Fontaines DC

Dublin is a musical hotspot right now, where bands such as Murder Capital, Thumper and Girl Band have been raising the post-punk bar of late, as they explore existential themes, wrapped up in loud, visceral music that sounds fresh, invigorating, and exciting. Like all the best music, it has come out of nowhere, organically produced and very much its own thing, not in thrall to anything in particular, nor following any fad or looking to win favour. And there is a pleasing earnest maturity about them all, where rock’n’roll is wrapped up in art and deeper meaning, rather than the (albeit also pleasingly) more straight-forward sloganeering of, say, Idles. The Irish have a way of being a little bit more coolly detached, and poetic, rather than intently staring or calling you out, as it were.

Named after the crooning Jonny Fontane character in the first Godfather movie, Godson to Vito Corleone, they added DC (Dublin City) when it was discovered there was an American band called The Fontanes. Somehow, adding DC had made all the difference. They sound like they could be from across the pond, and indeed the Americans have taken them to their heart already, following an early live appearance on the legendary Seattle radio station, KEXP.

“I grew up in Spain, in Madrid, in a family with both Spanish and Irish cultures,” says the rather incongruously named Carlos O’Connell, guitarist with the band. “My Mum was from Dublin, and she had moved to Spain in her 20s, trying to find a job. She met my Dad, a Spanish man called Carlos as well, had kids, brought us up there. In the house there was a mixed upbringing, all the Irish traditions, and all the Spanish ones. I went to school in Spain, but also went to Ireland every year, and I always felt more connected with the Irish. It has a deep appreciation for music, much more than your generic Spanish family. There’s not the kind of value for the arts in Spain in that kind of way, anymore. Music was a thing I did since I was a kid, and I needed to explore the Irish roots. As soon as I turned 18 I left Madrid and went to Dublin. It all worked out, I suppose. I met all the boys, and we started this band.”

I tell him he doesn’t sound Spanish at all, it’s a very Irish tone I’m hearing… “Yeah, I know. I did sound more Spanish when I moved here, – ‘hello, my name is Carlos. Very nice to meet you’” he mimics, Spanish style. “There was always that Spanish twang there. I think it comes out if I drink too much. And it’s strange now when I speak in Spanish; the English vowels have crept into my Spanish-ness. It takes me a few weeks to adapt to the language, when I come over to Spain.

“Because of my accent there is an assumption I am Irish. But as soon as I mention my name there is an assumption there is something wrong. I’ve told the story of my parents meeting in Spain a million times in social circumstances. Every single time I meet someone new I have to give the whole backstory…”

Life is one big accidental gamble, is it not? You are born and raised in Spain, come to Ireland, happen to meet four other similarly music mad guys, form a band, and then you go and win awards and stuff, get nominated for the Mercury, sell out gigs, and enjoy almost universal acclaim for producing loud, passionate and meaningful post-punk sounds.

Carlos O’Connell, Conor Curley, Conor Deegan, Grian Chatten, and Tom Coll met in Dublin while attending the British Institute of Modern Music, initially bonding over a love of poetry (inspired by both beat and Irish poetry they have so far released two sets of poetry). Formed in 2017, the band self-released a number of singles, and ears were quickly pricked, their blend of post-punk, garage rock and a gritty poetic narrative zero-ing in on the sweet spot. Which was unequivocally found when the band’s debut album Dogrel suddenly had all tails a-wagging in excitement and appreciation, upon its release in April of last year. A homage to ‘Doggerel’, the poetry of working class Ireland, the sounds of punk and post punk were both underpinned and broadened to embrace a storytellers lamentful narrative on the part of singer and lyricist Chatten.

For sure they were raging, and sometimes caustic, but the band were also tender and above all, thoughtful. If any comparisons could be made, perhaps those with Joy Division, Gang of Four and The Fall were closest to the mark, alongside contemporaries, such as Shame and Idles. Most of all though, they sounded fresh and exciting.

But the pressure of it all started to take its toll quite quickly it seems. The touring, being away from home for long periods of time, away from friends, family and loved ones, was seriously impacting on their relationships with each other. Eventually, the band demanded they divert some of their energy and time into making new music, to save their collective souls, as it were, and also themselves.

