Interview

Fontaines D.C. return to Dublin – their muse – as the runaway success story of the year

With tales of Jimmy Fallon and a need to reassess

My flight to Dublin that morning was delayed so that the Queen could have breakfast with Donald Trump. His chopper landed as we were about to fly to the emerald isle, coffee and soggy tomato breakfast sandwich in hand. A fourteen-year-old kid in the queue in front of me was wearing a t-shirt that read, “I’m feeling like a style icon”, with a smaller line of text underneath: “sorry, but everything you like I liked four years ago”. It’s an arbitrary length of time for smugness to settle in. You can’t help but feel that the world is changing in an immeasurable way. Baby blimps and nine-foot high Presidential potty dolls line the streets of London, while ten-year-olds listen to as-yet-unwritten Irish punk songs.

Fontaines D.C.’s guitarist Carlos O’Connell lives a five-minute walk from the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the gallery at The Royal Hospital Kilmainham which we head straight to upon my arrival. He’s walking around the courtyard clapping his hands together, smiling to himself as the sound reverberates off the stone walls and bounces back inwards. Pinned on his bright peach jacket beneath his tinted sunglasses is a flagrantly big white badge, the kind that looks from afar like something from an above-your-paygrade Woolworths birthday card. “ABORTION IS NORMAL,” it says, in striking block capitals.

The resolute political sentiment complements the grey skies above us, with Carlos’s flowing surf-rock hair adding only a little sunny L.A. souvenirism. Bassist Conor “Deego” Deegan, too, wears stickers on his jacket decorated with coat hangers and Amnesty’s #NOWforNI decriminalisation campaign. The quintet’s social riptide against Ireland’s politicians exists far beyond their debut album. “You’ve got more than enough opinions with these guys to need me with you too,” laughs drummer Tom Coll as he runs off to set his kit up. Singer Grian Chatten will join us later.

We continue walking through the gardens at Kilmainham, past neat box hedges and topiary, and through a formal space that was once used as a physic garden for the Hospital, with variegated medicinal herbs and apple trees. At the foot of the gardens is a colossal statue of a rabbit beating a Bodhrán, while the obelisk monument The Wellington Testimonial – amid all its historical significance thought also to be the giant’s penis in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – looms overhead. We run into Carlos’s housemate, who went to an installation inside the IMMA recently that was meant to provoke anxiety and unease; it was just a few desks and chairs sitting with as much artistic acuity as an office block at the end of a working day. The giant’s penis did it for me.

In a particularly arched corridor, two gothic mahogany benches line either wall and give us a place to sit. We pull them together – a lot heavier than anticipated.

“I’m fucked,” says Conor Curley. The other guitarist in the band has a cooler look about him, chiseled face and gravelly voice with big sunglasses and a cigarette poking out from between his lips. “We shouldn’t have done that festival.” This specific festival was in France, following a month-long tour across America and Mexico. “It was a good festival,” Deego says, “but it was just too much. We’d landed in Dublin for one day then off to France at 7am. We did Mexico City, Jimmy Fallon and then four weeks on the road with IDLES. Driving twice a day for a total of ten or twelve hours, getting five hours sleep if we were lucky. Not to be overly negative or anything but it was dragging.”

Curley and Carlos exchange a brief smile, still letting their American television debut from late last month settle in. “It was pretty easy like, it wasn’t actually as taxing mentally as I thought it was going to be,” says Curley. Their last-minute booking on Jimmy Fallon isn’t on YouTube anymore, but it went well. “I mean it was kind of strange. We were just sitting backstage, no one really came up to us or talked to us, we were all just in our own zone. Deego got a really good haircut.”

“Yeah, Grian gave me a haircut. It was really long and scraggly and I was like, ‘fuck do I really wanna go on looking like this?’ Grian said, ‘look I’ll give you a haircut man’, and found some scissors. But like, those big kitchen scissors. It turned out alright, not completely level. I was on the phone to my mam and she kept saying, ‘your hair looks very uneven.’ Like, fuck you mum. Say that to Grian!”

“It did eat into our three-day holiday that we were meant to have in Mexico,” Carlos says with a mock sigh. “So, you know, we turned down the holiday for Fallon. We never had that holiday.”

They didn’t get to meet him, either. “Only that second at the end of the video where he shakes our hands,” Curley says. “I was just like… This man has literally just come out of a TV. He is in front of me right now. He was so pristine. I have never seen someone who looks so pristine.” He still has the Madame Tussauds look about him? “Yeah, that’s the exact way to describe it. I mean his hair, even at the back, like. It was perfect. It formed this perfect dome.” The scariest thing was just playing next to his 12-piece house band, The Roots: “These guys are wizards. And I’m here playing, like, three chords.”

