Group Retouch_Landscape

Fontaines D.C. Are Sick of Their Own Stereotype

As the Dublin band rockets to greater and greater heights, they discuss their reputation as "punk poets" and their upcoming third album, 'Skinty Fia'.
January 11, 2022, 6:30pm

Since forming in 2017, Fontaines D.C. have been eulogised by the music press in literary terms. The Irish band are frequently depicted as post-punk poets, steeped in the lyricism of Joyce, Yeats and Behan. Central to this mythology is their almost implausibly quaint origin story. Young music college students huddled over tables in Dublin pubs, tripping out over fragments of Kerouac and Yeats, scribbling down and trading their own overwrought verses.

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“I'm sick of that,” bristles Grian Chatten, who is asked whether these apocryphal beginnings have created a romantic branding that occasionally overshadows the music. “I think we were expressing a truth at the beginning and then people fetishised it. I don't want to sit here and talk about Yeats and Joyce anymore.”

Sitting around a table with frontman Chatten and guitarist Conor Curley in an upscale Hackney pub in pre-Omicron London ahead of their third album, Skinty Fia, it is proposed that we drill into this mythology. True to form, a recent live review of the group’s sell-out Alexandra Palace show lazily name-checked Yeats and Joyce. Another example compares Chatten’s writing to something collapsing the distance between Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner and Joyce. “That's a load of bollocks,” interjects Chatten. “Just because I have read James Joyce, it's unbelievably stupid to say that my writing is anything like. I just like and reference him. It's hyperbolic to the point of being offensive.” 

To the band’s surprise (they don’t tend to read beyond the headlines of their own press), one writer even opted to evoke their sound by saying it bears “Guinness on its breath”. “Are you serious? I fucking hate that,” Chatten says sharply. “It's offensive and reductionist. I've seen stuff like they sound like Yeats fronting the Fall, which is one of the worst things I've ever heard. I sound like Yeats?”

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Challenging some of this dumb meta-narrative is the most emotionally charged Chatten and Curley get during what is otherwise a relaxed, free-flowing chat. They gladly jump at the opportunity, however, to offer a correction to a one-dimensional founding myth. “We also liked music, do you know what I mean?" says Curley, chuckling at the obvious simplicity of his words. “Poetry was a side-cart to the thing that we really wanted to do: be musicians. Whenever me and Grian started hanging out, we were listening to 50s and 60s rock and roll. That was the birth of the energy of this band.” 

The quietly intense Chatten takes over, recalling a time when the band – joining Chatten and Curley are guitarist Carlos O’Connell, bassist Conor ‘Deego’ Deegan, and drummer Tom Coll – went through various permutations of living with and through one another. “We were fairly inseparable as friends. It was down to a lot more than a mutual love of poetry,” remembers Chatten. “We just really appreciated each other's good nature. I'd never met anyone like Deego before, ever. I'm still figuring out what’s at the heart of that person.”

Two-fifths of the band, who first met at the Dublin arm of The British and Irish Modern Music Institute, are here to discuss their third album, enigmatically named Skinty Fia, which follows in the wake of debut Dogrel and sophomore A Hero’s Death. Categorised by many as post-punk (whatever that means anymore), the first two albums brimmed with sleek songcraft, prideful hometown references and colloquialisms, heartfelt writing, and hooky, propulsive guitar lines. Then there's the telegenic Chatten, whose flair for the melodramatic, classic anhedonic punk cool, and lulling north Dublin accent knits it all together. A vertiginous ascent has brought Fontaines D.C. to a point where Grammy nominations, Mercury Prize shortlists, charting albums, sell-out international tours, top-billed festival appearances, and late-night performances on American television are now the norm. A Hero’s Death was edged to number one in the UK charts only by Taylor Swift’s decision to move her CD release ahead of schedule; a rare pinnacle for a band of their kind, but one they’ll hope to outdo with Skinty Fia

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Thematically, the connective tissue to all their albums is place: The city of Dublin, ravaged by rentier capitalism, was the muse for Dogrel, while A Hero’s Death dealt poignantly with placelessness, toiled over collaboratively on the road during their giant, turbulent US tour in 2019. Their latest is no different, named after a deer-themed (the animal adorns the album cover) expletive that drummer Coll’s Irish-speaking great-aunt used. “I think the expression probably originally refers to the extinction of the Irish giant deer and there's this inevitability to this deer's damnation, which is what we're trying to put across,” explains Chatten. “It connotes the idea or the image of the boys in Pinocchio. This half-breed kind of thing: what it feels like to be Irish in London.”

Making an album about the psychic toll of settling in London might seem, depending on the reader, either far-fetched or mind-numbingly mundane. Yet it was in some respects the next logical step for a band so preoccupied with their immediate environment. Ignited by the dislocation experienced during and after the move (all but Deegan are now in London full-time when we meet), the songwriting process led them to create an album that asks – themselves at least – what it means to be pulled in two directions at once, split between regional and national identities and the siren song of the old metropole.

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This tension has created artistic frisson in Irish literature and music since time immemorial. My Bloody Valentine and Thin Lizzy are among the battery of Irish bands who saw no use in staying in Dublin and eventually wound up in London. The crippling sorrow of estrangement can be felt most piercingly on “I Love You”, which scans like a tortured love letter to Ireland. “It's about how Irishness survives or mutates in a different environment,” says Chatten, philosophising about the exilic bent of the new album. “That mutation of it being seen as a loss of Irishness, or a drowning of it.” 

