skinty Fia album.
The most sonically thrilling opening to an Irish long-player since U2 kicked Achtung Baby off with ‘Zoo Station’, ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo’ translates as ‘In our hearts forever’, and is the inscription that grieving children wanted to put on their Irish mother’s headstone in England, but weren’t allowed to because the powers that be there thought it was a Tiocfaidh ár lá-style political declaration.
“Her name is Margaret Keane and she lived in Coventry where first the church and then a judge told her kids, ‘No, you can’t have that as her epitaph’ because it was in Irish,” Grian Chatten sombrely explains when we track him down to his London lair. “After the Skinty Fia track-listing was announced, the family reached out and said, ‘It looks like this is about our mother. If it is, here’s some information about Margaret and a picture of her grave.’ They asked us to send them a link to the song, which we did without a note because I really didn’t know what to write. And they got back to us saying they loved it and had played it at her grave, which was the most meaningful validation we could have got.”
From choral wall of sound start to Lydon-esque caterwauling finish, ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo’ is epic without ever straying into bloated stadium rawk territory. Indeed, any fears of Fontaines D.C. courting the Coldplay market should be cast aside now.
“It’s such a massive topic to tackle that I felt there had to be almost a divinity to it, which the choral thing seemed to suit,” Grian resumes. “I was influenced writing and recording it by Lankum and Sinéad O’Connor who have that divinity themselves. The whole thing of them not being allowed to put an Irish phrase on their mother’s headstone is endemic of the way Irish people are spoken to in England.”
Has he considered the balls Jools Holland is going to make of introducing ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo’ on Later With… ?
“We’ll probably save that one for the Late Late Show,” Grian deadpans. “We’ve been rehearsing ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo’ live and, well, it’s like trying to balance on a wire! If anyone slips out of synch vocally, the whole song sounds fucking awful. There are a lot of things on this album that are quite challenging for us to perform, which is okay when you’re in the studio and can have another go at it, but is going to be terrifying when we start playing live again!”
Another of Skinty Fia’s curveball standouts, ‘Nabokov’, is inspired by Conor Curley’s reading of Lolita.
“He’d been cooking up this really heavy instrumental guitar track with different sorts of percussion and stuff like that,” his bandmate explains. “We had the track-listing for the album done when he brought it in, which kind of fucked things up but it works really well as the final track – especially as the last two albums ended in ballads. It’s cool to go out on an evil note this time.”
As shite, scary and financially damaging as it was – guitarist Carlos O’Connell told Hot Press last year that the Fontaines D.C coffers were close to empty – lockdown did at least give Grian the chance to step off the touring treadmill, which he’s found damaging at times before..
“When, after the limbo of Covid, we did a UK tour a few months ago, I felt charged with a new energy,” he enthuses. “I don’t know exactly what it is but there’s definitely a fucking carpe diem vibe about it now. We’ve got to the stage, with our crew and our management and everything else, where it’s all suddenly clicked into place. The fear and apprehension’s gone. It’s such a well-oiled machine that as long as we turn up, feel the buzz of the songs and appreciate the crowd, it’s going to be a good gig. I struggled hugely when I was touring before with insomnia, but I’ve got that under control now and feel fitter and healthier than ever. It sort of feels like my last chance to be really young as well.”
Says the soon-to-be-geriatric 26-year-old! I hate the unhealthy romanticism of ‘The 27 Club’, but get how it’s the age at which most of its members – unwitting or otherwise – achieve success, become burnt out by it and as a coping mechanism start indulging in behaviour that soon turns destructive.
“I’m not suggesting that I’d have joined The 27 Club, but I do think, ‘What would’ve happened without the downtime we were given by Covid?’ Would we still be together as a band and releasing our third album? Maybe, maybe not.”
Somebody who was only a few months older than Grian when he died was Nick Drake.
“I’m not sure how much I’m supposed to say but, fuck it, we did a Nick Drake cover that Guy Garvey produced for an anniversary tribute album,” Grian reveals. “We’d love to work with Guy again because he’s just salt of the earth with the passion and the tongue of a deity.”