“The studio is smaller than you’d think it is,” says Deego. “For me, when we went on stage that was the most surreal thing we’ve done so far. I didn’t think it’d be like that after doing the soundcheck. When you’re actually in that show that you’ve been watching on the TV green room whilst they’re shooting it. You know, it looks like a TV show. TV world. And then you’re inside it.”

Curley continues as Deego picks a small mosquito off his glasses. “For me I am really comfortable playing to that size of crowd. But like, you have ideas of the performance going beyond that back wall, into people’s fucking homes, on their fucking couches.” As I ask if they were tempted to over-act for the spotlight, beer bottles on guitar frets and so on, they say the opposite: they had to trim off verses from ‘Boys in The Better Land’ in order to adhere to the timeslot they were given. “I mean, it made sense hypothetically, but we hadn’t rehearsed it whatsoever at all.”

Fontaines D.C. appearance on one of America’s biggest talk shows only accentuates the rare, rapid and unquestionable success of their debut album, Dogrel – a record allergic to anything but five star reviews on its release in April. This sort of universal acclaim that recalibrates the very term does occasionally happen, but not to punk bands, except for last year, when IDLES reached similar heights, releasing via the same record label and touring with Fontaines, no less. “We met before we signed to Partisan on our first booking ever,” recalls Carlos. “It was a show with Metz and this band called IDLES. We were excited to be playing with Metz and then, you know, then we saw this other band. It was the first proper booking we had. We even had to lie about having a booking agent because they wouldn’t book us without one. Oh no, yeah we do have one, he’s just out of office at the moment.” Carlos’s agent accent is still uncanny; it comes across as a slightly weathered joke, with enough relief to see it’s been a well-versed one. “Nice people you know, got on. Bumped into them a couple of more times, signed to Partisan. It felt like we’d known each other for a while. But that’s what was good about this tour, to really get to know them.”

Post-punk is the new rock’n’roll, you know; it’s the kind of meaningless phrase that’s added to guitar music to say it’s good. It’s been banded on Fontaines D.C., mostly because they’ve share the bill with last year’s big breakout success stories. But at times they’re a bit more like Flogging Molly than Protomartyr.

“I mean, the word punk is fine. It’s post-punk that’s weird. It’s almost become so meaningless now that you’re just saying it’s music. It’s as descriptive as saying ‘guitar band’,” says Deego. “The idea of punk is an ethos that we have: it has to be concise, useful, pragmatic, all parts have to have a reason for being there and have to make sense. It can’t be too indulgent.”

Deego cameos a Velvet Underground tee in the video for ‘Too Real’; if lead singer Grian Chatten had a pound for every Ian Curtis reference that’s been made, he’d really be “about to make a lot of money”, as the song claims. “In terms of what people we see ourselves as, I think we’d like to see ourselves as a rock’n’roll band instead of a punk band,” Carlos tells me. “Just because of what that means to us. We’re more about Lou Reed and The Modern Lovers than we are about the Pistols.”

Dogrel’s release opened with some lines about the Gaol next door to where we currently sit – English owned and recognised for the detainment and murder of Irish revolutionaries. Anglophobia is growing in Ireland, but within a skeptical and weathered portrait of Dublin Fontaines still painted a new sort of secularism on top of Irish national identity.

That evening in the Dublin rain, the crowd multiplies for Fontaines D.C.. It’s their first open air show and they look like homecoming heroes of sorts, a couple of confident minutes late to take up their pitch on stage. Walk-on music’s a funny game; some choose untested new music, others ‘The Eye of the Tiger’ (don’t watch those others). The literary allusions splattering Dogrel and its deep-seated partisan aggrieves find harmony in a few stentorian minutes and thick Dublin slurs that chime out with a recording of the Liffy Bard Luke Kelly’s poem ‘For what died the sons of Roísín?’.

“That was Deego’s idea,” says Grian as we talk after the set. The Dubliners’ frontman wrote a few poems throughout his solo career; this apoplectic monologue calling out his city for selling to the highest bidder feels as apposite thirty years on. “He just thought it was really relevant, really pertinent, the way that things are in Dublin at the moment with the housing crisis and the crush, and the fact that all the landlords are politicians and are pricing everyone out of our own city. Just fucking up the country you know, for profit, as leaders often do. The line is ‘For what died the sons of Roísín? Was it greed? You know. We’re massive Dubliners fans. So many of his lines, as a true craftsman of poetry, sound like they were unearthed from thousands of years ago. I want to be able to do that.”