“We didn’t want to tour it (Dogrel) that much. And we also saw bands that are pushed by their teams to tour an album as much as possible, to get as much juice out of it as possible. It seems a lot of bands can be drained creatively like that. You become a performer rather than a songwriter. They are two very different lifestyles, and two very different ways of thinking, I think. If you lose yourself in the performer aspect of things, it can be really difficult to get back into a truly creative space when you can write something that comes from yourself, rather than the recognition you get from the public.”

I understand that there were mounting problems within the band, from the constant touring… “Yes, there was. We didn’t know how to do it at the time. We didn’t get time to ourselves, to process any hardship we were going through in our personal lives. And not giving yourself that time makes you very absent. It builds walls around you. So, we struggled through that a lot and became quite bitter and angry when we were touring. Last year was a very important time for us to be in touch with ourselves. Even though we weren’t dealing with it directly – dealing with the problems – they were there. And at least we were emotionally engaged, something which we hadn’t been for a very long time. It was quite hard to maintain whatever we had in our personal lives before. The year started (2019) with four of us in quite serious relationships, and by the end of the year two of us had broken up with our girlfriends, and the other two people got engaged with their girlfriends. I think that’s the only way it can work. Maybe it’s quite dramatic, but I feel you really have to be so committed in a romantic way, or a spiritual way, outside the band. And if you want to maintain that emotional connection while you are on the road, it requires an absolute commitment. By the end of the year all our lives took a drastic change – two of the girlfriends became fiances, the other two became ex-girlfriends. That’s a lot to deal with when you aren’t around, touring all the time. You don’t know why you are feeling so bad.

“It’s good to have this time off, the lockdown and everything, and look back and realise how detached we were from everything. I know that when we go back on the road we’ll have to do it differently. Now, we’re constantly checking in on each other. I think that’s an important thing. As friends we would have always been there for each other before touring. When we started the band and touring, we became colleagues, and we became each other’s reason for a lack of sleep. If you’re not checking in on each other you can build resentment easily. Writing a new album kept us together. We had that thing at the start which was to be inspired by the person next to you so much, to work on you yourself, and be better in every aspect of your life. That dynamic was lost for a bit. But writing the album kept it alive a few days a week.”

It may have saved the day for the band, but recording that album proved to be a longer than anticipated process. In fact, they ended up recording A Hero’s Death not once, but twice. It didn’t sound right, so it was ditched. How many other bands would do that? It just proved again how passionate and truthful the band are, and want to be. How serious they take their music, in the same way they do their poetry. It is doubtful any poet worth their salt, and in control of the process, would ever publish a work he felt wasn’t right, or finished.

“We went to LA, finished the whole album, got it mixed and everything. LA was quite an interesting time. We allowed ourselves to get sucked into LA, to the point where we ended up playing a show, opening an event of Mexican wrestling and burlesque dancing. A lot of big Mexican wrestlers, and a lot of dwarf wrestlers. It was the craziest thing. The burlesque dancers were naked most of the time, and we were in the middle of all this, playing a cover of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ by Iggy Pop for ten minutes, and playing 16 guitar solos. I was topless and covered in baby oil, and wearing a dog collar, something like that. It got to that extreme, and we got sucked into it. It was fun, but when we left LA and looked back, it was like ‘what the fuck?’

“It just wasn’t our record. It didn’t feel like the band that we are. It lacked immediacy. It lacked excitement. So, we went back to Dan Carey (who produced Dogrel), who has the capacity of seeing the excitement in everything we do and bringing it out in the room. The studio is small, it’s just one room. It was all recorded live (on tape, as was Dogrel), with the amps in the room, a big sound. It’s loud, and it allows you to let loose and perform the way the songs should be performed. The superficial aspect to LA culture seemed to put a lot of pressure on us. Also, we recorded in this legendary studio, and with that there was a lot of pressure. There was a lot of insecurity, ‘are we up to this? This is a place that Jim Morrison recorded, with The Doors, and here we are, five Irish lads, opening for Mexican wrestling matches for no reason…’ It was a confusing time. I’m glad we did it though, we completely saw that we do need to stay close to home to maintain the spirit of the band. And so we went back to Dan Carey’s, which I think is a home to our sound. He was a big part in how we were initially perceived, the way the music cut through in that first record. He breathes music.”