If anyone ever describes me even half as lovingly, I’ll be delighted. Unlike the “I discovered the MC5 in Junior Infants” spoofers we’ve all encountered, Grian admits that he’d never heard of Nicholas Rodney Drake until six years ago.
“Someone played Curley and myself ‘River Man’ when we were out one night, and the next day we were very hungover and couldn’t deal with it,” he says. “It was just too dark and mysterious and fairytale-esque. But at the same time, it was one of those things that we couldn’t look away from, you know?”
It’s testament to his talents that 48-years after passing away, the English singer is still inspiring people with his music. Rock trivia fact: Chris de Burgh went to the same school as Drake, but wasn’t allowed to join the band Nick formed there, The Perfumed Gardeners, because he was considered too poppy.
“What’s really nice and beneficial about listening to Nick Drake is it’s quite egoless. The songwriting was very pure and timeless. You can hear his influence in what Elliott Smith did, and the gentler, MTV Unplugged side of Nirvana.
“Increasingly as I get older I’m drawn to uncompromising art,” he continues. “I’m working on a playlist for the auld dreaded Spotify, the requirement for which is that they have to be a true outsider. At the moment, I’ve got some very early Nick Cave, a couple of Tom Waits Bone Machine tracks, Captain Beefheart and Moondog.”
Grian caused an almighty brouhaha a few months ago when he told the woman from Rolling Stone that, since moving to London with his fiancée Georgie, he’d encountered widespread anti-Irish prejudice.
“Everyone says, ‘It’s nowhere near as bad as it was in the ’70s and ‘80s’ and I’m not saying it is, but it’s still very much present in microaggressions like being called ‘Paddy’ and people making jokes about petrol bombs being thrown around every other day,” Grian reflects now. “It’s just the right amount of being reminded that you’re not from where you’re living to make me, my friends and the family I have here feel uncomfortable. Currently, I either sit there and take it or fly off the handle completely, neither of which is healthy nor helpful. What I need to do is not feel instantly triggered and find a calm, non-aggressive way of explaining to people why that kind of stuff is problematic.”
In the Crock Of Gold documentary about him, which I know Grian is a fan of, Shane MacGowan explains that his mindset in 1982 when forming The Pogues was: “If you want Paddy, here’s fucking Paddy!” Having spent time in London back then with Irish friends who were routinely abused, I totally understand why Shane (metaphorically) weaponised his Irishness like that.
“Believe me, so do I,” Grian nods. “You actually need to be really smart and articulate to do that, which obviously Shane and The Pogues were. A large part of what Skinty Fia is about is the way Irishness becomes exaggerated and embellished when we’re abroad – and how whether it’s in parts of London, Boston or Vancouver, we still cling together for various reasons including the discomfort of being ‘othered’, which I’ve been feeling. It’s fertile soil for creativity.”
You only have to look at the pond life, which gathers outside the GPO every Saturday to see how patriotism can be perverted into the ugliest form of nationalism.
“That’s not at all what we’re advocating,” Grian stresses. “We simply adore and are inspired and influenced by Irish culture. More than anything else, we want to change the way Ireland is still perceived by other countries.”
Asked whether he relishes having the platform to do that, he pauses for a few seconds and then says: “On a good day, I do. I also feel very, very, very nervous and sort of under-educated to talk about it. Sometimes questions like this fill me with anxiety and other times they fill me with the kind of righteous anger that makes me become unconsciously eloquent. But, yeah, it’s scary, y’know? I still feel very, very young and have these days where I’m like, ‘Why is anyone listening to me?’ I’m not at all an authority on these issues. I’d like anyone reading this to know that I’m under no illusion I am. All I’m being is as honest as I can.”
Does it concern Grian that, apart from everything else, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is the man in control of the Six Counties?
“Yeah, I’m definitely hoping he’s on the way out,” he winces. “I’m hoping that Dominic Cummings, who I don’t like at all, turns out to be the unlikely hero who has the final fucking skeleton in the closet that does for him. I wake up every morning hoping he’s dumped that last kind of gem.
“While all that furore was going on about the Number 10 parties, a bill was passed giving the UK Government the right to revoke British citizenship in the case of dual nationality. Some people are very nervous about that leaving things open for another Windrush – or worse. It’s so fucked up!”