Grian mentions the other literary minds that have made it into the record, admiring Brendan Behan’s wit – dogmatic in its principles – Yeats’ laconic attention on universal themes, and the themes of entrapment and inertia in Joyce’s collections of fifteen short stories, Dubliners. “In each one a character has an epiphany where they realise their circumstance and that it’s unlikely it’ll change,” says Grian. “There’s the pain of hope throughout the story, which subconsciously really influenced the album. Hope into entrapment into doom.”

The folk traditions really root themselves in the closing track to the album, ‘Dublin City Sky’. It sounds a little like a mournful New Years Eve sing-along, for the down-and-outs and outcasts. The review of the album that I wrote of Loud And Quiet likened it to a tune that felt excavated from the land it was written about; you could imagine a drunken Shane MacGowan disfiguring it down the Dublin backstreets, whiskey in hand, in place of ‘Rainy Night In Soho’; you could imagine him whistling it to himself as he makes his Sunday morning scrambled eggs.

“That song to me feels like the early hours, the small hours walk home,” says Grian. “Like, a super fatigued, inspired reflection on existence that comes after all the energy and romance. That song is, as well as being an ode to Dublin, you know, a lamentation. It’s a death song about Dublin’s culture being threatened by gentrification and the growing materialism.”

It’s a theme that runs through the heavier moments of their debut, too. Rent prices are allowed to grow as the majority of landlords are the same politicians that set the property laws. ‘Boys In The Better Land’ procures old advertising tags. Deego calls it a song about scrutinising the way people sell things and market things to you. “Refreshing the world of mind, body and spirit is an old Coca Cola slogan,” he says, “and boys in the better land is really just a sales pitch, trying to criticise the motivations of the people trying to sell you something, and the deception within advertising.”

“It’s a very general statement,” adds Grian, “just wanting a life that you can’t have. It’s about creating a sense of desire, people feeling unsatisfied and commodified. But I’ve always loved Dublin. Almost all the time that I lived in Dublin, I appreciated it. And I feel homesick when I’m away for a long time. I still love Dublin, you know. I don’t necessarily think the grass is greener. I see places as ‘Dublin but this’ and ‘Dublin but that’. Everywhere else is just Dublin with a twist.”

The liberal nationalism and fondness that ties Fontaines D.C. together is still a marginalised pride; the music scene in Dublin falters from a lack of homegrown support and inner-validation. Local critics will come pouring to an Irish band, but only after they’ve had recognition from somewhere else. The responsibility sits from within for them; on their most recent tour around Ireland Fontaines brought along Just Mustard, another Irish group (albeit one that’s aligned more to a Mezzanine-era Massive Attack than The Fall-esque camaraderie of Fontaines). Their debut album, Wednesday, then got nominated for RTE Choice Awards’ Album of the Year (an Irish and Northern Irish equivalent to the Mercury Prize).

“Yeah it got nominated. It would’ve only got genuine attention from Irish press and Irish awards though after it got attention in Britain. To be seen as successful in the Irish music industry you have to be successful somewhere else.” There’s not a lot of bitterness in the way Deego speaks of it, but with a fatigue indicative of a scene that’s not supported its own kind. “People don’t think you’re good based on your music; they think you’re good based on what you’ve done. It’s crazy. And they would deny this but we’ve been in bands for a long time over here, we’ve seen how it works.”

“It was the same with us as well,” says Curley, “until we got away. Until we got some attention from outside. No one thought anything of us for a long time. How long were we playing ‘Chequeless Reckless’ and ‘Hurricane Laughter’ and no one gave two shits? People are just very condescending to you. If you’re just lads in a band playing around Dublin, then that’s all people will see you as. They’ll never listen to the songs as being something affecting unless, like, ‘oh, they played in London, this must be music.’”

“I think the crowds are actually changing a bit,” Carlos says, substantiating now there’s a little more international attention on a couple of Irish bands. “I think the crowds are a bit more open, and a bit more willing to go to gigs. There’s this resurgence of people going to gigs, which we didn’t have until we started getting attention from the UK. Now everything’s being taken more seriously, because now anyone could be ‘more than just an Irish band’. Before, no one was going to be ‘more than just an Irish band’.”