A Hero’s Death is a marked departure from Dogrel. It would have been easy perhaps to continue down the path of short bursts of intense garage-punk. But, for any band with creative urges to burn and build upon, no two albums should ever sound the same. Being a young musician is all about development, experience and learning. And that’s what Fontaines DC have done; incorporated all that newly acquired knowledge into A Hero’s Death. And it is a triumph. I’ll never know what the first version of the album sounded like, but I’m confident that a combination of Carey, tape, and on home territory, was the right decision. It sounds even more fearless than the debut, and yet it is much more nuanced, slow burning, and eclectic set that sees the band reach for their inner Beach Boys, big up the arrangements and the dynamic space, and allow some time for contemplation, intertwined with comic moments, to seep into the overall sonic vista. It’s empathic, and comes across as utterly genuine. On the title track, Chatten sings: Never let a clock tell you what you got time for, It only goes around, goes around, goes around”. It’s also political, with the hypnotic ‘A Televised Mind’ recalling a less snarly and savage PiL, whilst droningly documenting the debilitating corporate buzz feed of social media, and those endless, endless screens. As Chatten says It’s clear that Fontaines DC take this music lark very seriously indeed, but with just the right amount of inexperience, youthful exuberance, allied to an experimental, and musically non-orthodox attitude, helping to alleviate any possibility of pretension, pomposity or simple repetition.

“We wanted to change the approach to writing,” says Carlos. “When we wrote the first record we had a really clear approach, every single part had to be absolutely essential and immediate, with no room for building up any sort of emotion, all straight up, in your face: ‘It’s right there, and here’s the lyrics, real loud and wry’. The arrangements weren’t as deep as they are now. We wanted to explore music in a new way. We got very influenced by The Beach Boys in that sense, where they created these entire worlds and universes that take loads of time to get into. There was a lot of ambition there in order to please our creative needs. I’m proud of it, I think we achieved something quite new and exciting, whilst retaining some of the rawness and the immediacy of the first record. It allowed us to develop as songwriters and arrangers, and it sounds more interesting than the first one. I find it more interesting, anyways…

“When it was all recorded we then realised how different the record was, and we knew that in order to engage people from the start, into the new ‘trip’ with the record, you needed to make sure from the get-go, that it had nothing to do with the first record. We didn’t want anyone to put on the needle on the second record for the first time and hear it as a continuation of the first one. ‘I Don’t Belong’ (the album’s opening track) is probably my favourite song on the record. It’s an engaging song and it offers a whole new world that we create on the second record, from the get-go. That’s why it was important to have that as the first song.”

While Dogrel was an all guns blazing affair, the sound of intensity and lurking violence, the boys have calmed down a little, certainly in terms of their need to be heard and validated above the humdrum vacuity of the everyday. They are no longer young men. They are continuing to mature as adults, even though Dogrel does explore themes of isolation and disorientation. “We opened up our first record with that song ‘Big’: ‘My childhood was small, but I’m going to be big’, this massive statement of intent. We wanted to make sure that no one felt that we were still trying to build up on that. With this song and the words ‘I don’t belong to anyone’ we went for that statement of intent instead. It’s kind of like now, ‘I don’t want to be bigger, I actually feel quite lost in this world now. Here is actually how I feel, because of the first record.’

We called the album A Hero’s Death after the track, but not in any relation to what the track means, which sounded like it had a lot more meanings to offer than is presented within the song. The song presents this mantra to oneself, ‘Life isn’t always empty’, this positive attitude. In a way they could be seen as easy keys to a happy life, but there is so much repetition in the lyrics in the sense that the sincerity that is in them you don’t know if Grian is being quite sarcastic when he says all that stuff. And that’s part of the point of it – that attitude is necessary, but it’s not what’s going to fix everything. You know, you can help yourself by having a positive attitude, there’s a lot more to life and you have to accept the dark aspects of it, reconcile yourself with them, and be completely present with them rather than ignoring all the negative aspects. We tried to create that juxtaposition in the song, and musically by changing between the major and the minor, juxtaposing the darkness created, with these doo-wop Beach Boys backing vocals. The way they are arranged they are meant to be quite sinister as well. We just tried to create this sense of unease around the positivity of the lyrics.

“And when we were trying to find a name for the record we felt that name, a hero’s death, outside the context of that song, had a lot more to offer. We find a few meanings in it, but the main one is the idea of perception, and how we didn’t want to write a record in order to please the perception that was created in the public with the first album. So, that idea of a hero dying – it’s not only the idea of killing the person, but killing the perception, of what the public would have about a person that makes them heroic. But there’s also a gag in there about the difficult second album! The second album could be the end of that promising band… In a way we also wanted to take the piss out of ourselves, leave a little space for self-deprecation.

Jeff Hemmings