Grian’s distaste for government extends to our own coalition who, he says, also fucked up royally with the recent introduction of Minimum Pricing for Alcohol.
“It’s just going to make the situation worse,” he suggests. ‘Instead of supporting their addiction with cans, it’s going to be cheaper for people to buy drugs off the street. Or if they stick with the cans, it’ll be at the expense of something else like food for themselves and their kids. There’s no compassion in a decision like that – and compassion is what’s needed if we’re going to seriously look at tackling alcohol addiction, mental health problems and homelessness, which are all inextricably linked. I don’t necessarily believe the vision isn’t there: I just think they don’t give a fuck.”
Grian has never made any secret of his political loyalties lying with Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Féin.
“Just a fucking change would be nice,” he sighs. “Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have had decades to sort stuff like housing out and failed. Why would it be any different next time? The country voted for a Sinn Féin government in the last election but they didn’t get one. Next time I think they will.”
Micheál, Leo and Claire Byrne obviously don’t, but does Grian think that Sinn Féin have dealt sufficiently with their past?
“I’ll put my hand up and say, ‘I don’t remember The Troubles’,” he admits. “I know people that do and I’m in no way ignorant to that, but the majority of young people now are sympathetic to Sinn Féin’s more socialist ideals. They’ve made a lot of promises – whether or not they can keep them is another thing. By sticking with the present government, though, things are just going to get worse and worse and worse.”
Like the rest of us, Grian was shocked by Ashling Murphy’s brutal murder. Where was he when he heard the news?
“I was in London and there was a vigil down the road at the London Irish Centre, which the other lads in the band went to,” he recalls. “I was sick, not with Covid but something called Norovirus, which is like really bad food poisoning, and couldn’t go but there was a huge turnout. It’s absolutely shocking. I’d have been one of those people sharing the, ‘She’d just gone for a run…’ sentiment but I learned there’s an element of victim blaming in that. It doesn’t matter if she was ‘just going for a run’ or was walking home from a nightclub or whatever – women should be able to do whatever they want to without experiencing any sort of fear. There’s never any situation in which a woman is ‘asking for it’.
“Some of the reaction to Ashling’s death – like that guy exposing himself during an online vigil – was horrible,” Grian continues. “They’re actively hateful because they feel like their whole identity is being challenged by these new forms of dialogue. We need more education and more discourse to get away from that toxic victim blaming culture.”
What is Grian’s gut reaction when he hears the words ‘toxic masculinity’?
“I think of school and a lot of the things that I heard and put up with there. I used to put it down to ‘raging hormones’, but in reality it was repressed emotions with nowhere to go. Toxic masculinity is absolutely synonymous with high suicide rates in men and, at the same time, part of a culture that has men treating women in such disgusting ways. It enables and encourages. If there was a way of dealing with toxic masculinity before it takes grip, you’d hopefully have a lot less instances like Ashling Murphy’s murder.”
Did anyone teach Grian how to treat women properly or did he have to figure it out for himself?
“I wouldn’t claim to be absolutely there yet,” he says. “I still have a lot of growing to do. My education really began when I started seeing my now fiancée, Georgie. We have long, frank discussions about it. I just have to shut the fuck up, listen for a while and let things percolate because, in our pig-headedness, men fail to see the deeper ramifications of seemingly superficial acts of prejudice or misogyny. They fail to see the link between that and tragedy.”
Has Grian thought about what he’ll say to his son if he has one?
“It’s something I think about all the time,” he admits. “I’ll probably let Georgie guide me but, of course, it needs to come from both sides. I’ll definitely look to avail of one of the seminars in London, which teach young men how to treat women with respect.”
In the interview he did with Hot Press around A Hero’s Death, Grian proclaimed that: “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. 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.”
Since then, we’ve seen all sorts of musical cross-pollinations happening here culminating in Denise Chaila’s winning of the 2021 Choice Album Prize.