“You forget what it’s like at home,” says Curley. “It’s not like we got a break from all that, mind. America had some of the most harrowing sights, especially around some of the venues we played. You see it a bit differently when you come back, though. It breaks your heart a bit more.” He talks through how much more exaggerated the divide has become between rich and poor in Dublin, just in the six months they’ve been away. You can see it in the new venues and bars that have opened up; the creation of new spaces to put on the property market, many of which are literally little more than a small shed at the end of the garden.

“We have this perspective from the outside that America’s fucked,” says Deego. “It’s fucked politically and everyone is obese, you know. There are all these stereotypes that make you wonder why anyone would go to America. And then you’re there and you travel through it and find out things you can only see when you’re there. Some parts are amazing; the difference between New York City and Cleveland is amazing. You see the fucked up parts that you already know are fucked up, and they’re more fucked up than you were told they were. And then you see the parts that are great, that you didn’t hear about at all.”

The sociopolitical edge is a sharp side of Fontaines D.C.: ‘The Lotts’ is about a street no more than 50 meters long where you can’t walk for used syringes and ‘Big’ is a reclamation of nationalism, while ‘Chequeless Reckless’ redefines idiots, sell-outs and dilettantes for the digital era. On the other hand, these are also songs you might have heard bedded behind compilations of John Barnes’s best goals, or the highlights of a nil-nil draw between Crystal Palace and Watford on Match of the Day. They recently made an appearance on Soccer AM, too: Carlos missed the ball when trying to hit a volley and Deego performed ‘Too Real’ in a Mayo GAA jersey. Gaelic football is not far off soccer, after all.

“Yeah, on the other hand it’s just a couple of lads trying to score a penalty,” says Curley.

“To be overly serious is to be completely ridiculous. Like a pretentious idiot.” Deego laughs. “That’s the reason Dogrel as an album name worked so well – we never wanted to be those people to take themselves so seriously. It’s a put down at the same time as trying to put ourselves into the history of Irish poetry. Even in the video for ‘Too Real’ where we have the video with the googly eyes on, that’s because – well, imagine if we didn’t have them on.”

We’ve already talked about the façade of advertising and the principles behind what the band is selling, but a sudden flash of realisation comes across Carlos and Deego that googly eyed merchandise was a real lost opportunity. “We could have made them smell like mint or something and you could hang them up in the car.” Later Deego enthusiastically tells a less-than-interested Grian that they should have bought white beach balls and drawn eyes on them, for the crowd to bounce around their heads as ‘Too Real’ played.

“There have actually been people throwing ping pong balls on stage with the eyes drawn on them,” Curley says. “It’s fucking hilarious. We’ll just be playing and then have a ping pong ball bouncing off your head. The lads that do that in the UK… I love those guys.”

One of the more poignant moments of Fontaines D.C.’s discography comes in the music video for ‘Roy’s Tune’, a heartfelt short film of a young Irish lad balancing the responsibilities of a newborn kid. “That video was just the idea of the guy that made it – Liam Papadachi – he just approached us with this idea and we thought it was really strong. And he did an amazing job on it. I suppose the kind of emotions that he found for the video seem to really work for the track. Most of the videos we have a direct input,” Curley says, “that was just something we wanted to do as a sort of adventure. See what they change, what different angles are brought out of the song. What colours and tones. We were really happy with that. We just didn’t want to go down the route of doing a performance video. It was really nice to work with him.”

“It makes the song stand alone more,” says Deego. “Again, it clarifies what we’re actually selling – we’re not giving away our faces, you know. We’re actually just putting out songs.”

Before Dogrel’s release, seven of its eleven tracks had previous releases as double A Side singles in 2018. Most were re-recorded for the album, faster, rawer, more in line with how the live shows had evolved. It was less power in restraint, more urgency of argument. For all that Grian exudes the occasional air of a prowling Ian Curtis, there’s then the switch of power to desperation, shaking a little, like he’s just come out of a long day’s research.

“It wasn’t trying to take them out of the old space. It was nothing cynical,” Deego assures me. “We wanted to do a live record, and record everything live to tape, and to do that we had to re-record them. The version of ‘Boys In The Better Land’ that we first released was a completely different song to how we started to play it live. It was way more fun to speed it up, we think it sounds better this way. And we did different versions of ‘Chequeless Reckless’ and ‘Hurricane Laughter’ to give them a purpose as well, you know. They already existed in one particular space and had a purpose there, you know, but we wanted to change that purpose.”