A common experience for Irish immigrants is to feel less a loss than an accentuation of Irishness, not helped by a tendency for many to flock together, even in the absence of built-up Irish communities like those close to extinction in London. "You build a wall around made of the fucking tricolour. It's protection,” says Chatten of this surviving mechanism. “You land in the big, expansive pond that is London and you think to yourself: Who the fuck am I? Well, I'm Irish anyway – I know that!” 

Curley drives this point home by revealing, to little surprise, that the band mainly drink in Irish pubs. A few weeks prior, the guitarist struck up conversation with a barman in Soho, discovering before long that he went to school with his uncle. “I pretty much just wanted to talk to him for the whole night, then, because he reminded me of everything I know about Monaghan.” Chatten recounts welling up watching this conversation, this inebriated performance of homesickness, play out. “You're in denial – or I am at least – about how much you miss home,” adds Chatten, shaking his head, “until it rears its head unexpectedly like that.”

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To be Irish in England is to constantly remind English folk about their history. For better or worse, Irish people have for generations gluttonously consumed English news and culture. The vice versa is not true. What results is English cluelessness of the Irish psyche, and a firm Irish grasp of the English condition. “I feel it all the time, even with woke people over here,” says Chatten, who was born in England before moving to Dublin as a child, of this paradox. “Misty-eyed, ‘talk to me about Ireland’. I often feel like I reach a point when they're speaking that they can't go any further, that they stop here” – he gestures to a point far short of a finish line – ”and I can keep going." 

Chatten recently left a comedy show after 12 minutes in disgust. An English comedian had, like many of his fellow compatriots, demonstrated deep-seated ignorance of Ireland, launching into a (“shite”) mimicry of a Belfast accent while sneeringly deriding the North's political identities and violence. “It wasn't even the joke that upset me – it was being in a room full of people who are laughing at something they probably don’t understand or care to understand, and that was very isolating. That's how it can feel sometimes. I felt like shouting, 'pick your petrol bomb back up'. That fury and upset definitely subconsciously informed this album. How could it not?"

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Peppered with wry asides and tangential turns, our chat at one point touches on Gaelic games, Ireland’s national sports, which Chatten and Curley both played. The conversation starts sliding into Fruedian territory when it is remarked that, during long, sludging pandemic months in which vanishingly few memories were being generated, I had nightly, hyper-realistic dreams of playing GAA. “I feel like no matter how long I'm here, it's some sort of sabbatical, a break from Ireland,” says Chatten, before pausing: “Do you think when you have those dreams, it comes from a sense of guilt?" 

Wary of psycho-analysing myself, I say it is possible since so many faces from these dreams are still rooted in the local community I left. “Do you envy them to some extent or feel that they're doing everybody proud?” says Chatten. “I sometimes think: was that life not good enough for me? Was Ireland not good enough for me? Was it too small, too boxed-in? I hope to god that that's not what I think but I am conflicted.” He has had similar dreams, including a recurring one in which an unmoving image of the North Circular Road in Dublin, where as a youngster he used to take long walks with his iPod, is covered in leaves. He exhales, “There's some guilt in there.” 

Adjusting to life in London also means that this is the first Fontaines D.C. album to follow a sustained period of domesticity, well needed after a gruelling pre-pandemic tour that almost saw them combust through a combination of whiskey and fatigue. A perfect example of the quotidian forcing its way into Chatten’s writing is “Couple Across the Way”, a meditation on the miseries, frailties, and joys inherent to long-term relationships, carried by a maudlin, drone-like accordion that is played rawly by Chatten (who admits that is as much about himself and his relationship as others). 

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Featuring a reference to being a jackeen (a pejorative in Ireland aimed at people from Dublin), “Jackie Down the Line” is another highlight – a deceptively infectious and jangly treatise on, Chatten explains, “misanthropy and being unable to escape being a piece of shit”. Like other moments on the album, it sounds like the fraught process of unburdening oneself from a past life and reconciling with a new one. Whether it's barstool balladry (“Couple Across the Way”), squalling punk (“Nabokov”), or drum ‘n bass-inspired experiments (“Skinty Fia”), Fontaines D.C. are increasingly comfortable in their own skin. 

The band have been hailed since their breakout as part of a new (punk-adjacent) rock renaissance, alongside the likes of IDLES and Shame. Their anachronistic reference points and old soul sensibility, however, seem at odds with the rapid critical and commercial success they have achieved in an age dominated by rap, Antonoffed-pop, TikTok hits, and hyperpop. But they baulk at the suggestion that they are one of the biggest guitar bands since the Arctic Monkeys. I ask them to name better examples and, after a long silence and some sideward stares, Wolf Alice are mentioned. Maybe, but from the Fontaines perspective, then, what explains their success? The foregrounding of the accent, often neutralised by Irish vocalists? The lyrics? The themes of place and identity? 

“I don't really have a fucking clue. Maybe it’s all due to the reductionist [press] surrounding us,” says Chatten drily, assuming a playfully sarcastic tone, before glancing at Curley, who shrugs his shoulders to say: “I don't know if I wanna know. If I know that, I might just go to that dark well whenever we are making music.”

Skinty Fia is out 22nd April.

@colin_gannon