“I think Denise is fucking deadly,” Grian asserts. “I listen to that track of hers, ‘Anseo’, all the time. She’s so clever and an incredible interviewee. I love Kojaque, Biig Piig and that Dublin rapper, Malaki, as well. Joy Crookes is class and I met David Balfe for the first time at the Ivor Novello Awards. It’s really beautiful how Paul Curran, who’s tragically no longer with us, provided the seminal spark, which inspired For Those I Love, Kojaque and James McGovern from The Murder Capital. There’s a great sense of community among this new generation of Irish artists.”
Given the on-going debate about misogyny in the music business, what did Grian make of Damon Albarn’s Taylor Swift comments?
“I think it’s bollocks,” he says baldly. “Damon Albarn took it back very quickly, but Taylor Swift is absolutely a songwriter in her own right and I don’t think there’s any harm in collaborating. We were supposed to be in a chart battle last year with Taylor Swift when A Hero’s Death was competing with her album, folklore, for the UK number one. I was being asked to take calls from The Sun and Metro about it, but I was like, ‘Shit, there’s fucking bigger problems in the world, man!’ We ended up at number two, which was still reason to go down the road and buy a celebratory bottle of Buck’s Fizz!”
One suspects more Buck’s Fizz will be downed the week after Skinty Fia is released, with pre-sales suggesting that the top spot on both sides of the Irish Sea is theirs for the taking.
“I’ve never felt so ready for anything in my life,” Grian concludes. “I just want to get out there and do it.”
Not only does Fontaines D.C. drummer Tom Coll keep perfect time, but he’s also willing to lie down in front of the bulldozers to preserve Ireland’s musical heritage.
Behind every great band there’s a great drummer, which in Fontaines D.C.’s case is Tom Coll, a man you wouldn’t in the least bit mind being sat next to on the bus from Dublin to his native Castlebar.
Along with being Dave Grohl levels of nice, he’s also the sort to keep calm when everything around him is getting out of hand, which makes him one of the most reliable witnesses to Fontaines D.C.’s remarkable rise. So, how’s he para-diddling?
“As soon as we get to the middle of March we’re going to be gone for a year,” Tom says of the band’s bulging concert diary. “It’s going to be intense, but I’m really looking forward to it. Ones that immediately stand out are our two Iveagh Gardens shows in July, and Primavera where it’s us, Beck and The Strokes on the main stage. That’s going to be fucking mad!”
Another big ‘un that’s been announced since our chat – see you in the mosh-pit! – is a Friday night appearance at the Electric Picnic. Having proved the existence of difficult second album syndrome with A Hero’s Death – several very expensive weeks of recording in Los Angeles were scrapped when they realised they’d be better off back in London with long-term producer Dan Carey – they had zero problems nailing Skinty Fia.
“A Hero’s Death was written on tour whereas this time, with the whole world stopping, we had a year to pull the songs together,” Tom says. “Having managed to coax Dan out of London, we spent two weeks recording in the middle of nowhere in this converted barn, which honestly was one of the best experiences of my life.
“The first song we wrote in Dublin, ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo’, set in motion a different arranging process for this album, which is more melodic than what we’ve done before. We were listening to a lot of dance music, so we’ve dug into that side as well.”
That ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo’ is a meditation on both Irishness and the ugly side of English nationalism – is there any other kind? – underlines the often close links between the two.
“Yeah, big time,” Tom nods. “Since moving to London, I’ve found myself in a few really fucked up situations where I’ve been abused for no other reason than my accent. Rather than shy away from it, you tend to go, ‘I’m Irish, that’s my identity!’ and end up walking round in Paddy caps, and getting Irish tattoos as an act of defiance.”
I remember a Smiths-loving ex of mine moving over in the ’90s and instantly becoming a rabid Country ‘N’ Irish fan who wanted me to go and see Margo in the Galtymore Ballroom in Cricklewood with her.
“I love that though, man,” Tom smiles. “It’s a form of Irishness that only occurs when you’re away from the country. When Carlos, Curley and I moved to London we started exploring the Irish pubs in our area, Holloway, and came across this place called The Floirin, which is like walking into a Kerry GAA club. It’s the maddest fucking thing, man. I’ve got to know the landlady who’s from Leitrim and pulls the best pint.