“I think it’s difficult to reflect on it,” says Carlos. “I mean in any objective way. I think we’ve just heard too many opinions about it now to be able to reflect about it in our own ways.” Carlos says that in his own way he tries not to analyse Dogrel at all anymore. “We thought about it loads when we were writing it, and loads when we made it, and now everyone else has formed their own opinions, but I think we’re all just thinking about the next record now. And how we can develop that in the same way that we made the first one. So in all that noise we’re getting time to reflect on something that no one else has heard.”

No new songs make their way onto the set list that evening; it’s everything the crowd knows and anticipates. As Grian yells “Dublin in the rain is mine”, the hundreds of ponchos and dead umbrellas wash the other spectators’ backs with a renewed animation.

Sitting down with Grian the next day, he looks a little exhausted. “I find a lot of it very hard currently, you know. I don’t see myself as the kind of person who’s suited to being in the public eye, and it’s quite jarring because I believe that fundamentally I’m a purist when it comes to writing. I am doing it for writing’s sake, that’s all the reward I ever need. Everything else is a by-product of that. It’s unnecessary for me, you know, the intenseness of it all. I’m quite a shy person. It takes it out of me a bit.

“You know, it’s kind of nice to be back in the rain, though.” He speaks with a soft laugh – aware that our small talk about the weather is actually leading to something a little bit bigger. “The weather yesterday was awful but when you’re away for so long – and I mean the weather was pretty good in America – you do miss it. We’re being moved around so much at the moment we’re constantly busy, it’s not just something we really have a chance to think about. We can’t allow ourselves to imagine or dream about having peace and quiet because we’d go mad about the fact that we don’t have it.”

It’s the old John Lennon conundrum: when you’re rich and famous, can you write with candor about the stories of the streets? Granted, they’re not rich and famous yet, but the local celebrity that comes from their proud homegrown liberal nationalism is a world away from playing in Fontaines D.C. last year. Curley mused yesterday that writing another record about Dublin would “end up being a fucking Dropkick Murphys or Floggin Molly album”. Dogrel has been lauded for its working tableaus of life in Dublin; it might be a view of the city steeped in an outcast’s anonymity that they won’t have access to anymore.

“If I was trying to continue in the vein of writing about Ireland then it would be tough,” Grian admits. “It would feel wrong. In a sense it’s good that we were away from Ireland after writing such a quintessentially Irish record. It forces us to write about different things, you know. I don’t want to be the band that writes about Ireland for the rest of our lives. We don’t actually get to see that many things, you know – in most cities we see the venue, the van and the bar that’s around the corner. The world that we’re writing about for our next album is probably mostly the world that exists within oneself, because that’s what we’re dealing with. That’s good craic.

“When we got home from America, we had one day at home, jet-lagged. Apart from napping, I wrote a new tune. It’s nice to know that even after a six-week tour and not sleeping for two days, I got home and as soon as I closed the door behind me all I wanted to do was write. That was nice to still have that.”

That level of freedom they found in their anonymity is still there, Grian says, even if it’s now being fuelled by a lack of caring instead of their relative status. “I’ll say this; we feel as free to do whatever we want as we felt before the first one. Before the first song. Before the first piece of press. We still feel that spontaneity that comes from no one having heard your music before, which is a beautiful thing. It means we’ve made it through all the publicity with our creative minds unscathed by it. There isn’t one iota of anxiety about what other people will think or expect. Because of that I think it’s liable to be different. I wouldn’t even say that’s a brave thing. We’re going to make this album because we love making music and we’re going to make it because we have to.

“We haven’t really been in Dublin since our profile’s picked up. Like, fuck all. I’m aware of the fact that the Dublin we were writing about on Dogrel was a Dublin seen through the eyes of people who had absolutely fuck all, and were the scum of the fucking earth. We had rent that we couldn’t afford, full time jobs on minimum wage. You know, I had a boss who clicked his fingers at me instead of calling my name. We’d just kind of write and drink and ramble around the place. We were very much free, in the sense that a rat is free. That’s the Dublin that we saw, and we don’t have to do that anymore.

“We’re luckier and we’re better off in the sense that we’re doing what we love to do. But there isn’t that desperation that lends itself to creativity and gives you a lot of energy as well. It makes you hungry for everything.” The rain comes down again, we’re soaked. This doesn’t feel like a portrait of a happy band, necessarily, but a band that’s started to recognise the value of home, for its muse and its familiarity. “Once we spend some time in Dublin I think we’ll see it differently,” he says. “I think that’s a sad thing in a way. I think I will miss having that freedom that comes from being a rat.”

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