“I love it, but at the same time there’s this real sense of sadness because of the ‘lost’ generation of old Irish men lined up at the bar who never went home and are trapped in this limbo.”
Tom is slurping his morning cuppa from an Abbey Road mug, which was blagged from the legendary studio last year when Fontaines D.C. recorded a version of ‘The Black Angel’s Song Of Death’ for the I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute To The Velvet Underground & Nico album there.
“We were in Studio 3, which is where The Beatles did Revolver,” he says switching into Fab Four fanboy mode. “I’ve just started the Get Back documentary, which is so fucking on the nose. I get pissed off by music docs having cheesy narratives inserted into them, but this is just footage of John, Paul, George and Ringo sitting there… being The Beatles!
“We also got shown Studio 2, which is the really big room at Abbey Road, and played the fucking piano that ‘Penny Lane’ was done on. You’re running your fingers along the keys thinking, ‘John Lennon touched these!’ Plus, the opportunity to do a Velvet Underground song was amazing.”
Now that he’s put his teenage obsession with Rush’s Neil Peart behind him – “2121 is a fantastic album, though,” he rightly notes – Tom’s drumming hero is the Velvets’ Moe Tucker.
“I’m annoyed that I didn’t get into Velvet Underground until I went to college – all those years wasted!” he rues. “The lads were mad into them at around 19, 20 but I was like, ‘Sounds a bit shit to me; they’re not very good at their instruments.’ The drums, in particular, weren’t very complex, which I now realise is their beauty. What won me over in the end was this fucking amazing compilation of B-sides and rarities. The first time we went over to New York, I walked round Brooklyn listening to them, which was perfect.”
Tom has been avidly following the Neil Young vs. Spotify row with his sympathies lying (mainly) with the Godfather of Grunge. Have Fontaines D.C. considered yanking their music off the platform in solidarity with him?
“Jesus Christ, I’d love not to be on Spotify because they’re such a big corporate machine and hardly pay artists anything,” he snarls. “It’s the reality of the game we’re in, though, until a new medium comes along.
“What I found interesting about Neil Young is that he took his music off Spotify, and two or three days later tweeted, ‘All my music’s now on Amazon where you can get four free months.’ I was like, ‘What the fuck, man?’ You’re on the pulse enough to call Joe Rogan out for being anti-vax and all that, but then you’re promoting Amazon, which is another awful fucking company.’”
Tom’s usually sunny disposition is further clouded when I mention my walking in today past the soulless ‘aparthotel’, which has replaced the Tivoli Theatre in the heart of his old Liberties stomping ground.
“We were part of the last ever show there, which was us, Shame and The Murder Capital,” he recalls. “It’s going to get to the stage where people come to Dublin to stay in hotels and have to go to other hotels to fucking socialise in. We were in The Cobblestone recently, which I thought was safe after winning its planning battle, but apparently the developers have put in a slightly revised application that they’re going to have to fight all over again. It’s fucked up that big business can dictate the make-up of the city.”
Is he willing to lie down in front of the bulldozers if needed?
“Yeah, I think we all would,” he confirms.
Tom did his bit for maintaining Irish tradition last year with the release through his own Skinty label of Goitse A Thaisce, the first in a series of compilations, which finds old masters like Planxty, The Dubliners and The Bothy Band rubbing bodhrán’s with such young whippersnappers as Ye Vagabonds and Lisa O’Neill.
“A mate of mine, who’s a really amazing trad player, doesn’t like the Rough Trade element that’s crept in,” Tom concludes. “He doesn’t think it’s traditional enough whereas I love the fact you’ve got people like Lisa and Lankum pushing it forward, as Planxty did in the ‘70s. Whether you’re an artist or a consumer of that art, there has to be a cultural fightback against what’s happening to our cities.”
Skinty Fia is released by Partisan Records tomorrow, April 22.
Fontaines D.C. play Iveagh Gardens, Dublin (July 2 & 3); Electric Picnic (September 2); Vicar Street, Dublin (November 30 and December 1 & 2); Leisureland, Galway (3); Live At The Big Top, Limerick (5), and Ulster Hall, Belfast (7 & 8). See their full list of live dates here.